Our Lady of Annihilation at 20: An Interview With Members of Most Precious Blood
Justin Brannan, Rachel Rosen and Rob Fusco look back at Most Precious Blood's pivotal second album two decades after its release
“The first Most Precious Blood album is like what should have been the final Indecision album with Tom—if that doesn’t make your fucking head explode,” Justin Brannan, guitarist of both bands said over the phone. “Our Lady of Annihilation was like the first real Most Precious Blood album as a new band.”
The history of it all can be a bit complicated, but after a change in vocalists and a mid-tour breakup, the fall of New York hardcore band Indecision gave rise to Most Precious Blood— which was a rebranding of sorts. Featuring the core lineup of the former, the latter released their debut album, Nothing In Vain in 2001, only to part ways with their vocalist, Tom Sheehan once again.
Wasting no time, the band added former One King Down frontman Rob Fusco and put together Our Lady of Annihilation, an album that marked a pivotal moment for Most Precious Blood. The record signaled a new era for the unit as they brought in new members Matt Miller (bass) and Sean McCann (drums) as well, developing the sound MPB would explore on their following two albums. With its fusion of metal and hardcore, and its striking, controversial album cover, Our Lady firmly cemented itself as well as any as a representation of the early aughts musically, socially and politically.
On November 18th of this year, Our Lady of Annihilation hit the 20-year landmark. To celebrate the occasion, three members of Most Precious Blood (Brannan, Fusco, and MPB/Indecision guitarist Rachel Rosen) each took the time to speak to us about it. This is their recollection of the album.
PART I: THE GREAT RED SHIFT
What led to Tom’s departure?
Rachel: It was a lot of the same issues as Indecision. I think Tom had other things he wanted to do, and we also weren’t really happy with how things were going at the time. We wanted to tour more, and originally when we started Most Precious Blood we were thinking we had already toured so much with Indecision, we are not going to do a lot of touring. But then with Most Precious Blood things started to pick up and we were getting offers for more and more things, and there was just a lot of momentum. The rest of us were like, “Let’s go with it and see where it would go,” and I think Tom had the mindset that he didn’t want to tour as much and was concentrating on school and stuff like that. And the usual personality things that can happen when you’re in a van with the same people for hours on end—little things turn into big deals.
Justin: I think some of the same issues that we were having internally with Indecision with Tom we were having again with Most Precious Blood. I think there might have been a school thing, too. Tom went to grad school and Tom’s done a ton of schooling. So I don’t know if it was that we were not getting along, but also maybe Tom wanted to go back to school.
How does Rob come into the picture?
Justin: I think we wanted someone with touring experience and someone that we knew and felt like we could get along with. I don’t think we did auditions for singers for Most Precious Blood. I think we had the idea with Rob and started talking with him. We knew him from Indecision and One King Down playing together. I think he came down and we played a couple songs. I think we did a couple Gorilla Biscuits songs.
Rachel: Rob had sang a song with us at New England Metalfest, I forget what year it was. Rob at the time really wasn’t doing anything, so we were like, “Yeah, I think Rob would be a good fit.”
Rob: One King Down disbanded around 2001, so I was passive for maybe a year plus, and Justin and I had been friendly from playing with Indecision and he reached out and said, “We’re looking to switch things up.”
Rachel: I don’t remember us thinking about anybody else. I don’t remember anybody else that we talked about.
Rob: When the call came in and Justin had asked if I wanted to try out and basically take over as frontman I was excited at the idea, but I also laid it out—because I knew Justin was the primary lyricist and I think Tom wrote maybe one song on that first album—I laid it out to Justin that I’m not just a hired gun, I’m also a lyricist, and if you’re just looking to hire someone to sing your words then we can stop kicking the tires and move along because I’m not the guy.
Justin: I knew Rob was going to expect to have more creative input, but it was a compromise for getting someone that we thought was going to take the band where it needed to go.
Rob: So, anecdotally around the same time, almost exactly the same week that I got the offer from MPB, Matt Fox, who I adore, asked me if I wanted to sing for Shai Hulud, which I immediately and energetically declined…Matt’s always been good to me and my people, so I consider him a friend, but as a potential bandmate I’m going to ahead and say absolutely fucking not, because if you want to talk about hired guns, I had seen how Shai Hulud band practices go.
Was there backlash to changing vocalists?
