Enlarge Photo Credit: Scott Kinkade, Aaron Jones, Ryan Wagner

The Triumphant Return of Genghis Tron

  • Axl Rosenberg

There’s an elite group of bands from the early aughts that were way ahead of the curve — arguably too much so for their own good. There was Darkest Hour and A Life Once Lost, the first American bands to make their names riffing on the styles of At the Gates and Meshuggah, respectively; experimental deathcore progenitors The Red Chord…

…and then there was Genghis Tron. Formed at Vassar College by guitarist Hamilton Jordan, keyboardist/programmer Michael Sochynsky, and vocalist Mookie Singerman, Genghis Tron took a not-exactly-new concept — grindcore that uses a drum machine — but did something cutting-edge with it: they leaned into the electronic elements. Not for nothing did their name suggest a mix of brutality and science fiction: other drum-machine-reliant extreme bands, like Agoraphobic Nosebleed, didn’t generally halt their blast beats and caterwauling for Aphex Twin-inspired EDM interludes and patently inhuman percussions. In a genre plagued by bands afraid to take chances, Genghis Tron swung big — and knocked it out of the park.

The trio released one EP — Cloak of Love (2005) — and and two full-lengths — Dead Mountain Mouth (2006) and Board Up the House (2008) — the latter of which indicated that the band was really hitting their creative stride.

So in 2010, they did what all truly cool bands do after releasing a masterpiece:

They broke up.

Now, after more than a decade, the band has returned… albeit in a distinctly different form than fans remember: Singerman has exited the group, they’ve added a real, live, flesh and blood drummer, and taken their music in a bold new direction.

Sorry — technically, Genghis Tron didn’t actually break up. They only “went on hiatus.” But given the length of time it lasted, it sure did feel like a break-up.

Although it seemed like there was a rumor the band would soon reunite every year or two, it wasn’t until 2020 that an actual reunion officially came to fruition: after reissuing Dead Mountain Mouth and Board Up the House on vinyl, the group finally announced a new album in August. That album, Dream Weapon, was released last week via Relapse.

Which begs the obvious question: what took so long?

“When we went on hiatus in 2010, we always knew that we would eventually write another album… but we didn’t know that it was going to take as long as it did,” Jordan tells MetalSucks with a chuckle. “We were all busy with different stuff, not focusing on the band. But we would exchange ideas whenever we could. It was really sporadic — maybe once a year. But we weren’t in sync life-wise, and the years just kept passing.”

“We were collecting this body of stuff,” Sochynsky says of the material passed between band members during the hiatus. “But by the time we would sit down to put together an album, we didn’t really like any of it anymore, so we would start over. There were all these starts and stops.” In Jordan’s estimation, only “a couple” of the ideas they exchanged during this period ended up on Dream Weapon.

The band finally “found a groove,” as Sochynsky puts it, in 2018, after Jordan and his wife moved from California to Michigan.

“Along the way, we took a road trip to hang out with Michael and his wife for a weekend,” Jordan recalls. “We didn’t have any plans to work on music at all.

“But the day before, I was in a hotel in Virginia, and I wrote a melody on a little MIDI controller keyboard that I had with me, and I liked it. So I thought, ‘Shit, I’ll just show it to Michael.’”

After playing the melody for Sochynsky, Jordan says, the keyboardist “immediately had ideas for chords to put on top of it, and it was just like BOOM!, all of sudden for the first time in basically a decade, we were sitting in the same room writing music. And it felt really good.”

That song ended up being “Alone in the Heart of the Light,” the fifth cut on Dream Weapon… and it foretold the band’s new creative direction: Dream Weapon largely eschews the heavier elements of the group’s sound, such as screaming and (admittedly artificial) blast beats. The tracks are noticeably longer than vintage Genghis Tron songs, and have a phantasmagorical quality to them.

Asked about the shift in the band’s sound, Sochynsky explains that “it felt gimmicky” to write a heavier album just because it’s what fans expected.

He also believes Dream Weapon still has roots in the band’s prior material. “I think we had started to go in that direction on Board Up the House. Maybe it’s just not as noticeable. The last song on that album [‘Relief’] is eleven minutes, and the last seven minutes are just one repeating riff.”

“On Dream Weapon, we tried to create something that you can get lost in,” Jordan says. “That naturally lends itself to longer songs.”

“We were consciously using the word ‘hypnotic’ a lot when when we were writing the record,” Sochynsky concurs. “We were exploring this idea of getting lost in the hypnotic grooves, making something more subtle and immersive that doesn’t slap you in the face like some of our older stuff.”

Indeed, Sochynsky says Dream Weapon was consciously designed to reward repeat listens. “The first time you listen to the record, you’re like, ‘Okay, these songs are pretty catchy, this is cool.’ But then you go back and listen again and think, ‘Oh, wait, there’s more here than I realized.’ Or maybe you listen with headphones and you hear some weird melody you never noticed before. It kind of grows each time you listen to it.”

