Imperial Triumphant provided countless hours of solace for me throughout 2020. A year so fraught with challenge and change, it’s no wonder music outside the norm sounded so sweet. The Avante-garde Black Metal trio took on the world last year with their ode to New York City and Noir Cinema, “Alphaville.”
Zachary Ezrin (guitars, vocals), Steve Blanco (bass, keyboards), and Kenny Grohowski (drums), along with a cast of various guest artists (most notably trombonist J. Walker Hawkes, who also played on IT’s previous masterpiece, “Vile Luxury”), work together so well as a unit it’s difficult at times to tell if we’re being treated to frenetic moments of serpentine improvisation, or if the band painstakingly crafted and performed each note to the point of flawlessness. Either way you slice it, “Alphaville” is absolute perfection.
I spent a great deal of time with the album throughout the year, and it was my great privilege to be able to ask Imperial Triumphant some questions that had been building up in my mind. Below you’ll find a nice chat about everything from free jazz to architecture, and a bunch of other stuff that lies somewhere in between the two. Enjoy!
VUK: Hello, guys! Many thanks for setting some time aside to answer a few questions for us. We here at The Metal Wanderlust are huge fans of your work, and are grateful for the opportunity to chat with you. Quite a challenging year we’ve all been through. Did the success of “Alphaville” help ease some of the awkwardness of 2020, or was the inability to get out there and perform the new material just take the wind out of your sails?
Imperial Triumphant (IT): The success of Alphaville was certainly nothing to complain about, and we are grateful to all the fans and support. However, not being able to get out there and present this music in a live setting absolutely sucks. When your entire industry is shut down worldwide for what will soon be one year, there is no way to pretend that everything’s fine. It’s a world of shit, but then again our music reflects an aspect of that.
VUK: There is so much happening in the music you create, I must confess to having several different points of view as a listener. I suspect that’s a rather common phenomena, given the range of styles you’re able to cover. It all comes together perfectly, but some songs seem to change their shape depending on the angle you’re hearing things on any given day. Sort of chameleonic and ever-evolving, like a musical Van Gogh, allowing the listener to glance at each piece using different shades of light. On a song like “Atomic Age,” for example, the syncopation is both heavy and jazzy, perhaps even a bit psychedelic. But you can switch your focus to the vocal patterns and the screaming, fun house aesthetic, and it seems like a totally different song. Do you have moments like these as performers? Moments a shift in mood may change how you interpret the music?
IT: The moment always influences how we perform, and that will be different for all three of us. When it is the music (or art) that you’ve created, it’s difficult to experience it as an outside listener. Our music has elements of improvisation throughout that can and should be open to varying degrees of interpretation. So much great art is subjective and open to interpretation as it relates to one’s personal mode of existence. If you and other listeners feel many angles of the sonic experience from our music well, then that is a great compliment and testament to the work we do as a trio.
VUK: The first jazz musician that comes to my mind in relation to Imperial Triumphant is Charles Mingus. There are many reasons for that, but in particular I’m reminded of “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” and “Blues & Roots.” Mixing elements of gospel and the blues, influenced by everyone from Duke Ellington and Max Roach to the city of New York itself. With instruments mimicking car horns and police sirens, among other things, and his band operating as a collective, attempting to orchestrate improvisationally, if such a thing is even possible. Your song “Transmission to Mercury” is a perfect example, I think, of a Mingus vibe. It’s that trombone… just gliding through the chaos. How would you compare your approach to orchestration to that of an artist like Mingus?
IT: Of course, we are fans of Mingus’s music. He was such an interesting character. He lived on the West side of Manhattan near Lincoln Centre which is a performing arts campus. He certainly captured New York or the big city sound with his arrangements and orchestration. Composition is only one part of the music. Then there is the sound(s), the arrangement, the playing. How are we gonna play this damn thing that one of us or all of us wrote? The details are important, but malleable. We did a version for our live video show and invited a trumpet player friend to perform in Transmission as the trombonist was out of town at the time, and it was totally fucking cool in a different way. Mingus was great. We are certainly influenced by his work and so many others.
VUK: A comparison a little closer to the avant-garde may be Ornette Coleman (his “Science Fiction Sessions” for starters), but I think there is just as much Sonny Rollins (ala “The Bridge”) peppered throughout a good portion of your material. You ride the line between experimental and traditional with such ease, that really allows the authenticity to shine through. Then, by adding in fusion elements along with other atmospheric Metal acts like Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord, and Spectral Lore, you’re able to take both Jazz and Black Metal to extraordinarily unique new levels. I don’t get the impression, however, that you’re attempting to stretch the boundaries of genre. It’s more like you’re just unabashedly being yourselves, and Imperial Triumphant is what that sounds like. Would you say that’s an accurate summation?
IT: That’s very accurate. The Jazz element is just part of who we are. We’ve played all kinds of gigs from the shittiest toilet Jazz gig to legitimate concerts so it’s going to be in our music.
VUK: Architecture is clearly an influence on you, given both your stage presence and the big-city-focused themes in your music. Would you say there is an architectural element to your songwriting as well? Meaning, do you see what you do as building as well as composing?
IT: The two are definitely connected; Some architects will tell you that architecture is frozen music. Beyond that, a band is something you craft. It’s an enterprise, and adventure, a representation of the human spirit working as individuals that come together for a common interest and aspiration. It’s a long road often unpaved, and requires patience and perseverance. So yes, it’s certainly building something.
VUK: While listening to both “Vile Luxury” and “Alphaville,” noir cinema certainly comes to mind. Obviously, Jean Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” is part of this, but beyond that… it’s fairly all-encompassing. Other filmmakers like David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Fasbinder, Kurosowa, early Kubrick and Scorsese, can all be summoned during an Imperial Triumphant listening experience. And Steve, I have seen your video for “Excelsior,” which has a very “Taxi Driver” vibe to it, which certainly enhances the music. Can you tell us more about how filmmaking influences the music you create?
IT: We are all fans of great cinema so it impacts our perceptions as we travel through this strange life. Our albums can be experienced as complete pieces, like a movie. Great films can transport you to the outer realms of consciousness or dream state allowing one to look at themselves and perhaps take a minute to evaluate their connection to the universe. What the fuck is cooler than that? Music and film have this amazing similarity in that they are not still; You go from point A to point B and then you have to start over if you want to experience it again. Many of the darkest films like Taxi Driver reach us because they deal with a deep level of existential dilemmas, but through a super high level of artistic beauty.
VUK: Before I let you go, I’d like to ask you about the cover tunes that are a part of the extended version of “Alphaville”. The Residents “Happy Home,” and Voivod’s “Experiment.” Fantastic songs from fantastic bands! Would you mind sharing what led you to choosing these two particular songs?
IT: We wanted to do songs that could represent different sides to our personality, which we felt Happy Home and Experiment do. Of course, they also had to be from bands we love. Both bands created a unique sound that have earned a respectful place in our world.
VUK: Thank you all so very much for taking the time to answer some questions. It sure has been a busy year! What does 2021 have in store for Imperial Triumphant?
IT: Fingers crossed, we should be heading back on the road to Europe. We hope to see you all at a show.
VUK: Best wishes to you.