Resurrected ’80s epic thrash metal act MaelstroM are releasing their first album, Of Gods and Men, after 32 years. Decibel and MaelstroM are proud to premiere the single, “Th13teen Within A Circle,” a dynamic thrash opera that is as aggressive as it is scenic. Of Gods And Men follows a similar concept album trajectory as 2112 and Operation: Mindcrime, but uses a different filmic narrative.
Explore “Th13teen Within A Circle” while MaelstroM vocalist Gary Vosganian eloquently details the inner workings of his band, his writing partners, and the resilience it took to keep MaelstroM from vanishing into thin air. The interview with Vosganian follows the song player.
Gary Vosganian: First off, thanks for this interview, Chris. Really beyond appreciated. I’d have to say the single most important factor to resurrect MaelstroM was a review we received (literally out of nowhere) in the mid-2000s from Roman at Forgotten Steel. It was for our second demo This Battle To Make History, Yet History Never Comes. That review really spoke to us… it was almost like reading something we had written ourselves because it was verbatim what Joey [Lodes] and I felt all along… that it really was unbelievable to us that MaelstroM never had the opportunity to release a full-length album. We had garnished a ton of local New York notoriety in the late ’80s, and we were pretty respected in the worldwide underground through our demos, but that ever-elusive album deal, it never came our way. It was that Forgotten Steel review that ignited us to record our well-received EP It Was Predestined and finally now, 32 years after our first jam, Of Gods And Men, our debut album.
Regarding the band writing and music part of this project Joey and I have always had a shared singular vision for MaelstroM, so the writing was actually pretty easy and Fun. The recording technology, it has come so far from when we first started. Our first demos were recorded on giant boards to 2” reel-to-reel tape. During the mixes, if we blew a cue or a fader moved (and we did, often) it was over. We had to start the song completely from scratch. What Pro Tools has done is, yes, made recording much more easier and cost effective, but where it really shined, in our opinion, was in the editing phase. Just like the editing can make or break a great film, so it is true with music. What Pro Tools allowed us to do was to completely edit sections into and out of songs in some cases, extend certain parts, shorten others, repeat parts later in the song that were never recorded that way, the possibilities were absolutely endless, and honestly the tech let us write after recording. It basically allowed us to lay down the basic structure of the song in the recording phase and then with editing fine tune everything for maximum impact. A great example of this is the song “Lament Of The Fallen”
The Northeast Corridor has a lot heavy metal talent. Where do you see MaelstroM among the likes of Symphony X, Dream Theater, and Virgin Steele?
Gary Vosganian: Yes, so many great bands and musicians have come out of the Northeast. It’s amazing if you really think about it. To be surrounded back then by so much talent really inspired us and pushed us to develop our style and be as unique as possible. What gave MaelstroM our identity, we always felt, was while most New York “thrash” bands were influenced by the usual “Big 4” we were more heavily influenced by the European Thrash scene. Kreator, Coroner, Sabbat, Destruction, Celtic Frost, Sodom just to name a few. Even to this day Joey and I have this saying, “WWKD: What Would Kreator Do?” But that European style was melded with what was happening in New York by bands like Overkill, and Joey would infuse his classical guitar training into it as well. On top of that, I write conceptually and created this fantasy-based story that adds a somewhat power metal motif to our overall look and feel.
Your music is very aggressive yet melodic. How would you describe MaelstroM musically?
Gary Vosganian: I think the term “genre-bending” is how most people out there describe MaelstroM. Joey and I have coined the term “cinemetal” for us, basically creating a visual soundscape in your head that plays out more like a movie than a bunch of songs. For us, the adherence to a genre does not matter, whatever the song needs, whatever it takes to coerce an actual feeling from our listener, that’s that we’re going to do. It goes beyond just having a good riff. It starts by having that good riff, but if the song calls for beautiful orchestral work and choirs, it’s going to be there. If the song needs the most brutal death metal riffs and vocals we can do, then we’ll do it. If the song needs soaring melodies both vocally and musically, done. So we’re actually borrowing from several genres like power metal, death metal, doom, European thrash, neo-classical, even some NWOBHM and classic Sabbath and mixing it all into one metal melting pot we call MaelstroM. As far as very aggressive yet melodic, Joey has this uncanny ability to make even his most heavy riffs sound beautiful which came from his years of studying classical music. Also going back to ‘89, we were doing shows with Winter, Demolition Hammer, Malevolent Creation, To The Pain, Sorrow, Kronin, Cold Steel and Suffocation. Actually Suffocation’s very first show was with MaelstroM at Sundance in Long Island. All awesome bands and guys, but man, you had to be heavy to survive on bills with these bands. Speaking of Winter, guitarist Stephen Flam recruited Joey to play some solos on his brand new Göden album Beyond Darkness, which Decibel has already world premiered. It’s beyond heavy.
