Circle II Circle – A Traditional Reign

Wednesday, 14th October 2015

Back in adolescence when funds are limited, you take every chance possible to discover new music through any means. Specialty shows on the radio in one-two hour blocks once a week became a haven for tape recording the latest songs… and it was here that this writer discovered Savatage through a song called “City Beneath the Surface”. Transfixed through the darker, melodic, and power metal textures, the 80’s and 90’s saw the band rise in stature and respect throughout the world even as lineup changes and cinematic, orchestral, and thematic layers entered the band’s songwriting.

Vocalist Zak Stevens would get on the international map through his work in Savatage from 1993-2000, starting with Edge of Thorns on through to The Wake of Magellan. Since then, his priority has been his own band Circle II Circle that keeps up the traditional, power, and progressive metal leanings that he’s established through his musical resume, while occasionally re-entering the broad reaches of his first family through his appearances with Savatage at Wacken this year and work in Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Circle II Circle’s seventh studio album is the aptly titled Reign of Darkness – intent to showcase a band dipping into the past while also keeping their ideas fresh and contemporary. Speaking to Zak shortly before a planned tour of Brazil (sadly cancelled due to work visa issues), the man’s southern charm and respect to my queries make this a delightful conversation that flew by. Prepare to hear talk of the dream Savatage/ TSO tandem headlining performance at Wacken 2015, Circle II Circle tour excursions in the Middle East, how multiple songwriters made for a more diverse songwriting platform on the new album, and why merchandising is so important to a band’s career more than ever.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us about the upcoming documentary film on Circle II Circle tentatively titled Dreams That Never Die?

Zak Stevens: We are going to take the last couple of years of tours that we have followed around and filmed. Last year’s European run, interviews and stories. Me talking about the Savatage reunion before it happened, try to get a perspective of that as a before and after. How Wacken went and all the time leading up to that when we didn’t know what was really going to be going on. It was such a big secret, even a lot of the guys in the band didn’t really know. The whole year leading up to that. Capturing the trip to Dubai, we had a few shows there in the Middle East and it was an interesting way to capture the dynamics between us and our Middle Eastern supporters and fans. They are anywhere from the Emirates, Syria- everybody knows what’s going on over there. A lot of them had to leave because of the war. We have a lot of Lebanese fans that still reside there. It’s almost a good place to play, a little more stable- but with Isis and Syria it’s a little too shaky to put together full tours. We also have a lot of Egyptian fans that come to Dubai to see us. We still have important stuff that needs to go in there, but we will probably have a release date set up within the next six months or so.

Dead Rhetoric: Your seventh studio album Reign of Darkness has a lot of dynamic energy and incorporates the heavy and classy texture that the band established throughout your career. How is the recording and songwriting process at this stage in your musical life- what special highlights came up this time?

Stevens: We’ve had a similar recording process where we just kind of come up with the song riffs and see what’s happening with it to see the good and the band and what is the strongest stuff to let the cream rise to the top. I write all of my vocal parts to existing riffs and try to help with the arrangements of the songs. That’s been going on for quite a few years. We wanted to make sure we continue to build upon what we do, after a few years and you are into your seventh album you have to be careful because there is a chance for sameness. If you want to make a big left turn or right turn in what you are doing and keep it fresh, you have to make a real effort to do so. So we came into this album saying we really want to do something as a band that’s really different, we’ve done a lot but we want to keep it moving and fresh.

The overall feeling of the songs on the record is that it’s pretty dark- which is cool. It took a boost up in the tempo, we have a few songs that have some really rapid tempos, and we have other time elements happening within the same songs. The twists and turns are not expected on this. We expanded our writing team so it brought in a lot of new perspectives. Christian Wentz our guitarist and producer stepped things up to write a lot more on this album. We brought in a good friend of ours Marc that did some touring with us beyond the normal writing team. We had 4 guys writing- sometimes it may be Mitch and I or Christian and I, but we did have multiple songwriters. That really helps when you want to broaden the team- we did this on the last album too. We are happy with it, we’ve brought in guest vocalists too, Kristina VanAmburgh and Paul Perry, two people that play in the San Francisco/Bay Area music scene. We thought they sounded great, we wanted their talents on our album.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you tell us a little bit about the back story on some of my favorite songs for this release: “Victim of the Night”, “Ghost of the Devil”, and “Deep Within”?

Stevens: I like “Ghost of the Devil”, that’s kind of a good one for us. We put out our first instant gratification download by the label about five-six days ago and it was “Victim of the Night”. We were over 10,000 views on that YouTube link right now, which is a fast mover for us! Things are moving on this album. We will have a lyric video for “Ghost of the Devil”, kind of interesting. A very familiar chorus for something that we would do, very melodic, decent melody. I like to keep it simple, simplicity is okay as long as it’s over something interesting. I like the song “Deep Within”, it has a very deep chorus against a fast moving verse, its like an old Black Sabbath thing happening with Dio. Maybe something I’m hearing off The Mob Rules album. We are going way back but trying to make something modern- we are still taking influences in from stuff as far back as that.

“One More Day” is pretty cool, that starts off very Sabbath-esque as well but turns into something very different. “Untold Dreams” will probably be the first band performance video. To the end of the record we do more of an orchestral, piano ballad thing… the story is about a guy that has been battling with addiction, heavy addictions, drugs and alcohol and he is losing the battle. It’s a sad thing, I don’t know if you’ve had a situation like that in your life, I know I have. You feel like somebody is losing the battle and the next step unfortunately is death that seems to follow. This is “Solitary Rain”. Those are the ones that I gravitate to.

Dead Rhetoric: Performing in Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra at Wacken 2015 in front of 75,000 plus people – how many chill bumps came up, and did you ever think you would see Savatage again on stage after this long of a break?

Stevens: Hmm. I didn’t really think personally that we would see that. It was amazing, a lot of the chill bumps especially during the performance. Even the rehearsals were done in an interesting way- we had to go in a huge fairground that was big enough to have the entire space of those two stages at Wacken measured off and taped off. You had to know where you were to look over a couple hundred feet to your bandmates. That was pretty smart, trying to take the vision in during rehearsals was breathtaking at times. When both stages got fired up and playing at once it was amazing. The performances at the show, I felt like being on stage days before it happened- I had so much energy to do it. It was a real relief, we tried to hold that energy to the time. The big thing about Savatage is we found out that we all fell in love again with each other, it was great seeing that Dead Winter Dead/Wake of Magellan lineup up there again doing what we do. We renewed our friendship and had that love affair blossom, which I think will lead into future things. We felt like we were better now than back then 15 years ago. We are older, more seasoned, and a little bit better at what we do individually. Those are two intriguing things I got away from it.

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