Niviane – Rise of the DruidWednesday, 29th November 2017
Power metal unlocks the imagination and takes you on a journey of both sound and mind. It resonates globally due to historical, fantasy, and mythological tales where unlikely heroes reign, battles are fought, and the outcomes test the wit and wonder of life. The soaring vocals, guitar/keyboard syncopation possibilities, and thunderous rhythm section work meld perfectly to the lyrical terrain – so it’s understandable that since the days of Rainbow, this sub-genre has been a steady force in the scene for decades.
Which brings us to Niviane- a Sacramento, California quintet aiming to stake their claim in the US power metal scene. Active for three years, they unleash a potent debut full-length in The Druid King. It’s ideal for those listeners that desire an attacking, biting energy to their power riffs – along with historical / mythological tales from the past and a mighty, multi-octave vocalist that takes the material that upper tier level of admiration and respect. There’s more Iced Earth and Savatage in their songwriting and versatility than say Helloween or Hammerfall – making things less about happy melodies/hooks and more about heaviness.
We recently reached out to vocalist Norman Skinner one late morning for him/ early afternoon for me (the West Coast vs East Coast time difference) and he was quite talkative regarding the history of Niviane, the recording/songwriting process behind their debut album, plus discussion regarding his time in Imagika and other bands/projects he’s a part of. And this is only the beginning for Niviane – as their professionalism should pay huge dividends in terms of respect and critical acclaim from the press and audiences alike.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about your childhood memories surrounding music, early discoveries and at what point did you gravitate to heavy metal and eventually want to be in bands as a singer?
Norman Skinner: A few things. I started off, my love of heavy metal went hand in hand with my introduction into music in general. My mom was a single mom, but she dated a couple of guys during the late 1970’s, early 1980’s that would bring music over and they would sometimes forget that they brought over a Kiss album or Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath or something. I had my little record player, so these were the albums that I would listen to. It also had a built in eight-track player, so I remember one time I got Kiss- Love Gun on eight-track. Those were the early versions of heavy metal for me, I knew I was going to be a rocker kind of guy.
I just listened to music during the 1980’s, watched a lot of MTV, the hair metal stuff. It wasn’t until high school, I never thought about being in a band. In the seventh grade, I decided I wanted to play the guitar. I begged my parents for an electric guitar, I was expecting something like that with a big Marshall stack of amps. That didn’t happen- I got a little nylon string acoustic guitar, simple style, and about 3-4 Mel Torpe Teach Yourself How to Play Guitar books. I fiddled around with that for three weeks before I tossed the guitar in the closet. I have these little sausage fingers, it wasn’t working.
My sophomore year of high school, I was hanging with a friend named Craig, he saw I had a Metallica poster and Def Leppard poster- he told me he had an interest in guitar. Over the summer, we hung out a lot, he started learning how to play. He and his friends were going to play the school talent show, and I was hanging out like I was the fifth Beatle. They had a singer already, but two weeks before the show, he bailed on them. I got a call at home, they needed me to do them a favor and sing. No one had ever heard me sing- and truth be told, I sucked, I was horrible. But I was up for the challenge, so I had two weeks to learn two songs, we decided to play the two most popular songs at the time, which was “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. We did it, we played the show, we got disqualified for people stage diving and pitting in the theater of the school. I caught the bug after that, I actively looked for local bands to join and I found some crappy bands but I honed my skills, took vocal lessons, and this off chance thing spurred it on.
Dead Rhetoric: You joined Niviane in 2015 – how did you get the offer to join, and what intrigued you about this set of musicians and style right away?
Skinner: A lot of things with me happen by chance or weird situations. I had my solo band Skinner, and I went through a lineup change in 2014. With that, the musicians that were creating that music I was unable to use it, so I had to start over for my next album which I’m still finishing up. At that same time, I was singing for Dire Peril, and I was told my services were no longer needed, they wanted to go in a different direction. As a result Jason (Ashcraft) formed Helion Prime, and his girlfriend was the singer at the time, so he focused on that. I had down time, so I put a post on Facebook saying ‘hey- I’m on the lookout for a new project, if anyone knows of anything hit me up’. Brian O’Connor, who used to sing for Vicious Rumors, he’s a buddy of mine. Scoop (who is Claudeous Creamer of Possessed now) has a new band- it’s power metal, and Brian thought I would be perfect for it. So I called Claudeous, he sent me three tracks. I wrote and recorded the three songs in two days. It just clicked, I had ideas. I was in, I went down to the studio the next week, I paid (my portion of) the band rent for the month and met the band members at that time.
Dead Rhetoric: Your sound combines numerous influences from traditional/power metal from not just the old school but also a worldwide framework. Do you believe this opens up Niviane stylistically to have a diverse outlook and dynamic perspective?
Skinner: I would agree 100% with that. In every band with four or five guys you are going to have different influences and that gives you a core sound for the band. A lot of us have a background in traditional metal, beyond the love of power metal. Our bass player loves black metal, we don’t let him incorporate too much of that in there, but every once in a while a riff or something comes in. Our idea from the get go was to be power metal but with a heavier style. We didn’t want the lyrics to be cheesy, we didn’t want it to be too happy sounding, we wanted it to have an edge. We noticed a lot of American bands, like Iced Earth, they have that heavy sound overall, and we wanted to make sure that we have that. We drew from our influences, and merged it together for what we have. We are hopeful that we will hit multiple audiences because of this.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel the songwriting and recording process went for your debut album The Druid King? At what point did you attract the interest of Pitch Black Records to sign the group?
