Van Canto "Break The Silence" About The Nuances Of "Rakkatakka" And The Origins Of "Power A Cappella Metal"
Band Photo: Van Canto (?)
In 2006, somewhere along the banks of the mighty Rhein in Midwestern Germany, an idea was born. Out of the ashes of “regular power metal acts” like Jester’s Funeral, Fading Starlight and Deadly Sin, a new vocal project had quickly turned into what we now know as “power a cappella metal.” The idea seemed simple enough…take power metal songs and strip out all the instruments. While most metal fans roll their eyes and scoff at the idea of metal without guitar, laughing it off as an oddity and a gimmick, what resulted was arguably the most creative band ever assembled.
It started with “A Storm To Come,” an eerily prophetic title, and a cover of Metallica’s “Battery.” Unlike Apocalyptica’s cello version, the song was redefined with no loss of power despite the fact that the band is made up of only five singers and a drummer. Since then, Van Canto has gained momentum with two more releases (“Hero” and “Tribe Of Force”), hooking in fans with highly memorable original anthems and redefining covers of metal classics, culminating in the highly successful set at the 2011 Wacken festival.
Now, Van Canto is back with its fourth release, “Break the Silence” [reviewed here]. If the prophecy of the first release rang true, then the new album very well may break the silence to the rest of the world. Founder Stefan Schmidt spoke to metalundergound.com and explained the origins of the band, fighting through the criticism and the nuances of “rakkatakka.”
CROMCarl: Right off the bat, when do you guys plan to unleash Van Canto onto America?
Stefan: Yeah, we are planning it, but it in the end it’s not up to us. There has to be some promoter paying the flights. We already had a tour scheduled for this summer, but it didn’t work out in the end, don’t ask me why. We are trying and I hope we can play there in 2012.
CROMCarl: So you actually had a tour planned for this summer in the U.S. and it didn’t work out?
Stefan: Yeah, yeah – unfortunately. It would have been three weeks, 18 dates, but it didn’t work out. Don’t ask me why, it didn’t work. We will keep on trying.
CROMCarl: For the benefit of the American audience, who are not familiar with the origins of Van Canto, tell me how the idea of how “metal a cappella” got started?
Stefan: We formed in 2006 and we knew each other from former bands where we played together. After the split of my former band [Jester’s Funeral], which was a regular metal band, I wanted to do something vocal oriented. It was not branded a metal a cappella band, it could have ended up as a band with two or more lead singers and big choirs and background vocals like Blind Guardian or Avantasia. So we tried something out in the studio and quickly noticed that it was quite interesting to leave all the instruments [out], also drums, but we didn’t try it out. So the band was started as a studio project, and the more we got into it, we noticed that people seemed to be interested in a metal a cappella band.
CROMCarl: So from the inception of the band, were there any instruments at first before you stripped them out?
Stefan: If I remember correctly, we started with just a computer to program the drums and just played some chords on piano. Then I recorded Sly as the lead singer. So the songs were written and song tracks were done and the lead vocals recorded. After that I arranged more and more vocal tracks. I cannot remember exactly. I wanted to do something vocal oriented, so it felt natural to start with vocals and not like with every other type of band with instruments. The more vocals we added, the more we thought that it was enough and it sounded good, so we decided to try it.
CROMCarl: When you write songs now, or did in the past, do you demo songs with instruments and then form a cappella versions from that?
Stefan: Good question. With this album [“Break The Silence”], it is the first time that we have, at least some parts, directly written by singing. The first three albums we wrote songs just like any regular band, with a guitar riff or a chord on piano or basic hook line and then we finished the song writing. After that we arranged the metal a cappella versions. On “Break the Silence” we have some parts that are directly written by singing them like the starting riff of “The Higher Flight” or the ballad bridge in “If I Die In Battle.”
CROMCarl: Yeah, I can actually tell that this album is even more a cappella than the previous ones.
Stefan: It’s hard for me to comment on that because I am way too much into it. We just finished the album and we are promoting it. You have to ask me in one year or so and perhaps I can compare this album to the [previous] albums. Right now, I am so much into this that I can’t tell anything about that.
CROMCarl: I did a review for our site and it was the first thing I thought of.
Stefan: Yeah, I read it. It was great!
CROMCarl: As far as the vocal guitar solos go, I had read that what you do is simply plug a microphone into a guitar amp.
Stefan: Yep, that is it. There is nothing special about it. Of course we add some reverb on our vocals and compression just like any regular singer does. But when I sing the guitar solos without the distortion, it is just the “whah-whah” sound in my headvoice [Stefan demonstrates the sound]. Then, if you put that microphone into guitar amp and switch the channel it sounds just like a guitar.
