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Interview: Christian Mistress Discuss Their New Album, 'Possession'

If you love the sound of the Pro-Tooled, slickly produced metal albums that are being churned out by the dozen these days, you'll want to skip over Christian Mistress.

While the Olympia, Washington-based metal band won't be winning over any fans who thrive on auto-tune and quantized drums, they should appeal to anyone hungry for a slab of traditional-minded heavy metal with a modern twist.

Their latest offering, Possession, picks up where their 2010 debut album, Agony & Opium, left off -- with the powerful pipes of Christine Davis providing a Doro-meets-Coven wail over the twin-guitar attack of Ryan McClain and Oscar Sparbel.

Possession, as any sophomore album should be, sees the band fine-tuning their sound, which mixes equal parts NWOBHM and good ol' fashioned American doom metal.

I recently caught up with guitarists Ryan McClain and Oscar Sparbel to talk guitar, Possession and the importance of noodling.

GUITAR WORLD: After releasing your debut album on a smaller label, what does it mean to you guys to be on Relapse for the release of your second album?

OSCAR SPARBEL: Not sure as of yet. We have been getting a lot more interviews than I'd never expected. I think our record will go places where people have not heard of us before.

RYAN MCCLAIN: It's great. It means more exposure to a larger fan base and more opportunities to do what we love.

The influence of the NWOBHM bands and earlier American metal traditionalists is really apparent in your music, but who are the players that got you started on guitar in the first place? Anyone that might surprise us?

RYAN: Well, really it was my uncle, Jeff McClain, that made me want to play guitar. He's an awesome guitar player. He got me hooked on Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC when I was 9. After that, I got into all the classic rock bands and eventually into metal. Some that might surprise you ... I love Lady Gaga and Hank Williams.

OSCAR: Funny, it was a bass player that made me want to play. I was 13 and saw a clip of Cliff Burton playing the intro of "For Whom the Bell Tolls." It sent a chill though my body. After that I knew I wanted to play in a rock band and guitar of some sort. By the time I was 14 I got a bass and learned the intro to "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and some Black Sabbath riffs. My bass career didn't last very long; I got in trouble, and my family took it away.

Lucky for me, I met a foreign-exchange student named Timu from Finland, who sold me a formula Hondo Series One guitar shaped like a BC Rich Bich as well as a Peavey combo amp for $30. The guitar was red and had a holographic finish. I figured if wasn't going to be a bassist, I'd play lead guitar. I really liked Megadeth, Slayer, Carcass, Metallica, Iron maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.

How do you manage to keep things fresh while still staying true to
your traditional metal roots?

OSCAR: I try not to write based on what a traditional metal band has to sound like.

RYAN: Well, we've got standards. Most of us are very opinionated about pretty much everything, and in the end we keep each other honest.

The guitar tones are fantastic on the new album; very raw, a nice escape from the over-slick production style of today. How did you go about recording guitars to achieve such an analogue warmth?

RYAN: We used very little effects. No Pro Tools. We plugged in and played, very similar to our predecessors, I assume. All analog. Tim Green is the man you want if you want amazing analog.

OSCAR: We recorded analog. It was one of the reasons we chose Tim Green and Louder Studios. We wanted to track on 2-inch tape and not use Pro Tools. Tim and his studio were able to facilitate our accommodations. We prefer that sound. It's warm, honest and totally rock and roll!

Talk about your gear setup on Possession.

RYAN: I used Tim Green's 1976 Marshall JMP MK2 that he modded in the first gain stage for more low end. I also used his Hiwatt cabinet with mismatched Celestions in it. [As for guitars, I used] a Hagstrom II, Fender Stratocaster, Ibanez 1983 X series, a 1998 Les Paul Studio, a Tube Screamer and a Marshall Guvnor pedal.

OSCAR: I used my 1987 Randy Rhodes Jackson V with a Les Paul '59 reissue in the bridge pickup. The neck was stock. A Korg tuner (after a tuning crisis with a Modtone tuner), 1979 Marshall JMP with a modification by Doug Howard. And two different cabs for lead and main tracks -- a 1960s 30-watt Marshall for the leads and an old Peavey 5150 from the '90s with 100-watt Celestion speakers. No overdrive or effects.

What kind of acoustics are being used on the intro to "The Way Beyond"?

RYAN: It's a Taylor Big Baby acoustic. My favorite guitar. Amazing warm, full tone.

Part of the intro to that song sounds like it's got some slide guitar on it. Is that right? Who was playing that?

RYAN: Correct, that was me. I did about a thousand takes on that little slide overdub. I was really excited to add that slide in the intro to play homage to the Delta blues gods. It came out exactly how I wanted.

How would you characterize your roles as guitarists in the band? Do you see yourself falling into lead/rhythm roles, or are solos split pretty evenly?

RYAN: We don't have rules for how any of that stuff goes. It's all about figuring out what the song needs and what's best for the song.

OSCAR: I'd say there's a good balance between guitars. Ryan and I are what one would call "lead guitarists." We both solo and play on our main tracks. We play melodically, rhythmically, harmonize and go to Noodletown. It's pretty cool working with a guitar player that can harmonize complicated melodies.

RYAN: Yeah that's right, we live in Noodletown!

Is there a difference in your backgrounds/styles as players that dictates when one of you might take a solo versus the other?

RYAN: Sometimes, but not always. I've got more of a blues background whereas Oscar is more classical, but we both know blues and classical music.

OSCAR: Contrast in playing styles helps for sure. Just when you're about to get bored with one of us, the other one might step in and perk up your ear. It's the cool thing about having another guitar player. It's like that rule, if both of you are the same, then one of you is useless. The main dictator is whether we have a good idea for a solo that would complement the song. We explore a couple of different ideas on the record. In some songs it was obvious that we should trade off solos, and others where it might have been more of a texture thing.

When you hit the road, what guitars are you bringing with you? Do you have any that never go on the road with you?

RYAN: I take my 1984 Ibanez "X" and my black Fender Strat. The Taylor Big Baby stays home along with my Washburn Little Lyon.

OSCAR: I only play with my Jackson V, mainly because it's my only functioning guitar. When I get some money I'll get a Les Paul Custom. Then I'll keep my V at home.

Christian Mistress will release their new album, Possession, February 28 via Relapse Records.

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Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.