ZODIAC: No bullshit heavy metal

IMG_2378A few of you have probably noticed the stream of the excellent new EP “Stone Command” by Zodiac, the heavy/doom metal outfit from Brisbane, Australia. If you haven’t checked out those three tracks yet, go here and listen to them straight away. The EP is also just released on tape by the ever reliable Heavy Chains, if you prefer to have it on some kind of physical format.  I guess there are more people than me who don’t know a lot about this promising act, so I hooked up with a couple of the members, mainly guitarist Leo, but singer Ben also popped in with a few answer, to learn about the past, present and future in the Zodiac-camp.

You guys formed back in 2010. How did you get together, and what kind of expectations and ambitions did you have back then?

Leo: – The band started in 2010 as just Ben and I wanting to play some slow and heavy doom metal, with the emphasis on metal, rather than any kind of stoner or sludge or what have you. Originally Ben was going to play second guitar and sing, so the very beginning of the band was just us bouncing riffs off each other. Soon we roped in Will to drum and our original bass player Mikel, and had a few jams at the DIY venue Will was running at the time, Burst City. Ben realized pretty quickly that he wanted to just sing, so we started hunting around for a second guitarist. This took almost two years, haha. One night we were all at a show that Mikel and Will’s band at the time, Teargas, was playing, and Ben came over and said: “Hey, there’s some guy here with long hair and a Saint Vitus shirt.” It sounds funny but Brisbane is a small, insular city, so for there to be someone who none of us knew who was into classic doom metal was unusual. This Do you feel you had to compromise to get the others on Board?mysterious longhair was Ryan, and we got to talking and did the usual “do you like this band/that band” mating ritual, and roped him into coming and having a jam with us. Turns out he’s a killer guitarist. We got lucky. Right off the bat we knew he was the man for the job, and here we are. As far as ambitions, honestly not a lot other than playing some heavy doom metal the way we liked it.

I believe you and Ben had a bit of a different vision for the band to begin with. How did this differ from what later became Zodiac?

Leo: – Yeah that’s right, originally we wanted to do a super slow, ultra heavy caveman doom band, almost a Saint Vitus worship band really. Both of us were really into the Dream Death demos at that time as well, and that kind of primitive, basement dwelling sound.

Do you feel you had to compromise to get the others on board?

Leo: – No, there definitely wasn’t a compromise to get the others on board, if anything we had to compromise to get them to go along with the more up-tempo heavy metal stuff that we started doing later! Mikel and Ryan were into the idea of keeping things slow and heavy…I remember the first time I brought a fast, NWOBHM-ish song into the practice room it was “No”s across the board, haha. It was very poppy though. One for the solo project maybe.

Is Zodiac your first attempt at really slow and heavy metal, or have any of you done something similar before?

Leo: – I was in a slow and heavy, sludge-leaning band called Acidhammer for a few years before Zodiac. Never recorded anything, just played live around town. We’ve all been in other bands but no other slow and heavy stuff, no.

As I am sure you are aware of by now , there is a pretty well known German band also called Zodiac. They released their first demo in 2011. I guess you simply didn’t know about them when you formed? For what I know, you might have been first using the name too. Even though they play a different kind of music, at least they’re on a well known metal label, so that could cause some confusion. Have you been approached by the other Zodiac, and have you ever considered changing the name?

Leo: – Yeah, I only became aware of them after we’d been playing for a while and already put the first demo out. We haven’t been approached by them, no. I think that the kind of music both bands play is different enough, and we move in different enough circles, that hopefully the two bands can co-exist. In this day and age, there’s so many bands and only so many cool one-word band names. Two Sabbats, two Solstices, two Sacrileges…hopefully people can handle two Zodiacs.

As far as I know, you have managed to keep a stable lineup since you formed. Does this mean that you have a strong common understanding on how you should sound, how much you should play live and in general how much time you should invest in Zodiac?

