Mike Stack is a guy who has carved out a significant portion of extreme music history with pure, unrelenting RIFF. Based in the 518/Troy area, Mike has written, recorded and performed since 1989 with some of Troy, NY’s best. Flat Broke. Execution Style. Politics of Contraband. Withstand. Dying Breed. When Jason Bittner (of Shadows Fall fame) decided to take a break in 2007 from the NWOAHM touring/recording circuit to revive his old death metal/hardcore band Burning Human, he recruited Mike Stack along for the ride. Moving beyond the metal-influenced hardcore of his youth, Mike started Of Old in 2004 to fully flex his metal roots, a project that soon became the progressive, technical death metal of The Final Sleep and his primary focus. And on top of all of that, there’s lost recordings, bands and projects forgotten by time and documentation. “Do you still have any recordings of Harbinger? Maybe.” It’s been a storied career for Mike, from the glory days of metallic hardcore at QE2 to fights with Madball to a rare stint on the 2000’s Van’s Warped Tour to fully swinging for the progressive death metal fences in today’s saturated metal market. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Mike about his entire career, his legendary run in defining Troycore and the culture and memories of that era, his experiences and influences in metal, The Final Sleep (!), the realities of promotion and recognition, gear, fried chicken and much more. Check it all out below, pick up The Final Sleep’s debut I here and be on the lookout for their sophomore effort soon! Follow The Final Sleep on Facebook here, on Instagram here and on Bandcamp here.
Additionally, stream and download the entirety of Dying Breed’s discography (minus an alternate version of “God’s Hate” on the Capital Punishment compilation) and the majority of Politics of Contraband’s tracks here!
On Musical Beginnings/Overview of Career
Svbterranean: Hello Mike, I hope you are having a great day. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. For the unknowing, can you briefly describe your musical career and the role(s) you play(ed) in it?
Mike Stack: First off, thank you for being interested in my musical journey, I am honored. For the past 25+ years, I’ve played guitar for many bands in the Troy (518) area, including Krystallnacht, Harbinger, Flat Broke, Dying Breed, Politics of Contraband, Withstand, Burning Human, and The Final Sleep. Those are the bands that I have played extensively with and/or recorded with. I’ve also done smaller stints in Execution Style, and Of Old, the latter of which, basically morphed into The Final Sleep.
1989 – 1990 – Krystallnacht
1990 – 1993 – Harbinger
1993- 1994 – Flat Broke
1994 – 1999 – Politics of Contraband
1996 – 2002 – Dying Breed
1997 – 1999 – Withstand
2004 – 2005 – Of Old
2006 – Present – The Final Sleep
2007 – 2015 – Burning Human
You’ve remained in the 518 area for the entirety of your time in music. What was your musical upbringing like and what role did your environment play into building your influences/style? What musicians inspired you growing up?
I didn’t really have much of a musical upbringing. My brother played guitar when I was young, but other than him and I, no one else in my family played instruments. It was my brother and his friends that got me into playing guitar when I was a kid. At that age of 12 or 13, I took guitar lessons for a year or so. Other than that, my brother and I would just play along to albums and try to figure out how to play it on guitar. We were both just really into music.
Your brother, Dave Stack, came up in the same scene as you playing in Bloodwar (with whom Dying Breed shared a split), Execution Style and War-Time Manner and sadly passed away in 2005. I suppose it’s something special to share experiences in a music scene with someone blood-related like that. What do you remember most about your time together in music?
The main thing, is that it was time well spent together. Back then, we hung out all the time and were very close. We only played together in Execution Style for a short time though. We had very different musical tastes and ways of doing things. I don’t think it would have worked out well if we were in the same band, but we totally supported each other’s bands.
On the 518/Troycore Era
You started off in Krystallnacht and Harbinger with Mike Gragnano (of Dying Breed) playing metal and currently play very complicated, progressive death metal with The Final Sleep. What led to your long career playing hardcore with Dying Breed, Flat Broke, Politics of Contraband and Withstand as a self-described “metalhead”? Was hardcore a second love or was hardcore more a byproduct of simply wanting to play at that particular area and time?
I just played what I enjoyed. Harbinger was definitely more metal than hardcore. When Harbinger ended, myself and the drummer from Harbinger (Matt Griswold, who also played in Cranial Abuse) were asked to join Flat Broke. I was a fan, so I immediately jumped at the opportunity. We recorded one demo (Fallout), and then we parted ways.
