“Into the Great Divide” – a new and exciting project featuring Zack Zalon and Dream Theater drummer Mike Mangini
It´s still early in 2018, but there hasn´t been a shortage of good releases this year when it comes to metal and prog. One particular album that caught our attention this year is called “Into the Great Divide”. Set for release on January 26 via Wilshire Records, it was a project filled with secrecy, until the main man behind it was revealed to be called Zack Zalon. Zack played everything but drums on the album, and tapped producer Rickard Chyki and drummer Mike Mangini to help him conclude the project. Rodrigo Altaf from Lotsofmuzik had a chance to catch up with Zack to discuss this release and the idea behind it – a conceptual instrumental album.
Lotsofmuzik - The first question that came to my mind when I was offered a chance to interview you was “where has this guy been until now?”. So tell us a bit about your experience as a musician, and other works you were a part of.
Zack Zalon – Well, there weren´t other musical works before this one. I´m a storyteller, entrepreneur, businessman and musician, and I have been doing this for a long time. The vast majority of my career has been spent helping really large companies to bring high profile digital projects to life. I started my early career as a musician – I grew up on the East Coast of the United States and moved to Los Angeles and went to the Musician´s Institute. One of my first jobs was running a night club in Los Angeles called The Troubador, which has been around since 1956, and I had the benefit of being able to manage and book for it a few years. It was there that I really found the passion for digital products, and I have been really fortunate because I had the opportunity to run some really large projects and build a really large business as a part of that over the past twenty years. That never dissuaded me from doing something with respect to music. From my perspective though, the thing that was missing was the story I wanted to tell. I´m not interested in doing something just from the musical standpoint just to play music. I really wanted to share a story. There´s a narrative that I was looking for in some respects. When I found out what that narrative was, I ultimately decided to record an album.
Lotsofmuzik – The album has an interesting proposition, which is to tell a story through instrumentals and narration. How did you come up with this idea?
ZZ – I build innovative products for a living. That´s my greatest passion, what I wake up thinking about, and what I go to sleep dreaming about. That can take any form: a company, a product, and other forms. In this particular case, what struck me was that when it comes to instrumental music, there is no context when it comes down to it. When you listen to one track versus another track on an instrumental record, what you normally find is that the only difference between the tracks is maybe the different tonality or key. From the beginning, I set out to do a progressive metal instrumental guitar-oriented record, but I didn´t want to do it until I found a device which would help me communicate in a certain way. The vision that I had for this was to be able to take the listener through an entire story from end to end. So the concept started before I wrote the music – the concept of having a narrator who sets up that part of the story, and then the track itself, which we called “chapter”, would be composed from the beginning to match that part of the narrative. So when we hear the music of a particular chapter, it matches exactly the elements of the narrative at that moment, and it gives the listener a feeling of where we are in the story, and establishes a connection with what we´re trying to tell in the story.
Lotsofmuzik – Could you expand and explain the concept of the album?
ZZ – The concept is based on Joseh Campbell´s idea of the “hero´s journey”. He was a social scientist who deciphered that there´s a story that made its way into history´s most important narratives. It´s the story of common struggle, and the steps that are necessary to be taken to truly live a fulfilled and successful life. And you see this type of narrative in many different places – in religious figures, historical figures, in the stories of sports heroes, and even in movies like Star Wars. It´s basically the idea that we start out on a journey, make great stride, and ultimately find ourselves in battles that we lose. And the difference between those that succeed and those that don´t is that some people will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and find new strengths to be able to win those battles. And in that process, one changes. This is not just a historical narrative, it´s actually a factual thing. In other words, we see this all the time. Whenever we need to find that extra level that´s required to win the battles that we choose, it really does change people in the process. So that´s the story I wanted to tell – the common story of a goal, a struggle, a struggle overcome and ultimately a feeling of success at the end. So Joseph Campbell did a great job of creating a general narrative´s flow, and that´s the flow I wanted to capture in the album. Not just narratively but also musically, where each chapter´s music is written specifically in the manner that that chapter requires.
Lotsofmuzik – You played everything on the album but drums. How was the process to pick Mike Mangini, and was he the only drummer you had in mind?
ZZ – I think that when I started, the thought of having Mike Mangini playing on the album would have been more fantasy than a plan. I consider him to be the preeminent progressive metal drummer in the world today, so certainly when we started the project it would have been fantastic. But when I started recording it, I did one track and a half by myself at home, and reached out to [producer] Richard Chycki on a cold call. I sent him the music, we met for coffee, and the desire to bring this story to life turned into a really strong partnership. We had a real connection in terms of what we wanted to get across with music. When he took the project on board to produce, we started to build track after track, and at some point it made sense to invite Mike Mangini into the process. We sent him the music, started to collaborate with him and get some feedback. And ultimately we were able to find time inbetween his touring schedule where he was able to come down to California and lay down all of the tracks. It didn´t start out that way, it was built up over time, and people started to see and believe in what we were doing we built up the team, and ultimately Mike became a part of that.
