Guided by “The Powers That Be,” Pharaoh’s Commanding Power Metal Returns (Interview)
Pennsylvanian heavy metal heroes Pharaoh are the essence of consistency. Despite a history going back nearly 25 years, they’ve had the same lineup since finding singer Tim Aymar (ex-Control Denied / ex-Psycho Scream) in 1998, have been on Cruz del Sur Music since their first album in 2003, have had the same guest soloist, Jim Dofka, on every album, and have been excellent the whole time.
Though the band’s core riff-centric power metal sound remains even decades after 2003’s After the Fire, their approach to that sound has changed a fair amount over the years and The Powers That Be is as much as a return to form as it is a shred-tastic and complicated album. Hugely catchy vocal lines, earworm riffs, and bursts of insane guitar playing all come together to give an album that’s both distinctly Pharaoh and fills its own little niche in their discography.
The band’s most recent album was almost ten years ago, and I honestly wasn’t even convinced that they would ever come back with a fifth album. An announcement of more material and the album title came a few years ago without anything else coming of it, so when the first single went up it was both enormously exciting and also something that merited further investigation. Accordingly, I sat down with guitarist Matt Johnsen to talk about The Powers That Be.
It’s been nine years since Bury the Light, and you’re finally back with your fifth full length album. To start off with this interview, just talk to me a little bit about The Powers That Be.
The album or the concept?
Whatever you want to talk about.
We came up with the title a while ago. I think we actually announced the album in like, 2018 or something like that? But the title even predates that. I think that Chris Black might have come up with that a year or two after Bury the Light, he was like, I think the next album should be called The Powers That Be. Alright!
He’s really good with that kind of conceptual stuff. It’s just been kind of bubbling along in the background, and by the time we really started getting going on this stuff, we were in the middle of the Trump presidency, and shit was not awesome. Then COVID happened while we were still working on this, and there felt like a lot of forces were kind of weighing down on everyone, and the title felt especially apropo, and that kind of inspired us with the lyrics and that sort of thing.
In Pharaoh we work in kind of a weird way. Typically we write the songs straight through, and have complete instrumental arrangements before we even consider the vocals. The lyrics and the melodies get written sometimes years after the rest of the stuff, and so the challenge there is making it sound like they were always meant to be together. There was just something about the tenor of the last two years that kind of inspired us to write some sort of cynical, pessimistic lyrics.
Pharaoh also always kind of tries to always look for some sort of hope someplace. With The Powers That Be we sort of ended up framing it as a reaction to the last album. On Bury the Light the conceit was that the light was some sort of bad thing, a destructive energy that is tempting to bring forth but not a good idea. What you need to do is keep that shit from breaking out. The cover of that shows our gemstone type thing down there, kind of cracking apart in this deep cave because the light wants to come out. It really felt like when we got farther along that the awful light, that terrible narcissistic energy was our new president. It made everything seem like accidentally thematically contiguous from the last album.
That’s kind of where we were in terms of our lyrical ideas, and the sort of music we were making. The album just in general is a lot different than the stuff we’ve done before. It still sounds like the same band, but I’ve always been really concerned about getting into a too-comfortable place where you kind of just end up doing the same thing over and over again. There’s lots of great bands that do that, that get two or three albums in and hit their stride and find their sound, and then it’s just another album like that and another album like that and another album like that.
Even though that can be enjoyable, it kinda gets old after a while. The band I always think of in terms of that is Into Eternity. Do you remember that band? They were a Canadian band, and I think their first three albums are just increasingly amazing, and then the fourth album and fifth album are kind of the same as the third one but just not as good, and Pharaoh never wanted to be that. We do consciously try every album to be doing something different, to tackle the making of the album in a different way, to explore different musical ideas, but we’re always constrained at some level by genre. We’re a power metal band or a traditional metal band or whatever and you kind of have to do certain things.
We feel like we kind of found a slightly different angle this time and it came out really satisfyingly.
You mentioned that you wanted this album to not be a rehash of the previous stuff. I did notice that there was a significant amount of extra variety in the songwriting. How do you approach attaining that difference of sound and that variety of songwriting while also the Pharaoh sound and also maintaining the consistency within the album to make it all flow together?
