Camden Cruz stood on stage in a tiny club in Milan, Italy, near the end of his band's 2014 European tour and thought, "This is going to set us back two years." Flights were booked for the trip home to Florida, but Seven Kingdoms owed more than the few hundred left in its account. Camden's mother had loaned the band $3,000, and they were scrambling to pay her back. Camden and vocalist Sabrina Cruz were newlyweds hoping to buy a house in DeLand. Instead, they had to sell Camden's truck and dip into their nest egg to pay off the debt. "Our wedding money was in there," said Camden, 29, a guitarist, "money that was supposed to go to property. Lost in some dive bar in Italy." Photo by Zack Wittman Camden Cruz's wedding band glimmers as he records rhythm guitars at North Avenue Studios in Orange City in June 2016. Camden is married to vocalist Sabrina Cruz. After a successful run a year earlier, Camden had looked forward to returning to Europe, where Seven Kingdoms' fast, melodic, heavy metal music with soaring vocals and rousing choruses is popular. But he didn't know enough at the time to ask to see the budgets. Now the band he had nurtured for seven years, that gave his life new purpose after head injuries ended a promising motocross career, was in financial peril. And it wasn't just Camden who needed the band. It fulfilled his wife's dreams of a professional singing career. It gave brothers Keith and Kevin Byrd the courage to make important lifestyle changes. It provided a family to bassist Aaron Sluss, who lost his parents and home in a tornado at age 16. Without a major turnaround, it could all come to an end. • • • LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Guitarist Camden Cruz, left, drummer Keith Byrd, center, and bassist Aaron Sluss, right prepare the stage before a show at the Orpheum in Ybor City in May. Seven Kingdoms was opening for Swedish progressive metal band, Evergrey. Before the tour, Seven Kingdoms appeared to be on a steady upward trajectory. The band had released three albums to increasing sales and critical acclaim. It had been supporting bigger bands, including a North American tour with Blind Guardian and a European one with Stratovarius, two titans in the genre. Seven Kingdoms even headlined its own shows. But after a decade of losing money, sacrificing friendships, changing jobs, missing social outings and watching parents struggle to help them, the band members needed to see some return on their investment. Seven Kingdoms decided to take two major risks: putting the band on hold for two years to rebuild its savings, and changing the way it financed its albums. Camden decided to finance a four-song EP and 10th anniversary album without a label. He hoped a crowd-funding campaign would allow him to recoup the anticipated $18,000 to $20,000 cost. The band could collect 100 percent of its sales instead of the couple of bucks per CD that a normal licensing deal might give. And instead of accepting an advance it would have to pay back, it could start by owing nothing and still shop its catalog to labels afterward. "They have abandoned the vestiges of the old music industry,'' said producer Jim Morris of Morrisound Recording. It would be a risk, but a calculated one. Each of them had overcome far too much to turn back now. • • • LOREN ELLIOTT | Times From left, Kevin Byrd, Sabrina Cruz and Camden Cruz perform at the Orpheum in Ybor City. Seven Kingdoms has been a mainstay on the Florida club circuit for much of the past decade, headlining shows at the Orpheum in 2013 and '16. Darlene Herndon didn't see her son cross the finish line, so she knew he was down. As he lay on the track, all Darlene remembers is running to the first ambulance she could find, banging on the windows and pleading, "Please help me." Camden had been racing motocross nearly every weekend since age 11. He was one of the fastest riders in his class, regularly finishing in the top 10. Except for a sprained ankle or broken arm, Camden had avoided injury. But that didn't make it easier to watch his races. "I felt like every time he left the starting line, I had gone there to watch my child die," Darlene said. Special to the Times Camden Cruz raced throughout the east coast of the United States in the AMA motorcycle club. Here, he is pictured at the Loretta Lynn Southeast Regional Qualifier in 2003 at Paradise Off Road Park in Macon, Ga. