Shortly after the start of the 2014 Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival, Korn bassist Fieldy invited Avenged Sevenfold drummer Arin Ilejay to check out a band called Islander, which was playing hours before the two headliners were scheduled to perform.
"I watched their set and instantly fell in love," Ilejay says. "Their sound was so cool and diverse and I became good friends with those guys and went back every day to watch them. The song 'Counteract' [from the band's 2014 album, Violence & Destruction] especially blew my mind. I was like, 'Dude, I wish I could sit in on the drums just for that song!'"
Ilejay got his wish and then some. But it took a complete shakeup of Islander's original lineup and the drummer's dismissal from Avenged, after four years in the group, for the drummer to take the stage with Islander. Now, less than a year after he joined the band, Islander have resurfaced with their second full-length, the eclectic concept album Power Under Control. To frontman Mikey Carvajal, the restructuring wasn't just advantageous, it was meant to be.
"I truly believe that what God tears down, God rebuilds," says the singer, who, like Fieldy and Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch, is seriously devoted to his faith.
The first musician from the 2014 Mayhem tour to enter the Islander fold was guitarist J.R. Bareis, who had worked as Head's guitar tech and played with him in the metal band Love and Death. After Mayhem, Islander co-founder Andrew Murphy decided he didn't want to tour anymore, so Carvajal called Bareis.
"J.R. had just turned down an offer to go out with Korn and Slipknot because he wanted to start making his own music again," Carvajal says. "He was psyched to join Islander and Head was totally supportive."
Around the time Bareis was getting comfortable with Islander's catalog, the band fired original drummer Eric Frazier for not practicing enough and exhibiting a "lack of professionalism" on the road. As Carvajal was trying to figure out the band's next move, Avenged pink-slipped Ilejay in July 2015, citing creative differences; a few months later, they announced longtime Bad Religion member Brad Wackerman as the group's new drummer.
"I was totally shocked and scared out of my mind when [A7X guitarist] Synyster Gates called me to let me go," Ilejay recalls. "I was like, 'Oh my God! My wife is about to have a baby. How am I going to support my family now?'"
Carvajal was on a beach vacation with his family when he read the news of Ilejay's dismissal online. He grabbed his phone and called the drummer.
"I used to joke around with him all the time: 'Hey, whenever we need a fill in drummer, I'm gonna call you,'" Carvajal says. "Finally, I called him and I wasn't joking at all. I said, 'You have to come play with us.'"
Going from an arena band to a group that mostly played clubs was a step backwards for Ilejay in a lot of ways, but the idea of performing with his Mayhem friends was appealing, and there were other benefits, too.
"I realized if I joined Islander I would have an opportunity to help write songs and build something, instead of being on the inside but, at the same time, really be on the outside the way I was with Avenged," he explains.
With their lineup reconstructed, Islander started writing Power Under Control, which is as much a rebirth as a follow-up. Like Violence & Destruction, the record features a broad range of styles, including nu-metal, punk, emo and alt-rock, but this time the songwriting is sharper and more experimental, the playing tighter and the narrative linear. The title of the album comes from the New Testament definition of meekness, and the songs follow the adventures of a character that starts out angry, selfish and hedonistic and gradually learns the value of love and sacrifice.
While the concept for Power Under Control is positive, many of the songs are unsettling and the path of creation was littered with frustration and pain. When they started writing, the once South Carolina-based Islander were scattered across the country: Carvajal and new bassist Ezekiel Vasquez were in Indiana, Bareis was in Arizona and Ilejay was near Los Angeles. They all agreed to work on the album in L.A. and stay with Ilejay's parent-in-laws, which wasn't exactly stress-free. In addition, finances were tight and during the process, a close friend of the band committed suicide.
The turmoil resounds in opening track "Darkness" (watch the video above), a tale of decadence and irresponsibility driven by surging down-tuned guitars, sewer-scraping bass lines and half-rapped, half-sung vocals. "Before we started writing, we turned on The Shining to set a horror-based tone," Carvajal says. "Then we started playing and all these ugly sounds poured out of us."
Lyrically, "Darkness" starts the main character's journey with lines like, "I'm into lust, flesh/The cheapest kind of sex/I don't even need to know your name" and "I can't love, but I love to hate."
"That song is a cry for help. It's the character saying he's into all this craziness that the world has to offer and nobody's going to be able to change him," Carvajal says. "I feel like that's the way a lot of people are today. They don't want to learn how to yield to love or to give themselves up for other people. They're not willing to lay down their wants and desires and they just don't care."
Other songs on the album reveal different shades of Islander's musical palette. "Bad Guy," the album's first single, opens with a glistening web of echoing, muted guitar notes and builds through a punchy main verse and a yearning chorus reminiscent of Afghan Whigs. And "Beelzebub" combines minor-key synth, haunting xylophone and gliding, textural guitar before pulsing stabs and piercing screams shatter the calm. One of the catchiest cuts, "Think It Over," is a hybrid of pop-punk and funk metal, which includes cheerleader chants and static-filled guest vocals by Bad Brains vocalist H.R., who recorded his contribution via cellphone and despite suffering from painful headaches.
The musical diversity of Power Under Control could make Islander accessible to fans of various genres – which, for Carvajal, is part of the beauty of the band's reconfiguration.
"We believe we're the type of band that can go on tour with Justin Bieber," he says. "And we want to play shows with Copeland and Aesop Rock. Johnny Cash once said, 'The people just want four chords and the truth,' and at the end of the day I think that idea still applies."