Coming out of nowhere, Italy’s ASGARD appeared as one of the largest surprises of the last few years. Their debut album “The Seal Of Madness” struck like a bomb and when I first discovered how extremely good this album was, it took months before it left my stereo. Two years later and the five guys are back with their follow-up, “Outworld”. Released to coincide with the Keep It True-festival, it’s another great offering from the Italians, and destined to become one of the top European heavy metal-albums of 2013. At Keep It True I talked to singer Federico Mazza about an interview, but as always on happenings like this, the agenda is packed with bands to check out, beers that need to be drunk, homemade flyers to be distributed and lots of records to explore, and almost as expected, it didn’t materialize. A few days after returning home from the festival, I contacted Federico and he agreed to do the interview by phone. Face to face is probably the better option, but at least phoners usually turn out ten times better than those damn mail-interviews which the internet is flooded with.
I have heard that you started your musical career a drummer.
– Yeah, that’s true, says Mace as he is nicknamed. He sits on a train that will take him from Venice where he lives and works to his hometown, a one and a half hour long trip.
How old were you at the time?
– I was about 15 or 16, and in a band with Alberto, one of the two guitarists in ASGARD. We played mostly covers of Iron Maiden. We did a couple of concerts, but only small gigs, nothing serious. As a joke, I tried to sing on “The Trooper”, and I found out that I was quite comfortable with it, and decided to switch from drums,
Apparently ASGARD was formed in 2004. How did it happen?
– The first core of the band was formed by the two guitar players, Davide and Alberto who are brothers.
They are not twins, as someone have suggested.
-They look very similar, but I think Dave is 28 and Alby is 24. Nevertheless, back then, they had a Manowar-tribute band, something very easy and small, and wanted to try me as a singer on the recommendation of Alberto who played with me in the aforementioned cover band. We tried to play together and I found myself comfortable singing Manowar-songs. We started with the name ASGARD in the spring of 2004 and did our first show consisting of covers only, from bands like Manowar, Helloween and Iron Maiden.
Is the band name, ASGARD, influenced by Manowar then?
-Yeah, absolutely. We knew already then that it’s a very common name, used by a lot of bands in history. Davide gave the name to the band, and he was very influenced by Norse mythology at the time. After some years using the same name, you reach a point of no return, when you simply can’t change the name of the band anymore. It’s a quite childish name, something that belongs to our youth, and we know it’s not a super name, because as I’ve said it’s been used many times before. On the other hand, it’s okay, and our aim is to be the most important ASGARD in history. There’s been some great bands with that name, one from Germany and one from Italy, the latter playing progressive rock.
You can add even more bands to that list. I think in fact that there were both another German ASGARD (I guess Federico is referring to the most famous one, putting out the album “Dark Horizons” back in 1988), and then you have the Dutch ASGARD who released the album “In The Ancient Days” on Noise in 1986, sporting a really killer artwork. In addition there were also a couple of progressive rock bands using the name in the seventies.
You formed ASGARD in 2004, made a few demos, the last one in 2006, but then it took until 2011 to release the first album. What happened during all these years?
– No, actually there is another demo, that was released in 2008. All together, we made three demos with songs from the latest two came also being used on the debut album. We spent a lot of time from our inception to the debut, it took about seven years. We had a lot of changes in the lineup, especially behind the drumkit. Our actual drummer Rudy, joined us in 2007 or 2008 and you can say that we started to do things professionally from 2008. In the first period we were very slow at writing songs, it took a lot of time, as we were occupied with the usual things in an ordinary life.
From your second demo, the songs “Fury Of The Night” and “Diciples” ended up on the first album, “The Seal Of Madness”. Have these songs changed a lot from 2006 until you recorded them again for the debut?
– For “Fury Of The Night”, I would definitely say “no”. The song is 95 percent the same as on the demo. On the other hand, “Disciples” has changed a lot, it has a more out and out speed metal-approach on the debut compared to the first version off the demo.
