Having an original sound in rock isn't necessarily achieved by doing something trailblazingly different. Sometimes it's as simple as taking familiar ideas and combining them in unexpected ways. Take Poison the Well. Nearly a dozen years ago, the guys roared out of South Florida with their debut album, Distance Only Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, which snagged them a deal with respected underground indie label Trustkill. Their debut for their label, 1999's The Opposite of December ... A Season of Separation, still holds a place in Guitar World's Top 10 hardcore albums of all time.
But hardcore is only one of the weapons in Poison the Well's sonic arsenal, which also includes death-metal, punk and emo on The Tropic Rot, their just-released album. The second track, "Sparks It Will Rain," quivers with twangy surf vibrations before Jeff Moreira's metal howl/growl tears into the song's melody like a starving lion on a plump gazelle. Later, "Pamplemousse" drifts and soars with an almost jazz-like experimentalism and an expansive prog-tinged atmosphere. So does "Who Doesn't Love a Good Dismemberment," which kicks like Dave Grohl possessed by a demon from the ninth circle of hell. After the deliberate and intricate construction of PTW's previous album, 2007's Versions, guitarist/co-founder Ryan Primack had some very specific goals for The Tropic Rot.
"I wanted it to be more of a focused-sounding record," says Primack, who brings the band to town as part of the 10 for 10 Bucks tour that also features Terror, Crime in Stereo, This Is Hell, War of Ages, the Ghost Inside, the Mongaloids, Trapped Under Ice, Wreak Havoc and Heads Held High. "I wanted there to be a more traditional guitar and drums and bass and singing approach, as opposed to this really built-up, cerebral layering. We wanted to write something more focused, which I think we did. It was cool to make a back-to-basics kind of record for us."
Need more evidence that Poison the Well were committed to expanding their sonic parameters? Primack doesn't disappoint.
"I got to use an electric ukulele," he says. "That was pretty awesome. It was in the studio and it makes noise. If it makes noise, and that noise makes some sort of note, I'll try to use it. For us, I'm the guy that's like, 'Let's just do this!' 'But it doesn't make any sense!' 'I know! That's why we should do it!' I can't get enough of pushing things a strange or uncommon way. I find that leads to some prolific expression and opens up an avenue that you didn't necessarily assume was there."
Primack's prolific expression flows out of The Tropic Rot like hot lava from an active volcano. He says the challenge was to incorporate as many disparate elements as possible into PTW's sound without making them seem like merely clever costume changes.
"I think this is the most cohesive record we've made in a long time," he says. "I think that it has a lot of really cool elements that are a little left of center, but this time I think more than ever we found a way to integrate them in way that makes sense, in a way that's not just, 'Oh, they're trying to play a country riff.' No, you just sneak that sound in there and people are like, 'That sounds kind of like this a little bit,' as opposed to being obvious. I think we found a way to mold them into one sound and have it be our sound as opposed to us trying to do another sound."
This kind of sonic cross-pollination is nothing new for Poison the Well (now comprising Primack, Moreira, original drummer Chris Hornbrook, guitarist Bradley Clifford and bassist Bradley Grace). While some might claim PTW's stylistic range is the result of the incredible number of people that have been in the band (Wikipedia lists nearly 25 former members), in fact, PTW exhibited these tendencies from the start.
"I think our first couple of shows [featured] a metal band, a ska band and us," says Primack. "It's always been really important to us — and it's always been really important to me personally as a musician — to look at things as music, not necessarily as this kind or that kind of music or segregate myself into only liking one thing. If it's honest and it's good, it's going to stand out no matter what kind of music it is. I do have a little problem with chamber music sometimes; it gets a little droll. Other than that, I really do try to round it out with everything."