The garage of Joseph Valhal's home in southeast Durham is insulated with extra layers of Sheetrock and wallpapered with gig posters and flags. Between amps and a PA system, boxes of merchandise emblazoned with his band's logo await the next show. And on an unseasonably warm December afternoon, the space is populated by the four members of Suppressive Fire: guitarist Valhal, singer and guitarist Aaron Schmidt, bassist William Saenz, and drummer Josh Bleeks.
Suppressive Fire has always worn its influences proudly. Its members cite European thrash icons Sodom and Kreator, proto-death- metal legends Death, and grindcore-turned-melodic-death-metal greats Carcass, among others. They freely mine the crypts of old-school death metal for lurching, grimy riffs and burst into peals of scathing black metal. Merging melody and muscle to forge memorable passages in frantic maelstroms, the band's ultimate musical allegiance is clear.
"We're playing thrash metal, but it's very Teutonic thrash metal," Valhal says. "It's older German style, more aggressive, and there's no fucking partying and bullshit here. No pizza thrash."
As the group plays through a brisk set, Schmidt faces the far wall, screaming at the space between a classic car calendar and a banner with artwork from Sodom's 2016 album, Decision Day. Valhal bounces back and forth between his pedals and Bleeks's drum kit. As the guitarists transition from tight riffing to swap solos, their individual styles become evident: Valhal favors short, squealing bursts of dissonance, à la Reign in Blood, while Schmidt's solos are more melodic and expansive. Behind them, Bleeks grimaces as he wails on his kit. Saenz is comparatively calm, keeping mostly in harmonic lockstep with the guitarists, which makes his abrupt counterpoints feel even more significant.
On this occasion, Suppressive Fire is working through a set for the new year. The group tweaks three new songs it hasn't yet played on stage and blitzes through a batch of older tunes. And even in a low-key rehearsal between short, uncharacteristic lulls in activity, the band's power and precision is apparent. Even in the garage, Suppressive Fire plays like pros.
"We take it seriously," Schmidt says. "It's great to have fun, but we're also working at this."
Ambition has been a defining characteristic from the band's inception. After a strong 2014 demo and a 2015 covers split with South Carolina's Axattack, Suppressive Fire—then a trio of Valhal, Schmidt, and drummer Brandon Smith—issued its full-length debut, Bedlam, on January 14, 2016. One day short of a year later, the four-piece Suppressive Fire will issue its blistering follow-up, Nature of War.
"These guys have the strongest work ethic I've seen in any band, ever," says Saenz, who joined the band in July of last year. "For the better part of ten years, that was something that was really hard for me to find."
That ambition is a product of passion. The band members, who range in age from twenty-four to thirty-five, and half of whom are married, all hold day jobs and other responsibilities. As much as they'd love to reach a level of success that would allow full-time touring and recording, Valhal calls the band a "hobby job." The band might be a hobby for now, but it originated from a place of serious intention as Valhal sought to revitalize a deficient metal scene.
"There's a reason why metal has a bad name over the two-thousands," he says. "All the fucking nu-metal shit and then the Pantera wannabe bands, all the Dimebags out there—there was a void of a good, aggressive thrash metal band, and I think we're doing what we can to put our best quality, what we're passionate about, out there."
Led by Valhal, the band homed in on a sound—"I like writing the most aggressive riffs possible," Valhal says—and a thematic muse. From the band name to the images that adorn its releases and inhabit its lyrics, Suppressive Fire delights in stories of war. War has been a perennial inspiration for metal bands of all stripes, enough that "war metal" is, at this point, its own subgenre. From Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" to Slayer cuts like "Angel of Death" and "War Ensemble," the high drama, grotesque violence, and existential threat of battle have long provided a ready complement to the music's balance of disciplined technical precision and raw power.
Tracing the roots of Suppressive Fire's interest in combat reveals more about their listening and viewing habits than any direct ties to the military. Schmidt was raised in a military family on the U.S. Army's Kwajalein Atoll base in the Marshall Islands, but he's part of the first generation of his family not to serve in the armed forces.
"I came from that and don't care," he says. "I'm sure it had some impact, but maybe not consciously."
Saenz and Bleeks hold no connection to the armed forces, either. The band's fascination with war is purely academic, and mostly Valhal's. Though the guitarist grew up in a family of auto mechanics and works in scientific research, he's drawn to war history in books and documentaries.
"It's lots of fun, violent imagery," Schmidt says. "The war stuff is more [Valhal], the more bleak, dystopic violence is me."
When the two merge, as on Nature of War's title track, Suppressive Fire finds its sweet spot. The song and the album's grisly black-and-white cover were inspired by an actual incident on the eastern front during World War I, in which attacks by starving wolves caused German and Russian soldiers to call a cease-fire to fend off the hungry predators.
"The wolves formed kind of a super pack and started raiding trenches and killing soldiers, eating people," Valhal says. "With that concept in mind, [the song] writes itself after that."
Sung from the wolves' perspective, "Nature of War" lasts a dynamic five minutes and renders the human conflict irrelevant. Schmidt growls, "Pain of starvation/Propels us on/We've no alliance/No country or god/We must eradicate/The human infestation/And smash all of their delusions/Of global domination." On "Earthripper," where the focus shifts from war to human overpopulation, the frenetic assault and bleak imagery are similarly brutal. Suppressive Fire's attention to dystopian fantasies and war's horrors mirrors acts like Cattle Decapitation, Voivod, and Slayer, which have used similarly brutal allegories in their own songs.
"I'm big on science and big on history," Valhal says of his songwriting inspirations. "I hated music until I was in my teenage years and discovered Sabbath and all those bands. I think it's just an academic interest."
Valhal says that last year, when writing Bedlam, the band was still figuring out how to write and play. But with this latest effort, its chemistry has coalesced and the members' compositional ambitions are more fully realized.
"The music's a bit more involved," Valhal says. "We have a riff filter on now, so we don't have as much repetition."
With Nature of War, Suppressive Fire has broadened its musical scope, filling space with a second guitar and stretching songs to accommodate bigger and bolder ideas. The nearly nine-minute "Dreaded Bastards" is a gruesome retelling of the classic World War II film The Dirty Dozen, with its sprinting thrash riffs broken by ominous melodic passages, chaotic solos, and a tumultuous low end that shifts seamlessly in time and tempo.
Without straying from the lineage that first inspired the band, Nature of War finds Suppressive Fire expanding upon its template and perpetuating the momentum of a well-received debut and a full year of touring the Eastern Seaboard to support it. With a pair of ten-day tours already scheduled for the first half of the year, that momentum seems unlikely to diminish. Through previous tours, Suppressive Fire has cultivated a network of supporters in cities like Richmond, Virginia, Columbia, South Carolina, and Atlanta, while seeking opportunities for inroads to the Northeast and Midwest. The band's aggressive set tends to spur strong responses from audiences, which doesn't hurt.
"I would be happy just hanging out by myself in my bedroom playing guitar," Schmidt says. "But it's super fun seeing mosh pits and catching a microphone in the teeth because someone slammed into it."
For the moment, the band is just enjoying the work of making music together. In rehearsal, the focus is on getting the details perfect before taking the set to an audience, but fun is clearly part of the equation.
"Putting this album out in a year was pretty crazy," Valhal says. "Having new band members and doing that was ambitious as fuck. I think we'll probably play more shows and tour more before we get to the next writing process," he adds.
In the garage, with most of the hard work of crafting and releasing Nature of War complete, Suppressive Fire gets to prepare itself to enjoy the aftermath.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Party's Over."