“This is challenging music, but there is reward in that”: How Imperial Triumphant tapped into the Spirit Of Ecstasy

When it came to building on their 2020 breakthrough, New York jazz-metal maximalists Imperial Triumphant had no shortage of inspiration. Rather than steering towards anything resembling the mainstream, though, with superb fifth album Spirit Of Ecstasy they’ve delved into even more luxuriant extremity than ever before…

“This is challenging music, but there is reward in that”: How Imperial Triumphant tapped into the Spirit Of Ecstasy
Sam Law
Header photo:
Alex Krauss
Live photo:
The Tin Foil Biter

Zachary Ilya Ezrin wants the very best for his fans. Relaxing into our interview this afternoon, the Imperial Triumphant frontman smiles when K! raise that Spirit Of Ecstasy – the title of his band’s superb fifth album – is a nod to Rolls-Royce’s iconic billowing bonnet-ornament, noting that we’re the first journal to make the connection. He’s glad that we do, too, as the craftsmanship and quality, sumptuosity and longevity with which the legendary British automotive manufacturer have become synonymous are exactly the attributes he wanted to tap into with this latest brain-scrambling batch of songs.

“I was inspired by luxury brands like Rolls-Royce and Rolex,” he begins. “They’re not just putting out products that are expensive, but ones that are incredibly high-quality in terms of the attention to detail that goes in. In the case of Rolls-Royce, as I learned about the company and its products, I found out that they’re not just trying to make the fastest car, the safest car, or the most energy-efficient car. Their sole purpose is to deliver the most luxurious ride. I began to wonder how that mentality might apply to a band making death metal: trying to create the most decadent, over-the-top, extreme album possible. That’s where our Spirit Of Ecstasy comes in. Everything on this record has a purpose. Every second has been scrutinised – not in an overly-meticulous way where we’re tinkering too much, but in making sure that everything has a reason to be there. Even if it’s a passage of raw chaos, that chaos is there to have a specific influence on the listener.”

True to that, across eight tracks and 55 minutes of daringly avant-garde extremity, Spirit Of Ecstasy weaves a dense sonic fabric capable of taking listeners’ breath away from the very first listen, but which also reveals more finely-worked intricacy – and which becomes easier to sink into – the more time you spend in its company. Compared to 2020’s Alphaville, which began with the long, ponderous lead-in to Rotted Futures, here, Chump Change chucks us straight into the chaos. Attempting to pick out individual strands of influence may be akin to trying to pick individual strands of hay from a haystack, the vocal styling of Aussie experimentalists Portal, the film scores (such as Taxi Driver) of Bernard Herrmann and fragments of Jethro Tull’s prog-rock classic Aqualung all factor in. And, that they’re working again with producer Trey Spruance and engineer Colin Marston should not be taken as any sign of stagnancy, but that the duo’s clarity of production has already been deemed ideal for allowing listeners to pick apart the clash elements of IT’s songs.

When we probe whether their trademark more-is-more maximalism offers limitless opportunity to impress, or whether it makes it harder to amaze fans, Zachary insists that the time, effort and depth of thought involved in the creative process of he and his core bandmates – drummer Kenny Grohowski and bassist/keyboardist Steve Blanco – ensure the well won’t soon run dry.

“So far, we haven’t had any trouble trying to find new ways to surprise,” he smiles. “This is challenging music, but there’s reward in that. The reward is that you can listen far longer than you could a catchier, easier album. This is the kind of music that you could be listening to for month and still discovering new things. It’s also more of an interactive listen in so far as it’s not the kind of thing you might put on for a chilled-road-trip, but you’re very actively invited to participate in drawing your own conclusions to the concepts, the lyrics, the musicality of it.”

Although he’s on holiday visiting his parents in Nantucket, MA when we speak, Zachary’s beloved New York City still provides that conceptual basis for most of what Imperial Triumphant do.

On the surface, compared to the abstract vision and architectural complexity of previous cover art, the image of a reflective model holding one of their trademark masks in black and white superimposed over a gently kaleidoscopic golden tapestry feels surprisingly genteel, but drips with a kind of Great Gatsby-ish decadence, evoking the art of Gustav Clint and the “Josephine Baker era of American culture” that feels inseparable from the city. “It’s also a very peaceful cover,” Zachary reflects, “not as morbid as one would normally find on a metal album. According to everyone who’s heard it, Spirit Of Ecstasy is one of the most extreme records we’ve ever put out. I like that the last thing you see is this serene, sheik image – before you’re plunged into that chaos.”

So what exactly is Spirit Of Ecstasy actually about?

