Six Songs From the Seventh Seal
CoC talks to Empyrean Sky
by: Aaron McKay
The purpose of an interview, by its very definition, is to uncover and develop more than meets the eye (or ear in this case). Sometimes interviewers find themselves in a position of working with a group for a discussion to construct a nearly complete picture of the intricacies behind the scenes. Such is the case with this interview. All three members of Chicago's Empyrean Sky chimed in on this in-depth and detailed e-mail conversation regarding the band's newest orchestrated outlay, _The Snow White Rose of Paradise_. The amount of consideration, thought, and conceptual inspiration found surrounding this band is just this side of extraordinary. Have a look for yourself...

CoC: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Let's jump right in by exploring Empyrean Sky's style. Never having heard the 2000 demo _Temptations_, how would you compare it to your effort four years later on _The Snow White Rose of Paradise_?

Doug McAllister: Well, the process hasn't changed much. Just like all of our songs, we start out with a riff or part of a song and just expand from there until the song has completed itself. That's probably why they have always tended to be long. We never cut off a song just because it's getting to long. When it's done, it's done. The only thing that has changed is our playing. We've improved vastly over the years -- technically and musically.

John Welborn: _TSWRoP_ is much deeper and far more dense. On _Temptations_ we only had two guitars, so it was much easier to grasp it all and comparatively easier to mix. At some point we may re-record / re-release it with the new sound. We got better synth equipment after _Temptations_, so the sounds and opportunities changed a lot. There were things I had wanted to do before but couldn't really pull off with the equipment I had at the time.

CoC: Empyrean Sky has a complex and fantastically layered approach to songwriting. Is that difficult to pull off with only three members? To what end does the "programming" you and Doug McAllister (lead guitar) contribute complete the band's overall effect?

JW: The layering isn't as difficult as remembering it. <laughs> I think the programming is a crucial component of our sound. I would love for people to be able to hear how the songs sound without the keys, and how it sounds without the guitars. Most of the orchestration could really stand on its own, and vice versa, but together they help to separate us from the pack.

DM: It's not difficult to pull off at all. Between the three of us, there is never any shortage of ideas. As far as programming, John does all of the incredible drums and the majority of orchestral stuff. The orchestra stuff gives us our massive atmosphere, so that plays a huge role in our sound.

Rich Dunkel: Having only three (four when we include our bass player) almost makes it seem easier to me, since we all play the same instrument. The rest of the instruments, such as the orchestra and drums are all computer controlled so that's one less instrument to worry about. It can get difficult at times when programming them because to make it sound real you have to think like a person playing those instruments. You have to think like a drummer to make a good solid and believable drum line. I know I can't do this. If I was doing drums, we'd all be stuck with a combination of bass-snare patterns and the occasional double bass run.

CoC: Recording an album can be intensive on many levels (cost, time, scheduling). How does a band like Empyrean Sky handle his aspect of the business?

DM: We are fortunate enough to have our own studio, which was just recently completed. John is the recording master, so he bought all of the equipment, thus no studio costs. Since we don't have any time constraints, we spend a lot of time recording, then John spends countless hours doing vocals, mixing and mastering the album.

RD: We do it ourselves mostly. Fortunately, we are all talented in multidisciplinary ways that just happen to mostly be geared at this sort of work. Even if there's a person lacking in a certain skill, or only one of us with a skill, the rest make for very good critics and idea generators.

CoC: It is fairly evident that lyrics play a substantial role in the atmosphere the band creates. Yes?

JW: I certainly hope so! I'd hate to think all of the time I spent writing them was wasted. <laughs> I got hooked on lots of great writers in college like Milton, Baudelaire, Dante and Borges. They are all incredibly gifted. I thought it would be fantastic to try a similar approach in the metal vein. I've often felt like lyrics were so overlooked in the more extreme forms of metal and they have a tendency to get very tired and juvenile, so I wanted to do something totally different. I'm not as pissed off as I was in high school, so I don't feel the need to write lyrics like that anymore.

RD: Oh please don't let John hear that, it'll go straight to his head. The lyrics... That's the cool part of this music and provides a finishing touch.