Lotsofmuzik – Were you present at the Sound City Studios when he recorded his drums, and was he 100% free to create his drum parts, or did you give him directions to accent this or that part during the recording?
ZZ – I was there the entire time. But here´s a few things I could say about Mangini: the first thing is that he´s unbelievably prepared. He doesn´t walk in trying to figure things out, he comes in with five different ideas he could bring for each section. It´s kind of uncanny, he´s incredible! And it´s been one of the most fun experiences I´ve ever had because as we sat together and he was constructing the drum parts, he had all kinds of options to choose from that we could try. He had complete freedom to do anything he wanted, but we worked very collaboratively to find the right components to put together, so that it matched the vision of what the album was. But for each chapter, we would sit and talk endlessly about what we were trying to get across. There are certain songs where he plays harder than others, because he´s trying to punch out the energy that we´re trying to establish. In other songs he´s holding back a little bit, because there´s some other feeling that we´re trying to embed. So it was an amazing experience to watch him.
Lotsofmuzik – For the readers who are not versed in recording technology, what was the importance of recording the drums at Dave Grohl´s Sound City Studio with the Neve console?
ZZ – The great thing about Sound City is that the room is huge! The drum sound resonates endlessly, and running it through that Neve console, the sound was so warm and punchy! Of course this is a modern progressive metal album, but we also wanted to pay respect to all the great progressive music that influenced us over the years. We really wanted the tones to come through, and what´s great about the Neve console is that it’s a console from the early 1970´s, and in some respects, I think you can kind of hear it. If you really listen to it, there´s a classic rock element over the whole album, and I think in some ways the Neve really helped us to achieve that.
Lotsofmuzik – Before we knew who was behind this project, many people thought this could be a John Petrucci solo album, and we can definitely hear the similarities between your playing and his. What were some of your other influences as a musician?
ZZ – I´m really appreciative that you would say that. John Petrucci is an incredible guitar player, and being named in the same sentence as him is certainly a big ego boost. But actually my biggest influences really have nothing to do with John specifically. If I had to name them, I´d say my biggest influences would be Steve Lukather and Dan Huff, who was in a band called Giant in the 80´s and now is a country producer. The thing about him and Lukather that´s so great is that they know how to construct a solo and with that they tell a story within a song. But I couldn´t leave out the influence that guys like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani had on me in my formative years. The first time I heard Satriani it was mind blowing…I spent hours trying to figure out what he played on an album and finding a way to replicate it.
Lotsofmuzik –Are there any plans to tour to promote the album, and will Mangini be included?
ZZ – I have no goals to tour as a live band. Our goal is to bring the album to life in unique ways, by telling stories differently than most music fans would experience them. We have some interesting things in the work right now. Without getting into too much detail, it doesn´t involve live music, but it does involve a live setting. So the goal is to bring people together with a common interest, and to find new ways of telling stories. Playing live would be great, but I have a big company that I run, and that´s my focus and what gets the majority of my attention. The goal that I have here is to be able to find new and unique ways to bring people together, just like we found a new and unique way of making the album in the first place.
Lotsofmuzik – Do you plan to keep releasing albums under the “Into the Great Divide” name, like a regular project or full band?
ZZ – No, the goal for me is to continue to share the narrative that we established here. But there are some really interesting and creative ways to connect with people using music, which doesn´t even have to take the form of a traditional album, and my goal is to expand on that. The response to the album has been better than I could have ever hoped for, and the thing that´s exciting for me is to find a way to connect with people that are interested in the format of “Into the Great Divide” as a concept, and find new ways to connect with them using music.
Lotsofmuzik – How did you select the narrator – did you think of narrating it yourself?
ZZ – I never thought of narrating it myself. I´m fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, where there´s a bunch of voice actors. I had a sense of what I wanted to hear already in my head, and I auditioned a bunch of people until I found the voice that best matched with what I wanted to achieve stylistically.
Lotsofmuzik – Thank you so much!
ZZ – Thank you!
Into the Great Divide comes out on 26th January 2018 via Wilshire Records.
Chapter 1. Intro
Chapter 1. The Crossing
Chapter 2. Intro
Chapter 2. A Call To Adventure
Chapter 3. Intro
Chapter 3. Under A Bright Starry Sky
Chapter 4. Intro
Chapter 4. Tests & Enemies
Chapter 5. Intro
Chapter 5. Challenge Accepted
Chapter 6. Intro
Chapter 6. Dark Waters
Chapter 7. Intro
Chapter 7. Mist In The Sun
Chapter 8. Intro
Chapter 8. A New Perspective
Chapter 9. Intro
Chapter 9. The World You Made
Chapter 10. Intro
Chapter 10. And So It Ends
One day in Avatar Country! Our interview with Avatar´s Johannes Eckerström and a reviewof their concert in Toronto
Swedish metallers Avatar released their new album “Avatar Country” in January 12th. Written
as a homage to guitar player Jonas "Kungen" Jarlsby (aka The King), this is their second concept
album in a row. The band came to Toronto on January 07th, touring in support of new album,
and Lotsofmuzik´s Rodrigo Altaf had a chance to interview singer Johannes Eckerström and
catch the show.
