Goldenhall – Ice and Fire

Monday, 26th October 2020

Four years removed from their self-titled debut EP, Rhode Island symphonic power metal quintet Goldenhall elevate their game with their first full-length Collide. Following triumphant acceptance in the local New England scene, which included festival appearances as well as opening slot opportunities with Sabaton and Epica among others, these gentlemen embrace a style (and sound) that includes a wide array of European power, melodic death, and symphonic/folk influences. Distinctive in approach beyond most others, it’s obvious why they’ve gained acclaim for their songwriting and performances.

We reached out to vocalist Jason Shealy and bassist Nico Cannella to catch up on the work behind Collide, the semi-conceptual theme explored on the record, reaching out to another outstanding artist for the cover, and in depth discussion about the influences of the band members as well as the New England metal scene and future plans.

Dead Rhetoric: Collide is the latest Goldenhall album. What do you believe the band has learned the most when it comes to songwriting, production, tones, and performances for this full-length compared to your self-titled debut EP in 2016?

Jason Shealy: Well, I could talk about that in a couple of different ways. When you self-produce, as we have, you have to have your own standard of what is acceptable, because there isn’t anyone standing over your shoulder saying ‘this, this, this, and that’. You have to hear it objectively and say this is right and this is wrong, so we have to change it to make the song better. The way we recorded this record was disparate. A lot of the songs were written musically before I had all the vocals sorted out. Matt came in and tracked all the drums knowing all the song arrangements were more or less complete. He tracked the drums in Ryan’s house as he had a big vaulted living room which made sense. Ryan and Greg worked hard on drum tones while I was working hard on my vocal arrangements, figuring out what I wanted my parts to be like.

And then we moved through, Ryan would tweak the orchestra parts, the guitar tones, and get the band sounding as optimum as he could while I handed him one song worth of vocal tracks. It would take me anywhere from six to ten hours to do all the vocals for one song- and that was knowing some of these songs as well as I do. Here’s an arrangement and my vocal arrangements would be track one, main melodies, tracks two and three supporting harmonies, and tracks four-six are additional harmonies that you may or may not want. Some effect type stuff, screaming, growling, shouting.

From a production perspective, we all had to put on each other’s ears. When I would get a mix back, I would listen for Nico’s bass clang, I love that tone. But I know I can’t listen to my own vocal in that context, because to me the vocals are never loud enough as the singer. We have to trust the balance of these things is right for the song. I think we achieved that – Greg and Ryan are driving the ship, but we offer a lot of feedback. We went through eight or nine revisions of these songs. We took a vote and kept things democratic. Maybe there was a drum fill in one song that I thought obliterated the musical moment- so the band agreed with me. There were ten other things I wasn’t adamant about, because it was a taste thing.

We had to diplomatically work together to get to the best final product that all made sense. And I think we landed it.

Dead Rhetoric: Did you feel like you had more confidence with some of the material going into the recording, as you did a few of these songs live prior to the recording?

Shealy: I certainly did – at least for those tunes. For me there was this aspect though of we hadn’t done all of them live. For the EP, all four of those songs were our live set- and we had rehearsed that live set before we tracked the EP. It wasn’t a question of if the songs would work – it was more how we would get them to work live. In this context…”Meadows”, “Beneath the Iron Sword” and “Fade” we did live.

Nico Cannella: The formal titles of the songs were one of the last things that we set in stone.

Dead Rhetoric: Did you know the album was going to be called Collide right away?

Shealy: That wasn’t a last-minute decision, but it was a later decision in the process. Collide was the original title of the song “Soul Division”. We started talking about album title, what the purpose of the record was going to be, what represents the concept of the album. They looked at me as the lyricist. If there is one thing I can pull out about the theme of these songs, it’s about conflict and the nature of conflicting ideas. So Collide felt like a great title in that context- and we had to rename that track to “Soul Division”.

Dead Rhetoric: Were there any specific challenges, obstacles, or surprises when it came to the recording this go around? And are there certain songs that came easier to you than others, or ones that just took a little longer to develop and get to a satisfactory completion for the band?

