When people talk about the Cleveland, aka Clevo, hardcore scene of the '90s, they usually bring up—and rightfully so—Integrity, Ringworm, and Face Value. But one of the bands I've always felt have been largely overlooked from that region and era is Ascension.
From 1995-1999, Ascension brought forward a sound that fused hardcore and metal that fans of Bloodlet, Harvest, and also the fellow Clevo bands that influenced them will totally lap up.
Before breaking up, Ascension managed to drop two official releases: The Years of Fire (1996) and Abomination (1998) before members moved onto other projects, most famously Chimaira.
In this interview, I had the pleasure of chatting with Ascension guitarist Matt DeVries about the group's run together. He's currently still playing and touring with Chimaira, and you can find him on Instagram here.
Take me back to your teen years in Cleveland and how you fell in love with heavy music in the first place. I'm assuming you were a metalhead way before you came across hardcore music?
My parents also encouraged me to start playing Piano at an early age. By early middle school I had switched to Saxophone, and by the age of 12/13, I finally convinced my parents to get me an electric guitar. A Cort electric guitar. I fell in love with that thing, practicing every chance I could get, every single day. I would play (try to play) mainly classic rock tunes, until I met my neighborhood friend's older brother.
He also played guitar, but loved metal. He got me into Metallica, and the rest is history. Metallica lead me into heavier metal (Slayer, Pantera, Anthrax, Megadeth, etc.). That then lead me into death metal/grindfore (Napalm Death, Carcass, Deicide, etc.).
Shortly after that, I fell in love with hardcore, specifically NYHC bands like Judge, Agnostic Front, Sick of It all, and Gorilla Biscuits. We were also lucky to have local legends Integrity and Ringworm in Clevo. Two of my favorites to this day. I would see local Y and Town Hall DIY shows almost every week. We were lucky to have great hardcore bands come through Cleveland, especially in the '90s.
What were some of the local bands that had a huge impact on you during those years?
Integrity and Ringworm for sure. Huge Influence. Both bands helped Ascension big time in the early days. Getting us shows and helping mentor us in many ways.
What is the genesis story behind Ascension? Did you guys know each other from school or the neighborhood?
We had a big group of "degenerates" that would always hang out together in Chagrin Falls (the town I grew up in, outside of Cleveland, Ohio). Punks, anti-racist skins, metalheads, hardcore kids, etc. Mainly Chagrin kids, but also kids from surrounding schools. We would just meet up in town, skate, listen to music, smoke cigs, tag up the town...
I ended up becoming real good friends with Jason Hager [future member of Ascension and Chimaira] and we decided to start a band together. We just clicked, had the same taste in music, and had great chemistry jamming and writing together. We then recruited a couple other hardcore and metal kids to start a band.
I think the first band was called Gouge, then we changed the name to Falling in Line, then landed on Ascension. With mainly the same members throughout. Jason ended up leaving Ascension in '97/'98 and started Chimaira with Mark Hunter. He didn't want to play bass anymore (as he did in FIL and Ascension) and wanted to go back to playing guitar.
Tell me a bit about Ascension's sound and stylistic approach in the band's earliest days. Did you have a clear idea of the direction you wanted to take, or did that come organically once you started playing together?
Our influence was a mix of metal and hardcore. We loved what bands like Integ and Ringworm did. Mixing the two styles. No real clear or conscious direction. I think we just loved metal/hardcore and it was what it was. Just came out organically.
I remember getting the Falling In Line demo around the time it came out in 1995 from a tape-trading pen pal I had named Chris who lived in Avon, Ohio [hit me up if you're reading this!]. He wrote something along the lines of, "this is more hardcore than my style but I think you might like it." What was the reaction like to that tape in and around Cleveland since it was your first release?
We were stoked with the reaction. One of our first shows after printing those demos was at the Canton YMCA. I just remember all the pile ons, all the kids dancing, and the high I got off of that show was incomparable to anything I had felt before.
We ended up selling a ton of those demos that day. All of us were on cloud nine that day driving home from the gig. That show solidified that I wanted to do nothing but be in a band and put out more music.
How connected was Ascension with the bigger Cleveland bands from that era (Integrity, Ringworm, Apartment 213)? Did you feel like you were part of that scene?