Part 1 – Conversations with a humble servant of the King
In the middle of the afternoon, I was brought into the theater where Avatar was setting up their production, for a chat with vocalist Johannes Eckerström.
Lotsofmuzik: Welcome to Toronto, it´s not Avatar´s first time here, is it?
Johannes Eckerström: No, it´s the second time actually. Toronto was the first city in Canada we visited, so it´s pretty cool that we´re back. It´s moving fast, we were here less than a year ago.
Lotsofmuzik: It´s only 2pm in the afternoon and there are fans outside already in line to see you, so it´s good that you´re back!
JE: It´s all good!
Lotsofmuzik: The new album “Avatar Country” is coming out in a few days, so tells us a bit about the concept of it – it´s an ambitious project!
JE: It´s very ambitious. For the previous album “Feathers & Flesh” we wrote fiction, and it ended up being about failure, death, fear, loss, denial – all those good things [laughs]. For this album we wanted to present facts and speak the truth. As we started to tell the story of Avatar Country and of our King, the album got a whole different vibe. It´s more about strength, victory, joy, power.
Lotsofmuzik: You already started to play the new songs live, so tell us about the stage, and what we can expect of the new tour.
JE: Once you start travelling around the world with a King, it´s not a matter of going on tour, this is a state visit! So we view this as a kind of world fair, or a roadshow, like the ones people did in the early 20th century. It´s important for us to bring a slice of life in Avatar Country with us. What happens is that once the King enters the building, that building becomes a royal castle. So we want the whole evening and everything about it to feel like Avatar Country. And that´s why we´ve been very specific – it´s not a normal metal concert! Of course what we do is a metal performance, but since there are so many aspects of what we want to tell, it´s important that the people we bring along with us fit into that vision and idea to present Avatar Country. That explains why we brought Hellzapoppin´and The Brains [as opening acts]. We wanted something to compliment our metal performance but that would still add their own dimensions to it. We figured that they are very good fits for the whole show.
Lotsofmuzik: Speaking fo the new album, the song “Silent Songs of the King” is an unusual way to wrap it up -it starts with a techno/ambient sound and then evolves into this crazily heavy instrumental…tell us a bit about the decision to put these two tracks together, especially as the closing songs on the album.
JE: It´s all about doing stuff we haven´t done before. The whole point artistically for us is to never write the same songs twice, and also to always explore something new with what we´re doing. Sometimes the result is more extreme than in other cases. It was something we liked and that we felt inspired to do, and it´s a really interesting challenge for us to work on an instrumental which also tells a story. Just like the other songs - they ended up on the album because they communicated something emotionally. That´s how I end up writing lyrics – this made me feel something and it made me envision something, and then I put pen to paper. It all starts with the music, and to have something with all those emotions in an instrumental song is a true challenge. The electronic song is called “Winter Comes When the King Dreams of Snow”, and to me that is exactly what that song sounds like – it sounds like a dream of snow. Likewise, on “The King´s Palace”, to me that is grand architecture in musical form.
Lotsofmuzik: There are heavy songs on the album, such as “A Statue of the King”, but some of them have pop sensibilities, like “The King Wants You”. You even managed to write a country/bluesy song, “The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country”. Did you plan for it to be this diverse, or was it accidental the way the album turned out?
JE: I always thing about the Beatles´ White Album a lot, and what comes to my mind is – why should we back off from anything as songwriters?
Lotsofmuzik: One question from the fans who are lined up outside is: there was a very short period of time between “Feathers & Flesh” (2016) and “Avatar Country” (2018). Was this a thought out plan for the band?
JE: We didn´t count on it being like that, but once we decided on the concept – and that´s the funny part by the way, we didn´t expect to do something conceptual this time – but we felt that the idea of “Avatar Country” was growing, and it was time for us to open the borders to this country. We started working on it, and the vision of it was so clear that at the end it came to no surprise that we were able to finish it so quickly. People play guitar in this band, so there is no shortage of ideas! The whole process took about two months, but the time in the studio was only a couple of weeks. We also need to thank our producer Jay Ruston. His method of recording is not exactly revolutionary, but for us we felt it that way. Usually we recorded all drums, then bass, then guitars and my vocals, and topping it off you put all the shakers and the maracas [laughs]. This time, we did it more or less song by song. Everyone was there at the same time, we kept it fresh and everyone was able to take short breaks here and there. Instead of singing constantly for a week, so it was less physically demanding, but a focused effort.
Lotsofmuzik: The album is a homage to your guitar player – The King! Are you planning to do one concept album for each member of the band?
