In the hallowed halls of modern power metal, Judicator hold a special place. Over the course of three albums they’ve held the banner high for the genre, emphasizing strong, intricate songwriting that balances passion and power, unafraid to incorporate different styles into the mix but always in service to the song. New album The Last Emperor only lifts that banner higher, building off of everything that came before even as it sets itself apart from its predecessors and what the rest of the community is doing. It’s exciting, technical without feeling staid, and an instant contender for end of year lists. You can read our own Power Metal Frank’s take on the album, which I happen to be in complete agreement with, so when the opportunity arose to talk to Tony Cordisco and John Yelland I jumped at the chance.
There’s some great stuff to unpack here, so without further ado check it out after the jump.
It feels like this album has been in the works forever (I had it on my most anticipated albums 2017 list) and in the span from concept to release I know a lot has gone on within the band. How does it feel now that The Last Emperor is seeing the light, and how are you all at this point?
T: Relieved! And satisfied. With this album, it wasn’t so much that production took as long as it did from our last release, but rather it took forever to actually start. From beginning of ACTUAL production to finish, it was only about 10 months, but we intended to start that 10 month period at the end of 2015. Throw in a few career changes, lineup changes, unavoidably busy times at work, a west coast/southwest tour, a few surgeries, some ER visits, some recovery time, some computers dying, some new equipment needed, some moving, some babies, some marriages, and the list goes ever on and we didn’t actually start recording until around the end of February 2017. Once that happened things moved quick from there, relatively speaking. It actually ended up working to our benefit because the album underwent some rewrites and expanded in scope from what it originally intended to be because of it. For instance, the re-recording of “King of Rome” and subsequent music video may never have happened had we started when we intended to. Additionally, “Antioch” started as a 3 minute quick single song and expanded into the epic it is now. “It Falls to Jerusalem” was originally an acoustic ballad and ended up becoming the track that it is now—though the intro remained unchanged. And probably most important of all, the timing with Hansi would not have worked out had we been on the original timetable, so everything worked out quite nicely and led to a much bigger and better album for us. It was a slog to get through, but I couldn’t be happier with where we ended up!
J: To me, it feels like every album needs to be coaxed out of its comfort zone and into the spotlight. With the exemption of King of Rome, solidifying every album’s concept and lyrics has taken time and been a journey in itself. We had two years between Sleepy Plessow and At the Expense of Humanity, and three years between that album and the new one. So we had close to three years to comb over every melody, riff and lyric, and I think it paid off because we’re all very happy with the album. The response so far has been very reassuring.
The Last Emperor is a return to the historical narratives of the earlier albums, and sonically feels like a return as well, especially coming off the darker themes and vibes of At The Expense of Humanity. Was this a conscious decision to go back? How did the process work?
T: This was a semi-conscious decision, at least musically. It was important for me that we not try to victory lap or repeat what we did last time. What we did with At the Expense was deeply personal for a lot of reasons, and to me trying to capitalize on that or repeat it somehow would not only be dishonest, but would cheapen it. I don’t personally believe in victory lapping, and while I doubt I’ll ever reinvent the wheel with anything (or even try to), I at least want to make sure we are always personally striving to write an album we haven’t done already.
J: Speaking for the lyric side of the process, I can say that conscious decisions are not common. When Tony presents me with music, I ingest it for a while until vocal melodies and phrasing ideas bubble to the surface. From there I get a clearer picture of what the album’s tone is and how the vocals will interact with the music. At that point my options become narrower, which makes my job easier. The speed and melody-driven elements of the new album conjure a more brisk, adventurous feeling. I then reflect on what’s going on in my life and what I’m most interested in at the time.
The U.S. was beginning to slide into a sort of culture war while I was brainstorming ideas for the album’s concept. The 2016 U.S. presidential election took that tension and ratcheted it up to 11. So I think The Last Emperor is very much a product of the time in which it was written, because I’m generally a very optimistic person and yet I (and millions of Americans) were thrust into an extraordinarily polarizing situation. There are some fundamental similarities between this and the events preceding The First Crusade. In light of the current sociopolitical situation it’s not hard at all to imagine any of us getting swept up into a Crusade or a Jihad.
Despite how overbearingly depressing these topics are, this is probably the most optimistic album Judicator has so far. The album largely concerns itself with groupthink, guilt, redemption, self actualization and application.
The album also features some of the fastest, most aggressive music you’ve put out to date. That classic German power/speed metal influence really shines through (having Hansi from Blind Guardian guest certainly doesn’t hurt!). Were there any touchstones you were looking toward as you crafted the tunes?