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Seven Kingdoms performs at the Orpheum in May. "In many ways, they are more professional than the band I play with,'' says Stratovarius keyboardist Jens Johansson. One day in 2003, he landed wrong on a jump, coming down on his face and cracking his helmet. He suffered a concussion and a broken arm. A year later, Camden was hit by another rider during a tabletop jump 20 feet in the air. He landed on the back of his shoulder and his head, the impact knocking him out. "It was the scariest thing I've ever seen," said Camden's father, Chris Cruz. The result was a badly bruised shoulder, a torn rotator cuff and, worse still, a second concussion. A neurologist told the family another hit to the head could result in permanent damage. Photo by Zack Wittman Camden Cruz tracks rhythm guitars at North Avenue Studios in Orange City in June 2016. Fellow guitarist Kevin Byrd's hands are pictured at right. At age 15, Camden said goodbye to racing and the only life he knew. "That's kind of a tough pill to swallow," he said. "But at that point, I knew that in order to take that next step forward (with motocross) it would take drastic changes I wasn't willing to do." Camden took up guitar as a distraction. By the time he performed the national anthem a year later at the Daytona Supercross, he was playing with a purpose. "Guitar kind of saved him," Darlene said, "because the sport he grew up in and all of the friends he had were racers. So, guitar really was a bridge between the life he could have no more and something else." • • • Photo by Zack Wittman Sabrina Cruz, left, and former Seven Kingdoms vocalist Bryan Edwards, right, perform at Cafe DaVinci in DeLand in October. Bryan has his own band, Soulmass, and continues to write lyrics and occasionally appears on stage with Seven Kingdoms. Bryan Edwards co-founded Seven Kingdoms with Camden in 2007. The friends wanted to get away from the metalcore scene and write the music they enjoyed. When they started the band, it was about having fun. But over time, things changed. Camden needed more from Bryan as a vocalist: time, commitment, progress. Bryan had other priorities: school, health, a girlfriend. Things came to a head as the band was preparing its second album. They cut one demo before Bryan was out. "It was like four chess pieces are moving forward,'' Camden said, "and then one is straggling behind.'' Photo by Zack Wittman Sabrina Cruz, pictured during a rehearsal at the band's rehearsal shed in Winter Haven in October. Sabrina first helped at the merchandise table and took photos at shows before joining the band as lead vocalist in 2008. Fortunately, a new singer was close at hand. A couple of years earlier, Camden was hanging show fliers inside Tom's Pizza in DeLand. Sabrina, who was ringing up his order, mentioned that she could sing. "Oh, maybe you can come sing on the record sometime," he recalls telling her, "har, har." What Camden didn't know was that Sabrina had been singing for most of her life. Her mother was a massage therapist, and Sabrina was drawn to the healing power of music. She saw herself one day becoming a soundscape singer, along the lines of Enya. At one point during their first date, Camden asked Sabrina if she had ever listened to power metal. "This massive door blew me right down,'' she said. Photo by Zack Wittman Sabrina Cruz sings at Cafe DaVinci in DeLand in October. Like many children, Sabrina grew up listening to the music her parents did, primarily gospel and country. Later,when Camden was working on the demo for a song, he asked Sabrina to "do some oohs, see if you can record it in key.'' Camden's mom walked in the room. Hearing Sabrina's voice, Darlene tilted her head, lifted an eyebrow and said, "Camden …" Sabrina had mixed feelings about taking Bryan's place in the band. While she would be realizing a childhood dream of singing professionally, she considered him an older brother. "I totally felt like I was betraying one of my good friends," she says Sabrina's first live show was in December 2008 at the Dungeon in Orlando. Though there were only about 15 people, she felt stiff and stood mostly still on stage. "It was terrifying," she said. "It felt like judgment day." Photo by Zack Wittman Sabrina Cruz, front, and Liz Iaconis, right, prepare coffee in the kitchenette as the rest of the band tracks bass and rhythm guitars at North Avenue Studios in Orange City in June 2016. Liz is the girlfriend of bassist Aaron Sluss. Recording brought new challenges. Because Seven Kingdoms' music didn't have natural breaks, Sabrina would have to create them. She stretched herself, at times to the point of tears. Still, producer Jim Morrissaw the potential. "I remember taking Camden aside and saying, 'You should be writing songs for this girl,' '' Morris said. " 'It gives you a platform to write more interesting, melodic stuff.' " When the album came out, Bryan posted a video on YouTube saying he disagreed with the decision to push him out but continued to support the band. "Friends eventually come back together, and you're still the same friends," said Bryan, who continues to write lyrics for the band. • • • Photo by Zack