Even though it went mainstream more than
30 years ago, heavy metal is still one of
music's most insular genres. Sonic purity, aesthetic urgency and an overall sense of sacrosanct solemnity are hallmarks, which explains how a band like Shai Hulud can be considered legendary, even revolutionary, inside metal's tight-knit community, but registers barely a blip on the radar of those on the outside of it.
Founded in South Florida in 1995, Shai Hulud was originally rooted in that decade's melodic hardcore scene. But as time went on, the band's rotating cast of supporting players — most notably singer Chad Gilbert, who went on to birth New Found Glory, drummer Steve Kleisath and bassist Matt Fletcher — helped guitarist Matt Fox expand into other avenues of loud, aggressive music.
From the conceptual vagaries of progressive metal to the sonic fury of thrash punk to the hybridization of what came to be known as metalcore, Shai Hulud has harnessed, bludgeoned into submission, and channeled every strain of heavy music into its far-ranging sound. Fox credits that no-holds-barred identity to the band's formative years in and around Fort Lauderdale.
"Shai Hulud will forever be a South Florida hardcore band," he says, even though they were based out of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for many years and Fox now lives in New Jersey. "That area was ripe with heavy music when I was growing up there in the '90s. Florida is huge part of what makes Shai Hulud sound like Shai Hulud."
Metal fans looking for something purer than the major-label state of the genre during the '90s immediately latched onto the blind anger of Shai Hulud's debut EP, 1997's Profound Hatred of Man, and full-length follow-up, Hearts Once Nourished with Hope and Compassion. Asked to recall his outlook on the world at the time, Fox laughs. "I wrote the first Shai Hulud song, ‘This Wake I Myself Have Stirred,' while sitting on the toilet; one of my early lyrics was ‘Don't extend your hand to me/I'll rip it off.' But what did my 22-year-old mind really know or hate about the world? I was just some angry kid."
Fox believes the 2003 album That Within Blood Ill-Tempered represents the band's biggest leap in instrumental and lyrical quality — and he credits much of that to the influence of Kleisath and Fletcher. "Steve opened the door to us learning to be progressive; we simply would not sound the way we do without him. And when Fletcher joined the band in 1999, he and I personally unlocked something within ourselves and opened some door in our minds to learn, experiment and take things further. That learning and maturing process continues to this day."
Another constant of Shai Hulud's nearly 20-year existence is the revolving door of approximately 35 band members who've cycled through. While some metal purists look down on Shai Hulud because of it, Fox, the only remaining original member, argues that it's actually a testament to the band's staying power.
"It's always been difficult for people to join the band and feel as passionately about it as I do," he says. "Shai Hulud has become an extension of myself. It's the contents of my heart, the thoughts of my mind, and the blood, sweat and tears of my body."
That meticulous nature extends to Shai Hulud's recorded output, as well; in the last 15 years, the band has released just three full-lengths (in 2003, '08 and '13) and a small handful of singles, compilations and split EPs. "We will not put something to tape if it's not worth putting to tape," Fox says. "We have never had filler, and we never will have filler."
While contemporary metal trends have obviously passed Shai Hulud by, for many fans that stolidity is the band's foremost magnetic attraction. The band members don't quite fit
in with today's hardcore or metalcore scenes — "There's an element of fashion that goes along with both those things, and Shai Hulud is not fashionable," Fox says — which allows them to fill a niche as the thinking man's favorite metal band. "We're less aggressive and more melodic these days. We concentrate more on mentally stimulating somebody's ideas than making a fist fly in the air. Not that we don't like that as well."