After that, I took some time off from playing in a band, and wrote some songs. They were pretty much metal tunes, but actually ended up on the Dying Breed full length, Take My Soul… Give Me Grave.
Hardcore was definitely a second love for me. The scene back then was so great and so diverse, it was just really easy to get sucked in. It didn’t matter who was playing, everybody went to the shows all weekend, every weekend. Even though I was playing “hardcore”, I always added a bit of metal to it. I loved guitar harmonies and things that were considered metal. It was just a natural thing for me. Also, the Troy bands always had a more metal edge to their sound than most other hardcore bands.
Troycore (Troy or nearby Albany-based) has always lent a unique, aggressive metallic sound to hardcore. Were there any shared musical interests or unknown locals that cemented the sound of the area? Where would you trace the roots of Troycore’s sound?
The roots of TroyCore come from Cranial Abuse, Final Terror and Dead End. Those were the bands that started it all. Cranial Abuse was a young hardcore band, that morphed into Stigmata. Final Terror was the most metal of them all, they were way ahead of their time. They were playing what I would describe as neo-classical thrash back in 1988. Nobody was doing that back then. It was like Yngwie Malmsteen meets Kreator. Dead End were more of a hardcore band, but they had a good groove also.
What are your top five Troy releases?
Hmmm…. in no particular order, I’d have to say:
Final Terror – Longhair (Demo) – It was a live recording, but it was so good. And like I said, way ahead of it’s time.
Stigmata – The Calling Of The Just – They’ve got several really great records, but I think my favorite is The Calling Of The Just. It’s much more raw and more thrash type metal, than their later stuff, but that’s what made it so great. It was metal as fuck!
Wartime Manner – Scorched Earth Policy – They did something so different, and it was just amazing. Heavy, catchy, and the snare drum that you could never forget.
Execution Style – Demo – They had a different sound also. It was somewhat metal, but somewhat hardcore. It was a great balance, and the tunes just stick in your head.
Burning Human – Resurrection Through Fire – A long time coming, but it finally saw the light of day in 2008. This was an album that was roughly 20 years old when it was finally recorded properly. It’s an album that I think was better because it was recorded much later than it could have been. The modern production really put it over the top.
Looking through various liner notes from Troycore CDs I was able to obtain, bands gave thanks to well known hardcore bands at the time like Agnostic Front, Hatebreed, Blood For Blood, Madball, but also first and foremost to bands in the area that may not have exactly fit the hardcore mold like Section 8, Skinless, Burning Human and The Clay People. What do you feel accounted for the unity among the diverse elements in the area?
I think the unity was just due to the scene, and how strong and open minded it was at that time. We didn’t all get along, there was plenty of “issues” between bands in the area. I would contribute that to the fact that we were all very passionate about what we were doing and we all wanted to be the best at it. I look back now though, and I definitely don’t hold any grudges with bands/members that we may not have gotten along with. We were all very young and strong willed.
On that same note, first and foremost in a lot of the booklets of 518 bands I’ve been able to obtain is a mention of thanks to a guy named Ted Etoll (who ran the label Step Up and booking company Step Up Presents at venues like QE2, Bogies and Saratoga Winners). What role did Ted Etoll play into building the scene at the time? Are there any legendary shows and other venues that you’ll always remember?
Ted Etoll was an integral part of building the scene back then. If it wasn’t for him, we probably wouldn’t have achieved half of the things we did. He gave us tons of support, he found the venues, booked the bands, released the CD’s, etc. When the scene got really strong up here, the national bands were calling him and asking to come play Albany. And most of the time, the locals were headlining over the Nationals, because that’s who the people were there to see.
There were so many legendary shows from that era, but one that will go down in history is a Madball show at Saratoga Winners. I’m not sure who else played, but at the end of the night there was a huge brawl between us (local band members and friends) and Madball and their crew. As far as I know now, everyone is cool with each other again, things just got out of hand.
On His Metal Career (Burning Human, Of Old, The Final Sleep)
You’ve spoken previously with DeadRhetoric on how The Final Sleep came together. I want to ask how Of Old came together. Following your time in the hardcore genre (Dying Breed ending in 2002) and outside of your time in Burning Human (as a live member), Of Old (which would later morph into The Final Sleep) seems to be your first solid pure metal outing in a long while. How long would you say the band has been in the works for yourself, riff-wise or conceptually? Were the guys in Of Old also Troycore dudes or straight from the metal scene?