Leo: – Well actually…haha. We do have a new bass player, Finn, as Mikel left the band at the start of the year. We’re still great mates, and I don’t want to speak for him, but basically he just wasn’t as interested in playing live and touring. Which was fair enough, because when we started the band it was very much a “project” that would be mostly focused on recording and playing very occasionally. That changed over the last couple of years, so we were just pulling in different directions. Just the natural evolution of a band, and the natural progression of people’s lives, I guess. Finn’s fitting in great, he’s a killer bass player and a good mate so all is well. He’s already making his presence felt with the new stuff we’re writing.

Looking back, about five years have passed since you formed the band, have things progressed the way you would’ve liked?

Leo: – Yeah I think so. I’ve never had a “plan” for the band or anything like that, I just want us to keep getting better and keep writing music that we love. We’ve been a bit slower to get new music out than I would like, but that comes with the territory of being an underground band in this day and age. I beat myself up a bit thinking “in the time you’ve been a band, Black Sabbath would have put out five records”, but the comparison is stupid when you think about what being in a band then was like versus what it is now. Everyone in this band works full time and a few of us play in other bands as well and we’re all generally busy as fuck with the realities of daily life. It can be frustrating but we do it cause we love it. Although sometimes I wish my life was like that Axe (pre-Fist) song, “S.S. Giro”.

Both facebook and bandcamp-addresses say “Zodiacheavymetal”. Do you see yourself as a heavy metal band, not a doom metal band as many would suggest?

Leo: – Ah, the genre question. It’s a weird one, cause to me doom metal is not so much a sound as it is a feeling and a vibe. Saint Vitus doesn’t sound anything like Trouble, Pagan Altar doesn’t sound anything like Solitude Aeturnus, you know? But they’re absolutely doom metal bands. If people want to call us a doom metal band because there’s some feeling in our music that calls back to those bands, or to Candlemass or Pentagram or whoever you want to mention, that’s a huge compliment to me. We call ourselves a heavy metal band because here in Australia there’s a lot of bands that call themselves doom, or that people call doom, that to me sound like bargain bin seventies rock or shitty Kyuss clones. Bands that are for guitar shop bros where tone and gear are more important than songwriting. There’s a certain amount of ironic distance to a lot of it that we’re not interested in. We want to play loud, no bullshit heavy metal where the song comes above all else. Man I don’t know if I answered your question or just made it more confusing, haha.

Going back to the first demo, were these tracks among the very first you wrote? How do you view these songs today? Will any of them be included on the forthcoming album?

Leo: – They were, yeah. There was one other tune very early on that Ben wrote, called “Woman in Black”, that was very heavy and Vitus-esque. There’s a rehearsal recording of it floating around somewhere, from before Ryan joined. I actually think it’s a really cool song. Maybe something will come of it one day. I still really like that demo, we actually played “Vertigo” live in Hobart last month, for the first time in a couple of years. Getting that back up to speed in the practice room made me realise the affection I have for that particular tune. The other two I like a lot too, we still play “Brother Death” now and then just cause it’s not as different to our current sound as “Vertigo” and “Somnium”. I think “Somnium” is great on the demo, I really like the kind of rainy, somber vibe it has, but I don’t really enjoy playing it live anymore, just cause it’s the only one of our long ones that really feels long, and that’s a bad sign to me. Nothing from that demo will be on the LP, no. Onward and upward I reckon.

You released the song “Come Samhain” as a digital single for Halloween 2013. Was this a track you wrote specifically with this in mind, with accompanying lyrics and all? I remember reading something about it being included on a compilation as well. Did this happen?

Leo: – Yeah that song came together really fucking fast, the first song we ever basically wrote in the practice room. The US label Unseen Forces, which was, not sure if they’re still running, run by Tyler of the Ajna Offensive and the artist Dennis Dread, asked us to contribute a song to a Halloween compilation they were planning. Ryan had a riff that he thought sounded a bit Halloween-y, whatever the fuck that means, haha, and we built the song around it in one or two practices. We recorded it shortly after but unfortunately the comp never came out. We still had the song and nothing to do with it, so we figured we’d just chuck it up on the internet for free.

The tree tracks on “Stone Command”, are they demo versions of songs that will appear on the forthcoming full length? Did you plan to release the recordings to begin with, or were they recorded primarly to be used within the band?

