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Two years removed from their impressive 1999 debut record The Great Divide, New York’s progressive rock outfit, Ice Age roared right back in 2001 with their phenomenal follow-up Liberation. The band, consisting of keyboardist/vocalist Josh Pincus, guitarist Jimmy Pappas, drummer Hal Aponte and bassist Arron DiCesare have created an album that pushes the envelope of progressive rock and could possibly be hailed as one of the most significant releases the genre has seen in the past decade.


I had the opportunity to chat with Josh Pincus about Liberation, the band’s influences, his amazing lyrics and their musical direction.



PopMatters:

First of all, congratulations on your new record, Liberation. It is simply outstanding!



Josh Pincus:

Thanks!



PM:

What kind of feedback are you guys getting?



JP:

It’s been pretty positive so far. It’s a little bit different from the first one (The Great Divide) stylistically. It’s a little less heavy, a little more song-oriented. But overall the feedback has been very positive. Some people like the first one better and some people like the second one better, but everybody seems to be generally happy with it. It looks pretty good so far.



PM:

Ice Age is categorized as a progressive metal band. Would you consider that a fair categorization?



JP:

It is a fair categorization because you always have to have some kind of a label to describe you. People love labels! I think that on the first record it was easier to categorize us as progressive metal. This time around we consciously made a decision to make it a little less heavy and to try and develop more of a unique sound for the band—to try and get away a little bit from the overplaying and the excessive technicality of the playing, and concentrate more from a songwriting perspective. But that category is fair enough, we are definitely a progressive band, whether you want to call it rock or metal, that’s splitting hairs.



PM:

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Ice Age, could you give us a little background information on the band? When and how the band was formed?



JP:

Jimmy (Pappas), our guitar player and I started playing back in college which was a good 10 or 11 years ago, and we just started doodling around playing kind of straight-forward metal kind of stuff. Hal (Aponte), our drummer joined the band in ‘93. So he has been with us for eight years. We did a few demos in the ‘90s and got some interest from some European labels. The Magna Carta thing came around at the end of ‘97 and we signed with them in ‘98.


* Bassist Arron DiCesare left after the recording of Liberation and has since been replaced by Doug Odell.



PM:

How did Ice Age catch the ears of Magna Carta Records? Was it via the infamous Monolith “demos”?



JP:

That (Monolith) was our name for a good five or six years and when we signed the deal we found out that there was another band that had used the name before us and they owned the trademark. The song “Ice Age” from the The Great Divide was actually a song that we had demoed some years before and it was a name that we had always liked, it’s kind of an evocative name so we decided to use that as the name of the band.


As far as how we got the deal, Tony Harnell of TNT was actually my vocal coach back in ‘95-96. I played him some of our demo material back when we were still Monolith and he brought it to the attention of Mike Varney at Shrapnel Records, one of the partners of Magna Carta. He actually played “Join” over the phone and Mike was interested. That got the ball rolling and we signed in ‘98.



PM:

You mentioned that you guys started out playing straight-forward metal, so your musical direction wasn’t progressive in the beginning, did it evolve into that?



JP:

Yeah, it really did! We were not the kind of guys who grew up listening to a lot of crazy “progressive” music, we listened to more straight-forward stuff like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple… Rush which I guess they’re considered progressive, but these are really song-oriented bands—like Journey, Styx, Kansas and Yes, which are also considered progressive, but they’re really known for they’re strong songwriting.


When the first Dream Theater record came out in 1989, we all went crazy for that. That definitely made us aware of the progressive side of things. As we became better players, it was just more challenging and more interesting for us to start playing more crazy time signatures and playing more complicated music. So that’s how it kind of evolved in the progressive direction.



PM:

While the music on Liberation does contain its share of odd time signatures, complex arrangements and various twists and turns, the one element that always remains intact is the band’s sense of melodicism.



JP:

I appreciate that. And that’s really what we were going for this time around. Even though the songs are very long and there are a lot of parts, we always try to keep them within the context of a cohesive song. We try to keep things melodic and we try not to jerk the listener around from part to part.



