Serenity – Crown of the Last KnightThursday, 27th February 2020
Establishing themselves in a symphonic/power/progressive metal realm since the early 2000’s, Serenity have recalibrated their approach as of late. Especially noticeable on their last studio album Lionheart, the quartet dialed back some of their symphonic aspects to take their songwriting into more of a melodic/power realm. Going into their latest album The Last Knight with a renewed sense of confidence, the band probably have delivered their most focused and potent effort to date. Including aspects of melodic/arena-oriented metal beyond their symphonic, power, and progressive metal touches – they also continue their appreciation of history with the life and reign of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I capturing the lyrical storyline.
Reaching out to guitarist Christian Hermsdörfer fresh from his teaching duties during his day job, we were able to catch up on all things Serenity and Beyond the Black related. We tackle the outlook of the band, songwriting, upcoming expectations for tours, the balance between careers and the band, and also a fair amount of discussion on communication, social media, and even thoughts his recent venture to a Slipknot show.
Dead Rhetoric: The Last Knight is the seventh Serenity studio record – and your third with the group since joining the band. What do you think the band set out to accomplish with this record that sets it apart from the previous discography?
Christian Hermsdörfer: We kept the line and the spirit from Lionheart in mind. We went back to the roots of more power metal to the front and a little less of the symphonic style. With that sound we’ve fared pretty well – we’ve had some great tours, and great success with Lionheart. This is the line we wanted to follow now in general with The Last Knight. Serenity is trying to create different styles, or joining the different styles of symphonic metal music, progressive, power, melodic – everything. And now I think we are able to combine everything that we have learned and collected for the first six records on point in Lionheart. You have songs with a melodic metal influence, a power metal influence, Pagan metal, some prog elements. It’s a great mix out of everything we’ve done so far.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe it’s always important to have that versatility on an album – because the dynamics allow the listener to not get as bored because of the differences?
Hermsdörfer: It has become more and more important. When I listen to music on an Iron Maiden record or a Metallica record, 15-20 years old, it’s more of one specific kind of music. Thrash metal or power metal, and everyone was happy with that. Ten songs or eleven songs, somehow sounding the same. People need the variation on a record – but not to go that much away from your style. The difficulty in the meantime is more about creating a line and going a little bit sometimes left or right, but still being in contact with your base.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you have any fears about what the fan expectations are on a record versus how you satisfy yourselves as musicians?
Hermsdörfer: Those are expectations, opinions, and wishes of the fans – of course we try to keep them in mind. And remember when the fans were into a particular Codex Atlanticus song, be it “Follow Me” or “Iniquity”. When you write a new album, you try to keep in mind what the fans were talking to you about as special songs. In general, on the other side, we try to follow our mood, if there is a mood where we want to do more power metal, we follow that mood. The vibe is pushing us to decide what kind of music that we want to do. In the end, we try to keep the red line on the album, I think in my mind we did it.
Dead Rhetoric: The lyrical content this time revolves around Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I – what can you tell us regarding this man’s life and why it was the right time to tell his story through this record?
Hermsdörfer: The right time came…not on purpose. We were sitting together when we did the acoustic shows in Wacken, and then we were thinking about the final topics for the next record. Georg said to us that Maximilian I has his 400th anniversary of his reign and his death. In all of Austria they were partying and celebrating this event because he was so important to the history of Austria. This gave us the push, most of the guys live in Austria, people know Serenity is an Austrian band, and he is a historical person. We need a topic for the album, let’s try to make it and get influenced by him. We checked out his life, I had to do it because Georg knows everything about him, I don’t have to tell him as a history professor. He suggested some facts about his life, it sounded pretty interesting. We got the line that he called himself ‘The Last Knight’, perfect. We love knights, and we are always celebrating some knight things in our videos, show. A perfect combination, so let’s do it.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you decide upon the guest vocal appearance for Herbie Langhans for “Set the World on Fire”? What are your thoughts in general on adding specific musicians to the records, does it help diversify and expand the possibilities for what you envision for certain songs?
