Helion Prime – Everything In QuestionTuesday, 13th October 2020
A newer breed of North American power metal acts continues to make inroads in a scene that was previously dominated by more of the European bigwigs. Helloween, Gamma Ray, Stratovarius, Hammerfall, Edguy, and Primal Fear to most metal followers are fairly well known for their craft and impact. As of late, you are hearing names like Judicator, Unleash the Archers, and the current band Helion Prime as shining beacons of steady creativity and stellar output. Even amidst the numerous singer shifts Helion Prime has gone through (Mary Zimmer the latest vocalist), it hasn’t diminished the band quest for glory, as their third full-length Question Everything features a look at real-life science figures important to challenging the outlook of the world during their time.
We reached out to guitarist Jason Ashcraft once again who was very happy to fill us in on the latest happenings within the band. We tackled the singer shifts, band chemistry even with past singers, thoughts on this conceptual record, the decision to go the independent route for this release, and lots of discussion regarding the current US power metal brigade and Spotify/Patreon outlooks.
Dead Rhetoric: Question Everything is the third and latest Helion Prime album – also continuing the theme of introducing a new vocalist on record with Mary Zimmer taking the helm there. Have all of these singer shifts been a blessing or a curse in gaining forward momentum and stability for the band – as you also have your former singers contribute in various ways with this record?
Jason Ashcraft: Um, that’s the first time I have heard it put as a theme, which is something I never thought would happen. I don’t know man, it’s a little bit of both. It’s definitely never been planned, but life happens, right? Some people just can’t carry on with bands, and it’s just an unfortunate situation. When Heather and I first started the band, it was never really supposed to be a big thing, she had to step away because she couldn’t commit to it. Her and I right away, we wanted to write some songs for fun. She was heavily doing her other band (Graveshadow), and her and I had been friends for a long time. So she stepped away, and with Sozos, the distance became too great. We took a gamble but I wanted to go for it because I loved his voice, and he was so great to work with. With Mary though, we feel really confident that we have finally found our footing. She’s been with us for over two years officially and unofficially, this is the first time she is on an official album release with us.
Having the other singers contribute and appear on the album is our way of saying all is good in the Helion Prime camp. We all get along, we are all really good friends, Heather is one of my best friends. There is no bad blood between any of us, and this is our way of showing that.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe it helped Mary feel comfortable within the band doing all those tours before going into the recording studio? I know she has previous seasoning and experience as a vocal coach, but did she understand more what the band is about by being on the road?
Ashcraft: I do, and that’s why I feel really confident saying that we’ve finally found our footing with Mary. With Sozos we didn’t really get that grace period. Even though we get along, we didn’t get that time to see if things would really work out how we want them to. We had to dive in and hope for the best, put an album out with AFM and rolled the dice. With Mary, for her already knowing us, doing the Unleash the Archers tour, five weeks on the road, that was more time than I had spent with Sozos in a single room. He was only out here once, twice if you include a festival we did with him. Not only do you get the face time, but close quarters time within a van you build a certain bond. It was cool, during that tour she was considered a stand in – there was no pressure for her or for us. We had a great time, built some great chemistry, and as things got a little harder, we realized how hard it would be working with Visa issues with a singer overseas, and Mary being in Las Vegas, it made sense. I knew it would be another blow, going back to the blessing and a curse thing, I had to make the decision that was going to be better for us in the long run. We took some heat, and there are always people making comments about us swapping singers, they have nothing better to do and that’s fine. It was better for the longevity of the band, that’s for sure.
Dead Rhetoric: This is quite an interesting concept lyrically tackled this go around. How did you narrow down the subject matter, and how much research took place with the specific historical figures, and one fictional character with Cornelius from Planet of the Apes for “The Forbidden Zone”?
Ashcraft: A lot of research between Heather and myself, which was really a lot of fun. This is something we had been thinking about since the first album, so it was really cool to finally get this project together. I had a pretty broad idea of who I wanted to write about, and as we researched some of them, we weren’t feeling inspired. There was one gentleman I wanted to sing about, who I have already forgotten, we started this over a year ago. There was a little bit of back and forth on some of them. It’s one of the cool things about doing concepts like this, or when I’m doing the Dire Peril album, you can really dig into topics that you love and make them even better than what you would do as a casual watcher.
The concept is as old as the band. It’s been brewing, and it was most likely going to be the second album, but with the singer shift, I knew I wanted this album to be something special. We went in with more of a casual approach to the second album and saved this for a big boy album. We are taking a step forward, grounded, more real-life scientific stuff rather than sci-fi, other than Cornelius from Planet of the Apes.
Dead Rhetoric: Who surprised you the most when you were doing the research for the specific science and non-fiction people you looked into?