DM: They have their own unique vibe, separating us that much more from the rest of the pack. It gives the listener something to think about, rather than the same ideas rehashed over and over again.

CoC: Does the utilization of clean and harshly sung vocals develop the mood of the band's collective ambiance?

RD: I definitely think so. Use the right tool for the job.

DM: The vocals of course are another major part of the music. They really take the music to the next level. By combining the clean and death vocals, we cover the whole spectrum. Just as with the music we cover the whole spectrum. Harmonies are a huge key to our music, so many of the clean vocal parts are harmonized with separate melodies or just another interval. This gives us the added atmosphere where needed. Same with the death vocals.

JW: Oh absolutely. I've always wanted to do it, long before it was "cool". <laughs> I'm not saying I was the first guy to think of it, but back in the day, when I would dream about my ideal band, I wanted to have three singers. One guy and one girl on clean vocals, and me growling, but I never found the right people, so I had to learn to sing myself. But yeah, I think it's crucial to our sound as well. You can only express a certain range of emotion when singing... and only a certain range growling. Our songs have many emotions that require the full range of expression. Even a mixtures of styles with styles. The clean and death vocals vary quite dramatically as well.

CoC: If I am not mistaken, there seems to an emphasis on some of John Milton's work underscored in the quotations throughout the _The Snow White Rose of Paradise_. Is this indeed the case and, if so, what is the message ES wishes to communicate by incorporating them?

JW: No sir, you are not mistaken. The references are definitely there. "Paradise Lost" is one of my favorite books of all time. As for the message, I think I just want people to see what they want. I'll explain the stories... but the message I'll leave to the listener/reader.

CoC: Where do the ideas for material on an album stem from? As a group, how does the songwriting / inspiration come to be?

RD: It's been said before that our songs aren't written, they're grown. We start off with some basic ideas and riffs and continually grow and develop and refine them until we finally decide "OK, it's done." The next week, we forget about that and adjust it some more. After a while, the song starts to take on a life of its own. As it starts to live and breathe, we just try to guide it in the direction it wants to go.

DM: The material comes from the combination of our separate, but equal musical influences. We have very different tastes as far as metal and non-metal music, but when it comes to our own stuff, it's pretty much the same. The key is that we usually don't consciously write riffs. Inspiration hits when you least expect it. We'll just start jamming, together or by ourselves, and stuff will pop out. Then we tweak the riff if needed, by adding harmonies and/or polyphonic accompaniments. After this, John writes the drums and messes with some orchestra stuff for that extra flavor. The only thing we purposely do is try to make certain parts unpredictable, yet coherent and flowing, because predictable music gets stale after a while.

JW: I don't know about the other guys, but I usually start by writing a letter to the Riff Fairy, and then in a few days I wake up with one under my pillow. <laughs> Actually, we spend so much time molding and shaping them, they're like our children in the end. They all even have nick names. <laughs> We -rarely- ever take anything as initially written. Like RD said, we really try and "listen" to the song. We ask ourselves what it feels like; what is it trying to say; what should come next? You could think of it like writing a movie by listening to the soundtrack of one scene.

CoC: From your vantage point, would you say the darker imagery so prevalent today in metal as a whole is more or less essential or is the music behind the representation what truly counts?

RD: Depends on the person. There are some acts out there that are all about the performance and the theatrical aspects of it, some are all about the music. It’s hard to truly separate one from the other. Historically, when metal started, it was about the darker things in life, since life itself isn't all happiness and joy. We all feel pain, we all feel hate, fear, uncertainty and longing. As a style of music, it is more than capable of capturing these elements of life itself. Is it necessary? Not always, but it is a type of music that can convey it, as well as the good stuff in life.

JW: I suppose it depends on what type of darker imagery you're talking about. Lyrically, no... I don't think it's necessary. It's stories that move you. Like when you go watch an action movie with no plot. It may be satisfying for the moment, but when its over you don't really get anything from it. But a movie with a good plot and good action, that sticks with you. Like Gigli for example... now that's a great movie. <laughs>

CoC: Explain a little about Wormwood Productions, if you would. Did the name come from C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters"?

