Iris Divine – Tension and Release

Sunday, 1st May 2022

Intertwining progressive metal with alternative, grunge, and groove elements, Iris Divine returns after five years with their latest record Mercurial. Featuring a new drummer in Scott Manley, the performances appear to be a little more primal and straightforward, while still exploring the necessary push and pull aspects that as a power trio make magical moments occur throughout. Appeal can run across genres and eras, as people who like Dream Theater, Rush, King’s X, and Alice in Chains all have plenty to dig into when delving into this material.

We spoke with guitarist/vocalist Navid Rashid who was happy to elaborate on the downtime between records, lineup change, signing with Layered Reality Productions, a deeper discussion on the art of what makes great songwriting, some favorite 90’s related albums, as well as his changing views on processing specific ideologies and hopeful tour plans.

Dead Rhetoric: Mercurial is the fourth and latest Iris Divine album – and first in five years for the band. Could you bring us up to date on what’s been happening with the band that prolonged the delay (outside of the pandemic) this go around – especially changing out drummers with Scott Manley taking over for Kris Combs?

Navid Rashid: (laughs). Absolutely. Although we consider Mercurial to be our third album. Convergence to us is like a double EP with the old lineup. We usually think of Karma Sown as the first full-length as a technicality. We finished up all of our activities for The Static and the Noise, did a Kickstarter campaign, it went well, the album reviews were great, played some shows. And then we transitioned into the writing for Mercurial, it became a little complicated. We all had various life issues at those different points that came up, certain family issues, maybe created a little bit of stress for us all to be on the same page.

Finally, I started getting some ideas together and figure out a direction we wanted the album to go in. Push our sound out a little bit, challenge ourselves, try some new things. The Static and the Noise was a little more of a diverse effort, and where do we go from here? Concurrent with that, the chemistry with all of us – and Kris in particular, it seemed like we weren’t staying on the same page. Kris is a fantastic talent, a great drummer, nothing against him as far as any of that goes. The good working relationship and chemistry just wasn’t going in the same direction. My impression of this, all of this converged unintended – and Kris wanted to step down and out of the band.

Once that happened, Brian and I took a breath, that was a huge loss, and it calls into question the future of the band. We had to think about if we wanted to continue. Brian asked if we were going to start looking for drummers, and that answered my question. We had enough desire to continue to create music together in the style of Iris Divine, we wanted to find somebody. We did some drum auditions and thankfully found Scott; he is fantastic. He’s a cool guy, experienced drummer, lots of experience playing in different bands, a touring drummer. When that happened, we looked at the material and I had written a pile of stuff – 13 to 15 songs. We sorted through it, and maybe more than half was strong, cohesive. I wanted to write a whole bunch of new music, new energy. Maybe 40 % of the album was written after that point.

We whittled it down to the eight (songs) that are on the album. That reflects the energy and refocus of the band, and we are really excited with what we’ve come up with.

Dead Rhetoric: You mention that this material is the next step forward for Iris Divine in pushing the progressive meets alternative, grunge and groove metal influences. Having some time to step away from the writing and recording process, where do you see the major differences and evolution compared to the previous work?

Rashid: The biggest thing that we had gotten away from a little bit towards the end of things with Kris is the focus on being a trio. When you talk about a hard rock power trio thing, you put Rush at the top of the mountain. They are unique, and one of the things I loved about them is the chemistry of the three people at their instruments. Even if you stripped away the stage show, you are left with guitar, bass, and drums that are cohesive, listening to each other playing off of each other. King’s X is another band I love for a similar reason.

When I was approaching the material and writing cycle, I wanted us to get back to that. Less of an emphasis on keyboards, programming, samples. It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Come up with something good with the three of us playing, rocking out and grooving. There are some keys still on there, and one or two samples, and atmospheric parts but not as many as on the other albums. It’s a little more straightforward, a little heavier, a little more aggressive, rocking out and having a good time. I was thinking about (playing) live a little more. I wanted to fill the room with some noise by playing together.

Dead Rhetoric: And where did you want to go with the lyrics this time around? Did the pandemic factor into any of the thought process behind this?