PM:

Liberation‘s finale is the solo piano piece, “Tong-Len”. The beautiful melody of that composition reminded me of classic Kerry Livgren. You cited Kansas as an influence—is it safe to say that he was a major influence on your music?



JP:

Thank you! Kerry Livgren is a big musical hero of mine. Kerry was really responsible for Kansas’ signature sound—he and Steve Walsh.



PM:

In addition to your amazing keyboard playing, you also handle the vocal chores. And I hope that what I’m about to say doesn’t rub you the wrong way…..



JP:

Dennis DeYoung!



PM:

You beat me to it! You must hear that a lot. Do you consider the vocal comparisons to Dennis DeYoung to be a burden or a compliment?



JP:

I do consider it a compliment because I was always a big Styx fan and Dennis was subconsciously I guess, a big influence. Although it is a bit of a burden now because I hear it so often from everybody. I hear a similarity in styles, but in the sound of the voice I don’t hear that much of a similarity. I think it’s more of a stylistic thing.



PM:

You do have a very strong, compelling voice, not to mention an amazing range.



JP:

Thank you! That’s a big compliment.



PM:

The liner notes of Liberation read, “written, arranged and performed by Ice Age”. Can you describe the writing process? Do you write together or are ideas brought in by individual members and worked out in the studio?



JP:

Pretty much the latter. Usually Jimmy or I will come in with a part that we have in our head, that we haven’t quite worked out—something that we’ve been jamming on our own and we’ll present it to the drummer and the bass player and kinda work it from there. Usually the musical ideas come from Jimmy and I—the rest of the band kind of works around those ideas. That’s generally how that happens.



PM:

You write most of the lyrics?



JP:

Well ninety-five percent of the lyrics.



PM:

That’s right! Hal contributed lyrics to “The Guardian of Forever”.



JP:

Right.



PM:

The album’s title, Liberation, seems to be the prevailing theme of the record? What inspired the concept?



JP:

The term, liberation, is a kind of a metaphor on many different levels on the album. The very first track on the album is about the situation in Tibet, which I’ve done a lot of reading about and I have an interest in that cause. The idea of liberation in that context, it’s an example of what’s been going on throughout history. A stronger country or a stronger army comes in and takes over, and says, “we’re liberating you” when in fact what they’re really doing is enslaving you and destroying your culture. I’m not a particularly religious guy, but the idea of liberation always pops up when you read about Buddhism and things like that, the idea of liberating yourself from negative emotions and having compassion. It’s sort of ironic, because the Tibetan people are Buddhist people. Also, I like the idea of liberation (musically), because at times the band musically feels trapped in this kind of progressive thing. And as I’ve said, we tried to concentrate more on getting our own you unique sound this time around—we’re trying to liberate ourselves from the whole progressive metal thing. But that’s our core audience so we have to stay loyal to them. I think that next time around we may surprise some people, because as time goes on we’re getting less and less interested in the whole “prog” thing and more into just writing some strong songs that a more mainstream audience could enjoy.



PM:

You addressed the opening track, “Lhasa Road (No Surrender)” in terms of liberation. Lyrically you certainly capture the essence of the brutality and the unrest of that situation, but what I thought was clever was how you intermingled moments of hope, and the ability of the Tibetan people to maintain their remarkable spirit amongst the chaos. Did I interpret that correctly or totally miss the mark on that one?



JP:

You’re absolutely right on! That’s the whole point of the song and that’s why I subtitled it, “No Surrender”. Despite the physical and mental brutality of the Chinese (toward the Tibetans)...Buddhism is a strong religion, in the sense that the people that follow it really have a deep belief in it. People like the Dalai Lama, who have seen all of this killing around them, still somehow manage to be positive, peaceful people and that’s really the point of the song.



