BraveWords Interview: AYREON – Human Equations And Horror Stories

By Carl Begai

In 2004, Dutch multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and über-nerd Arjen Lucassen released his ongoing Ayreon project’s critically acclaimed sixth album, The Human Equation. It was yet another concept album featuring a line-up of guest vocalists and musicians, but unlike its predecessors The Human Equation was not a sci-fi based metal opera. The record became a fan favourite, so much so that it was brought to the stage as a full production in 2015 under the name The Theater Equation. Lucassen returned to his science fiction stomping grounds for the three albums that followed – 01011001 (2008), The Theory Of Everything (2013) and The Source (2017) – but 2020 sees him exploring new territory once again on new album, Transitus. Boasting a cast that features performers including Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Cammie Gilbert (Oceans Of Slumber), Simone Simons (Epica), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Amanda Somerville, Marty Friedman, Joe Satriani and The Hellscore Choir, the record is far more down to earth – close to it, at any rate – and was originally imagined by Lucassen as a movie soundtrack. Three years in the making, Transitus is the Ayreon album that almost wasn’t.

BraveWords spoke with Lucassen, Keravik and The Hellscore Choir’s founder / conductor Noa Gruman (Scardust vocalist) about the making of what is being regarded by many fans as Ayreon’s strongest album since The Human Equation.

BraveWords: You’re going to hear a lot of comparisons between Transitus and The Human Equation, largely due to the fact Transitus is the warmest album you’ve done since then. It’s a lot more open than some of your previous albums, far less dense on the musical side of things.

Lucassen: “It’s cool that you say ‘warmest’ because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. The previous Ayreon album, The Source, is not a warm album. It’s a pretty cold subject, it’s a prog metal album, it’s very guitar oriented, and this time I only wanted to use real instruments. I’m so glad you said that…”

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BraveWords Interview: KATAKLYSM – A Perfect Storm Of Defiance

By Carl Begai

BraveWords: “So, on ‘Icarus Falling’… a piano? Seriously?”

Maurizio Iacono: “(Laughs) Why not? Yeah, some purists will lose their shit… until the song actually starts.”

Settling in with Kataklysm’s intense and good-natured frontman, Maurizio Iacono, conversation begins with a look at the second-to-last song on the band’s new record, Unconquered. The track is question begins and ends with, as mentioned, a piano, which is far from normal for the Canadian death metal legends. At this stage of the game Iacono knows, of course, that here will always be a small group of scorned fans screaming “Sellout!” for even the slightest deviation from the norm, but he’s prepared for any fallout. Not that he’s expecting any, as Kataklysm plans ahead for every occasion.

“That’s why we released ‘The Killshot’ as the first single, because it’s a heavy hitter,” Iacono says. “We did that to tell the fans to calm down, everything is okay when they start hearing some experimental stuff on the album… like a piano (laughs). It’s been a constructive and crazy ride doing this record.”

Unconquered is the sonic bludgeoning present day Kataklysm fans hope for, delivered crisp and clean blow after blow for a memorable nine-song romp. In contrast, Kataklysm’s previous record, Meditations (2018), seemed to come and go without much interest or fanfare. This is not an isolated opinion, and Iacono is on board with those fans that gave it a few spins but not much attention.

“When you start promoting a record you’re always selling it by saying you had a good time making it and so on,” Iacono explains, “but the truth is there was a lot of turmoil in Kataklysm when we were making Meditations. It was the first record where we had four heads involved, and when you have four heads involved you get pulled in different directions. I find that record has really strong moments, but there are moments where it just doesn’t flow right. I’m not knocking the record – it did well for us and we didn’t go in any weird or bad direction – but I find it’s a bit choppy when you listen to it. We worked with Jay Ruston, who is more of a rock producer, so the record is extremely clean. It’s very light in my opinion, so I think it was lacking in power. Coming into Unconquered we changed a few things around.”

