Pharaoh – Shining Power Beacon Part I

Sunday, 31st March 2013

(This content originally appeared on Blistering.com)

When given the chance to speak to a fellow journalist who also happens to be an incredible metal musician, there’s never a loss for words, especially if said guitarist is Matt Johnsen, who plays in the American power metal unit Pharaoh. Among the many things we talked about that didn’t make the main article but I find relevant include his disappointment in Daniel Heiman’s work post-Lost Horizon [second that! – ed.], his struggles in fully appreciating the last few Rage albums because of Victor Smolski’s songwriting skills in comparison to Peavy Wagner’s, and the middle-of-the-road filmmaking from Metal Evilution series director Sam Dunn.

For those who haven’t had the chance to check out this amazing band, imagine the best montage of multi-layered guitar harmonies done with a late 80’s European power metal flair- along with a healthy dose of traditional high pitch vocal acrobats from Tim Aymar. With their fourth album Bury the Light, hopefully the Iron Maiden comparisons that abound will finally subside, as Pharaoh’s intelligent approach deserves a more comprehensive listening experience.

I appreciate his honesty when it comes to not only his views on the band but also his views on metal in general. You can feel the passion Matt has for music, something shared with the Blistering.com staff.

Blistering.com: Your fourth album Bury the Light appears to my ears to be your most original offering to date. Your guitar layering, songwriting, and harmonies as a band have put Pharaoh into a more original class of traditional power acts from America. Was this the game plan going into this record?

Matt Johnsen: I wouldn’t say that was the game plan per se, it’s more of a built in assumption at this point. The more we make albums and the longer I play the better we get- we’ve always kind of framed Pharaoh around the guitars and the riffs. As I get better as a player it’s my natural inclination to push the technical level of the riffs – if I was even better I’d be making Spiral Architect albums! I’m not quite there yet so I’m just making very fancy power metal. We didn’t say we were going to make the guitar parts difficult- that just sort of happens naturally. How much more difficult they can get in the future – I don’t know. If you plotted guitar trickiness over time it would be flattening out as we go, it was kind of a big jump between the first two albums, but the difference between Be Gone and this one isn’t as big as that one and The Longest Night.

Blistering.com: I’ve read that you consider this new album a little darker than Be Gone, is this correct?

Johnsen: Yeah, well…it’s darker sounding. Be Gone was a pretty bleak album lyrically, a moribund tone across the board. This one, maybe dark isn’t the right word, sinister may be better. It’s difficult to describe- it definitely has a different tone, maybe it’s the difference between being a bummer and being angry. It’s hard to say, you have to come up with things when you are writing bios and that sort of copy.

Blistering.com: You were able to get some guest appearances again on this album, which appears to be a Pharaoh tradition from record to record. How were you able to get Mike Wead (Mercyful Fate, King Diamond) to make a guest solo on “Castles in the Sky?”

Johnsen: The guest solo thing is kind of a tradition, it started by accident when we got Chris Poland (Megadeth) on The Longest Night so it seemed like a fun thing to do. We are all big fans and the business being what it is; the greatest players of all-time in metal are still working day jobs and are pretty accessible. It’s not like the 1970’s where you would have tried to get Michael Schenker to play on your album – these days you can get a hold of who you want through e-mails.

After we did the last album with the Riot guys we were already thinking about who we were going to get next. We bandied a few names around- the guy that we picked was a combination of somebody that we all like and someone we think would mesh well with the Pharaoh sound. We had a few names on the list and Mike’s name sort of bubbled to the top. He’s a huge influence on me, the way he phrases his solos is pretty unique. I figured, how hard could that be? Well, it turned out to be harder than I thought it was going to be [laughs]. Not that he’s busy or inaccessible, but the people I thought who would be able to get me in touch with him were not able to.

I asked a lot of people before I found someone I knew who had a connection to him, and that was Teddy Moller of Loch Vostok and Mayadome back in the day. At first Teddy gave me his cell phone number, and I wasn’t looking forward to a cold call to a Swedish dude to do a guest solo for a band he’s never heard of. I never got through on his cell phone – I went back to Teddy so I got an e-mail address, an introduction and he wanted to do it. I sent Mike copies of the last album and a rough mix of “Castles in the Sky,” plus “Burn with Me,” and he thought “Castles” was more suited to his style. He told us normally he charges the band, but he liked our music so he didn’t charge us. We threw him a few hundred dollars for the studio fee, he sent it back and that was that. We are already starting to brainstorm for the next album who will guest.

