The Wilmington band ASG almost didn't last long enough to make its best record.
In 2008, on the verge of releasing fourth album Win Us Over, the group's longtime label, Volcom Entertainment, dropped ASG. Ultimately, the now-defunct music division of the extreme sports clothing brand agreed to release Win Us Over, but the band took the hint. Actually, they almost took it too far.
"We were already thinking we need to maybe go somewhere else, as far as labels are concerned," remembers frontman Jason Shi. "We'd been in a band for at least eight or nine years, and even back then we might've been thinking, 'If our record label's not even interested in this record we're putting out, what're we gonna do?' I was even slightly thinking move on and do something else."
Rather than break up, though, the band stayed on the road, refining their melodic rock, perpetually stuck somewhere between radio waves and heavy metal niches. They released split records with Black Tusk and Karma to Burn to help fill the gap. Shi launched a side-project, Wildlights, whose debut is due this year on Season of Mist. Gradually, the old records found an audience, and in 2012, Relapse Records—one of the biggest and most well-respected heavy metal labels in the world—offered ASG a contract.
In May, ASG released its fifth full-length album, Blood Drive, to much wider critical acclaim than ever before. The record landed on many year-end lists, and this year, the band powers ahead behind that momentum, having added festival dates, from Winston-Salem's growing Phuzz Phest to the stalwart heavy-music pilgrimage Roadburn, in the Netherlands. They'll spend most of April crisscrossing Europe. They belong to a school of crossover metal acts—Torche, Coliseum, Red Fang—whose interests in combining sharp songs with unapologetic force make for music that's visceral and viral. Blood Drive puts them near the front of that field.
"That gap was kind of a no-man's land," Shi says. "It was like, 'What are we doing? Where do we belong? Where are we headed?' Slowly, our little records have found nooks and crannies. It's like one of those weird things where bands will release a record, tour for a year, break up and then five years later, there's a sudden interest in them."
Getting here took time: ASG formed in 2001 when bassist Andy Ellis and drummer Scott Key dissolved their punk band. They enlisted Shi, then a student at UNC-Wilmington, to join what they christened All Systems Go—soon shortened to ASG, because of copyright disputes with another act.
ASG quickly found a following in Wilmington, where a confluence of beach and college cultures incubated an eclectic scene. Extra-heavy sludge acts such as Weedeater, Buzzov-en and Sourvein fit alongside party-hard classic rock bands like Thunderlip. With their balance of metal might and melodic ambition, ASG made for a versatile complement.
"If we lived in some of these towns we've toured through where there's not enough going on, I don't see us together 10 years later. It's the right size town," Shi says of Wilmington. "There's a constant influx of new kids. There's a good scene with enough local bands and places to play where you could sustain it."
In the band's salad days, ASG's ambitions were strictly local. They played and partied: "We didn't look past the next weekend," Shi remembers. "We were just in the mid-20s 'let's have a good time' phase."
But when the Volcom deal arrived, ASG suddenly saw beyond their hometown's surfside isolation. They lent their songs to skateboarding and surfing videos and landed on national tours. A mid-2000s jaunt with The Sword and Torche proved particularly inspirational. "I'd never heard Floor or Torche before," Shi says, referring to the group of Miami musicians who have paired heft with hooks for two decades—first as Floor, then as Torche. "This is what I wanted to do and somebody's already done it and maybe perfected it. It was really inspirational, but a mild little bummer at the same time."
That kinship recognition impacted Win Us Over, the album Volcom initially hadn't planned to issue. The band had polished its tones, and Shi sang more than he yelled. From the beginning, ASG showed a knack for melody, but Shi's vocals had been rough, the riffs rawer. But Win Us Over brought ASG closer in sound to Queens of the Stone Age or Jane's Addiction than Weedeater or High on Fire. Eschewing both extreme metal's harsher-faster brinksmanship and modern rock's dumbed-down plod, ASG and their ilk are carving a new hard-rock niche where melody doesn't arrive at the expense of heavy riffs. Once solid genre lines seem now more passable.
Blood Drive's expanded scope, then, shouldn't come as a surprise. "We were heading that way the whole time," Shi argues.
Still, Blood Drive feels more like a destination than a step along the way. The unofficial hiatus between albums proved necessary. By the time ASG entered the studio with Slayer and Fu Manchu producer Matt Hyde in 2012, they'd fine-tuned their approach enough to yield by far their best record. "I got a lot more confident with my voice, and I was willing to try new things," Shi says. "I don't know why heavy music has to have cookie monster vocals and screaming all the time. That seemed to be the rule."
Progression, of course, comes with cynics: Fans of ASG's rougher, rawer early work haven't uniformly embraced the band's new direction, and ASG, for their part, have avoided kowtowing to the demands of stubborn fans.
"We're not Pennywise or Bad Religion. We're not going to just give you the same record over and over again," he says. "I know it's the same band, but we're not the same human beings. I hope you're not, either."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reconditioned humans."