T: For me, I definitely wanted to go in a more pure power metal direction this time around. Arguably more than we ever have at any point. But that came with a few important points. One was I wanted a mostly up-beat, fast, riff oriented and to the point album—which meant cutting down the runtime compared to previous albums—it’s about 20 minutes shorter than At the Expense if you don’t count the bonus track. That way it wouldn’t overstay its welcome since it’s harder to introduce variation in that kind of album. The variation in this album comes less from tempo/time changes and more from changes in groove, song structure, melody, and key. That was a neat challenge for me to go after and forced me to really connect the dots between riffs and consider how each song played off each other. Another few things that were important points to keep were no harsh vocals this time around, and no ballads—hence the rewrite mentioned above. There was also the inclusion of a lot more guitar harmonies than normal and many acoustic folk sections. Playing around with these ideas gave context to the fast power metal stuff that has found its place in all our albums, but in what felt like a fresh way for us.
Despite how heavy and fast The Last Emperor is, one of the things that really struck me was the melodies, whether it’s in the guitar lines of something like “Take Up Your Cross” or in the beautiful harmonized vocals on “The Queen of All Cities.” I’ve always loved how the band can marry that aggression and speed with a strong sense of melody. When you’re attacking something like “The Queen of All Cities” where does it start, with the riff or a melodic line?
(yes, this is my way of asking about how my favorite song on the album was constructed, sue me!)
T: I’m glad that’s your favorite! That’s definitely become a band defining song in our minds and one that felt really special to us. I always write the music first for the whole album and then send it to John to compose the vocals to. A couple of times I have gone back and thrown in guitar harmonies in negative space John chose not to put vocals in, or written a guitar lead that mirrored a vocal harmony, but for this album I did not go back and do any rewrites or additions once the vocals had been put down.
The re-recording of “King of Rome” is a monster – it sounds positively huge compared to the original, which certainly wasn’t a slouch. What’s the angle you take going into re-recording a song – are you just looking to give it a sonic upgrade, or was there more you wanted to do with it?
T: For this one it was definitely a decision to ‘do it right’ so to speak. ‘King of Rome’ as an album wasn’t really an album so much as it was a homemade demo that we put online as a one off ‘just for fun’ quick thing that we did in a matter of weeks. We never knew people would actually listen to it and the band would generate the interest that it did and become a real band. As that interest gained traction, so did the seriousness with which we approached the actual production and scope of the band. The King of Rome re-recording and subsequent music video is a move to bring the band full circle back to those songs—which we still love and are proud of despite their home cooked execution—that started the band to begin with. King of Rome has become a signature song of sorts of ours with its sing-a-long chorus and as a closer to our live shows that we use to jam along and sing with the audience. It tends to resonate with people the most from what we’ve seen because of that. It felt like the right song to fully display the band as a realized, branded, band with a full presence and personality. I wish we could redo all the first two albums that way, but if I was going to choose one song—and we did—that was it. I feel its finally reached its full potential and its been a heartwarming moment for us as we see people who have followed us for years see it in its final form. I hope we can re-record more songs in the future!
J: I have grown as a vocalist since we recorded King of Rome, so I was very happy to record updated vocals for the song. I added a few minor flairs as well, which I feel adds more variation and makes the song a little more dynamic.
“King of Rome” is our crowd favorite — we close every show with it. But after we released At the Expense of Humanity we saw the need for a version of the song that was professionally produced, because our first two albums had been cheaply produced in our home studios. People would come to the merch table after our performances and ask for “whatever CD has ‘King of Rome’ on it!” We wanted to give people a version of the song that had high production value and lived up to the live performance, so we decided to re-record it and include it as a bonus track on The Last Emperor.
I’ve often used Judicator as my go-to for folks who say they’re not into power metal. No matter how strong the scene seems to be (and lately it feels very strong) it’s hard to battle the misconception of power metal as something insincere or – worse – cheesy. How do you see the state of power metal right now? Is it even right to classify Judicator as a power metal band, especially with so many different styles and influences on display?
T: It’s totally right to classify Judicator as a power metal band! Even if we stray at times. At least in the classic sense of the term. I feel like we are right at home stylistically with late 80’s to mid 90’s power metal. Especially the German, Swedish, and American scenes. I definitely listen to a lot of other music and try to throw those influences in, but that classic vibe is such a huge part of my listening and playing style I don’t think I’ll ever truly separate it—even when I’ve played thrash and death metal you can tell there’s a power metal fan in the band. As far as the current state of power metal, I think there are definitely a lot of more popular bands that have contributed to the negative stereotypes about power metal. I won’t give specifics, but there’s definitely some elements of very visible power metal I don’t identify with or don’t see as true to the genre in its best form. Those bands tend to be very simplistic, repetitive, and really don’t put a lot of focus on the guitar elements or song writing. In some cases they have an almost tongue in cheek approach that feels like its making fun of or exaggerating power metal and the joke basically amounts to “Hey this is funny because its power metal” and not because it actually has something clever or satirical to say. And I just can’t get down with that mentality since I love the genre and firmly believe its capable of an incredible scope of depth and emotion. There are many new bands flying the flag of awesome power metal just fine though and I have no shortage of great new things to listen to, but I definitely understand where the misconceptions come from. It’s a shame, but every genre has its easily identified and exaggerated tropes that people will see and misinterpret, and power metal is unfortunately not excluded from that. But those willing to dig will find a lot of gold no matter what time period of power metal they are looking in!
