The Interviews

By Carl Begai

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One of the big metal events of 2015 was the highly anticipated Savatage reunion show at the world renowned Wacken Open Air. Many fans were sceptical of the band’s return to the stage when the buzz first started, however, as Savatage’s sister-act the Trans-SiberianOrchestra had absorbed the band members on its rise to arena rock mega-fame following Savatage’s Poets And Madmen tour in 2002. It was TSO’s continuing success as one of the highest grossing annual tours in North America that had presumably stalled any further output from the Savatage camp and effectively put them on hiatus. The press discovered over the course of 2015 that a Savatage reunion at Wacken was very much a reality in the making, with band members sworn to secrecy by management during press engagements for their own projects; it affected guitarist Chris Caffery and Circle II Circle vocalist Zak Stevens in particular, as they both had new albums come out in 2015.

“That was right up to the day of the show,” says Stevens. “You know how management is; everything has to be top secret (laughs). We really felt is was that way right up until we hit the stage. It was crazy, yeah, but everyone did a pretty good job. The consensus among some people is that we could have done better, we could have taken it more seriously. I think we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because we’re older, we did the rehearsals and figured out that we’re a lot better now than we were back in ’97 when we played the main stage at Wacken. And everybody in the band fell in love again. That was fantastic because it was clear that everybody missed it.”

“We had this really aggressive plan to hit the two stages at once, using fiber optic technology so we wouldn’t have any signal loss, and we brought all the pyro that we use in a season with two companies in TSO and blow it all off on one night… without trying to blow anybody up (laughs). We had one pyro meeting before the show and you would have loved that. You would have laughed your ass off because it was like ‘Okay everybody, gather round. We’ve got all this pyro from the TSO tours, we’re going to blow it all up tonight, these are the places you don’t want to stand…’ They asked how many people on stage were new to pyro and about 40% raised their hands. I raised my hand because I’ve never been involved with that kind of pyro (laughs). Because I’m a frontman and one of the elder statesman they pulled me aside and said ‘Look, definitely don’t stand here, here, here and here…’ (laughs).” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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Progressive metal and concept albums seemingly go hand in hand, yet prog kings Dream Theater have ony two to their name despite a 25+ year career that has yielded 13 studio records. Additionally, some fans might be startled when they realize 17 years have passed since the release of the band’s first concept album, Scenes From A Memory, which is widely regarded as one of their best works to date. In January 2016, Dream Theater unleashed The Astonishing on an unsuspecting fanbase, which turned out to be a much bigger and very different animal from its Scenes From A Memory counterpart. The band then chose to take The Astonishing on tour and perform the 34 track rock opera from beginning to end rather than present a “typical” Dream Theater show: no “Pull Me Under”, no “Afterlife”, nothing from Falling Into Infinity, Awake, Train Of Thought or Systematic Chaos, and no cover songs. A potential recipe for career suicide or at least a disaster, but the band’s early 2016 run through the UK and Europe turned out to be a huge success.

Sure, some fans have slammed the band for not bringing their classics to the party, but anyone who follows Dream Theater religiously should have expected this. Fortunately for the band many fans did and weren’t disappointed. Starting April 14th, fans in Canada and the US can experience The Astonishing in a live setting for themselves.

“It’s actually been incredible,” vocalist James LaBrie says of the feedback Dream Theater has received. “It’s as great as we could have expected because, let’s face it, you’re taking a risk doing this when you have a discography as expansive as ours. A lot of fans are expecting to hear songs from any given Dream Theater album, but we thought that since it’s been 17 years since our last concept album and we never played Scenes From A Memory through live, it’s something we want to do for The Astonishing. And we wanted to do it right. We were preparing this tour as far as production goes a year before we hit the first show because it’s quite elaborate. It’s unprecedented as fas as anything we’ve done, and it’s something we want to look back on and say ‘Yeah, but we did do it and had a great time.’ It’s been very successful. We knew we were going to leave some fans upset and digruntled, maybe alienate them to a certain extent on this tour, but we also knew that we have a worldwide fanbase that would want to be a part of it and gravitate towards it.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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Over the course of her 30+ year career vocalist Lee Aaron has been known as the Metal Queen, a rock goddess, a jazz singer, and now she’s hailed as a Canadian music icon. There are also a couple people that call her Mom. All of these elements led to the making of her new album, Fire And Gasoline, erroneously called a comeback by some people even though she’s been active on the live front both as a rock singer and jazz artist for years. It’s a record that hints at the bulletpoints in Lee Aaron’s career but isn’t a rehash of her glory days, much to the admiration of some fans and the chagrin of others, which is the only way she knows how to fly.

