In the winter of 2005, Tina Shoaf, the wife of Confessor guitarist Brian Shoaf, was reading Revolver, the heavy metal and hard rock magazine. She thumbed to an article titled "31 Wickedly Obscure and Important Bands."
"She's like, 'You guys ought to be in here,'" Brian remembers. "Then she's like flip, flip, flip: 'Uh, you guys are in here.'"
As Shoaf remembers, to make the list, the named band had to have influenced several later acts that made money, without making money themselves. And it had to be cool to wear the band's T-shirt—in Confessor's case that shirt included a logo that combined a profiled skull and something like a serpent—even if very few people outside of the record-hoarding obsessives actually knew of the band.
Hearing the criteria for inclusion seven years later, Confessor bassist Cary Rowells chimes in, "We've got both of those."
In the late 1980s and early '90s, a bunch of kids from Raleigh's Millbrook High School shared a fetish for the pioneering Chicago doom metal band Trouble that they, in turn, used to create one of the most influential, distinctive heavy metal bands of all time. With hyper-technical, calculus-complicated drumming, a then-unusual low C guitar tuning and polarizing vocal wails that seemed to fight rather than flow with the music, Confessor couldn't be mistaken for any other band.
"Confessor spearheaded something special that, 20-plus years later, is very popular with bands like Meshuggah and so many others," says Woodroe Weatherman, whose own band, Corrosion of Conformity, shared many bills with Confessor. "Fantastically bizarre time signatures combined with an energetic live show always made them very interesting."
But bad timing and bad luck always seemed to conspire against Confessor, predictably killing any momentum they could generate. On more than one occasion, key players would quit, just as things started to shift in the right direction. As a result, bands like Richmond's Lamb of God and the aforementioned Meshuggah of Sweden have made millions, or at least steady careers, with a sound shaped by Confessor, while the older Raleigh men are still relegated to cult status. Condemned, Confessor's 1991 classic, remains out of print.
"In the early 1990s, Confessor may have been considered esoteric. Today, that kind of originality is a major plus," says heavy metal scholar Ian Christe, author of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. "Musicianship and mood have become more valued qualities, and Confessor excels in both, and in seamlessly combining soul and chops. Sometimes that striking new sound music listeners are always seeking already exists and is just waiting for the right time to be unbottled."
That "right time," as Christe puts it, just might be now: Though Confessor hasn't played live in years, Maryland Death Fest—arguably the biggest and best-known American heavy metal festival, taking place Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore—invited the band to take one of the marquee slots at this year's event. They'll play Saturday night, right before headliners Morbid Angel. Most any metal band would kill, mutilate or sacrifice for that sort of exposure. Maybe now, Confessor's importance can match its attention.
In the beginning, back in the fall of 1985, Confessor seemed to have both momentum and time on its side: Brian Shoaf was still a student at Millbrook. His older brother, Jimmy, and Cary Rowells had already graduated. Rowells learned bass so that he could play Def Leppard and Judas Priest covers with the Shoaf brothers. Around that time, another Millbrook High band, No Comment, broke up; their guitarist, Graham Fry, and singer, Scott Jeffreys, began jamming with the trio. Jeffreys' high bleat changed the dynamic completely.
"One of the first songs we played together, before we had any originals, was [Judas Priest's] 'Victim of Changes,'" remembers Jimmy Shoaf, who became Confessor's first drummer.
"Jeffreys could hit it, even that last 'waaaaaaaaoh!' at the end," remembers Rowells.
Confessor was formed.
But the band's proclivity for lineup changes was immediately apparent. Jimmy had begun working as a roadie for bands like Corrosion of Conformity and Cry of Love. He could make money with them on tour or lose money with his own outfit at home in Raleigh. He began missing practices and losing interest. Around that time, Jeffreys walked past a friend's home and heard loud drumming from a nearby house. Jeffreys followed the sound, rang the doorbell and met Confessor's next drummer, Steve Shelton.