When we spoke to Zachary around the release of Alphaville, New York had been robbed of its 24/7 energy by the COVID crisis. Is the chaos here a reaction to that? The frontman contends that IT’s timelessness, and that their creative process can shift more profoundly from song to song than album to album, means that lockdown wasn’t an influence in any other way than having extra time to write: “Some of it is a grand perspective of today's situation, but a lot of what inspires us is more conceptual or historical: NYC themes where it doesn’t matter what’s going on at the moment.”

With cost-of-living crises spiralling, though – and the Black Lives Matter riots having inevitably provided the backdrop for part of writing and recording – is it possible to make a record so fixated on urban decadence without some kind of reflection on the haves vs. the have-nots?

“That’s definitely your interpretation…” Zachary grins, evasively. “I wouldn’t say there are intentionally political elements. But there are definitely elements of our music that look to the past: 100 years ago, what was going on in NYC? And it is very obvious that history repeats itself. We leave things open-ended on purpose. It’s that invitation to participate. I derive a huge amount of pleasure from hearing what people think bout our music and the conclusions that they’ve drawn.”

Does that apply even on Tower Of Glory, City Of Shame, we press, with its provocative title, and a final 90 seconds that could be an echo of the chaotic news cycle of the last two-and-a-half-years?

“It’s so important that music takes people places,” Zachary holds steadfast. “It’s very cool that that’s where you ended up. That whole song and that section is influenced by switching channels on a TV and being bombarded by all these different things. It is intended to stress the listener out and take them to a place of heaviness and hectic disorder. Ultimately, the most important thing for me as a writer, composer and lyricist is just learning. If I’m reading a book about skyscrapers, I’ll get an idea for something. If I'm learning the chords to some 100-year-old jazz song, I’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting… I wonder if I can make that into something more dissonant.’ Any time I’m pushing across new boundaries and soaking up new culture – even if it’s just watching a film – I’ll tend to pick up a pen and start writing ideas down!”

There’s no shortage of creative help on Spirit Of Ecstasy, of course. From Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick, Voivod mainman Snake, Mr. Bungle six-stringer Trey Spruance and legendary saxophonist Kenny G to more frequent collaborators Andromeda Anarchia, Sarai Woods and Yoshiko Ohara on a variety of vocals, this has one of the most impressive supporting casts of any metal record in years.

“The way I see it, it’s like you’d stumbled into a late-night jazz club and Imperial Triumphant are just the house band,” Zachary explains. “There are all these guests that come to sit in with us for a couple of tunes. That’s the vibe we wanted. The people we work with tend to be our friends or to have like one degree of separation. They understand what we’re doing. They get the direction of the music. Skolnick has a jazz background and plays in a jazz quartet with our drummer Kenny. Kenny G’s son Max Gorelick was actually in Imperial Triumphant for a year about five years ago and is still my business partner for a business [La Pompe Booking] in New York, and I just asked, over lunch, if he and his father would be interested in performing a duelling-solo – this whirlwind call and response double-helix of instruments – on one of our songs. They were into it! When you have a project like IT, it seems like people want to collaborate with us. That’s very cool.”

With UK dates booked in August, bookended by a stop at Oxfordshire’s experimental arts showcase Supernormal and a hugely-anticipated appearance at Bristol’s ArcTanGent, UK fans can look forward to our first proper chance to experience Imperial Triumphant since before lockdown, too. Zachary confirms the obvious in that their live show has evolved massively in the three years since they were last in this part of the world, but is unwilling to give too much away, simply teasing: “There’s definitely a lot more champagne involved. You have to see it to believe it!”

And beyond that? Fuck knows, frankly. As wholly enveloped in music and outsider, experimentalist culture as the collective are, it’s obvious that they want to make their project as self-sustaining as possible. They have a keen understanding that art is expensive, and it’s ultimately their responsibility to do what they can to keep the show on the road. For anyone who hasn’t cottoned on already, that will involve no kind of compromise. Having already gambled on getting weird – and won big – they see know sense in doing anything more conventional anyway.

“Isn’t it hilarious?!” Zachary grins, as we sign off. “When we were doing our more traditional clack metal stuff like 10 years ago, nobody gave a fuck. Then as soon as we start laying the most challenging, insane music we can come up with, we start seeing all of this attention. Maybe it’s a sign of the times: that the average metal fan is getting smarter and hungrier for new innovation and experimentation. If that’s what you’re after, Imperial Triumphant are here for you. We have your medicine!”

Spirit Of Ecstasy is available now via Century Media. Imperial Triumphant will be on tour in the UK from August 12 – 19, including an appearance at Bristol’s ArcTanGent Festival on August 18

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