Archon Angel – Natural HappenstanceThursday, 20th April 2023
After the release of the debut Archon Angel album Fallen in 2020, the musicians behind this act got right down to work on a follow-up. Featuring Zak Stevens on vocals (Savatage and TSO under his resume), plus guitarist Aldo Lonobile (Secret Sphere, Edge of Forever) and a host of impressive Italian musicians, this act delivers material that traverses the progressive / melodic heavy metal spectrum – influences across the spectrum of their US/European heritage. Their latest album II sees the band moving in a heavier vein, while also keeping the trademarks set on the debut fully in place. We reached out to Zak via Zoom recently, as he was very excited to fill us in on the background of how Archon Angel came to be, the multiple songwriters approach that allows a wealth of material to be developed, the lyrical content and exotic scale textures courtesy of his wife Katherine, how he defines success today, plus a little discussion on what could be going on with Savatage in the coming years.
Dead Rhetoric: II is the second album by Archon Angel – the follow up to Fallen from early 2020. How do you feel about this set of material, the songwriting/recording process, and where do you see the development or differences of the band from the debut album to this effort?
Zak Stevens: The first album was pretty strong. We have a wider writing team in this band. I just got the publishing sheet from the label for album two. It makes me happy – I thought there were five writers, and it’s really more like seven. We had four to five writing on the first record – we had a lot of material. On the first record, I can pinpoint one or two more songs that were a bit more prog if you will. Longer-type songs with the meters changing more epic sounding like “Return of the Storm”. On this record we have more of the equivalent of that song running in something like “Lake of Fire”. We have some similarities, but we had an abundance of material – for both albums, actually. When you talk about the metamorphosis from one album to the next, the fact is that we always seem to have a lot more material than we can even use. We had seventeen songs to choose from on the first album, and we had sixteen to choose from on this one – and we used eleven on this (album).
Mentioning “Lake of Fire”, we had that piece, but it wasn’t finished for the first album. We had the opening riff, the piano thing, but we just didn’t have time to go finish everything. Just by virtue of having all this material, we don’t have to have a meeting about how we want to make this next record. Naturally II came out a little heavier, overall. Heavy beats, heavy grooves, but that was just by natural happenstance only because with having that much material to go through, it’s coming from everywhere. We normally have our writing team of Aldo Lonobile – our guitar player and producer. He came to me originally for Frontiers – I just worked with him six months prior to that on Timo Tolkki’s Avalon. “Miles Away” and another song, it was cool and a smooth process. We needed a band name, coming up with everything from scratch. My wife Katherine comes in, comes up with the name Archon Angel, making it about a second century religion, the only way for people of Earth to talk to the higher divinities. This winged image of a man that could do superhuman things – which is on our first album cover. The stories would be encompassed in the individual songs that Archon Angel has – chapters in his life. That was a good starting point for the concept.
Alessandro Del Vecchio contributes music for us, my wife writes all the lyrics, we have Antonio Agate who does synth arrangements, he contributed music. We had Simone Mularoni, he wrote music on both albums, and our drummer Marco Lazzarini, he contributed on “Lake of Fire”. Something that caught my eye, a guy named Andrea Buratto, who does videos for us – he shot the first two videos for “Fortress” and “Afterburn”. On this album, the Archon accepts the role, and knowing what he can and can’t do with his powers, now he’s in his fortress castle, getting used to things. He contributed to a song musically. It works for people. It’s great to have a bigger writing team. Quality ideas can come from all over the place – I’m a writer too in there. “Quicksand” is Chris Caffery, brother in Savatage and TSO. He was working with Aldo already, producing Chris’ solo record Spirits of Fire on Frontiers. That was the first time since Circle II Circle that we’ve done that.
Dead Rhetoric: Your wife Katherine works on the lyrics – do you trust her abilities as the wordsmith, and what sort of topics/content does she like to put forth for this band?