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BraveWords Interview: PARADISE LOST – Britain’s Got Talons

By Carl Begai

Back in 1997, UK doom / Goth pioneers Paradise Lost threw their fanbase the most brutal of curves with their One Second album. Two years earlier they had released Draconian Times, which went over a storm and was considered the best and most logical way to continue the band’s reign, which had been established and cemented with their Gothic (1991), Shades Of God (1992), and Icon (1993) records. One Second’s electronic enhanced direction threw some people for a loop while others embraced it, and it was a message – however unintentional at the time – that Paradise Lost will do what they want to their sound, critics and (some) fans be damned. The Goth elements remained at the core as they moved forward with some bold experiments, but it wasn’t until Tragic Idol (2012) and The Plague Within (2015) that the band truly seemed to be returning to the full-on doom and gloom that put them on the map. The unleashing of Medusa two years later signalled the band had come full circle, or so it seemed. Obsidian – their 16th album to date – sees Paradise Lost pulling new tricks out of their collective sleeve, twisting their “trademark” early doom / Goth sound into new forms, effectively ripping apart any expectations people may have had going into the record after feasting on Medusa.

“I’ve become very pragmatic over the years about people trying to nail down our classic period,” guitarist Gregor Mackintosh says of fans referencing Paradise Lost’s early albums as their best work. “I think it has more to do with the time period in which an album comes out. For example, I don’t think Draconian Times would have been as popular if it came out two years later or two years prior. It’s pure circumstance sometimes. You can have strong material and be completely passed over. I take everything with a pinch of salt, really.”

According to Mackintosh, Paradise Lost has indeed put albums out that they thought were strong, yet the media and fans were unimpressed for the most part.

“Lots and lots of times, yeah,” Mackintosh laughs. “We’ve completely missed the mark or the scene has missed us, whichever way you want to look at it. We’ve been kings of shooting ourselves in the foot in certain parts of our career, but that’s from somebody else’s perspective. From our perspective we did exactly what we wanted to do and we wouldn’t change it, but from a commercial point of view… absolutely; we’ve gone off on a tangent and everybody hated it (laughs).”

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CYNTHIA NICKSCHAS – Ein Bisschen Punk Muss Sein

By Carl Begai

Like every other musician that has been fortunate to make a living from their art, German singer / songwriter Cynthia Nickschas found herself in freefall when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill in March. As an artist that has made her reputation and her living on performing live, the forced cancellation of shows that had been planned for months was a kick in the teeth, and the fact nobody knows when concert venues will be open to the public again has a direct influence on her future. This is not how Cynthia expected to be celebrating the 10th Anniversary of her career.

Not at all.

“At first it was like ‘Oh shit, what about my job?’ because music is what I do,” she says, which comes as no surprise. “That’s my job. I guess you could say I was startled because all the gigs I had scheduled suddenly had to be cancelled. I didn’t know what to do, but once the shock wore off I got my financial stuff in order before everything else. I’ve been in debt before and don’t want to go through that again.”

That said, desperate times call for creative measures and Cynthia – along with her band – stepped out of her comfort zone for a livestream show in April. Not a big deal on the one hand considering so many musicians are doing the exact same thing, but Cynthia Nickschas & Friends is a unit that thrives on the energy of a live audience. Thus, there was the question in her head of just how well fans would respond to a performance via the internet from the showroom floor of a Bad Godesberg bike / scooter shop, supported only by her band, a technician, and her ever-faithful dog, Snoopy. Turns out it went over very well in spite of some technical difficulties, and the show was the trademark high energy performance her fans have come to expect.

“We had a great time, and it was really cool of the fans… they donated enough money so that I could pay my technician, pay my band, and still have something to live from. I’m very grateful for that. It was a really good show, and we’ve got the whole thing with proper sound and everything. I haven’t watched it all the way through because since that gig I’ve been pretty busy. We’ve been working on a songbook, we’re recording new music, and we’re going to release a live CD and DVD, although I don’t know when that will happen yet. And we’ve been writing new songs. If we’re done with recording before the end of the year maybe we’ll put something out. I’ve got enough songs but I want to do record it all together, I want it to be a band record, and it’s kind of shitty at the moment to be able to do that. So, until that happens we’ll prepare the material and put the songs together. We are recording stuff at Alwin’s (Moser / violin) place right now and it’s going to be pretty cool when everybody is involved.”