What was writing like now compared to writing in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s? Same process? Or, have you since updated the process?
Gary Vosganian: Writing this album was a dream. We joke that these songs literally wrote themselves, or re-wrote in most cases, but they really did. Joey and I see very eye to eye on what “feels right” in a MaelstroM song. In the past when we had four (and five) band members… writing was an arduous process because everyone wanted to contribute. Now, that collaboration is great but when you have that many chefs in the kitchen, everything takes so much longer to agree upon, songs end up being a collection of compromises, and invariably egos are going to clash. It’s just human nature, and they did. With this album, Joey wrote all of the music and I wrote all of the lyrics. It’s really that simple, and it works because I know nothing about actually playing instruments and Joey knows nothing about writing lyrics. So, in that respect we’re hoping to become the Webber/Rice of metal. When it came to song arrangements we would shoot ideas back and forth. Joey would easily demo arrangement ideas at home and email them to me and I’d give him my input. Also with the final editing we were both very hands on. There were times in the studio editing process where Joey would be there and I would hear a daily edit on a song and there was something completely new created. We loved to surprise one another. My favorite example of that was the song “Lament Of The Fallen”.
It was originally going to be the beginning you hear now and then like a six-minute classical solo. Joey had demoed the ideas, but couldn’t find them and really wanted to use what he had. It was hanging back for a long time and one day I had an idea in the studio to use the intro we already had but looped, two more times. Ed Marks, our keyboardist and vocals engineer, set up my request and I set myself to task the job of writing new lyrics while in the studio for the two new passes. I wrote in some parts for my wife Dawn who is on five of the tracks and me, Dawn and Ed banged out the new version. It felt so right, so I presented it to Joey after working it for two days and said, “Bro, I have a surprise with ‘Lament,’ take a listen and let me know what you think.” He shit. He then added more and so did Ed with keys and violin, each pass building on the next. What we thought was going to be a filler track or possibly even tossed all together became an absolute highlight on the album. That’s a specific example that was a part of the magic of the writing this time around. One day we would love to put out some recordings of the metamorphoses of these songs from early live shows in ‘88-’89, to our demo tapes, to the EP, to the new demos for the album and culminating to their final form on Of Gods And Men. Two Chefs, that was the key.
Do you view Of Gods and Men as a heavy metal opera? There’s so much going on musically and thematically.
Gary Vosganian: Absolutely and this goes back to the Webber/Rice analogy. I know Joey’s mentioned in interviews the very first music he ever remembers hearing as a child was the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan, and he’s actually performed guitar for Jesus Christ Superstar on several off-Broadway productions. It was a huge influence on him, not in the “religious” sense, but in that grand epic musical sense. Another huge influence on Joey was James Horner’s work on Wrath Of Khan as well as John Williams’ score to Empire Strikes Back. He’s done lessons for Guitar World specifically about these two scores. So, musically he’s influenced by the these two gigantic space operas and he approached MaelstroM from that mindset. Having melodies and certain rhythmic motifs repeat throughout the album, making it more a cohesive metal “soundtrack” if you will, as opposed to a collection of riffs. Thematically, it all began back in 1988. Joey wrote the song “Predestined” as our first track ever, and I put lyrics to it. After looking at what I had penned I what thought “I could build a story around this”, but “Predestined” was very close to the end of the tale, so I started the backstory. I created characters and built an outline and started to rough out the various “chapters” as songs. I knew it would take ten chapters to tell this story correctly. The next songs were “Arise” and “Bloody Remains”–the latter which has been shelved and is now a theme, and chapter-wise taken over by “Army From Ash”. Both these tracks take place in the very beginning of the concept, so I had a beginning and an end, early on. One very important aspect about the Themes and concept is that it also gets conveyed in the Music, this is where Joey and I really mind meld, I will say hey this is going on in the story right now, can we get a riff that feels like this? Some great examples are in “A Futile Crusade,” where there is an army marching to war and Joey used a “William Tell” march-like theme. Another is the song “Th13teen Within A Circle,” which is the track Decibel is debuting. There is an incredibly “evil” middle section he wrote at my request as I explained this is a moment of extreme dread and fear. It involves a dark priest and is basically the moment of a sacrifice that if fulfilled, will tip the fate of the world into darkness. Theme aspects of MaelstroM also follow through in the art we use. Each song has its own piece of art to help drive the story visually. I concept and design everything and coordinated with four other artists to each do one or two pieces. Each person is someone I know and have worked with in the field of art. Jan Yurland of Darkgrove.net does our cover work. Additionally, we worked with Chris Kalin, Kevin Hooker, and Taylor Lodespoto. As one other point about how we work theme-wise if you look at the track structure, the first song is “Arise” coming in at a time of 6:18. The fifth is “Lament of the Fallen” which closes out Part I and also clocking in at 6:18. And the final track is “SonRise” closing out Part III and it is 12:36. So, track 10 is exactly the sum of tracks one and five, in terms of length. It is architecture in sound and design, you may not notice it but you will sense the balance. It is all very purposeful.
