Ray Terry has beaten death before. During the very first tour of his hardcore thrash trio Allergic to Whores, the van driver fell asleep at the wheel, smashing into a pair of trees at 75 mph. Terry suffered a broken hand, and A.T.W.'s ride was reduced to scrap iron and a pool of antifreeze. Most bands would have called Triple A; Terry called the promoters of the show. Bloodied and battered, A.T.W. played its gig that night.
Since then, Terry has developed something of an obsession with death. A.T.W.'s two 2003 releases are titled Life Through Death's Eyes and 1331: Chaos Before Death. Terry himself looks as if he stepped out of a Tim Burton film: Perpetually clad in black, with painted black fingernails and hair to match, the spindly singer-guitarist is a walking eclipse.
Now Terry has taken his preoccupation to another level: He's killed off his band, after fours years, four albums, and well over 400 shows. Their crime: lack of musical aptitude. Their replacement: a more hook-oriented outfit Terry calls Nightbreed.
"If I had to write another fast, speed-driven song, I'd have probably quit altogether," Terry says. He's sitting on the floor of Nightbreed's practice space, on the outskirts of downtown. A windowless 10-by-10-foot room decorated with gas masks, jack-o'-lantern lights, and a velvet Elvis painting, the place doubles as Terry's home. "It was time to start fresh," he says.
But now seems an odd time to start over. After two years of playing before minimal crowds and eating only sporadically, A.T.W. started paying dividends last year. The band's caustic, curled-lip debut, Shadows in the Killingfield, became an underground classic, and crowds of 150 to 200 became common at its shows. This summer, A.T.W. was named Best Punk Band by Scene readers and landed a week and a half of dates on the Warped Tour. The twin Death LPs showed considerable growth, incorporating more dark melody and letting up on the gas a bit. Label interest was growing too. That, Terry says, marked the beginning of the end. He axed his drummer and bassist, out of concern they couldn't keep up with the band's musical development.
"During A.T.W., we definitely evolved," Terry explains. "I never thought you should make the same album twice, but as that band, I just didn't think it needed to go any further. If you listen to 1331, it's definitely a bridge over to where [Nightbreed is] at. This stuff is darker, but with bigger choruses, more singing, more melody. A.T.W. was ready to take off, but if we did ride it out for another year, we'd just end up in the same shoes as all these other bands, where just because things are successful, they keep pushing and pushing. And it's not what we wanted to do."
A.T.W. was fraught with lineup difficulties from the get-go, cycling through nearly two dozen members in its four years. Terry's singular control over the band, from songwriting to artwork to executive decisions, certainly played a role. "In the beginning, I was impossible to get along with," he admits. "Other people would come and go, just because they couldn't handle being on the road that long."
The new lineup was originally intended to be merely another version of A.T.W. But shortly after bassist Mark Meier and drummer Justin Dorsey entered the fold, Terry found himself truly collaborating for the first time, co-writing songs and gravitating toward a less ear-grating sound. He retired the name A.T.W. to reflect the change in style.
"It was like a one-man band pretty much," Dorsey says of his previous experience with Terry, playing guitar on tour with A.T.W. "Now he wants to work with other people. He's way more open."
Nightbreed recently recorded a demo with Disengage guitarist Jacob Cox and has penned seven songs for an LP due early next year. The band will appear one more time as A.T.W., for a Halloween gig at the Pirate's Cove. Nightbreed debuts November 14 at the same club.
"Anybody that liked 1331 will be more than thrilled by where we're going," Terry says. "It would have took Allergic to Whores two or three albums to get where we're at now." Then he pauses a moment, as a rare smile creeps across his face. "We're reborn."