Ever since Realmbuilder released their first album, “Summon The Stone Throwers” during the spring of 2009, I have considered the band to be something really unique in today’s heavy metal scene. Call them epic metal, call them doom metal, or call them heavy metal, it really doesn’t matter, as long as the duo, consisting of Czar and JH Halberd continues to carve out their own path, far away from most contemporary acts.The new album “Blue Flame Cavalry” is definitely Realmbuilder’s best to date, still carrying that special atmosphere which also graced the debut and the follow up “Fortifications Of The Pale Architect”, but with the most powerful and natural sound yet, and with their song writing reaching new heights. Singer and drummer Czar answered most of my questions, but JH Halbred, responsible for pretty much everything else in the band, also filled in when needed.
First of all guys, it was funny reading the information that I Hate sent out with the promo-CD. Apparently the first concert you went to as kids was Judas Priest during the Painkiller-tour. That was the first real concert I went to as well, and for sure one me and those I went with never will forget, even though we’ve have seen hundreds of bands since. The sheer power, the volume and the incredible strong flashing lights are some things I recall. Tell me about your experience, and how it shaped your musical taste.
Czar: – JH and I had been to other shows, but that was our first metal show and it was exciting. We were happy to see Priest and also Megadeth, supporting their new album “Rust in Peace”, which remains an all time favorite. It was sad to see a ton of the fans for Megadeth (and the first opener, Testament) leave when the Metal Gods came on, but this was Florida, more than twenty years ago, and a lot of people were there for thrash and to mosh. Priest playing “The Sentinel”, Friedman breaking a string on “Take No Prisoners”, the cartwheeling solos of “Hangar 18″…all vivid memories to me still. It was a great example of how powerful metal music can be.
When did the two of you first get the idea to something like Realmbuilder? Have the vision you had in mind from the start changed along the way, or can you honestly look back today and say: This is what we set out to create?
Czar: – We originally intended a simpler kind of epic/traditional metal, more barbaric like Morningstar and Ironsword. But as we worked on the songs, the layers and scope expanded. Songs on the first album like “Summon the Stone Throwers” and “The Tarnished Crown” landed pretty far afield from our original concept, but we were happy with this development.
Czar confirms my suspicion that he was the one that came up with the name Realmbuilder. The thought behind the name was to describe the band’s goal: to make grand worlds out out music.
With this goal in mind, does Czar see the music and lyrics of Realmbuilder as a possibility to escape from real life?
Czar: – Yes. Most of my favorite art stimulates the imagination and creates rich spaces that are different from the world in which we are physically stuck for the short span of a lifetime.
On all three albums, it’s just been the two of you, only helped out a little by guitarist Brian Koenig. Do you think that the duo-format suits you best, or have you simply not found musicians who are on the same wave length as yourselves?
Czar: – JH Halberd and I and are not interested in bringing in other songwriters, which would make things more complicated and dilute the clarity of our shared vision. The two of us have plenty ideas for this band and can handle all of the instruments to our satisfaction, with the exception of lead guitar, which is handled by the extraordinary talent, Brian Koenig.
While Czar himself has enough to do, taking care of both vocals and drums, JH Halbred is probably the busiest guy, handling amongst other things, guitars, bass, keyboards and trumpet. Czar agrees that the guy is a real multi talent.
Czar: Indeed – JH is quite capable. He has been around musical instruments and musicians his entire life, and can play a wide array of instruments, such as piano and trumpet and guitar and xylophone, and he is a seasoned live bass guitarist as well. His ingrained sense of tempo and pitch is quite incredible! Throughout the twenty-five years of our friendship, JH has certainly helped me become a better drummer and singer.
Did the desire to create something truly different and original come as a reaction to what you felt was a boring scene, or is the music simply created without looking much at what is going around round you? Do you have to force yourself to think outside the box to create the music of Realmbuilder, or does it come naturally?