CROMCarl: Did you discover that by accident, or did you know going into it?
Stefan: [Laughs] I remember that one in the studio. We finished the recording the “Battery” cover, and at that point we already knew that we were doing a metal a cappella band. All the compositions on the first album [“A Storm To Come”] were written without any solos, because I just didn’t think of it. Then we did the “Battery” cover and came to the part where the solo is. So I thought ‘OK, what can we do here? We have to do something, because on the original there is a solo.’ So I just tried singing the solo through my microphone, and I thought it sounded terrible. Then I had the idea to put some distortion on it and ‘bam’ it sounded like a guitar. It was a really great moment for me because I [realized] that this would be another good thing to add to this a cappella [idea]. I think I recorded all the remaining solos on the first album within the next twenty minutes or so. I just opened up every song on my computer and did some guitar solo singing.
CROMCarl: Your band is the one I love showing to people when I say that you can pretty much do anything with heavy metal! I always start with the “Battery” cover, which usually gets that ‘Oh my God’ reaction! It really is amazing what you guys have created here. I cannot wait until I can see this done live.
Stefan: [Laughs] Where are you from, what part of the U.S.?
CROMCarl: I am from Connecticut, near New York – so you are bound to come around the area.
Stefan: Yeah, the tour this year would have started in the East and then going north to the Canadian border and then down to the west coast.
CROMCarl: Is there a special meaning to the title of the new LP “Break the Silence.” Is it time that Van Canto break out?
Stefan: We noticed that this would’ve been a good title for a debut album as well. After the first album, there were many people telling us that it is ok or a ‘joke’ for one album and we [wouldn’t] make it any [further] because it is a ‘gimmick band’ and that soon it would be boring. After the third album [“Tribe Of Force”], we noticed that this was still growing bigger in Germany where we started, but even in countries where the first two albums weren’t released, especially the United States, [they] had a great response [to it]. So we thought, why shouldn’t we give it [a chance] that this might even grow bigger. There are many parts of the world that never heard of metal a cappella and this is the silence we’ve broken by our record.
CROMCarl: I have always felt that your choice of cover songs has been amazing. Is this the way you foresee it happening in the future, or do you see full albums of originals only?
Stefan: We don’t think too much about those questions. I was asked that question after the release of “Tribe Of Force,” but I don’t know. If we have a good idea for a song to cover, we [will] and if there is no idea we won’t. I cannot tell what will happen next. The covers on “Break The Silence” are much different than the covers we did before because these are not the biggest metal hits, but we decided to pick covers that, for us, feel as if we were the original composers. So, of course, if you take an all-time metal hit like “Fear Of The Dark” [covered on “Hero”], you know the song as a metal fan. If you take a song like “Bed Of Nails,” it not the biggest Alice Cooper hit. We could have covered “Poison,” or something, but for us we have a very special feeling for that song because when arranging it and rehearsing it we really had the feeling that we composed it. The same thing can be said about Sabaton’s “Primo Victoria.” Although the original sounds completely different, the way they write songs, the way they arrange songs and the way the choirs are arranged, it is comparable to the way we write songs. This was the idea behind the covers for “Break The Silence,” having covers that feel like we have written them.
CROMCarl: Speaking of Sabaton, how did you guys hook up with Joakim [Brodén (vocals)]?
Stefan: I am proud to say this! I guess they are really big Van Canto fans! They asked us to do “Primo Victoria” as a special guest at the Rockstad:Falun festival in Sweden. It is the festival that they are the organizers [of]. They, of course, do a headline show there. They asked us if we wanted to do an a cappella version of “Primo Victoria” in their set and then do our own show on the second festival day. Of course, it was great for us since it was the first chance for us to play in Sweden. So we arranged the whole song and recorded it for rehearsal. So we figured if we are just recording a new album and we have arranged the cover, why don’t we put it on the album? To give it something special, we asked Joakim to join us and he quickly agreed.
CROMCarl: You mentioned in other interviews that the highlight of your career has been the set at this year’s Wacken festival. What made that so special?
Stefan: Wacken is always something special because the huge amount of people there. For us, the most exciting thing was when we did some own stuff like “The Mission,” “Lost Forever” or “One to Ten” the reaction [was just as great] as when we played the cover songs. This really felt great, because [people are] still around [who] claim we are a pure cover band and that our [original] songs are not interesting enough. Then we noticed that even if there are 20,000 people in front of the stage, they can have a really good time and sing along to our own songs. It was incredible how many people know the chorus of “The Mission.” I just couldn’t believe it. We were often asked ‘which band did the original of ‘The Mission,’ as if we covered that! This makes me very, very proud because it gives me the feeling that it sounds like a classic metal song!