Of Old was a band that started around 2003 with Kevin Maloney (Withstand), Joe Joyes (Final Terror, The Final Sleep), Jason Bittner (Stigmata, Burning Human, Shadows Fall etc.) and another friend Todd Hopwood. They later added Justin O’Connor on vocals. Jason and Todd left the band, and Kevin asked me to join. I knew what they were all about, so I jumped right in. Mike Wood (End of Line, Matador) later joined the band on drums, after having a couple other guys that just didn’t work out.
The first recording we did as The Final Sleep sounds more like Of Old, to me anyway. So, I guess The Final Sleep’s sound started to come together after Justin O’Connor left the band. After he left, we were an instrumental band for many years, just writing music and playing shows. We started to develop a much darker, heavier sound. We knew we wanted to find a vocalist who could do both singing and screams/growls. We tried out quite a few vocalists, but just couldn’t find what we were looking for.
In 2011, after a few years of asking, we finally got Jeff Andrews to join the band. He didn’t want to be a “frontman” so we told him to play third guitar. That’s when we really started to fine tune our sound, with multiple layers of guitars. We had the drums and a lot of the rhythm guitar tracks recorded for The Final Sleep’s “I” CD, then Joe Joyes (bass) decided to leave the band. We decided to ask our friend Jay VanDervoort (Burning Human) to play bass. He was hesitant at first, but once he heard the demos with Jeff singing, he decided to join. Not too long after that, around 2012, Mike Wood (Drums) decided to leave the band. We had recently found our new singer, and bass player and now we lost our drummer. We didn’t know what we were gonna do at this point.
We all knew Mike VanDyne (Arsis) a little bit and he was a local guy. So, I decided to give him a call and tell him what we were doing, and what we were looking for. We all knew he could definitely play what we were looking for, but weren’t sure if he would be interested.
The timing could not have been any better, and once he heard the demos, he signed on also. So we started rehearsing again, but it took quite a while to get everyone up to speed. Now, we wanted to finish the CD, but we had a new drummer who didn’t record the drum tracks. So, we decided to scrap the entire recording and start over. Due to many issues, the fact that we work slow in the studio and our hectic lives, the recording took entirely too long to finish and release. But, it finally saw the light of day in 2017 and we are very proud of what we accomplished.
Having named bands like Opeth, Black Crown Initiate, Arsis, Mastodon, River of Nihil, Edge of Sanity and Katatonia as some of your favorite bands/influences, it’s evident that you’ve kept in touch with metal as a genre over time. What do you remember most about hearing metal for the first time and how has your impression of the genre changed as you’ve become more familiar and knowledgeable about it (and its various subgenres) over the years? Have there been any bands that have opened your mind regarding song composition and creation?
The first “Metal” bands I listened to were probably Ozzy, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and I always just needed to hear more, I couldn’t get enough. The genre has changed immensely over the years. There are countless sub genres of metal, it’s hard to even keep track these days.
A few of the bands that really opened my mind regarding song composition and creation, would have to be bands like Entombed (Wolverine Blues), Carcass (Heartwork), Opeth (My Arms, Your Hearse), and Katatonia (Last Fair Deal Gone Down). All these bands just did something different and they really caught my ear.
It took awhile from the inception of The Final Sleep for your first release I to come out. How are things looking in terms of your follow-up? What’s the direction for the new material? You’ve spoken about wanting to keep a dynamic in terms of aggressiveness/melody, any plans to tip the material more towards a certain direction this time around for live show reactions/experimentation?
The follow up is already under way. Drum tracks have been recorded for 7 songs, and we start tracking guitars in a few weeks. I don’t think we lean in any certain direction when we write. We just write what we like to hear/play. There is really no set plans or limitations on what we will try or do in the songs.
Some of the new songs are played on 7 string guitars, some still on 6 strings. We also have 1 song in drop D tuning, which is a first for us. I would also like to experiment a bit more on this one, with different instruments. I’m sure there will be some keyboards/piano, but hopefully we will expand a bit more than that. There is some instruments I have in mind, but I’m not sure if they will end up working or not. We’ve also discussed having different members sing on this one, just to add a bit more variety. Jeff did ALL the vocals on I.
You’ve spoken about touring outside the Albany/Troy area now that The Final Sleep has a CD. What are the plans regarding that? You’ve played the recent Section 8 reunion so there’s leeway with the hardcore scene as well as big shows with successful metal bands like Negura Bunget, Sanctuary and Intronaut. What sort of tour lineup are you aiming for?
