Impending Empire: Czar Discusses Second Album, "No One Is Alone If No One Is Alive"
“There are a lot of abusive relationship themes in here, many of them fictionalized accounts of people going to desperate, violent measures to gain affection, sex, or even love.” Jason Novak of Chicago-based Czar considers the band’s recently-released sophomore album title, ‘No One Is Alone If No One Is Alive,’ to be a fitting summation of the tone of the album, which succeeds and surpasses their like-minded debut release, ‘Vertical Mass Grave,’ in most ways -- and we gave that album a 4 out of 5 rating! Determined to outdo themselves with each release, the guys of Czar draw heavily from uncommon guitar harmonies and chord changes coupled with tastefully destructive drum patterns to define their sound. With that combination, it's no surprise that Fear Factory's Burton C. Bell was seen wearing a Czar shirt at a show or that Czar has already made his top 5 albums of 2013 list, as well as two other "top of 2013" lists in the press.
The last time we checked in with the guys of Czar, they filled us in on their first album and their history as musicians. This time around, the band gives us more insight into the construction of their songs, as well as discusses the controversial album art that they’re known for. ‘No One Is Alone If No One Is Alive’ amplifies what was done well on the first album and adds an exciting chapter to the story of the rise of Czar’s impending empire. Here’s what they had to say about it.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): What wells of inspiration did you draw from, lyrically, for the new record, “No One Is Alone If No One Is Alive”?
Jason Novak: I haven’t thought about it before, during the writing, but if I had to sum it up, it might be something like “a treatise on the measurements of human desperation through unrequited love, lust and violence.” There are a lot of abusive relationship themes in here, many of them fictionalized accounts of people going to desperate, violent measures to gain affection, sex or even love. I would think of these terrible situations and then tell stories about the lengths people go through to get what they want.
Frank: Is the album title making reference to something in particular or is it more or less just giving a general tone to the music?
Jason: Just a general tone I guess. We usually have so many weird ideas and everything needs to go through the band distiller before a decision is made. We had a laundry list of possible titles, and Brian said “hey, how about…” which is a particularly grim lyric from our song “Aortic Flower”. We all agreed it told the best story.
Frank: Who did the artwork for it and is there a story behind it?
Jason: Originally I wanted to push for this idea of a knotted twisted tree with bodies hanging from it to convey the idea of the “Whorchard” which became the lead track’s title. Once we agreed on the title, the idea of multiple hanging folk and the bleak tree just came together. We knew we wanted to stick with the same black and white, distressed style from the Vertical Mass Grave album to kind of keep them connected.
Frank: Did anything about the writing process change for this album?
Brian Elza: It was still a very collaborative effort, with Jason wearing multiple hats, Dan pushing his technical skills, and me adding missing ingredients. We joke about this album being a sort of “Use Your Illusion II” to “Vertical Mass Grave.” Similarities between the albums include the track count, album length, imagery, mix of musical styles, and the analog production. Only we tried to push everything into more extreme territory this time: Heavy parts get heavier, weirder parts get weirder, and melodic parts dig in deeper. Someone said that a great director makes the same movie over and over. We didn’t set out to do that, but I think we made an evil bride for “Vertical Mass Grave.”
Frank: Favoring a less processed and generally warmer album mix yourselves, do you have an opinion on modern mixing styles for heavy metal?
Jason: I personally think it’s all too polished and reeks of studio magic. All mids scooped, drums edited and kicks triggered, guitar lines edited and gated with a machine. I love all that for a band that is honest about trying to fuse man and machine, like old Fear Factory, Frontline Assembly or even Pendulum. But when soooo many metal albums get produced like that it drives me crazy. I like a tight ship, but it should sound like a ship. That’s one of the reasons we love recording at Earth Analog with Matt Talbott…the room is a temple to analog - the gear, the mics, everything about it screams warmth. We know we have to mix in Pro-tools, so we try to record as naturally as possible, kind of an armor for our tracks as they do battle with the digital realm.
