Maturity was the focus of my conversation with Jason Shi, lead singer and guitarist of ASG. On the band’s latest album, Blood Drive, its first full-length in six years, ASG plumbed new depths of vocal melodicism and psychedelic textures to make for a more varied listening experience.
Not that the Wilmington-based group had been monotonous in the past. They had merely jumped into the fray with the oft-romanticized blind ambition that comes hand in hand with youth. Shi, who has transitioned from a hardcore screamer to a surprisingly melodic vocalist, would be the first to tell you that their current iteration could only exist after slogging through the mire of raw aggression.
“When it started, I don’t think we could really play our instruments that well, you know what I mean? To the point where no one wanted to sing at first, so we just went the punk rock/metal route,” Shi says. “When there was singing, it was kind of the Cookie Monster vocals.”
And while the screaming still surfaces occasionally, it has mostly been replaced by pristine vocal harmonies that perfectly complement the Baroness-like dual guitar lines that have often been ASG’s mainstay. Tunes like “Avalanche” and “Day’s Work” are a far cry from songs off the first couple albums. Shi feels like the group’s early output is little more than juvenilia when compared to its current trajectory.
“It’s kind of like looking at an old high school yearbook photo that you wish didn’t exist,” Shi says. “It’s not even like, ‘What was I thinking?’ because I wasn’t thinking that hard. I was just going, which was fine. It served a purpose, and it was great. But I can hear my hesitancy and lack of confidence in things, and that’s kind of hard to listen to.”
But it is from our mistakes that we grow. Shi has fought to maintain ASG’s forward momentum, inspired in part by the many bands in the modern heavy music scene who they have shared the stage with over the years.
“I think the tour that changed it was maybe the first national tour we had where we opened for the Sword and Torche right before both of those bands blew up, so to speak, on underground levels,” Shi says. “Maybe I knew what I wanted to do, but all of a sudden I heard both of these bands perfecting it and it was like, ‘Holy shit, it already exists.’ It was very, very, very inspirational.”
Fortunately, the ongoing quest for progress gained ASG some fans in high places. Part of the reason for the long gap between Blood Drive and 2007’s Win Us Over was a lack of interest on the part of their longtime label, Volcom Records. ASG had some reservations about the label as well, fearing its corporate ties caused potential fans to take the band less seriously. As if by fate, though, someone at Relapse Records, heavy music’s premiere indie label, was paying attention. While buying a T-shirt from the band’s website, somebody left an off-handed comment that the band had many fans around the label’s offices. The group admitted their own label woes, and, soon enough, ASG had a new home on Relapse.
The change-up was yet another inspiration for ASG to pursue its evolution on the band’s own terms. Relapse has long been known for fostering the growth of bands that refuse to stick with any one mold for too long. It was a perfect fit for a band looking to make music for themselves and not worry about alienating fans.
“Kids or folks that have listened to us for a long time have either had to evolve with us or get pissed and leave,” Shi says. “It maybe just took a little more, maybe from a courage standpoint, to start heading that way.”
After all, ASG are entering into their second decade as a band. Just as their less-polished sound was spawned from youthful pugnacity, their future is reliant upon an honest reflection of where they are now as people. Shi recognizes that ASG has outgrown the vision first laid out by a couple of twenty-somethings who were into punk rock and surfing.
“It became more like a personal search. I don’t want to say ‘enlightenment’—that’s a little much,” Shi says. “We’re going to take this into our 30s, and, as in life, things change, so you change and you start looking for answers to questions that might not really be answerable.”
And even though Shi believes it might take another record or two for ASG to fully come into their own, he trusts that with Blood Drive they are on the right path.
“I think we pulled it off, and it makes me more confident, and I still think that now we’re doing the best things that we’ve done, so it’s exciting,” Shi says. “And now I think I have this big palette to choose from for the next thing.”
ASG will open for Mastodon with U.S. Christmas at the Orange Peel at 7 p.m. on August 14. Tickets are $25 in advance and $27 at the door. For more information, call 398-1837 or visit www.theorangepeel.net.