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Sinister Realm have again stormed onto my year-end Top 10. They did it in 2009 with their self-titled debut (review). This year's The Crystal Eye (full stream) is wall-to-wall strong heavy metal, with meaty riffs and stirring vocals. "The Shroud of Misery" is roaring out of my speakers now ("I speak for the weary, I lie for the few / I am the oppressor, I stand for what's true"). I want it never to end. Bassist John Shamus Gaffney wrote the album's music and lyrics, and answered my questions by email.

— Cosmo Lee

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Why does Sinister Realm exist?

To defend the flag for traditional metal! We live and breathe metal and consider it an honor to play music that we love and that influences and inspires us so much even to this day. Long live heavy metal!!!

Allentown, PA doesn't seem like a hotbed of heavy metal. What's it like being a metal band there?

It's actually really good. There aren't a lot of other metal bands like us in our area, but there is a really supportive fan base, some cool promoters, and nice clubs that have original music. We're also lucky that were only an hour from Philadelphia, an hour and half from New York, and we're right outside of New Jersey, so it's easy for us to travel and play some out-of-town gigs. We try to network with bands from out of our area and play shows with them. From Philly, there is a band called Power Theory, a great traditional metal band who has a release out on Pure Steel Records. We do a lot of shows with them and consider them metal brothers. So we do our best to hook up with other bands like us.

You recently played Days of the Doomed Fest. What was that like? Festivals like that aren't common in the States!

It was awesome! The guy who put the whole thing together, Mike Smith, did an unbelievable job. Wverything was very well-run, and we had a blast. The crowd was good, the bands rocked and everyone seemed to have a good time. Our CD had just came out a few days before we played the festival, so we were really excited to play for the fans and get the new CD out there into some people's hands

Festivals like this seem to be becoming more popular here. For instance, the Maryland Deathfest is becoming very big. There's a guy in Ohio who runs a fest called The Warriors of Metal, Prog Power, and now there's a heavy metal cruise called 70,000 Tons of Metal that leaves from Florida. 4 days, 40 bands! My wife and I went on this last year, and it was one of the best metal experiences of my life.

I'd imagine that interest in Sinister Realm is stronger in Europe than the US. Is this true?

Yeah, I would say that is true. Classic metal or traditional metal or whatever you want to call it seems to have never really gone away in Europe. Here in the States we had this ugly thing called "grunge", which, in the eyes of the media at least, whipped out metal in the '90s. With all that, though, metal has definitely come back in the '00s, with all the major bands touring here, and there being a real resurgence of interest in classic metal.

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The Internet forum: a place for metal community, or a cesspool for malcontents?

Hmmm...maybe a bit of both, haha. But for the most part, I think Internet forums are cool places, and I think it's really cool to be able to go somewhere and talk about your favorite band with other people who are also fans like you. I mean, my wife is not very interested in listening to me ramble on and on about the merits of Technical Ecstasy in the Black Sabbath catalog, but there's people out there on forums that will happily listen to me preach, haha. Forums are a great place for like-minded people to meet and share thoughts, ideas, and discoveries. Of course, you have the occasional troll or guy who likes to stir the pot, but for the most part, I think metal fans are just passionate people who enjoy talking about the music they love with other like-minded individuals. People talking about Sinister Realm on various forums has been great for spreading the name of our band. There is no publicity as good as word of mouth.

How did you get into heavy metal?

In 1980, I heard AC/DC's Back in Black album, and I was hooked on the energy and attitude. It was also around that time that I started playing bass and wanted to play in a band. I used to also tune in to a local college radio station that played metal at night. This is where I discovered bands like Accept, Priest, Maiden, Saxon, and many other bands. I would tape the shows and listen to them over and over. Around that time we got MTV in my house, and I remember waking up one night unable to sleep and going downstairs, turning on MTV and seeing an Iron Maiden concert - imagine that, haha. MTV not only playing music videos but an actual concert! At that point, I really had no idea what some of these bands even looked like, so when I saw that Maiden concert, I was blown away, and from that point on my goal was to play in a heavy metal band.

Any number of songs could have formed the album's center, and thus its title. Why did you pick "The Crystal Eye"?

