What is old becomes new again. Those words have never been truer than speaking of the group Machines of Grace. Almost 20 years in the making, the band has finally come together in a way that makes you think that there is a cosmic force at work aligning the stars to make this convergence of heavy metal magic. Zak Stevens, Jeff Plate, Matt Leff and Chris Rapoza make up this terrific group and here is the story behind their reunion.
Scott Ward recently had a chance to sit with the members of the band before and after their great show at The Hayloft in Mt. Clemens , Michigan where they were opening for Stryper. They all had a chance to talk about their history and the eclectic paths that they have all traveled to get to where they are.
Matt Leff; guitarist of the band, recalls the beginnings of what would become the group before me today: "I met Zak when I was at GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology) and he was at VIT (Vocal Institute of Technology). I had auditioned for Ronnie James Dio and had made it down to the last few. I had a bit of a buzz going at GIT from it and decided to take advantage of that and try and put together a band. So, I put up an ad for a singer and Zak (Stevens) was the first guy to respond." Wickedwitch was born. "We had some free studio time so we went in and recorded one song that was "Fly Away." It was a little different back then, but it came out great. We decided we were going to put together a band in Boston instead of L.A. because of the Dio thing that I had gone through, there was also a buzz in Boston where I am from. We figured we would be a big fish in a small pond instead of the other way around. We went through a few versions of the band until we ended up with Jeff (Plate). The band ran its course in Boston for about 2 ½ years then Zak had the opportunity to join Savatage. While in Boston , we opened for all the big acts that came through, Yngwie, Badlands , Iron Maiden, we did over a hundred gigs."
With the departure of Zak, the band then traveled different paths to get to the point they are now. Jeff Plate became a member of Savatage, then on to Trans Siberian Orchestra and also the drummer of Metal Church . Zak went on from Savatage to form his own group Circle II Circle and also to perform on all of the Trans Siberian discs. Matt opened up Matt's Music Center in Boston . Their careers went separate ways but they kept in touch. The core of the band with Jeff, Zak and Matt each tell me that the thought of the original Wickedwitch was always in the back of the mind.
w we fast forward almost 20 years. Matt and Chris (Rapoza) played together in a band called Trigger Effect. The band was named Best Unsigned Band in America by Sam Goody Records. They caused a few ripples in the Boston area but destiny was not on their side and the band finally split. Matt tells me "I always kept in contact with Zak, it was on my mind that Wickedwitch with the addition of Chris would be my dream band. One of my customers told me about someone who would be interested in the old Wickedwitch series. I called Jeff and ran it by him and next thing I know we have recording time. Originally it was a fun thing for us but then Jeff laid down the drum tracks and that is when things got serious!"
Chris Rapoza then tells me how he was brought into the project. "I knew Wickedwitch when I was in another Boston band. I used to go see them and I did not know Jeff or Matt at the time. It was always in the back of my mind that they were a really good band with a great lead singer. I was in a band that didn't have a great singer. So I kind of knew the material but then Matt sent me some cassette tapes of the original band. Matt then told me there were some new drum tracks and he sent me those and I called him and said yeah… I'm in. Let me write some new bass lines. I just forgot about the old music, I didn't even listen to the vocals, I didn't want to know it I just went from scratch and started all over again and it just kind of took off from there."
The debut album from Machines of Grace is a heavy metal work of art. The funny thing about it is that most of the album is from the days of Wickedwitch. As Zak told me, "We spent '89, the full two years of '90 and '91 touring New England . We would play 4 shows a week as an unsigned band, maybe 200 shows or more playing all the songs that you hear on this album. There are only 2 or 3 new ideas on the whole album. I rearranged some of the vocals to make it more like 2009 cause if you listen to the original demos it has all those high screams and stuff like music was in the late 80's, early 90's. The funny thing is, the music didn't take much adjustment, hardly any adjustment at all."
Musically, I asked Zak where this album falls when going over the history of the work he has done. He says, "This is the only album not influenced by Savatage. Circle II Circle is definitely connected and related to Savatage. I wrote the whole first album basically with Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery. After that the line-up kind of morphed but it is always going to have that Savatage root. This band (Machines of Grace) is the one band that isn't connected to Savatage at all. It is the demo that got me the Savatage gig!"
Somehow though, there are still his vocals and that fact alone brings up the specter of his other work. I thought that his style on the Machines of Grace album was somewhat more mainstream than his other work. Zak seemed to agree. "When the album was completed in late November, early December '08, you know that the influences of me singing on Savatage, through four Circle II Circle albums, working with Paul O'Neil, this is the tenth album in sixteen years for me not counting TSO and I sang on all those recordings in one fashion or another. Either back up or like on Beethoven's Last Night where I sang lead on "The Dark and I sang on the new one (Nightcastles) but not counting those albums this is ten worldwide releases in sixteen years so yes my vocal style is going to be in the middle cause it is in the middle of everything and that is what you will hear live tonight!" (This portion of the interview was just prior to them taking the stage)
I asked Zak how the new Machines of Grace was being received.
Zak: "Very positive. It has been amazing. It is almost like you come out with something new, people who don't know the history of the band, it takes them really by surprise. The only thing you are going to do is win them over with music and that's what we have done somehow. The songs themselves are making them like a whole brand new baby. The name is new and the thing is just taking off! I think that the musical rock genre that we play in of pure rock and roll will never be dated. Somehow with these songs, if you played them now or 25 years from now, you are going to be OK because in this style there is a sense of timeless about it. We didn't know if we were going to have to rewrite every song for it to be modern or if these things would stand up to the test of time. In the end we all said yes, they WILL stand the test of time."
