Seven Kingdoms – Peak Perseverance

Sunday, 19th June 2022

US power metal bands struggle often to attain the respect and popularity of their European counterparts. One act consistently making inroads to change that perception from Florida has been Seven Kingdoms. Together now for fifteen years, many followers of the scene are probably familiar with this act through specific festival appearances or touring excursions – fortunate to play with bands here and abroad like Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, Amaranthe, Evergrey, Unleash the Archers, and Beast in Black to name a few.

Zenith is the latest album for the group – and probably the most versatile to date in their catalog. Proving that there is more to power metal than speedy riffs, double kick passages, and energy, there is a seasoned dynamic at play song to song, stretching the group into melodic and commercial horizons that should expand their fanbase. We reached out to vocalist Sabrina Cruz and her guitarist husband Camden Cruz to catch up on the latest with the band: including new record label, touring adventures, learning experiences, plus some cheeseburger talk.

Dead Rhetoric: The latest album for Seven Kingdoms is Zenith. Can you bring us up to speed on the new record deal you have with upstart label Distortion Music Group -headed by Kataklysm musician Maurizio Iacono – as well as the development and songwriting sessions for this material, which combines tracks from your 2019 Empty Eyes EP independent release and newer songs?

Camden Cruz: We had a record deal with Napalm, and we weren’t super happy with the way things worked out. I guess like most bands who don’t immediately blow up with that label (laughs). We luckily, when we did that, we had already released Decennium, that was a licensing agreement for that album and back. We never signed a multi-album deal, to be safe. Essentially I was hoping that we would find a home there, but there is stuff going on that we are still working through with them. We didn’t owe anybody records, so post-Decennium, the Empty Eyes EP was the three songs we sent into the label that they essentially turned down. They didn’t think we could raise the cost to even promote it – which is now obvious that was completely wrong.

We had the material and wasted months of time preparing this material to see if it was essentially good enough. We did the Empty Eyes EP on Kickstarter, as we had done crowdfunding twice before, and this was time number three. It worked out perfect, and then we did “The Great Goat Rodeo” single during the pandemic, it was a fun thing, we had nothing going on, and it was a seven inch. Our plan the whole time was kill one of the original songs on Empty Eyes, which was “Monster” that would be used on the next record. We moved that other material with remastering onto the full-length album. It was a way to get more bang for the buck in the modern age on music.

When we knew the Unleash the Archers tour was coming, we wanted to essentially wait until we got home from that to release this. We would have new fans that would have digested the Empty Eyes material, and then it worked. We released that, and right before we released this we had the recording done, and a couple music videos before we even touched the Kickstarter. We had been working with Maurizio, as I am a tour manager for a bunch of his bands that he manages: Unleash the Archers, Fleshgod Apocalypse, Carach Angren. We had become friends and work colleagues. He had his eye on this, especially after he saw what we were able to do with the Unleash the Archers fanbase, they really glued themselves to us. He saw us capitalize on that. He was interested in releasing this before we did the Kickstarter, he knows our story with Napalm. He has a very brass tax deal with us – he has a license on our jewel case CD only, a t-shirt, and then he takes care of our digital assets. It’s very cut and dry – we have a very easy way to handle royalties, because he is only handling three things.

Sabrina Cruz: But his help with just those three things is more than … you know (laughs).

Camden: We got a deal I felt very comfortable with to crowdfund. It’s weird because it’s a label, but not a traditional signing. The band does a lot of the labor that a regular label would do, minus simply printing the disc. At the same time, we get the power of someone like Mauricio and his contacts behind us, it’s a win/win for us. With the traditional deal, we are not allowed to do Kickstarter. Whereas now, we are selling enough with the Kickstarter, he has the growth that we can come together with. We are independently selling our vinyl for Zenith, direct from the band. Along with the initial pre-orders, our soft opening. I’m really happy with it, I trust Mauricio, I’ve been with him for a while. I’ve seen other bands trust him as their manager, it’s nice to get him on the team. He’s already laid into pushing this, and you can feel it. There is a little bit of sacrifice, but there is no real reward without some risk.