Rashid: Not really, not directly but unconsciously who knows. The lyrical content with this one was all across the board. There are songs that deal with interpersonal relationships. A little bit of political stuff, not too much. Some other songs that are looking at the positive aspects of emotional experiences. I tend to focus on conflict, things of that nature – the pain we may experience and how we get through it and deal with it. One song, which may be our first single/release- “Sapphire” which is about the beauty of the creative process and the transcendental nature of art. Many of us who are creative, we tap into something greater than ourselves, and that’s a little different topic for me. Not necessarily so dark. A lot of the songs deal internally with our emotions or trying to navigate externally in emotional relationships with another person. Mercurial the title track deals with the ups and downs of human emotions, and how they control us if we let them.

Dead Rhetoric: How did you gain the interest of Layered Reality Productions for this release? Do you believe this is the logical next step forward in advancing the following and promotion for the group?

Rashid: I do. As you know, we were on Sensory for Karma Sown and they were fantastic. We were independent for The Static and the Noise, which was cool, we worked with good people for promotion. We really wanted to partner up again to see if we could have a little bit more support and guidance. I give a lot of credit to my buddy Vikram Shankar – he has one of his bands on the label called Threads of Fate. They just put out a really cool record recently, Jack from Seven Spires is in that band as well. I reached out to Vikram, he told me about the label, they really understand the artists, the creative process. I reached out to Tom, he dug it, and he decided it would be a pretty good partnership.

Dead Rhetoric: You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for the new record – hitting the modest amount that you set out for a goal. Do you enjoy the process and work it takes behind these campaigns, and the support that you receive from those faithful followers that want to be a part of this process to aid their favorite artists?

Rashid: Speaking for myself personally, I am not that adept with social media, or adept with promotion. I cannot say that I truly enjoy some of the behind the scenes work that goes into promotion or putting a Kickstarter together. But what I do love is being able to connect with fans, connect with people interested in the band to create that momentum that we are all in this together creating this excitement for the finished product. It becomes a team effort, Scott and Brian helped on their ends. Scott’s best friend Jeremy, he has been a critical behind the scenes friend and support this time around. He helped a lot with his media presence, getting the content out there. I’m glad to be working with people that help keep things going in the right direction.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us regarding the cover art this time around? It has an atmospheric and darker vibe that isn’t necessarily the norm when you think of a progressive, alternative metal release?

Rashid: It’s funny how that came about. We were shopping around for artists, and nothing really clicked. There are so many talented artists out there, but with the vibe we wanted, nothing really spoke to us. There is a Baltimore photographer by the name of Shane Gardner, he did our promo photos for us. He does concert photography too. We wanted to see if he does layout work, art photography, he had different shots available and when we saw that image, the person, the shroud, the bright flowers – it spoke to us. Something about it as you said, it was a little darker, felt like it fit well with some of the aggression on the album too. That’s how that came about, Shane worked with Scott to refine the imagery and get it the way we wanted to see it. We got pretty much unanimously positive feedback on the results.

Dead Rhetoric: In our previous talk, you consider yourself a songwriting junkie- and no matter what the genre is, that you are inspired by good songs. Being a student of songwriting, what are key aspects that you believe are necessary to drill deep into to become better at the art and craft of songwriting for yourself – within Iris Divine or any of your other work?

Rashid: That’s a great question. The more I think about this – and I do think about this from time to time – regardless of the genre, what we all that write songs aspire to is something that is memorable in some way, some kind of replay value that pulls you in and makes you want to listen to this again. Regardless of genre, regardless of band. Good songwriting can mean different things in different genres. Whether it’s a ten-minute prog epic or a three-minute pop song, completely different in scope and format. I would consider either of them to be a memorable song if it pulls me back in, well-constructed. It really is both.

The art is the raw inspiration, the emotion, being able to channel what you are feeling and thinking from the universe and have that spark that feels compelling. The connection to human experience that feels real and authentic. Taking that spark and putting it into a finished composition, that’s where the craft comes in. You learn by listening, you learn by doing, intros and verses and choruses, the turnarounds and bridges, all the different phrases that exist in the world of pop music that get you from point a to point b. There is a familiarity to certain music – even in heavier genres. You may veer a little away, but most songs have a verse, a chorus, that repeat a theme for the songs. All of these devices are necessary to the art of great songwriting. You want to keep the attention of the listener – sometimes that means adding parts, a bridge or a solo, an interlude, a detour. Sometimes it means taking something away – cutting out a part, do something with creating dynamics. Up and down, tension and release.