I think it’s right to label the first album, “The Seal Of Madness” as a success. How many copies did you sell?
– You must always have in mind that we’re an Italian band. It’s a hard market or environment, and only to perform one show abroad in your career is seen as a great success here. We sold about a 1000 copies and it was reissued for the this year’s edition of Keep It True to see how many more copies we can sell. To get rid of 1000 copies for an underground Italian band has to be labeled as a success. We were really surprised by the reaction from the European crowd, in Italy we have played for many years, and know the labels and the other bands and kind of expected a good response, but we didn’t expect anything at all from Europe.
Interesting, cause in the eighties, Italy also had some great bands like Adramelch, Danger Zone, Berserks and Sabotage which also were like secrets to other people, often not heard of outside of Italy…
– That’s right, and I think it’s a mixture of different factors. There is a sort of prejudice on Italian bands, saying that we’re not as professional as bands from other countries. I don’t know why we came to this point really, but when you think about the Italian bands of the eighties who put out some great works, they struggled to manage their success in a proper way. Some were cheated by managers and labels or even by other bands. I can’t really remember which Italian band it was, probably Astaroth, who had one song stolen by one of the bigger British bands. When this band played in Italy, they stole one of the songs from them and released it on another album. The Italians didn’t have the knowledge nor the power to face popular band or labels. They also lacked knowledge of English, which is an important point too. Nowadays things are different, almost everybody here speaks English. 30 years ago the situation was very, very different.
I’ve decided to edit the name of the British band that Federico mentions here. I know I have heard a similar story somewhere, but as I can’t find anything about it at the moment, this will have to do.
What’s your favorite Italian metal bands of the eighties?
– I really like Strana Officina and Crying Steel, but Sabotage and Death SS is above everything. It’s a pity they didn’t reach the success they deserved.
Some of my favorite newer bands are Italian, I am talking about the likes of Doomsword and Holy Martyr for example. If you perform that kind of epic metal, it seems to be no disadvantage being Italian, but when you do a mixture of US and European metal like ASGARD do, it’s certainly harder to get the same kind of recognition.
– I agree with you. In some ways I think it’s deserved, since bands like Wotan, Domine, Doomsword an Assedium played in a time when there was nothing, when heavy metal wasn’t in the position it is today. There were only cult festivals like Keep It True supporting this kind of music, now I am talking about the time around 2004-2005. Today you can see a big explosion of underground bands from all over the world and also some support from the market and music business. I don’t remember any speed metal bands from Italy ten years ago, but I remember lots of power metal-bands and also quite a few epic metal bands. Now the trend is completely different. None of the epic metal-bands you mentioned are playing in Italy anymore, they hardly play shows at all. I think Domine performed at Up The Hammers this year, but I can’t remember the show before that. It’s the same with Doomsword and Wotan. The only exception is Holy Martyr, who still gigs a lot.
– What surprised us a lot, was the production. Compared to many other bands, we achieved a very solid and robust sound, in my ears a mix between the new sound made by modern technology and a classic sound. Listening to the album won’t hurt your ears, and it’s very heavy. We are thankful to our producer Simone Mularoni who is also the guitar player of DGM. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them?
Sure, a progressive metal band…
– Yeah! We came back to him for the second album, because he is a great person with great knowledge. Actually he is one of the most renowned producers in Italy at the moment.
I would agree with you that both albums combine old school-songwriting with a more modern production. Were you not tempted to go for a more eighties sounding sound as well? Obviously there is a change of falling between two chairs, if you know what I mean.
– No, no, no. We never thought about it. I strongly believe that having a low quality production is not acceptable. Nowadays you have access to the best technology without spending too much money, and if bands record with a low production claiming they want that sound, I don’t really believe them. You must remember that we’re in 2013, and it makes sense to have an old school-approach with the current technology.
I really love “Outworld” and think it’s one of the best albums of 2013 so far, but I still prefer “The Seal Of Madness”. Is that possible for you to understand?