Hermsdörfer: In general, let’s say Serenity was kind of famous for having female singing guests. This time we wanted to go back to the first record, have a male voice. The guest vocals from Herbie Langhans, and also Oliver (Hartmann), we had the chance to get them because of Sascha Paeth, our producer- he’s in Avantasia and he works with those (guys). It was not planned, but they were helping with some choirs on records and Georg had the idea for the sea part, he thought it would be cool if it was done by Herbie- and people know him from Avantasia. And then the acoustic rendition of “Souls and Sins” with Oliver. It turned out great. It’s always cool to have on one or two songs, other elements. It’s not that the main parts should be done by them, but you can feature it. This idea was born on the hip-hop scene – you always had a singer featuring this guy. In Germany you find many pop and hip-hop artists doing this. It’s spreading the word about your music. If you have good musicians and great voices, you should use this.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you approach your composing and lead breaks for Serenity – are you thoughtful and conscious of what you want to say and get across track to track?
Hermsdörfer: It depends. In general, you are collecting ideas, music, lyrics or content in general. Usually you try to feel which song could fit for which content. Or the opposite, I want to write about something more emotional, a ballad- and then afterwards you have a meeting to go to the final production. Let’s listen to everything we have, and have to get things in a line, which ones we feel are great songs. The final weeks and months you concentrate on those songs, and hopefully you have the feeling that they turn out well.
Dead Rhetoric: Are there major differences in how you approach things in Beyond the Black versus Serenity – or are they similar?
Hermsdörfer: For me, both bands have the same level in my feelings and my abilities to work with them. Of course, I have to keep in mind, stage-wise and performance-wise I have to keep my focus on Beyond the Black, that’s why I’m missing sometimes with Serenity on stage, but behind the scenes I am always with them. There’s no real difference, it’s more like I give all the energy I can to both. We have to accept the compromise that’s it like that. With Nick, I’ve found the right guy who can step in for myself when it needs to be. And now in a project with Melissa (Bonny), the fans know him even better. He’s also a very good drummer. In composing and writing the songs, most of the songs on The Last Knight I did, so you see that’s not just I have Beyond the Black, I don’t care about (Serenity). I have such a long history with Serenity, they are like family. As long as I am able to be a part of that family, it’s a good thing for everyone.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve released three videos to date for the new record – tell us how the video shoots went, and the importance of the visual medium to Serenity, when other acts appear content to release a mix of lyric/audio videos with actual clips?
Hermsdörfer: Yes, we were talking about doing a lyric video again, but we had the chance with the video guy, we’ve known him for a long time, we decided to do three videos. We helped him as much as we could, to get it done as easy as possible for him as well. We wanted to show the fans how video clips are still important for us. They always seem cold, because we always shoot Serenity videos in the winter, always outside or in churches, castles, wherever. But it has to be cold, that’s an unwritten rule that if you shoot a Serenity video, you have to freeze (laughs). The results we are pretty happy (with), we got a very pretty actress in “Souls and Sins”, what she did is amazing. We tried to show all the sides of the new Serenity record, different music styles. We wanted to show the guest vocals of Herbie, the more melodic song, more prog/power metal, it’s a cool outtake of the new record to show the people what they can expect.
With “Set the World on Fire” we set about doing a little more pop, melodic metal style and something more catchy, not typical Serenity. A stadium rock feeling from the 80’s. With the other two songs, the plan worked to showcase who we are. We want to catch people who may not normally listen to songs like “My Kingdom Comes” as an example. Then everyone is happy, and its metal. There are 1.8 million different styles of metal in the meantime – it’s rock music and metal and we all should appreciate things.
Dead Rhetoric: How has Serenity do you believe handled the changing musical landscape and consumer consumption models of music delivery, where streaming often overtakes physical product sales and the live concert circuit has greater income possibilities going back to the musicians?
Hermsdörfer: In rock and metal music, it’s still working with physical stuff somehow. It’s the last style where you can still sell a lot of physical stuff, more than in pop music. The metal and rock dudes are old school, they want to collect records and have it in their hands. For us, I think we have to learn how to handle these streaming and digital things. It’s not just on us, the whole music scene still has to learn about that. The main thing is not on us to be switched, Spotify and Apple Music dudes have to change their attitudes, as artists are still producing the music, and now you are not selling copies you are selling clicks. To sell a click has to have the same worth not like a CD sale, but in general there has to be more value to the clicks and the music itself.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you think are some of the toughest and more difficult decisions a band at Serenity’s stature has to make that may be difficult for the average fan to understand?
Hermsdörfer: When you are not able to live off of the music that you are doing. We are not living off what we are doing. When we are on tour, we are playing, we are selling merchandise but it’s still a long way away from saying Serenity is my job and my livelihood. It’s not where I earn the most money and pay my bills. It’s always hard to find the time to be able to travel in other places of the world. We always get these questions about coming to South America, to the US, China, wherever. If it would be on us, we would be everywhere for the whole year. To live off it, that’s the hardest step to make. On a stature that we are at, it’s deciding where we would should go (play), what’s worth it, and how we can use our time differently.