Leo: – You guessed it, they were originally just going to be demos for the LP but we ended up really liking the recording, and by the time it was finished we knew that “The Noose” wasn’t going to make it onto the LP, so we figured: “Why let the recording go to waste?” “The Devil’s Cavalry” and “Legacy” will be on the LP. Listening to this recording now, I feel this version of “The Devil’s Cavalry” is very stiff compared to how it sounds when we play it live now, and the recording we’ve done for the LP. Hopefully the LP version has a bit more swagger and life to it.

zodaicListening to these tracks, there is not much “demo” about them. I really hope you’re going for this type of sound on the forthcoming album as well? Transparent, yet heavy as hell!

Leo: – I agree man, that thing turned out really well for what was supposed to be just some quick demos. Both guitar amps in one big open room, the bass amp in a hallway, the drums in a smaller room, all tracked live then some overdubs over the top for solos and bits and pieces. We recorded the LP in a pro studio, but in basically the exact same way, with the same gear as the “Stone Command” demo except the drums. It’s unmixed as yet, but I think it sounds fucking great. The guitars are blended really well, with enough differentiation and separation between the two and the bass without losing the heaviness. The drums sound massive too. I always want to record as much “live” as possible, and without click tracks, and build on the track from there. Of course you get variations in tempo and a bum note here and there, but the energy and power that comes from a band locking in together in the same room is very important to me.

As there are no song with that title on the tape, I was wondering why you have chosen “Stone Command” as the title? Is it valid for the lyrical content of all three tracks, or is it perhaps the working title for the album?

Benedict: – The title is more me trying to capture the very solid and earthy feeling that I get from the music. That indefinable sense of being connected to something older and greater than yourself.

How would you compare the new demo to the first one? Was there something about the first one that you really wanted to improve?

Leo: – Well it’s faster, right out of the gate with “The Noose”. The songs are a little more complex as well. “The Devil’s Cavalry” is a very simple, pop-structured song, but “The Noose” and “Legacy” are a bit trickier. It’s not prog rock or anything, but compared to “Vertigo” which has two riffs and four chords, they’re…I dunno…jazz fusion? The one thing I was very conscious of when I listened back to the first demo before recording “Stone Command” was that the leads are very very quiet. I don’t remember consciously telling Geordie, who recorded the first demo, to bury the leads or anything like that, I think it was just a confidence thing. I’d never played leads in a band before, and Ryan had never been in a band before at all, so I think there was a subconscious desire to hold back and hide a little. Not so on “Stone Command” or the LP, for better or for worse, the leads are in your face, which is how we wanted it.

To me the new songs feel a little more melodic, dynamic and diverse compared to what I think was a very “doomy” first offering. I also feel the vocals are improved, with more exciting lines and melodies.

Leo: – OK! I agree. I think it’s just the natural progression that comes when you work on writing songs. I don’t consciously decide “today I’m going to write a song that sounds like Pagan Altar, today it’s Brocas Helm” or anything like that. I tend to just get ideas for a riff or a melody or whatever, and build it from there, and whatever best serves that particular song is what I go with. I am also powerless to resist guitar harmonies. Everyone knows Thin Lizzy is the greatest band of all time. Why fight it?

Benedict: – I’ve only been singing as long as Zodiac has existed, I’ve come a long way but there’s still a long road ahead of me…If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

What purpose do the lyrics have in your music? Are you storytellers, or do you a message that you want to get out? Or are simply the lyrics written to reinforce the atmosphere of the music?

Benedict: – All of the above really; obviously the lyrics need to match the tone of the song and ideally writing about something that matters means you can bind the lyrics to the very tangible emotional weight of the music. To me lyrics are really important; I was definitely one of those kids that sat there headphones on obsessing over the lyric sheet.

If I understand right, the material for a full length album is written, but not recorded? Where do you plan to record it, and do you have the studio booked?

Leo: – The music is actually all recorded, Ben just needs to finish the vocals then we’ll be on to mixing. We recorded at a place called The Shed here in Brisbane, with Bryce Moorhead, who’s a great local engineer, he really captured the way we sound playing in a room all together. We were really glad that Mikel could play on the record before he moved on, and I think it captures this first period of the band really well. We tracked all the basic tracks completely live, but we did a few more overdubs on this one, a few cheeky three guitar harmonies here and there. Just little flourishes that we wouldn’t be able to play live, but that make the record a little different to the pure live sound. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out so far, now we just gotta crack the whip on Ben to finish the bastard!

