Album of the Week 13-2020: Hibiki – Hands Of Providence

Anyone with a more than casual interest in Japanese metal has undoubtedly heard at least one album that hibiki plays on. Ever since his virtuosic playing first rose to prominence in the progressive power metal band Light Bringer, he has become one of the most in-demand bassists of the Japanese rock and metal scene. Possibly due to his fantastic playing, however, his compositional skills don’t quite get the praise they deserve. His first solo album ‘Hands Of Providence’ may just change that. These are all melodic, expertly written songs in which technicality does not go at the expense of memorability.

Despite being written by a bassist, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is not as bass virtuoso-oriented as one might expect. Most of the songs have a distinctly neoclassical vibe that is most clearly carried by the guitars, which are handled by hibiki’s Silex bandmate Masha, NoGoD’s Kyrie and – on three tracks – hibiki himself. It would not be unreasonable to expect something along the lines of Light Bringer’s best album ‘Scenes Of Infinity’, on which hibiki was the main songwriter. But while the albums are stylistically similar, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is more varied and somewhat less vocal-oriented.

‘Hands Of Providence’ seems to be divided into two distinct halves, with the bass-only instrumental fugue ‘Observing Inner Space’ acting as a bit of an act break. The first half contains neoclassical power metal which occasionally brings hibiki’s Light Bringer days to mind, most prominently in the hyper-melodic ‘The Wavering Night’, although it reminded me most of Concerto Moon’s early work. ‘Inside The Scream’ or ‘Traveller In Space’ would not have sounded out of place on any of the Takao Ozaki-fronted Concerto Moon albums, which means they’re full of virtuosic neoclassical playing, but are still memorable. The hopeful ‘Sonic Divine’ is the perfect introduction to the album.

Later on, the album gets somewhat more experimental, most notably on the melodic J-rocker ‘Enter Eternity’. The main riff of the song brings to mind Kiryu’s ‘Kyoka Suigetsu’ and Dir En Grey’s ‘Yokan’, but with a completely different vocal approach – former Saber Tiger singer Yoko Kubota is still in great shape – and some tasteful keyboards added to the mix. ‘Evoke/Emancipate’ is a modern, surprisingly heavy instrumental with mildly dissonant chords and exellent interaction between hibiki, Kyrie and drummer Akira Uehara. After the aching piano-led power ballad ‘Believe And Listen’, hibiki returns to melodic neoclassical hardrock once more with the excellent ‘Children Of The Sun’ before the album is over.

While the cast of musicians on ‘Hands Of Providence’ would already be enough to make me curious about the album, with one of the most interesting visual kei guitarists contributing as well as two musicians from the Saber Tiger family tree – though they never played in the band simultaneously – what really counts is the songs. On ‘Hands Of Providence’, hibiki proves to be something even more important than an incredibly skilled bassist: an excellent songwriter. There are a few moments of virtuosity here and there, but the real stars on the album are hibiki’s melodies. Highly recommended if you like your metal ultra-melodic and neoclassical.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inside The Scream’, ‘Sonic Divine’, ‘Enter Eternity’

Album of the Week 12-2020: Badlands – Voodoo Highway

Supergroups really worth anything are rare, but Badlands definitely was one. It may help that hardly any of the band members were household names to the rock audience at large, with only guitarist Jake E. Lee having a high profile gig fulfilling the thankless task of replacing Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band for five years. Alleged behind the scenes bickering aside, when Lee and his band mates clicked, the results were magical. Their self-titled debut album was a good album and a moderate success, but also slightly too polished for its own good. ‘Voodoo Highway’ feels more like something they truly wanted to do.

Overall, the elements making up Badlands’ music are not radically different from their debut. The elements demanding most of the attention are still Lee’s playful riffs – which appears to be his focus rather than his sizeable lead guitar skills – and the marvellous vocals by Ray Gillen. His characteristic, powerful howl still remains part of the upper echelon of rock vocals almost three decades after his early death. It’s just that ‘Voodoo Highway’ has a much more rootsy swagger than the debut. The album sounds direct and deliberately underproduced. And all the better for it.

