Serenity – Straight to Lionheart

Sunday, 5th November 2017

Since the early 2000’s, Austrian act Serenity have been carving their own path up the symphonic, power/progressive metal ranks. One of the mainstays on the Napalm Records roster for over a decade, they’ve developed a style that paints broader musical strokes and develops strong affinity for their audience. Vocalist Georg Neuhauser also incorporates his history professor background into the lyrical concepts record to record – of which the latest studio effort Lionheart is based on the great life of Richard the Lionheart.

What may be different about the quartet than most of their contemporaries has been the idea to focus on a proper balancing act between the bombast, the orchestration, the choir elements against the natural metal parts where the riffs, the melodies, and the heaviness matters. Lionheart contains songs that are very focused as the story unfolds (no track over six minutes), enveloping the listener in the majestic storylines with equal emphasis on the grand scope of things: cultural and contextual, the visions coming to life.

Reaching out to guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer one evening following a busy day of guitar teaching at his day job, you could tell he’s very hopeful and grateful for his position within Serenity. You’ll learn more behind his stability within the group, the challenges of balancing his work with this band and Beyond the Black, as well as a love of MMA and cooking – as well as how the touring in support of Lionheart will unfold for 2017-2018.

Dead Rhetoric: Lionheart is the sixth Serenity album, and first in back to back years for the band since the early days. Would you say the band feels creatively energized and comfortable within its own skin, and thus moved to release material at a faster pace again?

Chris Hermsdörfer: Yes, let’s say the delays after the War of Ages record were just about member changes. There was Clémentine leaving, there was Tom leaving, and I had to find my way into the band and find the structure to continue on. Now of course, after Codex Atlanticus worked so well, we just have seen that this structure – it’s like four band members who are doing metal music. In general, the songwriting was great with Georg and myself, it fit perfectly, the energy, move and drive has been found. Not in a very fast way, but how it should be normally – so that releases will come out within 1 ½ to 2 years, not having to make the fans wait. We were happy to work again on the next one, and here we go with Lionheart.

Dead Rhetoric: At this point in the band’s discography, what sense do you have regarding the art and craft of songwriting – do you know what direction you want to see the material go in, and enjoy the diversity because of the symphonic, power and progressive metal textures you’ve developed?

Hermsdörfer: Somehow, Serenity in all our records we are trying to keep our style. With Lionheart again, we have typical Serenity songs, besides Georg there is someone like me writing the songs for the band. What has changed that we have worked our way back to – we read a recent review that (we use) the combination of going back to this straight-ahead metal (style), the drive and the feeling while using the orchestration in the right way. Some former records of Serenity went more into the cinematic, orchestral style, like other bands are doing. We felt like (this time), more guitar riffs, more straight material in your face, more drive- and we tried it on the last album Codex Atlanticus, and with this album we have found our way back to the way we really want to do the songwriting.

Dead Rhetoric: Given the fact that Georg works in the history field and you also have a similar love and appreciation for history, does it make things easier for Serenity when it comes to developing themes and concepts to handle for the lyrics?

Hermsdörfer: For myself, I’m just interested in history. With Richard the Lionheart, how many movies about this subject have been done? All the history about him, and everyone can find elements on these records regarding what we are talking about. As you probably know, Georg is a history professor – and we can find easier themes because it’s his job. We love doing historical themes, he teaches that at a university- we discuss topics, and this is why it’s easier for us. We have guys in our band that are closer to these topics than maybe other bands who want to write something historical.

Dead Rhetoric: Is this a case where you are writing the music and the lyrics hand in hand because of the conceptual themes?

Hermsdörfer: I think it helps. I was talking to Georg during the songwriting process- for example, when I do a song I’m trying to think about Lionheart, I’m reading some parts of the history where he was standing in front of Jerusalem. When I have the pictures in mind, I can start something. “The Fortress (Of Blood and Sand)”, this is exactly the scene that I had in mind when you see a person out of Richard’s army, and you see these walls of Jerusalem, the Oriental view, everything is different. The combination of this makes it turn out to a better song that just a great riff, a melody, and a random lyric. You need the complete picture of the lyrics and the music together.

Dead Rhetoric: Was it an easy choice to think about what would be the first single/video from this record?