It just sounded like a title track to me. It had a nice, epic feel to it, and I was able to picture an album cover concept for it in my head. I knew going into this that we would do another photo for our cover, budget being part of the reason, and the other that you don't see bands doing that kind of thing much anymore. Album covers with photos on them always remind me of the early '80s. So yeah, the song just seemed to have the right feel and lyrical theme to it to make it the title track.

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John Shamus Gaffney

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Given lyrics about crossing the astral plane and reaching beyond the sky, is Sinister Realm about escaping this earth or living in it?

Probably more escaping it. I like the idea of searching and reaching for something beyond our normal existence and perceptions. The idea that something is out there that we can't quite comprehend at this moment - the idea of the lonely traveler, moving across time and space in search of truth and justice. I think music should take you somewhere. The world can be a pretty ugly place at times, and I don't really like reminding people of that. I would rather take them on a journey somewhere else.

Escapist or not, The Crystal Eye makes me feel "grounded", in the lyrics about fighting "for the things I hold as true", and in its musical rootedness - not just in classic metal, but also the timeless human tradition of writing songs. What records make you feel this way?

I would have to say a lot of Ronnie James Dio's lyrics and songs do that for me. Dio had an amazing way of making it feel like he was singing for the downtrodden and left behind - songs like "The Last in Line" and "Rock 'n' Roll Children", just to name a few. Dio made you feel like he was rooting for the underdog, and that he was always on "our" side. If you notice, Dio often used "we" or we're" in his lyrics. He doesn't often sing about himself. I really identified with his lyrics as a youth, because just like most young kids, at times I felt weak or alone, and listening to Dio made me feel like he was lifting me up and saying, "Hey, I'm on your side and we're all together in this". I think that's a great thing to be able to uplift people with your music the way Dio did. Long live Ronnie James Dio!

Except for the production, a record like this could have come out 25 years ago. Have you tuned out of modern metal, or does it offer anything for you?

Maybe to a degree, but there are plenty of "newer" bands I listen to like Opeth, Ghost, In Solitude, and Mastodon. I do spend most of my time listening to classic metal or new albums from older bands like Priest or Maiden, but I do like to keep my ears to the streets and try to stay current and listen to what's out there. I'm not really a big fan of death metal-style vocals. It's something I can only take in short bursts. So because of that, I don't really have any interest in a lot of newer "extreme" bands.

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On one hand, it seems like no bands will replace Judas Priest and Iron Maiden as preeminent flagbearers of heavy metal. On the other hand, there are many less prominent, but no less fulfilling, proponents on labels like Shadow Kingdom, Cruz del Sur, Stormspell, High Roller, and more. How do you feel about the state of heavy metal?

I think it's in a really interesting position right now. you still have the originators and legends like Priest, Maiden, and Sabbath out there releasing albums and touring, and at the same time you have all these younger bands carrying the flag for that kind of sound. It really shows that the music that those bands created has influenced and touched so many people across so many generations. I don't think anyone will replace those bands. They are the Beethovens and Bachs of heavy metal, and I don't know if metal will ever return to the status it had in the '80s, when it was very much in the popular culture. And in some ways, I'm glad for that. Right now, if you're into metal, it's because you love it,not because it's a popular trend.

It's also really cool that I can see a big band like Slayer one night and then catch an upcoming metal band the next in a small club. The sad passing of Ronnie James Dio has reminded us that the metal gods will only walk amongst us for so long. So I say enjoy were we are at, go catch a show at a local club, go check out what the next generation of traditional metal bands has going on, and also enjoy all those great older bands while they are still here and doing their thing.

In the liner notes, one of the band members cites "this metal dream". Given that Sinister Realm is not a "career band", and the members have jobs and families, what does "this metal dream" mean to you?

Pretty simple: just putting out good music that we're proud of. It really means the world to us when someone writes us an email and tells us at a gig how much they like what we are doing. You can't put a price tag on that. Of course, it would be nice to make millions of dollars from this, but that's not why we do what we do. We do it because we love heavy metal, and it's who we are.

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"The Crystal Eye"

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"The Shroud of Misery"

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