Zak went on to tell me about new material that they have been working on since getting back together. "Right now we have about seven songs that we are really excited about for the next album. We can't move too quickly, some of the stuff came in a lot heavier but due to the success of this album we know that we need to stay true to the more grooving, melodic hard rock. We just wanted to make sure that these songs (the current album) couldn't be pigeonholed to the 80's or 90's and now we know we are OK so we are just going to go with the strength of what worked on this record and we will try not to change things too drastically. The way Matt and I write; he brings out something in me that doesn't happen with anyone else I write with. The songs almost write themselves with him."
When talking with Zak Stevens the inevitable questions about Savatage are bound to come up. Will they ever get back together? Zak gives all us fans some hope.
Zak: "The West Coast version of TSO used to have their rehearsals just down the road from me in Lakeland , FL. That is how me and Al (Pitrelli) started coming back and getting closer after all these years since Wake of Magellan. After that, they did one more album without me (Poets and Madmen) but they never went back to do another album after that so we have just been hanging out there."
I mentioned that I had talked with Chris Caffery about the possibility of a reunion and the fact they both say they would love to do it. Zak says "I am in the same boat Chris is. We talk and get all excited about it. I talked with Al and he wants to do it. We were in the studio recording TSO, it was me, Alex Skolnik, Johnny Lee, Al Pitrelli and Paul O'Neil, we were all there and Paul was the one who said.. Gosh, I would like to do it (reunion) but we just need to find the right time. It seems very positive the last discussions we had but we know it will come down to what Paul and Jon (Oliva) decide. I was really uplifted by the latest conversations we had about it. I think if everyone keeps the mindset of keeping it on the backburner, that this might happen one day, keep your schedules open, I feel positive that we definitely can do it. We can do it! It will make a lot of people happy. Not only here but in Europe, with Circle II Circle we just finished a sixteen country tour in Europe and in every place we heard the same question, when is Savatage getting back together? The demand is there and Paul knows that so let's just see what happens."
I had to ask Zak who influenced him and who does he admire as a singer.
Zak: "Originally at age 9 I was a drummer. I made that switch to be more of a front man vocalist when I went to school and met Matt. The reason I did that was watching singers like Bruce Dickinson, Ronnie Dio, David Coverdale, that was the first big three right there. Rob Halford is another. The first Priest album I got was Stained Glass. Then I heard Beyond The Realms of Death and went… Holy Crap! That along with all the other Holy Craps that went on with these other vocalist were the main things that got me going. I try to take a little piece of each of those guys and find my own vocal style. Luckily I was able to do that with Savatage cause the secret there was be yourself. They told me Zak… be yourself. Don't try to sing like Jon, I couldn't sing like Jon anyway! So with that and the lessons I took, that is what formed my own style."
The diversity of Savatage with the vocals of Jon and Zak were one of the things that drew me to the band. As Zak puts it, "The dichotomy of the whole thing… Its like Heaven and Hell" or as I said to him, Lennon/McCartney. No matter how you put it, that band was and may still in the future be one of the truly special groups in metal.
With that it was time to go and enjoy the show! Machines of Grace hit the stage for a packed room of Stryper fans. They might not have been very well known when they started their set but by the time it had ended, there was a whole bunch of new fans in Mt. Clemens , Michigan . This was very telling at the end of the evening when the bands were at their merchandise booths. I was over talking with the guys from Stryper because I couldn't get near the Machines of Grace table!
There is something to be said about this band. It is hard to put your finger on it. As I talked with them all, one thing came through very clear, that is the fact there is some kind of magic about these four working together. Each one contributes a unique blend to a musical style that would not be the same with an absence of anyone of them. Each seems to bring out the best in the others. You have:
Chris Rapoza – The newest member and the class clown of the band. He brings an energy and spark that really makes the band tick. His bass lines are unique and he is a showman first class on stage. I could fill a book with the stories he told me and I bet there is many more to be heard! (Maybe in the next chapter of this interview)
Jeff Plate – The consummate gentleman as well as one of the best drummers I have ever heard. He is the stabilizing force in the band and the backbone. He also brings a secret weapon to the shows. His wife Cathy is the merchandise person and one of the nicest people you will meet. I still want her recipe for Buffalo Wings sauce!
Matt Leff – What a guitar player! He is the guy who started this whole thing and you have to thank him for that fact alone. One thing he told me is that he hadn't been on stage for eight years prior to the gig just before we saw them. The only evidence that he had been away from the scene is the fact that his autograph is legible!
Zak Stevens – He has played with some of the best and been the frontman for one of the most influential bands there is. He has been the driver for some of the Cadillacs in music but with Machines of Grace I think that he is behind the wheel of his beloved '67 Chevy II Nova. Not fancy but with enough power to blow the doors off anything around!
This is a band to watch out for. With each concert they bring a whole new audience into the fold. With each play of the CD the respect for their musical abilities grow. Spending as much time with them as I did, the admiration for these guys just grew a hundred fold. They are as down to earth and spend the time to talk to each and every fan. It is refreshing to see that they are not only a band that knows its music they are a group that knows what it is to be a fan.
I look forward to meeting up with them again. I know it won't be too long. If you have the chance, I suggest you do the same. They are pure heavy metal/hard rock dynamite on stage. If you don't already own their album, by all means go over to their official page and order it!! http://www.machinesofgrace.net/mg/
If there is ever a band that has all the pieces of the puzzle in place, it is this one. There is just too much talent and smarts behind this project to think that they will not continue their excellence. There is also a bonding that goes back a long ways. That bond is what makes this one of the tightest units you will ever hear. I cannot wait to see what the future will bring for them. I asked Zak what he sees in the future and he says it all when he tells me, "With this band, the sky's the limit." I would be really surprised if they stop there!
(Click here to read our reviews of Machines of Grace