Rachel: Of course there was. Everyone’s going to make judgement and say, “I like Tom better,” “I like Rob better,” and we knew what we were in for because we went through the same thing with Artie [Phillie] in Indecision. It’s sort of like, ok, here we go again, we’re ready for this; we know what’s going to happen. It’s just, do we want to be happy or do we want to make other people happy?
Justin: I think there were some people that were exasperated, like, “Oh, they’re doing this all over again.” There might have been some people who were Tom or Rob loyalists either way, so obviously we had to deal with that. I think it was pretty well received.
Rachel: I think maybe it was a little bit easier switching to Rob than to Artie because I think Artie was more of a polarizing person. Rob was well liked and One King Down had done well, and Artie was in Milhouse and was known for being a crazy man and saying crazy shit.
Justin: Part of the whole dream was playing to new audiences and that stuff. We started playing to people who didn’t know who we were, didn’t know that Rob was the new guy, didn’t know the history with Indecision and Tom, so I don’t think we were focused on that. Part of the reason why we wanted Rob in the first place was to start playing to new audiences.
PART II: SO TYPICAL MY HEART
What was the writing process like back then?
Rachel: At that time writing mainly took place at practice and someone would have a riff to start out or a whole song and we would go from there. Nothing was really done digitally, so we would have all been present at the time. If we were on tour, aside from messing around during soundcheck there was really no writing that went on.
Justin: We would jam on the music and stuff and then I think we would send tapes to Rob and he would come up with the lyrics. I remember sometimes it was a little—for Rachel and I, who were always sort of the main heart and lungs of the band through the different singers and drummers and stuff—some of the stuff that Rob would do with Our Lady of Annihilation, we knew he was writing lyrics and he had stuff for our music, but we didn’t really hear the finished product until we were in the studio, which was way beyond my comfort level. I think it worked out, but ceding that control was not easy for me; it was hard. I sort of became a control freak by default.
Rachel: Justin’s a bit of a tyrant when it comes to writing music. That was one of the reasons I actually started off playing bass in Most Precious Blood because I was like, “I can’t deal with playing the same instrument as you anymore.” I want some freedom to be able to write what I want to write and put in my part.
Justin: “So Typical My Heart” was on a compilation that we recorded with Tom. It might have been the last thing that we recorded with Tom as singer of Most Precious Blood. I don’t think there were any other songs on that album that we didn’t write from scratch.
Rachel: There’s always more time when you’re writing your first record as opposed to a follow up. You’re more concentrated, like, “We have to get this out; we have to write songs.” But I think it also just changes depending on what you’re listening to at the time also. We kept heading in a more metal direction at the time, which I think was common back then. I think it was just sort of a progression of things. I don’t know if we were intentionally trying to do one thing or another or if it was the fact that we were back to having two guitar players again and it wasn’t me playing bass. That also would change things a little bit. It’s hard to say; whatever came out was what came out. We also sometimes get influenced by whatever bands we’re touring with because that’s what you’re hearing all the time and that just sort of seeps in even if you don’t mean it to.
Justin: [Indecision] albums always ended up being some sort of compilation of shit that we had put out. Indecision famously put out like a million 7-inches and stuff and we couldn’t get away from the fact that every album we would do would have a couple songs on it—usually with a better recording—but it was songs that had been released in some way. So I think Our Lady of Annihilation was probably the first time that we really did a full record of brand new stuff, except for that one song.
What was the approach vocally?
Rob: I didn’t necessarily care to model my vocal approach after Tom’s, nor the lyrical patterning, because by that time I had already established my own style and I thought that it was a nice opportunity to be mindful of the historical element of the band, but to—not necessarily impose my creative will—but to see what type of fresh approach I could offer as a contribution to furthering the aesthetic and creative potency of the band while still maintaining a respect to the previous work in both Most Precious Blood and Indecision. I mean, I loved Indecision and obviously I was a fan of Most Precious Blood, so I wanted to see if I could level up and really challenge myself as a vocalist and lyricist to be a solid contributor to their catalogue and legacy and reputation.
I still wasn't exactly where I wanted to be; I wasn't as dialed in vocally as I felt I could be. Lyrically, I was certainly coming into my own, but I don't think I really hit a super confident stride until Merciless.
There’s a stronger melodic feel to the vocals
Rob: I wanted to try something different and I suppose it worked well enough for what the song was asking for at the time, but I don’t think I would go back and make the same creative decision. Maybe it works for some folks, but in retrospect I would choose something a bit more subtle or blended. Let’s face it, I’m not necessarily a good vocalist in that style, if at all, but what I can say is that I’m not meant for clean singing…For the sake of brevity, I can’t sing for shit.
