Long considered one of the prime movers in the progressive metal scene, it has been four years since Vanden Plas released the phenomenal Christ O concept album. Undaunted at the prospect of following up such an impressively complex, yet accessible collection, new release The Seraphic Clockwork sees the German five piece create an even more involving album both musically and lyrically. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Steven Reid recently spoke with guitarist Stephan Lill about what could possibly be the progressive metal album of the year and the activities that have been keeping the band busy during the last four years.
SoT: Hi Stephan, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
I want to start by congratulating you on your new album The Seraphic Clockwork, which is one of the best progressive metal albums I've heard in a long time. I think one of the biggest strengths of the album is how easily Vanden Plas manage to strike the balance between creating music that is memorable and emotional and displaying technical ability. How easy is this to achieve?
Stephan Lill: For us itīs not that hard, as our music shows the influences of the songwriters. We all like harmonies in our music and that for us is the most important point. Günter Werno, our keyboard player, knows a lot about how to arrange the big orchestra-stuff, singer Andy Kuntz is a very emotional and melody-loving singer, whereas I like the heavy side of rock music. I think that all these influence fit together very well, and we donīt have to force the song-writing to create our own style, it's all quite natural.
SoT: The Seraphic Clockwork is slightly heavier than your previous album Christ O, was that a conscious decision?
SL: We didnīt make a decision like "The next CD has to be heavier than the previous ones". However I like heavier stuff and think thatīs the influence which created the slight change in our music.
SoT: The copy of the album I received to review was a download that unfortunately didn't contain any lyrics. However I did have a chance to read the overview of the story and I am completely amazed at how complex and complete the idea behind the concept is. In fact it was more like reading a synopsis for a novel! Can you give us an idea of the story on The Seraphic Clockwork and why you chose that title for the album?
SL: To give you a very short summary of a long and complex story, which was written by Andy, the concept tells about a journey in time. The protagonist, who lives in 16th century Rome, comes under the spell of an Old Testament prophecy and travels back to Jerusalem in the year 33 anno Domini where he must face his God-given destiny. "The seraphic clockwork" referred to in the title plays an important part in that story.
SoT: Where did the idea come from and how long did it take to piece together the lyrics for the album?
SL: I donīt know exactly how the idea for this story formed in Andy's mind, but it took quite some time till he was finished with it. He invested a lot of time and energy in his lyrics, like he does every time he writes and during this writing process he was actually flying to Rome to get some new impressions for his concept.
SoT: That's impressive research! So in total how long did it take to complete the whole project?
SL: Song writing, lyrics, rehearsals, recordings?
SL: More than two years.
SoT: As you said, The Seraphic Clockwork is a hugely intricate concept piece, that is amazingly cohesive, how hard is it fitting the music to the words, or do you work on the lyrics first?
SL: This is a question weīve been asked a lot of times, but I donīt have a real explanation as to why it works so well. The way we usually compose is that we write the basic versions of the music first and then write the lyrics once we know those songs. It's hard to say why it works, maybe it's because we've known each other for such a long time.
SoT: There was a four year gap between Christ O and The Seraphic Clockwork, however the band have been far from idle. Very unconventionally for a "metal" band, you have been heavily involved in stage shows and theatres. With everything from a stage show for Christ O, the Abydos and Ludus Danielis shows and producing versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair! How did all that come about?
SL: We have all been involved in theatre productions since 1992, which was the first time we played Jesus Christ Superstar. The people from the theatre liked the way we performed the music, so we got other engagements for Little Shop Of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show and so on. After a while we were experienced enough to realize musicals on our own, and it was a success. This helped us a lot for developing our own style, which was a great bonus.
SoT: How different are the theatre and rock band mentalities?
SL: There are differences, for sure. For example in the theatre you have very straight time schedules, which is not typical for rock musicians. Some people who work in the theatre are even more "artists" than rock musicians are, but that's absolutely ok, as all the people there are really nice people who are sometimes surprised by how well rock music and theatre can fit together.
SoT: Do you think that any of the theatrical aspects have been incorporated into The Seraphic Clockwork?
SL: Sure. When we wrote The Seraphic Clockwork, we already had the idea of bringing this concept to the theatre-stage in our mind. So we took a lot of care with the aspects of the album which will make the transfer to the stage easier later on.
SoT: So when you were putting together the story of The Seraphic Clockwork, you already had the intention of moving it into the theatre as a show?
SL: Yes, we hoped that would happen and the story is written with that idea in our mind.
SoT: Due to those other theatre commitments, Christ O wasn't really supported with a tour, although the band did play some festival dates. Do you view touring as an important way of raising the band's profile?
SL: Normally itīs very important that a band is touring and we also did that, especially before Christ O. However that changed a bit when all the theatre engagements came up, as it made our schedule was very tough. But because of that we found our very own place in the "rock-landscape", which is not a bad thing and besides that, we reach a lot of new people when we play at the theatre who would never listen to rock music normally.
SoT: Are there plans to tour more extensively with The Seraphic Clockwork?
SL: Yes, we will be trying to tour more. Letīs hope it will work.
SoT: I believe you are teaming up with a classical orchestra to present a modern version of Josef Haydn's Creation and also that singer Andy Kuntz and keyboard player Gunter Werno are also planning on doing a show of Vanden Plas material along with songs from theatre shows, which will see the attendees have a three course dinner as part of their evening. Is being "unconventional" something the band actively seeks out?
SL: Thatīs true. But on one side we have the opportunity to do this unconventional stuff, on the other side we are professional musician, so we should take the chances we are offered.
SoT: Even the excellent live bonus track on the album "Eleyson" sounds like it was recorded in front of a respectful "classical" audience. Is this a typical reaction to your music?
SL: Indeed the song was recorded in front of a respectful "classical" audience. Itīs a live-recording of one of the major songs of Ludus Danielis, a rock-musical we did at the theatre here in Kaiserslautern, which is also released on DVD. However the reaction at our regular shows is a bit different!
SoT: Are there plans for any of the band member's stage projects to be released on DVD?
SL: Abydos and Ludus Danielis are already released on DVD. If we produced Christ O again at another theatre, that is an option we would consider.
SoT: The new album is being released worldwide through the ever expanding Frontiers Records. Why did you move from InsideOut and what do you hope the Frontiers organisation will bring to the band?
SL: We moved to Frontiers as InsideOut had major problems with their former distributor, so their future was very unsure. We needed to enter the studio to record The Seraphic Clockwork, so we couldnīt wait anymore. At the same time we got an offer from Frontiers, so we took the chance to make a change. We didnīt had any trouble with InsideOut at all, they are a cool label, and we are still in contact with them. Frontiers have done a great job for the new CD so far, so I think it was the best the decision for everybody.
SoT: There has been a significant broadening of the label's musical output in recent times - did you see that is an important factor in joining them?
SL: No, they have a great reputation; they did a fair offer, thatīs it. But for sure itīs cool that they have signed a lot of well known bands like Whitesnake or Y&T for example, who are two of my favourite bands.
SoT: So with such a fantastic album completed, what is next for the band and will we have to wait quite so long for a follow up?
SL: We'll try to produce The Seraphic Clockwork on a theatre-stage, we'd like to play live more often and we have already started to write new songs for the next CD. These are the major things we have to care about, so hopefully it will not take another 4 years to release the next CD.
SoT: Thanks for answering the questions Stephan, is there anything else you would like to add?
SL: Just that itīs a long time ago that we last played in the North America and I think we have to change that soon.
(Click here to read our reviews of The Seraphic Clockwork