There are a lot of pretenders in the American metal scene, along with trend-jumpers and just plain idiots. Yet Pennsylvania’s Pharaoh is good enough to make most of our country’s musical shortcomings forgivable. Armed with a vast array of stunning, cerebral Iron Maiden riffs, as well as take-charge vocals, Pharaoh is way at the head of the pure American metal movement, while the competition is still clueless.
As this year’s "The Longest Night" proves, Pharaoh is now holding court, and everyone should take heed. From the regal opener of “Sunrise” to the urgent “In The Violet Fire” to “Up The Gates”—the true metal anthem of ’06!—the band has blown the doors off the American metal scene and will probably, barring any disasters, stay on top for a good long time.
Guitarist and Metal Maniacs scribe Matt Johnsen took some time to describe what it takes to make Pharaoh's albums, the difference between a good and bad harmony, and to completely shoot down the notion that “Temple Of Hate” is really the best song by power metal band Angra. Here’s what followed . . .
Blistering.com: As a band that doesn't play live or tour, how do you prepare to do an album? Matt Johnsen: We more or less write the songs on our own and then demo them in some fashion for the other guys to learn. I was more or less the demo master, because I was the one with the best home studio setup, so I would get everyone else's crappier demos, then I would learn the songs, program the drums as needed and record a proper preproduction demo, which would be sent back out as needed to those who still needed to work on their parts. A lot of the final work on the songs remained private until we got to the studio, though. For instance, I first heard the melodies to "Sunrise" when Tim started singing in the vocal booth.
Blistering.com: With such a vast knowledge of metal from each of the members, is there a certain bar the material has to reach before it goes to tape? Johnsen: I would guess that mostly happens before the material is even aired to the rest of the band. I write riffs by just jamming randomly until something good comes out. I record any good riffs and save them on the computer, hoping that they'll find a place in a song later. As it happens, a lot of even those riffs are no good, and they'll never see the light of day. I would imagine something similar happens when, say, [bassist] Chris Kerns works on a song.
As for the final recording, there were moments when I would request at the last minute that this part be changed or tweaked or even removed, but that was rare, as the demo process weeds out a lot of the questionable ideas.
Blistering.com: There are many good ideas on "The Longest Night." Was it hard to narrow songs down to make them tighter and a little more immediate? Johnsen: I can only speak to the songs I write, but I spend a lot of time tweaking arrangements and making sure the song is as good as it can be before I send it out to the other guys. I don't write with vocal melodies in mind; I trust that Tim or someone else—maybe even myself—will come up with something good when the time comes. So, I concentrate on making every riff compelling on its own and every song interesting even before the vocal lines are worked in. Life's too short for disposable riffs.
Blistering.com: Can there be a Pharaoh song without some form of soaring guitar harmonies and/or melodic capabilities from you? Johnsen: We could maybe cover "Dawn Patrol" by Megadeth, if you'd like. I don't know. I think the guitar melodies are pretty central to what makes Pharaoh, Pharaoh. We have a few songs without solos ["Forever Free" on "After the Fire" the title track on "The Longest Night"], but I don't think there are any without at least one guitar harmony. Maybe I should consider this a challenge!
Blistering.com: Vocalist Tim Aymar is singing with a more gritty tone than what we're used to hearing from him. Was this done on purpose or to conform to the material? Johnsen: Tim has a pretty spectacular range, pitch-wise and texture-wise, and I'd like to think we make the most of that. Personally, I like his voice best when he really torques it, so in the studio, I often encouraged him to sing that way, although generally, he was left to his own devices when deciding how a particular passage would be sung.
That said, I think Tim has turned in some seriously gritty performances before, particularly with [his former band] Psycho Scream. Chuck Schuldiner [late leader of the band Death and Aymar's bandmate in Control Denied] didn't really write to Tim's strengths, I don’t think, and it’s a real shame those two didn't get to really collaborate on vocal lines for a second Control Denied album.
Blistering.com: Production-wise, "The Longest Night" is really crisp and natural. Was there any temptation to employ any of today's studio tricks? Johnsen: Well, it was recorded digitally, and I will admit that we employed our share of trickery, but I specifically did not want to go for that super-processed, Andy Sneap sound. [Sneap is a British producer and engineer.] I didn’t exactly want a classical or old-fashioned sound, but I definitely wanted a natural sound. All of the guitars on our first album were recorded direct . . . but this time we went with big tube amps, cranked pretty loud. We wanted for every instrument to get its own space, and I think [co-producer] Matt Crooks did a fantastic job of realizing our vision.
Blistering.com: When composing harmonies, what were you trying to accomplish? There seems to be a bit of a Maiden influence, but your harmonies are a little more multi-faceted. Johnsen: Maiden's harmonies are almost entirely parallel, and then they're almost always thirds. When I write a melody, I don’t make any effort to figure out what the parallel third harmony would be, I just loop the melody on the computer and play along, hoping to find some second melody that sounds good with the first. Sometimes the harmony part that I write ends up stealing the show, and the original melody gets relegated to harmony status. I think this sort of counterpoint is a lot more interesting than the simple lockstep harmonies that Maiden uses.
Also, I'm a big fan of harmonizing the rhythm guitars. There are tons of harmonized power chords on "The Longest Night," and even if you don’t realize it's happening, the result is a much bigger sound with a lot more motion than your typical metal rhythms. This is an evolving strategy in Pharaoh, and I'm sure the next album will be even more sophisticated in this regard.