JE: Of course not! There is only one King, and us humble servants are just honored to be in his presence! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: Some might say that doing two concept albums in a row is commercial suicide – how do you view that in this day and age when a band has to function from a financial standpoint?
JE: We had our biggest headline show yesterday, just as the second concept album in a row was released. [Pink Floyd´s] “Dark Side of the Moon is doing pretty well! Doing a concept album might be commercial suicide if your name is Justin Bieber [laughs], but luckily we grew up listening to metal, and the metal community is interested in quality songs that feels honest and meaningful, and at the same time are fucking heavy. If you do that, there´s always someone out there who will enjoy it. When we decide how to promote an album, what to write on our Facebook, or when we select singles, then we can think commercially. But not when we write that single, because we don´t write singles, we write songs. There´s really no talk in the studio about the demographic outside of what we like. We trust the fact that we were those fifteen year olds that stood in queues outside a venue to be the first in line for Blind Guardian, or Cryptopsy or other bands. If we capture that spirit and the genuine place that made us decide to stop cutting our hair, then other people will also be influenced by us, enjoy our music and decide to not cut their hair anymore!
Lotsofmuzik: Unfortunately I had to have a haircut because interviewing bands is currently my hobby, and I work in an office, but I see your point [laughs].
JE: That’s really unfortunate …if you worked in Helsinki where I live, there are people working in banks who have long hair and neck tattoos, so you´d be fine there [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik: One last question on the album - the song “The King Speaks” that talks about the bowel movements of the King - whose idea was that?
JE: We wanted to put an example there of what a fine public speaker our King is, and this was an important day. The will of the King is the will of the people and vice versa, and so it goes also with the wellbeing of the King and the people. As the king has problems with his bowel movements, we all feel it, and the whole nation was constipated [laughs]! And of course, because of the richness and usefulness of his bowel movements, we also worried about fall´s harvest and how putting the seeds in the ground would be affected when that fine manure would be around. But luckily for the people it all turned out just fine. As you can hear from the audience in the recording, it was a big deal!
Lotsofmuzik: I just finished a book called Running With the Devil, where Van Halen´s manager in the 80´s tells stories of debauchery, drug abuse, groupies, trashing hotel rooms etc. What kind of tales from the road would Avatar´s manager write about? Nothing in the same vein, I can imagine?
JE: There´s probably something [laughs]. But the whole idea that you could play music to impress girls – I had no idea about that as I started to study music. I started taking piano lessons at four years old, then I got into trombone, and playing in orchestras…then I got into metal, and started to play guitar. I was so entrenched in music for the sake of music that the whole “rock star” thing, or the idea that being the singer in a rock band would be different than being a trombone player in an orchestra was not something I considered. In the early stages of the band I was in a relationship, so there was no room for that. There was only a short period of time in my early 20´s when I was like “let´s try this now!” [impress girls]. But I got bored with it very quickly – superficial relationships with human beings do not work well for me, even if I tried to. So I kept my eyes opened for something more lasting, and I´m engaged now. But when we started touring we were eighteen, nineteen years old, so some things definitely happened back then. We partied with famous people and unknown people, so I´m sure there are stories to tell. I´m sure someone fucked someone, and there might have been legal or illegal substances involved, and something broke, and one of us woke up not knowing which town they were in [laughs]. But whatever happened around the music is not what our music is about.
Lotsofmuzik: Seven albums in, you only had one lineup change [Simon Andersson was the guitar player from 2001 to 2011, and was replaced by Tim Öhrström]. Were there challenges to keep it so stable?
JE: I think it was a challenge in the past, because we tried to keep Simon in the band longer than I think we should. Ultimately he left, and it was really about time, because his heart wasn´t in it anymore, he wasn´t part of the camaraderie. He cut his hair, moved to Stockholm, has a grown up job and wears a tie [laughs]. He seems to be doing better. We´re not in touch with each other all the time, but he sometimes talks to Henrik [Sandelin, Bass]. But his mind was somewhere else [towards the end of his tenure].
With Tim, we´ve known each other for a long time. He´s a couple of years younger than the rest of us, but when we first met I was 19 years old, and he might have been 14 or 15 years old. That is of course a much “harder” difference than 31 and 27 [which are our ages now]. Back when we met he was one of our early fans. We knew him as a friend and as someone who had learned to play guitar by playing our songs, so it was very natural to invite him once Simon left. That was after we recorded the album “Black Waltz”, and we had developed a certain attitude about music that manifested itself on that album. When John [Alfredsson, Drums] and I sat with Tim to discuss his help on the first couple of shows, without us even asking he started saying the exact things we were saying about music. Things like “metal is the best thing in the world, and most modern metal bands are disappointingly boring”, “metal can be so good, but when it´s not it´s frustrating” et cetera. And another important thing that people don´t care about enough nowadays is the groove. What people who think about groove don´t understand is that extreme death metal can also be performed with groove. It can have the drive and organic feel to it. Listen to Cryptopsy in their album None So Vile. There´s no metronome there, just these amazing musicians playing organically. The tempo is a bit fluid compared to a rigid, over-edited clicktracked, pre-programmed death metal machine which you risk hearing nowadays. People underestimate the meaning of groove as soon as you get out of the world of funk or the so-called “groove metal”. But we realized that we had to play with a groove also when we play fast songs. We´re not interested in looking or sounding like all the others. We work really hard on trying to do our own thing. Tim was in the same headspace when he joined the bad. When he started writing for an album with us, he gave us the riff for the “Hail the Apocalypse”, for example, so he became an integral part of the band right away, and he fits well with us.
