Nathan T. Birk
All throughout the ’90s, particularly after the whole post- Nevermind infestation of “alternative” drivel, heavy metal has gotten a bum rap. Aside from death metal’s usually indecipherable sonic belch and the streamlined orthodoxy of short-haired metal kids posing as hardcore bands, metal in the ’90s is viewed by most critics as hopelessly dated.
Enter California’s Steel Prophet, quite possibly the Iron Maiden for the new millennium. Formed in 1983, but laboring in obscurity stateside since then, Steel Prophet is destined to turn the world of power metal on its head with Dark Hallucinations , the band’s brand new domestic debut on Nuclear Blast. On the album, Steel Prophet pays homage to such yesteryear legends as Dickinson-era Iron Maiden, early Judas Priest, and Eternal Devastation -era Destruction but, with considerable aplomb, tosses in modern touches of death metal, doom, and prog-rock: This band possesses more power, precision, and passion than most bands, metal or otherwise, can only hope to muster. Founding guitarist/head songwriter/infinitely nice guy Steve Kachinksy Blackmoor recently took a breather from shredding to discuss life in a metal band.
First off, you guys have been around since 1983. How would you characterize the band’s musical evolution?
When I started out, I was basically trying to copy the bands I was into at the time, which was probably Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, bands like that, so a lot of the stuff was just crude copies of what those guys were doing. After a while, more of what I wanted to do started to creep in, and the songs got a little more progressive, like the arrangements got a little bit more out there, the same with the time signatures and stuff like that. And then it became like a thing where I think the band was trying to be as complicated as possible, because that was the thing that was going to set us apart. And so we got really, really progressive and complicated for a few years, until we got to this point where we were thinking it’s not that necessary to make things overly complicated when you can get your point across in a couple words instead of three paragraphs. So, then it got to the point where it got a little more streamlined, where we’re at right now.
What’s the band’s current lineup?
Right now it’s Vince Dennis on bass guitar, Jon Pons on lead guitar, Rick Mythiasin on vocals, Pat Magrath on drums, and then me on guitar, too.
Do you handle rhythm or leads more?
We pretty much divide it up. (Jon) played about half the leads on the record, and I played the other half.
Steel Prophet has gone through many lineup changes over the years. What do you attribute this to?
Well, with some people, it’s just that they lost interest in the band or stopped giving 100% or whatever. Some guys just wanted to move on and play different music or start their own bands, like Horacio Colmenares, our old guitarist, he has New Eden. Our last drummer before Pat was just like, “things are moving slow. Gee, nothing ever happens for us,” so it was just like one of those things. There’s so many different reasons. Some guys, it was just like, after a while, nobody could stand them (laughs).
Anything to do with the creative direction?
Yeah, I think that’s why Horacio left, because I was doing the majority of the songwriting, and he had some songs that he wrote and wanted to do but he didn’t really think they fit in Steel Prophet and neither did we. So, it was just inevitable that he would have to go and do those songs somewhere else. One time, we had a guitarist who just wanted a cut of the publishing money for not writing the songs, because he said his guitar parts were so important to the songs that he should get a cut, but we were like, “no, they’re not that important” (laughs).
As far as exposure goes, the whole power metal scene has been pretty big the past few years. Considering you’ve been playing it since ’83, what kind of future do you see for whole movement?
Well, I’d rather ask you that–I really don’t know (laughs).
Well, do you feel pretty firm in what you’re doing with Steel Prophet that, no matter what the marketing trends are in metal at the time, you’ll continue to play your style of music and keep it focused?
Oh yeah, for sure, because there’s other forms of music and stuff like that, and I like other kinds of music, like some of the other kinds of metal, but it’s like, if I want to do something radically different from this, I’ll just form a side band and leave Steel Prophet as a power metal band. What we do is take little bits of other things and add it in, like if you notice on the first song on the record (“Montag”) there’s a blast beat at the end. We take stuff and I think we add it in the right dose, so we don’t sound like every other power metal band and keep it overly traditional to the point where it might get a little boring. We throw in these little touches and outside influences in the right dosage to keep it fresh.
If anything, Steel Prophet is very modern, especially some of the more experimental production techniques on Dark Hallucinations .
Yeah, we try to do some stuff like that, and there’s some sampled stuff in there, but not to the point where people think we’re trying to make a techno record. So, we’re going to continue doing that, y’know, the death metal influences, the samples, and the doom influences here and there. We just add enough into your basic power metal recipe to make it so it’s fresher–we just want to stand out.