Would you consider it of similar fabric as 2112, Operation: Mindcrime, or The Crimson Idol?
Gary Vosganian: Probably closest to “Saucy Jack”. [Laughs] But seriously thank you for mentioning those albums, 2112 and Operation: Mindcrime are widely considered the best concept albums of all time. I would have to say humbly, yes. I hope so. I know I did everything I possibly could to make this both a story that can be followed lyrically and conceptually, and all I could to play out the vocal narrative I have tried to carve. And giving life to the concept by voicing the various characters. Personally, it would be a dream for me to have this stand the test of time and be regarded as an amazing conceptual work. I would love to see this novelized or adapted for the screen. For me, I left it all there, there was no stone left unturned and no punch pulled. So, I can say I am truly happy with my work, and I know Joey is very happy with his. We fulfilled a life-long dream by finally seeing this through to fruition. The rest is now up to the world.
Of Gods and Men is a 69-minute juggernaut, broken into three acts. What were some of the ideas behind a very long album as opposed to splitting the music into different configurations, like full-length and an EP or three EPs?
Gary Vosganian: Great question. A huge part of the idea behind Of Gods And Men is the fact that it is truly an album. I mean that in the classic sense of the word. As a sonic piece of art. One of music and voice put together to make a cohesive body of work. Very specifically, we wanted this to be a true album experience, like when we would go to a record store and buy a record and play it front to back, taking in the lyrics and art and photos. Albums were experiential back then. Now, very often people don’t buy an album, they simply stream a few select tracks. It was important to us to make something someone would experience as a whole complete piece. I don’t think someone would buy a few chapters of a book, or watch a few random parts of a play or movie, so the idea is to take in Of Gods And Men as a front to back piece of work. The subtitle of the album is An Allegory in an Abandoned Art. The Allegory is the story itself, which is about dogmatic religion and its manipulation over man versus the deeper sense of the true soul and the individual god in us all. The abandoned art is literally the lost art form of an album being a cohesive body of work.
We’re premiering a track off Of Gods and Men. What would you like to say specifically about the track metalheads are going to hear for the first time?
Gary Vosganian: Thank you again Chris for premiering this song–it means so much to Joey and I to be embraced by the likes of Decibel! The track is “Th13teen Within A Circle.” It is the sixth song from Of Gods and Men. It utilizes a motif that appeared earlier in the story on “A Futile Crusade”. This is probably the darkest song we have on the album, both in terms of musicality and lyrical verse, the song is steeped in the concepts of sacrifice and blood rite. The forces of darkness here have won a decisive victory and are now about to sacrifice a newborn child. The infant is the progeny of the group’s male leader and his concubine. This sacrifice is in thanks to the entity of evil they worship for their victory in battle. This will solidify their dominance over the world as an era of slavery and suffering will be ushered in, with these malevolent lieutenants at the helm. The child is one spoken of in prophecy and one that could potentially right the wrongs wrought within the story. It is his blood that must be shed to forever evade that prophetic possibility, and allow evil to rule. This song takes place at the same time but from a different perspective as the song which follows it, “Thief of Light.” If you were watching this as a movie–the events happening in each song would be happening simultaneously and you would see camera cuts illustrating the same situations from different perspectives.
Your debut album, Of Gods and Men, is out at the end of May. What’s it like to finally have an album out?