Funny story, I would put on shows in my parents basement and Apartment 213 played one of them. It was awesome.
Definitely connected. Sharing our demo(s) with Dwid (Integrity) early on helped us get shows and fests with all three of those bands. We all eventually became friends. [Integrity vocalist] Dwid's a areat dude, still a friend to this day. We do feel that we eventually earned to be part of that scene.
How did you come to work with Sean Bonner and Toybox Records? Were there other labels that reached out to you about working with the band after the demo came out?
If I remember correctly, we met Sean when Falling In Line played a show with Hot Water Music in Ohio. HWM was on Toybox Records at the time and Sean was at the show. Sean seemed to like the band a lot, and Jason Hager kept in touch with him at the time.
Eventually (after the name change to Ascension) we put out an EP and LP on Toybox. Before that, I spent days/weeks sending the FIL and then Ascension demo to every hardcore label you can imagine lol. We were lucky Sean gave us the opportunity.
The only other label we came close to signing with (much later) was Ferret Records, but Chris Wood ended up quitting and that never came to fruition.
What memories stand out to you from the writing and recording of The Years of Fire?
Just a ton of fun. We were incredible friends and I think it was reflected in the music. Writing was never a chore. Riffs just flowed back then. My parents put up with a ton of noise back then as we practiced/wrote in their basement lol. WIthout their support we would not have done what we did. Recording in Spider Studios was great. We had recorded there a couple times before for some comps and knew we wanted to record TYOF there.
There are certain sonic aspects of that record (the bass sound, the gain in the guitar tones) that clearly sound '90s hardcore, there's also a certain Euro metal feel to it that I can't quite put my finger on.
I personally was not a big gear head/did not know much about great tone or equipment till Big Metal Dave joined Ascension. Before then, I was playing nothing but Crate amps. At the time, I absolutely loved that tone. I still, to this day, appreciate the sonic aspects of The Years of Fire. Came out killer.
Recording with Ben Schigel was awesome. He definitely helped us hone in a great tone and sound for TYOF. We had recorded with him before (as mentioned) and loved the process so decided to record the EP with him. Very happy we did!
The Abomination album came out a couple of years later and you can really hear Ascension coming to its own on that material and recording. The songs flow better and working with Bill Korecky seems like it really tied everything together. Do you agree with that assessment?
I do agree. Before Hager left, we had written many riffs and a good amount of songs for the album Abomination. Big Metal Dave had then joined and brought us to another level with his bass playing and writing.
On top of that, Bill Korecky (Mars Studios) was great to work with. We loved what he did with Ringworm, Earth Crisis, Integrity, etc, and were stoked to work with him. It was fun recording to tape and all of us jamming in one room. Definitely more of a live feel to it.
At that point, were you guys playing a ton of shows in and outside of the Cleveland area? What was the response to the band outside of your region?
We played a ton of regional shows early on. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York state a lot in the early days. Some weekend warrior gigs in Chicago, Iowa, etc. After that, we did a couple tours down the East Coast, NYC and south to Florida. West to New Orleans and back.
From basement gigs, to living rooms, to clubs, to VFW halls, to trailer homes lol. If you asked, we'd play. The response was great! We were blown away that people outside of Cleveland liked us, and a good amount of kids had already heard of us.
Why did Ascension end up breaking up? Was it a slow-burning kind of thing, or did it come suddenly?
Towards the end Chris Wood was taking courses for Physical Therapy and studying while we were on the road. We could tell right before he quit that he was disconnected. Not showing up to practices, etc. When he quit we contemplated moving on with a new singer, but his shoes seemed too big to fill so we just broke up.
You're clearly better known for your work in Chimaira, but how often do people punish you about Ascension with questions like I am right now?
[Laughs] Not too often. Maybe a bit more now that we released the records digitally (finally) and put up an IG page.
If you had to pick one Ascension song that you feel best encapsulates the band and its essence, which would it be and why?
My favorite tune that comes to mind right away is "Suffer the Sickness." Maybe it doesn't encapsulate the band, but showed all aspects of my personal background in music at the time.
Maybe "Clayden," which was always a crowd pleaser. From the song structure to one of my favorite breakdowns we ever wrote.
The Years of Fire and Abomination are available across streaming outlets via Toybox Records. Ascension merch is available at this link.
Ascension on social media: Instagram