Dead Rhetoric: It is that balance, because you have day jobs and careers away from the music.
Hermsdörfer: People think that the minute you are on stage, that you are living off of that. The truth is completely different. Many musicians have to work at several jobs in order to be able to pay for their lives. It’s the hardest decision – how I can get free, how to spread the costs for the travel, the videos, etc.
Dead Rhetoric: Does it make things harder to reach that next level of success and popularity?
Hermsdörfer: Of course, there are countries that have more of a privilege, or more chances to do that next step. The Scandinavian countries, they push musicians and get government support a bit more to the musicians than for example Germany and Austria, where you don’t get any support by the government. They won’t help you, so of course for many bands this is the decision to make it to the next level. You can get an offer for an eight-week US tour, you need to get eight weeks off, the usual employment job you have six-weeks of vacation. You invest your own money to be able to do it, and some can do (that), some not. You have to find the balance between your main living, your daily life, and the next thing. Until there is a point that you have the money where you don’t have to think about this – it’s a long way.
Yesterday I went to the Slipknot show in Frankfurt, Germany. Corey was telling us, the fans in Germany have been supporting the band for more than twenty years, and they’ve been together for twenty-five years, maybe longer. I’m now 36. I was 11 when they were founded. And now on these last four years, they reach a level that they are superheroes. And now they make the big money – but to reach that level, that’s such a long way.
Dead Rhetoric: How was that show by the way – as I know they were on tour with Behemoth…
Hermsdörfer: I missed Behemoth because me and my girl were stuck in traffic, like always! (laughs). We made it to Slipknot, the show was brilliant. They made a nice mashup between elements of metal and I would say pop. Visualization, super crazy stuff but on the highest level that you can produce a show. I really liked it, great performance.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the expectations of the two European tours you’ll be embarking on with Rage and then Dynazty and Victorius during the next few months?
Hermsdörfer: We are expecting a lot. The pre-sales are very good for us. We hope that with Rage we can reach another fanbase because it’s not a typical combination of symphonic metal bands. They are very hard rock, straight to your face metal music. We are prepared for that, we have a good setlist and a mixture of what Serenity is standing for. In April, the headline tour, Dynazty is cool, they have the singer that is in Amaranthe, and also Victorius to have them on their first tour with us. We will have a lot of fun, great shows, and people should love it.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you think your outlook as a musician has changed now that you are in your mid-thirties compared to your teenager to twenties-period of playing?
Hermsdörfer: You are less risky because you know that when you are twenty your life is a little bit easier and you have less things to worry about – you may be single, living in an apartment, you probably don’t have a wife. The plans and views are changing. It’s good to have a bed sometimes. We are all getting older, and getting calmer. We still love rock and roll. Tour life is a mixture of school class, vacation trip, and being professional but having fun. I would miss touring if I had to stop it. Hopefully I can tour the next twenty or thirty years like Ozzy and the great old guys who are still doing great shows.
Dead Rhetoric: What worries or concerns do you have most regarding the world that we live in today?
Hermsdörfer: It’s a question I could talk about three days in a row right now. We have to change our minds. The technology we have now, social media is controlling so many things but we have to get the right focus on the right views in the right ways. Not being that easily influenced by bullshit- it has more power sometimes than the truth and the right values in life. We have to be very careful that we are not losing that view, knowing what is really right and what is very wrong. This is what technology now is the main thing, we have to learn to really use it, to communicate well again. Because the easiest way to communicate all over the world, we are talking now for free- ten to fifteen years ago that would not have been possible, or we would have had to pay a lot for this. We lose the way to communicate the right way sometimes.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Serenity over the next twelve months as far as touring, promotion, special events?
Hermsdörfer: A lot. Beyond the Black, we have been in the studio and I just finished all my recordings for the next record. There will be some news for that very soon, so stay tuned. With Serenity, we have the two great tours upcoming, and then the festival season from June on. Beyond the Black, we also have some great tour plans for this year. Like I always say, when people ask me what my schedule and agenda is for the year, I can’t tell in the moment – I’m focused until March and April. Ask me again in April and I will know what’s going on for May, June, and July. I love to focus on the day I’m living in, or next one or two weeks.