Beware of Darkness
Beware of Darkness, Are You Real?
“Muthafucka, I’m back from the dead, I’m about to raise hell. Out of my coma, I’m ready to show you that season of my life is done.”
So taunts Kyle Nicolaides at the start of Are You Real?, the new Beware of Darkness album, and the frontman’s biggest and boldest statement yet. As saw-toothed, satin guitar riffs slice into crunching grooves, the new album serves as an urgent call to arms for not only the singer, but for the band’s sound as well. In an alternative lane that has lately been full of banjos and keyboards, this music ushers in a rebirth of a sound that is as refreshing as it is exciting, and goes much deeper than riffs. Nicolaides’s journey, since the release of his band’s debut album Orthodox in 2013, has come full circle. After trolling the depths and sludging through the bleak, Are You Real? is the story of how a rock star on the rise fought uncertainty and disillusionment to avoid flaming out. And, more importantly, how he has come through the other side revitalized and focused, and with the best songs of his young career.
Despite the highs that would come from Orthodox, including wildly popular shows, prominent synch placements, and critical favor, Nicolaides refers to his own personal psyche during that period of his career as significantly less than stellar. Lacking self-confidence in his ability to lead, soon anger, fear, and depression set in. Nicolaides was forced to look inside himself to try and rebuild what had been lost. He began to embrace challenges—to, as he says, and in the spirit of his band’s name, “be aware of darkness”—and through reading and meditation found a harmony that had previously been lacking not just in his music but in all corners of his life.
“After the first album, I didn’t think I was going to have a future in music at all, but ironically I realized the only power I really had to deal and cope with that was by writing more songs,” he says. “This new record started from dealing with that uncertainty. Then it morphed into this idea that I wanted to make the best rock record of the past ten years, something original and fresh that has twelve songs all in one lane, with the feeling of overcoming something. Before we made the record I decided I wanted it to be the experience everyone working on it would ever have, including myself. In a way, I worked from outside in, and made sure that everyone else was taken care of and happy so that we could build some kind of creative sanctuary and make sure the vibe was right.
Before entering the studio, Nicolaides set a goal to write 100 new songs—and he did. The biggest difference between songwriting on the first record versus the second was the revision process. The LP first was very much first thought best thought, but this time, I’d write a song, took only the parts I loved, then either combined it with another song, or completely rewrite it, put everything together—seeing what fit, and experimented a lot. “Sometimes I had to write a song 4 different times before I got the final version. But I wanted to make a cohesive, monster of an LP and that’s what it took.
Armed with demos of that slew of songs, Beware of Darkness headed into studios in the fall of 2015 to record with two producer-engineers, Jim Kaufmann and Catherine Marks “I realized that you have a choice between being depressed or working toward something while believing it’s gonna get better,” he says. “I think that was the shift as soon as I started writing the new record. I chose not to be depressed anymore and believe that it only gets better from here on.”
It’s clear from the opening squeal of “Muthafucka” that Beware of Darkness is on the up-and-up, and riding high on new wings while holding down that which endeared fans in the first place. That song’s process—written by pairing a Tempest drum machine beat with a raw riff and bass line built from the bottom-end up—was a blueprint for much of the album, and finds Nicolaides at the peak of his return.
Elsewhere, tracks pulse and rage while soaring and chiming; all is perhaps a little less sinister this time around. Where earlier Beware of Darkness material may have fallen more on the side of leather and metal, these songs hearken to the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, The Struts, Wolf Alice, Cage the Elephant, Skaters, even Nirvana. Songs like “Dope,” “Summerdaze,” and “Sugar in the Raw” show their subtle hip-hop influence, and in fact the trio was co-written swiftly with the female hip-hop producer Trinity, a collaboration Nicolaides says was truly magic and inspiring.
The album’s titular question is born of a decidedly less-heady space but one that represents two sides of Beware of Darkness’s relationship with its Los Angeles home: encounters of art and artifice. Nicolaides says Are You Real? references both a graphic by the mid-century LA photographer Robert Heinecken he saw in a Pasadena art gallery, as well as less-specific meetings at parties with Angelenos whose elaborate personal sagas and vapid rationale could not be believed. “That’s the thing about LA,” he says, “I’ve never loved or hated anything about this city. There’s so many great things about it but there’s so many things that are just mind-blowingly soul-crushing.”
And now, amid the excitement for the release of Are You Real? (including airplay on Beats 1 Radio and newly announced summer tour dates), Nicolaides has refocused his original band and recognizes the trio’s innate cohesion, feeling fully fit to take charge in a mature and seasoned way. “The original band stayed together by the grace of god. I see myself now as a protector of the band.” “No one appreciated what we had, including me,” he says of the early days. “You look back and say, ‘Wow, we were living the dream.’ We all got in a room together a month ago and the vibe was there. We played all these new songs and it sounded like we’d been playing them for ten years. We played older songs and they sounded twenty times better than when we played them last tour. That’s when I realized it’s my job to be a protector of this. Chemistry like this is sacred.”
As far as the future of Beware of Darkness is concerned, Nicolaides is setting his sights on the rafters. “This record for me is like a new start to a new chapter of my life,” he says. “It’s like the “Muthafucka” song: I’m a totally different person, confidence-wise, creatively, team-member wise, band-member wise. I hope this record is the start to the run of greatness that we’re gonna have. With each step we make, we keep building and getting bigger on our own terms.”