Shealy: The answer to that is yes! (laughs)

Cannella: As far as the recording process goes, it was pretty much the same as the last time. We had Ryan do all the orchestration to have that down. We tracked drums first, then I tracked bass. For the most part we had Ryan and Greg’s guitars- the solos are usually the last little icing on the cake. And then Jason’s vocals are extremely complex. He puts tons of different harmonies and layers in there, which is what I personally love about his vocals. There’s never too many… never enough. From my perception, this album was a little more of a concept album than the first one. The first one was more or less a hodgepodge of riffs and songs. The lyrics he put together were really cool and amazing, but he dove a little deeper in his soul for Collide. Especially “Soul Division” is a very personal song for Jason, which makes it very enjoyable to listen to. The rest of the songs are essentially a concept album.

Shealy: To that I would say it’s an accidental concept album. I remember back when Nico and I were spending a little more time together during the day. We were talking about the album art, and the whole time I had this vision of an orange and a blue fighting each other. That was always visually what I thought of, but I could never figure out what it meant. Lyrically that drove me. My process from day one is Ryan will send me a demo, and the first thing I do is try to get an impression. What is this song – Ryan sometimes will send along he is thinking of this idea… I was probably into my third set of lyrics when I realized I had the makings of a small plot and a small narrative, and this backdrop where I could put a lot of the real emotional conflicts that I was dealing with. If I have said it once I’ve said it a hundred times to these guys – this album is not my midlife crisis. Nothing in these lyrics will prove otherwise.

Some of it came very easy. The lyrics to “An Awakening” I wrote half of them after a band rehearsal one night. I listened to that demo and wrote out the second verse and the second chorus in that context. These are just words I needed to write down. What does it mean? Is it a story or a narrative? I put a lot of energy at that point in trying to steer the ship in that direction. I was talking to Jeff Taft of Adamantis, he and I were talking offline about the record. It isn’t a concept album like the way Dream Theater – The Astonishing is an outright concept record. Collide is more of a… a Faulkner meets Pulp Fiction feel. A line is not necessarily the same person that’s delivering the next line. I’m an American male who’s going to be 40 next year- I suffer from first world problems like depression and anxiety and it shows up in the lyrics. “The Fade” I rewrote those lyrics four or five times. Even though we performed that song for two years, I never had the same lyrics twice.

The process was not easy. This record should have been out a year ago. COVID happened, life happened, we have regular jobs, kids, families. Matt is actively playing with Currents and doing very well with those guys. We can’t play as much live because of that. He said he wanted to play with Currents and we said go- what can we give you that they can’t give you ten times more of? Go do it.. who among us wouldn’t do that, if given the choice. Matt is our boy and we are glad he is doing good stuff with those guys. That slowed us down a little bit. It took a little longer.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the importance of the work that guitarist Ryan Spahr does with the orchestral arrangements as well as his mixing/mastering duties? Is it fair to say your influences expand beyond normal North American parameters into numerous European artists like Orden Ogan, Ensiferium, Sabaton, Omnium Gatherum, etc.?

Cannella: Absolutely. I’ll take the second half of that question. I’m speaking on behalf of Ryan, but out of all of the guys in the band, Jason got into the bands that we are into at the urge of our influences. I threw a ton of crap at Jason to listen to Orden Ogan, listen to Sabaton, listen to Ensiferum, all this European metal. Wintersun- Time. Ryan and I share a lot of the admiration for the European bands – Greg and Matt a little bit, but they love American metalcore and deathcore. Ryan lives by European folk metal, melodic death metal, and some power metal. I’m a little more on the power metal side, I love the cheesy stuff. You can definitely hear his heavy influence from Ensiferum, Omnium Gatherum and Insomnium in his work. We don’t really sound like anything that’s been around as of late. One – there is a lot of death metal elements in the drums that you don’t really hear in symphonic power metal, a lot of blast beats and I’m thankful for. It makes things different and gives a more intense edge to the sound. The other part is, we have clean vocals but unlike most power metal bands, we have a baritone vocalist. It’s very rare, outside of Sabaton, Falconer, and there’s one more band from Finland that had a deep baritone voice. Those things set us apart.