Frank: In the last interview, you said that you aimed to make a tour or two happen for the band, getting outside of Chicago. Were you able to make that happen? If so, what kinds of places have you played?
Jason: We did manage to hit the East Coast in the spring of 2012, and the whole country in 2013 when we toured with Killing Joke. We have a small amount of free days to play with so we have to make em count! Definitely want to get back to the East Coast as soon as possible.
Frank: (To Jason) What drove you to make “She’s So Heavy” include more blues-based riffs and vocal lines, especially towards the middle?
Jason: We had been playing that track live as an instrumental for years. When we decided to include it on the album, we all agreed how we secretly might have wanted to hear the vocals the whole time. For me, it is difficult to get into the headspace of the song lyrically. It’s just a little out of the Czar wheelhouse, not enough abuse and pain going on! But it came about naturally…I just opened my mouth while recording vocals, and that came out. Done. It felt more natural than I ever thought it would, sleazy and desperate, and not as cheesy as I once thought saying “ I want yooooou…” would sound, and ironically, fit the lyrical tone of the rest of the record.
Frank: (To Dan Brill, Drummer) You are noticeably a more active player on this album than on Vertical Mass Grave, taking more liberties with fills. Was that a conscious decision? You also employ the ride cymbal a bit more than most drummers -- do you feel that it’s an underemployed cymbal in heavy metal?
Dan Brill: Thank you for noticing such things about the drumming on this album. I would venture to say the reason these things are noticed or appreciated is because that is what these songs called for. The only liberties I take with writing and developing drum parts are within the circumscribed necessity of the music the drums serve. Granted, style and artistic license are also subject to this, but I try and play what I feel should be there and not what I think should be there just to satisfy my ego. This goes for the ride cymbal part of the question as well. It’s what the energy of the song calls for and the sound of a ride can deliver certain effects. I always strive to just hear, feel and play what the music needs from the drums. Too much thinking can ruin that. This approach also applies when writing a drum part on my own to present to Jason and Brian as a compositional idea. Those parts are generally pretty crazy, but the music tempers them once again to suitably frame the music.
Frank: (To Dan) What sorts of percussion items are you hitting in the background of “Priestess” nearing the end of the song?
Dan: Well, it’s just my drum set. It’s a pattern I came up with inspired by the great Tim Alexander of Primus. One of my favorite songs and drum set patterns is “Spaghetti Western” from their album “Frizzle Fry.” I guess it does sound like there’s a lot going on, maybe overdubbed percussion but this is not the case. Just splashy hi-hats with the snare on the back-beat, cymbal crashes on the top (accented with a Zil-Bell) and bottom of the pattern with a roll across my 10”, 12” and 18” toms in the middle tied together with a short double-kick roll with a couple of china cymbal crashes defining the down beats as the pattern repeats itself. Now that I think of it, every single instrument of my kit is used in this particular pattern EXCEPT the ride!
Frank: (To Brian and Jason) Do you employ musical theory in figuring out chord voicings or do you create most of the riffs and voicings by ear? Also, your use of discordant angular guitar harmonies, usually near an octave up from the root of what you’re playing, really separates you from other bands -- Do you actively avoid traditional chord voicings or is it something you don’t really think about?
Brian: Our guitar parts are written entirely by ear. We’re both self-taught players, and we’ve been teaching ourselves to play together for years. As for the discordant harmonies, that’s partially due to our musical influences, partially due to the off-kilter vibe we want to create, but also a necessity of our tunings. Jason is down in A# and I’m up in an alternate Crossnote F. To a certain extent, we do avoid traditional chord voicings. I love Judas Priest and the lockstep two-guitar assault they pioneered, but we only pepper Czar songs with straight-ahead power-chord parts. As a three piece, we want to serve the listener as much muck and melody as possible. That means we rarely play the same thing, but when we do, it’s a complement to--not a copy of--the other part.
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