Shield of Wings – Unfinished Abstractions

Saturday, 29th January 2022

Always seeking out more gems in the independent metal scene, we welcome the opportunity to take in Midwest act Shield of Wings. Incorporating a symphonic metal base with aspects of melodic, folk, and death metal nuances, their latest album Unfinished contains a bevy of strong riffs, stirring keyboard/orchestration movements, and vocals that run the gamut from operatic and angelic to growling/extreme angles. We spoke with guitarist James Gregor and keyboardist/vocalist Aliyah Daye recently to learn more about the latest record, including lyrical themes and songwriting components, thoughts on the North American symphonic metal landscape, Aliyah’s work with C Squared PR and how its helped in the promotion of the band, plus video work and future plans.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s your earliest music memories growing up – and how did you end up moving into heavier genres and eventually wanting to become a part of an original band like Shield of Wings?

James Gregor: I started the band when I was sixteen. Prior to that, I did not have much experience with metal, or heavy music. I heard bands like Slipknot, Korn, and System of a Down. That’s not what really got me into the style of music that I play. Prior to that, when I was kid, the first experiences I had with music were watching movies like Braveheart or The Rock – hearing Hans Zimmer and James Horner soundtracks. That was my first musical love. I got older, I heard American bands and heavy metal. When I was sixteen, I had internet access, no dial-up, and I heard Nightwish, Children of Bodom, Dimmu Borgir and I was blown out of my chair.

Aliyah Daye: My earliest memory surrounding music would have to be church, singing in church and choirs as a kid. Slowly I moved into listening to… I was in a conservative household, so I listened to a lot of oldies. I listened to the radio and then heard Evanescence, which isn’t necessarily classified as metal, but it opened a gateway for me. Hearing the symphonic elements combined with rock and roll, and the gothy vibe struck me. I went on the internet looking for similar bands, I found Within Temptation, Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, and I started a band in college and got more familiar with other metal that way. Shield of Wings, I didn’t join until much later in their lifespan. Obviously, it is the kind of music that strikes my soul and I really love.

Dead Rhetoric: Unfinished is the latest full-length for the group – eleven years after the debut EP Solarium. What took place behind the scenes that there was a prolonged break between studio releases?

Gregor: In 2012, we parted ways with our singer, and everybody had a lot of things going on in their lives. Our drummer was trying to finish school and get his masters degree, our bass player at the time was trying to get into school. I at the time was buying a house. We were all doing different things. Between the years of 2012 and when we started talking about doing an album again in 2017, I’d been writing music that whole time. I had forty partial songs written. Then when 2017 rolls around, I told the band to listen to these songs, proposing to move forward in the hopes of making an album.

Daye: After that we started working on the demos and didn’t meet up until we got a new lead vocalist in 2019. She reached out to us, we heard her voice and if you have heard Lara Mordian, you know why she became our vocalist.

Gregor: In the interim there was a singer in mind I really wanted to be in the band, badly. I didn’t have the guts to ask her to join the band, there was no urgency. Eventually I asked her, played some demos, but this woman thought it was a little too bombastic. She was a smooth, jazzy singer. Lara though had the voice I had in mind that was similar to our previous singer.

Daye: I met up with the guys in 2017, but I wasn’t officially a member until 2019 or so.

Gregor: Aliyah was helping to demo the songs before Lara joined the band. She is a singer too.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the differences between the album and that first EP?

Gregor: Well, some of that material, like “Wetland” the single we just released as a video, the music was written way back in 2012. Some of these songs are really old and they had been sitting on my hard drive. Though they changed some over the years, the cores are the same – they just got polished up. When I brought them to the band, we were able to flesh them out more.

Dead Rhetoric: Which songs on this record saw the greatest transformation or growth from initial demo idea to final completion?

Gregor: I’d say most of them, but some songs like “Come Home” which is the softest song on the album. When I listen to this, I think about the fact that I actually figured out how to write an actual song. Or when I hear the last song “The Scarred Clay Reshaping” which is the longest song on the album. The transitions of the songs, all the various parts, there are a lot of dynamics in it. It took some time.

Dead Rhetoric: The themes of the record explore growth through a combination of self-examination, regret, sacrificial death, and rebirth. Does the lyrical content come from personal experience, or a mix of fact and fictional sources – and are things worked out musically first before lyrics come into play, or are there different methods that take place?

Gregor: The lyrics are personal, no fiction or fantasy there.

Daye: I think you do draw abstractions to reality. Like a poet or an artist might.

Gregor: A lot of what I talk about may be hidden in metaphor. There is only one song on there that I wrote from the perspective of somebody else, or at least tried to. Which was “Come Home”. The method varies from song to song. Some of (the songs), I had the music first and I tried to scribble the melodies down with a keyboard. I had writings that would be applicable to the emotions of that song and fuse them together. For others, it was an on-going thing between the music and the lyrics. The lyrics would develop as the song was written.

Dead Rhetoric: And when it comes to the vocals between Aliyah and Lara, how do you work out who handles what parts as there is a lot of variety there and sometimes you team up together?

Daye: Yes, and I look forward to being able to collaborate with her more on future records. This particular record was all planned out before she joined the band. We gave her all of the lead clean vocals, and I took the harmonies and the harsh vocals.

Dead Rhetoric: How does the band balance the use of guitars, keyboards, and orchestration without stepping on each other’s toes so to speak? Are there certain rules or criteria that make for the cohesion and diversity that represents a Shield of Wings song?

