It´s still early in 2018, but there hasn´t been a shortage of good releases this year when it comes to metal and prog. One particular album that caught our attention this year is called “Into the Great Divide”. Set for release on January 26 via Wilshire Records, it was a project filled with secrecy, until the main man behind it was revealed to be called Zack Zalon.
Zack Zalon played everything but drums on the album, and tapped producer Rickard Chyki and drummer Mike Mangini to help him conclude the project. Rodrigo Altaf from Lotsofmuzik had a chance to catch up with Zack to discuss this release and the idea behind it – a conceptual instrumental album.
Lotsofmuzik – The first question that came to my mind when I was offered a chance to interview you was “where has this guy been until now?”. So tell us a bit about your experience as a musician, and other works you were a part of.
Zack Zalon – Well, there weren´t other musical works before this one. I´m a storyteller, entrepreneur, businessman and musician, and I have been doing this for a long time. The vast majority of my career has been spent helping really large companies to bring high profile digital projects to life. I started my early career as a musician – I grew up on the East Coast of the United States and moved to Los Angeles and went to the Musician´s Institute. One of my first jobs was running a night club in Los Angeles called The Troubador, which has been around since 1956, and I had the benefit of being able to manage and book for it a few years. It was there that I really found the passion for digital products, and I have been really fortunate because I had the opportunity to run some really large projects and build a really large business as a part of that over the past twenty years. That never dissuaded me from doing something with respect to music. From my perspective though, the thing that was missing was the story I wanted to tell. I´m not interested in doing something just from the musical standpoint just to play music. I really wanted to share a story. There´s a narrative that I was looking for in some respects. When I found out what that narrative was, I ultimately decided to record an album.
Lotsofmuzik – The album has an interesting proposition, which is to tell a story through instrumentals and narration. How did you come up with this idea?
ZZ – I build innovative products for a living. That´s my greatest passion, what I wake up thinking about, and what I go to sleep dreaming about. That can take any form: a company, a product, and other forms. In this particular case, what struck me was that when it comes to instrumental music, there is no context when it comes down to it. When you listen to one track versus another track on an instrumental record, what you normally find is that the only difference between the tracks is maybe the different tonality or key. From the beginning, I set out to do a progressive metal instrumental guitar-oriented record, but I didn´t want to do it until I found a device which would help me communicate in a certain way. The vision that I had for this was to be able to take the listener through an entire story from end to end. So the concept started before I wrote the music – the concept of having a narrator who sets up that part of the story, and then the track itself, which we called “chapter”, would be composed from the beginning to match that part of the narrative. So when we hear the music of a particular chapter, it matches exactly the elements of the narrative at that moment, and it gives the listener a feeling of where we are in the story, and establishes a connection with what we´re trying to tell in the story.
Lotsofmuzik – Could you expand and explain the concept of the album?
ZZ – The concept is based on Joseh Campbell´s idea of the “hero´s journey”. He was a social scientist who deciphered that there´s a story that made its way into history´s most important narratives. It´s the story of common struggle, and the steps that are necessary to be taken to truly live a fulfilled and successful life. And you see this type of narrative in many different places – in religious figures, historical figures, in the stories of sports heroes, and even in movies like Star Wars. It´s basically the idea that we start out on a journey, make great stride, and ultimately find ourselves in battles that we lose. And the difference between those that succeed and those that don´t is that some people will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and find new strengths to be able to win those battles. And in that process, one changes. This is not just a historical narrative, it´s actually a factual thing. In other words, we see this all the time. Whenever we need to find that extra level that´s required to win the battles that we choose, it really does change people in the process. So that´s the story I wanted to tell – the common story of a goal, a struggle, a struggle overcome and ultimately a feeling of success at the end. So Joseph Campbell did a great job of creating a general narrative´s flow, and that´s the flow I wanted to capture in the album. Not just narratively but also musically, where each chapter´s music is written specifically in the manner that that chapter requires.
Lotsofmuzik – You played everything on the album but drums. How was the process to pick Mike Mangini, and was he the only drummer you had in mind?
ZZ – I think that when I started, the thought of having Mike Mangini playing on the album would have been more fantasy than a plan. I consider him to be the preeminent progressive metal drummer in the world today, so certainly when we started the project it would have been fantastic. But when I started recording it, I did one track and a half by myself at home, and reached out to [producer] Richard Chycki on a cold call. I sent him the music, we met for coffee, and the desire to bring this story to life turned into a really strong partnership. We had a real connection in terms of what we wanted to get across with music. When he took the project on board to produce, we started to build track after track, and at some point it made sense to invite Mike Mangini into the process. We sent him the music, started to collaborate with him and get some feedback. And ultimately we were able to find time inbetween his touring schedule where he was able to come down to California and lay down all of the tracks. It didn´t start out that way, it was built up over time, and people started to see and believe in what we were doing we built up the team, and ultimately Mike became a part of that.