Lotsofmuzik: Gene Simmons recently considered trademarking the devil horns. How long do you think it´s going to take until he decides to trademark stage makeup and sue you guys?
JE: I´m not painted like Gene Simmons though, so I wouldn´t worry. One of the first things I wanted to be when I started with music and metal was to be a singing bass player, just like two of my biggest heroes: Paul McCartney and Gene Simmons. I also stick my tongue out on stage, so his influence is there. I feel like I do it my own way, because that´s what you do with influences, you pick them up and make them your own. I´m not trying to hide the fact that there was a guy in the 70´s who wore makeup and stuck his tongue out, but that´s just a part of the whole puzzle of influences I have. So a lawsuit like that would´t hold out in court, but I wouldn´t mind the publicity – it would make me famous!
Lotsofmuzik: What are your main influences as a singer?
JE: In pure terms of singing, I´d say Devin Townsend is extremely high on that list. You have to try to sing in key, but also use your voice to make it theatrical, so I would also add Tom Waits and Mike Patton. I was well on my way to finding my voice when I started to appreciate Mike Patton. I would also add Lord Worm from Cryptopsy and Ross Dolan from Immolation – also a singing bass player by the way. He and the band Immolation opened the doors of death metal for me because of his articulation – all of a sudden you realize that you can understand what he´s saying! And then of course there are the power metal guys – Hansi Kürsch [singer, Blind Guardian], Michael Kiske [singer, Halloween]…I tried for many years to have that high pitched waaaaaah [laughs] and failed miserably of course. And what fascinates me is how beautiful it can be even when singers are not so great…I usually don´t like when musicians do acting, but I appreciate when actors try to sing, because they really know how to tell a story. In that case the musicianship comes second, but when it´s there on top of it it helps. I heard a David Lynch song the other day, and he just says that “love is important” in that nasal voice of his, but it becomes magical, because of the kind of artist he is and due to the importance of the words. I can appreciate that alongside with more accomplished singers like Dio, Bruce or Michael Jackson. I wanted to be Michael Jackson when I was six years old, by the way. Either him or Hulk Hogan, or a combination of both! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: Thank you so much, and once again, welcome to Canada. I´m looking forward to the show!
JE: Thank you!
NOW Part 2 – A review of Hellzapoppin´, The Brains and Avatar at The Opera House in Toronto (January 07 2018)
If selling out shows in North America is any indication that a band is ready to “make it big”, then Avatar is surely on the right track. Their first show in Toronto was opening for In This Moment in April 2017, and less than a year later, here they are again as headliners now.
After interviewing Johannes I returned to the Opera House at around 07pm, and found the venue completely packed. Looking at the long line at the merchandise stand, I could be sure that no shirts or patches would be left at the end of the night.
Another thing worth mentioning is the Royal Museum of Depictions of the King – a mural for fans to place their art related to the band. Several drawings of varying levels of quality were there, and it seems a cool way to interact with fans.
At 07:30 Hellzapoppin hit the stage, and what followed was a bizarre collection of tricks using chainsaws, blades, knifes, broken glass, fire, freaks, wonders and human curiosities. A fitting opener for the evening, and I found myself wanting to look away but at the same time not wanting to miss it! Knives were swallowed and twisted around, cowbells were hung from a dude´s nose and eyelids, and the crowd cheered in equal doses of disgust and awe.
Canadian psychobilly band The Brains were next. “Take What I Want”, “Misery” and “Screaming” were among the best songs of their set, and the crowd engaged in pogo dancing on many songs. The band pulled no punches and delivered a very energetic set, with the three members ending the show drenched in sweat and deserving a beer.
As the stage was being set for Avatar, I couldn´t help but notice that even the roadies were dressed in medieval clothes. And how fitting it was that they were playing at a place called The Opera House! Granted, this is a far cry from its more famous namesake in Sydney, but the vaudeville theatre architecture was a perfect setting for this concert.
Out of the speakers we could hear a dial switching from station to station, all of which played songs from different styles, all talking about The King. One of the songs I could pick out was Rainbow´s “Kill the King”.