Justin: That was definitely a direction that we wanted to go. I always liked that stuff. I’m a huge Alice In Chains fan, so I love those melodies and stuff like that. I think the first Most Precious Blood record hinted at that. We’re huge Hot Water Music fans, and Avail, and all that kind of screaming-melody-singing stuff. I think the Our Lady stuff was a little bit cleaner, but we were already sort of heading in that direction with Nothing In Vain. Even our first demo had “Sincerely” and a couple other songs where we were already sort of crooning where we hadn’t crooned before.
Rachel: [Rob] is very into being a vocalist and takes his job very seriously. Some singers get up there and do whatever, but he was super into keeping his voice in good order and trying new things. He was very serious about things. I think that was him wanting to try things and us being like, “Yeah, sure, we got a new singer.” We didn’t want to keep doing the same things, so we wanted to give him the leeway to try what he wanted to try as well.
The lyrics have a more poetic feel with lots of imagery.
Rob: I certainly cared to develop my range in terms of seeing symbolism far beyond that which I had practiced in previous works, especially since I viewed those works as somewhat monochromatic and monotonal. Not even necessarily vocally, but lyrically as well. I gave myself permission in some way or another to be more abstract and expressive while still maintaining a little bit of a direct approach. In other words, I didn’t want to get so esoteric and symbolic that I lost the listener in my own convoluted bullshit fantasy, but I also didn’t want to be as on-the-nose as I had been previously.
I think around that time I was reading a ton of Charles Simic, who is my all-time favorite poet. There are several poets who I admire and emulate, but Simic possesses this otherworldly intimate quality to his writing, which also carries a modicum of humor while employing irresistible imagery. That was something that I tried very hard to adopt into my writing style, primarily because I adored how his writing made me feel without him coming at me directly, saying this is how you should feel.
PART III: IT RUNS IN THE BLOOD
What are your memories of being in the studio for Our Lady?
Rachel: I remember with Dean [Baltulonis], we were really comfortable and he was super easy to work with and understood what we were talking about with wanting certain things. I think Nothing In Vain was done digitally also. It was still early on in using software; not recording on tapes anymore, on 8-track or whatever many tracks you’re recording on. Having an unlimited number of tracks to add stuff in and do overdubs and however many layers of guitars you want to do and not be limited with only having this number of tracks.
Justin: It was cool because we had the guy Dean who we became really good friends with, and he was just a pro and able to translate whatever nonsense we had in our heads into reality.
Rob: We got really comfortable really quickly. We were attitude-free; everyone got along beautifully. There was very minimal creative differences and we just enjoyed ourselves throughout the process where we could.
Rachel: I remember it being a lot fun. I think we did it over 2-3 weeks and it was super easy and definitely a very good recording experience; not too much frustration. That was also Matt's [Miller, bass] first time recording with us, and Sean [McCann] played drums. It was a lot of new people on that recording. For Nothing In Vain, Pat [Flynn], the drummer from Indecision played on that and I played bass, Justin played guitar and Tom sang—so it was only four of us. And now all of the sudden we have a different singer, bass player, drummer. So a lot of change.
Rob: I tried every goddamn microphone in the building. Ultimately I settled on a few—primarily the Shure SM7B which is a tried and proven workhouse of studio work, which I have since abandoned for a standard 58 which gives me a raw mid-range sound. I also used a 58 for a few layered parts. And then there was this one smaller microphone that I tried, and it looked like someone just dragged it behind a car for 20 years and then dug a hole in the dirt with it and it sounded absolutely incredible.
Was there a particular push to experiment more?
Justin: I’m a huge audiophile guy. I love Steely Dan as much for their music as for the fidelity of their recordings. Being in a cool studio with someone who knows how to use the board and having time to really stretch out I think allowed us some time to get creative.
Rob: We tried all sorts of weird shit. We would detach metal-cone light fixtures from the building and then thread the microphone through them and I would scream into the light fixture. I would set up mics across the room and scream at the mic.
Rachel: We were listening to a lot of Muse at the time, and they a play their instruments but there’s random electronic things that come in and I think that was a big influence on us. I think Justin and I were also listening to a lot of the dark wave dance music. I think that, and I’ve always loved Nine Inch Nails. I think Nine Inch Nails is super heavy—with them it’s a lot of electronic stuff. I think it was just trying to throw different things in there and see, does it work or does it not work? We were definitely getting a little experimental on that record, but I think more so on Merciless.
