Interview with vocalist/guitarist Sal Abruscato | By Nicholas Senior
Vocalist and guitarist Sal Abruscato is no stranger to dark, resonant rock. His time spent drumming in gothic metal mainstays Type O Negative and Life Of Agony cemented his ability to craft sonic and thematic darkness. His latest venture, A Pale Horse Named Death, only elevate the melodrama. Both in their sound and what they say, the New York City band highlight human struggle through some of the most impassioned hard rock since Alice In Chains.
When the World Becomes Undone, released Jan. 18 via Long Branch Records, is the group’s third release and their most empowered yet. The personal and existential hell Abruscato has overcome results in possibly his best musical statement ever; it’s equal parts haunting and hopeful, and there’s a sense of frustration in humanity’s inability to avoid falling into the same traps again and again. Yet, through the deepest darkness, Abruscato aims to elevate his listeners to a better place.
Fans often forget that there are people behind the music they love, and it sounds like a lot of life happened to Abruscato in the five years between 2013’s Lay My Soul To Waste and When the World Becomes Undone. There’s a vibrancy on the record that shines through, a creative wellspring that showcases the strength of the band and the power of the music, but those long years certainly took their toll.
“I think you need to let life happen to write a great record, and certainly, I had a lot of rough things happen in life and with my family. My wife and I have been to hell and back,” Abruscato explains. “I think that obviously gets put into the music, and it becomes striking and affects people deeply. I have three kids and a special needs daughter, and things are complicated. [My daughter] had surgery again right after Christmas, corneal transplants for a second time. She’s in a wheelchair. We’re definitely strong parents; we don’t cry or look for sympathy from anyone. We just have a complicated schedule, and we make it work because we love our kids. I have no regrets taking so long, because it allowed me to focus on my family, and it poured into the record.”
There’s a lot of great subtext on the album. Abruscato’s thematic density is renowned, and this record takes that to a different, special level.
“It’s a very personal record,” he mentions, “but I like to write lyrics where they are subliminal and easy for the listener to adapt to their life situation. I don’t try to be too specifically on the mark, where I’m speaking about red, and if you don’t like red, you can’t relate. No, it’s about any color that you can relate to at that time. I write music in a way that if the listener is hearing my pain, they can easily transcribe it into their life, because I’m not explicitly naming what’s going on, I’m just expressing an emotion. Emotions transcend across the board for people, because human beings—most human beings,” he laughs, “have emotions and feelings and sensitivities. There are those who can’t handle it and deal with thoughts of suicide.”
Abruscato is no stranger to the darkness, and When the World Becomes Undone reveals a level of personal anguish that can only come from life’s complexities. A Pale Horse Named Death’s writing process informs the emotive nature of the music.
“A lot of times, the music comes out first, and the melodies will actually invoke a feeling,” he begins. “Sometimes, it evokes a pretty feeling or an ugly feeling. Something will then come to me that happened in my life. An example that’s fairly subliminal, in the title track, there is a line in there: ‘The world is disappearing from her eyes.’ That was directly from a conversation my wife was having when my daughter’s corneas were rejecting. She had her first corneal transplants when she was three and six months old. In the last couple of years, they both rejected, because the corneas came from a deceased donor, and her eyes were slowly going opaque again, like all white. It’s the possessed look that people think is cool, but in reality, it’s terrible. When that was happening, we were upset and having a conversation, and my wife said the line that went into the title track; that line stuck in my head. I wanted to invoke that painful feeling for my wife, my daughter, and myself, [but] the phrase can have a bigger meaning about the world around us or something more personal. You don’t have to know that story to feel connected to the lyrics.”
The reason classics endure is that the same verse or four-stanza poem can mean something completely different to each individual; art often speaks to the heart and soul rather than to the brain. Every spin of this record unravels something new and unexpected, like a musical onion—which, appropriately, will inspire a few tears when listeners cut into it.
“I’m a big Beatles fan. They were brilliant songwriters, and when you listen, even to this day, you’ll hear something going on or it will affect you differently. That’s what we at least try to accomplish,” Abruscato laughs. “We don’t want you to hear it once and hear it all. I want to pull you back in and pull you into the darkest corners of your mind. That’s what can help people heal or not hurt themselves. If we can make someone have a helpful moment or an epiphany or a meaning that helps them solve something—I just want to do good, at the end of the day. [The music and message] sound very doom-and-gloom, but what I’m trying to put across is almost a therapeutic ventilation for people to let it out, even if it means screaming and crying. I don’t want people to hold it in. I’m guilty of it myself, where I have a hard time, I suppress a lot of stuff, and then explode.”
A person alone with their thoughts can be a dangerous thing, as Abruscato notes. It’s important to dig into the darkness to find that light.
“This is therapy for me too,” he states. “I was diagnosed as manic depressive—I always knew I was depressed, but I was actually diagnosed by a doctor last year. They put me on medicine, but I couldn’t take it anymore, because it was making me crazy. I tried to deal with it in a different way. You can be surrounded by people who love you and care for you, but the problem with depression is it’s a condition. You can’t help it to feel that way. You can try to wake up and say you don’t want to be this negative, toxic entity in my life and others’ lives, then something happens, and you shit the bed and end up in your black hole again. That’s where the song ‘Fell in my Hole’ came from.”
“It’s a lifetime battle for many people, myself included,” he continues. “I don’t claim to be Dr. Phil, but I know that dark spot in the mind; it’s an ugly place, and you have to try to avoid that pitfall in the mind, what it can do to you and where it can take you. The mind is very powerful. You have to talk about it and get it out there as a form of therapy.”
It leads back to the idea that monsters in movies are never as scary when they appear onscreen as they are in the viewer’s imagination. Darkness is only scary if one doesn’t know what it holds. Abruscato hopes this album can shine a light on listeners’ personal shadows. When the World Becomes Undone is a sort of musical lighthouse, offering up a safe haven, an outpost for despair—all in the hope that the other side is brighter and more connected. This is a wonderfully insightful, delightful record for those who strive to recognize the world’s bleak condition and press ahead anyway.