– Yeah…maybe. In a way yes, but personally I prefer the second one. In my view there is a strong evolution from the first one. The debut is very direct, immediate and sometimes quite catchy. The new one is more mature, the lyrics for instance aren’t comparable to the debut at all. Also, the structures of the songs are more mature. But remember, I am like a father now, and these are my two children.
Do you still enjoy listening to the debut album?
– Of course. I listened to it before I got on the train today, after a lot of months without hearing it. I still like it.
I can sense that there is something about it you’re not fully satisfied with though…
– Yeah, the cover and the artwork weren’t printed very well. You have probably noticed it. You can see it’s not completely defined, it’s a bit granulated. Especially if you look at the credits in the booklet, they are not clear, not well printed at all. There you have the problem. Also, the cover itself is not a super artwork, and there were some problems with the colors, but we were in a hurry, and it was the best thing we could manage.
I promised to ask a question about that album for a friend who is a great fan of the band. He wonders about the song “Fury Of The Night”, and why such a short song is faded out during the guitar solo?
– Ha-ha, it was like a childish solution for ending a song. We did it for the demo years before, and wanted to keep the same ending for the album. As you can hear on “Outworld”, we do no longer fade out songs. It was all about getting rid of the problem of how we should finish this particular song. “Cyber Control” on the new album is also a very short song.
I guess you are probably a bit tired of being compared to John Cyriis from Agent Steel. Would you call him an influence?
– Yes, of course. He is, but he is not my only influence. By coincidence, I found a comfortable range in singing like him. It’s also the first comparison people make when you perform speed metal with high pitch vocals. It’s normal. The second one is Helloween. I tried to change my style a little bit for “Outworld”, which I think is very evident, but in a song like “The Interceptor”, I tried to sound as much like Cyriis as possible. Since people say I sound like him, why not try to sing like that, at least for one song?
Which other singers have been important for you?
– It depends. It’s a matter of evolution. I recently discovered Marillion. Do you know them?
– I love how Fish is singing. Before of course, I had classic influences like Iron Maiden and Helloween, but I have always tried to do the things that are natural to me. It’s sort of a survival story, when on stage I have to do what is natural, otherwise I will “die” after three songs. I hope you understand what I mean.
When we spoke a little at Keep It True this year, you mentioned Pink Floyd as your absolute favorite band, and now Marillion. Is there space for progressive rock in the sound of ASGARD?
– Definitely not in the music, but maybe in the lyrics and the singing. Most of all, this is the music I like to listen to. I really enjoy Pink Floyd and progressive rock in general, but I play speed metal and that’s it. As far as I know, progressive speed metal doesn’t exist. Haha!
When this interview is conducted, Mazza has only seen two reviews of “Outworld”, one that was 8/10 and an almost perfect 9,5/10 from www.powermetal.de. I tell him that I’ve just put one up that is 80/100, something he seems satisfied with, since positive reviews have not always been the case.
– We received a couple of bad ones for the first album.
Mace even admits a bad review makes him a bit sad.
– Yeah, it hurts me, but I try not to think too much about it. We are used to get great reviews, so the bad ones are only a small share of the whole picture For one bad, we receive ten good ones, so it’s not a big problem. Sometimes bad reviews can even help you, for instance if someone give you a bad review of a live shows, it can help improving your concerts. People with different views compared to the die hard-fans can actually help a band a lot.
– We played a show last Friday, the releaseparty of the new album. We did four songs off the debut and six tracks from the new one. We’re having another show, supporting Freedom Call this coming Sunday (May 5.), and we’ll do more or less the same set list. Regarding covers, now we have plenty of songs to make a decent show. But we always take into consideration what kind of crowd is in front of us. When we played the festivals in Germany, Swordbrothers and Metal Assault, we were no one. We’re still no one, but less no one than before. We had to do something they all knew. When you open Metal Assault in front of 500 people, you have to do something catchy that everybody knows. We did a song from Anthrax, “Deathrider”, but in the future it will depend on what audience we play.