Justin: "Your Picture Hung Itself" was the first time we used some lowkey Muse-inspired programming behind the organic noise. It's buried but you can hear it at 0:22. I remember I wanted it louder but the rest of the band (besides Rachel) wasn't ready for it yet.
Rob: I think we tried a talkbox. I think in the beginning of “Funeral Photography” where we have that Black Sabbathy riff that opens, if you listen hard enough you can hear someone using the talkbox saying, “I am Iron Man.”
Overall, it’s a more dynamic sounding record
Justin: I think that also might have been a feature of a better recording. Nothing In Vain’s recording reminds me of the [Youth Of Today] We’re Not In This Alone recording; it’s just a cacophony. It was recorded in an old fucking building that was for wayward seafarers or something. Then we mixed it in the guy’s bedroom. It was a little homespun, whereas Our Lady of Annihilation, we had a bigger budget; just a cleaner recording that I think leant itself to that kind of thing.
Rachel: I think that also has to do with the fact that the setup at Atomic [Studios] was more advanced than what I think Ron [Thal, who recorded Nothing In Vain] had at the time. Justin and I might have done even more than two guitar tracks each. There might have been up to six guitar tracks at times. We definitely were taking advantage of that freedom in having the ability to do all that without having to worry about tape.
PART IV: CLOSURE
What were your immediate impressions of the album artwork?
Rachel: That was Justin’s idea; he talked to Justin Borucki about it—who did an amazing job making it happen, as he always did. It was just after September 11th, and being in New York it was all weighing heavily on all of us still, so I think it was more the idea of always killing in the name of religion. That’s why most wars are started, because of religion or disagreements on religion—religion or land. I think it was more just taking the idea of the Virgin Mary with a bomb strapped to her as opposed to, people are always thinking of people in the Middle East with bombs strapped to them.
Rob: The imagery was quite strong and it was entirely clear to me what it brought up, but to other people it may mean something completely different. With that in mind, I’ll keep it close to the vest what it brought up in my mind, because far-be-it from me to be the arbiter or to say what something should mean to somebody. All I can say is that it was very clear, very direct, and I certainly get a lot out of it. I think the photographer, Justin Borucki, with whom we have worked pretty extensively throughout the years, is absolutely brilliant, a master of his craft.
Justin: The image was created to be an allegory for anti-war sentiments by illustrating the lunacy of killing in the name of religion. It was continuing in our theme of questioning authority, including religion; finding a way to illustrate the lunacy of killing in the name of religion. How can we create an image that is—we always wanted to make people think. Anything we did was never for shock value. We weren't GWAR; we were a bunch of nerds. If anything, we were trying to make people have a conversation. We were still living in the shadow of 9/11 and I think conversations we were having with our families, with our friends, with people on tour, with kids on the road, we wanted to find a way to create an image that suggested that and made people think about that.
What are your thoughts on the record looking back after 20 years?
Justin: I think it's a good record. I think I'm more of a fan of Merciless and Do Not Resuscitate than I am that record. I think Merciless was probably our best record, but we had to write Our Lady of Annihilation to get there. I think it's a transitional record. I think Indecision started off as an Unbroken/Chokehold rip off band. That was the shit we listened to, that was what we loved, that was what we played. Then there was Indecision with Artie, and by the time Indecision was finished with Release The Cure we had gotten way more metal or metalcore or whatever. So I think with Most Precious Blood, the first record back was like a return to the earlier Indecision stripped-down Unbroken kind of thing, and I think Our Lady of Annihilation was the transformation album to whatever the hell Most Precious Blood was actually going to become.
Rachel: I think it’s a good record. I’m still really happy with it. I think there’s good songs on it and I like how it’s recorded. I have nothing but good memories about that time in the band and all of the things we got to do back then.
Rob: It was a solid representation of where I and my bandmates were at that moment in time. Everything came together as it should, and I’m very thankful to have been a part of something that I think will outlive me, and it’s my hope that the decisions we made creatively and otherwise will reflect well on us for years to come, because really what we create is all that will speak to our quality as people. These things outlive us, so my hope is that it connected with people and brought something more. My general feeling is that of appreciation that I was able to contribute in some positive way.