I’m not sure “touring” is the proper word. We really don’t have time to tour extensively. We could do weekends or maybe a week or two, but with our families and jobs it’s tough to tour. We just want to play. It’s been really tough for us to get gigs outside of the local area. These days, everyone wants you to sell tickets.
Metal is a pretty gear-oriented genre and from seeing your posts, you’re very particular and knowledgeable about equipment. What are you working with at the moment for The Final Sleep in terms of equipment and what was your setup during the Troycore years?
I am a total gear nerd. Ha ha. My amp from the mid 90’s up to 2011 was a Mesa Dual Rectifier (rackmount). I have also used a noise gate, chorus and delay, and have experimented with lots of effects and Overdrives through the years. In 2011, I started playing the Engl Savage 120 amp. I’ve been through a ton of different versions of pedals and rack gear, but for the past 6 years or so, it has been the Engl Savage, ISP Decimator Pro Rack G, TC Electronics G Major, and various overdrives. I use a Voodoo lab GCX and Ground Control Pro to run everything via MIDI. I also have a Randall Satan, and a duplicate rack for that with all the same gear in it. I currently use Engl and Krank Cabs. For guitars, I’m a big fan of Carvin/Kiesel guitars, I own a quite a few. I also own some ESP, Ibanez, Hufschmid, Ran, Washburn, and Strictly 7 guitars.
Burning Human was a straight up death metal band that hung around the Troycore scene. What was it like being asked to join them after so many years for their first official full length in 2008 and what was it like getting a music video banned by MTV? The video itself doesn’t seem too violent.
I’ve known all of them guys since I was 16 or so, and was always a fan, so it was a no brainer. Getting a video banned by MTV is pretty funny. Especially since they were not really playing videos at that time anyway. We actually thought the video was empowering for the female at the end, but MTV did not agree. They didn’t like that the banged her head off the wall a few times and that the victim smashed the guy’s face in with a brick at the end.
On Legacy & The Future
You’ve been on both sides of the fence now: official releases on labels with Dying Breed/Politics of Contraband/Withstand with promotion and basically complete DIY operations with The Final Sleep. There are a ton of resources that have opened the market for DIY bands. What are some resources you had back then that you think bands could benefit from now and vice versa? Has the state of the scene changed so drastically that the old ways (promoters, shows, compilations, music media MTV2/Headbangers Ball) no longer hold relevance?
One of the main things we had back in the day was personal relationships. Nowadays, everyone does everything over the internet. There’s no way to slowly build a relationship with a label or agent. Everybody wants you to send a demo, and they listen to it for 30 seconds and decide whether or not they like it.
I feel like a band such as The Final Sleep needs to be absorbed over time. There is a lot going on in our music, and you’re not going to hear it all in a quick once over. The music scene has changed drastically, and I feel like it’s gotten worse. It’s harder to make contacts because of the saturation of bands, and the fact that everyone has access to the internet and social media.
You’ve previously spoken about saturation in the scene as a destructive thing: too many bands, too little difference in identity. With the barriers of being a band (touring outside your local area, getting a release to a mass audience) becoming less of a thing and standing out (your own sound and style) become increasingly difficult with how much is out there, what do you feel is the solution?
Absolutely, I think I already answered some of this in the questions above. I don’t see a solution to these problems though, things just keeping getting harder for bands. CD sales are way down, tickets sales are down and everyone gets their fix on the internet. Whether it be stealing music or watching concerts on the internet instead of paying to see your favorite band, it is all killing the industry.
In regards to your Troycore era, there was word that you were going to join Eyes Of The Lord (with Taylor/Colin Young from Twitching Tongues and Bruce LePage from 100 Demons/Pushbutton Warfare) on guitar. Things didn’t pan out, but should the opportunity arise again, is there still interest on your part?
Yeah, I would do it, if the opportunity came up again. Bruce LePage is a great friend of mine, and I always loved his vocals. I’ve only known Taylor and Colin a couple years now, but I enjoy what they do, so I would definitely give it a go. They are both incredible musicians also.
Lastly, I’ve been starting to ask this question every interview I’ve done. What’s your favorite fried chicken chain/establishment?
Ha! Well, there used a spot in downtown Troy called The Flying Chicken, but since they are no longer open, I would have to say Popeyes. Definitely NOT KFC!
Thanks again for doing the interview, Mike. Are there any last remarks or words that you’d like to add?
Thank you for asking me to do this. It was fun to look back over the last 25+ years of music I’ve created, and try to remember all the details. If you like metal, check out The Final Sleep. We have released one CD entitled I and are currently recording the follow up.