Lotsofmuzik – Were you present at the Sound City Studios when he recorded his drums, and was he 100% free to create his drum parts, or did you give him directions to accent this or that part during the recording?
ZZ – I was there the entire time. But here´s a few things I could say about Mangini: the first thing is that he´s unbelievably prepared. He doesn´t walk in trying to figure things out, he comes in with five different ideas he could bring for each section. It´s kind of uncanny, he´s incredible! And it´s been one of the most fun experiences I´ve ever had because as we sat together and he was constructing the drum parts, he had all kinds of options to choose from that we could try. He had complete freedom to do anything he wanted, but we worked very collaboratively to find the right components to put together, so that it matched the vision of what the album was. But for each chapter, we would sit and talk endlessly about what we were trying to get across. There are certain songs where he plays harder than others, because he´s trying to punch out the energy that we´re trying to establish. In other songs he´s holding back a little bit, because there´s some other feeling that we´re trying to embed. So it was an amazing experience to watch him.
Lotsofmuzik – For the readers who are not versed in recording technology, what was the importance of recording the drums at Dave Grohl´s Sound City Studio with the Neve console?
ZZ – The great thing about Sound City is that the room is huge! The drum sound resonates endlessly, and running it through that Neve console, the sound was so warm and punchy! Of course this is a modern progressive metal album, but we also wanted to pay respect to all the great progressive music that influenced us over the years. We really wanted the tones to come through, and what´s great about the Neve console is that it’s a console from the early 1970´s, and in some respects, I think you can kind of hear it. If you really listen to it, there´s a classic rock element over the whole album, and I think in some ways the Neve really helped us to achieve that.
Lotsofmuzik – Before we knew who was behind this project, many people thought this could be a John Petrucci solo album, and we can definitely hear the similarities between your playing and his. What were some of your other influences as a musician?
ZZ – I´m really appreciative that you would say that. John Petrucci is an incredible guitar player, and being named in the same sentence as him is certainly a big ego boost. But actually my biggest influences really have nothing to do with John specifically. If I had to name them, I´d say my biggest influences would be Steve Lukather and Dan Huff, who was in a band called Giant in the 80´s and now is a country producer. The thing about him and Lukather that´s so great is that they know how to construct a solo and with that they tell a story within a song. But I couldn´t leave out the influence that guys like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani had on me in my formative years. The first time I heard Satriani it was mind blowing…I spent hours trying to figure out what he played on an album and finding a way to replicate it.
Lotsofmuzik –Are there any plans to tour to promote the album, and will Mangini be included?
ZZ – I have no goals to tour as a live band. Our goal is to bring the album to life in unique ways, by telling stories differently than most music fans would experience them. We have some interesting things in the work right now. Without getting into too much detail, it doesn´t involve live music, but it does involve a live setting. So the goal is to bring people together with a common interest, and to find new ways of telling stories. Playing live would be great, but I have a big company that I run, and that´s my focus and what gets the majority of my attention. The goal that I have here is to be able to find new and unique ways to bring people together, just like we found a new and unique way of making the album in the first place.
Lotsofmuzik – Do you plan to keep releasing albums under the “Into the Great Divide” name, like a regular project or full band?
ZZ – No, the goal for me is to continue to share the narrative that we established here. But there are some really interesting and creative ways to connect with people using music, which doesn´t even have to take the form of a traditional album, and my goal is to expand on that. The response to the album has been better than I could have ever hoped for, and the thing that´s exciting for me is to find a way to connect with people that are interested in the format of “Into the Great Divide” as a concept, and find new ways to connect with them using music.
Lotsofmuzik – How did you select the narrator – did you think of narrating it yourself?
ZZ – I never thought of narrating it myself. I´m fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, where there´s a bunch of voice actors. I had a sense of what I wanted to hear already in my head, and I auditioned a bunch of people until I found the voice that best matched with what I wanted to achieve stylistically.
Lotsofmuzik – Thank you so much!
ZZ – Thank you!
Into the Great Divide comes out on 26th January 2018 via Wilshire Records.
Chapter 1. Intro
Chapter 1. The Crossing
Chapter 2. Intro
Chapter 2. A Call To Adventure
Chapter 3. Intro
Chapter 3. Under A Bright Starry Sky
Chapter 4. Intro
Chapter 4. Tests & Enemies
Chapter 5. Intro
Chapter 5. Challenge Accepted
Chapter 6. Intro
Chapter 6. Dark Waters
Chapter 7. Intro
Chapter 7. Mist In The Sun
Chapter 8. Intro
Chapter 8. A New Perspective
Chapter 9. Intro
Chapter 9. The World You Made
Chapter 10. Intro
Chapter 10. And So It Ends
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