Zachary Ezrin’ explains how his extreme music amalgam continues to challenge the conventions of death metal in both style and execution
In the last decade, Imperial Triumphant have evolved from Zachary Ezrin’s primarily self-driven black metal project to a full outfit with one of the most well realised, convention-challenging and yet immediately conceptually graspable approaches to extreme music as a whole. Adorned with glimmering Art Deco-inspired masks, Imperial Triumphant play the kind of music an Eyes Wide Shut moneyed up cultist party would enjoy if turned onto death metal, managing to evoke a very particular kind of time and place flavour that in turns evokes a very universal evil.
Where Vile Luxury in 2018 alarmed the underground with the crystallisation of this very bold new sound, Alphaville in 2020 represented them mastering the creation of a whole world in the confines of a record, accompanied by a jump to Century Media Records. That untamed pace of development though continues to be frightening, and its new beguilingly-titled follow-up Spirit of Ecstasy seems determined to throw even experienced Imperial Triumphant listeners for a loop with extended jazz fusion detours, ambient noise pieces, and Kenny G cameos. As Ezrin lays out, it’s death metal – but not as you know it.
Alphaville felt like a real success for your band, not just creatively but in terms of that then resonating and translating to people, which for a band as unique and challenging as yourselves is no mean feat. With this being the third record in the Vile Luxury lineage of this particular version of the band, was there a real sense of being onto something and excitedly continuing to go further down that rabbithole?
I suppose. Just like with Alphaville and Vile Luxury, we always just keep it really organic, and we push ourselves, but we don’t really think about outside forces and just write what comes natural, really exploring the world that we’ve created. It’s definitely got its own sound, which is not an easy thing to do in 2022. However, we’re also very aware of it, and we want to make sure that we’re not ripping off ourselves on the next recording. So even once you develop your own sound, you still have to be careful not to just fall into your own tropes.
You’ve always ran at this pace but with the records becoming so dense and increasingly ambitious, the fact that you’re making these records so quickly just every other year seems kinda insane from the outside.
Well, if you think about it, Spirit of Ecstasy is eight songs, and all three members of the band write, whether it’s collectively or they write on their own songs, so it’s only one member has to write 1/3 of the album. Mathematically, it’s not as much work as it would be if it was just me writing everything, and so with that in mind, we can compose a lot faster than I think a lot of other bands. Someone comes to the table with a big block of an idea, and then collectively, we can chip away at it. The whole album was probably written in like a year if you think about it. We recorded it last September, and that was only like a year I guess of writing. The year after is just mixing, mastering, waiting for vinyl.
You guys are all musicians in a professional capacity playing music in things like jazz clubs and hotels, which must require great deals of musical discipline. Is there any sense of that extreme discipline in the professional environment then spilling over into these unhinged blasts of liberated creativity in Imperial Triumphant?
I think being a professional musician in the New York scene, no matter what genre you are outside of like pop rock studio shit, is you have to be flexible, and you have to be able to communicate and improvise on the spot ideas and stuff like that. So that sort of mentality and sort of flexibility definitely comes into play with Imperial because we are able to bend things and change things, I think faster. Because a lot of the times it’s not parts. It’s not just riffs, that riff A riff B approach, it’s like section A, section B, and thinking about music that way I think is different. I read some comments, some guy listens to our music and says “I heard one riff the whole time”, and I think he meant it to be like an insult. But I was like, “Yeah, you’re probably right” cause it’s not riff driven music. It’s more idea or concept driven. It’s not about okay, this is what the guitars playing, and the drums and bass, they’re gonna back it up. It’s much more of a conversation between the three instruments. And I think that sort of approach does come from a bit of a background.
Alphaville felt very much about the city, it was an urban record particularly of course New York City, so is there a particular world of imagery or ideas that you were going for with Spirit of Ecstasy?
We’re definitely really inspired by 50s film scores, Bernard Herrmann as a composer, that kind of stuff. The old Hollywood and the old cinema definitely plays a influence on the band, New York obviously is still a huge influence as well. Mid-century automobile mentality played a big role in the couple tunes. The idea behind the name Spirit of Ecstasy comes with a lot of focus on detail.
On that note again, Alphaville, the primary city, what is the Spirit of Ecstasy in this sense? The language seems quite hedonistic, which maybe reflects some of the eclectic turns that this record takes in comparison.