Wittman Aaron Sluss sticks out his tongue while performing at Cafe DaVinci in DeLand in October. Aaron got his first real exposure to music from his father, Mike, who played guitar and was a fan of the Eagles, Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead. Aaron Sluss woke up in a field, surrounded by darkness and rain. Looking down, he saw his hands covered in blood. The last thing he remembered that day in 2007 was being awakened in his family's trailer around 3 or 4 a.m. by what sounded like a train. The trailer started shaking. Aaron thought, "What kind of (messed-up) dream is this?" His bedroom window shattered and blew in. The next thing he knew, he was in the middle of a neighbor's field. He had severed tendons in one hand, a fractured wrist, broken vertebrae and a collapsed lung. In the hospital, family friends broke the devastating news that the tornado that leveled the trailer, barn and blacksmith shop on his family's Lake County lot had also taken the lives of Aaron's parents, Mike and Melinda. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Aaron Sluss kisses his girlfriend, Liz Iaconis, near Seven Kingdoms' merchandise table before the band's show at the Orpheum in May. After everything he had experienced that day, it hardly came as a surprise. "I was just going along with whatever was happening,'' Aaron says. He was 16. Aaron suffered back pain. He couldn't sit up straight due to curvature in his spine. He lost much of the dexterity in his left hand, setting back his bass playing. About two years after he was released from the hospital, he met Camden and Sabrina through mutual friends. He happened to be with them when bassist Miles Neff left the band after a 2010 show. Seven Kingdoms had a North American tour scheduled with Blind Guardian, so it needed a replacement in a hurry. "If you really need someone," Aaron said, "I guess I can do it." Photo by Zack Wittman "I don't know anybody else that has had so much taken away and still made the right choices to go in the right direction,'' Sabrina Cruz, left, says of Aaron Sluss, right. Aaron's first show was in front of about 1,200 people at the at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia. "Aaron went from basically zero experience on stage to, 'Here's the biggest crowd you've ever seen,' " Camden said. Aaron, 26, keeps his parents in his thoughts. He owns the family property in Lake Countyand visits from time to time to mow the grass and clear debris. He hopes to one day be able to build there. "To see him now, you would never know,'' Camden says. "It's in the past, and all that lives is the memory. What a shining example of moving on and dealing with life and the cards that you're dealt with.'' • • • Photo by Zack Wittman "Now you look at him, and he's just solid steel,'' friend Tyler McDaniel says of Kevin Byrd, pictured. "He's a gentle giant now. He could toss you across the room in a heartbeat, but he's the nicest guy in the world.'' It was as much a part of his setup as his guitar and his amplifier. Every time Kevin Byrd stepped on stage with Seven Kingdoms, he brought a small wooden stool with him. He'd prop his left foot on it and place his guitar on his knee. It reduced the weight on his back, gave him better balance. Kevin's weight caused him discomfort and made it difficult to move. Though he never failed to finish a show, he lacked energy and tired easily. At his heaviest, in 2013, he weighed 335 pounds. As recently as February 2014, he was 322. Rainer Kerber Photography Kevin Byrd, pictured before he lost 145 pounds. At his heaviest, in 2013, he weighed 335. A commenter on a message board referred to him as the "fat guitarist.'' A reviewer in Chicago identified him as "the one fat guy.'' Kevin would see footage of himself on stage and think, "I look so terrible.'' He had tried to lose weight but lacked the willpower to stick with it. A Netflix documentary, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, changed everything. Joe Cross, 100 pounds overweight and suffering from a debilitating autoimmune disease, regains his health after going on a 60-day juice diet. Inspired, Kevin bought a juicer and stocked up on fruits and vegetables. For three days, he put nothing else in his body. He dragged weights out of his closet and put them to use. Baked chicken breasts and steamed vegetables replaced fast food in his diet. He drank water, ditched soda. About two years after devoting himself to diet and exercise, Kevin was down to 190 pounds. Photo by Zack Wittman Guitarist Kevin Byrd jokes with bandmates at the band's rehearsal shed in Winter Haven in October. In February 2016, Kevin stepped on stage at the Orpheum in Tampa's Ybor City without his stool. "It was really rewarding, because I wasn't tethered to something,'' he said. "I