Jeremy Wagner's death-metal band, Broken Hope, plays an extreme form of rock that's both disturbing and cathartic -- the musical equivalent of a horror flick.
It's probably no surprise, then, that Wagner's a longtime horror fan. Ask him what caught his imagination as a child, and he'll probably mention creatures with sharp teeth.
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For example, Wagner loved a low-budget "Godzilla" knockoff called "The Last Dinosaur," which he saw on television in the late-1970s. And he was mesmerized by the now-iconic cover art on his mother's paperback copy of the novel "Jaws" -- a massive shark rising from the ocean's depths to tear into an oblivious swimmer on the surface.
"I was always into horror, even when I was pretty young," said Wagner, Broken Hope's guitarist and primary songwriter, who lives in the decidedly un-death metal suburb of North Barrington. "I read lots of horror comics, saw the movies, all that stuff. And it inspired me as a kid to start writing my own stories. I wrote 'Jaws III' even before there really was a 'Jaws III'!
"Obviously, as I got older, I brought that interest over to music."
Broken Hope has just released a new album, "Omen of Disease," on the Century Media label. It's the band's first studio release in 14 years. Like its predecessors, "Omen" delivers pounding, punishing rock songs with frenetic blasts of guitar and vocals that fall somewhere between a growl and a demonic bark.
And yes, horror imagery abounds. The lurid cover art comes from acclaimed artist Wes Benscoter, who has also produced numerous covers for bands like Slayer and Kiss. And the song titles sound like the names of movies being shown at an underground horror festival: "Womb of Horrors," "The Flesh Mechanic," "Blood Gullet," "Carnage Genesis."
The band is performing at a death-metal show in Chicago this weekend.
"I'm so excited about this album," Wagner said, a gleeful note rising in his voice. "I think it represents Broken Hope at the top of its game. I hope the fans love every sick minute of it."
Wagner founded Broken Hope in the late 1980s. He'd discovered heavy metal a few years earlier, when he was a student at Warren Township High School in Gurnee. Albums like Metallica's "Ride the Lightning" and Slayer's "Reign in Blood" blew his mind, inspiring him to play guitar and write his own music. When he started composing lyrics, his longtime love of horror was a key influence.
"At first it was just about horror and being funny, but as I got older, I started basing lyrics on things I heard in the news," he said. "I try to tell some type of story in them."
Wagner cautions people from taking the nightmarish imagery that's part of death metal too seriously.
"To me, music is an escape, a form of release," he said. "I'm trying to entertain. I think that's what the fans respond to -- that sense of escape."
"Omen of Disease" is a comeback album, of sorts, because it's the first new material from the band since 1999. After releasing five albums and enjoying big success, the band went on hiatus in 2002. The possibility of re-forming in its original incarnation was later dashed by the tragic suicide of lead singer Joe Ptacek in 2010.
Last year, though, Broken Hope returned. The current version of the band includes two veteran members -- Wagner and bassist Shaun Glass -- along with new vocalist Damian Leski, guitarist Chuck Wepfer and drummer Mike Miczek.
"We did a tour last year that was amazing," Wagner said. "Our old fans came out, but I saw so many young kids at the shows, too. I was signing this girl's arm after one show, and I asked her how she got into Broken Hope. She pointed to her dad, who was standing next to her. He'd actually gotten her into the band! I thought that was so cool!"
When Wagner isn't recording music or on tour, he enjoys writing horror fiction. He's had short stories published in genre magazines and anthologies, and in 2011 his novel, "The Armageddon Chord," came out.
For now, though, his mind is focused on Broken Hope.
"I'm having so much fun with this band," he said. "On our tour last year, Kirk Hammett from Metallica stopped by to talk after a show in San Francisco. Can you believe that? The 17-year-old Jeremy Wagner who played Metallica in his room in Gurnee couldn't have even imagined it!"