"Here's this guy with bleached blond hair to the top of his stomach and a ripped-up Exodus T-shirt," Shelton remembers of his initial meeting with Jeffreys, whom he had seen before. "And I was like, 'I know that dude.' I didn't think anyone could hear me from the street."
Jimmy Shoaf knew Shelton from homeroom at Millbrook. The band and Jimmy agreed that Shelton was the best option for Confessor going forward.
"I was hurt a little bit, but I was 18," says Shoaf, who spent the next 15 years on the road, working for everyone from Alice in Chains to Tom Waits. "It made sense. I always loved and supported them anyway. I could have loved and supported them more. I never got them gigs with the rock stars; I gave their shirts to the rock stars."
The decision to swap drummers helped Confessor shape its legacy. Shelton's kinetic drumming rarely seems to flow in a straightforward manner, and it became one of Confessor's hallmarks. Guitarist Chris Nolan compared Shelton's technique to "doing kung fu on the drums." That is, if you hear a 4/4 beat in a Confessor song, you'd better nod your head quick; something's about to happen to throw it all off-kilter.
That unorthodox rhythmic style came coupled with another musical irregularity—Confessor's single most identifiable aspect, the high, despairing, almost feminine tenor of Scott Jeffreys. Few people are indifferent to Jeffreys' voice; even Shelton admits being taken aback by the cassette Jeffreys initially gave him.
"I remember at the time thinking, 'Wow, these vocals are kind of hard to take,'" Shelton says. "It took me a while to be able to see what it was he was trying to do, and there are days when I get it completely and days when I revert back to that original reaction."
Jeffreys says that this vocal style took cues from the singers he enjoyed while only a teenager—John Arch and Ray Alder of Fates Warning, King Diamond of Mercyful Fate, Eric Adams of Manowar and others who sang with a high range and clear tone. By the time the songs he wrote with those influences in mind made it to an album, however, death metal vocals had become vogue, making his voice seem out of date to many.
"All of the songs on our first album, Condemned, were written in this time period. It was only a few years later when we actually got signed to Earache that these songs were released," he says. "By the time the songs from those early influences actually were released and in the public arena, the death-metal vocals had come into play. It did not help that we were on the major death metal label of the time, either."
The voice had its detractors. Shoaf remembers one review that criticized Confessor for playing one song while its singer sang another.
"There were some reviews that weren't very positive, and that's being diplomatic," says Shelton. "But he was always able to brush it off and do exactly what he wanted to do. He never let it get to him."
In 1991, on the strength of two underground demos recorded in Raleigh by producer Dick Hodgin, Earache offered Confessor a record deal. As far as heavy metal went, Earache was one stop short of a major label. That's when Fry decided it was time to leave the band. Again, another step back: "I just didn't want to play metal any more," he says. "I was just interested in other kinds of music."
Ivan Colon stepped in to replace Frye on guitar, and the new iteration released Condemned—crushing in its heaviness, head-spinning in its complexity, exciting in its originality. It befuddled most any attempt to describe it.
"Condemned was called 'the worst speed metal album I've ever heard,'" says Shelton, recalling one review. "I thought, well, yeah it is. Reign in Blood is the worst rockabilly record I've ever heard!"
But Confessor soldiered along. They were also given a spot on the 1992 Gods of Grind tour of Europe, along with three other extreme metal pioneers: Sweden's Entombed and the UK's Carcass and Cathedral. But those bands' more guttural sound put Confessor in an awkward spot on the bill. They earned exposure but also derision.
During one show in Germany, an audience member stood directly in front of Jeffreys and taunted him throughout the entire set.
"Basically this guy was being an ass the whole time, turning his back, flipping his middle finger," Shoaf remembers. He hadn't realized there was a problem until he turned off his amp and suddenly heard Jeffreys cursing out his tormentor. "I turned around and saw a really good-sized dude trying to get through the barricade, and I thought, 'Wow, that's really cool. We have security.' By this point, Scott had had a couple of weeks of this shit."