None of which is to say that the band is done making heavy music.

“I still love music with blast beats,” Jordan stresses. “I listen to it plenty. I’m not opposed to it.”

Sochynsky seconds Jordan’s sentiment: “Maybe the next thing we write, we’ll want to be heavier or more like our old stuff. Or maybe not. We’ll see.”

Although fans were elated to hear of the group’s return, some were less excited to hear that Singerman had opted not to return to the fold. Anyone hoping for juicy behind-the-scenes drama full of “creative differences,” though, will be disappointed to learn that the split was completely amicable.

“When Michael and I decided in 2018 ‘Okay, we’re really going to move forward with this album,’ Mookie was on board,” according to Jordan. “When it came down to it, about a year into the writing process — late 2019 — we were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to get in touch with Relapse [Records, the band’s label], we’re going to book studio time.’ [And] it had become clear to all three of us that Mookie didn’t really have the time and the energy to put into the album that we all thought it needed. And he was the first person to recognize that.”

Sochynsky and Jordan continued to work on the project with Singerman’s blessing.

“It’s not that exciting of a story,” Sochynsky admits. “We’re all still friends. We sent him Dream Weapon, and he’s into it. So all is good there.”

Still, Singerman bowing out necessitated that the band find a new vocalist.

“There was a period where didn’t know who was going to sing for us,” Sochynsky says. “It was bit tricky, finding someone who was a good fit.”

Enter Tony Wolski.

In what seems now like it was providence, Jordan met Wolski shortly after that initial jam session with Sochynsky, long before they ever knew they’d need a new frontman. Known for his work with The Armed and Old Gods, Wolski was introduced to Jordan by their mutual friend Kurt Ballou, guitarist for Converge (for whom Wolski has directed multiple music videos) and producer for both Genghis Tron and The Armed.

“When I moved to Detroit, my wife and I didn’t really know anyone here, and we were just looking to make friends and meet people. I spoke to Kurt and I asked if he knew any musicians in Detroit, and he said ‘Oh, you should meet this guy.’” Jordan and Wolski were friends for some time before either of them knew that Wolski would one day front the band.

“I had seen Genghis Tron play with The Dillinger Escape Plan many years ago, and I thought their show was really cool,” Wolski remembers. “Hamilton asked if I would be willing to listen to some demos. They said Mookie was out and they were working on stuff that’s really different and they were curious if I would be into helping almost in a ‘consultant’ sort of way in terms of trying to come with melodies and parts. Just because neither of them had done vocals before and they felt that they didn’t know where to start and that it was sort of out of their core competencies.”

“It was very experimental at first,” Jordan adds. “We didn’t even say we were looking for a singer. We just said ‘Hey, we need help writing vocal melodies.’ That’s how it started.”

“They sent me two songs,” Wolski continues,” and I thought they sounded cool, and I had some ideas.”

Those ideas, according to Sochynsky, “were so creative and took the songs to a whole new place and made me realize that songs that I thought were finished actually weren’t finished.”

“He understood the vibe we were going for, but he brought something to the table that Michael and I would never have come up with on our own,” Jordan agrees. “Melodic ideas that never would have crossed our minds, or putting vocals in places where we weren’t initially imagining vocals. But it just kept working so well.

“So we said, ‘Let’s just see if he’s willing to do it.’ And he said yes.”

Although Sochynsky self-deprecatingly says that Wolski “did everything” with regards to writing the album’s lyrics and melodies, Wolski himself describes the process as being far more collaborative.

“I’m a big believer that certain phonetic vocalizations are stronger. So sometimes I would tell them, ‘I don’t know what this part should be, but I know I want to hit a hard ‘A’ sound here.’”

“It was almost like a game of telephone,” he elaborates. “I would make the demo and then they would listen to it and they would write their own lyrics — what they thought I was saying, or what they thought would be cool for me to say. And then I went back and picked through those lyrics and rewrote some of my own.”

Insofar as the album’s dearth of harsh vocals goes, Wolski explains, “We did try some stuff like that, and some of that stuff is on the record. But it felt like it just better serviced the songs to approach them differently than that.”

For Wolski, then, the most challenging aspect of the process may have been approaching the lyrics as part of larger, somewhat fantastical narrative.

“Those guys are pretty, um… specific,” the singer laughs. “They had kind of an overarching concept, which I think was kind of where Board Up the House had already closed. It’s almost this large science-fiction end-of-the-world of kind of thing… which is cool, but it’s very different than how I normally write.”

“My approach was to take that mandate and then start breaking things down into more personal stories,” Wolski continues. “The narrative that you hear over the course of the album is told from different perspectives. Some of them are larger and more epic and more sci-fi, and some of them are more personal tales. All of them are deliberately vague enough that the listener can provide their own visualizations for what perhaps is being discussed.”