JW: No. I got it from the movie "The Seventh Seal". It's an old black and white Swedish film by Ingmar Bergman about death. At the end of the movie, they're sitting around the dinner table reading from the bible, the book of Revelation. They're reading this part about the Angels blowing their horns. And every time one of the horns is blown some major stuff goes down. The verse goes "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood".

CoC: Does not being signed to a label, major or otherwise, help or hinder Empyrean Sky in any way?

RD: Well, we seem to get paid less...

DM: Of course we would like to be signed to a major label. Not being on one hinders us from being able to do extensive touring with some of the big bands in the US and over seas. Also, being signed to a label covers all of the promotion and distribution of the album. Since we have our own studio and recording master, we don't need the label for that aspect.

JW: Well, it hasn't really had an effect on us until now. It's hard to gather the funds to advertise in the print world. We were able to pull together the cash to produce the album and record it ourselves, but the hard part, both financially and time-wise is getting the word out.

CoC: The Internet has provided a viable conduit for not only music, but a vast variety of creative outlets. How has it impacted ES?

RD: I love the Internet. Not only does it give us an opportunity to get our stuff out there to more people, but it lets us communicate to those same people much easier.

DM: The Internet has been a huge doorway for us. If it weren't for the Internet, there is no way anybody overseas could have heard us. Plus it's a great avenue for self-promotion. Without a label there is not much you can do, but with the Internet, our music can be heard all over the world.

JW: The Internet has been our primary vehicle for promotion and spreading the word. We've had a few great fans who've gone to great lengths to post our name and link all over the web. Without it, I don't think we would have some as far as we have. It's allowed us to hear from fans all around the world and has given us an opportunity to be in some great publications -- like this one. The great thing about the internet is that it's a low cost investment, with global reach. The problem exists in trying to get people to your site, and then trying to convert the traffic into a purchase.

CoC: Hailing from Chicago, from your perspective, how would you describe the scene there and the metal genre as a whole?

DM: The Chicago metal scene is great. All of the bands seem to get along and help each other out. The turnout for the local shows is usually pretty decent and the turnout for the big bands is always huge. There is a wide variety of genres here, there doesn't seem to be any one dominating style.

JW: The metal scene in Chicago is thriving! I hear about new bands all the time and they're playing out constantly! I think we've got a great scene here and we're happy to be part of it. The metal genre as a whole is quickly approaching the overpopulated point. This is similar to what happened in the mid-'90s with all of the death metal bands, and now it seems like it's melodic metal or hardcore that everyone wants to play. The interesting thing to me is how much -better- all of the musicians are today! Most all of the bands, whether they're original or not is another story, seem to be so much better technically on their instruments than in the past. There are so many talented players out there... Now if we can just get them to come up with some new sounds!

CoC: What is next for the band? Touring? If so, with who? Plans for a new album?

RD: Hopefully world domination and me co-starring in "Another Night in Paris". Really, who knows what the future holds. We're planning more live shows and building up from there. Getting signed and touring would be a great thing. Not only to get the music out there, but also to see some of the fans who have been listening to us.

JW: We're playing shows now, starting locally then we'll expand. We don't have any large tours lined up at this point, but we'll entertain any offers. We're trying to focus on expanding our promotion and distribution. None of us have any experience in this department, so we're trying to learn as fast as we can.

CoC: Thank you very much for your time in doing this interview. Please, conclude this interview with any final comments for the Chronicles of Chaos readers.

DM: We would like to thank all of our fans world wide and everybody who has taken time out to review our album and interview us. Lock the doors! Batten down the hatches! A storm is brewing... are you prepared?!!!

JW: I'd like to say thanks to all of you for your support, and thanks for reading this far. We appreciate those of you who are open-minded enough to appreciate what we're trying to do, and we hope that we can reward you with something a little different. Oh yeah... and if you haven't already, BUY THE CD! Order it directly from us at www.empyreansky.com. If you have any questions send an email to info@empyreansky.com. Thanks, Aaron!

(article submitted 31/12/2004)


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