Gregor: Arguably some would say there is an imbalance, from some of the reviews we’ve heard. I did what I wanted to do quarterbacking this (record), with the sound engineer who did the final mixing. I didn’t want a guitar heavy mix; I wanted the listener to be able to appreciate the tiny nuances of the orchestration. I didn’t want to cover up the voice, as Lara has a spectacular voice in my opinion.

Daye: We put things in a priority list. Vocals top priority, orchestration second priority, and worked out things from there.

Gregor: Guitars, bass, and drums, they are all there. There wasn’t an emphasis that this had to be super metal or anything, we just wanted to make good songs. There is definitely some metal in there of course.

Dead Rhetoric: You recently released a video for “Wetland” – was this an obvious choice to do a visual clip for, what are your memories of the video shoot and how do you feel about this visual medium as a tool to get your music across to a broader audience, especially in these social media driven platform days?

Gregor: Well, if it was up to me, I would do a music video for every song. I’ve always had an interest in video, ever since I was a young kid, and I got my first video camera. I used to film myself, my friends and I would make skateboarding movies. I have always been into editing and stuff like that. I don’t know if we would have the time and capabilities to do that at the moment.

Daye: It wasn’t at first an obvious choice. We got together as a band and talked about what would be the best first song to share with people. There is a lot of diversity on the album. Most of us think the best song is “The Scarred Clay Reshaping”, but it doesn’t make for a good video with that minute long orchestral build-up.

Gregor: We wanted to pick “Wetland” as our first single and video, the structure and chorus being catchy. That was a recommendation from our bassist, the newest member of the band. The most objective voice.

Dead Rhetoric: You are a part of the C Squared PR firm – tell us what it has been like working with this team of people, and some of the skills/tools you’ve been able to use and think about to apply to the work that you do promoting and pushing this band?

Daye: Sure. It’s been an enriching and educational experience working with C Squared. Personally, I’ve always liked sharing the music that I’ve liked, doing PR has been an enjoyable experience because of that. It gives me an excuse to share the music that I like with publications. I have learned a lot about genres, a lot more blogs than I used to know about as a casual reader. I am grateful that they have given me the opportunity to work with them and I plan on continuing to work with them as it’s something I enjoy.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the state of the gothic/symphonic metal scene stateside, given the fact that many of the major headlining artists hail from outside the country? Do you see major differences in terms of approach and influences from American acts compared to the European contingency?

Daye: Since I have my finger more on the pulse of the genre, I’ll take this. North American symphonic metal bands, I won’t speak to specifically just the gothic bands, the gothic tag on it makes people think of a certain aesthetic and a certain vibe. Some bands do have that, but I think they are very specific. I believe symphonic metal in North America is growing, and there are some unique acts here. Dialith is one that is really good – Seven Spires is another, although they are more of a hybrid of black metal and other genres. They are doing an excellent job. The USA climate culturally isn’t as much friendly to the genre. It’s not popular here, but it’s growing. People having access to the tools at home to be able to craft the sounds through the software when you can’t access a real orchestra, it’s allowing it to grow.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges facing the band at this point in your career?

Gregor: Time. Having full-time jobs, all of us but one of us have full-time jobs. It’s hard to dedicate the time to what you love when you have to support yourself.

Daye: And then there is family for some of us.

Gregor: The battle against time is the biggest thing.

Dead Rhetoric: I understand Aliyah that Kamelot is one of your favorite bands. What are some of the important records in their catalog that you enjoy, and what qualities make them so special to you?

Daye: I would say The Black Halo is my favorite by far. I also love Karma and Epica. Most of my favorites are in the Roy Khan-era, because Roy’s voice is part of what it makes it for me. There is something special about his voice that grabs me in the heart and grips me. No amount of practice or technique can give that to a vocalist – it is born in you. The orchestrations they write, the keyboard solos that Oliver does. Just the way they are able to incorporate some more extreme sides of metal as well. I love “March of Mephisto”, bringing that into symphonic metal.

Dead Rhetoric: What would you consider three of the most important metal records that shaped your outlook on the genre, and the best concert you’ve ever experienced attending as a fan?

Gregor: Number one for me – Century Child by Nightwish. Maybe number two – Epica by Kamelot. And number three, might be… maybe, Hatebreeder by Children of Bodom. The best concert experience is pretty hard. Seeing Rammstein was pretty killer.

Daye: For me, The Silent Force by Within Temptation. The Black Halo by Kamelot. And probably Wintersun – Wintersun. And the best concert experience I have had. I’ll go with my first gut, seeing Fleshgod Apocalypse and Wintersun together in 2013. An excellent tour, when Wintersun was playing and everyone was singing along to “Sons of Winter and Stars”, it was a very communal experience.

Gregor: Like people singing “The Bard’s Song” at Blind Guardian concerts.

Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to learn about yourself as a person when you are away from the work that you do within Shield of Wings? Do you have any special hobbies, interests, and passions that you peruse away from music when you have the free time to engage in them?

Gregor: This girl is a worker all the time.

Daye: Yeah, I wonder where I find free time. I do graphic design; I do all the web design for Shield of Wings.

Gregor: I love organizing things, cleaning the house. I like camping. I love video-related things. Probably if I wasn’t doing music I would get more into video. I would find the time to do both.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next year shaping up for Shield of Wings as far as promotion, touring, other things in the pipeline?

Gregor: We are ramped up right now in the promotion of the album, so we don’t have any great plans. We will start formulating things in February. We are about to shoot another music video, and we may try to shoot another one after the release of the album to prolong the promotion of it. Hopefully we can play a show or two by the summer.

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