Until we are moving an actual warehouse full of physical product, there is no reason for us not to Kickstart in tandem with a label deal like we have now. I think this will be a several years, several album thing with us crowdfunding it ourselves and licensing the leftover product.

Dead Rhetoric: Would you say at this point in the career of Seven Kingdoms, the band feels very confident in expanding upon its power metal foundation with adding different influences and aspects to the sound – especially with tracks like “Valonqar” and “Empty Eyes”?

Camden: Yes. I knew, as every growing band says, we’ve done three tours since the pandemic has been over, I knew the Unleash the Archers tour was going to happen. Dates were in place, and we were signed up to do it, I knew we needed to play in front of a body of people again that would devour what we do. The pandemic was rough, everything was falling apart minute by minute essentially for everyone. That’s why we have the song “Diamond Handed”, we needed people to hang on. We all held on, played our asses off on that tour as if our lives depended on it. It did, we learned a lot, every time we go on tour, we learn a substantial amount about ourselves and our music.

Sabrina: What I learned a lot is that most people like “Valonqar” because live, that is some heavy ass shit! (laughs). I’m a ballad person, I feel like us playing that live was a magic moment. Not a lot of people do ballads live, because there isn’t a lot of time for it. I feel like my voice in general requires a ballad in general for people to hear the complete dynamic of what I’m able to do because I personally feel like sometimes the strongest I sing is during a ballad.

Camden: The music that we are doing now, paints things with a wider paint brush. Personally with Decennium, we were still roped into being a hard and fast power metal band. Unless you a hardcore power metal fan, the record can become exhausting to listen to. For instance, “Empty Eyes” on Zenith comes right before “Magic in the Mist”, and the two… behind closed doors Kevin and I said this is the slowest power metal song we have ever written. It has almost that “Eagleheart”, Stratovarius style kind of thing. But, when you put in the fact that this is after “Empty Eyes”, it’s super-fast. It sounds 10-20 BPM faster than it actually is. We are learning as we get older and more experienced, little tricks like that to make things sound the way they need to, based on what we played before and after.

Sabrina: And they have learned how to write better for my voice.

Camden: This is Sabrina’s fourth full record, and we are all growing together as a band. Especially the last two tours, she recorded her parts for Zenith after the first Unleash the Archers tour. She had the weight of that whole tour off her, and it’s why she sounds the way she does. For any instrument, but especially a singer, there is no better experience than going on tour and delivering this to the audience. It’s exercise in more than one way and watching them feed off this. Watching Brittney from Unleash the Archers and what she does, Sabrina was like, ‘wow – I could do that too.’

Sabrina: Singers find their reference in other singers. We can’t cheat, we don’t have a fretboard, so you have to learn how they do things.

Camden: Coming off the road it was a blessing that we were able to record when she did, she knocked it out of the park on this one.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been picking out some killer cover tracks as of late – “The Boys of Summer” and “Barracuda” among them, and for Zenith you choose to take on Joan Jett’s late-80’s classic “I Hate Myself for Loving You”. What factors come into play for the cover choices – and have you heard any response from the original musicians involved in these Seven Kingdoms versions for feedback?

Camden: We have a thing on our Kickstarter where we sell you pick the cover. These are all our favorites – with the exception of “The Boys of Summer”. “Barracuda” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You” were picked by a perk that was purchased. We sold the next one already on the Zenith Kickstarter. We tell them give us ten songs that you like, and we will select that with you. We go as a band with this list, and we decide what we feel we can do justice to.

Sabrina: It’s terrifying for me to sing the songs that huge singers have done. There is that do it as good, or better effort (laughs).

Camden: Will it sound good, and is the sound huge? When we picked “The Boys of Summer”, we all liked the song, but we knew the reach that Don Henley has.

Sabrina: We also know how iron fist he is when it comes to his covers.

Camden: I don’t think any of the original artists have listened to our versions, and if they have, we haven’t heard anything about it.