Stevens: Yeah, I really do. It’s inspiring to me, when she hands me a finished song. It can always change up to the last minute, but you are committed once you get on the mic. Little tiny changes can take place until the final moment you get to the studio. I totally love it, once she gets the idea. She listens to the music first – what does the song reflect? We work alike for that – back when I was working on lyrics for Circle II Circle, let the song speak to me. Try to get a hint from there – we have the added benefit of the story and the stories she wants to share from there. Maybe if the song fits the bill for one of those stories, she’ll go in that direction too.
Lyric writing when it comes fast, it’s good. She’s inspired – me writing lyrics, it could take days. Together, I give her the vocal melody, so she’s got to match the lyrics to that. On top of what this song is going to be about. It takes me ten minutes once I hear a song what’s going to be the final vocal melody because I’ve done this for so long – thirty plus years of experience since I joined Savatage for Edge of Thorns. That was more of an observing period when I first started. Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva, Criss Oliva, I learned through their work. Working with the late Paul O’Neill, having him passing, Katherine has of all the lyricists I’ve worked with, she may just have the secret sauce to be able to come up with stuff as close to the way Paul would write as I’ve ever seen. Nothing can replace that and nothing’s going to be the same as to what he could do, the stories for Savatage and TSO, but from time to time she has that ability to tap into, the emotional content and imagery like that. We are going to see if she can continue to develop this.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the major differences when it comes to the studio versus the stage in terms of your voice and enjoyment? Is one aspect better than the other – or do you enjoy both for different, unique reasons?
Stevens: Yeah, I enjoy both for unique reasons. Live, it’s hard to compare. Going to the studio is like going to work, and I enjoy it because I like getting in front of the mic, likening it to being a painter. The painter uses the canvas, and things come to life with the painter going to work, using different types of movements. I’m a terrible artist, I draw stick figure people that don’t even turn out that great. I’m reading a Van Gogh book from 1936, one of the first ones. I use the microphone as my canvas, layering and creating. I paint in different colors, how to start a song, maybe warm up to get to the higher stuff. It’s like being the artist. Live, throw all that out and give the crowd what they want. Interact with the crowd, put on a good show, get them involved, and feed off the energy. I really love that, performing live. I like looking at people and seeing how they are doing. It could be my sign being a Pisces, we feed off those moods and energies. I may have to work harder to win some people over. Two totally different things, but I love them both.
Dead Rhetoric: Also teaching other students through vocal lessons, I’ve read in a previous interview for BraveWords you mention your theory knowledge has increased to practice what you preach regarding key changes, scales, modes, etc. Where do you think you’ve made the biggest improvements say over the past few years that have been beneficial to your longevity at your craft?
Stevens: Longevity comes from realizing as a singer that you just have to take care of yourself. I’ve never smoked cigarettes, it never appealed to me. In the last couple of years, I completely stopped drinking. That helps, all those things that could dehydrate you, the physical aspects you want to be careful with. Everything is holding up good. In singing, your body is your instrument. That’s the instrument – you can get a flu and cold and still play the guitar, but you can’t do that with vocals, once illness sets in you are finished. If you drink too much and push too hard at a show, guess what – you damage a vocal cord. All these planets have to align, every day. I’ve been lucky in a lot of aspects of my career, but I try to also take care of myself so I can create some luck.
Then you have the learning aspect you mentioned. My wife is a theory master. All the stuff I found really hard to learn, about key signatures, circles of fifths, fourths, minor and major keys. I was a drummer as my first instrument. You learn all the rhythms, you can learn about reading music as a drummer. It helps a lot, the terminology. You are doing it on one instrument that doesn’t move around as much on the staff. I had tons of lessons, in percussion. When it came to learning keys, treble clefs, bass clefs, that’s where my wife came in, especially over the past five years. I will ask her about intervals when it comes to scales, is it a half step, whole step? What the intervals are for all major and minor scales. It’s important. That’s the stuff I teach my students – when I teach, they are all ages.