didn't have to rely on something to perform well.'' These days, Kevin, 30, can't play a show without someone walking up to him and telling him how good he looks. He is even inspiring some of his bandmates, including his brother, Keith. "I'm definitely not eating all of the junk I used to be eating,'' said Keith,the drummer. "I'm thinking a lot about what I'm putting in my body and trying to be more active.'' Kevin keeps the stool in his bedroom, a reminder of how far he has come. "I never thought I'd have the willpower or the patience," he said. "I have a bit more respect for myself than I ever have before.'' • • • LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Camden Cruz looks over the merchandise table before Seven Kingdoms' show at the Orpheum in May. Camden immersed himself in the business side of the music industry, working as a booking agent, tour manager and artist manager. After returning from Europe in 2014, the band members went back to their day jobs. Camden immersed himself in the music business, working as a booking agent, tour manager and artist manager. When he had saved enough to cover the cost of recording, Camden decided it was time to return to the studio — four years after the band's previous release. It was crucial that the band not owe anything, so Camden created models based on what he had seen fans buy at the band's merchandise table and online store. He set a goal of $6,500 for the In the Walls crowd-funding campaign and $13,500 for the 10th anniversary album, Decennium. The first Kickstarter launched in July. As he worked at his father's paint and body shop, Camden checked his phone every 10 minutes for updates. After a week, the band reached its goal. In all, 235 backers pledged more than $12,000 total. It covered the cost of the merchandise and gave the band a leg up on its second Kickstarter. Photo by Zack Wittman Drummer Keith Byrd practices at the band's rehearsal shed in Winter Haven. "Keith is just like a wizard animated a lawn gnome into a full-size human,'' bassist Aaron Sluss says, "and put drum sticks in his hand.'' In the studio, things were coming together for what the band expected to be the best music it had ever recorded: fast, heavy and complex, with great production and eye-catching artwork. In December, Seven Kingdoms launched a Kickstarter for Decennium. It reached its initial goal of $13,500 in just over a week. Still, Camden knew the campaign would have to reach $20,000 for the band to recoup most of its costs. In the end, more than 300 people pledged over $23,000. Total costs for the two albums, including expenses, came to around $36,000. Camden's projections were nearly spot-on. "It kept the band alive," he said. In the Walls was released in September and Decennium in January. After a half-dozen tracking sessions in DeLand, three mixing sessions in north Tampa and three months of rehearsals, the album cycle was complete. In March, Seven Kingdoms had something else to celebrate. The band inked a worldwide deal with Napalm Records, home to bands such as Kamelot and Hammerfall, to re-press and promote its entire music catalog. Camden believes Napalm, which is headquartered in Austria, will be instrumental in helping the band get back to Europe. Prospects for turning the band into a full-time job will depend on touring internationally. Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch, whose band has headlined festivals around the world, said his band didn't benefit from one big break, but a series of small ones: its first record deal, a highly acclaimed show in front of 12 paying customers, its first chart entry in Japan. FRANK PASTOR | Times From left, Camden Cruz, Sabrina Cruz, Kevin Byrd, Aaron Sluss and Keith Byrd celebrate Seven Kingdoms' deal with Napalm Records in March at Grove Roots Brewing Company in Winter Haven. He sees the same qualities in Seven Kingdoms that allowed his band to survive: confidence and perseverance. "Seven Kingdoms may not become a world success overnight,'' he said, "but by having a long breath, will manage to become bigger and bigger.'' Following a North American tour with the Swedish band Evergrey in the spring, Seven Kingdoms looks forward to a possible return to Europe in 2018, healthier and hungrier than ever. "We're on the best foot we've ever been on," Keith says. "I definitely feel like we hibernated, and we're ready to start eating." For Camden, who learned the business side of the industry so his band can avoid the problems of 2014, the past two years have a more personal meaning. "I made good on my word," he said, "that I'd never let that happen again." Contact Frank Pastor at [email protected] Photo by Zack Wittman Sabrina Cruz is illuminated in front of the crowd as Seven Kingdoms performs at Cafe DaVinci in DeLand in October.