Rob Johnson is just an average guy who happens to play the guitar: He puts the steering wheels on Honda Accords at an Ohio factory, he's looking forward to his son's first day of kindergarten this fall, he's recorded three hard-to-find instrumental solo albums, and he plays in a part-time progressive-metal band he founded back in 1997. But on this day, when Johnson and Sea of Tranquility writer Michael Popke take some time to chat about music, family and career, he's slowly beginning to realize that his band, Magnitude 9, might be bigger than he initially thought.
"I was paging through the new issue of Guitar World today, and there's an ad for Decoding the Soul in there," Johnson, 33, says, referring to the band's third album (released earlier this year by InsideOut Music) and quoting the copy that praised "the shredding guitar work of Rob Johnson and the soaring vocal force of Corey Brown." "For me, just having an ad paid for by someone else in a magazine that says, 'Album in stores now,' is enough. I'm not striving to 'make it.' Between my solo CDs and Magnitude Nine, I've already accomplished everything I want to. That's all I need."
If that's the case, the rest of Johnson's music career will be gravy, as Decoding the Soul, produced by Michael Vescera (Loudness, Malmsteen, Reign of Terror), has raised the band's profile considerably, not only among prog-metal fans but among headbangers in general.
"We were a little bit more aggressive this time and just wanted to concentrate on the songs and not the individual players," Johnson says about his band, which also includes keyboard player Joseph Anastacio Glean, drummer John Homan and bassist Ian Ringler (who replaces veteran session man Kevin Chown, now on tour with — get this — rap-rocker Uncle Kracker). "Corey can sing and I can shred, but we wanted to stretch a bit and reach a bigger audience. On the first two albums, we were just feeding off of our influences. And now, it kind of upsets me that a lot of prog-metal fans are so close-minded that they think an album has to have long songs with odd time signatures or it sucks. I think people take the "progressive-metal" tag too seriously."
Indeed, opting for aggressiveness and heaviness over technical prowess on Decoding the Soul — after all, Johnson explains the band's name means 9 on a heaviness of scale of 1 to 10 — could win the Ohio-based quintet some new fans. For example, none of the new songs clock in at longer than six minutes. The tough-as-nails opener "New Dimension" is almost like a prayer for the courage to undergo and accept change, while the foreboding "Thirty Days of Night" is the darkest Magnitude Nine song yet and explores how children have become prey to a sick society. Other songs, such as "Dead In Their Tracks" and "To Find A Reason" follow in the neoclassical footsteps of the band's second album, 2001's Reality in Focus, and "Lies Within the Truth" and "Sands of Time" sound like mid-tempo, fist-raising hair metal tunes from the Eighties.
Prog-metal purists may be disappointed by Decoding the Soul's more contemporary sound — think Symphony X meets Nickelback. But the album proves that a so-called progressive-metal band doesn't have to work within a predetermined set of musical parameters to still make a solid metal record that's arguably heavier and catchier than most of its earlier material.
Not surprisingly, most of the 10 songs on Decoding the Soul are a far cry from the music on Magnitude Nine's first two albums, 1998's Chaos to Control and Reality in Focus. Yet each one laid the groundwork for where the band is at today.
Magnitude 9 CDs: Chaos to Control, Reality in Focus and Decoding the Soul
Chaos to Control, recorded on the band's own dime over an eight-month period in 1997 and released in two different versions overseas, is well-executed prog metal in the vein of classic Dream Theater and Fates Warning, with Brown's voice and Johnson's guitar already defining Magnitude Nine's sound. As of this writing, Chaos to Control is not available in the United States, and both the Japanese version (featuring what appear to be church windows on the cover) and the European version (with a Roman centurion on the cover) are hard to find these days.
On Reality in Focus, Magnitude Nine take a huge step in the originality department, as most of the songs — including a surprising cover of Iron Maiden's "Flight of Icarus" — exude more class and confidence than any of the tracks on Chaos to Control. The band dispells the Fates Warning comparison and sounds more similar to Balance of Power, even taking on a neoclassical vibe with songs like "The End of Days" and "Temples of Gold."
One song in particular on Reality in Focus, "Afterlife," emerges as the band's defining moment. The slowly churning, nine-minute masterpiece oozes with prog-metal finesse, and Brown's emotional voice reaches previously unattained heights as he sings the universal lines, "Will I see you again in the afterlife, in the heavens high above?/Will you remember me in the afterlife, will you show me where to go?/And I'll never understand, until I see you again, in the afterlife." Some listeners may be banging their heads their heads as they're wiping their eyes.
"Afterlife" reveals, more than ever before, Magnitude Nine's spiritual side, and references to a person's soul abound in the lyrics on Decoding the Soul. "We're all spiritual guys," Johnson says, adding that all band members believe in God. "We write about real life. We're not one of those bands that write about demons and wizards. When you're in your thirties, as we all are, you just see the world differently than you did when you were in your twenties."
Johnson composes all of Magnitude Nine's music, makes demos with a drum machine and sends CDRs to the rest of the band — two also live in Ohio and two live in Colorado. Brown contributes all of the lyrics, and the entire band gives input during the rehearsal and recording process. "To Find a Reason," for example, was originally more of a straightforward rock song until the band entered the studio and decided to tune it down and make it heavier. As Johnson rearranged the music, Brown reworked the lyrics, which take a religious angle: "The changes we must face, are facing you and me/Now I'm searching for the truth in our faith we must believe."
With its push to gain a wider audience, Magnitude Nine was offered a club tour of Europe with a handful of other bands earlier this year but turned it down. "To play out in front of 50 people isn't what we want to do," Johnson says, adding that everyone in the band has decent day jobs that financially sustain them and their families.
Magnitude Nine also was tentatively booked to play ProgPower USA V in Atlanta this September — a gig in front of about 1,400 people and one that no doubt would have boosted the band's profile tremendously. But with Johnson's oldest son starting kindergarten the following week and open-house activities at the school planned for ProgPower weekend, Magnitude Nine backed out. "I don't want to miss my son going off to kindergarten," Johnson says. "My kids come first."
That's the attitude of a guy with his heavy metal boots firmly planted on the ground — a guy whose band makes music that sounds like it should be more than a hobby for its five members but isn't. "I'm not negative; I'm just realistic," Johnson says. "Music is all about creativity and having fun. That's why I still have a day job. That's why we all still have day jobs. I don't want to be 50 years old, living in an apartment with two other guys and playing clubs."
Images courtesy of Magnitude Nine