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An Interview With Imperial Triumphant

As a general rule, I don’t like word association games – you know, those ‘I’m going to say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to your mind’ kind of things. Sometimes, though, I just can’t help it – some associations are simply too strong to ignore. For example, if one of our loyal Vault Hunters were to walk up to me at a show and say Imperial Triumphant, my immediate response will likely be ‘vanguard.’

There are two reasons for this. First, the word ‘vanguard’ means to be at the forefront of developing new ideas. If you’ve ever heard Imperial Triumphant, then there’s no further explanation necessary. For those who haven’t, though, it’s a bit difficult to put into words exactly what the NYC-based avant-black metal outfit sound like. Bands like Gorguts, Deathspell Omega, and Portal are the obvious reference points, but that’s all they are – reference points. Starting with their 2012 full-length Abominamentvm, they’ve taken that so-called ‘French’ black metal style and done more with it than anyone else. And their last full-length, Abyssal Gods? Dude – people are still going to be trying to figure that album out a decade from now.

The second reason ‘vanguard’ comes to mind is the Village Vanguard, the legendary Greenwich Village club that was an integral part of the development of jazz in NYC. Miles, Monk, Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet – they all played the Vanguard. Luminaries like Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Rashaan Roland Kirk, and (of course) John Coltrane all recorded albums there as well.

Now, at this point you may be asking yourself ‘why the fuck is he going on about jazz – I thought Imperial Triumphant was a black metal band?’ Well, I’m very glad you asked. Imperial Triumphant has always drawn heavily on NYC for inspiration in their music, thematically and artistically. On their forthcoming third long-player Vile Luxury–available on July 13 from Gilead Media in the US (preorder here) and Throatruiner Records in the EU (preorder here)–they look towards NYC’s long and storied jazz tradition, adding a heaping dose of the style to their churning mix of dissonant, heavily technical black(ish) metal. Granted, there were jazz elements in their sound on Abyssal Gods, but they’re nowhere near as prevalent as they are on Vile Luxury. Piano breaks, trumpet solos, small combo orchestral passages –  they’re all part of the sound of Vile Luxury, and they’re a huge part of what makes the album so astonishing.

To be blunt, I don’t think anyone is ready for what Imperial Triumphant has in store with Vile Luxury. Aside from calling it a masterpiece, I don’t know that I have a firm enough grasp on it yet to be able to elucidate…well, any of the album’s mysteries. One thing I do know, though – Imperial Triumphant is at the top of the list of bands I’m most looking forward to seeing at this year’s Red River Family Fest, which will once again be taking place in Austin, TX on September 28-29. Early Bird tickets are on sale right now for an obscenely low price (and they include a RRFF III t-shirt to boot), and they’re moving fast – get yours here before they’re gone.

The Fest is one of several topics I had the chance to discuss with the band recently, along with the new album (of course), their ever-evolving visual aesthetic, and recording with Colin Marston for the majority of their careers. Check it out after taking a good look the badass cover art for Vile Luxury below.

Indy Metal Vault: Hey – thanks for agreeing to an interview. I feel pretty safe in saying that Vile Luxury is like absolutely nothing else I’ve heard before, and I’m really looking forward to talking about it. While researching for these questions, I looked at some of the breathless reviews that met Abyssal Gods upon its release, and after seeing how some of those bloggers/critics struggled to find the words to discuss that album, I’m not sure that anyone has the necessary vocabulary to talk about what’s happening on Vile Luxury. So let me start out here by flipping things a bit. You’ve had a chance to live with the record for a little while now – how do you feel about the finished product?

Imperial Triumphant: We made an album that all of us are very satisfied with. The creative process isn’t solely rooted in the end product; rather, it is the process itself that allows us, as individuals and as a band, to tap into the music we hear, and ultimately take the listener on this journey into our world.

IMV:  Imperial Triumphant is the sort of band that I find it counter-productive to discuss in terms of genre. Instead, I tend to put your music in the ‘deliberately difficult’ category alongside bands like Pyrrhon, Portal, Gorguts, Deathspell Omega, Ævangelist, etc. – highly technical, dissonant music with an almost complete disregard for things like conventional song structure or even accessibility. I’m curious as to how you conceptualize your music during the songwriting process. Do you think of it in terms of discrete riffs? Or is it more a case of drawing on your background in compositional and tonal/post-tonal theory (as you mentioned to THKD in 2011) to construct your songs? What does an Imperial Triumphant songwriting session look like?