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BraveWords Interview: AYREON – Everything’s Electric

By Carl Begai

Twenty-two years ago, a struggling Dutch musician by the name of Arjen Anthony Lucassen released what would be his breakthrough album. Buoyed by the attention he received for his first two records – The Final Experiment (1995) and Actual Fantasy (1996) – Lucassen adopted a “go big or go home” strategy and concocted a progressive metal opera featuring the talents of musicians he admired dubbed Into The Electric Castle. It was the beginning of what has become an internationally successful and lucrative career, allowing Lucassen to pursue his musical fantasies and ideas as they formulate in his hyperactive brain. With each album that followed Into The Electric Castle – six more at press time, not including his numerous side projects – the calls for Ayreon to perform live grew louder, and in 2016 fans were treated to a stage performance of The Human Equation album from 2004, The Theater Equation. Lucassen’s participation in the production was minimal compared to Ayreon Universe in 2017, the first ever official live Ayreon shows featuring Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Anneke van Giersbergen, Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Damian Wilson (ex-Threshold) and Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) to name a few. Two years later, Lucassen decided to gather his cast of original characters and returned to where it all began with four shows celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Into The Electric Castle. The end result is another jewel in Lucassen’s crown, Electric Castle Live And Other Tales.

BraveWords: Over the years you’ve maintained that Ayreon is not something you could see being performed live because of the scope of the production required and all the moving parts. Between Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle Live – and Star One for that matter – I call bullshit (laughs).

Arjen: “I know (laughs). And the reactions to Electric Castle Live have been unanimously positive. It sounds arrogant, but this time I was pretty sure of it. When we were editing the video and I saw all the material, and I was mixing it, I thought ‘Oh my God, we did it.’ We had plenty of camera angles to choose from, every shot was cool, the sound was good…. I think this was the first Ayreon release ever where I believed in it 100%. You’ve known me for years, and I’m always insecure when it comes to releasing a new album: ‘Are they going to like it? I wish I had done this…’ This time there we no ‘if only’s’. For the previous live stuff there were so many of those, but this time everything aligned perfectly. If there has been any negative response it has been towards the encores, which might be a bit too much for some people. And some people don’t like the narration, but that’s just a personal thing so I don’t give a shit about that because John de Lancie was great.”

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Noises In My Head: DEPECHE MODE – “Blasphemous Rumours”

By Carl Begai

Depeche Mode – “Blasphemous Rumours”

Album: Some Great Reward

Heavy without the metal. Some Great Reward was released when I was a mere 15 years old and had only just started my musical journey. While my high school peers into Depeche Mode and MuchMusic were going apeshit over “People Are People” and “Master And Servant”, I discovered the bizarre closing track, “Blasphemous Rumours”. It was so different from the music in my primordial music “collection” and what I was being pummelled with via Top 40 rock radio, thus I was drawn in by the song’s epic weirdness. It was unlike anything I had ever heard; I still remember listening to the song through my father’s billion dollar Marantz headphones, feeling the darkness of the track in my bones while the percussive violence made my head swim. Even the song arrangement itself is twisted, casting traditional songwriting structure to the wind.

I loved Dave Gahan’s voice (I still do) and there was something about the way he sang “Blasphemous Rumours” that was hypnotic. And the lyrics….. jeez. The chorus is probably one of the most brutal things I’ve heard if I sit here and think about it, and Gahan’s almost happy delivery is a wonderful contrast to the dark dark dark subject matter. As someone who dabbles in writing lyrics I can only dream of writing something as brilliant as that. I’m convinced that being Depeche Mode fan is one of the reasons I was drawn to the dark / gothic side of metal as I started to branch out from Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, thrash royalty and the hair bands. I also know I’m in good company as far as being a Depeche Mode fan, as many metal fans / artists I’ve spoke to over the years have expressed appreciation for what Gahan / Gore / Fletcher / Wilder accomplished in their early years.