A promised American leg of Gods of Grind didn't happen. Before long, Earache was ignoring the band altogether.
"Earache simply did not know what to do with us," says Jeffreys. "We were unlike any other band on the label and they had a hard time figuring out where we fit in. In the end, as in the beginning, we continued to be misfits."
Colon decided to leave the band to go back to school. A fan from Winston-Salem who managed to get a cassette tape of his playing into Steve Shelton's hands, Chris Nolan, was set to replace him. At a bar called Snooker's in Mission Valley, Colon and Nolan each played half-sets with the band. It was supposed to be a night for passing the torch. When Jeffreys surprised everyone by announcing onstage that he was leaving, too, Confessor was simply extinguished. Shelton, Brian Shoaf and Nolan continued for a while under the name Fly Machine. After a while, even Shoaf lost interest: "I put the guitar up and went to work."
In 2005, Colon died unexpectedly from a blood infection. The band reunited, with Fry back in the guitarist spot for one night, to play a benefit to help offset the resulting medical bills. The goodwill from that one-off gig caused the band to reform in earnest and record the very underrated Unraveled, released by the eclectic French label Season of Mist. The album is heavy but not as rhythmically complex as Confessor's earlier work. Jeffreys' voice is lower, too, showing the mark of Alice in Chains' frontman Layne Staley.
But Jeffreys had earned a bachelor's in textile technology from N.C. State and subsequently receieved an offer to work in the furniture textiles industry in China. Confessor was once again put on the back burner. That is, until Maryland Death Fest came calling.
"I really did not know too much about it before we were asked," says Jeffreys of the festival, en route from his home in China to a business meeting in Milan before returning to Raleigh for rehearsals. "I mean, we have been out of the scene for a while, and I just do not know all the 'haps,' but I became very excited when I learned the history of the fest."
Brian Shoaf puts it in more straightforward terms: "It's more money than we ever really made. It's probably one of the only shows I've ever cleared money on."
A week and a half before they play in Raleigh in preparation for Maryland Death Fest, Confessor gathers at a sweltering practice space at Volume 11 Tavern, a venue and horde of rehearsal rooms just outside downtown Raleigh. They've done this several times a week since accepting the festival's offer.
Their faces are older, and their hair is mostly shorter than it was in the band's old promotional photos. Shelton is now the band's only longhair. But when Confessor plugs in and turns on, they come together as only Confessor can—scraping, buzzsaw guitars that plod like a mythical beast, assaulted by a phalanx of drums and cymbals. Above it all, Jeffreys sounds like a disembodied cry for help. They hit their stride with "Alone," from Condemned. Jeffreys complains that he's hoarse, but hoarse or not, he still hits those crests like he's fresh from Millbrook High School.
What's more, Confessor still has a legion of obsessive fans, evidenced by the May 8 release of Uncontrolled, a remastered edition of the band's early demos. Matt Rudzinski, who released the music on his Greensboro label, Divebomb Records, would like to re-release Condemned, too, but he has yet to reach an agreement with Earache. While touring seems out of the question, one-off shows like Maryland Death Fest aren't. Everyone in the band seems eager to record new material
But can Confessor finally find a place, and possibly some overdue success, as primarily a recording-only band? The members like the idea, but they're also pretty happy with their individual Confessor spin-off bands: Rowells is in Parasite Drag, which is opening the Raleigh show; Brian Shoaf, Nolan and Shelton are in Far and Away; and Rowells and Shelton are in math-metal masters Loincloth. The timing for Confessor seems to be there; now it's just a matter of luck.
"When we were recording Unraveled, Scott was like, 'What's your goal here?'" says Shoaf. "If we could make enough money to pay for rent on the room I would be ecstatic. I would be like, 'I have made it!' If the band generates $300 per month, yes! We didn't make it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Of a faith."