IT: Although we are all university trained in music, composition and post-tonal theory, it is neither the way we think nor the construct for our songwriting process.

Yes, we utilize musical/creative devices and techniques to communicate ideas between each other, but the writing process comes down to taste, choices, and execution. The boundaries we push are a direct result of our individual influences, collectively executed, as per the extremely diverse music, art, and life experiences. Ultimately, we do like to write good songs. We appreciate good songs, whether that is “avant-garde” or whatever. It is a highly subjective arena. Genré can be a very limiting term…

IMV: You told Cvlt Nation back in September of 2015 that you had already been thinking about incorporating a bit more jazz into your next full-length. Given how closely Imperial Triumphant identifies with New York City, that’s not much of a surprise in and of itself. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with jazz knows how important NYC was to its development, especially post-WWII. Plus, you have incorporated jazz into your music before – there were horns on a couple of tracks on Abyssal Gods, along with that much-discussed several-second ragtime break in “Opposing Holiness.” However, Vile Luxury doesn’t just incorporate jazz elements. There might be just as much (if not more) jazz through the middle section of the album as there is metal. At what point during the process did you decide that you wanted to more or less go ‘all in’ with the jazz?

IT: It was just a natural development. Any artist knows that when you feel inspiration or creative impulse, you have to do what’s necessary. We’re only doing what we have to do to make the song complete. If that means, having a seven-piece brass ensemble or improv solo trombone then that’s what we’re going to do. Bringing jazz elements into our music works because it’s never forced or trying too hard. However, jazz is also embedded in the fabric of NYC, and permeates much of the sonic and creative landscape. It isn’t wholly a choice to incorporate jazz into our sound… it is who we are.

IMV: If I’m not mistaken, most of more recent releases have had some sort of thematic or conceptual thread running through them. Abyssal Gods seems to deal extensively with urban decay and what you described to Cvlt Nation as the “duality in New York City – the great grandeur and prestige glazed over this ugly, dirty reality.” I’ve read elsewhere that the works of the Marquis de Sade inspired Inceste. I’ve had a chance to look at most of the lyrics for Vile Luxury, and I’m thinking I see a conceptual thread, but I may be seeing things that aren’t there because of the Metropolis-inspired t-shirt design you’ve recently started selling. Did Fritz Lang’s film have an influence on the lyrics at all? That same theme of the wide gap between social classes seems to appear both in the lyrics and the all kinds of fucked-up video for “Swarming Opulence.”

IMV: Metropolis isn’t a singular point of influence, although Fritz Lang’s masterwork is a good starting point for much that we as a band and individually think about. From the obvious aesthetic realization, it goes much deeper. Our lyrics are about social class division, but also about the transference of power through the millennia, the deep-rooted control centers, the weight of city life, and looking at civilization through a wider lens, without necessarily passing judgment or drawing conclusions. There is filth at the top and bottom of this place. Some of the great filmmakers are learned in these subjects, and create from this content. It is fascinating to think about ancient cities as we live here in NYC. Vile Luxury is very influenced by our Metropolis.

IMV: Setting the lyrical themes aside, something else struck me about the progression of Vile Luxury. On about my fifth or sixth listen, I was reminded of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I don’t know if you’re familiar, but it’s a concept album set in NYC that follows an archetypal ‘descent into the underworld’ storyline. Musically, I get that same ‘descent into the underground’ feel from Vile Luxury. “Lower World” opens with the sounds of the subway, and from there songs structures…I don’t want to say fall apart, because that doesn’t happen until the cacophonous ending section of penultimate track “The Filth.” They do, however, seem to get looser and jazzier (especially “Cosmopolis”) through those middle four tracks before the much heavier closing duo of “The Filth” and “Luxury in Death.” Was there any sort of ‘musical narrative’ (for lack of a better term – I have no idea what to call it) in the album’s sequencing? Or am I just way overthinking this?