Czar: – If I write a riff that sounds like another riff – or sing a melody that reminds me of another song – I will discard it. I don’t believe in homages or borrowing. And JH Halberd has very avant-garde ideas, so his contributions for Realmbuilder are more comprehensible than his edgy new music compositions as Jeff Herriott. It is not an effort to be different, we simply are different in this and all of our creative endeavors.
When you read reviews of your own work, is there a big difference in how the listener interprets your music and the vision you have for it?
Czar: – For the most part, people who like our music yearn for a metal that hearkens back to olden times and has an earnest approach with clear melodic ideas and big cinematic spaces.
“Blue Flame Cavalry” is Realmbuilder’s third album for I Hate Records. Czar says that no formal deal has existed, but Peter at the label was an instant supporter of the band and always delivers a nice looking product. Each time, the guys have presented the album to him when it’s done, and he has wanted to put it out.
Some people see a reference to both “Crystal Logic” by Manilla Road as well as “The Wicker Man” in the cover art to “Blue Flame Cavalry”. Intended or not? How does the cover art connect with the title track of the album?
Czar: – I like that movie and that album, but no, the cover is not a reference to either of those things, but is instead, me painting images that connect the songs on the album.
Being an author, writing novels and scripts for movies, does Czar see himself as a storyteller also when it comes to writing lyrics in Realmbuilder?
Czar: – In music, the music comes first for me. The lyrics should enrich the music, but when music services the lyrics, cohesion can be threatened. A song like “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an example of music following the lyric – I find it a tedious song to listen to, jam-packed with the massive amount of lyrics, all of which are sung in a very regular way.
As I mentioned, the new album is my favourite so far, and I also prefer the second album to the debut. The songwriting and the performance seem better. What, in you opinion is the biggest difference between the debut and “Fortifications Of The Pale Architect”?
Czar: – I am glad that you enjoy “Fortifications of the Pale Architect” more than the debut – that’s nice to hear! The single biggest difference between “Fortifications of The Pale Architect” and “Summon the Stone Throwers” is that the former is confident. On our debut, we created the Realmbuilder sound, but on “Fortifications…”, we sharply defined our sonic identity. The recording itself is sharper, though still natural, and the performances are more intense. Additionally, the worldbuilding is larger, especially on the title track and the album closer, “The Stars Disappeared from the Sky When We Uncovered the Bones of the First Gods.”
Do you see “Blue Flame Cavalry” as an even more confident effort where you have sharpened your “sonic identity” further?
JH Halberd: – Yes.
Czar: – “Blue Flame Cavalry” is more confident than “Fortifications of the Pale Architect”, but I feel there is a more noticeable jump in sound and performance from the first album to the second rather than the second to the third. The big change on the new album is that we constructed two very, very big songs that go through multiple sections and colors before reaching their conclusions. “Advance of the War Giants” has enough material for two or three songs, and we found it a challenge to make it all flow and cohere. The experience of the first two albums enabled us to make something like this.
The two of you are both very creative, doing lots of different stuff. Do you see Realmbuilder as an outlet for more or less the same ideas that inspires Czar to write horror western, or JH Halberd to compose other genres of music, or is it a different part of your creativity coming through?
Czar: – We are metalheads. There would be a hole in my life creatively if I was not involved with making this type of music. Music is a driving force for me every single day no matter what kind of project I am working on, and metal is my favorite type of music. As with writing westerns, science fiction, and crime books, I make metal because I enjoy metal and have a distinct and different thing that I want to add to the art form.
JH Halberd: – Czar and I have not only been attending metal shows together for nearly 25 years, we’ve also been making or playing music together for most of that time, despite not living in the same city since the early nineties. We both love this music and enjoy creating it together. Although we’ve both done all kinds of different things professionally in the intervening years, active collaborative participation in metal has been a constant in our lives for a long time.