Dead Rhetoric: How was the touring across North America over the past year coming off the pandemic with the two tours you did with Unleash the Archers as well as your most recent dates with Beast in Black and Striker? Do you feel like there is more newfound appreciation for live entertainment that may have been taken for granted in previous years, and what were some of the standout moments?

Sabrina: One of the things before we went on tour I noticed, the audiences… not to call anybody out, but people were a little ungrateful. When they came to the shows, they weren’t coming for the whole thing, they were only coming for the headliners. The people who are buying on to these tours and trying to establish new audiences, they weren’t coming to see them. That elitism one would call that. Then 2020 came and took everything away from everybody, everybody is starving, so when we did this Unleash the Archers tour, no one had gone out on tour yet, we were like the first out of the gate. One of the things we discovered is that people were so hungry, they would show up at the very beginning even for the local bands and stay until the end.

Camden: Even the second round of dates with Unleash the Archers, and I got off the tour with Hypocrisy – but that first tour, 80-90% of people that bought tickets pre-sale, they were in line before doors opened. This was the first time I was hammering the venues to pre-check because there would be 400-500 people there, the lines wrapping around the doors.

Sabrina: Whoever was the first band of each genre that went out, was the one that had that experience. We had repeat offenders who kept coming to more shows, once they had fun, they would come to another one. We call them marathoners. We had one fan Nick, mini metal, he went to so many shows and he took his light saber and hand it to Camden, he came to so many shows, he had so much fun. They also came to see us on the Beast in Black tour and saw Camden when he was the tour manager with Hypocrisy.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking at the lengthy career of Seven Kingdoms, how important has it been behind the scenes to create a solid business plan and execute things step by step to keep the band moving forward? Is that where you think your successful, consistent crowdfunding campaigns have come in handy to allow the band to stay alive and vibrant?

Camden: If it wasn’t for crowdfunding, we would be done. The idea of releasing music in the modern day, it’s not realistic. It’s one of the worst business models you can have, even for us now. We could easily have put ourselves through college, gone and paid for it. Had a high paying job doing something we don’t love, but we love this, and we’ve done it too long to quit, and we are not quitters. I have developed… I am a tour manager, I handle a lot of the books for a lot of bands in North America, it’s given me my own education personally throughout it. You either get eaten alive, or you get smart about it. Because of that, there’s been a lot of hardships and a lot of hard times, but we’ve all come out better for it in the end.

Sabrina: Also, we’ve learned that sometimes even though people are in the right categories they don’t always help the way they should. Some people are kind of not as… they fly by the seat of their pants, just trust things – it’ll work out. When we went to Europe the second time after the Stratovarius and Amaranthe tour, we went on hopes, dreams, and trust. Halfway through, we realized this wasn’t a good idea. We had to end up giving away our wedding money, selling our car, all kinds of stuff, to pay for the debt of people who mismanaged their projections.

Camden: Luckily the core of the band, which is the four of us, we are all deeply invested in what we do. We are sticking that way as a four-piece, it’s too difficult to have a new member that isn’t on the ground level the way that we are through the hardship and experience.

Sabrina: Blood, sweat and tears makes things a little bit different. That’s also what “Diamond Handed” is about.

Dead Rhetoric: Considering your years of experience as a tour manager Camden, where do you see the major differences when it comes to younger artists versus veteran bands as far as their live shows and how they handle road life – are there any specific tips of the trade you wish bands would take into consideration to make things easier from your perspective?

Camden: I wish more bigger bands struggled more. I truly believe there are a lot of bands that are put together by one person, and then they have the push or name that automatically puts them on a certain level. They can hire a musician, or have a crew, or have management to deal with it. When you find… I always say behind closed doors, that’s not a real band. What I mean by that is, there’s one person in it. And a band is not one person, unless you are a solo artist. There are a lot of bands out there that are not bands. At least two people would be nice, instead of being created by one person who is not even on stage and then they put five people out there to write your music and tour with it.

The level of struggle is where the appreciation and wit and grit is made. Some of the bands are doing well enough to where they will never need that. That will be their own problem at some point.