The pandemic prevented Wolski from entering Ballou’s GodCity Studio with Jordan and Sochynsky, so he recorded his parts at home. “I have some pretty specific ideas of how my vocals should be recorded, anyways,” Wolski confesses. “I don’t have a $15,000 microphone, but I do have exactly the microphone I would have wanted to use in the studio.”

The addition of Wolski and the exploration of a less aggro, more mesmerizing vibe aren’t the only noticeable differences between Dream Weapon and its predecessors. It’s also the band’s first album with a real drummer — Nick Yacyshyn, of Sumac and Baptists renown.

“We never set out to be a drum machine band… that wasn’t like a mission statement or part of our manifesto or anything like that,” Sochynsky says, laughing. When Genghis Tron began, he tells us, “Hamilton and I were really into grindcore and death metal, and we wanted to have drums like that in our music… but we didn’t actually know anyone who knew how to play drums like that.”

“We’ve been interested in working with a drummer for a very long time,” Jordan adds. “I think probably as long ago as when we were touring for Board Up the House, we were having discussions, like, ‘If we do another album, let’s get a real drummer.’”

“The first time I saw Nick play drums, it was in the Bay Area with Sumac,” Jordan continues. “I was just blown away.” He says he texted Sochynsky about trying to recruit Yacyshyn that same night.

Once again, Ballou — who has worked with both Sumac and Baptists — provided the introduction. Sochynsky says that Yacyshyn, being familiar with the band’s old material, was initially hesitant to join the fold.

“He said, ‘I dunno guys, if you’re just looking for someone to play really fast blast beats, I don’t think I’m your guy.’”

As Yacyshyn puts it, “I was curious if it was a heavy chaotic thing they wanted me for, or if it they had something else in mind.” Then they sent him some demos. “It was really appealing to me that it wasn’t another aggressive record,” the drummer says. “It was kind of like a whole new realm for me. There’s intense moments, but it’s definitely not a heavy album.”

Because Genghis Tron wanted to keep what Jordan calls “obviously electronic and sampled-sounding drums that aren’t supposed to sound like a real drummer” along with the acoustic drums, Yacyshyn took measures to make sure that the interplay between the two was never “conflicting or distracting.” Specifically, the drummer says, he he went for “an ’80s pop vibe.”

“Two albums that were right at the forefront of my mind when we were putting this together were Songs from the Big Chair and No Jacket Required,” the drummer tells us, citing the 1985 mega-hit records by Tears for Fears and Phil Collins, respectively. “I wanted massive, fuck-off drums and that kind of approach to the playing. Where it’s heavy handed, but there’s interesting things going on the entire time. And maybe if you’re not listening to the drums then that stuff’s not on your radar, but if you’re checking out the drums a little more attentively, there’s cool shit to be heard.”

Still, some heavy influences snuck in. “I kept joking that I was almost trying to be like [Faith No More drummer] Mike Bordin playing in Tears for Fears,” Yacyshyn laughs. “Where there’s gonna be a fill that’s required, but for the most part the fill is a like an eighth-note extra.”

Yacyshyn, too, found himself unable to travel to GodCity because of the pandemic, and ended up recording his parts with JJ Heath at Vancouver’s Rain City Recorders. That necessity ultimately offered a luxury Yacyshyn doesn’t usually have when recording: time.

“Most of the tunes have at least two acoustic drum tracks going the whole time, and some of them have up to four or five at a time during certain parts. So it took a long time. It was nice to have that option to be able to take that much time. We had five drum days, which is crazy. Usually I get a day-and-a-half.”

With Dream Weapon now out and receiving positive reviews, we can’t help but ask: what’s next for Genghis Tron? When the pandemic is over, will they be playing live shows?

“We’ll have to see,” Sochynsky says. “We definitely don’t have any concrete plans yet, but I’d lying if I told you I wasn’t thinking about playing shows.” Concerts, he admits, would present some unique challenges. “We’d have to think pretty hard about what the live show would look like, how the different parts would come together and who would play what…there’s like a million fucking synth parts on the record,” he laughs, “so I’d have to figure that one out.”

“When we wrote the album, we deliberately didn’t think about live shows,” Jordan reveals, “because we didn’t want to be restrained in how the songs came together — we didn’t want to think about how we can only have this many guitar parts going on at once or this many synth parts going, because how will we play this? We just thought about what’s going to make for the best album, what’s going to make for the best songs. And if we play shows, we’ll figure it out. It would be awesome to play shows again. “

Regardless, all parties involved are hoping fans won’t have to wait another decade for the next Genghis Tron album. “I cannot predict the future,” Sochynsky tells us, “but I would say that I’m already writing new material.”

“Nothing good yet,” he quickly adds with a chuckle. “Nothing I can share. But I’m trying.”

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