Nowhere more is the rootsy, stripped-down approach more obvious than on the country blues dobro stomp that is the title track, the sparse gospel blues of closer ‘In A Dream’ and the brief instrumental ‘Joe’s Blues’.  But it can certainly be heard on the harder rocking tracks as well. If the production was left in the hands of Paul O’Neill, who handled the first album, tracks like ‘Shine On’, ‘Show Me the Way’ and the James Taylor cover ‘Fire And Rain’ would probably have been glossed up significantly. The power of ‘Voodoo Highway’ as a whole, however, lies in the raw, spontaneous manner in which these songs were captured.

As a result, the hooks on ‘Voodoo Highway’ are slightly less immediate than on the debut, but after hearing the album a couple of times, it is just about impossible to get tracks like the incredibly powerful opener ‘The Last Time’, the groovy strut of ‘Whiskey Dust’ and the exciting uptempo rocker ‘Silver Horses’ out of your head. It also feels like the band is allowed to let loose just a little bit more this time around, resulting in fiery, harder-than-average rocking tracks like ‘Heaven’s Train’ and the ripping bluesrocker ‘Soul Stealer’.

Ultimately, the legacy of Badlands was cut short by a combination of inner turmoil, a changing music business landscape and the AIDS-related death of Gillen, basically ending the songwriting partnership between him and Lee. Fans of gutsy rock music with beyond incredible vocals still have ‘Voodoo Highway’ to enjoy, however. It is easily one of the best albums of its kind and era, when most eighties hardrock bands either ceased to exist or tried to force themselves down the Seattle-styled path their managements and record labels demanded from them. The songs are fantastic, the musicianship fluent and natural and the album simply aged really well.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Last Time’, ‘Silver Horses’, ‘Heaven’s Train’

Album of the Week 11-2020: Onmyo-za – Hyakki-Ryoran

Only a year had passed between the releases of Onmyo-za’s debut album ‘Kikoku Tensho’ and sophomore record ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the massive improvement the latter is over the former. Where the debut had promising, but largely underdeveloped material, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ features some of the best music the band has released to date. While it is significantly more polished than its predecessor, it is also one of the most traditionally metallic albums Onmyo-za put out, if the cover did not give that away already. Likely the best Onmyo-za album for conservative metalheads to start with.

Unlike the album cover, however, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ isn’t just hellish aggression. In true Onmyo-za fashion, it is in perfect balance with melody, atmosphere and inventive songwriting. Those who have known Onmyo-za from after they broke through with ‘Koga Ninpocho’ might be surprised how the band sounds here. It’s still obviously the same band, with their core sound of traditional heavy metal riffs, subtle Japanese folk touches and the excellent vocal duo of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi in perfect form. The songs are just slightly longer and notably more complex, while there is somewhat more room for influences from thrash and doom metal.

‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ starts out with my favorite Onmyo-za song. ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ is largely a fairly conventional speed metal song with incredible guitar riffs, though the ominous semi-spoken – though somehow harmonic – intro and the horror-like mood it sets grant the track a unique atmosphere. Fans of speedy, traditional-sounding heavy metal with subtle progressive touches are relatively well off with ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ anyway, with ‘Gekai Ninpocho’ and ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’ being on the album as well. ‘Teito Makaitan’ was the band’s most aggressive track up until this album, even featuring growled vocals in the verses, but also a supremely melodic and catchy chorus.

When Onmyo-za slows down on this album, however, the full extent of their class is shown. ‘Ayako’, for example, is a masterpiece. While the track is devoid of tranquil sections and even features a twisted, unsettling middle section, the elegiac melodies that dominate the songs are enough for me to qualify it as the band’s first fanastic ballad. The actual ballad ‘Yagamu Tsuki’ is no slouch either, however, and features some of Kuroneko’s most powerful, emotional vocal work to date. On the other end of the slower spectrum, there is ‘Nurikabe’, the band’s first full-blown doom metal track, which would not have sounded out of place on a Ningen Isu record, had it not been for the mildly dissonant middle section and the superior vocal work.