The band comes to the stage, and The King sits on his throne above the drum riser. “Glory to Our King”, the overture of the album is played, doubled up with the fast paced “Legend of the King”. “Let it Burn” comes next, with all band members headbanging, and crowd pleaser “Paint Me Red” started the pogo dancing and moshing. I wouldn´t be surprised to hear “The King Wants You” on the radio, and from the onset, it seems to be the kind of song to be kept on the setlist until they decide to call it quits.
“Puppet Show” brings the circus elements to the stage, and Johannes shows his skills on the trombone. Who knew death metal could have a sense of humour? “Tower” comes next, and it´s a slow burn type of song, which explodes in the end. In each song, all members take on different spots on stage, and it´s clear how well rehearsed the show must be in order to work – musically and visually.
“War Song” was the only “purely” death metal song played – all the others have their nuances, slow and/or funny moments and grooves, and Johannes emphasized. Even a heavy song like “Raven Wine” incorporates jazz and blues halfway through, and brings a much needed breath of fresh air. Johannes clearly dominates the crowd, and between sips from his gasoline gallon, even answered requests from the fans to stick his tongue out.
A few more fan favourites followed, mixed with songs from the new album. Johannes says that “when we played here for the first time we became friends, this time we become family!”. Obviously the crowd went nuts – or as nuts as a Canadian crowd can go – and the show closes with “Hail the Apocalypse”. A night to remember for sure, and this seems like a very promising year for Avatar. Glory to Our King!
Glory To Our King
Legend of the King
Let It Burn
Paint Me Red
The King Wants You
The Eagle Has Landed
Smells Like a Freakshow
A Statue of the King
The King Welcomes You To Avatar Country
Hail the Apocalypse
AVATAR “Avatar Country”
track listing (43:25):
1. Glory to Our King (0:51)
2. Legend of the King (8:18)
3. The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country (5:36)
4. King's Harvest (3:55)
5. The King Wants You (4:20)
6. The King Speaks (3:17)
7. A Statue of the King (3:44)
8. King After King (5:08)
9. Silent Songs of the King Pt. 1: Winter Comes When the King Dreams of Snow (3:34)
10. Silent Songs of the King Pt. 2: The King's Palace (4:37)
Johannes Eckerström - Vocals
John Alfredsson - Drums
Henrik Sandelin - Bass
The King - Guitars
Tim Öhrström - Guitars
Thoughts of No Tomorrow (2006)
Black Waltz (2012)
Hail the Apocalypse (2014)
Feathers & Flesh (2016)
Feathers & Flesh (In His Own Words) (2017)
Avatar Country (2018)
Oriental Metal pioneers Orphaned Land are back with a new album, “Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs”. With lyrics fueled by anger at the current state of humanity and opening fire against governments, the media and the educational system, it will likely be one of the most acclaimed releases of 2018.
We had the privilege of talking with vocalist Kobi Farhi, and discussed not only the new album, but his views on the issues faced by humanity today.
Lotsofmuzik: Congratulations on the new release, “Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs”. Tell us about the process to compose and write the album, and what´s the intention with the title?
Kobi Farhi: It was a long process, because we always take a lot of time to write the albums, and since we write conceptual albums, it´s always a very chaotic way of working. First I need to find the concept, and only then we can take all the guitar riffs that we have and we start to build it like a puzzle. Then we build the musical puzzle of the album, because according to the concept of the album, I know what every melody could reflect in the story. If it´s extreme metal, it could reflect the rage or the bitterness or sadness. So we build the puzzle of the music, and only then I write the lyrics. So it´s a chaotic way of working, but the result becomes very eclectic and epic, I think.
Lotsofmuzik: “Epic” is certainly a good way to describe it! Is there a common thread between the lyrics?
KF: It is a concept album, and we used the allegory of the cave, by the Greek philosopher Plato, as its main theme. Plato was writing is after the Greeks killed Socrates, and he couldn´t realize why they killed a person with such wisdom, knowledge and light. But he realized something about human behavior when they did it. So the album is telling the allegory of the cave with every aspect of that story, but in a way it´s also an allegory of our lives today, because it´s a pattern. Plato wrote it 2500 years ago, but you can see that even today, when someone is revolutionary and comes to our society to bring us light, or to change our ways or to take us to a better place, he´s always been assassinated. Look what happened to Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, JFK, Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat or even Jesus Christ. Those people were revolutionaries at their time, and they were assassinated. The same thing happened to Socrates, and 2500 later, we are aware of this pattern and it still goes on and on. Those people who were assassinated are the “Dead Messiahs” of our album, and the “Unsung Prophets” are people like Plato, who wrote the allegory, and others like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley etc. The things that they have written as fiction are now happening in reality. So we are taught to think that the prophets belong in the bible times, but there are prophets amongst us even today, and we fail to acknowledge that. So the album is about the allegory of the cave and how it is still relevant in our daily lives.
Lotsofmuzik: It seems like a natural progression from the previous album “All is One”. And while a lot has changed in the world and in the band since that album was released in 2013, the changes we expected to come, in terms of peace and politics, seem far away. How do you think we could contribute to that in an effective way? It seems that only voting has not led us to the unity and progress that we want.
