Joshua Shultz*

Black Veil Brides Address ‘Avatarism’ on Upcoming ‘The Phantom Tomorrow’

The band’s third concept album explores the cultural obsession with creating heroes to reflect one’s own narratives.

When watching the music videos for the new Black Veil Brides album, The Phantom Tomorrow — “Fields of Bone” and “Crimson Skies” among them — some viewers might consider that the vigilante character of The Blackbird invokes the image of the tortured protagonist in the 1990 Sam Raimi film Darkman.

Frontman-lyricist Andy Biersack heartily agrees, adding that other anti-heroes factored into The Blackbird’s creation, from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn to Sting from World Championship Wrestling to Rorschach from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. “It’s just an amalgam of all these different characters,” he tells Billboard via a Zoom video chat from a tour stop in Boise.

Beyond The Blackbird, The Phantom Tomorrow (arriving Oct. 29 on Sumerian Records) brims with the melodic heavy rock that fans have come to expect from Black Veil Brides, albeit in a darker vein than their last album, 2018’s Vale. The group still keeps its tunes in the 3:30 to 4:30 time range, which comes from an intuitive place rather than an overt plan. It has crafted long songs before, but only when it feels justified.

“We just tend to be around four minutes because that’s where as a band we feel like we’ve reached maximum songitude, or whatever you want to call it,” ponders Biersack. “That’s where we have our sweet spot, so I don’t know that there’s a conscious decision. So much of our interest is in stuff like Misfits or those kinds of things where they’re singalong-able or that you can be in a rock crowd and pump your fist and sing the chorus to. That’s an important thing.”

The Phantom Tomorrow is the Black Veil Brides’ third concept album, preceded by 2013’s Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones and its Vale prequel. The comic book synopsis describes the story of a scientist whose world falls apart and who seeks redemption through his avenging actions.

The new music features revved-up riffs, radiant guitar and vocal harmonies; varied tempos; and Biersack’s impassioned singing. The album intro and the “Spectres” interlude veer into atmospheric instrumental territory, “Crimson Skies” is more aggro than the rest, while the vocal melody in the intro to “Born Again” sounds like it could launch into EDM territory. According to Biersack, the diversity of material stems from the band members’ expanding musical palettes.

“Obviously, [guitarist] Jake [Pitts] has gone into music production at a much larger scale, doing EDM music on his own with his wife — something he was never into necessarily before but discovered and got really good at,” he explains.

He offers an example of how placing an electronic sound under a guitar riff, as on “Torch,” might not have occurred before but feels natural now. “The goal is never to force something,” asserts Biersack. “We never want to be a band that is sitting there going, ‘What are the kids doing now? How can we make it cool?’ Because if you’re doing that, you’re immediately making disingenuous music.”

The Black Veil Brides singer notes that guitarist Jinxx is also a classically trained violinist, Christian Coma is an “absolute monster on the drums,” bassist Lonny Eagleton is traditionally trained, and Pitts “is fantastic at production, has all these resources as a musician and is an incredible guitar player. This is a band full of very talented individuals, and when coming together, we’re able to make something that we feel is representative of that.”

Biersack says the story for The Phantom Tomorrow originally came from a narrative perspective as he sat at his kitchen table drawing characters and doing research. He notes that he always finds references from across different religions to tie various theological and superstitious concepts into his work.

“Growing up Catholic, I love all of the pageantry of the sacred heart appearing to you,” he says. “That always influences me in some way. But the initial impetus was to build this story around a kind of anti-hero.”