Arrest me if I am wrong, but I have an impression that Realmbuilder is a band who sees an album as something more than just a collection of songs. You talk about the word epic in the meaning “a grand journey” and I guess each of your three albums can also be viewed as one. Do you start with an idea for the whole album, and write the songs to fit this idea, or is the album first constructed when the individual songs are composed?
Czar: – We start generating material and then start to figure out how the how whole album will work. On the new album, we knew that we wanted to explore much bigger songs, and also have a somber digression as a mood changer (“Adrift Upon the Night Ocean”). Once things starting cohering, we knew what this album would be.
The playing time on the new album is about the same as on the debut, but five minutes shorter compared to “Fortifications Of The Pale Architect”. The biggest difference however, is that the new album only contains four songs. Does that make each track more important as they all are a big part of the product that is the full album? Has the thought of doing a single, long song and releasing it as an album been discussed?
Czar: – I feel it is harder to make a song work really well for ten or 12 minutes than it is to write shorter, catchier songs such as the opening track, “They Write Their Names With Fire”. When a song takes up as much time as “Advance of the War Giants” or “Blue Flame Cavalry”, it has the responsibility of elevating or injuring an album more significantly than would a song of normal length. So to answer your question, yes, their duration makes them more important. And yes, we have discussed doing even longer material though I find progressive rock groups like King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Museo Rosenbach have been more successful with songs approaching 20 minutes than have most metal bands, excepting of course Reverend Bizarre, Summoning and Manilla Road, who have pulled it off very well.
Were the two long songs included partly because you wanted to challenge yourself?
Czar: – The goal was not to challenge ourselves, but to create more engrossing worlds on a bigger scale. And only in so doing did we learn that is takes more effort to pull off an engaging and coherent 12 minutes song than three four minute songs.
I’ve seen some people call your album covers (at least the first two), your logo and even the music (also on the first two) a bit amateurish and naïve. What are you trying to communicate with each of these elements?
Czar: – There is nothing naïve about what we do – we are self-aware songwriters, artists and musicians making original music that we enjoy and are proud of. As a drummer, singer, and visual artist, I have limitations, but my drumming, my voice and my visual art are heartfelt and unique to Realmbuilder. We don’t look or sound like anybody else and we never will. I spent years a music critic for Metal Maniacs (actually, I was flown to Norway to interview Emperor) and for my own ‘zine (The Ultimate Steel Dissector), and I never praised or criticized a band for being “professional” or “unprofessional”. Mark Shelton of Manilla Road has a strange (and great) wizard voice that is unique to his band, just as Gianni Nepi’s odd melodies and weird enunciation help define Dark Quarter’s sound. No album covers looked like Voivod album covers, until Voivod came into existence. Are all of these “professional”? That’s irrelevant to me. I believe that they are good, unique and holding to a singular identity. I certainly prefer the aesthetic – both visual and musical – of Von or Minotauri or Moonblood or Trespass or St. Vitus over most of the polished and heartless heavy metal that is produced en masse. The bottom line is simple: does the music involve you and take you on a journey? That is what JH Halberd and I like and that is what we are trying to create.
Metal fans have always had a love for the obscure acts, those who most haven’t heard about because they have a rather low profile on the internet and when it comes to promotion, those who sound completely different, or those with unique cover art. Is this something you deliberately explore in the concept that is Realmbuilder?
Czar: – We’re not seeking out obscurity…but yes, we have achieved it. We want people to hear our music, but it’s not for most people…not even most metalheads. Our music is not angry nor aggressive nor technical, and a lot of metalheads expect that in their music.
JH Halberd: – We make music we want to hear. It’s not much more complicated than that.
But if the music isn’t angry, nor aggressive or technical, which are all basic ingredients in most types of metal, why is it still meaningful to call Realmbuilder a metal band?