Since ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ – along with ‘Nemuri’ from the ‘Mugen Hoyo’ record – was the song that made me fall in love with Onmyo-za, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ was sort of an introductory Onmyo-za record to me. It may very well be the best album to serve as such for metalheads who are curious about the band, but not that familiar with all the tropes of the Japanese metal scene. ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ could not have come from another country, but has enough metallic characteristics to sound not too alien for western metalheads. It is their first amazing album, from the tightened songwriting the the unbelievable improvement Tora’s drumming went through. A must-hear for anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’, ‘Teito Makaitan’, ‘Ayako’, ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’

Album of the Week 10-2020: Burning Witches – Dance With The Devil

Burning Witches is a Swiss band that has been making a mix of traditional heavy metal and contemporary power metal for the last five years. I always found their music mildly entertaining, but something has changed with their new album ‘Dance With The Devil’. First off, there is a larger variation in tempos which greatly enhances the attention span of the album. Those who like myself have been bothered by the reliance on mid-tempo rhythms will certainly find that an improvement. Secondly, new singer Laura Guldemond – the second Dutch member after guitarist Sonia ‘Anubis’ Nusselder – adds an overwhelming degree of power to the band’s music.

While the overall sound of ‘Dance With The Devil’ is not all that different from their earlier work, Guldemond’s grit allows the band to take on a more aggressive and theatrical approach. At times, Burning Witches sounds like a more straightforward sister band to Hell, though the Accept and Judas Priest influences are still quite prominent. More attention has been given to the production as well, with exciting layered arrangements in the vocal and guitar department being the norm. Together with the pacing variation, this all accounts for a more consistently engaging listening experience.

The greater deal of aggression is naturally most prominent in the faster tracks. ‘Sea Of Lies’ and the excellent opening track ‘Lucid Nightmare’ are more or less equal parts modern power metal and the most melodic end of the thrash metal spectrum, with Lala Frischknecht laying down some of her most powerful double kick patterns thus far. The former also shows off Nusselder’s ability to construct a memorable solo section by effectively making her guitar parts sort of a mini-production within the composition. The delightfully energetic ‘Wings Of Steel’ is just begging to be sung along by thousands in front of the European festival stages.

However, ‘Dance With The Devil’ is not just convincing at its most uptempo or menacing. Because of the larger number of fast moments, the mid-tempo tracks are more distinctive and powerful as well. ‘Necronomicon’ and the remarkably aggressive closer ‘Threefold Return’, for instance, have a driving undercurrent of danger, which fits Guldemond’s voice to a T. ‘Dance With The Devil’ and ‘The Sisters Of Fate’ have a bit of a gritty hardrock vibe. A true highlight is ‘The Final Fight’, which is an elegantly arranged eighties-styled Euro power metal anthem with a melancholic twist and another excellent solo section.

A band like Burning Witches is always in danger of being accused of lacking originality. Thinking so would be approaching them the wrong way, however. It is clear that the quintet wants to pay homage to their heroes from the eighties, but they do so without sounding tired or overly reliant on clichés. It does help that most of Romana Kalkuhl’s riffs have a somewhat modern bite to them, while the production is surprisingly natural and old school for power metal these days. Anyone who likes uncomplicated heavy metal with a mind-blowing vocal performance and a great number of fiery solos should give ‘Dance With The Devil’ a chance. It is easily Burning Witches’ best album yet.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lucid Nightmare’, ‘The Final Fight’, ‘Wings Of Steel’

Album of the Week 09-2020: Volcano – Godspeed

Reliability defines Volcano. They have steadily released new music since their last line-up change in 2010 and all of those albums contain a consistently good mix of equal parts thrash metal and classic heavy metal, with some touches of melodic death metal thrown in for good measure. Between 2015 and 2018, the band released a new studio album every year in mid-July. And while all of those albums were good – ‘Melt’ (2015) and ‘Darker Than Black’ (2018) in particular – it is good that Volcano took some more time for ‘Godspeed’. It does dial back the intensity a little, but only in favor of more variation.

