Impellitteri – Return of the BeastMonday, 29th October 2018
Guitar playing with fast lead breaks has been part of metal for decades. Especially with the excitement Yngwie Malmsteen developed during the 1980’s, many other axemen felt the need to play with speed to shred to the heavens. Chris Impellitteri may have started in that manner during his early years of the 1980’s through Impellitteri, but he’s also had a high caliber band around him to elevate his brand of metal to headlining heights, especially within the Far East and Europe. It’s hard to believe that thirty plus years later, his latest studio album The Nature of the Beast may indeed be one of his best in his vast discography – but do not forget about the impressive performances from vocalist Rob Rock, bassist James Pulli and drummer Jon Dette as they excel on this outing. If you like melodic metal with traditional, speed and even doom dynamics, this will be right up your aural alley.
Grabbing a phone call with Chris, you’ll learn more about the way he develops riffs and songs – the importance of people knowing that this is truly a band, thoughts on the changing music industry atmosphere – and also some insight into some of his mistakes/failures and what motivated him to become even better as a person/musician.
Dead Rhetoric: The Nature of the Beast is the latest Impellitteri album – a logical follow-up to these ears to Venom. Do you go into each recording with a specific game plan, and how do you believe these set of songs developed from the demo stages to the final outcome?
Chris Impellitteri: Wow, good question. I think two or three of these songs were actually written – or at least the skeleton of them, the frame or the foundation, during the latter part of the Venom recording sessions. The direction I knew we were going to extend using that as a template. We were going to look at the body of work on that record and go from there. Most of the records – the way the music starts, I practice every day, noodling and shredding and a lot of times I stumble on a riff. Something magical comes to my ear where I hear a really cool riff and record it, I grab a drum machine and search for a tempo or a groove. I’ll make a demo to send to the other guys and look for some feedback to see if this is really good or terrible.
It always starts like that, but I also think we have a lot of momentum coming off the Venom record. We had some amazing live dates in Europe off of that album. We played some dates where Iron Maiden were headlining some of the festivals we were playing, really large audiences. We were in a good spirit, and when we came back home after our last date the Busan Rock festival in South Korea, we headlined which drew some 90,000 people- I was jazzed. We ran into the studio and started writing some music, we worked out the parts. That evolved out of a lot of momentum – it does feel like an extension of Venom.
Dead Rhetoric: The song “Masquerade” has many references to what’s gone on within Hollywood and some of the behind the scenes, shady dealings that have recently come to light. How have you personally avoided some of the trappings or darker elements that can make or break stardom?
Impellitteri: (laughs). First of all, I always consider myself a musician – I don’t consider myself a star in any situation. I’ve done very well in certain countries, especially Japan, where we’ve been able to make a ton of money. I’ve never fallen into that world, I’ve been around it. I’ve been to a lot of the big Hollywood parties, I live in an area where there are a lot of celebrities that live in my neighborhood. I think what happens is you become very balanced. For me my anchor is music and family. I love playing music, and there was a period of time where I fell a little bit into the trappings around the Stand in Line era. I was really young, all of a sudden people wanted to be my best friend. You are starting to make a little bit of money, you fall into things, you start going out with all these strippers and before you know it, you have things thrown at you from all directions, things like cocaine and whatever. I had my period of time where it caused some destruction, but one day I woke up and said I wanted to be a really good to great guitarist. To be that, you have to stay away from that world. And I guess that’s how I got on the right path.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the idea for covering “Phantom of the Opera” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and “Symptom of the Universe” by Black Sabbath come about? It feels like both tracks seemed natural for the band to tackle, not an easy task given the differences between styles and atmosphere…
Impellitteri: Let’s start with “Phantom of the Opera”. As a little kid, it’s a part of US pop culture. Pretty much everyone in the United States knows about that. It’s a Broadway musical, it’s been popular on both coasts, NY and LA. It was always one of those songs that had a very haunting, pop vibe to it. I loved it, I was entranced and enamored by it. I will be honest, we almost didn’t do the song because other bands had done it. One of the bands I love who did a great version of it was Nightwish. Great vocals – but when I listen to their version there’s no guitar solos, there’s nothing that intricate. Just amazing vocals played over a rock feel. My idea was what would it sound like if we Impellitteri-ized it – we turned it into almost a speed metal song but also (tried to) be very authentic about this. I played around with the idea, we had this basic template and I played solos over it. Before I know it, Rob is working on the vocals, I heard it back and it was really evolving. I knew that some people would either really hate it or really love it. That was it- when we finished recording it, I smiled and knew we had to put it on the record.
“Symptom of the Universe”- that song. Most people throw me in the category of your screeching/shred guitar players, but people don’t realize that Tony Iommi is one of my biggest influences. I think he writes the greatest riffs ever. It was one of the songs, when you think about Black Sabbath – think about the diehard Sabbath fans. What are the first songs that usually come to mind?