Ashcraft: What surprised me the most, but probably didn’t get most inspired by, we actually did a song about Socrates (“The Gadfly”). He’s probably the only non-scientist on the album. What inspired Socrates is I play this game, Magic the Gathering. I was watching videos on it, and they were talking about having cards grounded in real life. And there was a card called Sip of Hemlock, it was inspired by when Socrates was put to death he had to drink hemlock which was poison. I guess I missed that part in school, that he was forced to kill himself and that part intrigued me as I started to read up more on that. I don’t know if that’s common knowledge that at some point in his life he was supposed to kill himself. But why? That story spoke to both Heather and I, and that was one of my favorite songs that she did. I read it before the melodies that she came up with, and I said this is amazing.
The person who inspired me the most was Katherine Johnson. Heather and I fell in love with her as a person and her story. It’s unfortunate that she passed away this year, we were loving the idea to make an acoustic version of the song that we wrote and somehow present it to her in some way. It was a goal of ours we would have liked to achieve, but she passed away in February. I think her story and character inspired me the most of all the people that we covered.
Dead Rhetoric: What did you want to get across with this record musically that maybe you hadn’t done before? And it seems with Mary’s skillset and range, you decided to incorporate some interesting vocal harmonies/melodies that have a bit of ABBA texture to the proceedings – was this a conscious effort to emphasize this go around?
Ashcraft: I will say no. It wasn’t a conscious effort- I will say working with Heather again on this album, all the sort of vocal melodies and things like that, those are all Heather’s concoctions and she did what she did. And that’s the thing too – Mary has been onboard with Heather coming in and work behind the scenes, in fact she was the one to push as a catalyst to have Heather be involved. What we did is follow the same format for the first album – I wrote the music, and I told her what each song I wanted to be about, and this is what I’m trying to convey, do her thing with the lyrics. And then we would present the final song to Mary and let her add her own thing and have her own identity. Maybe those little things may have been a conscious decision from Mary herself.
On the musical aspect, I wanted to kick things up a notch. Which is always what I wanted to do on our albums, for one reason or another it just hasn’t happened. We’ve definitely kicked up the keyboards and orchestration sections up a lot. One reason I hadn’t done it yet, is once I feel that we do it, there’s no going back. We wouldn’t be able to put out another album without some heavy keys and string sections, or go back with barely any. We’ve now entered this world, so it’s only going to go up.
Dead Rhetoric: Can you tell me about some of the special guests you were able to get to play on this record? You have a lot of underground musicians that you’ve been friends with for years appearing on the record…
Ashcraft: In one of the songs “Words of the Abbot” we have John Yelland doing some guest vocals, who many people might know John and I play together in Dire Peril, and John also has Judicator and his other band Principium. John sings on this, I always told him I would never probably have him on a Helion Prime album, because I wanted to keep the two projects separate. But on “Words of the Abbot”, there’s this one section about Gregor Mendel, and Heather was writing something in a first-person perspective. And I knew it would be weird if Mary was singing that part, when the rest of the song isn’t in first-person. It would be cool to get a male vocalist to do that part – I just heard John’s voice. It worked out that way. Alex Nasla from Witherfall provided all the keyboards and everything like that, he was great to work with. By the end of the process, he ended up becoming our manager (laughs). We worked well together on the album. We had quite a few vocalists for one choir section come in, those were people that Mary knew.
I didn’t want to have as many guests as we’ve had in the past on this album. But, other than small little parts, I’d say we accomplished that. It’s really cool to have John, Sozos, and Heather appear on this, it feels like a very personal album to have the whole band family together again.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the Marc Whisnant cover art for Question Everything – as I imagine you didn’t really have to give him much guidance to come up with specific traits and themes you wanted to get across for this album?
Ashcraft: Yeah. What’s funny about this album cover, I had the album idea for a long time. I knew this would look really good or really bad. When I would try to describe it to people, it would sound cheesy, but I knew I trusted Marc that he could take this and make it look good. It’s one of the bigger pieces he’s done for us so far. It’s the same thing that inspired the content for the album – I used to work as a teacher and I was sitting on a break looking through these books we had for the kids. And one of them was a Galileo book, about him. And it sparked the idea for Question Everything, especially throughout history. In the book there was a map, and I thought it was cool, the maps of flat earth back in the day. That spawned all these ideas, Atlas holding the world on his back, I thought it would be cool… a representation of Saibot as Atlas, holding up the whole world as an island. You see these different scientists on the beach and you see these chains breaking, just goes into the theme of the whole album.
So it would look either really cool or really bad, and what he came up with was awesome.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the Misfits cover with “Kong at the Gates/The Forbidden Zone” come about to end this record – as its from their 1999 Famous Monsters album?
Ashcraft: That came about just because I was writing my own song about Cornelius, “The Forbidden Zone”, and The Misfits has a song about the same thing. Theirs isn’t directly about Cornelius, but it is about the movie Planet of the Apes. To me the idea was like having our forbidden zone, then cover theirs. It’s literally as simple as that.
