Pharaoh - Shining Power Beacon Part I
By: Matt Coe
When given the chance to speak to a fellow journalist who also happens to be an incredible metal musician, thereís never a loss for words, especially if said guitarist is Matt Johnsen, who plays in the American power metal unit Pharaoh. Among the many things we talked about that didnít make the main article but I find relevant include his disappointment in Daniel Heimanís work post-Lost Horizon [second that! Ė ed.], his struggles in fully appreciating the last few Rage albums because of Victor Smolskiís songwriting skills in comparison to Peavy Wagnerís, and the middle-of-the-road filmmaking from Metal Evilution series director Sam Dunn.
For those who havenít had the chance to check out this amazing band, imagine the best montage of multi-layered guitar harmonies done with a late 80ís European power metal flair- along with a healthy dose of traditional high pitch vocal acrobats from Tim Aymar. With their fourth album Bury the Light, hopefully the Iron Maiden comparisons that abound will finally subside, as Pharaohís intelligent approach deserves a more comprehensive listening experience.
I appreciate his honesty when it comes to not only his views on the band but also his views on metal in general. You can feel the passion Matt has for music, something shared with the Blistering.com staff.
Blistering.com: Your fourth album Bury the Light appears to my ears to be your most original offering to date. Your guitar layering, songwriting, and harmonies as a band have put Pharaoh into a more original class of traditional power acts from America. Was this the game plan going into this record?
Matt Johnsen: I wouldnít say that was the game plan per se, itís more of a built in assumption at this point. The more we make albums and the longer I play the better we get- weíve always kind of framed Pharaoh around the guitars and the riffs. As I get better as a player itís my natural inclination to push the technical level of the riffs - if I was even better Iíd be making Spiral Architect albums! Iím not quite there yet so Iím just making very fancy power metal. We didnít say we were going to make the guitar parts difficult- that just sort of happens naturally. How much more difficult they can get in the future - I donít know. If you plotted guitar trickiness over time it would be flattening out as we go, it was kind of a big jump between the first two albums, but the difference between Be Gone and this one isnít as big as that one and The Longest Night.
Blistering.com: Iíve read that you consider this new album a little darker than Be Gone, is this correct?
Johnsen: Yeah, wellÖitís darker sounding. Be Gone was a pretty bleak album lyrically, a moribund tone across the board. This one, maybe dark isnít the right word, sinister may be better. Itís difficult to describe- it definitely has a different tone, maybe itís the difference between being a bummer and being angry. Itís hard to say, you have to come up with things when you are writing bios and that sort of copy.
Blistering.com: You were able to get some guest appearances again on this album, which appears to be a Pharaoh tradition from record to record. How were you able to get Mike Wead (Mercyful Fate, King Diamond) to make a guest solo on ďCastles in the Sky?Ē
Johnsen: The guest solo thing is kind of a tradition, it started by accident when we got Chris Poland (Megadeth) on The Longest Night so it seemed like a fun thing to do. We are all big fans and the business being what it is; the greatest players of all-time in metal are still working day jobs and are pretty accessible. Itís not like the 1970ís where you would have tried to get Michael Schenker to play on your album - these days you can get a hold of who you want through e-mails.
After we did the last album with the Riot guys we were already thinking about who we were going to get next. We bandied a few names around- the guy that we picked was a combination of somebody that we all like and someone we think would mesh well with the Pharaoh sound. We had a few names on the list and Mikeís name sort of bubbled to the top. Heís a huge influence on me, the way he phrases his solos is pretty unique. I figured, how hard could that be? Well, it turned out to be harder than I thought it was going to be [laughs]. Not that heís busy or inaccessible, but the people I thought who would be able to get me in touch with him were not able to.
I asked a lot of people before I found someone I knew who had a connection to him, and that was Teddy Moller of Loch Vostok and Mayadome back in the day. At first Teddy gave me his cell phone number, and I wasnít looking forward to a cold call to a Swedish dude to do a guest solo for a band heís never heard of. I never got through on his cell phone - I went back to Teddy so I got an e-mail address, an introduction and he wanted to do it. I sent Mike copies of the last album and a rough mix of ďCastles in the Sky,Ē plus ďBurn with Me,Ē and he thought ďCastlesĒ was more suited to his style. He told us normally he charges the band, but he liked our music so he didnít charge us. We threw him a few hundred dollars for the studio fee, he sent it back and that was that. We are already starting to brainstorm for the next album who will guest.