Blistering.com: One of my favorite tracks on the album is the epic “The Year of the Blizzard.” I can sense a little bit of Alex Lifeson in certain parts – was Rush an influence on that song?

Johnsen: That entire song was written by Chris Black our drummer; it’s hard to say specifically, but I know he’s a Rush fan. He likes that sort of 70’s proto-metal sound- that one riff that kicks in comes straight out of 2112 so when I heard it I thought it sounded like Rush so when we tracked that I borrowed an old SG just to do that one section, because I was hearing that classic 70’s Rush sound. I couldn’t get a double-neck guitar but I did what I could. The thing that makes that song so different for Pharaoh is it’s going so far back in history – most of the foundation for our sound comes from the 80’s and that song has a little Jethro Tull, Rush, Led Zeppelin all over it. It’s a cool tune to break up the album in a nice way; it breaks up the Pharaoh template.

Blistering.com: A couple of segments of the album also have phrasing and playing that are more in line with Andy Summers of The Police and Ron Strykert of Men At Work with that 80’s new wave guitar technique- how are you able to introduce this seamlessly into the Pharaoh style?

Johnsen: I can play a lot of things that don’t sound like Pharaoh at all and make it work. I have a lot of stuff in reserve in the riff grab bag that I haven’t found a way to make it work for the band yet. As for The Police influence, that’s been there from the beginning. There are some distinctive chord changes that Andy Sumners uses that I’ve incorporated into every song I’ve written for the band. It may be a clean part that has a lot of chorus on it or delay, and that’s all Andy influenced. He’s my number one guitarist for my whole entire life.

The one riff I know you are thinking of from “Graveyard of Empires” is just a straight U2/ The Edge rip-off. You set your delay to a dotted eighth note and you get instant The Edge. It’s not like that happened by accident – I started working on that part and I thought it would be a great place to put something on that. When [producer/engineer] Matt Crooks was mixing that I kept shouting, “More effects, more effects, more effects!”[laughs], in that sopping wet 80’s sound. I love that kind of music – I am really big Men At Work fan, I even have that horrible third album that nobody likes. They are a band that I love – I wouldn’t say that Ron is an influence per se, but the band wrote a lot of really cool songs. I’ve had this sort of funny fantasy to do an EP calledOverkill, doing the Motorhead song, all four parts of the Overkill series by Overkill, and then the Men At Work song, but I doubt I could get the whole band to sign on for that. Maybe I’ll save that for the solo project [laughs].

Blistering.com: Was there a particular reason the Ten Years EP got delayed?

Johnsen: Oh yes. There are many specific reasons. Some of them are defensible, others are completely inexcusable. The first thing that happened is it took a little while to finish it. We recorded most of Be Gone and Ten Years all at once – the drums, rhythm guitars, and bass were all recorded at the same time. When we did the original vocal sessions for the album we hoped to get the EP tracks done, and I think we were only able to get to two of them. Then with Tim’s [Aymar, vocals] schedule, it was a long time to get him back up to do more vocals. So the original plan was to have the EP recorded and mixed all at the same time, we had to get Be Gone mixed so that left this other stuff sitting around. Then it took another 6-7 months to get all the vocals done. Which didn’t seem like that big of a deal – we wanted to put the EP out originally about a year after the album. I had to do other guitars to- we mixed the album, got it all ready… then had a window for the EP release.

That got bumped for some sort of administrative reason – Enrico’s [Leccesse, Cruz del Sur owner] schedule was full or something with the distribution. So we put off mastering, and when the original mastering came back it was awful so we had to re-master it with another engineer. We had slipped another release date, and we missed deadlines. At a certain point I got burned out doing all this Pharaoh crap. I am the administrative person, and if no one is pushing me to get it out, sometimes I just kind of forget about it. We did have it mixed and mastered a little while before it came out- it now looks like a preview to the new record instead of what it really was which was an extension of Be Gone, because some of those songs were slated to go on the album originally. Most people thought of it as a stop gap thing…it is what it is.

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