As Black Veil Brides were creating the album during 2020, social justice movements, political unrest and general divisionism engulfed the United States. The singer says all of those things steered the album’s concept into exploring what he calls “avatarism.” Biersack explains that many people he knew “became entirely embroiled in another person’s personality and a figurehead for their ideas. [They] removed the power from themselves and their own ideology, and their own ideas and the ways that they see the world or how they reflect their ethics within the world. And it became about this iconography of a politician or whoever it was — ‘This is me now, and everything that this person is is me.’ ”

He points to the cultural obsession with creating heroes to reflect one’s own narratives. “These people we don’t know … they mean everything to us because we’ve decided that,” he says. “That is inherent within what you want to call fandom or whatever else. All of us create versions of people that we look up to because it’s better to have in our own mind a version that’s reflective of how we see the world. But when that becomes the totality of someone’s personality, it can be so much more bizarre.

“I really like the idea of creating a character that is made into a hero, that has no interest in being hero and has no choice in the matter,” he continues. “Then, ultimately, he is built up to be the savior and then destroyed because he doesn’t have the things that they’re supposed to have to save everybody.”

The song “Kill the Hero” invokes the anti-hero concept, and explores a line of moral ambiguity that recalls stories revolving around Biersack’s favorite comic book hero, Batman. But he didn’t want musical interludes between songs to explain the story. He is fine with fans either appreciating individual tracks based on their merits or delving deeper into the story.

“I think that it is not the job of the artist to bash you over the head as a listener, or as a fan, with what you should be believing or what you should take away from this song,” asserts Biersack. “It’s not the job of the artist to presume to know what you’re going to think about the song. At least for us, we’ve always tried to leave enough space in there for the listener to have fun [interpreting] the song.”

Leaving things up to interpretation has become a tricky gambit in America today when it seems that people with opposing views have latched onto many rock anthems, albeit in different ways. Biersack understands that feeling. He explains that the Vale song “Wake Up” has “bizarrely” become “a rallying cry for both sides of the political aisle.” Although it was written in 2017, it’s now “being filtered through the lens of the political divide or the social divide.”

In online comments, people have said about the song, “‘Wow, they really called it,’ and they’re someone who’s left-leaning. And then there’s somebody on the right going, ‘Wow, they really called it,’” says Biersack. “It’s very interesting how [it was] a song that for us was about life in general, of feeling as if you are floating and that you feel misinformed because people don’t give you the truth, because you may be able to live outside of the confines of normalcy.”

Included in that aforementioned divide is the coronavirus pandemic. The band has kept strict safety protocols while touring that have occasionally been thwarted in areas that do not recognize the situation as serious. Black Veil Brides stay isolated within their touring party, and any fan interaction they have is while they are wearing masks.

Even then, Coma, who is vaccinated, contracted COVID-19 early in the tour, but he fully recovered. The band has soldiered on, and the singer credits BVB’s tour manager, staff and the bands touring with it with keeping things going.

“It’s hard to describe when you step out onstage and are doing a show — you forget all of the weirdness of the situation,” says Biersack. “You can’t help but just be in the moment of playing a rock show, the same thing that I’ve been doing nearly every day of my life since I was 15 years old … We just feel lucky to get to be out here connecting with people and working again because 19 months of not being able to do it was the f–king worst.”

At least he kept busy in other ways. Biersack did not take off much time just before and during the pandemic lockdown. He starred in the Amazon Prime series Paradise City that debuted last December, in which he reprised his role of rocker Johnny Faust from the 2017 film American Satan. He published his “early” memoir, They Don’t Need to Understand: Stories of Hope, Fear, Family, Life, and Never Giving In. Black Veil Brides made their new album and embarked on a virtual acoustic tour earlier this year. A comic book series adaptation of The Phantom Tomorrow is in production with Incendium, with the first of six issues due to arrive soon.

“I’m not someone who really looks at my life as anything other than just a very lucky situation,” says the seemingly indefatigable Biersack. “The fact that anybody would come to me and say, ‘Hey, do you want to make this thing or do this thing?’ I always say yes, because it’s been my dream my entire life to get to do this stuff, and I know that there’s just as likely a chance that people are going to stop calling to let me do this stuff. So I always figure I might as well always take advantage of the opportunities I get when people want me to do it. Sometimes I’m just running on fumes, but it’s all worth it.”