During the press junket for Fire And Gasoline, Lee addressed her Metal Queen days (1984) saying in an interview that she equated the era with theater, much the same way Vincent Furnier masquerades as Alice Cooper. It’s a title she’s proud to wear even though the new album isn’t even close to being metal. Back in 2009, however, Lee expressed her disdain in a Metal Hammer interview at having been stereotyped as “metal forever” thanks to the Metal Queen image because it was “definitely a barrier to being able to move forward musically.” She’s since come to terms with that part of her career.

“I think it’s far less true now than it was back then,” says Lee. “I think now that I’ve come full circle, I’ve ventured into make sort of an alternative rock album in the ’90s – a couple of them, actually – and I went on from there to make a jazz record in 2000. Now that I’ve done other things I think it’s changed public perception to some degree, so I no longer look at the Metal Queen image as an albatross. Nowadays I hear people calling me Canada’s Queen Of Rock or Canada’s Reigning Metal Queen, it’s more a title of honour. I feel more comfortable with it now, and I think my fans have grown up, too.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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Sean Kelly’s career as a professional musician is “only” 13 years young in 2016. In that time he’s made a mark on the Canadian rock scene not only with his own band, Crash Kelly, but as a solo act and as a player/collaborator with artists including Helix, Nelly Furtado, Gilby Clarke and Carol Pope. An additional feather in his cap is his Metal On Ice book published in 2013, which takes a look back at the Canadian rock and metal scene of the ’80s. During the making of the book, which was followed-up by a CD and a live show featuring the musicians that recorded it, Kelly connected with Canada’s metal queen and rock icon, Lee Aaron. The interview for the book and Kelly’s request that she re-record her legendary ‘Metal Queen’ for the Metal On Ice album eventually led to the duo working on new song material for what has become Lee Aaron’s return to the spotlight, Fire And Gasoline. No big deal on the one hand for a guy that has worked with a wide variety of artists in the years up to this point, but also a “pinch me” wish come true for someone who is a fan first and foremost.

“It’s such an honour and blessing to be working with Lee, and an even greater honour to call her my friend,” says Kelly. “I was absolutely a Lee Aaron fan and remain so to this day. She’s one of the finest musicians I’ve ever worked with, and I thank my lucky stars for every opportunity we get to hang out and make music together.”

“I co-wrote five songs on the new album, and our collaboration was done long distance; I would send her demos via email. Sometimes there were fully formed musical arrangements, and sometimes just iPhone memos of riffs and ideas. We would go back and forth once she picked up on ideas she liked, and I have to tell you that I was blown away with the results. I live in Toronto, and she’s out in BC, so sitting in a room together is a luxury we don’t have – aside from when we’re on the road doing concerts – so we made the best out of the technological advancements of our current age. Most of the material I sent was brand new, but one song I actually wrote with Gilby Clarke in mind when we were writing together a few years ago. It was a Badfinger-esque track that he dug, but was not quite right at the time. What Lee did to it was breathtaking, and that became the song ‘Nothing Says Everything’.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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There was a time when the most interesting aspect of Dutch symphonic rockers Delain was that they’d taken their name from the Stephen King fantasy novel, The Eyes Of The Dragon. That isn’t to say the band had nothing to offer when they surfaced in 2006, but as a female fronted act following in the wake of fellow Dutch artists The Gathering, Within Temptation, After Forever and Epica, Delain was a tiny “So what?” blip on the metal public’s radar in comparison. In 2012 the band was in danger of being crushed by label issues surrounding the release of We Are The Others, but 2014 saw their fortunes change for the better with an unexpectedly brilliant record, The Human Contradiction. A heavier sound, out-of-the-box songwriting, a new record label, and several international touring opportunities shoved Delain towards the top of the heap, doing wonders for their credibility.

Their push to the front of line continues with the release of the Lunar Prelude EP, issued the same day as the beginning of their new North American support tour with Nightwish (February 19th).

“It was a combination of things coming together,” says keyboardist Martijn Westerholt with regards to The Human Contradiction’s success. “When we did We Are The Others, Roadrunner Records was sold and died so we suffered a lot from that. We didn’t do a lot of promo, there weren’t a lot of tour offers, so it was kind of like the chicken and the egg scenario. For The Human Contradiction we worked with a different production team, we did more on our own, and that was very liberating. I won’t say The Human Contradiction was better or worse than We Are The Others because from an artist’s perspective that’s like choosing between your kids. We learned a lot from producer Jacob Hellner and his team, and we had great tour offers from Within Temptation, Sabaton, and later on with Nightwish. Everything came together and we were able to present our new stuff to so many people, and they liked it.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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If you hear Dutch metal veterans Textures referred to as a better groomed version of Swedish chaos lords Meshuggah, or Hell’s version of Dream Theater, or the prog equivalent of Pantera, all three comparisons should be taken to heart. Kicking around since 2001, the band unleashed their debut album, Polars, in 2003 to critical acclaim, making it clear from the outset that predictability was not part of their musical vocabulary. Three singers, one bassist, one guitarist, one keyboardist and five albums later Textures is still walking their own line and ignoring all musical boundaries as they stomp forward. Take, for example, the new song “Shaping A Single Grain Of Sand”, the first song released off their new Phenotype album; not quite 5 minutes of progressive riff-ridiculous mayhem that doesn’t let on even for a moment how it’s going to play out by the time you reach the end. And as infectious as they come if you’re into being bludgeoned into submission.