J: I’m honored that you would make us your go-to for power metal newcomers! While I think Judicator has a lot of power metal elements, I don’t think we fit very neatly into that category. But for the sake of convenience I usually refer to ourselves as power metal. In a genre populated by such acts as Gloryhammer, Theocracy and Galneryus, I think power metal is doing just fine these days. Power metal’s eagerness to explore fantasy is part of what makes it special, so I’ve never been put off by the genre’s cheesy side. We might occupy a more contemplative and somber area of the power metal world.
Speaking of the different influences and styles the band have utilized over the last four albums, is there anything that’s out of scope for Judicator? Are we ever going to get the country/black metal/EDM mashup from you guys? More seriously what haven’t you brought to the table yet that you’d like to?
T: Black metal (of the mostly untrue variety) is definitely an influence of mine and the next album has quite a few melodic black metal influenced sections. Nothing that will be a driving force of the album, but you’ll definitely hear a Dissection riff or two if you’re looking for it. I wouldn’t expect anything outlandish from us at any point, because we have a certain identity to maintain, but all subgenres of metal and rock are fair game. The next album in particular has a lot more progressive and Opeth/Porcupine Tree influence than we have had before—‘Sapphire’ off Sleepy Plessow had a ton of that, and At the Expense was littered with it, but there is some straight up ‘My Arms, Your Hearse’ worship coming. In addition to some really aggressive thrashing moments—it’ll be a fun balance. Beyond that album, one thing we’ve talked about bringing into the band more is doom metal influence. We haven’t really had any at all up to this point, but that’s a huge part of my listening and fandom and a real challenge for me to go after. I wouldn’t doubt if some big Candlemass style riffs or Sabbath sounding stuff starts to creep its way in, or maybe we’ll just jump off the deep end and put out an epic doom album! We’ve also tossed the idea around of doing a one song album like Crimson. I have one written and it’s definitely Judicator enough to make it work, but that’d be a big challenge and risk, so I’ll only pull the trigger there if I know it’s going to work out the way it is in my head.
J: I would love to produce a country western or avant-garde album with Judicator, but I’m skeptical of that happening because of the potential backlash. As a band you spend so much time building your brand that to change mid-course is to risk causing an uproar. Opeth made the switch from progressive death metal to progressive rock, and that was a hugely polarizing decision. I wholeheartedly respect their choice to do that, and I even support it, but having seen what that did to their reputation I am very cautious about taking Judicator too far out of our lane. However, within the broad genre of “metal” I would be very eager to experiment. Tony and I have discussed releasing a doom metal album in the style of Black Sabbath. This would be tremendously exciting, and I think it would be received well by our supporters.
You’ve mentioned online there won’t be any touring for The Last Emperor; instead you’re jumping right back into the studio to start the next record. Beyond the obvious question of what voodoo is keeping up this ridiculous energy level, what else is on the horizon for you all?
T: For Judicator, touring is really difficult and not necessarily cost effective given the split up nature of the band, our schedules, and how remote and out of the way some of us live. If the right opportunity comes our way in that department, we’ll definitely take it—the right tour or festival for instance. But beyond that we will probably do limited one off shows relatively close to the southwest US. We have our next album material written (and possibly beyond that!) so producing more content is our immediate priority. We all have other musical projects we are involved in as well that we are working on concurrently. But for Judicator pushing the band forward and producing more content is the focus, and hopefully quicker this time. We also have a vinyl pressing of The Last Emperor coming out through Alone Records in the fall which will be a new medium for the band that I’m really excited about! We’ve kicked around the idea of some re-recordings of first two album songs, or maybe doing a recorded live show for a potential live album or video. Depends on what we have the time and resources for before any of it hatches, but we are definitely pushing to produce more content in those realms and see where we end up!
J: Now that The Last Emperor is completed, my attention is fixed on writing the lyrics for the next Judicator album. We are hoping to have an album release show for The Last Emperor in late May or early June, and besides that, maybe a show or two between this album and the next. Who knows!
Thanks so much for the amazing music and the chance to chat. Is there anything else you want to add before we wrap up?
T: Just a big thank you for taking the time to talk to us and listen to our album! And for your continued support for our band!
J: I’m very excited to see The Last Emperor released, and I hope you enjoy it! A lot went into it from everyone involved. Hope to see you on stage 😉
Many thanks to Tony and John for their time!
The Last Emperor is available everywhere March 30 on Bandcamp (digital and CD), and coming this fall on vinyl from Alone Records. For more information on Judicator check out their official website and Facebook page.