Yeah, so it’s kind of tricky, but it only feels hard I think closer to the end. In the beginning, the way I personally write songs is pretty unsophisticated. I sit down with the guitar and just jam until riffs come up. If I come up with a good riff, I record the riff, and then I’ll try to find something that just feels good after it. It’s really like, okay, if I was listening to this song and this was the riff, what would I expect to happen now? Or what would be interesting if it happened next? And then I just try and cram out more riffs.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, so I end up with this giant grab of riffs, and that’s how every album starts, with me going through the grab bag to check out the stuff I couldn’t find a place for in the past. Sometimes they’re really, really great riffs and I just can’t think of what to do with them. This is always one of the hardest things because when you write a great riff you want to put it in a song, but it’s like, you have to have the patience to say no- “Someday I’ll find the spot!”
It all starts with kind of the same raw ingredients, and there’s just kind of a way that I play and I can’t change that much at this point. I’ve tried taking guitar lessons with some success sometimes, but generally speaking, I’m not a very rigorous musician in that sense. I don’t learn other bands’ songs, so the only way that what I do changes is because my influences change, the things that are on my mind musically change. I listen to lots of different stuff, and I’m always kind of trying to think of ways that I can steal little bits from the bands that I like that aren’t metal bands, but make what their idea is into a metal idea. It’s not like just switching out of metal and throwing in your prog rock thing or your jazz thing; how can I take what they’re doing in the context of jazz but do the same thing in the context of metal? Or whatever.
That’s the sort of mechanism by which I can sort of consciously erect the change of these sorts of things. But then, beyond the songwriting, we made some other different choices this time. In the past, particularly on the last two albums, the arrangements just got denser and denser and denser. I would keep adding more guitars, and more overdubs. It was like Blind Guardian, these really stacked things with lots of different harmonies and counterpoints and weird little atmospheric parts that you can barely hear and stuff, it was all a marvel of arrangement and shit and then it gets mixed and you can barely hear any of it because it’s just too much.
It was always frustrating particularly for Bury the Light and Be Gone mixing that stuff because Matt Crooks is doing his damn best to make it all fit into your headphones, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. You can’t hear everything. So for this album, I kind of made the personal goal of stripping down everything in terms of these overdubs, but without sacrificing the feel of the density and complexity that’s kind of our thing at this point. I wanted it to feel more or less like the last couple of albums, but just do it with fewer guitars. It’s not like a less is more sort of thing, but kind of like diet food or something. [Laughs] Less fat, but tastes just as good!
Obviously that’s never true about diet food, so I don’t know why I’d make that claim here, but that’s what we were trying to do. To pare down these arrangements, but to accomplish the overall effect all of these parts had to be a little more intricate, and I had to spend a little more time figuring out how to create the same feel of lots of things going on with fewer things going on. That led to a lot of other different things. Once we’d sort of made that decision while I was demo’ing songs, the next songs were written with that in mind, and as that progressed, it just kind of took off from there.
That’s kind of how I personally do that sort of thing. Chris Black’s songwriting process is a totally different thing. He and I will sometimes collaborate on the initial arrangements, but that’s more like me showing him a bunch of riffs and him saying maybe do this one and this one and this one or something like that. Whereas with him he tends to just hand us completed songs. Fully written, fully arranged, has the vocals, has the melodies, has everything. How he makes that different from album to album I don’t know. That’s his thing.
As for Chris Kerns, he’s a little different every time. He had originally written three songs for this album. One of them wasn’t quite finished and we were never quite able to finish it. We tried, and we were missing the secret sauce that’d make that one work, so we were down to one of the two. One of them was the song “Waiting to Drown” which is very different from anything Pharaoh has done.
When he pitched it he wasn’t even sure, he was like well I wrote this thing and I don’t know if it would even work for Pharaoh, it would be a quiet interlude or something like that. We listened to it and thought it was interesting and thought it was at least worth tackling, and that song ended up turning out really kind of magically. It sounds utterly different from anything we’ve done, but it’s short enough that it does kind of just feel like a little breather on the album instead of like a ballad or something like that, because we’ve never done a ballad or anything along those lines.