PM:

The musicianship on Liberation is impeccable. Drummer Hal Aponte and bassist Arron DiCesare are a certainly formidable rhythm section. When you couple that with virtuosic playing of yourself and Jimmy, it reminds me of Rush, not musically, but in the fact that with all that’s going on, every individual part is interesting in itself. For instance, take an album like Moving Pictures, you know the songs are great, but when you hone in on what Geddy Lee is doing on bass or what Neal Peart is doing on drums, the individual performances are astounding, but yet no one is stepping on each others toes and everything is very balanced. The same is true with you guys. Every individual instrument is doing something interesting, but yet you never seem to overplay. It’s the sense that everything is done for the song, not in spite of it.



JP:

Thank you very much! That was really what we were going for this time around—to still enjoy the playing and be technical with the playing, but always within the context of the music and the song. So that’s actually a high compliment.



PM:

Jimmy Pappas is an amazing guitarist!



JP:

Yeah! He’s a phenomenal player.



PM:

He doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses. He’s got great technique, flawless chops and he’s a master at building solos that are always so melodic!



JP:

Exactly! On the first record he was much more concentrating on showing off his technique, which is fine. His playing on the first record is still very, very melodic in spots, as well. This time around he was much more concentrated on the melody—what the solo calls for as opposed to just playing fast. His solos throughout this record are just great. Obviously he’s my own guitar player, I’m going to say that about him. He really is very, very gifted! His solos on “Lhasa Road” and the middle section of “When You’re Ready” are really not showy in spots, but there just so melodic and so memorable, he’s just a really talented guy.



PM:

He has so many great moments on this record you’re hard-pressed to pick a defining moment, but his solo on “To Say Goodbye, Part III: Still Here” is simply breathtaking.



JP:

It is unbelievable isn’t it? He brings so much to the feel…the songs are sort of emotional songs to begin with and his playing just compliments the feel of the songs so well.



PM:

You’re right! He compliments the songs. It’s not like he’s trying to say “listen to what I can do” or for that matter, artistic self-promotion at the expense of the music. It’s simply like, this is what the song calls for and this is what I’m going to play. Simply playing for the song!



JP:

You really hit it on the head this time!



PM:

Speaking of “To Say Goodbye, Part III: Still Here”, it is actually a continuation of theme at the end of The Great Divide. Can you elaborate a bit?



JP:

Actually, we didn’t have any plan on doing that…of course that’s the great progressive tradition…Part I, Part II, Part III spanning from album to album. Jimmy came in with the main verse riff for that song. Musically it had some similarity to the riff from Part II (from The Great Divide). So I said that since there is a musical similarity in the riff, why don’t I sit down and try to tie it in thematically, lyric-wise. It’s just a song about losing a friend or a loved one…that whole theme. Jimmy has had quite a few deaths in his family in the past few years and Hal has lost some friends. The lyrics really are tied into that whole idea loss and recovering from loss.



PM:

Another interesting element of the record is its unpredictability—musical themes that are totally unexpected. For instance, on “Blood Of Ages” you get about two minutes of this incredibly ferocious metal jam that eventually gives way to a shimmering, clean guitar progression and your amazing vocals. I would never have guessed that particular direction.



JP:

Thank you!



PM:

Also the record is loaded with simple little nuances that are nonetheless, powerful. “When You’re Ready”, which is one of my personal favorites, is a prime example. It starts with a brilliantly stated acoustic guitar line that is really the song’s theme. Five minutes later, after all of the twists and turns, that theme is restated by you on piano. Very subtle, yet powerful!



JP:

Right, exactly! That’s what we try and do, instead of just coming up with a million different parts, we try and rework the parts and play them with different arrangements. That’s a perfect example, that you caught that. Instead of Jimmy playing it on guitar, I’m sort of echoing the same theme and still playing the chord progression underneath on piano.



PM:

Have you had the opportunity to play the new songs live?



JP:

Yes! Actually we’ve only done one gig so far. The local gig scene around here is kind of dead. We did a local gig a couple of weeks ago and from the new album, we did “Lhasa Road”, “Blood of Ages”...it was a short set. We also did a brand new tune that we haven’t recorded yet.



PM:

Is there a tour planned in support of Liberation?



JP:

Nothing yet!



PM:

Any last thoughts?



JP:

Nope! You just about covered it all! Thanks for all of the compliments, it really means a lot.

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