Well, the Spirit of Ecstasy actually is the name of the hood ornament on the Rolls Royce. Rolls Royce, an English brand, I got into learning about these luxury brands like Rolls Royce, Rolex and such, and these brands that are creating a product that’s not just expensive for the sake of being expensive, but extremely well made, and extremely focused on minute details that benefit the function and purpose of the product. Take Rolls Royce, for example, they’re not trying to make the fastest car, they’re not trying to make the safest car, they’re not trying to make the most energy efficient car, they’re just trying to make the most luxurious ride. Their sole purpose as a brand and everything they do down to the threading on the steering wheel is focused towards comfort, and luxury. It’s very similar to Art Deco, where they’re like, “we’re going to use the highest end materials we can to create the best product we can, and we’re not going to make a million of them. We’re not going to try to be the biggest car company in the world, but we’re going to be the most luxurious.” And that kind of mentality I tried to apply to death metal.
That’s interesting, because the world building and such definitely gets that kind of high society luxury, but it’s not comfortable, relaxing music.
It’s not, no, but it’s more about that mentality of we’re going to make a death metal album, but we’re going to pay attention to every single detail to make sure it’s the most decadent, over the top maximalist, record. This is the future of death metal, you know, this is extreme. No one can deny that this is very extreme music. And anyone that doesn’t like it, I don’t blame them. This is challenging, even to the modern death metal listener. What’s funny is if you showed this album to someone that just listens to modern classical or avant garde, jazz, or any of those extreme genres, they would be like, “Oh, that’s a cute rock album”. It is about perspective and experience when it comes to listening to this stuff, but what I really, really love is that people are curious. I think the average metalhead is getting more intelligent and more curious about the extreme and not just wanting to settle for what’s been done, and we’re very grateful for that because it is very funny that the more extreme music we make, the more popular we’re getting, and you’d think it’d be the other way around. We’d sign to a major label and we start cranking out pop metal hits and blow up from that, but it’s not such the case.
Where does the album cover come into that Spirit of Ecstasy idea?
The album cover is sort of a blend between Gustav Klimt who was a 20s Vienna Secession painter, and this 20s cabaret dancer named Josephine Baker. We did a photoshoot to recreate that sort of vibe. It’s kind of funny because it’s a very peaceful album cover and it’s not macabre or morbid, like a typical metal band would do, but it’s the most extreme album that we’ve ever done. So it is kind of like a final vision of tranquillity before you’re plunged into absolute chaos and depravity.
This record really does feel madder than the previous few. You spoke about Alphaville being intentionally a more song-based record for you, and with that locked down it’s like this one has just taken so many shots at things. Was this in comparison to that a more intentionally or at least turn out to be a more caution to the wind type experience?
We still consider ourselves very song based but the songs’ concepts have changed. Bezumnaya has a very clear concept-based structure, it’s just what’s played is a lot more freeform. The same goes for In the Pleasure of Their Company which is another chaotic-sounding track but that’s just us vamping on like a 12 bar blues form, with like all these instruments soloing over it and stuff. There’s method to the madness, I guess you could say.
Those two songs are two instrumental tracks that are back to back on the record. You’re talking about taking death metal into the future, but those are the two least death metal songs on the record. Where do those kind of ideas fall into the mix of what Imperial Triumphant is now?
Imperial Triumphant is a band that is going to just keep exploring, you know, at the end of the day. We have tracks like Merkurius Gilded and Tower of Glory which are more classic Imperial Triumphant you could say, with the minor nine chords and delving more into the Bernard Herrmann-esque sort of melodies and chord progressions than just doing typical things of our sub genre, like these big dissonant chords. But at the same time, we’re curious to do a song like Bezumnaya, which is intended to make the listener feel like they’re losing their mind. It’s certainly an interactive record in that sense, we want people to be actively participating.
The structuring starts off with some of the more low end death metal type songs, then there are those two you mentioned that have more of that kind of Bernard Herrmann glitz and glamour to them, and then later you’ve got those two, very out there instrumental tracks back to back near the end, so it almost feels like it gets more challenging to the convention as you get deeper into the record.
There’s no concise hit on the album, and every time we ask fans on social media “what’s your favourite song?”, it’s a different answer for every person. Even friends and contemporaries will tell me different songs are favourites and so it really goes to show you that there’s something for everyone on the record, or there’s certain songs that will strike different chords with different people.
It certainly feels like if you put this within the canon of the rest of records, in something like a live set now, you’ve got potential to vary up the kind of songs you’re delivering from setlist to setlist in a way that some really extreme heavy bands can’t quite do so much in the box they’ve painted for themselves.
It makes it almost harder, though, because now we don’t know exactly which songs to play. We only have a certain set length, and they’re all fun for us, and they seemingly are all enjoyed by everyone. So yeah, it’s tricky.
