Metal's Imperial Triumphant Discuss 'Alphaville' Their Soundtrack to a Pandemic
On Friday, avant-garde metal band Imperial Triumphant release Alphaville, their best album yet. It may just be the soundtrack to a pandemic, and it's a redefining moment in metal.
31 July 2020
It's been nearly a decade since New York City-based extreme music masters Imperial Triumphant arrived with the earth-shaking Abominamentvm LP. Since then, the group have risen to the upper echelons of the metal underground with their avant-garde approach to metal, even landing a spot on PopMatters' Best Metal of 2018 list, where Antonio Poscic called the band's third full-length effort Vile Luxury the "perfect soundtrack to the apocalypse". Perhaps not since Voivod has a metal band so fully redefined genre boundaries or elevated the form with such conceptual mystery and majesty.
The seven tracks that comprise Alphaville's core (two bonus covers round out the collection) are at once harrowing and transcendent, terrifying and cathartic, filled with jazzlike grooves and clanks and clatters that would have John Zorn sit up to take notice. Album opener "Rotted Futures" serves as a powerfully cinematic introduction to the world the trio pulls us into for the better part of an hour.
Zachary Ilya Ezrin (vocals, guitars), Steven Blanco (bass, vocals, piano, mellotron, synths, taiko drums), and Kenny Grohowski (drums, taiko drums) commit fully to the mission in those initial measures, and the intensity is nearly relentless. Nearly, because Imperial Triumphant understand the importance of dynamics: "Excelsior" is made fascinating by Blanco's funk feel on the bass, Ezrin's restraint in the initial passages, then his full-on assault as the song takes full flight. "Atomic Age" and "Transmission to Mercury" are more unsettling for how they do not conform to strictures of extreme music while the title track and "The Greater Good" provide listeners with a full-on aural assault that demands infinite listens.
Speaking with PopMatters several weeks ahead of the record's release, Ezrin is relaxed in conversation, enthusiastic about the terrain his band has come to occupy in its career, and relatively optimistic for what the future holds. With touring plans thwarted for the time being due to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, he insists that the group are already hard at work on future material and seeking ways to push musical boundaries and demolish expectations of the trio.
There is talk of film and video game scoring and, more recently, the group have decided to offer music lessons to interested parties, something Ezrin says he's enjoyed doing for some time now. "There's something about somebody who's just learning the instrument and seeing them get excited about it," he offers. "It can be tough to learn, but seeing someone stick with it is great."
Though the future remains unknown, it seems certain that Alphaville will go down as one of the best extreme music releases of 2020, and an important moment in Imperial Triumphant's continued rise.
Tell me about the writing process for this album.
We're always working on things. This album isn't out yet, and we're already working on the next one. There's always music and, honestly, because it's the three of us working on music and not just me anymore, the writing process is so much faster. Our writing style changes song-to-song. We don't hold ourselves to any certain path. Some songs are completely written by one person; every single note is mapped out and given to the band members. Others happen in the rehearsal room; someone will play a cool rhythm, and it builds from there. And everything in between.
This is technical music. How much does that influence the way a song is mapped out?
It can be hard to play, but what we do is have a strong idea of what the song's about, why it needs to exist, what it stands for. Having that concept helps fill in the song itself. For example, "Transmission to Mercury", which is one of the ones that I wrote, I decided to work with something that had jazzlike changes just to see what it would be like. I started and then developed when I brought the other guys in. I think having these pre-planned ideas about what the song is supposed to be, whether lyrically or structurally, helps a lot.
Was the jazz influence always present in this music?
If you listen to the full discography, you can hear it slowly creeping in. The rhythm section now consists of two professional jazz musicians. But we're never thinking, "Let's create a jazz-metal thing." Most of what we play is going to have that jazz quality to it without being too obtuse.
To me, black metal is about doing what you want but were there people who were skeptical of adding some of those more unusual elements?
I don't think anyone's told us that we can't do something. There are people who have said, "This is a little too extreme ever to be popular." I use that as fuel to take my shit to the next level. There has to be a first for everything.
Were you surprised as the audience started to grow?
Not surprised but almost relieved. It's a huge risk to be a professional musician and not treat your band as a hobby. Everyone I've ever met who is a professional artist has always said the same thing: you can't have a Plan B. You have to devote yourself completely to this. Even then, it still might not work out. I'm not filling my garage with Ferraris right now, but it definitely feels like we're on the precipice of getting much larger, so that does feel very validating because I've stuck with it for so long.
I always compare it to swimming. There's a point where you can still see the shore, and you know it's easy to get back there. Eventually land disappears, you're in the middle of the water, and all you can do is keep going.
Exactly. You have to be stubborn and make a lot of tough decisions. It's been a crazy path, but we've made a lot of really great connections along the way. I'm excited to look to the future.
Was the concept for the band, with the masks and so forth, there right away?
It's still evolving. We did the first couple of tours with no masks, but we started thinking, "How can we make the live show crazier? How can we represent the music visually on stage better?" The masks and the cloaks and the whole art deco thing started falling into place. We started thinking, "What's an original idea? What's a unique presentation for this?"
What are some of the limitations that you've encountered with the stage show?
Just money and stage size. Those are small hurdles. We've been taking some DIY steps to increase our stage show and production value. The bigger we get, the more money we can invest in our live show to make it really fucking wild. Our goal is always to be doing better.
When you have a record coming out at this time, how does the promotion differ?
You can't promote it with a live show, that's tricky. But we're trying to generate as much content as we can. Unfortunately, we are at the epicenter of all this chaos. We had to cancel our music video shoot, and we've had to delay things. I think we have the potential to do some great things visually, and I want to exploit them.
I think there are possibilities with the visual medium that haven't been tapped into by bands.
I want to break out into film and television and video game scoring as well. I think all of that would be a great way to build our brand and continue to work without having to tour because that's not on the table at the moment.
I love that the instruments have room to breathe on your records. There are so many extreme metal records where everything gets crushed together.
Dynamics are super important to us. If you look at most great music, it has all those dynamics, and I think a lot of heavy metal bands need to take note because there's nothing heavier than a brutal riff coming in after something quiet and soft. If you have wall-to-wall intensity, it starts to wear.
You have bonus track covers of Voivod and the Residents for this collection with "Experiment" and "Happy Home".
The label wanted bonus tracks, and I didn't want to write music that I thought didn't deserve to be on the album. We decided to do covers and make it fun.
When I heard "Rotted Futures" on this album, I definitely heard a Voivod influence.
That was mainly written by Steve, our bass player, and he was the one that pushing hard for the Voivod cover.
I don't know too many bands that have covered the Residents. The only other one I can think of is Primus.
What song did they do?
Oh, that's a great song. I'll have to check that out. I'm a huge Residents fan, and I thought it would be so goddamn weird to cover them and do it justice and not just do a heavy metal version. But we really try to get out of our comfort zone. I think we'll also surprise fans because I don't think anyone was expecting a Residents cover.
You mentioned being at the epicenter of the chaos in New York. Do you think that will inspire future material?
I can't see how it wouldn't be. What's going on now is going to influence us, and I'm sure it will influence a lot of music to come.