Dead Rhetoric: After spending two albums on AFM Records, this record will be coming out on your own Sailbot Reigns label. How do you feel about your time with AFM, and do you enjoy the freedom of doing things on your own and having more of a stake in the promotion and creative angles that being independent entails?
Ashcraft: Yes. AFM was great, they are really nice people and they did a lot for us, especially in the beginning to help us out. They did things they didn’t need to do, getting us out of a smaller contract we were bound to by Divebomb who were great as well. Matt and Divebomb are awesome people. They bought us out of that contract so we could join AFM. They took a lot of risk on a band that was relatively unknown, and we are grateful for that and the push they gave us.
This time around, it felt like it was time to try things on our own. We reissued the first album and did the Terror album with AFM, and as a great as they were, things are changing and we wanted to take a new step to do this independently.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been able to establish some great relationships with numerous musicians in signed and independent bands that foster community and elevation for the power metal genre in general. How would you describe your outlook, as it seems to be more of a win/win philosophy in helping others rather than this competitive, dog eat dog nature that can come out sometimes in the metal landscape?
Ashcraft: I think it’s fantastic. A lot of us really coming together, helping each other out. It’s one of those things, all of these bands are making great music, you really shouldn’t alienate yourself from that. Working together is better than working against each other. You have Ty from Lords of the Trident doing the Mad with Power festival, he’s bringing us all together. Helion Prime played that festival last year and it was a great experience. You have Joey from Apprentice up in Canada, Vancouver doing Hyperspace. He’s doing that up north, that community we are building is great. It almost feels like that younger, Bay Area thrash movement, with all these dudes that came up together. Some may have gotten bigger than others, but there was a community and all succeeded together rather than one band fighting against the rest. I feel like that is how it is with this new sort of US power metal that is happening right now. It’s very cool to be a part of that.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the career arc of Helion Prime currently? What are the next steps you need to take you think to elevate yourself a bit more up the ladder in terms of stability and success – or does that even factor into your outlook and output for the band?
Ashcraft: It definitely does, and it’s something I think about all the time. For me, I would like to take things a little bit bigger. I’ve invested a lot, and I wanted to see this band go as far as we can. With every album, you learn something new, and bringing Alex on as our manager, it’s been really good and he believes in us and wants to help us. There are still a lot of things we need to do, the biggest thing is we have to push ourselves out there when we can, we have to hit the road again, keep hitting the grind. Keep momentum going, since the birth of this band, we’ve had something come out every year- whether it’s a single, an album, and I would like to keep that. Especially nowadays where there is so much content coming out, and things come and go so quick, I feel like it’s important to put out content a little more regularly. Realistically at least for me, I can’t put out an album every year, I can’t write material that fast. But as long as we are doing something, it’s good – keeping busy, making connections, keeping the connections, don’t burn any bridges. Keep pushing forward.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you feel when you read some of the recent articles on Spotify who believe artists aren’t putting out enough material consistently, and that is why they aren’t gaining more of a foothold in the scene?
Ashcraft: I think it’s finding a little bit of both. I agree you cannot survive if you put out an album every three or four years. The bands that do have been going for twenty or thirty years. If you look at their younger careers, they were pumping out an album every year. Blind Guardian – they do an album every four to six years now, but the first five albums, it was once a year. Same with Iron Maiden, Metallica. These bands can still survive and put out an album every four years, but they didn’t when they first started.
I saw the article go around but I didn’t read too deeply into it because the Spotify conversation I’ve had a thousand times. It’s one of those things you can get into a big long conversation about, but I do agree you have to put out more content than every three to four years. Do you need to be putting out something every month? I don’t necessarily think so, and it’s like with us, I maintain something every year. Something as a little reminder that we are still over here. I think if you do it right, Patreon is a great thing. To use Lord of the Trident as an example, they crush it. They really self-sustain their band, I go to Ty often for advice, that dude is a smart businessman.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the major differences personally between the studio and the stage? Do you favor one environment over the other, or appreciate both for their uniqueness?
Ashcraft: I like performing live more and I get major anxiety in the studio. I do love making a new album and bringing it together, they are two different beasts, and I’ve learned that over the four albums that I’ve put out so far. You can’t have the same mindset for both. Really understanding that helps a lot. Being as prepared as you can be for the studio will save you a lot of headaches. I don’t get stage fright anymore, I love to perform. I get studio fright, when that record starts, you warm up for the studio and play everything perfect, the second you hit record you forget everything you are doing.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for anything Jason Ashcraft related with Helion Prime, Dire Peril, guest appearances, etc. in the next twelve to eighteen months?
Ashcraft: There is a lot. Now that the Prime album is done, John and I are talking about doing the next Dire Peril album. Sozos and I have started a new project called Planeswalker, we put a single out a couple of months ago and we are hoping to have an album out by next year. If all goes well, I may have a new Dire Peril and Planeswalker album out next year. And then at some point, we are working on the fourth Prime album. It never ends, but it’s okay!