Do you feel that the three songs on ”Stone Command” show the full width in your expression, or will the album be even more diverse?

Leo: – The LP is a little more diverse actually. There are two songs on the LP that are the fastest we’ve ever done, and probably ever will do, and the last track is the slowest and most melancholy thing we’ve done. That said, we were very conscious of not making the record just a bunch of songs that sound tossed together. We were conscious of sequencing the thing and how the songs would fit together all through writing the album. It’s six tracks, just around 40 minutes I believe. The perfect album length in my opinion, and I think it all hangs together really well. It is diverse in sound, but I feel that it all sounds like us.

Looking at the live performances you have done, you have played with very different bands, from pure heavy metal to extreme metal on the same bill. Is this the only way if you want to perform live in your area, or do you honestly feel you reach out to new people being part of these gigs?

Leo: – A little of both really. Brisbane is a small city, and there’s just not many bands playing classic heavy metal or traditional doom metal. Like you said, if we want to play live, we’ll be playing with a lot of different bands, it’s just the reality of it. I don’t mind it at all though. One of my favourite shows we played last year was with the death metal bands Undergang and Cauldron Black Ram, and the black thrash band Mongrel’s Cross. I was curious to how we’d go down with that crowd, but it ended up being a really fun show and people really got into it. Same thing with Maggotfest, a primarily punk-oriented festival we played in Melbourne on Halloween last year. I thought we might go down like a lead balloon, but it ended up being an absolutely raging show and people really dug it. I kind of like the challenge of playing to a crowd who are not predisposed to like you because you’re playing the kind of music they came to see.

There seem to be a few quality bands from Australia coming through at the moment, especially within the more traditional metal circles. Do you follow the scene in your home country closely? Which acts have impressed you most?

Leo: – Absolutely, some really killer bands getting around at the moment. I love the Outcast tape from last year, I’ve known Fong and Kirk for a long time and it’s fucking great to see the love that band is getting from all over the place, because the songs just rule. Similarly Teuton, who we got to play with in Melbourne last month, put out a fucking awesome promo tape. “Firestorm”, what a tune! Can’t wait to see what comes next from that lot. On that same trip last month we made it down to Hobart to play with The Wizar’d, which was awesome as I’ve loved that band for years and years, ever since a friend of mine played me their “Smouldering Sinners” 7” way back when. I thought their last LP was brilliant, it baffles me that they continue to fly under the radar a bit. In Brisbane we play a bit with our good mates Frown, who are an incredibly heavy and unique band. Their main man Gus pulls influence from over the place and is deeply into all kinds of heavy metal, doom metal and psychedelic music which all comes through in their music. I loved their LP from last year, and they’re a really powerful live band.

Will of Heavy Chains seems to have a hand in almost every interesting Australian act at the moment. How did you hook up with him for the release of “Stone Command”, and what’s your favourite release on his label so far?

Leo: – Yeah he’s a very shady character, the puppet master of Australian heavy metal! Ben got in touch with him through Fong at some point, because we liked what he was doing with Heavy Chains, and luckily he liked the stuff we sent him. I’m gonna say my favourite Heavy Chains release is the third Tarot tape, “The Watcher’s Dream”. I think “Twilight Fortress” is a really amazing song, and there’s this one guitar part in the song “The Wasp” that made me say: “Oh you motherfucker” out loud the first time I heard it, because it was just so simple but so beautiful and I was so pissed off that I hadn’t written it.

Will you continue working with Heavy Chains in the future, or do you maybe have a deal in place with another label for the album?

Leo:  – Absolutely, the loose plan is to release the upcoming album on Heavy Chains in CD and tape format, and hopefully get someone in Europe or the US to put out the LP version. Of course we’d love to do the whole thing with Will but postage to and from Australia has just gotten so ridiculous that it wouldn’t be possible to get the record to people outside Australia without them having to pay stupid money for it. Hopefully this will be a good way around it.


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