All in a day’s work as far as Textures is concerned.

“This is my second album with the band,” says keyboardist Uri Dijk, who came on board in 2010, “but I know the first Textures album got an award for being the best metal album in Holland at the time. It set the bar quite high for Textures from the start because they were a pioneering band. in this genre of music.”

For his part, however, Uri was never a big fan of Textures prior to joining them. In fact, he bordered on being oblivious to their existence.

“I knew they were a metal band from Holland, I’d seen them play once or twice, I even knew they were looking for a keyboard player, but I wasn’t really into their kind of music (laughs). I play keyboards and I started out with Children Of Bodom, Dimmu Borgir and In Flames; I wasn’t into the progressive polyrhythmical stuff at the time.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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If you’re a metal fan the name Oliver Hartmann may not ring any bells at first, but chances are pretty good you’ve heard him on any number of albums over the past 15+ years. The German vocalist / guitarist / producer launched At Vance in 1998 and has released nine albums with them since then, but Hartmann’s talents have also been used for recordings by Avantasia, Rhapsody and Edguy (to name a few) and as a guitarist on the annual Rock Meets Classic tour. Even if you are familiar with his catalogue, however, you may not be aware of his long-standing tenure as a member of the Pink Floyd tribute band Echoes, which has been around since 1995. Hartmann came on board in 2003 and has devoted a considerable amount of time to the project in spite of his busy schedule. He kicked off what promises to be a busy 2016 with a fully acoustic Echoes tour in support of their recent live CD / DVD release Barefoot To The Moon, which landed in a Nuremberg church on the day of this interview.

Seriously. A church. Complete with a bar. Only in Germany…

Professional musicians have their work cut out for them when covering Pink Floyd to begin with, but doing so acoustically is an entirely new animal. Particularly when Hartmann and his bandmates get down to business.

“Two years ago we did a benefit show in Aschaffenburg, Germany,” Hartmann says of the push towards the acoustic set. “We were asked to play, we thought about it, and decided to do an acoustic show. We picked out the songs we thought would work best and played for an hour, and that’s where we got the idea to do an entire acoustic evening. When we were putting the show together we decided that we would supplement any instrumental parts that were missing or too difficult to play acoustically – keyboards, sustain, delays, that sort of thing – with a string quartet. And the idea wasn’t a big stretch because of my involvement with Rock Meets Classic over the last years. We decided to take a minimalistic approach to the songs, sort of like an MTV Unplugged version of Pink Floyd (laughs).” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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“I’m always enthusiastic when we put out an album, and this time I think I’m even more enthusiastic.”

Par for the course when dealing with Avantasia mastermind Tobias Sammet on any given day. Perhaps even a bit frightening. The man has been living and breathing music for over 20 years, having officially come into his own when Edguy released their debut album, Kingdom Of Madness, in 1997. It was when Sammet pulled a fast one by daring to release a metal opera under the Avantasia name in 2001 – appropriately titled The Metal Opera – that people started taking him seriously, or at least treating him as someone who should be watched carefully for repeated bursts of questionable behaviour. Legend has it that The Metal Opera was meant to be a one-off, but 15 years and a loyal international fanbase later Avantasia have unleashed their seventh official studio album, Ghostlights. To say Sammet is excited is an understatement, and he has every right to be when riding the high of an album that’s as Meatloaf / Savatage theatrical as it is trademark Tobias Sammet metal.

“Yes, absolutely, but it wasn’t meant to be like that,” Sammet insists. “There was no masterplan. A lot of journalists have asked if I intended to make this such a big-sounding theatrical record, and the answer is no, I didn’t intend anything. I didn’t even know where this would bring us, I didn’t even push the music in a certain direction. The music was dragging us in a certain direction and that’s probably the most innnocent and best approach you can have when writing music. Just do it, enjoy it, feel great while doing it, and see what comes out in the end.”

