Bay Area thrash legends Heathen are back! New album, Empire of the Blind, picks up where the group’s vaunted trio of full-lengths—Breaking the Silence (1987), Victims of Deception (1991), and The Evolution of Chaos (2010)—left off, but pushes the limits of aggression, melody, and heaviness. Indeed, the idea behind Empire of the Blind was an all-eras full-length, one that had a distinct attitude complemented by shorter, more focused songwriting. Essentially, classic Heathen but with updated musical proficiency and economy. Penned by guitarist/songwriter Kragen Lum between 2012 and 2019 at the six-stringer’s studio, Empire of the Blind is a thrash metal tour de force.
“The writing process for the new album actually started back in 2012 when we signed with Nuclear Blast,” says Heathen guitarist Kragen Lum. “The music for about half of the album was demoed that year and by 2014 we had about 2/3 of the album demoed with vocals. Unfortunately, we didn’t make much progress over the next few years as both Lee [Altus; guitars] and I were touring full time with Exodus. It really wasn’t until 2019 when we had a long enough break to really dig in and finish writing and recording the new album.”
Nineteen years separate Victims of Deception from The Evolution of Chaos. A similar but shorter timeframe bridges Empire of the Blind from its predecessor. Naturally, Heathen loyalists have become accustomed to prolonged gaps between full-lengths. As the years ticked by, musically, the core of the group—founding member/guitarist Lee Altus and vocalist David White—
remained intact. In 2007, the group was joined by Lum from Los Angeles-based progressive metallers Prototype. Unfortunately, the departure (and subsequent passing) of bassist Jon Torres and drummer Darren Minter meant that Heathen’s rhythm section would need to be replaced yet again, however. After seven years, the San Franciscans found bassist Jason Mirza (Psychosis) and drummer Jim DeMaria (Toxik). Officially a quintet, Heathen captured the energy, passion, and magic of the moment to realize Empire of the Blind.
“I think overall, we have similar musical tastes and influences,” Lum says. “I probably have more extreme influences than the other guys, but that doesn’t affect the songwriting relationship. We all know what Heathen should sound like at this point. Thankfully, the band has always had a lot of variety in the songwriting. That gives us the ability to do a wide range of things stylistically. For the thrash metal fans that haven’t listened to Heathen for some reason, I would want them to hear ‘The Blight.’ For the hard rock/metal fans that may have passed over the band, I would want them to hear ‘Sun in My Hand.’”
Conceptually, Empire of the Blind is a big metaphor for modern society, one run by social media, the power of immediacy, the persuasiveness of emotion, and how an empire (or nation) can so easily slip into complacency and groupthink. Songs like “This Rotting Sphere,” “The Blight,” “Blood to Be Let,” and the expansive, riff-splosive title track work to transport the listener into Heathen’s view of and comment on our Orwellian devolution. But the lyrics on Empire of the Blind are more than frustrated missives on contemporary sociology/anthropology. They’re also a lens into Heathen’s personal triumphs and travails.
“Much of the lyrical content on the album is centered on social topics, similar to the previous Heathen albums,” says Lum. “The album is not a concept album or anything, but there are many themes that sort of run through the album. ‘The Blight’ is about how we are the plague that is destroying the Earth. ‘The Gods Divide’ is about how politicians use the masses as pawns. Other songs, like ‘Sun in My Hand’ and ‘Shrine of Apathy’ are more personal in nature.”
The cover art to Empire of the Blind was once again handled by renowned artist Travis Smith (Overkill, Exhorder). As a longtime friend of Lum, as well as the artist responsible the Prototype covers, Smith brought the album’s varied themes to life. Directed by Lum, Smith settled on multi-layered scene of desolation, showing an empire in its final throes, choking to death on its own ill-fated negativity and short-sighted conceit.
“I love his work and knew that he could create what I was looking for with the album cover for Empire of the Blind,” Lum says. “I really wanted to show a bleak and dismal visual representation of some of the album’s lyrical themes. Essentially, it is an empire in ruin with the dead blindfolded and still unable to see. The black oil emanating from the skull’s eyes represents all of the negativity accumulated during life. This oil is forming a pool that is starting to drown what’s left of the empire.”
Empire of the Blind was engineered (mostly), produced, mixed, and mastered by Christopher “Zeuss” Harris at Planet Z Studios. Additional details—rhythm guitars, etc.—were put to digital “tape” by Lum at his studio. The entire production took about a year start to finish, ensuring Heathen and “Zeuss” had enough time to perfect not just the overall soundscape but also the details, many of which can be heard on “Sun in My Hand,” “Shrine of Apathy,” and the crushing “In Black.” As for the studio experience, it was like no other Heathen full-length, according to Lum.
“The idea was to get everyone away from home to record,” says Lum. “The drums, bass, vocals and some of the guitar solos were recorded in New England by ‘Zeuss.’ The rhythm guitar tracks, guitar overdubs and some of the guitar solos were recorded in my home studio. It was a difficult process, but the end result was even better than we imagined. Everyone really worked hard to give their very best performances. ‘Zeuss’ went above and beyond as well to make sure that everything sounded incredible.”
Where Heathen will go from here is anybody’s guess, but the near term—post-COVID-19—is to take the band to places familiar and foreign. Fans from California and Massachusetts to São Paulo and Kobe will finally be able to hear classics like “Death by Hanging,” “Open the Grave,” “Hypnotized,” and “Dying Season” again, while also getting to experience the power and vision of new tracks like “The Blight,” “The Gods Divide,” and the inimitable title track, “Empire of the Blind.” The future is Heathen’s!
“Well, COVID-19 has put a little bit of a damper on our plans for the time being,” Lum says. “Once this is all over and the album is released, we plan to tour Europe, South America, Japan and hopefully land on a great tour package in the U.S. later in the year. Ideally, we’d like to get to some places that the band has never played this time around. We’re really proud of the new album and want to promote it as much as we can all over the world.”
Heathen are: Lee Altus (guitar), David White (vocals), Kragen Lum (guitar), Jason Mirza (bass), and Jim DeMaria (drums).
Heathen – Biography 2020
Empire of the Blind
By Chris Dick