How would you describe Steel Prophet’s sound to someone who has no clue about heavy metal?
Well, let’s see. I guess I would say…no clue about heavy metal at all?
Yeah, as if you were going to describe your band to your grandma, considering she doesn’t listen to metal…
Well, I’d say the melody lines we tend to use are based on traditional classical melodies, their basic major and minor scales. The drumming is straight ahead, on the beat; it’s not syncopated or on the offbeats, like jazz or be-bop. The vocals are very powerful; the guy has a wide range, high notes and low ones. I’d say a lot of the music is very up-tempo and fast, but I wouldn’t say it’s danceable. And then we use a lot of classical theory, too, like in building up harmonies, and there’s a lot of harmony in the guitar and vocal lines, so I’d say, really, it’s a lot like classical music, played on electric instruments but with a pounding drum/rhythm section that kind of changes it so it’s not exactly (classical music). Basically, I’d say it’s heavy metal, if you’ve ever heard it (laughs).
Who handles the songwriting or the different aspects of it?
That’s pretty much me.
I noticed that Dark Hallucinations is divided into “chapters” even though they’re spaced wrong. Is the record a concept album?
Five of the songs have the chapter label on them, and those songs are an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 . So, half the album is a concept record, but when we got down to laying the record out and get a good flow to the songs, we noticed that if we put the five songs all together, it didn’t really flow the way we wanted it to, so we ended up just ended up putting the songs in the order the record would flow the best. And then we figured that anybody with a CD player that could program could program the five songs in the order to get the full effect, so that’s kind of why the record’s like that. The concept doesn’t run through the whole record–four songs are just separate.
Many of the album’s lyrics, namely of the songs about Fahrenheit 451 , deal with censorship. Were the motivations behind the lyrics personal or political?
A little bit of both, I’d say. I used to think that being involved with politics was probably a good thing, to change things about the government, maybe to influence societal changes, too. Basically, it’s kind of taken on a more social aspect, like believing the human mind should be free to go into whatever areas it wants to go into as long as it’s not hurting other people, so that’s the basic theme I took out of the book and that I was trying to get across when adapting the lyrics. But, of course, I was drawing on my own personal experiences, too, to try to make it so it’s more identifiable, Like if I could identify with the feelings that the characters in the book were having. I tried to just put it into my own terms and then transpose that into the lyrics so people are getting my view of what I got out of that book, and now they have to get out if it what they think I’m trying to say.
The song “Montag” is about the protagonist of the novel. What was the inspiration behind the song? What the character did, the character himself, or…
It was kind of like an introduction to the character. In the beginning, I just wanted to draw it out for the listener that this is a guy who takes great pleasure in his job, which is destroying books, burning them, burning people’s houses down because they possess books, and it’s supposed to show how cold and cut off from everything he is. He never questions what he’s doing, and he’s just a total product of his environment, of society. He just takes everything at face value, believes everything that’s told to him, never questions it, and just does what he thinks he’s supposed to do. Through the course of the novel, he begins questioning the whole thing and later comes to the realization that he’s been completely wrong and blinded.
Steel Prophet has built up a pretty big following in Europe. What do you attribute this to, and do you think America will ever catch on?
With the European thing, I think it’s just a matter of…I think the Europeans just have more respect for certain kinds of music. If they feel it was good music ten years ago, then it’s still good music today. It’s not like just because now techno is in, or rap is in, or punk is in, that music you used to listen to ten years ago suddenly is crap because it’s not popular. They just have more respect for different forms of art, so it’s still cool with them. Now, with over here, it’s like you’re faced with something totally different–anything that’s “old” sucks. It’s like you gotta have the new thing; people’s attention spans only last a year or two. Now if you can convince people, ‘cuz Americans have a short memory, that this music never happened in the past, that it’s a new thing, they might say “oh, wow! This is new! This is great!”, in which case you’ll do well, or you can sell it to people in their early ’30s that used to listen to it back when they were teenagers and say “oh, that’s pretty cool. I remember that; I got a nostalgia trip going here.” I really don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and have come up with a few ideas, but you probably have a better idea than I do….(laughs).
Which begs the question, directed at you, the reader: do you know why Steel Prophet isn’t big in America? Not to personally champion a band too much, but if you are a fan of heavy metal, much less intelligent music, just ask yourself that question before you lay your weary head down to sleep–how you answer in the morning decides which side you’re on.