Czar: – To me, an essential difference between metal and rock and roll is that metal creates images of other places/worlds/times – often realms of conflict, fantasy, horror, and glory, rather than the image of a bunch of guys “jamming on a stage, rockin’ out.” Additionally, metal has more atmospheric qualities than does most rock music, and often metal has more creative arrangements than do typical rock songs (excepting the progressive side of rock). So in all of these regards, Realmbuilder is a metal band. Speed, technicality and aggression are a part of some metal music we enjoy – Emperor, Bolt Thrower, Immortal, Destroyer 666, vintage Megadeth, Hate Eternal, Manowar, Lost Horizon – but to us, those attributes are not the defining elements of metal.
At first I felt I had to be in a particular mood to listen to the new album, but since then I have found myself returning to it very often and in all kinds of situation, all around the clock. A sign that “Blue Flame Cavalry”, just like most other metal albums, is an easy consumed affair?
Czar: – I am glad that you enjoy the release so much. I don’t think our music is easy – the listener needs to be patient and use his imagination, and because we discard ideas that are clichés, the listener is forced to listen to music that he has not ever heard before.
I think the album sounds great. The guitar tone is killer while the drums are heavy and authentic. Do you see the album as an upgrade from you first two when it comes to the sound? Have you used the same equipment and facilities?
Czar: – Thanks for the kind words. JH Halberd is far more responsible for the sound than I am, but yes, this time there were some upgrades in equipment and JHH’s abilities at the mixboard.
JH Halberd: – I agree that this is our best-sounding album, and I appreciate your use of the term “authentic” to describe the drums. Our goal has always been to sound natural and direct, focusing on the riffs and the melodies, and I feel that this album is the most successful in that regard. I should also mention that Brian Koenig contributed some amazing guitar textures to the album. His solos have always been exceptional, but on this album his additional layers added an extra dimension to a lot of the music, notably “Adrift Upon the Night Ocean”.
There seems to be a lot of interest in Czar’s scripts as well as his novels at the moment, and he seems very busy. Is he at his best when he has several irons in the fire, instead of finishing one project completely before he moves on to the next? Does he see himself continuing with a small underground act like Realmbuilder alongside everything else he’s doing, or will the band have to make way for collaborations with the likes of mega names like Kurt Russel (in “Bone Tomahawk, a horror western written and directed by Czar also known as S. Craig Zahler) and Leonardo DiCaprio (in “Mean Business On North Ganson Street”, based on a crime novel also written by Czar)?
Czar: – Having a lot of projects going is way to keep sane when one or two or five or six fall through. The thing about the movie business is that even if my projects are made, they are collaborations with a ton of people and altered or better or worse – by a lot of people. Moreover, the end result is a movie and even most of my favorite movies I’ve not seen more than five or six times, whereas a favorite album I might listen to seventy times, eighty times or more. Music is a daily part of my life, and I am a metalhead. My quality of life and financial resources changed a lot in the last six years, and the freedom it gave me was to devote more time to Realmbuilder and my career as a novelist. This band will continue to produce albums unless we decide to make music that could no longer be called Realmbuilder.
Talking about movies, the music of Realmbuilder has always struck me as very visual as it includes a lot of different moods, unusual instruments like horns and trumpets as well as some effective sound effects. Is your knowledge of the film medium something you use when you compose music for the band?
Czar: – I think visually – my books are a very descriptive and I have a lot of visual ideas for all of the projects I work on. Since we are not usually doing “regular” songs, we need to think in terms or worlds—realms—images—and what fits therein. Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Hayao Miyazaki, the Quay Brothers, and the Brothers Hildebrandt inform our creative process as do many other artists…
You mentioned during the last interview we did for Scream magazine, that your main priority was recording albums, but that you would discuss doing some live shows after the release of your third album. Now that it’s out, where do you stand regarding this?
Czar: – We are interested in doing live shows, but recording albums remains our priority. Building worlds is our intention, and sharing these realms in a live venue would be good if our schedule allows us to so.
Thank you very much for your support. Blow the ancient horn!