“I bought a noise gate and I just was like, ‘Fuck this! This is not my thing,’” Imperial Triumphant guitarist and frontman Zachary Ezrin tells us from his home in New York.
“But don’t things get a little…out of control?”
“Of course,” he says with a laugh. “It’s Imperial Triumphant!”
Fair point really. From the blast beats that bolster tremolo-picked, diminished seventh chords to the opulent gold-plated art deco imagery that accompanies it all, everything about Imperial Triumphant is extreme.
For the uninitiated, Imperial Triumphant are a black metal jazz-fusion power trio who have spent the last decade crafting an entire world out of dissonant high-gain guitars, nightmarish soundscapes and intense polyrhythms that make you feel as though the whole world could collapse at any moment.
If you can’t imagine what that sounds like, that’s okay, because Imperial Triumphant really don’t sound like anything else.
Formed in 2006 “as a pretty typical black metal band”, they have evolved to incorporate a range of jazz elements; a natural outcome, Ezrin says, of the three members' musical backgrounds and becoming a more collaborative unit.
With each passing release, including 2018’s Vile Luxury and 2020s highly-acclaimed Alphaville, they have sown the seams of their influences tighter to forge a unique identity.
Cue, The Spirit of Ecstacy, which sees the band going further down the path they have carved out for themselves, but still very much covering new ground.
It also happens to be their most extreme release to date. Extreme in every sense of the word but notably when it comes to the dynamics – the softer parts are softer, and the heavier parts hit harder, as the cliche goes.
“I don't think we intentionally set out to achieve that but at the same time, I don't think we were ever like, let's make a chiller record,” Ezrin explains. “I think we’re very true to ourselves when we write. We’re hoping that people enjoy the record, but we're not writing music for anyone; it's just very organic. At the same time, we’re working very hard to create to make this kind of music as accessible as possible without sacrificing any of the actual composition.”
Composition is something Zachary and his bandmates, drummer Kenny Grohowski and bassist Steve Blanco, take seriously, and they leave no stone unturned when writing for Imperial Triumphant.
All contribute to the process, whether bringing in individual parts or ideas, crafting songs together in their New York rehearsal space, improvising in the studio or bringing sheet music of full compositions to the table. Every possibility is explored.
There’s also no shortage of incredible guests and personnel on board to help them do this too. The Spirit of Ecstasy was produced by Mr Bungle’s Trey Spruance, engineered by Colin Marston from Gorguts and features guest spots from the likes of Alex Skolnick from Testament, Snake from Voivod and even smooth-jazz icon Kenny G – the latter of which may be surprising on paper but there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.
“We’ve worked with Max Gorelick a fair bit and we ended up getting his father Kenny G and him having a solo dual where there's like a lot of call and response on Merkurius Gilded. And that solo came out really, really nice.
“With all these guests, I barely give them any direction, I just tell them where I'm imagining them playing and they come back with just unbelievably perfectly played parts,” he explains. “And we're very grateful to work with such talented people because it allows us to take these songs to a level that we would never be able to without these contributions.”
“We always every record we want to work with guests because I think that's part of the inclusive nature of Imperial Triumphant and New York music in general. But I wanted this album, in particular, sometimes to feel like you just walked into a downtown late-night, jazz bar jam, you know, you've just everyone's sitting in on tracks.”
The influence of New York City on Imperial Triumphant is hard to overstate, with the city itself playing a role in everything from the band’s aesthetic choices to how Ezrin approaches the guitar.
“New York City is a huge influence in many aspects of our music,” Ezrin says. “There’s some extreme dualities when it comes to this city, where there are super-high highs and super-low lows, and it becomes apparent in our lyrics as well as our musical dynamics. This is where some of the richest people live, and this is where some of the poorest people live… and they're only a few blocks away from each other.
“Beyond that, musically, I’d say that Imperial Triumphant is inspired by the sound of New York City, which is extremely loud, and extremely chaotic. And if you've ever walked down the street, and heard sirens whizzing by, or been in the subway, or the train literally grinding through the tunnels. I get inspired by all that stuff and think, ‘Oh, let me play that on my guitar.’ You know? Like, there are many moments where I think, ‘Oh, I should sample this?’ But then it’s like, ‘Why bother sampling? I'll just play it on my guitar.’”
Ezrin’s approach to the guitar is interesting in itself. A scholar of the instrument across a range of styles – from classical to jazz, thrash to blues and everything in between – Ezrin blends traditional and unorthodox methods to create something out of the box.
“There's a lot of stuff I will I get inspired and steal from, like this playing styles of like Charles Mingus,” he explains. “He will bend the string on and off the fretboard and give it a fluttering effect, which just sounds super fucked up – and I stole that and put that in a song, because that's a crazy move. There's tons of cool stuff you can do when you stop caring about hitting the note perfectly.”
“As a player, I really enjoy having sort of parameters that I have to work within because then I come up with ways to play creatively. Like my guitar is in E standard, but I definitely play way below – I'll just take the whammy bar and create a melody way below the low E.
“It's helpful for me as a player to not have all options available because it forces me to think more about it and be creative. You get to the eight-string guitar and you can pretty much do anything. I think it's kind of cooler if I have to figure out a way to get that sound. If I want to play like a low C, I’ve got to lower my tremolo bar and find it, which I do sometimes and it sounds more wobbly and fucked up than if I just hit a perfect low C.”
The tremolo arm is definitely one thing that Ezrin puts to great use on The Spirit of Ecstasy, from the bombastic, string skipping Alan Holdsworth-inspired solo in opener Chump Change to the dissonant, ambient drones that pepper the first half of Benzumnaya, a reliable Floyd Rose system is a must for Ezrin.
So much so that the newly-signed Gibson artist is now the proud owner of a Gibson Les Paul with a Floyd Rose – a contentious move among a certain sect, no doubt, but Ezrin couldn’t be happier.
“Gibson Guitars are not really known for their Floyd Rose guitars so it's been a real fun project to find the six guitars they ever made that have Floyd Rose systems,” he says. “They initially sent me a Les Paul Axcess that has a Floyd Rose in it, and it's an honestly amazing guitar, it's really sick!
“Then I just bought a Flying V90, from 1989 – that is like one of from a rare run that they did for like, three years or something that had it was a Flying V the had Floyd Rose. Again, just an incredible instrument that almost nobody seems to play.”
With a relatively humble pedalboard consisting of an Ernie Ball VP Jr volume pedal, Electro-Harmonix Eddy vibrato/chorus, Electro-Harmonix Canyon delay pedal and an Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 reverb pedal that’s mostly used for subtle echo, it’s safe to say it’s largely all in the hands for Ezrin.
In fact, a lot of the material he writes for Imperial Triumphant starts out on an unplugged electric guitar “because if it sounds heavy and fucked up unplugged, it’s going to sound super heavy when you play it through an amp with a lot of gain.”
For this, he’s been an almost exclusive user of the Peavey 5150 on record but has recently switched to Victory Amps The Kraken V4 to help lighten the load as Imperial Triumphant turns their attention to a massive tour in support of The Spirit of Ecstasy.
“To be honest, The Kraken sounds 90 per cent like a 5150 and weighs two per cent as much,” he says. “I just did a whole European tour with it and I didn't feel it didn't fail me once and I didn't fuck up my back loading it in.
“My sound guy who did front of the house for all European tours couldn’t even notice the difference. So I'm very happy with that, as far as like live rig goes because, you know, if I'm loading in my own gear, like, I'm gonna go for the lighter option.”
- The Spirit of Ecstasy (opens in new tab) is out July 22 via Century Media.