Shealy: We never really dwell on this, I’m ten years older than everyone else in the band. I’d like to think I can hang with the young kids as it were, but they came of age during the new American wave of heavy metal- Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Children of Bodom, that sequence of 1998-2005, they cut their teeth on that. I grew up in a whole other universe – the first singer who meant anything to me was Randy Owen from Alabama. I cut my teeth on 1980’s country – Grand Ole Opry, Reba McEntire, Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks later on, Vince Gill and bluegrass, because I lived in the South. This idea… the Beach Boys, The Four Tops. I also grew up in a church choir, so I never heard music that wasn’t accompanied by five voices. My coming of age bands were 1992,93, 94- Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Nirvana. And of course Sabbath, Queen, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Zeppelin- this wide range of music that I pulled from, by the time this European power metal started kicking in during the late 90’s/early 2000’s, I’m in college listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Vivaldi in music school. Studying orchestral arrangements, that’s where I was musically, for me there was a huge gap right before Slipknot hit, I stopped listening to modern metal. I was digging into Dream Theater at that point. There needs to be a discography to pick from to learn about your stretch as a musician. Two years ago I got into Devin Townsend and I have spent two years listening to basically nothing else!

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the artwork this go around with Claudio Bergamin – what did you want to get across this time and discuss the importance in your eyes with cover art especially in the symphonic/power metal realm?

Cannella: I’ll back track a little bit. With the last EP we went with Par Olofsson, who in the past has worked with a lot of death metal bands. He did Exodus, deathcore bands, and Solution .45 albums as well. That piece fit really well for what we were doing at the time. But we were looking for somebody else this go around. Claudio Begamin, we knew he did the cover for Judas Priest – Firepower, but then we also found out he did covers for Battle Beast, and did a bunch of pieces for a Finnish band Brymir – and the album cover to their newest album Wings of Fire, Ryan and I fell in love with that. Let me reach out to him, we had good luck in the past reaching out to big names in the past. Either he will be astronomically priced or extremely fair with his pricing. I went to his Facebook page, and with only a couple of hundred followers, I felt it was going to work. He was very reasonable for a full-customed piece of artwork. To work with the same dude that did Firepower – awesome.

I went to Jason’s house one night, and we talked about the concept of the album and how to get this across to Claudio. He wanted a small summary about what the album was going to be about and what we wanted the album cover to look like, he would work up a demo for us. Jason and I worked on it, put together a small summary of the plot, and sketched a kind of Dragonball-Z style thing. It wasn’t that bad. We gave him that sketch, he ran with it, we tweaked things, and he came up with what you see – we wanted the guy psychologically beat up. Evil and good pulling the guy apart – and that’s what is signified by the ice and fire on the album. Claudio did an unbelievable job. With the vibrant colors… it was the thing that we wanted. He brought to life the idea that Jason and I had two years to hash out what this was going to look like.

Shealy: I don’t want to say what it is… I’ll allude to what it is. The magic of this record, the story arc is there. The emotional conditions that I was experiencing and reflecting on and pushing forward at the time, it’s all there if you want to see it. In broad strokes, there’s a character ‘Bob’ as we will call him, has some conflict. The conflict is personified by this external force. The external force itself is two spirits that have bound together, and for reasons you can interpret have taken on residency, almost like a parasite if you will inside Bob, and they have to duke it out. They are convinced that one of them wins and take over, and Bob will be like their puppet. In my interpretation of the narrative, it doesn’t go that way – and it takes a different turn. A casual reading of the lyrics will show that. The cover is Bob realizing that he made some choices early, and he can’t back out, and the consequences of those choices have led him down a path he may not be glad he took, and he’s got to reconcile that.

Dead Rhetoric: You have been able to play many great shows on a local level across New England – including some significant festival appearances as well as prime opening slots for national acts. What are some of your more memorable show moments to date for Goldenhall, and what do you hope to get across to the audience that may be different than the studio performances?

Canella: I would definitely have to stay the Stone Church show in Brattleboro, Vermont was one of the coolest shows we’ve ever played. There’s a picture from that show on our Facebook page where Jason has the mic stand holding it above the head, with the huge organ in the background. It was a really different experience. Even though the place wasn’t packed, it was quality over quantity, that’s for sure. And then I would say the first show we played at the Palladium, it was upstairs, it was a part of a festival. I think it was with Sabaton. The first time it was insane – the room was packed.