And, like The Cure catalogue, there are certain Depeche Mode songs that should never be covered. “Blasphemous Rumours” is at the very top of that list.

“I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour
And when I die I expect to find him laughing.”

BraveWords Interview: WOLFHEART – The Fuck It Principle

By Carl Begai

“The only similarity between me and Devin Townsend is that we’re both bald.”

So says Wolfheart frontman / founder Tuomas Saukkonen as this interview kicks off, reacting to the suggestions that he is the Finnish counterpart to Canada’s own Hevy Devy. It’s a comparison meant as and taken as a compliment, made in reference to Saukkonen’s assortment of bands / projects that have surfaced since he started making noise with Before The Dawn in 1999. Dawn Of Solace, Black Sun Aeon, Routasielu and The Final Harvest also bear his name, all of them a testament to Saukkonen’s drive and need to create music. Things came to a head in 2013, however, when he shut everything down to focus on a new solo venture, Wolfheart. Since then he has stayed the course, building it into a real band, and it is arguably his most successful work to date. Wolfheart’s fifth album, Wolves Of Karelia, is a short but melodic death metal sweet record, brandishing the band’s now signature sound in unpredictable fashion. Saukkonen will be the first to say he’s come a long way over the past 20 years.

“Dawn Of Solace was already fucked up back in 2007 thanks to being on a shitty Spanish label,” Saukkonen begins, looking back on his mindset of stopping all his other projects for Wolfheart. “And with Before The Dawn there were issues with labels, with band members, so even before the last album came out the label knew that would be the last one for them. All the other bands that I had running alongside Before The Dawn, they were just side projects to basically keep me balanced because I was getting frustrated with the main band. So, it made more sense to me to drop everything and take a break from the music business for a while. I released the first Wolfheart album on my own and then started to talk to the labels again. Looking back now, it was a really good decision to do things that way. The more shitty contracts you sign the wiser you get. It’s called learning things the hard way (laughs).”

“It was more like a mental thing. I don’t need those side projects to keep myself distracted from being frustrated by the main band. Nothing worked with Before The Dawn, and things are on a completely different level with Wolfheart. I don’t need another outlet for additional music. Of course, now that we’re all being forced to stay home there’s going to be some kind of side project again (laughs), but for completely different reasons.”

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BraveWords Interview: ME AND THAT MAN – How To Build A Better Monster

By Carl Begai

It’s a safe bet that nobody expected the man responsible for Behemoth’s soul-wrenching metal and creating albums such as Satanica, Demigod, The Apostasy, and The Satanist would turn around and release a record of original songs steeped in American country, blues and folk. But, in 2017 Adam “Nergal” Darski did exactly that, much to the unexpected delight of the metal world. Sure, not everybody bought into it, but the positive feedback from those fans that gave Songs Of Love And Death a chance was enough to cement Nergal’s belief that he was onto something. Thus, following the release of Behemoth’s critically acclaimed I Loved You At Your Darkest in 2018, he set to writing songs for the album that would become New Man, New Songs, Same Shit, Vol. 1. His game plan was different this time out, however, as Nergal was no longer working with collborator John Porter, and he brought in a host of vocalists to take over the singing duties he’d looked after on the debut. The end result is an album that is very different from Songs Of Love And Death yet remains uniquely Me And That Man, even though Nergal is the first person in line to call the music cliché.

“I was positively surprised by how the debut was received,” Nergal begins. “It wasn’t magnificent. It was good and very good, and I think the debut is a solid album. It’s legit, it’s honest, and it’s pretty well done. It was my debut when it comes to using my regular voice as a singer, so I can hear that when I listen to the album now. I was still learning, so when I listen to ‘Mestwo’ on the new album – the only song that I did the vocals for – I can hear the progress that I’ve made. But yeah, I was surprised that people didn’t want to lynch me for the first record (laughs). We had a good following, and every time I would do an interview for Behemoth, every third person would tell me how much they love Me And That Man. It was a job well done, that’s for sure.”