To get back to what you were saying about songs being structured conceptually but the actual playing being more freeform, traditional metal technicality going back to great bands like Megadeth and so on, it can be very precise and specific in terms of note choices. With your jazz backgrounds, are you able to bring a more freeform and improvisational sensibility to what you consider technical metal, compared to bands with more traditional technical thrash or technical death metal backgrounds?
We’re just pushing the genre where it’s going to go anyway. If you study the history and trajectory of classical music, you know, it starts out very simple, lots of rules, and over hundreds of years, the rules start getting broken. By the time we get to the 20th century, people have deconstructed the music to the point where it is completely atonal and beyond, then you look at the history of jazz music and again, starts very primitive, very simple, getting more complex. Speeds also start comes into play with songs getting faster, players getting better, everyone pushing the boundaries of how fast you can play, how complicated you can play. Once it gets to a point, then they start going into the direction of how out there and weird it can get, because no one can play any faster, and that’s exactly the trajectory that metal’s at. It’s Primitive, then you get to the 80s where people start really developing ideas, and you get bands like Megadeth with unbelievable, precise solos, and then you get to the 90s and 2000s, where death metal becomes like super, super, precise and you get acts like Necrophagist who are unbelievably precise, but like, how much faster can you go? You realise there’s another angle, you don’t have to just keep going faster or more brutal, you can choose to sound maybe less controlled and more chaotic, more dissonant. That’s an angle that I think is slowly sinking into the average listener, that not everything has to be strong and machismo. It can be feeble and pianissimo, and there’s darkness within that. I think that’s maybe where Imperial Triumphant can thrive, making dark music, not necessarily just heavy music. I think what’s most important and the only real thread we have still connecting us to the black metal genre is atmosphere, and that is the atmosphere of darkness. We’re going to use classical music, we’re going to use jazz music, we’re going to use quote “world music”, which is pretty much anything not from the West. All these influences we’re going to bring into our form of extreme metal in order to create an air of darkness, an atmosphere of sinister energy, and I think that is working very well for us.
Is there a clear idea to with the non-traditionally metal components of your sound, to make them add and accentuate the extremity and heaviness rather than form a contrast or alleviate it?
Yeah. because then it becomes part of the music not just like a little joke.
Kenny G makes his presumably first appearance on an extreme metal record. How did that come together, and more pertinently, what did he specifically bring to that song?
That came together because Max Gorelick who is Kenny G’s son is a friend of the band. He also is an unbelievable guitar player. He used to be Imperial Triumphant for about a year. He now plays in a band called The Mantle, they’re great. He’s also my business partner, we have a small business in New York together, and I was having lunch with him and said, “Hey, look, I’m recording this new Imperial record. We have this idea for a section in a song where there is a guitar duelling with a saxophone. Would you and your father being interested?” They came back with this unbelievable recording, and they didn’t need that much instruction, because they’re just unbelievable players and they understand the direction of the music.
There’s almost an established cast of collaborators now when it comes to Imperial Triumphant that is growing with every record, with the likes of Colin Marston, Trey Spruance, Yoshio from Bloody Panda, and then from record to record as here, Kenny G, Snake from Voivod, Alex Skolnick. How do you feel that your records benefit from these repeated collaborations with people beyond just the three members of the band?
Well, we only work with people that understand our vision, and understand the music, and we’re really grateful that they’re happy to work with us, because often they bring elements into the recording of ideas that I would never have thought of, or would never be able to perform or play. So it’s all for the greater good of the song. I think what’s really important is putting your faith into other artists, and saying, “Here’s my work, my piece, my work, add whatever you think is best”, and not trying to micromanage or control them, letting them do their thing. It has been extremely beneficial to us.
With you referring to the increase in profile of the band aligning with the more confrontational music, do you find yourself thinking about the possibilities of bumping up the live or just visual presentation of the band in grander ways?
Always. We always have guests come out on the stage whenever we can, when we’re in a certain town or whatever. Bumping up the live performance as best we can is always, always important. It’s all just a matter of trying to realise that, where we are still pretty underground, and our live show is still very much DIY. So it involves a tremendous amount of creativity, above all. Whatever we can do, we’re gonna experiment with it. We mess around with lots of different ideas from tour to tour and try to make each concert different from the last time we were in that town just to give the crowd the most interesting experience.
Spirit of Ecstasy from Imperial Triumphant is available now via Century Media Records – HERE
Imperial Triumphant is set to trek Europe later this month for their headlining tour before making it back to the states to support Zeal & Ardor and Sylvaine for a fall wallop. A check the dates and venues below.