Cancer Bats Celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of 'Hail Destroyer' with Exclaim!'s Oral History of the Landmark Album
Published Apr 03, 2018Ten years ago, Toronto metalcore veterans Cancer Bats took the world by storm when they released the most pivotal record of their career so far, Hail Destroyer. The album's mix of vicious metal and punk rock bangers earned the band numerous accolades, including their first Juno nomination for New Group of the Year, a MuchMusic Video Awards nomination, a ton of press from mainstream and underground publications and a legion of new fans.
Looking back at the record, Cancer Bats vocalist Liam Cormier sees it as a defining moment for the band.
"It's definitely held its ground, and I feel like it's still the benchmark that we hold ourselves to when we're working on new albums. We need to have the same well-rounded banger of a record that we had with Hail Destroyer, and looking at all the things we've done since then in the same way," says Cormier.
Prior to releasing Hail Destroyer, Cancer Bats had been grinding their way across the U.S. and Canada supporting their debut, Birthing the Giant, opening for artists like Alexisonfire, Every Time I Die, Nora and Comeback Kid. Cormier says that while the band were starting to see success, they could hardly afford to take time off to record Hail Destroyer.
No Tour Means No Income
"We only allotted ourselves so many months off of tour where we technically weren't making any money, and we already had been homeless leading up to that, so we basically just lived on tour and we couldn't live off of tour for that much longer," says Cormier.
Aside from the imminent threat of homelessness, Cancer Bats faced another challenge as they prepared for their sophomore album — finding a bassist. In 2007, founding member Andrew McCracken left the band to focus on his design company, and was temporarily replaced by former Figure Four member Jason Bailey. Later that year, Bailey also stepped down to focus on his graphic design work. Cormier, guitarist Scott Middleton and drummer Mike Peters would write and record for 12 hours a day, seven days a week until the record was complete, and soon after found current bassist Jaye Schwarzer.
"Once Jaye joined the band, we knew that that was the last lineup we would have, and we even joked that if Jaye was to leave, we would just break up," says Cormier.
Friends with Benefits
Cancer Bats also gathered some of their musician friends to lend their voices on Hail Destroyer — three guest vocalists appear on the record: Billy Talent's Ben Kowalewicz on "Smiling Politely"; Alexisonfire guitarist and vocalist Wade MacNeil on "Deathsmarch"; and Rise Against vocalist Tim McIlrath on "Harem of Scorpions." Cormier explains that the vocalists they asked had the biggest impact on their career at the time, in terms of teaching them how to work like professionals in the music industry.
After bringing Cancer Bats out to support several Billy Talent tours, Kowalewicz says you could sense the band were about to break major ground. "I think when that record came out, I just remember even before hearing it that they were really excited about it, and I knew the people they were working with like [producers] Eric Ratz and Kenny Luong, who we worked with a lot on our records, so I was really excited to hear them step up the production a little bit," Kowalewicz tells Exclaim!
Kowalewicz received a call one day from Luong, who'd been telling him that Cancer Bats wrote a song that reminded him of early Rage Against the Machine and he should come do vocals on it. After arriving at the studio, he recorded a few lines, which quickly grew into a much larger contribution to the song.
"When we were working on it, it just kind of happened, where there was this kind of back and forth. Liam always said he was like this big monster and I was like this little elf [laughs]. Like I was this angry elf on the song," says Kowalewicz.
The singer says that "Smiling Politely" is still the thing that stands out the most to him about Hail Destroyer, and is his favourite song on the album. "A little unknown fact is that I'm not the best flyer, like air travel, and whenever I get a bit freaked out on a plane, it's my go-to song to chill me out."
Cancer Bats and legendary St. Catharines post-hardcore outfit Alexisonfire have enjoyed a long history together. While Cancer Bats were getting themselves started, Alexisonfire were becoming hugely successful from their 2006 album Crisis, which they toured across Canada with support from Every Time I Die, Cancer Bats and Attack In Black. Vocalist George Pettit also appeared on "Pneumonia Hawk" from Birthing the Giant, as well as in the accompanying video.
After the huge success of "Pneumonia Hawk," it was a no-brainer for the band to get MacNeil to lend his voice to "Deathsmarch" and show up in the high-octane warehouse party video. "It was more like getting your friends involved than collaborating," MacNeil tells Exclaim! "I went to the studio, yelled my head off for 20 minutes and that was it. The video is pretty much like every Cancer Bats Toronto show from around that era. Just a bunch of friends partying together."
…And Out Come the Wolves
Cancer Bats worked alongside director Marc Ricciardelli, with whom they had previously worked on videos for Birthing the Giant. They filmed a video for "Lucifer's Rocking Chair," where Cormier went on a trippy late-night drive with his band sleeping in the back of their van while the singer picked up a hitchhiker with a coffee cup for a head to ride shotgun. The band and Ricciardelli collaborated on ideas for their videos, which led to Cancer Bats playing amongst live wolves for the title track's video.
"Originally he and I were talking about ideas and we were going to try to do the video in a room full of taxidermy and we'll play around with a bunch of taxidermy animals," Cormier explains. "He called us while we were on tour and was like 'Hey, all the taxidermy stuff is way too expensive, I've actually just found live wolves that would be a lot cheaper and I think it'll be a lot cooler. So we're just going to have wolves.'"