Do you have a few covers rehearsed so you have two or three to choose from?
– We have played “Unstoppable Force” from Agent Steel a lot, especially after the release of the first album, to reinforce the connection with Agent Steel. We also did “Telón de Acero” by Muro when we played in Madrid. There are also a few others, but I can’t really remember, since it’s a long time since we’ve played any of them.
Tell me a little about the song writing process in ASGARD. Are all members involved in writing the songs, or do they come from one or two individuals?
– Most of the time, Reno (bass), Alby or Dave propose a main riff, which is implemented with the others. Usually vocals come at last, and lyrics at the very end of everything, when the song is completed. 80 percent or more of the lyrics are mine, except for “The Interceptor” which is Reno’s, and “Wall of Lies” which is Alby’s. He is also the man behind the concept of “Sound of Shadows”. The lyrics of “Outworld” are definitely improved from the debut, we spent much more time on the concepts and on the writing style. Moreover, all the songs follow a line or a story which is told in the title track: A prisoner in chains imagines a parallel world in which he can feel free and live infinite adventures. It’s kind of a concept album, more or less…
While the two brothers and Federico are focused on ASGARD at the moment, the rhythm section of the band is involved in other acts as well.
– Renato, our bass player, is in Game Over, a great thrash metal-band who will perform at Headbangers Open Air in Germany this summer. Also our drummer, Rudy is in a couple of bands, one of them is Neurasthenia, which is quite famous in Italy. They supported Exciter on one of their last tours.
I know you had some offers from other labels in the time between the debut and “Outworld”, but stayed loyal to My Graveyard Productions. Don’t you think their limited distribution is a problem?
– It’s definitely a sort of problem, since it limits our possibilities, but as I said in one of the first questions, we are an Italian band, so our opportunities are already kind of limited. We’re not Alpha Tiger out of Germany or one of the new Swedish bands. We have a small support from our homeland and from abroad. We had to make a decision – either to go with a foreign label and sell maybe a hundred copies more, or to stay with My Graveyard and sell the same amount of copies of “Outworld” as we did with the debut. We preferred to stay with an Italian speaker that is also a friend of the band. We are not dreaming about becoming the next rockstars or the next Iron Maiden, and this time we preferred to take the simplest way.
Are there still record shops in Italy where you can walk in and buy the ASGARD-albums?
– Actually no, but it depends on the owner, if he is stupid enough to buy a pack of our CDs, that is. Haha! The main sources for buying our CDs are online or directly at our shows. I know it’s a bit limiting.
I’m not sure that is a problem. Here in Norway there are hardly any record shops left, and everyone I know is ordering their stuff through the internet.
– That’s true. There is also a lot of exposure through Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, that are actually the biggest channels for selling, not shops. We’re not using these sources personally, and I think we have a supporting base that likes having CDs as well.
Are there plans to release your albums on vinyl?
– Yes, it was planned already from the beginning, but we preferred to reiusse “The Seal Of Madness” on CD. The reissue is the same as the original press, apart from the printing quality. Now the problems we spoke about earlier are corrected. The layout is the same, but the quality is better and the tone of red is lighter. Collectors may buy both version, but I don’t suggest them to do it. In the matter of the next month we will do the vinyl version for sure. If just to have something to show our mums!
I guess you won’t find a back patch paradise like Keep It True anywhere else in the world, but amongst all the obscure bands, and some not so obscure adornishing the backs of headbangers, your own really stood out- “Jurrasic Park”!
– You’re a great observer! I really love the movie and am I big fan. I prefer to customize my own back patch. It cost some money, but the movie deserves it. “Jurrasic Park” is in my heart, and also mentioned in the credits in the booklet of both albums.
Mace’s favourite song from “Outworld”: “Sound of Shadows”
Mace’s favourite song from Outworld” to perform live: “Cyber Control”
Mace’s hardest song from Outworld perform live: “Marry the Widow” or “Night Hawk”