He had written that thing and given me just this crummy demo, then I made a different slightly less crummy demo, but it still had electric guitar, and we really didn’t know where this thing was headed til we got pretty close to being done when I finally got a decent mic for my acoustic guitar and could record that thing. When Tim came for vocals he recorded at my house, largely during the lockdown though we started some of it right before that, and I’d be working from home so I would go do my work for the day and then I’d come up to the bedroom where I put all my recording crap and he was already working on stuff. He wrote all the lyrics and melodies on that song in one afternoon and then he sang it that night. It only took him four hours to complete the whole thing, and it came out really really great. I think that song maybe more than any of them really changes the entire tenor of the album, at least relative to the way the earlier albums felt.
So yeah, that’s kind of how we do this stuff. We just try to mess around and surprise people. Again, like I said, it’s a genre band. You can’t change too much or nobody’s going to want to hear it anymore, it’s just not how metal works. There’s a couple bands that can get away with that but I don’t think we’re one of them.
You mentioned a couple of times now feeling like you’re constrained by the genre. When you say that, is there stuff that you would genuinely want to do that’s outside of the realm that you feel like fits with the band? Or is it more just a tongue in cheek “yeah, we’re a power metal band, we can’t start throwing in slams.”
There are probably some things that we really couldn’t get away with, even if we wanted to, but I think it’s pretty rare that we get to the point where we have to even think about it like that. We’re all pretty different people in terms of our musical interests, and our style of playing and performing and stuff like that. I love really technical crazy-ass music, like Watchtower and Spiral Architect and Cynic, like that’s my jam. That’s the stuff I love more than anything. I would love to have to have even crazier, more technical stuff in Pharaoh.
The problem is that I can’t do it. I’m just not a good enough guitar player I guess to do some of the things like that, that I imagine. I’m sure not a sufficiently talented composer to come up with that stuff. I think that if I was able to play everything that comes into my mind, I would definitely have to reject a lot more stuff for Pharaoh because it’d just be too obtuse and people would hate it. I think I already probably walk that line now. I think that some people probably think that, say, the title track is too noodly, thrashy, whatever, particularly the people who like our second album The Longest Night best, the more traditional stuff. I think some of this more technical stuff to them reads to them as lacking feeling or whatever.
There’s one place where I know we could kind of spoil the balance of Pharaoh, but we don’t. But that’s sort of a technical thing, so where are the places where we would do it a certain way and have to choose not even though we could? For instance, there was another song that we recorded for this album that Chris Black had written, and we finished it, though I don’t think it had bass, and everything else was done. He said, can we not put this on the album? And he originally asked not to put that or the song “Freedom,” which was the other song he wrote for this one, and I was like no, we can’t drop them both. For one, “Freedom” is sort of this rockin’ song that’s a contrast to the more technical, crazy stuff that I do, and we have songs like that on every album because he’s been writing songs on every album. If we’d taken them both off I think it’d have ruined the feel and it would have felt less like a Pharaoh album.
At the time, I didn’t really agree with his decision to drop the other one either but if this is how he feels, he wrote the song, we can leave it off, but it was really cool. Tim especially on that song did a really good job, but that song was even more basic of an arrangement than “Freedom” which is the otherwise most simple song on the album. It was definitely more in line with some of the other stuff Chris does, like High Spirits or whatever. So that’s kind of a case where it didn’t make sense to use the song in Pharaoh even though it was a good song and it was a good performance, and I can’t even imagine now where it’d fit on the album, but at the time there didn’t seem like a very compelling reason not to use it except that it didn’t really sound like Pharaoh.
So that’s kind of an example of a place where Chris’ natural songwriting instincts aren’t really in the same mode that we otherwise really do in Pharaoh. That’s a constraint that limits him. But then what are some other things? Well, we could write much more harmonically complex music, have more key changes and modulations and stuff like that, because again this is something that I love from jazz, but that’s the sort of thing that just doesn’t play as well in heavy metal. And so I’m not going to attempt to develop those ideas that way. That’s kind of what I mean when I say that there are certain things that we can and can’t do. It’s not really that often or ever that we’re like oh man, I wish we were a different kind of band and could do this different kind of thing, do blast beats or something. It’s not like we’re trying to squeeze blast beats in or whatever.