Hermsdörfer: No (laughs). On Codex Atlanticus, it was my first time in this process to find the singles – we had clearly in mind what songs should be released. We ended up discussing other songs, we knew “Lionheart” would be one of the songs, and I think we made the right decision. We have a perfect flow forward.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the importance of artwork and imagery in conveying the essence of Serenity from the studio to the stage – as well as merchandising?

Hermsdörfer: Artwork in metal is still something very important, in general. I want to wear a shirt of a band which is showing me which band or which record I immediately love most, or brings me closer to my band. It’s always hard for a band to bring this line- you are starting with the record and art, you know what a CD is going to look like but then how can we bring the theme, the idea and the artwork from the CD to the stage? This can be really hard – we have the merch, but we don’t have the final decision yet about the headlining stage set, it’s not done yet. We have some ideas, we have some months (ahead) because (the tour) won’t start until February. This (needs to) be well done, thoughts about it- if you are a fan, you buy the CD first, then you see the artwork, then you want to have the feeling after seeing a headlining show that you will go to the merch table to buy a shirt- as it will fit all the feelings that I got from the CD to the stage.

Dead Rhetoric: How important is the business end of things for Serenity- are you able to share and divide out tasks so that everyone feels valued but not burn out?

Hermsdörfer: Sure, it has to be. When you have a change in the lineup, it can be at first hard to find the new structure. It’s like a company, you knew it was clear from the start who did what and when, and then you have guys leaving so you have to find the structure again. It took us a little bit, but everyone knows what he has to do in the band- the tasks are very clear. You can rely on everyone and that things get done. Your band life ends up getting easier.

Dead Rhetoric: How beneficial was it to your metal journey to spend three years learning guitar from Sascha Gerstner of Helloween? Were there specific takeaways or tips that you developed in that period that you still apply in your work today?

Hermsdörfer: It’s nice that you found that out! (laughs) By the way, if Sascha will end up reading this of course, greetings to my teacher. It was a really big step in my personal career, not just about playing-wise. Some (guitar) licks you will never forget, it’s like your first lessons in a different language. I think my first sentences in French for example I still know. It was the whole process, we did all of those years, it was playing and more working on what is the idea of writing music and the idea of not becoming just a cover musician and being an artist. This is something that I am really thankful for because the process started with him, he showed me the right signs and the right way to do this. My decision led me from these lessons to joining Visions of Atlantis- I stopped playing in cover/tribute projects in Germany and I remembered what he told me. This is something I am still using every day- and I’m giving (these ideas) to my students every day.

Dead Rhetoric: As a music school businessman with Learn to Rock across Germany and Austria, where do you see the landscape when it comes to learning the craft of instrument play, theory, etc. – are you finding it challenging given all the access to information and tutorials online these days?

Hersdörfer: Teaching music I’m always using different information, ways, and techniques of what I have to teach to students. I’m not a finished book when it comes to learning about music- when I’m on tour, and with other producers, I’m learning. I try to teach people based on what they already have and how to use the information they can use that they can get from everywhere. Today it’s super easy to start learning the guitar- you just have to open your computer, type in guitar learning in Google and you will get 20,000 pages on it. The only thing no one is telling you is, how- and how to work with this information. This is something I try to convey every day with my students, and tell them how I learn and how I work with this information that I’m not just getting out of tabs and YouTube videos. What I play, what I find out when writing a song, and bring them with examples with them. If you do things with the right combination of the new world of music teaching and the old world, it’s a cool way to teach – and as a result, we will never be out of good musicians.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you balance your workload with Serenity and Beyond the Black?

Hersdörfer: (laughs). An interesting point. Some people have seen that it’s sometimes not possible to play in both bands at the same time – because we had some dates that were parallel. Although at Wacken- I ended up playing in both bands, because we played with Beyond the Black in the afternoon, and then on another stage with Serenity during the evening. I would walk off stage, re-dress, have a drink, and then be back on stage for the next show. It was like sports big-time. I do have a substitute for Serenity when those conflicts arise- it’s a former student of mine, a young guy that is super-talented named Nick. He already did some shows for me, I’m super proud as a teacher that your student is being used as your substitute. You don’t need a special certificate, I’m happy about this. I’ll try to play every show that I can also with Serenity in the future, it’s not an interest of mine to leave. But if it’s just not possible, we have him.

Hopefully we can do some shows together too with two guitars, that would be a cool idea. Where you play with your student for a show, we shall see.

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