“I’ve defended the analog sound we did in the past, that old school let-it-sound-like-Ronnie-James-Dio-in-1983 kind of production, and I still think I was right to do so, but Sascha (Paeth/guitars, producer) decided we should do whatever the music needed. ‘Let it just happen,’ he said and this is what came out. The song ‘Let The Storm Descend Upon You’ is probably one of the most epic tracks I’ve done in the Avantasia context; it’s a big sounding arrangement with a lot of things that do not make sense according to the book of rules on how to compose a song. It’s not very reasonable to start a song with a one minute intro, and then do a second overture, and have the first chorus after three-and-a-half minutes, but I don’t think you perceive it as something that doesn’t make sense. The whole song just developed. It was one of the last tracks I wrote for the record.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

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When French Canadian vocalist Alissa White-Gluz joined Swedish melodic death metallers Arch Enemy in 2014 at the request of her predecessor Angela Gossow, she was well aware of what awaited her: extensive touring, a rabid fanbase with high expectations, and an expected group of haters. So it went that, when Alissa broke her ribs in the middle of her first ever tour fronting Arch Enemy in support of her band debut, War Eternal, she chose to forge ahead despite the considerable pain. Most singers wouldn’t even entertain such a move due to the fact singing requires being able to breathe, which isn’t an easy task with a busted chest. Catching up on Arch Enemy’s European support tour with Nightwish in December 2015, Alissa revealed she hadn’t experienced any more major physical disasters since that first road trip, but admitted she was steering clear of the skateboard stashed on the tour bus just to be safe.

“There was so much pressure at that point and so much going on,” she says of that first tour with Arch Enemy. “For 10 or 12 years (with The Agonist) it was a struggle just to get booked anywhere, so when I was given this beautiful itinerary of a year or two full of shows… I’m not built to say no to that. I wasn’t about to say ‘Hey, since I’ve been working for 12 years and I’ve finally gotten this far, time to not do it.’ So I did the tour and it was against the doctor’s orders but fuck that, I’ve never followed doctor’s orders anyway (laughs). It definitely held me back a little in terms of performance for a few months, but it worked out.”

At the time of this interview Arch Enemy had been on the road for almost two years supporting War Eternal, an unheard of amount of time for a band that hasn’t quite graduated to headlining arena shows just yet. When they finished out 2014 supporting Kreator in Europe most people assumed the band would spend 2015 working on new material. Arch Enemy opted to remain on the road, closing 2015 with one of the biggest tours of their career in terms of audience numbers.

“There’s still a demand,” Alissa says of the band’s decision to spend so much time on tour. “Especially in this situation where we’re fortunate to have fans accept the new music and the new line-up. We want to give them a show if they want it. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact I can’t say ‘no.’ I feel so incredibly lucky that if anyone wants to see me perform I’m like ‘Really? You want us to play a show? I’m in…'(laughs). That and the fact these guys have been touring for 20 years; they just love doing it so they’re happy to play any shows that come our way. It’s a mixture of enjoying what we do and being workaholics. We’re still going but we’ll have to write some new music, which will be our focus in 2016.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Nightwish

You’d be hard pressed to argue against the importance and benefit of Finnish bashers Nightwish bringing Dutch vocalist Floor Jansen (ReVamp, ex-After Forever) on as their permanent singer in 2013. News that the band had also enlisted English uilleann pipes player and long-time collaborator Troy Donockley at the same time, however, proved to be something of a head-scratcher. Although he’d been a part of the Nightwish camp since 2007 and the Dark Passion Play album – touring with them extensively as of 2012 – the idea that a band known for symphonic metal would add such an odd element to a tried and true formula did not bode well for the future. It was one thing to have Donockley in the background to help keyboardist / mastermind Tuomas Holopainen realize his musical visions, quite another to allow the multi-instrumentalist to have serious input. Especially when Donockley’s resumé includes working with artists sich as Midge Ure, Status Quo, Mostly Autumn and Del Amitri. Any worries were unfounded, as the latest Nightwish album Endless Forms Most Beautiful and the subsequent tour present the band in their expected bombastic metal glory; Donockley has enhanced the band’s sound and show rather than diluting or altering it.

We spoke during the European leg of the Endless Forms Most Beautiful tour in December 2015 prior to one of many sold out shows, with Donockley offering some insight as to how life in the Nightwish camp is now compared to when former singer Anette Olzon – who was let go and replaced by Jansen mid-tour in 2012 – was in the spotlight.

“The tour is much better than we thought it would be, and we kind of suspected it would be that way,” Donockley admits. “We’ve worked with Floor since the famous cataclysmic American tour (laughs) so we all know each other really well now. We’re in a really unusual situation in this band; it’s freakish because we don’t fight, there’s no conflict, there’s no divison between any of us, we share everything and we have massive fun together. It didn’t used to be like that. When I first started to get involved with the band it was very compartmentalized to say the least. Everybody kind of did their separate things, but there’s a real sense of camaraderie now.” Continue Reading