When you do this stuff, I’m always writing not just as a musician, but as a metal fan. I’m just a crazy metal fan, so I’m always listening to stuff and I’m always thinking about it. Maybe I’m over contextualizing everything I do in this sort of meta sense, but that’s just how we roll I guess.
Since you mentioned that you’re always digging, what’s some recent stuff that you’ve been enjoying and getting into?
Well, now’s a good time to be a Bolt Thrower enthusiast—there are a few really great knock-off bands going now, which is a rare treat because for as beloved as that band is, there just haven’t been many copycat bands worth a damn. I would say the best is probably still War Master from Texas, but it’s been a few years since they released anything. Also from Texas is Kombat, who channel the raw energy of In Battle There Is No Law on their EP from last year called New Dimensions of Pain. And a Polish band called Chainsword just released a great album of songs about war and Warhammer 40k, called Blightmarch. Doesn’t get more Bolt Thrower than that! And of course there’s Memoriam, whose newest I really love. Technical death metal in the Necrophagist vein has gotten pretty stale, although I do still follow a few bands working that style, like Equipoise and Sutrah. The best technical bands these days lean thrashier - I’m loving the new Obsolete disc, Animate//Isolate, and Paranorm, from Sweden, just put out a great disc called Empyrean that reminds me of early Obliveon. Cryptic Shift are also killing it in this area. And the greek band Typhus, like their countrymen Sacral Rage, are channeling Realm, down to the helium vocals, and I am there for it!
Prog metal is in a really sorry state these days, but I love the last album by Sifting, which has an Anacrusis-meets-Malpractice eccentricity to it, and there’s an upcoming release coming that I think will blow minds: Terra Odium. I suspect the band is what’s left of an abortive reunion of Norway’s Manitou, because it features the guitarist and singer from that band, plus the drummer from the singer’s band after Manitou, Spiral Architect. Steve DiGiogio plays bass, and the last guy is credited solely with “orchestration,” and that sounds cheesy, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t do a great job! So the band is basically a symphonic blend of Manitou and Spiral Architect, and it utterly slays. I can’t wait for this to be released.
Lastly, I’ve been picking up some old school-style death metal lately. I tend to go for the quirkier stuff, and bands more interested in the songwriting ideas of the early 90s more than the sound or image. Finland’s Brainspoon are a fun example, but they only have a few demo tapes. Obscene from Indianapolis are great, too. And finally, I’m always on the lookout for weird old shit to add to the collection. Some recent finds include Sabotage - Hoka Hey (late 80s technical thrash from Italy with Morby singing!), Jagganath - Past Perfect Tense (80s Dutch melodic thrash from the same scene as Donor), Thor - self-titled and Mata a la bestia (Spanish language heavy metal from Basque country in the mid 80s), and a whole bunch of corny/crappy Christian metal like Valor, Holy Soldier, Seraiah, and Thresher. I’m constantly finding treasures from that scene - I mean, most Christian metal bands are terrible, but there were and are really great ones, and especially in the 80s, they seemingly existed in an alternate universe that only rarely intersected ours. I should have been scouring Mustard Seed stores for metal in the 80s. Lord, forgive me!
What’s next for Pharaoh?
I guess the same thing that’s always next for Pharaoh - make another album. It can’t take another nine years, though! If we wait that long, it’ll probably be too late. So, I’m trying to keep the ball rolling and starting to work immediately on new tunes. We’ll see how that goes. 2023 will be the 20th anniversary of the release of After the Fire, but we actually first formed in 1997, so this has been going on nearly long enough, ha ha!
Do you have anything left to talk about or promote?
I’m planning on doing something with Tim and a couple guys from Canvas Solaris, but I’m not sure of the timeline and I don’t want to announce anything prematurely. Other than that, I don’t have anything else going on. I think Chris Black has mentioned some future projects he’s cooking up that will require my assistance, but I don’t know much about those, either. So basically, no: I don’t have anything left to talk about or promote. The new Pharaoh album will have to suffice!
The Powers That Be releases June 18th, 2021 via Cruz del Sur Music.