Sabrina: One of the things I learned and appreciate about Unleash the Archers, and specifically Brittney, is that she knows how it feels to get fucked. With stages and headliners, headliners can get so in the clouds that they forget what it’s like to be a little band. They absorb the stage and don’t care if the opening band has even a foot to stand in. And for me, if this bands are paying to play on tour – which is basically paying for the bus for them to ride in – if it’s a really good opener, they are also bringing their own crowds. So they have earned the right to be there, they also have earned the right to have the stage. Some bands, there are things that don’t need to be on stage until its their turn, but Brittney made sure, even with the local bands, they had space on stage. There were times we shared their drum kit to make sure we all had space. As an attendee to a concert and a performer on stage, there should be more courtesy to their openers.

Camden: Brittney made sure we were taken care of, and that’s something I’ve never experienced, even in my years as a tour manager. We respect her for that. And it’s one thing that sets them apart. They have struggled, they have also lived through all kinds of horrific stories. As four or five people together doing something, and that’s also part of their success. She’s tougher than nails, she’s experienced it, they have that plus the stroke of luck and the stroke of great material. You can see how it works for them.

Dead Rhetoric: Please tell us the story behind the Burger Queen crown coronation that took place recently at a Seven Kingdoms shows with Ty Christian of Lord of the Trident – how surprised were you and does this also coincide with your infamous burger shoes that you’ve worn through the years?

Sabrina: Basically, last time I existed on this planet, I loved cheeseburgers, so much that I had to come back for it. The entire time my mom was pregnant, it’s the only thing she craved, to the point of crying. Throughout my life, I’ve loved cheeseburger and people have given me gifts and made funny memes. One of my best friends Brittany, which is our drummer’s fiancé, she gets my cheesiness. One year for Christmas she bought me these burger slippers. When we were going on tour with Stratovarius and Amaranthe, I decided to bring those slippers and wear them around the venues after the shows. And then the very last show, I’m going to wear them on stage. I wore them on stage, people think they were funny.

Camden: Europeans didn’t know they were hamburgers. They referred to her as the girl with the sandwiches on her feet.

Sabrina: Then I joined Eve’s Apple, which is the female supergroup. It didn’t last, because of women, estrogen, egos and stuff but I am thankful for that moment. I met some talented women, and I was side stage at one point with Maxi Nil and Angel Wolf were getting ready to sing “The Show Must Go On”, and I was on one of the risers as a backup singer. We did our practice, I wore my slippers on stage, and Maxi Nil and Clementine Delauney were like, you need to wear those on stage. I did it, people were yelling ‘cheeseburger’ from the audience. Which is funny. I just started wearing them around, it became a funny thing. And Tim Tronckoe, who is a major photographer for everyone over there, I just took off my slipper when we were all in line together and held it up. People then photoshopped crowns on top of my head, it just became a thing.

When you fast forward to our show in Juliet, IL. Our fans from Twitch and Discord, really love the whole cheeseburger thing. Life is serious enough already; we play power metal – you might as well be cheesy. Ty and I share a love for cheeseburgers. One of my girls Kayleigh, she is also known as Tinypants on Twitch and Discord, she is the one along with her husband created the crown on top of the burger. They decided they wanted to make me the burger queen, and Juliet was the appropriate place. I wore my Valonqar dress, because you need a dress for a queen to get her crown. It was a goofy, funny thing. It made me who I am.

Dead Rhetoric: What can we expect for Seven Kingdoms over the next year or so once Zenith hits the streets?

Camden: We are going to be touring, pretty heavily. We should be. We will be touring, not too much but just enough.

Sabrina: Our eyes are set on Europe.

Camden: We will be touring through 2024, probably with this. Maybe we’ll have a new record in that year too. We have a lot of stuff to announce tour wise, a couple of tours, some festivals. We are lobbying for 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise.

Sabrina: We are so thankful to be able to do all these things, as we sat on this music for so long. By this point, we’ve heard it for so long, we can’t wait for people to hear this.

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