Skinner: The recording and writing comes really easy- easier than any other band I’ve ever been in. We have three core songwriters – both the guitar players Gary Tarplee and Mark Miner write as well as the bass player Rick Stallkamp, as he can play guitar as well. We have a steady stream of ideas flowing in- we have a board in our studio with ten plus songs. We pick what we feel is the strongest, as we don’t want any filler on the album. The guys will put them in, we pick songs to work on, luckily it hasn’t happened where we are picking more of one guy’s material over another. They record the idea, by the time it gets to me I have an actual good recording that I can listen to at home. We use our home studios, I do my vocal pre-production ideas at home – bring things back to the band. Once we have the concept, we bring it into the studio where we all throw our little bits and pieces. Usually when I get things I end up chopping things up and restructuring them a bit.
We are getting ready to complete ideas for the next album- as we have already fifteen ideas that are almost done. We went to JK Northrup at Alien Productions Studios- he had previously done all three Dire Peril albums that I had worked on. And Mark Miner was a long-time friend of his as well. We didn’t want somebody that was necessarily… there are a lot of metal studios around here, or guys that work with thrash bands. We wanted something that was more polished and big sounding- we didn’t really need to go with a guy that’s exclusively metal. JK works with people like Paul Shortino, Kip Winger, putting together really well-produced things. We did all the drums, rhythm guitars, and bass there. We did all the solos in our houses, the keyboards ourselves, and for the last six albums I’ve released I record (my vocals) at home.
Regarding Pitch Black Records, I’m the veteran of the band when it comes to record deals and stuff like that. We needed a well-packaged album, a strong electronic press kit with a bio, maybe a lyric video, pictures, reviews through a promotional company so we could get a buzz going before we cold call record companies. I hit up about 60 record companies, and we got four different offers. Although Pitch Black wasn’t the largest of the record companies, it seemed that they were more focused, and we would get more attention because they didn’t have 200 bands. They also focus on power and progressive metal, which means the markets they attack are for us. The overall money and numbers seemed to make sense in comparison to the bigger labels, so that’s why we went with them. Right now we are seeing how things play out for this first album.
Dead Rhetoric: Many of the themes on the record tackle mythological and historical topics. Have these always been areas of interest for you, and how much research do you develop to get the lyrics just so to match the musical output?
Skinner: Yes, I would say ever since I was a kid I’ve liked history movies, I like to watch documentaries too. Power metal… I listen to a lot of power metal, and when it’s done right, it’s very epic, you just want to put on your chainmail, raise your sword and say, ‘Yeah!’ (laughs). But, there’s a lot of power metal that I listen to like, I don’t want to bash bands but it’s very happy, very cheesy, and I didn’t want our lyrics to be another Hammerfall or Rhapsody where it’s like we sing about dwarves, fantasy stuff, and it’s going to be really over the top. We wanted to be able to tell a story, and it can be fantasy based at the same time, but it was cool. I hope you know what I mean.
Dead Rhetoric: I understand. There are distinct differences between the American approach to power metal and the European approach to power metal.
Skinner: I wanted things to be kind of cool and heavy. The next album we may branch out a little bit, it won’t all be historically based or mythological. Usually the ideas I have already come from movies or shows, things I’ll watch or things I’ve read. Once in a while I’ll need something to flesh things out, get some more details on the topic. Like the song “March of the Jötunn”, it’s about the return of the Nordic frost giants. I was like “March of the Frost Giants”… that sounds cheesy, I needed a cool name. I did a search online and found that word Jötunn, so I looked for the enunciation of it to make it sound right. The beginning of “The Berserker” when the swords are clashing I yell ‘Agaeti’(an old Norse word meaning glory) – because they wouldn’t be speaking in English anyway, so I want to do things as realistic to that time. “Gladiator”, that was based on the Russell Crowe movie. “Arise Samurai” is based on the tale of the 47 Ronin, that movie.
Dead Rhetoric: One of the things you talked about earlier was incorporating some aspects of keyboards, but they are not a prominent feature on the record. Was that a conscious decision to not have that aspect overpower the guitars?
Skinner: Yes, it’s just spicing- like making a cake, you put the sprinkles on top. I’m always conscious of what I’m doing and what little things we are adding in, when you are in a band with Mark and Gary, guys that can shred the last thing you want to do is over sing. I want to give the music sometimes room to breathe, and the singer can sit back a little bit.
Dead Rhetoric: Do they compliment each other well when it comes to their strengths and skills on the guitar?
Skinner: I don’t notice any differences between the two, they both are just bad asses. Originally we had Claudeous in the band, who recruited me and we talked about earlier. And then he left within the first year, ultimately because we think that he wanted to be the sole songwriter. We are all great friends, and the way we got Gary is Mark Miner has been a guitar instructor for over 20 years. He teaches people how to shred, and Gary was taking instruction from him- and he told us he had this guy he wanted to bring him in. They get along a little too well. On the next album everyone can expect way more dual harmonies, a lot of lead stuff because most of the songs were already written when Gary came in, and we had one or two that had not been written. On the new album, Gary has written about half the songs, and we have a lot of cool lead stuff.
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