Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
“The point of Botch was, as Tim always put it, ‘Keep it in a weird time signature so when they’re banging their heads they’re banging ’em on the wrong beat.’” Which is all to say that guitarist Dave Knudson (now of Minus The Bear fame) and the man he’s quoting, drummer Tim Latona—along with vocalist Dave Verellen and bassist Brian Cook—knew exactly on which side Botch’s bread was buttered. The band’s 1999 opus We Are The Romans is a commandment of math-influenced hardcore that actively worked against the grain of the Revelation and Victory catalogs upon which it was built. The breakdowns come via sneak attacks through back alleys as opposed to via tank-led blitzes through open front doors. The riffs are elastic and oblique, much more resembling a Pollock painting rather than a Highlights coloring book.
We Are The Romans arrived the same year as Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity and Coalesce’s 0:12 Revolution In Just Listening, a pair of like-minded records that did plenty to hack away at the conventions of hardcore and Frankenstein them back together. The technical finesse of those records—never mind the elaborate pedal boards with which they’re juiced—allowed hardcore a thinking man’s approach, one that was still brutal but could also be clever. (The era’s trend of long non-sequitur song titles further provided a pretty bizarre representation of that cleverness, too, though those were mostly tongue in cheek.)
Botch aimed to pivot from what members believed was a more ham-fisted assembly for 1998’s American Nervoso, an album that featured material five or six years old by the time of its release. Bassist Cook (currently of Russian Circles and Sumac) elaborates: “A big thing with us on Romans is that we didn’t necessarily want more repetition, but songs that felt like they returned back to musical themes. A lot of Nervoso tracks begin with one riff… and then there’s another.”
Perhaps the most glaring example is the monstrous “Transitions From Persona To Object,” which is anchored by a recurring effects-heavy guitar-tapping progression. Almost synthetic sounding, the play between Knudson and Latona—with the former accenting right along with the staccato rhythm of the latter—essentially re-revs the track each time it’s introduced. And just as the fumes begin to choke the momentum, Latona rips the cord. Verellen’s muffled and baleful wail lords over guitar riffs that whip around torpedoing rhythms like a ball-and-chain flail in motion. The six-minute-plus track pumps out so much steam that during its last gasp it fractures apart into looping noise and a guitar-squeal hysteria manipulated by Knudson.
“With Romans I was trying to make heavy music without chugging my way through it,” the guitarist says. “I started experimenting with pedals and new sounds, and Minus The Bear came from some of that. At that point just having delay was like, ‘Oh, my god, I put delay on a song—what does this mean?’ Plus on those tours I started introducing the chaos pad, which was like a DJ tool.”
Knudson’s handling heavy music’s dynamics is at full tilt on Romans, not just during the madness of a track like “Transitions,” but within the tension created by its successor “Swimming The Channel Vs. Driving The Chunnel.” That song’s drenched guitar lines—combined with an omnipresent ambient buzz and almost whispery vocals—seethe and fester within reclining rhythms. The track’s long fade-out is enough to make you sink in and get snoozy just prior to the cycling, living-hell riff of “C. Thomas Howell As The ‘Soul Man’” cutting through and completely scorching the dark and moody aesthetic (all the while having a good ol’ time lyrically mocking stern political hardcore bands of the era like Racetraitor).
There was an artfulness to how Botch navigated the expectations of heavy music on We Are The Romans. The behemoth closer “Man The Ramparts,” as a big fucking giant example, includes nearly three minutes of ominous chanting that is clearly leading to a blindsiding eruption—but it’s impossible to predict when. The dudes avoided bludgeoning head-on for the sake of immediacy, because that’s much too basic hardcore. “We always saw ourselves as being a DIY band that morphed into a sort of weird art-rock project—even though we were still indebted to hardcore sonically,” Cook reveals. “We were interested in standard noise rock like Jesus Lizard and Shellac. Drive Like Jehu was a huge influence on Botch; their writing approach definitely mirrored what we did in terms of banging things out till we had a song.”
Case in point: One of the shortest, most straightforward tracks on Romans, “Saint Matthew Returns To The Womb” is easy to imagine as an exercise in timing between Knudson and Latona, its off-rhythms and exploding accents being worked out via head-nod cues and raised eyebrows in Botch’s Tacoma practice space. The math elements are ultimately outweighed by the underlying groove burrowing through the track’s molten core—even during the back half’s jagged, syncopated beat—but you definitely have to think before you headbang.
“I remember [Hydra Head founder and former Isis frontman] Aaron Turner heard a couple of demos and said they sounded great and asked about the rest of the record,” Knudson recalls. “I just told him, ‘We’re making this record aggressive and heavy without falling into cliché hardcore situations.’”
Cook goes on:
Dave [Knudson] would come in with one or two riffs that worked together, and we generally improvised around it—though there would be a lot of discussion. We all had to be in the room together, but once we locked in on something, Dave and Tim would work out the timing and develop the idea. It was very methodical.
Released just over a year and a half after American Nervoso, We Are The Romans, engineered by Matt Bayles, came during the band’s most fruitful writing era (“like a lightning strike,” according to Knudson), while unintentionally sporting a thematic bent that foretold its dissolution. While Botch worked on the demos, Verellen sang about Viking and Roman conquerors as placeholders for lyrics, and as the record developed, without hesitation everyone made the decline of the Roman Empire synonymous with the current state of America. And so it became the record’s lyrical thread.
But Botch didn’t really know where to go on the other side of Romans. The members had waited so long to write what Knudson describes as “material that had a purpose and meaning” that the complicated makeup of the record and the anticipation leading up to it—as well as the fact that members were growing apart interpersonally and moving away from one another—made writing a follow-up seem like a chore, in a sense crippling the band. “Knowing how the creative process works, we just kept interrupting it, going on tour any time we started to get some creative momentum,” Cook remembers. “If I could go back in time I’d say, ‘Don’t stress out.’”
Some of that creative momentum did result in the band’s posthumous, suitably titled (and awesome) 2002 EP An Anthology Of Dead Ends, but Romans is considered Botch’s swan song and the record that defines them. Knudson had already been pulling away from metal and hardcore even before the band called it quits, while Cook acknowledges that Botch—which maintained a different philosophy about getting exposure than, say, The Dillinger Escape Plan—may have hit its ceiling with the record. “There wasn’t this carrot on a stick where it was like, ‘Well, if we keep pushing… it’s gonna get better.’ At that point I don’t know how many more times we needed to play Montgomery, Alabama.”
There’s some conjecture by Cook that Romans has perhaps remained vital and in discussion because the majority of Botch’s members have continued to make music, whereas Deadguy’s Fixation On A Coworker, for instance, hasn’t achieved the recognition it deserves. There aren’t new projects from members of Deadguy to keep people turning back to that record. Regardless, Knudson and Cook remain proud of We Are The Romans and are willing to acknowledge its watermark status.
“Honestly, playing Minus The Bear shows, people will come up and ask to get their Botch record signed or take a picture with them,” Knudson admits. “The first question is always about a reunion. I find it totally flattering. It means that 17 years after we recorded the album, we’re still talking about it.”