Gary Vosganian: A debut album 32 years in the making. Just an amazing feeling of elation and relief that we’re finally able to do this. We’ve poured our hearts and soul into this work to create a metal album we’ve always wanted to hear. I know every artist gets a certain feeling from their own work, but if that feeling can translate to others as well, then that art becomes something much more.
You’re releasing Of Gods and Men independently. What are the advantages of a self-release in 2020?
Gary Vosganian: I would say the ultimate advantage of self-releasing an album has to do with deadlines. We have set our own. Joey and I have been through so many adversities along this journey and still go through them today. Joey had to undergo open heart surgery in 2015 to replace a bad congenital valve and has been suffering from flare ups of endocarditis (inflammation/infections) of the heart ever since. Two years ago at a hospital in Valley Stream, NY during another bout of his endocarditis they gave him an I.V. of an antibiotic he had told them he was allergic to, and it left him with debilitating tinnitus, hyperacusis (loud sounds are painful to him), vertigo and hearing loss. He struggles with this everyday. Thankfully, all the guitar and bass parts for the album were all recorded before any of this happened.
A little backstory on some of what we have gone through since deciding to release this, and why not having a set deadline was the only way this could happen for us. When Joey and I decided this is something that we had to do, that we needed to get this album out, the first person we tracked down was our original engineer from our This Battle To Make History demo, Greg Marchak, who was now in Florida at AudioLabs Studios. It was incredible seeing him again and we recorded all of the drums played by the incredible Dan Kleffmann with Greg for all 10 songs. Greg Marchak was renowned for getting absolutely killer natural drum sounds without the use of triggers. So, we record all the drums in Florida with Greg, and a few weeks later we get a phone call that Greg had died from a massive heart attack. We were devastated. Devastated, yet thankful that we were able to reunite and work with him again all those years later. Just an amazing person. Of Gods And Men is the very last project Greg worked on.
So, we have drums for these 10 songs recorded, but now Joey gets accepted to a school he had been applying to for a while and we literally have only a couple of months before he has to leave. There was no way we were going to be able to properly record this entire album in such a short period of time with both of us working full-time jobs and me already having children in my life. But we also didn’t want this dream to be put on hold again. So, we decided to take what were widely considered our three “most popular” songs from our original demos and live shows: “Arise,” “A Futile Crusade,” and “Predestined” and recorded those. This became our first EP, It Was Predestined, and it was a rush-job from start to finish. Things were left in after only one take that could have been performed much better, sounds weren’t as together as they could have been, we had a rendering speed mishap from going from studio to studio so all the guitars and bass on one song had to be completely re-recorded. It was a miracle that it came out half as well as did. It was definitely a learning experience to say the least. On the full album, for those three songs I would say 75% of the rhythm guitars were re-recorded, all of the guitar solos, all of the acoustic guitars, all of the bass guitar, and majority of vocals on “Arise.” All re-recorded, properly. But through it all comes art from all this Adversity.
What tips would you give struggling bands?
Gary Vosganian: From a pragmatic sense–there is the obvious, make sure your chops are good and the songs are well-written and well-recorded. Once that is covered, never underestimate the power of a great PR agent, radio guy, and social media expert. These people become your team and they are who a record label would have either in-house or would be outsourcing. These people are there for you where you cannot be working the phones and the computers trying to get you exposed to the mags, stations, and people that get your name and brand known. Currently, we are using Jon Freeman of Freeman Productions For PR, Munsey and Skateboard Marketing for radio, and Matt From Dropout Media for social initiatives. These are amazing people and great guys. Never underestimate the leverage people on your side with established inroads to the scenes mags, sites, and stations can do for you.
From an idealistic sense–this is a tricky question because to simply say, “Follow your dreams,” is not a complete answer. The only reason why we’re able to talk to you today about this album was because Joey and I were able to fully self-produce Of Gods And Men. It truly was a labor of love that started when we were just kids in high school, but we were able to make our dream a reality, 32 years later, and self-produce this album because we both had careers outside of music. So it’s a double-edged sword. Without the dream there’s really nothing to strive for, but without the funding it is very difficult to make your dream come true. I think, in the end, that’s what MaelstroM represents. That it is never too late to follow your dreams. And make sure you do whatever it takes to bring that dream to fruition. Hopefully, we inspire others who later in life have that unfulfilled dream, that feeling of “What if…” Hopefully, our story inspires the completion of theirs.
** MaelstroM’s Of Gods and Men is available HERE on May 22nd. Released independently by MaelstroM after 32 years of hard work. Support American thrash! Support MaelstroM today!