The songwriting credits may offer some insight on the varied nature of ‘Godspeed’. Former Gargoyle guitarist She-ja was always the main songwriter for Volcano, but ‘Godspeed’ is the first album that has input from each of the four band members. She-ja still composed half of the songs, so the album is still full of thrashy riffs, triumphant guitar harmonies and solos that are either bluesy or neoclassical. Overall though, ‘Godspeed’ sounds a little more traditional heavy metal than other recent works. ‘Ironbound’ era OverKill might be a good reference, not in the last place because Nov has a similar timbre to Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth.

Bassist Akira Tanaka has been contributing to the songwriting for a few albums now and he does seem to have a preference for the more melodic side of heavy metal. ‘I Decide Who I Am’, with its hyper-melodic, piano-enhanced verses, is a bit of a strange choice for the second song on the album, but the chorus does contain some of Nov’s greatest vocals on the record and She-ja’s guitar solo is nothing short of amazing. Closing track ‘Grief’ is a big, epic heavy metal track that kind of mirrors ‘Guardian Deity’, Akira’s closer for ‘Darker Than Black’, though not quite as thrashy.

Even more interestingly, ‘Godspeed’ is the first album that features songwriting contributions from drummer Shunsuke ‘Shun’ Ohyama. And if these songs are anything to go by, he is certainly welcome to contribute more. The hilariously titled ‘Lust In Peace’ has a blunt, hardcore-ish vibe in its riff work and a death metal-inspired chorus, but also some really classy lead guitar work. His other composition ‘Into The Flame’ kind of brings to mind ‘Melt’ highlight ‘Tokyo Panic’ in the way tight riffs and borderline chaotic verses alternate, but it is also a great deal more melodic. Definitely two of the album’s highlights.

Volcano is at its best when they thrash hard. Anyone who enjoys that side of the band has plenty of She-ja compositions to look forward to. ‘D.R.’, ‘Raise Your Fist’ and opening track ‘Salvage Sun’ are all scorching rippers full of fast thrash riffs and memorable melodies. ‘Get Wild’ is the trademark sleazy track, although it sounds less like rock ‘n’ roll and more like a mixture of Black Sabbath, latter day Loudness and Gargoyle this time around. His other two tracks are decidedly more melodic, with ‘Angel Son’ being an excellent mid-tempo heavy metal track and ‘Breaking, Saving, Killing,’ (yes, that comma is supposed to close the title) being a power ballad. The latter is not bad, but I wish they had replaced Nov’s “whoa-oh” chants with a guitar melody.

‘Godspeed’ is basically exactly what one would expect from Volcano at this point, for better or worse. Only those expecting the pronounced melodic death metal touches from ‘Mythology’ (2011) and ‘Melt’ may end up disappointed, as ‘Godspeed’ certainly is a more traditional affair. The extra half a year they took to make the album this time around has accounted for a more varied selection of songs, but the core sound of Volcano is still intact. Anyone who has as much of an obsession with thrash riffs and twin guitar harmonies will likely enjoy ‘Godspeed’.

Recommended tracks: ‘D.R.’, ‘Into The Flame’, ‘Salvage Sun’

Album of the Week 08-2020: Demons & Wizards – III

When things went quiet for a decade and a half after the release of their second album ‘Touched By The Crimson King’, I just assumed Demons & Wizards was finished. That would have been understandable, given that Jon Schaffer and Hansi Kürsch are incredibly busy with Iced Earth and Blind Guardian respectively, but then they assembled a tour line-up and announced their third album, simply titled ‘III’. It’s also simply very good. Better than the latest releases by both men’s main bands, while it lacks the consistency issues that plagued its predecessor. Anyone who enjoyed the band before will also enjoy ‘III’.

Stylistically, there is nothing too different from the other two Demons & Wizards albums. It’s still epic heavy metal that combines the hyperspeed palm muting of Iced Earth with the theatricality one might sooner find on a Blind Guardian record. It does seem like Schaffer and Kürsch allowed the songs to unfold a little more slowly and naturally this time around. Not that the songs are much longer than before – despite the presence of three eight plus minute songs – but it feels like Schaffer is less scared of sticking to the same riff for longer than eight bars. Kürsch’s vocal arrangements add plenty of variation anyway.

