Imperial Triumphant look like gold-faced robot-gods from another world, and sound like a city folding in on itself. The New York trio’s dazzling fourth album, Alphaville, takes the building blocks of extreme metal and fashions them into strange new architecture, all weird geometries and sharp edges. Dark urban hymns such as City Swine and Rotted Future stretch up from the rubbish-strewn gutters of the metropolis to the pinnacles of its tallest skyscrapers. “I hear so much music in the sound of the city,” says singer/guitarist Zachary ‘Ilya’ Ezrin. “I can get inspired by the sound of a subway train on the tracks.”
We caught up with Ilya at home in – where else? – the Big Apple to find out just why there’s no one else out there doing what Imperial Triumphant are doing.
So, are Imperial Triumphant a metal band playing jazz and avant garde music or jazz-heads playing metal?
We're not a jazz band, by any means. We do play jazz - especially my rhythm section, they’ve been in the jazz scene for 15 or 20 years. I'm much greener than that - I've only been doing it for five.
But we're all metalheads. We've all played in other metal bands before this. Imperial Triumphant started out as a much more straightforward metal band. But how we developed wasn't so much of a pre-planned idea. It just kind of seeped in.
Your music sounds like organised chaos. Is it?
Absolutely. It's something we've honed over the years by playing hundreds of gigs, and rehearsing even more times. When we play together, there is that controlled chaos - there may not be a set bpm or tempo, it may oscillate, it might change.
The new album is named after Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1965 sci-fi film Alphaville. How did that inspire you?
The album is very dystopian-sounding, like the movie. It has this old retro-futuristic vibe - there’s a lot of evil chords moving around, sinister-sounding and atonal chords, not really giving you a solid place to feel grounded And Alphaville translates as “Number One City”. That’s a very New York mentality.
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New York City seems like its embedded in your DNA.
It's all I've ever known. It's my home, and as I get older I start to understand how different the energy is here. There's the speed and rush of energy in New York that you don't find in other cities. You have to keep going, like a shark that can’t stop swimming. The more I travel, the more I realise there really is no other place like New York City. The energy and atmosphere and the architecture. The architecture in New York City never ceases to amaze me. The masks, the merchandise, the aesthetics, the lyrics, are all inspired by skyscrapers - especially ones created in the 30s and 40s.
Mr Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance co-produced Alphaville. How did that come about?
Our drummer, Kenny Grohowski, plays in Secret Chiefs 3, which is a band of Trey’s. Trey came out to see us play last year, and after the show he said, “I would love to produce your record, is that something you'd be interested in?” We’d never worked with a producer before, so we thought, “Let’s give it a go.” And as far as first producers go, Trey Spruance is a pretty good choice.
He bought a lot to the table. He brought in a lot of samples and stuff that he had written. At first, I was, like, “Whoah, this guy's bringing in his own stuff.” And then I listened to it and it was all amazing. And everything he had written really enhanced the music.
Tomas Haake from Meshuggah also appears on the album, playing Japanese taiko drums on the song City Swine…
That's also a Kenny Grohowski connection. He plays in a heavy metal band with Jessica Pimentel, who is engaged to Tomas. We had our heart set on taiko drums, and someone said we should reach out to Tomas and see if he wants to do them with us. He's a pretty busy guy, so it was just one day in the session, but it worked out great.
What's with the masks?
It's nothing to do with anonymity. In this day and age, it's almost impossible to be anonymous. It just stems from wanting to create a visual presentation for the band - something that matches the music. We want to look like the music sounds.
Which is what?
Which is luxurious and mysterious. Sort of this dark elegance. Something that gives you a little taste and makes you want more.
What were your formative musical influences?
Where did you get into the more esoteric stuff?
In my college days I had a professor who pushed me into listening to more avant garde stuff, whether that was diving into classical stuff or showing me bands like Portal or Einsturzende Neubauten. Just really out there stuff that I wasn't exposed to.
It was a big learning curve for me, because there's a lot of that kind of music that takes some learning to get into. I have some sympathy for people who listen to Imperial Triumphant after first hearing Metallica and think, “What the fuck is this?” Imperial Triumphant isnot the most relaxed, put-it-on-in-the-background-while-you're-cooking kind of thing. If it is, that's great. But sometimes you want a challenge.
I'm guessing you've baffled some audiences in your time.
We've definitely cleared a few rooms in our earlier days. There's a few people who had their minds blown, and there were a few people who thought we were just pure shit.
Do you mind that reaction?
There's no band in the world that's universally loved. You're not gonna be able to please everyone Most bands aren't there to please anyone, they're just there to play music.
What’s the weirdest gig you ever played?
Four years ago, we played in a Chinese restaurant in Washington DC. There was no stage - they were just gonna clear the tables and put amps on it. But there was this big family eating, and they just kept eating. They wouldn’t stop. The entire show had to wait until they finished so they could clear the table. It was a nightmare.
Who are you aiming this at? The metal crowd or the avant garde crowd?
We're just trying to cast a wide net. Our music can be enjoyed by more than just the black and death metal crowd, but I think there's lot of people in the non-metal scene, the classical and avant garde scene, those people can and do enjoy our music.
Are you just out to screw with people’s heads?
I wouldn't say that. There's definitely some subtlety to what we do. We want to surprise people, to where they go, ‘I didn't see that coming.’ But no way would we ever do something just for the sake of being surprising. It all has to make sense within what we do.