CROMCarl: I do enjoy the fact that Van Canto’s lyrics are so easy to learn. It is just like Manowar, where you can listen to it once and already know the lyrics. On “Break The Silence.” I knew half the lyrics already by the second listen. It is not that the lyrics are simple, but just incredibly easy to remember.
Stefan: That is exactly what I like about Manowar. Many people tell me how ridiculous Manowar is with the fighting and metal stuff, but at least when Eric Adams starts to sing it goes directly into my heart. For me, this is what metal is all about. It has to catch you at some point and then it doesn’t matter how the singer looks or if the band has a silly name or silly logo. It doesn’t matter at all if the song catches you.
CROMCarl: Right, its memorable.
CROMCarl: Was “Spelled In Waters” the same song as the Jester’s Funeral song “Spelled In Water” that appeared on “Fragments Of An Exploded Heart”?
Stefan: Oh, you noticed too…that’s great! It is hard to describe. We had a song with Jester’s Funeral that was called “Wait For Silence.” I think it was in 2003 or 2004. It wasn’t on a record, but just a song we recorded in our rehearsal room. Then for the last Jester’s Funeral album we had the chance to work together with John Shirley, the screenwriter for The Crow. [At that time] we changed the lyrics from “Wait For Silence” to “Spelled In Water.” This “Spelled In Waters” that we are doing here [on “Break The Silence”] was a ballad that we [originally] did for Jester’s Funeral in 2001, but it never has been released on any Jester’s Funeral album. I just composed the song and we had some demo version of it (which is not worth listening to). So yes, this is a Jester’s Funeral song, but this is not the Jester’s Funeral song that was released on the final album.
CROMCarl: You seemed to stray from the “rakkatakka” on “Break The Silence”?
Stefan: Yeah exactly. We did so on “Tribe Of Force” as well, but we remembered that “rakkatakka” thing and put it at a very prominent place on “My Voice” one time on that album. We [went] away from the “rakkatakka” thing because it is a little bit too percussive in some parts. Because of the harsh consonants you don’t have the chance to put much tone or much notes into that kind of thing, especially when you are [playing] live. The only thing that people hear when you do too much “rakkatakka” is the drums. We quickly noted that the songs that work good live are those where we put more soft consonants like “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” or “boom-boom-boom” because you have more tone or more notes. As you said, the album is very much lightened by it. On “Break the Silence,” we just started songwriting while we were on tour for “Tribe Of Force” so we were inspired by those songs that work great live.
CROMCarl: Does it give you great satisfaction that you created a genre of metal with no instrumentation that no one has done and likely ever will again?
Stefan: Yeah, I think you put it right, nobody has ever done it. Right now, I think there won’t be any other metal a cappella band because it is quite hard to do. So, I don’t think we created a genre. To be honest, if you take a look at our songs they are regular power metal. If we had regular instrumentation, I guess they would still be great songs, but it would have been much harder to get them known by the public because there are so many bands out there. Of course, I am proud that we had a great idea and that we can write songs that can reach people, but I know that a big part of Van Canto’s success is about the curiosity and idea and not because we are the greatest musicians in the world. It is okay for me as long as I can write songs and have them recorded and released. That is all that I want from being a musician. I just want to write songs.
CROMCarl: How long will it take Blind Guardian to cover a Van Canto song?
Stefan: This is a very good question, but I have to hand it over to Hansi [Kürsch ]. It would be so great if a band would try to cover a Van Canto song. I guess there is one YouTube guy who tried to play the solo on guitar, and he is a damn good guitar player (way better than me because I have to use a microphone to play that). I don’t know if any band covered a whole song.
CROMCarl: Too bad Running Wild won’t be able to cover Van Canto because they aren’t around anymore. Oh, and I haven’t had a chance to hear Van Canto’s version of “Bad To The Bone” yet, but I look forward to it when the full release comes out.
Stefan: We decided to put it as a bonus track because we thought we had the chance to have Rock ‘N’ Rolf singing the vocals, but it didn’t work out. So we thought it would be too bad to throw away the song completely, so we decided to add some lead vocals by Sly and have it as a bonus track. In the beginning, it was planned to be a song with a guest appearance by Rock ‘N’ Rolf. Perhaps next time!
Carl Frederick is a staff writer for Metal Underground.com. From the early to mid-90's, Carl published his own fanzine called C.R.O.M. In 1997, he released a compilation entitled "CROM: The Resurrection of True Metal," which featured songs from bands from around the world, including the first U.S. release of any kind for bands like Italy's Rhapsody (n/k/a Rhapsody of Fire) and Brazil's Angra. Follow Carl on Facebook and Twitter: @CROMCarl.
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