With his imposing height, sturdy frame and self-assured swagger across a stage, Ben Falgoust doesn't look like someone who suffered a debilitating injury. But, for almost a year, the frontman for the New Orleans-based metal bands Soilent Green and Goatwhore was unable to walk.
Three and a half years ago, Soilent Green suffered the first of two serious van wrecks, the worse of which shattered Falgoust's ankles and nearly shattered both bands as well. Now, Falgoust and both of his bands are finally in a position to recover lost time. Soilent Green is touring in support of a new album, Confrontation (Relapse), while the up-and-coming Goatwhore will begin recording its first album for the influential Metal Blade Records in January.
The release of Confrontation is a milestone for Soilent Green. Musically, the album features some of their best work to date. It represents the culmination of years of perseverance when no one knew if Falgoust would ever walk again and the future of the band was dubious at best.
"At the time (of the accidents), we had momentum built up," Falgoust says by phone from a hotel room in Minneapolis, where the band had played the night before. "We had push from the labels, we were on the road and we were touring with well-known bands. But with the accidents, all of that was put on halt."
Soilent Green's first accident came in December 2001 while on tour with Deicide, only three months after Soilent Green released A Deleted Symphony for the Beaten Down (Relapse). En route to Colorado, the tour van hit a patch of black ice and rolled four times; guitarist Brian Patton suffered a broken shoulder, and bass player Scott Williams fractured his spine.
The second occurred the following April on a tour opening for Gwar. Falgoust was driving the band's van near Chicago en route to a show in Grand Rapids, Mich., when suddenly, an 18-wheeler stopped in the middle of the road. The van slammed into the truck's rear end, instantly crushing Falgoust's ankles. Temporary bassist Johnny Model broke his collarbone, while the other band members escaped unharmed.
"I remember trying to get out of the seat, not realizing that my legs were smashed and I couldn't go anywhere," Falgoust says. "As time progressed, a surge of pain arose, and I faded in and out of consciousness." He remembers drummer Tommy Buckley tapping him on the shoulder and asking how he was doing, then he woke up in an ambulance and again in the emergency room.
Falgoust went through numerous surgeries in the following weeks: some to insert pins in his legs, some to insert screws in his heel, and one to replace skin that had ripped off of his heel. Three weeks later, he relocated from Chicago to Charity Hospital back in New Orleans. After three more weeks, he left Charity and, confined to a wheelchair, moved back into his parents' house.
Meanwhile, he and his band mates in Soilent Green and Goatwhore had to consider how his injuries would affect their future. Long-time member Scott Williams quit Soilent Green, leaving just Falgoust, Patton and Buckley, who have been together since 1993.
"Obviously, we were thinking about our career at that time, and thinking about him and his life," says Patton by phone. "You really find out who your true friends are at times like this. We lost a lot of friends at that time, and also lot of support from the business side of things." According to Falgoust, Relapse stopped promoting Deleted Symphony once the band was no longer able to tour to support it.
For better or worse, both bands decided to wait out the many uncertain months for Falgoust to recover instead of finding a new singer. Members say their creative energies with Ben combined with his drive helped solidify their decision.
"We've been to the point where I think that Soilent Green has a unique voice," Patton says. "Ben fits so good that I couldn't even think of another singer I would want to play with. And it was kind of a respect thing. If I was in his position, I wouldn't want that to happen."
Still, the emotional impact on the band members was palpable. Patton says that for so long, there was a constant feeling of frustration because though he and drummer Buckley thought of song ideas, they couldn't do anything with them. Falgoust underwent surgery a number of times throughout the year, which led to bouts of bitter cynicism.
"When you get to something hugely drastic or emotional in your life, you have that edge where you say, 'Why me? Why me at this point in time?'" Falgoust says. "At that point you to realize you can either stay with that and just delve into depression, or you can recognize what happened and use it to get to where you need to be."
While still in the wheelchair, Falgoust began writing lyrics to vent his frustration that would eventually find their way to the album. In Confrontation's "Pretty Smiles and Shattered Teeth," he sings, "Dealt the bad cards for a means to an end / Years of personal tragedy / Hitting the bottom / Your major option confused."
After nine months in the wheelchair, Falgoust took his first steps. He first walked with the aid of a cane and ankle support gear that he says resembled "storm trooper boots." Soon after, he began playing shows again, ankle braces and all. Over many months, he rebuilt his leg muscles by walking back and forth in a swimming pool for an hour each day, a low-impact exercise taught to him by an ex-football-playing friend who had also sustained leg injuries. A year and a half later, he recovered fully.
Falgoust's return to health made it possible for Soilent Green to resume its touring schedule with new members Tony White and Scott Crochet. While they were on tour last April, tragedy struck again when former bassist Scott Williams was shot and killed by his roommate in his Gretna apartment. His death fueled the recording of Confrontation in that it was "a drive," Falgoust says, "much like the drive from the accident that pushed us." Since parts of the album were written shortly after Deleted Symphony, Williams wrote some of the bass parts. "There is still a part of him within [Confrontation]."
Confrontation will undoubtedly please old fans and possibly gain a new generation of them. Musically, Soilent Green's signature sound -- slow blues dirges mixed with lighting-fast grinding -- remains, but the band has broadened its palette and blends in jazz and hardcore punk. They change time signatures, keys, genres and tempos several times a minute with ease, and Falgoust funnels the palpable aggression and emotion of the past four years of struggle into songs such as "Theory of Pride and Tragedy" and "Pretty Smiles and Shattered Teeth."
In the end, Falgoust says there was really no question as to whether he wanted to continue with the bands if he could.
"I'm not really coming out greatly money- or fame-wise -- so far, anyway -- but I like being out on tour," Falgoust says. "I'll go out on a Soilent Green tour and come back and two days later go on a Goatwhore tour. I mean, how great is it to be able to actually do something people like and appreciate? Even if we never get huge, if we could set a standard and other bands started building off what we do musically, that would be a great thing."
- Vans and New Orleans' Soilent Green don't get along. Singer Ben Falgoust (center) spent a year and a half recovering from injuries sustained in one of two accidents.