IT: It’s a bit of both. One always has to think of the greater arch of the experience. The songs ended up being placed where they needed to be as far as sequencing a physical album, but as far as their approach (whether they are more “jazz” or more “metal”), simply put, there are songs on this record that are straight up jazz in their aesthetic, but with metal instrumentation/sound and vice versa. The musical-style factors had little to do with their sequencing, just their physical/timbral/musical factors.

Horns, piano, vocals, and other “not drums and guitar” instrumentation are not what makes a song jazz, but it is in how a tune is performed, by whom, and why they did so. In writing so, one could argue that Vile Luxury has as much more to do with Miles Davis’s Nefertiti or Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle as it does with Deathspell Omega or Portal.

IMV: You’ve been working pretty consistently with Colin Marston since your Obeisance EP in 2010. Those sorts of long-term band/engineer relationships aren’t quite as common as they used to be. What’s kept you working with him over the years (aside from the obvious – he’s damn good at what he does)?

IT: Working with Colin on the technical side is an obvious decision. However, we’ve developed a great relationship with him over the years and his contribution to this particular album exceeds that of an engineer’s duties. He lives in New York, he gets what we’re doing, and knows how to steer the sound in the right direction. He is also a great musician.

IMV: I generally like to ask at least one gear-related question, and I’m particularly curious about your setups. Vile Luxury sounds fantastic in every way – guitars, bass, drums, piano. What did your studio rigs look like when you were recording the album? How close are they to what you use when you play live?

IT: Tracking was very similar to Imperial’s live set up. Ilya used his Jackson USA kv2 into a Peavy 5150 on top of an Orange cab and a clean Traynor head into a Mesa cab. Kenny used his ’89 Yamaha Recording Custom drum set, Pearl Dennis Chambers signature & Fire Cracker snare drums, as well as a standard Eliminator pedal, and a plethora of Bosphorus & Paiste Cymbals, same setup used for all of our live tours. Steve played his vintage Aria Pro II bass into an Orange amp that fed one 4×10 & one 2×12 cab, he used a selection of pedals that included fuzz, delays, pitch, etc…

IMV: Your visual aesthetic has evolved over the years, just like your sound. The masks are a recent addition, or at the very least they’re a post-Abyssal Gods development. Of course, I’m trying to figure out how they fit in with the band’s NYC-centric ethos. One of them certainly reminds me of the tiara on the Statue of Liberty, and one looks like it could be referencing Charging Bull, the statue on Wall Street. Not sure about the crown one, though. Are you willing to talk at all about the significance of the mask designs?

IT: As with Lady Liberty and The Bull, there is obvious and inconspicuous esoteric symbolism and iconography that surrounds us daily in New York City, used wittingly and unwittingly by those who have and continue seek more or all, from the layout of its architecture to the smallest detail of any landmark. This aspect of our hometown intrigues the three of us in vastly different ways, and in a manner of speaking, the masques allow us to express that curiosity.

IMV: Andrew Tremblay, who you also worked with for Abominamentvm, did the cover art for Vile Luxury. There’s a lot going on in that image – how closely did you work with him on the concept? Are you willing to unpack any of the symbolism there?

IT: The cover is an Art Deco rendition of Wall Street’s Bull and girl. The symbolism is there and for the listener to discover. Tremblay designed the entire cover, logo and album layout.

He truly gets our aesthetic. We had almost no initial input in the album design. We just told him the name of the album. A huge part of the Imperial Triumphant creative process is working with like minded artists (visual, musical, etc…) and allowing them to think on their own. It takes faith but when you work with only top artists, the result is always quality.

IMV: Imperial Triumphant is one of the bands appearing at this year’s installment of Red River Family Fest. What can attendees expect from your set? I’m guessing you won’t be bringing a jazz pianist and horn section to Austin, so I’m really wondering how the material from Vile Luxury will translate live.

IT: This is our ritual that we share with you. The atmosphere is always there, horn section or not. We are always working on our show and live sound to make it the best we can for the audience.

IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few (long-winded) questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?

IT: Listeners and fans: take time with this record. It’s a beast of music and it’s for you to tame.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” ~Aldous Huxley


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