I love exotic scales, and I had no idea about it until I met her. There are 360 or so scales in the world. I knew about five. And she said that’s normal, in Western culture there are about six scales for everything we’ve ever heard. Including classical music – only six to eight scales, that covers it. When you venture outside of that, you have African, Egyptian, Byzantine, Japanese, Indian – you can go on and on. We did that on the new record – “Away from the Sun”. That uses an Egyptian scale, it sounds like you are standing right in front of a pyramid, gazing upon the ancient runes of Egypt. It has a Middle Eastern sound, and that’s why.
Dead Rhetoric: Given your numerous guest vocal appearances throughout your career, what sort of criteria does it take place for you to consider adding your skills to these specific bands/projects? And what do you consider some of your best work in that area that people should look into?
Stevens: Yeah, I do a lot of them. I use it to learn, if it really strikes me and I am inspired by the people who get in touch with me, send me the music, and I like it, I sing on stuff like that to keep me fresh. It’s my best way of learning. I did one recently, Dispyria, the composer Jürgen Walzer does films and movies around this central character Marion Dust, who has the ability to fly into a mirror, disappear and go into an alternate reality. I think his stuff is amazing. He was even too shy to contact me. Katherine and I worked on Dispyria too, and we will work together on the next one. If it works, it works. The chemistry there – the lyric/vocal combo works. We are continuing that whole process.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s your definition when it comes to success – and has that definition changed since your initial development as a musician to where you are today as an artist?
Stevens: I’ve been really careful not to put too much of a hard definition on success. To me success is: am I having fun, am I being inspired? That to me is success. Playing with TSO is successful, we do the big, giant tours every winter, it’s a big entity. It took everyone involved to keep it going, especially since Paul’s passing away. We have two bands, 32 band members, all the management, all the crew, all of the vendors to carry this along and maintain success. That keeps me going, doing all those arena shows and seeing everyone happy. That makes me feel successful. Just being able to do what you love – to your point, in the studio and live, to do that all the time. I’m thankful for that. If you do the stuff you love, you never have to work a single day in your life. Some days do still feel like work, your body is your instrument, there’s no perfect vocal day, ever. As shocking as that is, it relaxes me. I had always been searching for that perfect vocal day, and maybe I’ve had two or three days over the course of thousands of shows. It put me in a better state of mind, not worrying about having a perfect day, you are always working around something and adjusting around that.
As long as I’m having a good time, I’ll keep doing this. The day that comes when I’m not having a good time in music anymore, then I will step aside, and I’ll still be happy in life. For now, I feel very fortunate that I get a lot of joy out of this, and to me that’s success.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for anything related to Archon Angel or Zak Stevens-related musical activities that we can expect over the next twelve months or so? And would there be a possibility of a new Savatage record or maybe some live video footage/documentary coming out down the line?
Stevens: Savatage – we played Wacken back in 2015 with TSO. We were getting there to build things back, then Paul passed away. We needed to make sure TSO was stable, morphing, changing. That put us back a little bit – we’ve been meeting more as a band as Savatage, especially in the final two months of 2022. I’m feeling positive about some kind of breakthrough there. We can get this done, everyone wants to do this, everyone wants to work. We will trickle along with that; we are diligently working on that stuff. People ask about all that Wacken footage which could make a good DVD. That’s been tossed around, hope that can happen. There’s some great footage, but we can take it to a new level with very few edits. The live performances and mix, it’s already there. It was incredible.
With me, Archon Angel’s new album will come out. We won’t start working on the next one until next year. We will see if we can play some. We know we are new on the scene, with the cost of everything. Luckily, I have all my guys in Italy, so I’m the only one here to get over there. I’m going to keep working on little things as they come. If I get inspired, I will work on another side project. Dispyria, he has one more chapter in that story that he wants to work on. By June I may see more songs on that. That’s probably about it for now, and whatever else trickles in on the side.