Metal fans are arguably the most open-minded music fans in the world. According to Nergal, the number of Behemoth fans that gave him stick for Me And That Man when the project initially surfaced were in a very clear minority.

“I’m pretty immune to people’s expectations because art, in the first place, is made to satisfy your own ego. You want to get it out of your system and you have to be happy with it. After that you bring it to the masses and if they don’t like it, what can I say? I’m fulfilled regardless. You, as a listener, can make my life even more complete than it is by enjoying the music that I’m making and supporting it. That makes the world perfect for an artist. The bottom line for Me And That Man is to get these guys together, play some stripped down rock n’ roll, and have fun.”

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Noises In My Head: SAIGON KICK – “My Life”

By Carl Begai

Saigon Kick – “My Life”

Album: s/t

I discovered Saigon Kick quite by accident, through a rock magazine (I forget which one it was) that came with a split 45 featuring “What Do You Do” on Side A; no idea who was on Side B. As a punk fan I was immediately hooked, and I picked up the album the next day as it had just been released. Fact is I love this album to death and I could write a 5-page essay on everything that’s right about it; this one and follow-up The Lizard are two of my favourite records of all time. From the Middle Eastern vibe of opener “New World” to The Cult-isms of “Love Of God” and ‘”ICU” to the Brit-punk vibe running all the way through…. man, it never gets boring. But “My Life”… that song takes the cake and leaves you wondering what the hell just happened.

Ten songs into what is a wonderfully obnoxious listen comes a song I – and nobody else – could have anticipated going in. From the get-go it sounds like The Beatles have joined the party as Saigom Kick turn out music suitable for a Sesame Street soundtrack. It’s entirely too happy by half, but the groove, the vocals, the over-the-top chorus… somehow it all makes sense for a band that clearly had no interest in catering to the hair band scene they were (unfortunately) lumped in with. But that isn’t even the best part. Nope. It is the iconic, mindblowing KAZOO SOLO in the middle of it all that binds everything together, making you realize (a) only a special kind of creative madness could come up with this, and (b) there is no fucking way you cannot like this song.

The album is artistic chemistry at its best. “My Life” is one of the most original songs I’ve ever heard. Love it.

Noises In My Head: HELLOWEEN – “Save Us”

By Carl Begai

Helloween – “Save Us”

Album: Keeper Of The Seven Keys: Part II (1988)

Helloween is one of the building blocks of my metal persona, and my permanent residency in the pumpkin patch truly started with “Save Us”. I have no idea why I missed out on Keeper Of The Seven Keys: Part I, released in 1987 – because this love affair would have begun a year earlier – but I suspect it had to do with many (not all) European metal artists having limited exposure on the Canadian market if a major league label wasn’t involved. In any case, mega-hit “I Want Out” was making the rounds on Toronto’s / Canada’s video channels and pushed me to buy the album, but when Side 2 of the cassette I’d purchased for my car kicked in I was floored. “Eagle Fly Free” and “Dr. Stein” had impressed me, “I Want Out” was a no-brainer, but “Save Us”…. it grabbed me by the balls and wouldn’t let go.

The guitar shred was over the top – making me a Kai Hansen fan for life – and as a huge Queensrÿche fan who worshipped Geoff Tate as a vocal god thanks to Rage For Order and Operation: Mindcrime, hearing Michael Kiske storm in and lay waste to everything in his path with those high-end vocals was a religious experience. I still remember sitting in the Warden Woods parking lot after work with the song blasting from my pimped JBL speakers, thinking “Who the hell is Judas Priest?” And it’s mindblowing to hear Kiske sing just with just as much power if not more some 30 years later, with no loss of vocal range.

Interestingly, I found out only recently later that “Save Us” never appeared on the original vinyl LP release of Keeper II, but only on the CD version as a bonus track. It did, however, appear on the cassette tape version, which is odd but fortunate for me.

And, in 2016, Hansen performed the song live with Visions Of Atlantis singer Clémentine Delauney sharing lead vocals, and damn, they killed it. Unexpected, but brilliant.