The singer says that while it's typical for them to have all of their friends hang out on set while they shoot their videos, the "Hail Destroyer" video didn't allow for that, since it needed to be closed off for the wolves. "They were also just feeding the wolves raw meat the whole time, just to keep them chilled out, so that was pretty funny too. To just have a guy with a pouch of meat walking around."
Hail Destroyer features quite a few songs that are still regarded as staples in Cancer Bats' live sets. From the sludgy road trip jam "Lucifer's Rocking Chair," to the speedy punk riffs on "Sorceress," to the mosh pit-inducing title track and gang vocal-filled "Deathsmarch," the record is heavily represented live to this day, much to the delight of their fans.
The Air Canada Centre (to Us)
The day the record was released, April 22, 2008, Cancer Bats had just arrived home in Toronto from a U.S. tour and geared up later that night for a packed show at the Mod Club. "We were out of the loop about the buzz that was building at that time," says Cormier. "We get back into Canada and everyone was so hyped for this record. We go to this crazy show that kind of kicked off this insane East coast tour of just crazy packed, sold-out shows that we were not expecting."
Celebrity chef and close friend of the band Matty Matheson remembers the release show being quite exciting for everyone involved. He's watched them grow from touring with them around Southern Ontario during the early stages of their career and remembers the Mod Club show being monumental.
"Birthing the Giant is still them playing in punk bars and shitty venues and doing that kind of stuff, but Hail Destroyer was what really solidified them as a band," Matheson says. "I think the fans that came up with them were excited because it was such a big venue. From playing a 150-cap room to playing the Mod Club is like playing a stadium for us. It's almost like us selling out. This was a wild thing for even me to comprehend — the Mod Club was basically like playing the Air Canada Centre."
Cormier played two sets that night, playing drums with Black Lungs prior to taking the mic for his headlining performance. MacNeil remembers the night as a celebratory moment that led to Cormier pulling double-duty on stage for a while.
"This was the start of a cross-Canada tour we did together. I sang my part in 'Deathsmarch' and stage dove — that's about all I remember. There were probably lots of beers, and we probably got nachos from Sneaky Dee's after the show," MacNeil says.
Following the release of Hail Destroyer, the band headed out on a cross-Canada tour with Black Lungs and Johnny Truant. They released the Tour EP, which consisted of three covers and a bonus track for the album, and was only sold on tour. To decide which songs they would cover, Cormier, Middleton and Peters picked a song each, settling on tracks from the likes of Murder City Devils, the Faint and Tegan and Sara.
Throughout the duration of the album cycle, the band also toured extensively with Bullet for My Valentine, Black Tide and Bleeding Through across North America, and supported Funeral for a Friend on their 2008 European tour. Cancer Bats also appeared at numerous European festivals including Download, Groezrock, Reading and Leeds prior to embarking on the Taste of Chaos tour with Bring Me the Horizon, Thursday and more.
A Decade of Influence
Ten years after its release, Hail Destroyer still holds its place as one of the most important albums in Canadian hardcore and metal. Jen Cymek, publicist for Cancer Bats and a number of other hardcore and metal acts, tells Exclaim! that you could feel the buzz surrounding the band continually growing after Hail Destroyer, and that it has become an extremely influential album.
"It is a tight, beautifully produced LP with a ton of infectious tracks that resonated with hardcore and punk fans from across the globe and continues to resonate with fans of the genre to this day," Cymek says. "The album helped solidify the band's place as being one of the best punk and hardcore bands in the world and, I feel, served as inspiration for a slew of hardcore punk bands to come."
Cymek says that it has always been a pleasure to work with Cancer Bats, due to their fantastic attitudes and extreme work ethic. Naturally, the band gained some notable recognition across the world from the media.
"With Hail Destroyer being such a strong followup record, we received some fantastic coverage including highlight pieces from key media like the Toronto Star, Eye Weekly, Exclaim!, Kerrang, Chart Attack and the Montreal Mirror, which was great considering their genre was not your usual mainstream media fare, especially at the time," says Cymek.
For Matheson, the band's success meant not seeing his friends at home as often, but to him, that meant they were becoming more successful. He jokes about making fun of Cormier for doing interviews at odd hours of the day with people overseas, but he knew that the band deserved all of the praise from how hard they worked.
"I saw how much they cared, I saw how much they worked at it, and I didn't know what to expect, but anything that happened, I just thought they deserved it," says Matheson. "All of a sudden, all my dudes were touring the world and I was just working on my career. I was really happy for them, because if they're not home, they're out there touring the world."
Cormier says he often has fans come up to him telling him that Hail Destroyer was their first hardcore record and that the band opened them up to a new style of music. As the band gear up to head out on a short tour playing the album in its entirety, he says they wanted to give fans like this a huge thank you by revisiting the entire record live.
"For me, I know what that means for the early Snapcase records and early Sick of It All records that I got, so to know that we kind of have that same place in people's hearts that I have for those early hardcore records myself, I can't even believe that that happened and it's such a special thing," says Cormier.
Cancer Bats play Hail Destroyer in its entirety in Toronto (Apr 20 / Apr 21), Calgary (May 16), Red Deer (May 17), Edmonton (May 18) and Montreal at Pouzza Fest (May 18 to 20).