On a night off from a 2003 tour with Thursday, SoCal punk-metal band Death by Stereo scheduled a show at a Blacksburg, Virginia, dive called the Solar Haus. It was a booking that haunts them to this day.
During the last song of the band's set, four fans fell out of a second-story window and landed on a concrete balcony below. Daniel James Martin, 19, died in the incident, and the other victims were severely hurt.
"It was crazy, and it happened right in front of us; we watched the whole thing," singer Efrem Schulz said. "It's the worst thing that could ever happen to you."
The accident started a tidal wave of activity that nearly drowned Death by Stereo. Minutes after the tragedy, local news crews rolled in and started asking questions. And while the bandmembers were able to escape the initial barrage of finger-pointing ("We hid in our van and turned out the lights"), they couldn't hide for long. In the aftermath of the incident, the family of the dead man filed a $40 million wrongful death suit, two of the injured fans filed suits for $50 million each and a third sued for $20 million. The band is not allowed to comment on the settlements, but the damage caused was clearly more than merely financial.
"At first, we were like, 'That's it, we quit. We're done,' " Schulz said. "But after awhile, I was like, 'Dude, I can't see myself not hanging out with you guys every day and doing this,' so we decided to continue. But we really had to learn to live again and deal with things without carrying all that guilt."
When Death by Stereo finally decided to write their fourth album, the recently released Death for Life, they were determined to pen something scathing, cathartic and brutal. Some tracks wound up being directly inspired by memories from the Solar Haus. Others were created out of a need to forget. Regardless of the impetus, all the tracks rock, rip and throb like an infected tooth. From the brooding bass, thunderous drums and staccato rhythmic bursts of "Forget Regret" to the textural guitar washes, yearning vocals and squealing solo of "Forever and a Day," Death by Stereo have captured an intensity and immediacy that surpasses anything they've previously done.
"We were just focused and charged and we really had a f---ing fire burning under us this time," Schulz said. "We went through these songs thousands of times where we were like, 'Dude, that's not good enough. We can be crazier than that, we can be heavier than that.' Or, 'You can get more melodic, you can get more personal.' We were totally on each other the whole time, cracking the whip, and it shows."
It wasn't just the violent past that inspired Death by Stereo to rage like never before; the band was also motivated by the setbacks and challenges of the present day. Between the release of 2003's Into the Valley of Death and the recording of Death for Life, guitarist Jim Miner left the group, wanting to settle down with his new wife and run a tattoo shop. He was replaced by Tito, a longtime friend of the group. Similarly, bassist Paul Miner quit to produce other bands, and ex-Pulley bassist Tyler Rebbe stepped in. The bandmembers also experienced numerous heartbreaks and other losses that kept the anger flowing. Schulz even suffered a near-death experience in the studio while the band was working on the album.
"I was in the middle of doing vocals and I didn't know I was allergic to nuts because I never was before," he said. "So I ate some and my throat started closing. Then I got violently ill and broke out in crazy hives and had to be rushed to the hospital. I was on an IV and everything, and now I have to carry around a syringe just in case it happens again."
But the real reason Death for Life is so powerful and impacting is because, for all intents and purposes, it's Death by Stereo's "Story of Job" --- their way of telling the world that no matter what fate brings their way, they won't lose faith.
"Nothing can stop us," Schulz agreed. "Nothing can get me down. We want to get across all the feelings that are swirling inside us --- the anger, the pain, the frustrations, everything in our lives --- and show at the end of the day that we're still standing and we're still making music."
--- Jon Wiederhorn