One could accuse Schaffer and Kürsch of playing things safe here. ‘Diabolic’ does sound like a darker reprise of ‘Heaven Denies’ in structure, the title is even repeated in its chorus, and ‘New Dawn’ has a notable, but passing resemblance to ‘Tear Down The Walls’. Overall, ‘III’ plays around with limited parameters, but manages to squeeze out as much as possible out of them. The album has an overall dark vibe, at least in part due to the relatively subdued tempo of the material – most of the songs are actually mid-paced. Not unlike Iced Earth’s 1995 release ‘Burnt Offerings’, but with much more consistent results.

Remarkably enough, ‘III’ can remain within the mid-tempo realm without boring the listener to death. Schaffer and Kürsch really wanted to give every song its own identity, mostly by creating different atmospheres for the songs. ‘Universal Truth’, for instance, has the feel of a dark ballad, but is too heavy to be classified as such. ‘Timeless Spirit’ and the somewhat overlong ‘Children Of Cain’ would qualify, though both build up to something bigger. The former actually feels like a southern rock epic with crunchier rhythm guitars. ‘Split’ and ‘Wolves In Winter’, on the other hand, represent the more aggressive side of the spectrum. Bombast is not as prominent as on the debut, but ‘Dark Side Of Her Majesty’ and ‘New Dawn’ would certainly appeal to those who loved the debut.

Though ‘III’ is not perfect, it is much better than anyone could have expected for a project that has been dormant for fifteen years. Sure, one could wonder why ‘Final Warning’ – highly enjoyable, but a blatant ‘Dark City’ rewrite – and the particularly Blind Guardian-esque ‘Invincible’ were not saved for Schaffer’s and Kürsch’s main bands respectively, but ‘III’ is strangely one of the least pretentious albums either musician has been involved with in recent years. For dark heavy metal that doesn’t drift too far into evil territory, remaining more traditional instead, ‘III’ should be a no-brainer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dark Side Of Her Majesty’, ‘Diabolic’, ‘Universal Truth’

Interview Demons & Wizards: “Whatever feels natural”

After nearly a decade and a half, Demons & Wizards broke the silence with an international tour in 2019. Later this week, the project of Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer and Blind Guardian singer Hansi Kürsch will release their third album, simply titled ‘III’. The album is full of the intense, yet theatrical heavy metal the fans have come to expect from Demons & Wizards. Their record label Century Media provided me with an opportunity to speak with Schaffer about the album.

Have you stockpiled any compositions in the years between ‘Touched By The Crimson King’ (2005) and ‘III’?
Three of the songs have been written during the writing sessions for Iced Earth’s ‘Incorruptible’. Those were ‘New Dawn’, ‘Invincible’… And actually, ‘Universal Truth’ was a Sons Of Liberty song which I had already demoed with vocals. Those tracks have all been written around the same time. Once I knew I wasn’t going to use those for Iced Earth, I sent them to Hansi and he came up with some vocal ideas. I was about to go on tour with Iced Earth, but I was definitely interested in getting back to it once I got back.
This was in the summer of 2018, after which I went on a month-long hike through the desert of Arizona. A week after I got back, I flew to Germany, where Hansi and I had a few meetings to plan everything we’re doing now. When I got back, around November 2018, I started writing the rest of the album. The instrumental part of the album was done in my studio in March of 2019. The vocals were done in a studio in Germany.

How important is it for you to make a Demons & Wizards song sound different from Iced Earth?
There is no attempt to make it different, the same or anything in relation to Iced Earth. That’s just not the way I think. It’s just about being in the moment with the music and how it speaks to me. The only thing, from a productional standpoint, that I paid any attention to is how the kick and snare sounds related to the guitar tones. There are four different tunings on the record – standard tuning, my typical Eb tuning, C# and baritone tuning – so there are small, subtle differences when you compare the kick and snare sounds. And that was deliberate, but in terms of ‘I want the production to go this way or that way’… No. I just wanted it to feel good based on what we were doing.
I feel the dynamic range of this album is a little bigger. Every song sounds very different and that gave us the opportunity to not have the same kick and snare sounds on every track. It lends itself well to these types of variables without it ever sounding like anything else but the same album.

