Featuring Byzantine vocalist/guitarist Chris Ojeda | By Nick Harrah
In 2008, oblivion indeed beckoned for Byzantine. The Charleston, West Virginia-based progressive groove metal band—formed by vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chris Ojeda in 2000—made a name for themselves in metal circles with a demo in 2001, which led to a tour with Lamb Of God. It also landed them on Prosthetic Records, through which they released 2004’s The Fundamental Component, 2005’s …And They Shall Take Up Serpents, and Oblivion Beckons in 2008.
Ojeda and his then bandmates—lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough, bassist Michael “Skip” Cromer, and drummer Matt Wolfe—stared into the same abyss so many bands do. Facing the dwindling returns of trying to make a band financially feasible—with members spread out over several states, some with family obligations—Byzantine, despite significant underground support, officially dissolved the day after releasing Oblivion Beckons.
Nearly a decade later, the band reunited for a 2013 self-titled DIY effort, then underwent a metamorphosis of sorts by welcoming new lead guitarist Brian Henderson and bassist Sean Sydnor for 2015’s critically acclaimed and self-released, To Release Is To Resolve. In 2016, Byzantine recruited drummer Matt Bowles for their Metal Blade Records debut, The Cicada Tree, out July 28. They are now set to hit the road this summer with Sacred Reich.
Hollywood couldn’t come up with a better heavy metal story.
Ojeda is known for taking on subjects such as religion, the coal industry and its effects on his home state and its families, and opioid abuse in his lyrics. On The Cicada Tree—with help from co-writer and friend Jamie P. Rakes—he offers a take on the state of the nation in 2017—though there are also aliens and “He-Man” references.
Below, Ojeda breaks down the lyrics to nine of the new songs on The Cicada Tree.
1. “New Ways To Bear Witness”
This is the opening track and is a topical song about the pervasive and everyday use of cameras and cell phones in today’s society. From concerts to police brutality to everyday arguments in public places, you can’t go anywhere without knowing that a camera can instantly be shoved in your face. This song details how all of this plays into the culture that we live in of instant gratification and instant regret. The choruses shift towards an inner focus on hoping that my children are going to be raised right, even though our upbringings are fairly different.
2. “Vile Maxim”
This is the most politically-charged tune on the album. Mostly penned by my friend and co-lyricist Jamie P. Rakes, this song depicts his personal views on the current administration in our government. We titled the song after the 18th century economist Adam Smith’s quote: “All for ourselves and nothing for our people seems to have been, in every age of the world, the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
3. “Map of the Creator”
This song is a first-person account story. It’s about a space traveler in the distant past who was sent to Earth to propagate intelligent life from their own DNA. It’s set in the time when Earth had no human life on it. Also, the space traveler knows that this trip is a one-way ticket. The distance traveled is so great that he must be forced to live on this new barren planet alone with only his pride of knowing he achieved his mission. It depicts the sadness and depression he goes through, as well as the level of insanity the isolation brings.
4. “Dead as Autumn Leaves”
This song was again penned mostly by Jamie P. Rakes. This song entails the trials and tribulations of relationship woes. The lyrics fit the mood of the song perfectly.
This tune is about my personal beliefs of trying to carve out my own path in terms of my religion and my ideologies. It was named after my favorite “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” character, Trapjaw. Trapjaw was a loner and didn’t want to join the forces of evil or good. He wanted to be master of his own destruction.
6. “The Subjugated”
Every Byzantine album we have recorded has had an alien intervention song. It started with our debut album and the song “Slipping on Noise,” which was about an alien race watching us from far away and not wanting to intervene because we were beneath them. Fast forward to “The Subjugated”—the alien race has had enough of our meddling with the galaxy and have taken steps of eradication into their own hands. It details how they wipe out most of the human race while we beg for forgiveness.
This song is more like poetry than all the rest. It speaks of the small but necessary changes in one’s life to better themself, but uses the analogy of a flower garden to get the point across. Lyrically, one of my favorites on this album.
8. “The Cicada Tree”
This is the title track and sings of the complete lifespan of the 17-year cicada. It goes into detail from an entomological sense, but is actually speaking about the lifespan of Byzantine.
9. “Verses of Violence”
This song is current and topical as well. It speaks about the religious differences between humans and how those religious differences can deeply divide people who are actually very similar. The current Muslim travel ban sparked some of the lyrics. It ends on a completely different turn, as the song gets extremely heavy at the end.