KF: One thing that really fascinates me is that the progress in terms of science and technology is incredible, but in terms of humanity, why are we still in the dark? Why do we continue to have wars and dark regimes, and why is there still so much corruption and crime? Technology has advanced because of human beings, but why has humanity not progressed because of human beings? It doesn´t make sense that we are now talking on Skype and we can see each other on video, but when it comes to human beings, we are still centuries behind. I think that the key for me is that the education system is wrong. As Janusz Korczak said, “If you want to change the world, change the education system”. He also said that “a better future for humanity does not depend on political groups or parties, it just depends on us creating a better human being”. And again, it´s education! What are the first toys that parents buy for their kids? It´s toy guns. And you play computer games where you shoot everyone, and only then you can go to the next level. So they put violence in your head since you´re four or five years old. Then you watch TV and see all the famous people, and all you want is to be famous. All of a sudden, all boys want to be Justin Bieber and all the girls want to be Kim Kardashian, and that´s all they care about! What about the serious problems in the world…nobody mentions that there are poor kids in Brazil, Syria and India dying. Why can´t we help them? Newspapers can talk for three days about the son of Princess Kate, but they will not talk about poor kids who are dying from hunger and thirst. So this is all about education. If you look at useless things we learn in school…why can´t they teach us about how to be better human beings and be more sensitive towards world problems. Why can´t they teach us about yoga and how to breathe, or how to talk and listen to each other, and how to solve problems! For politicians, it´s easier when we are divided, when we are fighting each other, when we´re stupid! It´s just easier to control us and manipulate us that way. A few kids met me in an event a few months ago, and knowing I am in a band they asked me if I was famous. I said that “I´m an artist, and my work is appreciated”. And they asked “Yeah, but are you famous?”. These are kids, and they´re a mirror or our society.
Lotsofmuzik: The new single “Like Orpheus” is out, with Hansi Kürsc from Blind Guardian as a guest. How did that collaboration came to be, and what about Steve Hackett and Tomas Lindberg (At The Gates), who also make guest appearances on the album?
KF: We met Blind Guardian for the first time at a festival in Brazil. We met their guitar player, Markus, and he was a fan of Orphaned Land. He´s married to a Brazilian, and she introduced our music to him. We became friends and toured with them in 2015, and Hansi Kürsc (vocals, Blind Guardian) was also attached to our music and our message. When we recorded the album, the song “Like Orpheus” describes the moment when the hero is going out of the cave of Plato, and he sees the world for the first time. The way he describes what he sees for the first time – the sky, and the earth, and everything around him – he sings about it, and he sings so beautifully that he signs like Orpheus. In the Greek mythology, Orpheus sings so beautifully that they say that even the stones, and the sky and the birds like what they listen to. I needed a modern Orpheus, and Hansi Kürsc is exactly that, because he is a great singer. With Tomas Lindberg (vocals, At The Gates), I needed someone with a voice of a lunatic, because it´s a song where the people of the cave are about to kill the hero. I´m a big fan of At the Gates, so it was great to have Tomas over there.
With Steve Hackett, it´s an outstanding story. I´m a big fan of Genesis, and Steve Hackett is a rock legend. He contacted me, because he wanted me to sing on a song that he wrote for peace. Of course I agreed, and the song is on his solo album, “The Night Siren”. So he asked me if I wanted to be paid for it, or if I preferred that he played a solo for Orphaned Land. I told him “come on, Steve, what would I do with the money? I would forget about it, but if you played a solo for us, this would stay forever!” So he played a solo, and for us it´s like a dream come true!
Lotsofmuzik: Tell us about the cover art for the new album. You guys seem to work with different artists on every release, and we never know what to expect from Orphaned Land in terms of album cover. And I noticed you also have a new logo – is this one to stay?
KF: It´s hard to tell if the logo is here to stay. And the new cover art is trying to reflect the world´s chaos. You can see two guns pointed at your face, bombs falling on a book, the globe, the wheels of the system, the all-knowing eye and the pyramid and the hand of resistance. So it´s everything that´s happening in our world today in one painting. It´s a tribute to the way that governments design money. It has elements of the American dollar in it. Money is what makes everything move in our world. People worship money more than they worship God or good deeds. In summary, the idea is to show the world´s chaos.
And everytime we release an album, the cover is something new and completely different. We think that an album cover is an art form, and you should always try and generate surprise with it, and don´t make it too predictable or obvious. We try to use that visual element as well as the music, to make good art.
Lotsofmuzik: What are the touring plans for now? I noticed you have an European tour booked for early next year. Is there a country you haven´t played in that you want to go to now?
KF: Every show in every country is a show that I´m waiting for. We have an upcoming European tour, and shows in Russia and Japan, and there are talks about North South America, I hope it will happen, Brazil included. I really love South America, we visited Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico, and it was amazing to see that despite people there being so poor, it was the place where we were given the biggest amount of gifts. That was something I cannot forget about South America: the good heart of the people and the generosity.