Dead Rhetoric: Of course. “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, “Children of the Grave”, “Heaven and Hell”. Those are the first ones that come to mind…
Impellitteri: But you don’t hear about “Symptom…” And yet the riff is insane. There’s something majestic about it, it’s coming off a diminished scale. It’s got a heaviness to it, but the vocal is very odd. Very melodic and musical. It’s one of those riffs that we play in soundcheck before we play shows overseas, we’d play around with it. A lot of times when we are dialing up guitar tones in the studio, a big rhythmic tone, we’d play that kind of riff. We were playing with it, and all of a sudden, all these other parts started coming with it. These orchestrated parts to put over with it, I started jamming with these guys and we thought it was cool to do. It evolved into this little monster that it’s become. So we knew it had to go on the record.
Dead Rhetoric: And did you enjoy the Dio-era of Black Sabbath just as much as Ozzy?
Impellitteri: Probably more. And this is where I get into arguments with James, our bass player. James is a diehard Black Sabbath fan of the Ozzy-era, and he likes Dio too. But for me, it’s the opposite thing. I’m into more into Tony, Geezer, and Bill with Heaven and Hell – and obviously they grabbed Vinny Appice for the Mob Rules album. Those records were where Tony was not only a great rhythm player, but now he was playing amazing leads as well. I thought that Tony could express himself a little bit more with Ronnie.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the video shoot for “Run for Your Life” – do you believe that showcasing the band in a performance style setting best exemplifies what Impellitteri aims to deliver to audiences when in a live setting?
Impellitteri: Yeah, I think so. For us, we are a live band. We get together, we play together, and we communicate to each other through our instruments. There’s something about the live setting – even when we are doing the videos, we are still playing live, we may have the shadow of the track ghosting behind us, but we are still playing. It’s just what we love to do, so why not film the band in that element. It gives people that don’t get the chance to see us live- especially in the US- what we are like live.
Dead Rhetoric: You posed an interesting question through your Facebook page that I’d love to explore. What do you see as the major differences when it comes to a riff versus a hook? And when it comes to your songwriting, does one matter more than the other, or do you believe there is an equal importance on both aspects?
Impellitteri: (laughs). I think there is an equal importance. I’ve always struggled with that, well what is the difference between a riff and a hook. A riff seems to me to be more note valued based, scales and sequence of notes. When it comes to a hook, we could say a chorus becomes a hook. The hook feels like it’s more chord based, a rhythm. Someone else may have responded about that under the thread. And they are right on the money of that. When I think of a riff, I think of “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin. That is clearly a riff. If I listen to “You Really Got Me”, I think that’s a hook. And then you can kind of argue in between – where does a hook blur into a riff. And then I’m thinking of like “Ain’t Talking About Love” by Van Halen, where you are picking notes that go into a chord. “Heaven and Hell”, that would be a hook. Versus a riff being “The Mob Rules”, you know?
Primarily with Impellitteri it’s the riff. To me the riff has always been the most important part of songs. It’s the foundation, it’s how all of these songs start. As a guitar player, I play it all the time – there are guitars everywhere. A lot of time I’m shredding, but sometimes something slips and you start playing a riff and it evolves. When I play something that turns into something magical, that’s usually where the song starts. There will be times where it may be more of a hook though.
Dead Rhetoric: Have there been times where you’ve had to change your technique due to getting older and possible injuries or damage to your hands/fingers because of the speed that you play your guitar at?
Impellitteri: I’m very fortunate. My technique has improved, because I’ve matured. I’m very cognizant of the fact that I don’t simply want to masturbate on the guitar. When I was really young, I didn’t really care, I was challenging myself to play as fast as I could. As I got older, I decided to stop wanking. Even if you are playing extremely fast, you have to have perfect articulation and it has to serve a purpose. Not just show off. Luckily as I’ve gotten older, my technique has evolved. I am better, and it hasn’t been something like I can’t do things that I used to be able to do when I was young. I can do a lot more than what I was doing at a younger age.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you have a specific failure in your music career, that when you look back upon it set you up for a future breakthrough or level of success that you are thankful for?
Impellitteri: Oh yeah. I’ve made mistakes during the Stand in Line era, big time. I don’t want to make excuses, but a lot of times what happens when you are young is you get a little bit of success, taste of success. I had lost my parents when I was a very little kid, I came out to Los Angeles with my buddy and I was alone. When you experience success and then you have the girls, strippers, whatever – they are all hanging out with you. You get drawn into that life, and the things that should be important to you, the discipline starts to slip. You go from playing your guitar for hours to being romantically involved with three girls. Some stupid stuff like that- and during that time I made some really stupid mistakes.
I remember I did an instructional guitar video on REH. I remember going to the shoot, and I ended up taking a (substance) I should not have been taking. Probably prescription pills. I look back today and that sounds so wanky, all of a sudden you go to managers and say, ‘don’t release that to the public’. I wanted to do it over, but at that point it was too late and I made contractual commitments to release that stuff. I think things like that hurt- but having said that, there are also blessings that came out of that. I got slammed by the elitists in the shred world that basically said I was just a wanker. At some point you do want to prove them wrong, it really challenged me to have to know. I would play the guitar for 12 hours a day, study music theory, Vivaldi and all of that. When it started to come together, around 1991-92 – that type of music we had done in the late 80’s and all those bands, died. They bailed immediately – but Japan opened their doors.
Because I was playing really well, they embraced us. I was on the cover of guitar magazines, I won readers poll awards, and the people who were slamming us- they never made it through that era, their careers were over. Going through some of the pain points, they pushed me to better myself. That was a saving grace.
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