Shealy: We were first upstairs, and it was cold outside. Downstairs wasn’t open yet, and it was so cold people wanted to get inside. We are up there, we are getting ready, it was one of the first shows we played. They open the doors but they went straight to the bar. The light goes down, intro music starts, and everybody in the room turned 45 degrees to the right and went to the stage. We had them for 20 minutes, and it was the most fun, the crowd discovering us for the first time there. We’ve had such great experiences at the Palladium. We played the Ice Giant record release party at Sammy’s Patio in Revere, MA. Thunderforge, Seven Spires, Vivisepulture. At the time we had known the guys in Thunderforge for a little while. I knew more or less how “God of Tits and Wine” goes- and I remember standing up front, singing along with Adam in my own harmony, and Adrienne from Seven Spires comes over singing as a trio. Seven Spires is killing it, they are working on their third record – they are the torch bearers for New England metal. I’ve gotten to know so many nice people in this metal community in New England. Whether they are talking metal or hanging at a show, they have a good energy. The energy in a room around you plays a big role in how things are around you. Everybody who is doing what they do gets encouraged to do it to their fullest.

Dead Rhetoric: Discuss the significance of tools like Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram, and social media in general to developing more of an international following for the band? Are you content to stay independent, or what would it take in your eyes to sign with a record label?

Shealy: Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, CD Baby, pick your mechanism – that’s the face of modern music now. This might be my ignorance, but I can’t imagine any circumstance where a record label is going to come to me or my band and offer terms that we would accept to sign a contract. There’s no reason for any band to sign with a label that knows what they are signing. From what I know about modern record labels and existing as a band, I’m not going on the road anytime soon. If Goldenhall could tour, a six-week tour of the United States, third on the four band bill, and make some money doing it- yeah, I could see us doing that once or twice a year. Do I want to do 40-50 weeks a year, grind it out, and not make any money at the end of the year? No, not at all. I’m not wired for that.

For us staying independent preserves all the things that I care about – I can do my own vocal arrangements and the only people I have to convince are the other four guys in the band. We can do a ska record tomorrow and no one can stop us, if we want. Ultimately, there are four day jobs between us and Matt has Currents. I can’t fathom anything that would make it worth our time for us to sign with a label. In that context, for our band it doesn’t make sense.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some the biggest challenges facing Goldenhall currently to move to the next level as far as a stronger, more fervent following?

Cannella: Probably just our ability to play more shows at a more frequent pace. We are restricted to… being the way things are now, we can’t play anything. Even when things go back to normal, Matt is in another full-time band. It’s awesome and he’s living the dream, but because of that it puts us in a certain box. From my view, that’s the number one roadblock for us to get to the next level, being able to play more shows.

Shealy: I would add to that. What is the next level? Is the next level a record deal? In 1983- yes. In 1997 – yeah, it could be. In 2010- a record deal is an albatross. In 2020- a record deal to me is incidental. One of the things that our band has never been particularly good at is self-promotion. Matt and Nico have been better at that then most of us. I’m just a music nerd who likes to make music. I am working now on my next recording project, I have stuff I have been collecting over the years. I know Ryan definitely is not going to stop creating music. Many musicians go onto something different to reset the brain, and that process will yield something else that people have come to love and know me from before. I go back to Devin Townsend, Strapping Young Lad did so well, but if you have kept up with him, he has proven that is not exclusively what he can do. There is always a yin and a yang. I like it when musicians do something way outside their wheelhouse. James Hetfield ought to do a country album – and a James Hetfield country album, not a Nashville album.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next twelve months shaping up for Goldenhall as far as activities now that the album is out?

Cannella: Our main goal was to get this album out, have people listen to it and enjoy it. That’s where we stand out right now. If COVID didn’t exist, we would be booking a bunch of shows and playing shows. We can’t do that, so we are in a stalemate. This band is a passion of ours when we are able to do it. We do it as something we love to do. I would love to do a music video, but it’s not something we’ve talked about. It had been four years since the last one, people were asking about new stuff. Not to say there isn’t anything more to come, but the album release is the thing.

Shealy: It was a big statement for us, to write and make these songs. Greg was at the top of the mixing change, and why it sounds a little different than the EP where Ryan mixed it top to bottom. Greg spent a lot of time on drums, Matt sounds so good on this record. It has a lot more polish, we knew we had some good songs on our hands. Quietly we knew… a lot of this we finished this year. We are not going to be able to do the support shows we wanted, or an on-time album release party. That sounds like fun, I don’t know if we can do it at a later time. It made sense to get the record out.

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