Lotsofmuzik: You are the self proclaimed creators of “Oriental Metal”, or as a friend of mine says, “Old Testament rifferama”. What originated this idea to combine Arab motifs with heavy metal, and what were your influences when you first started – as a band and as a singer?
KF: When we started the band, twenty six years ago, we thought about doing just death metal. But then, we asked ourselves “how can we contribute to the metal scene if we´re just doing death metal?”. And really, why shouldn´t we add something related to our roots to the music that we want to play? If Sepultura was doing it with Brazilian rhythms, and if Norwegian metal bands are incorporating Scandinavian culture into their music, why can´t we do the same with Arab motifs? I think it´s a way of making the metal scene wider, bigger and more interesting, because when they listen to us, metalheads are taken on a journey to the Middle East. And we changed our name too. When we started we were called Ressurrection, because all the bands that we listened to were called Benediction, Mortification, Suffocation etc. But after six months we decided to change it to Orphaned Land, because Israel is an orphan land, due to all the wars and the bloodshed. And we though about combining all these folklore elements into our music. If you look at our posters from the 90´s, they all have written at the top “the first oriental death metal”. We wanted to invent a new genre in the metal scene, and we did. And now many other bands are using these elements, and it immediately put us in the spotlight and we stood out. We didn´t sound like any other bands at the time, and we immediately got signed by a French label, and when that deal finished we immediately got signed by Century Media.
Lotsofmuzik: Does it bother you that bands like Melechesh and Aeternam are now also combining the same elements you mixed when you first started?
KF: It doesn´t bother us – this is not exclusive for us! This is our culture, and everyone can use it. To have multiple bands doing it is a blessing, and I´m not the owner of oriental elements or Arab motifs. Melechesh are good friends of us, and I think the more bands that do it, the better!
Lotsofmuzik: These days, anything associated with the Middle East is met with distrust. What would you say is the biggest misconception about Orphaned Land?
KF: I think the biggest misconception is that people think we are a religious band, because we use a lot of symbols from religion. I used to go on stage dressed like Jesus Christ, for example. Sometimes people think we are a white metal band, but we are not religious. In fact, we have a lot of criticism towards religion.
Another misconception is that people believe that we sing about people hugging each other and be united. Of course, one of the messages of the band is of brotherhood, friendship and unity, and making peace between enemies, but that´s just one side of it. When you look at the cover art of “All Is One”, you see the symbols of all religions together. But when you read the lyrics, it´s the complete opposite! It´s like utopia on the cover, and dystopia on the inside. People sometimes don´t get that idea, they simply look at the cover and think that we sing just about harmony and peace, but we sing about tragedy! Read the lyrics, listen to those songs and find out the real message.
Lotsofmuzik: Are you a man of faith in particular?
KF: I am a man of faith, but more than anything I believe in good people. I see God in good people, more than in holy books. Those are the people I wake up for, and those are the people I want to “copy and paste” into the world.
Lotsofmuzik: Is there a particular question or approach in an interview that annoys you or gets you tired?
KF: I usually talk about politics, but then people ask me “what do you think about Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?”. That question really annoys me, because politicians are so stupid, that I don´t know how to comment about it. Why doesn´t he say anything about kids dying in Africa, or kids being kidnapped in India? Why doesn´t he comment on the poverty of South America? Who cares about Trump talking about Jerusalem? This is just the circus of politicians, and this type of question sometimes annoys me, because I don´t get the logic of it, and I don´t know how to answer it.
Lotsofmuzik: What can we expect from the new tour in terms of setlist and performance?
KF: I used to dress like Jesus Christ on stage, but this time I´m not doing that, I´m going back to my metal costume. Usually we have video art behind the drums, and that along with the light show adds another dimension to the whole performance. It´s usually images from the Middle East and its conflicts, and our protest as well. We´ll play a lot of our new songs of course and bring different instruments on stage. Our shows are usually a celebration of happiness and sadness, which is, in a way, a form of life.
Lotsofmuzik: Thank you for your time Kobi, and I hope to see you guys on the road some time soon.
KF: We have a lengthy tour in 2018, so I hope you all enjoy our new album and come see us live!
Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs comes out on January 26th via Century Media.
Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs comes out on January 26th via Century Media. The tracklist is:
1 The Cave
2 We Do Not Resist
3 In Propaganda
4 All Knowing Eye
6 Chains Fall To Gravity
7 Like Orpheus
8 Poets Of Prophetic Messianism
9 Left Behind
10 My Brother’s Keeper
11 Take My Hand
12 Only The Dead Have Seen The End Of War
13 The Manifest - Epilogue
Orphaned Land are:
Kobi Farhi - Vocals
Chen Balbus - Guitars
Idan Amsalem - Guitars
Uri Zelcha - Bass
Matan Shmuely - Drums
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