Vocal melody

Hansi has different sources of inspiration for lyrics than I have. And that’s the cool thing. If I have a piece of music and I don’t really know what to do with it vocally, I can send it to Hansi to see what he wil do with it. If I’m driven to write lyrics and vocal melodies, if I have a clear vision of what the song is about, I will almost always save it for Iced Earth. Having said that, there are three songs on this album that I wrote the lyrics for. When I have a specific task, like when I go into the studio to write an Iced Earth album, I’ll write an Iced Earth album. But my songs have to move me. And I want them to move other people. Even before the lyrics and vocal melodies are added. The music has to make you feel something when you hear it.
‘New Dawn’, for example, was a song for which I could not hear a vocal melody. After I built the Independence Hall studio and hooked up everything, that was the second song I wrote there. And I liked it, but I just couldn’t hear a vocal melody. I liked the piece of music, but I just couldn’t hear it. I played it to Stu
(Block, Iced Earth’s singer). He wrestled with it for about a day and he didn’t know either. I said: you know what, let’s not force it, I’ll send it to Hansi and I guarantee you he hears something cool in it.
And he did. He came up with something. But it’s a different kind of arrangement. If you mute the vocals and just listen to it instrumentally, it’s pretty difficult to pick out the chorus. It just doesn’t have that kind of structure. And that’s fine. But as I expected, Hansi came up with a bunch of cool parts and I think the song is really cool.
In terms of production, that’s one of my favorite sounding songs on the record, by the way. And it’s also the first song I ever wrote in C# tuning. It more or less came out of left field. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s just a rare example of a piece of music that I could not hear any vocals to. Generally, I do. That’s the reason why I write so many Iced Earth lyrics and vocal melodies: because I hear them. If it’s something I don’t hear, but do like the music, that’s typically the material I co-write with someone else.

Nature of the beast

Does Hansi write anything else than the vocal melodies?
Not really. I write all of that and send it to him. If doesn’t like something, he’ll tell me. But that never happened. He always gets a lot of inspiration from the stuff I send him. The only thing that tends to change is when he interprets a certain section as a chorus and we arrange it differently accordingly. The arrangement can always change based on what he interprets as verses, choruses and bridges. Those are the only changes that ever occur.
Usually, he sends me stuff of which the lyrics aren’t finished. Usually it’s nonsense, but it’s a way of capturing the melody and the cadence. And then we look what will be the big hook. And then it’s: alright, this is the chorus and this is what we build the song around. But generally, the arrangement is pretty close to the finished thing as is. The music almost always tells you what will be the chorus. Usually I instinctively know what it is, but always with the openness of changing the arrangement based on what I hear from Hansi.

Has that ever bled into what Iced Earth does? I always found it interesting that Iced Earth started experimenting with bombast and layering around the time the Demons & Wizards debut was released…
I think that was all part of the growth process. There were a lot of layers on ‘Burnt Offerings’ already. You have to realize that that was our first album with 48 tracks. If you’re given the technology, the temptation for musicians to use more tracks becomes pretty big. Of course you’re going to try and cram more ideas into it. That’s the nature of the beast.
The first two Iced Earth albums were 24-track albums. ‘Burnt Offerings’ was our first 48-track album. ‘Dark Saga’ and ‘Something Wicked’ were both 48-track albums. Then came the first Demons & Wizards album, which was part-analog and part-digital. The drums and rhythm guitars were analog, the rest was recorded digitally. ‘Horror Show’ was part-analog, part-digital as well. The next Iced Earth album was ‘The Glorious Burden’ and that one was fully digital. And that’s when the number of tracks became not an issue anymore. Then it got to: now I have the ability to do 160 tracks, woo!
You know… It can be a trap if you’re not careful, because you can get caught up in it and then you lose sight of the original concept of the song. I know I did. And I think a lot of guys get sucked into that. The fact that the possibilities are there doesn’t mean that you have to use all of it, you know?
I think it’s a natural progression that if you have the technology at your fingertips, the temptation is almost overwhelming. But for me… I’ve reached that point by getting some of those things out of my system with ‘Crucible Of Man’, ‘Framing Armageddon’ and ‘The Glorious Burden’. Those albums have so many parts… On ‘The Glorious Burden’, we had a full orchestra on ‘Gettysburg’ and all that, which was cool, but I got it out of my system. And then with ‘Dystopia’, I decided to go back and make a more straight-up, raw metal album. And then we went a notch back even further with ‘Plagues Of Babylon’, when we got even more raw and back to the roots. And I think with ‘Incorruptible’, I found a balance between the two.
I don’t know what will be next, as I haven’t started working on it yet. But after this Demons album comes out and I take a bit of a break, then I will get back to Iced Earth zone and I will do whatever feels natural at that time.