Knowing just the vocabulary of songwriting. Knowing when you want an arrangement to pull back half-time or add a part that is more energetic. Or when the song needs a new riff, because the main riff you need a variation from. There are so many different ways you can take a song to get from one point to another. A lot of the time it’s how do you do that in the most effective and efficient way possible, without using a lot of notes.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the state of heavy metal on a grassroots level locally as well as nationally / internationally these days? Do you think there will be a renewed interest and resurgence on the live front considering the lack of shows over the past couple of years due to COVID-19?

Rashid: From my situation I think it’s already happening. Tours are doing really well, there’s a lot of interest. The resurgence is in full swing, people are excited for music and heavy music. I am of the opinion that heavy metal never really goes away – there are times where it is more in the commercial spotlight, and times where it is not. I don’t think heavy music has ever gone away, but sometimes underground where it needs to. At least from my vantage point, a lot of the legacy bands are still out there touring, newer bands are touring. Bands like ourselves we occupy a tiny little corner of the universe, the fact that we are still out there, and people are still interested in what we are doing, that’s great.

Dead Rhetoric: Considering your love for alternative, grunge, and groove metal – can you give our readers a couple of unsung artists or albums that you believe deserve more attention / notoriety that people need to take a deeper engagement and look at?

Rashid: Oh yes, I can. Top of the list, an album that is more or less an obsession of mine is Sound of White Noise by Anthrax. It is the first album with John Bush after Joey left. The Belladonna albums are thrash classics, no dispute there – but this album to me is a blueprint for fantastic 90’s metal. It’s one of the handful of albums that would be a ten out of ten for me, I really love. A couple of others – I love the Living Colour album Stain. It’s their third album, and it’s great. It’s got fantastic musicianship, great grooves, cool diversity. A lot of people may not know the band Therapy from Ireland. They did an album called Troublegum, I want to say in the early 90’s. It’s the perfect intersection of pop, punk, and metal. Amazing. All the songs are short and super catchy. Nothing to fancy, proggy, or technical. Really good songwriting. If someone were to dig in, metal or punk people could get into it.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s taking place with your solo project Sorrow & The Spire – were you happy with the initial response to the first single “My Misery Calling”?

Rashid: I don’t know what’s going to happen with Sorrow & The Spire in the future. I’m super happy I got to do it. When we were in our down time, I got restless and wanted to see if I could get something else happening for fun. I didn’t want to do just progressive metal, but I like music with a pop sensibility as well. It was born out of 80’s hard rock, melodic metal and also 90’s radio rock thing, Frontiers Records sort of sound. I have been a fan of Eclipse recently; they are a great band – so I wanted to develop something in this vibe. I did six songs, liked the way they sounded. Hooked up with Steve Brown who was in Trixter and now plays in Tokyo Motorfist. He did an awesome job producing it. We did three singles and videos on Golden Robot Records.

The good thing is, they want to put out the remainder of the EP, so we will put out a six-song EP, hopefully later this year or next year. Beyond that I don’t know what is going to happen with it. I think it’s some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I don’t know if it will be a one-off or more.

Dead Rhetoric: What have you changed your mind about in the last few years – either in your personal life or musical world? And why?

Rashid: Maybe a couple of things. I don’t advertise my political opinions. Or talk much about it with other people. In taking a hundred steps back and observing how much polarization there has been in the nation and the world, thinking about the strong ideological forces pulling from both the left and the right. I have had moments where I was convinced I knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, only to have something change that for me. Maybe this particular perspective isn’t all good, and maybe another isn’t all bad. Regardless of what side you fall on, there is a lot of value in seeing where either side can disappear in a bubble that can be extreme at times.

Personally, I can talk about the dynamics of the band. Maybe part of this is time, doing this for a while, maximizing the enjoyment. It was more a relaxed vibe making Mercurial. A little less stressed out about the smaller details, Brian and I were joking a lot about on the previous albums we obsessed over a lot of little details. This time around, we did the songs, sent them out, do what you want to do, see what fits the songs – we moved on. That has never happened, ever. It made the process really fun.

Dead Rhetoric: What can people expect for Iris Divine or any other musical activities for yourself and the other members over the next twelve months or so?

Rashid: Iris Divine is the focus at this point. The album will come out, hopefully people will dig it. I hope it expends our reach. We want to play some mini tours that we can manage. We want people to dig into the songs and nuances, hope it has some repeat values. I want to play shows, hopefully starting in May and June. We are getting the songs in order.

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