Speaking of layering: there’s always a lot of it going on in Demons & Wizards’ music. How difficult was it to interpret that music for last year’s tour?
It was a small challenge. At some point, you have to focus on which is the most important part in a certain part. If there’s four different guitar parts and harmonies and what not, you just have to choose which of the parts are the most recognizable for someone who has not heard the songs before. That’s what we did when Jake (Dreyer, Iced Earth’s lead guitarist who also toured with Demons & Wizards as their live guitarist) came over to figure out the live parts. I transferred the old two inch tapes and I found the old hard drives of ‘Touched By The Crimson King’ to analyze every track. I was listening and though: man, I can’t even remember playing this at the time.
You just have to pick which part is the most obvious based on the way it was mixed at the time and which part jumps out. And from there, we move on. That’s how it goes with the vocals as well. Hansi always layers so many vocal parts and different harmonies. That is one of the reasons why we got the backing singers for the likes of Wacken, so we could make it as big as possible and still keep it somewhat realistic in terms of expenses. It was a small challenge, but not as difficult as I thought it would be. Some things of this new album will be a bigger challenge.

Does that mean you are planning new live dates with Demons & Wizards?
There aren’t any plans, no. The plan for 2020 is studio time for Iced Earth and the same for Blind Guardian. Iced Earth and Blind Guardian are both successful, busy bands. The biggest challenge for Hansi and me is to work around those schedules. But even if we did, there’s all these guitar tunings. Eb is the typical Iced Earth tuning and even for Demons & Wizards, but there are exceptions. That could be a challenge if we ever play these songs live with Demons & Wizards. There are four different tunings on this album and a bunch of songs from the past that are in D. If we ever have any fly dates, we’ll lose quite a bit of money on travelling with all these differently-tuned guitars, haha!

Hotel California

Traditionally, Jim Morris plays all the guitar solos on a Demons & Wizards album. Why did you approach Jake Dreyer to do a couple as well this time?
I would have been fine with Jim playing all the guitar solos like on the earlier Demons & Wizards albums, but there were a couple of songs that demanded something else. Jim is 61 and he grew up with Jeff Beck, Clapton and David Gilmour. And that’s great, but a song like ‘Split’ asked for Jake’s style, as it’s an aggressive heavy metal track. On ‘Wolves In Winter’, Jim tried a part and that was pretty cool, but when Jake played the same part, it just worked better.
When I asked Jake to play the Demons & Wizards material live with us, I thought it was cool to let him play some solos on the new album. He would come over to figure out the parts for the live show anyway. And on ‘Timeless Spirit’, I wanted a ‘Hotel California’-like vibe at the end from the moment we started working on it. So one late night, I recorded Jake’s solo which begins right after the heavy part at the end starts. It was just a brilliant take, so we kept it. One or two days later, I sat down with Jim and Jake to guide them through the piece.
Jake has a really cool vibrato and a good sense of melody. He can play all the shred stuff, but also what I call the ‘grown man shit’. And that’s what cool about the dueling guitars near the end of that song. You’ve got the old school dude and the younger guy who has an old soul approach. I think it’s a really nice trade-off. And then you get to the ‘Hotel California’ part where they play in harmony. That was one of the highlights of the recording sessions for me.