First launched as the one man project of guitar gracing, bass bashing, keyboard caressing, drum demolishing, soaring singer Rich Hinks, Aeon Zen announced themselves on the progressive metal scene in fine style in 2009. That year saw the release of debut effort A Mind's Portrait, an album that blended styles and ideas, crossing genre boundaries while still being reassuringly progressive and metal. A year later The Face Of The Unknown cemented the band as one of the most exciting progressive metal acts to come out of the UK for a long, long time, resulting in Rich bringing together a full band line-up to take the Aeon Zen name out on the road. However with their new album Enigma, Aeon Zen have raised the bar even further, producing a concept album capable of rivalling the likes of Arjen Lucassen or Devin Townsend in terms of scope, vision and of course, great songs. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid recently caught up with the enigmatic Rich to find out more...
Hi Rich and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
My pleasure, great to talk to you!
I have to say that I've been really impressed with the new Aeon Zen album Enigma. You must be delighted by how well it has been received?
Oh definitely, I don't think we could have had a more enthusiastic reaction! It's also great to see people reacting so well to the things we've done differently this time around compared to previous albums.
It would be fair to suggest that while not necessarily a "story album", Enigma is still a strongly conceptual piece. Can you give us a little detail regarding the meaning behind the album's lyrics?
It actually is a story album! But I did want the concept to be more open to interpretation than many other concept albums. It's exploring how we humans react under certain circumstances, with the lyrics telling the story of a man who has some incredible fortune, only to find out that he becomes a worse person. It has elements of the question of whether you can buy happiness, but then to also realise where we're at with our lives and what we can do to better ourselves.
As with your previous albums, A Mind's Portrait and The Face Of The Unknown you've incorporated a host of guest vocalists into Enigma. Why is this something that you're so keen to do?
Well after having used the guest vocalist format for the first albums, it really felt right to continue this into the third, especially as it is a concept album. Even though we now have a permanent lead vocalist in Andi Kravljaca, being able to utilise diverse stylistic and tonal vocalists really helps add to the depth of an album like this.
What particular qualities have vocalists Nate Loosemore (Lost In Thought), Atle Pettersen (Above Symmetry) and Jonny Tatum (Eumeria) brought to Enigma?
I think they really help enhance the atmospheres created by the instruments behind them. It's sort of like a musical palette, where a certain timbre of voice can best be used to portray a particular emotion. Atle is great for the grittier sections, as he really has that great rock type quality to his voice. Jonny is perfect for bombastic prog metal style sections, whereas Nate has a slightly softer and smoother voice. So they all lend themselves to the many different styles and moods that I like to put on an album.
In terms of utilising all these four vocal talents - and of course the band's excellent singer Andi Kravljaca - do you write the music and then think of which voices will work best on the album, or is it the other way round, where you know what vocalists you want to work with and then set about creating music tailored to them?
It's a bit of both really. Often I'll write something instrumentally and know exactly what style of voice it's calling for, sometimes even the exact person that would fit, and other times that doesn't come until much later. When I'm actually writing melodies though I will 99% of the time know who, or at least what style of singer will be singing it, as without that it's pretty difficult to write melodies that fit a singer's range and qualities.
The sound and approach of Enigma feels a bit broader and more expansive than your previous two albums. Has this been a conscious decision to try and keep the Aeon Zen sound evolving and growing?
Yes, to a degree. It wasn't quite so contrived or pre-conceived as that though. I didn't necessarily sit down and come up with a plan on how we can keep evolving and expanding, it's just what's naturally happened over the course of creating the album. There were times when I write something and think that it didn't necessarily fit with the overall flow of the album, so in that sense I guess there was a conscious decision to make sure that every piece of music fits in with our musical growth and progression.
The first two Aeon Zen albums were released in pretty quick succession however Enigma was roughly two years in the making. Was this a tougher album to complete, or was it a case of being more meticulous this time round and striving for perfection?
There was quite a lot of behind the scenes changes that meant this album took longer to get out than I had originally planned. The original plan was to release the album in the second half of 2011, but with one thing and another, this had to be delayed. I think that was a blessing in disguise though, in a way, as it gave me time to reflect on the music and the mix of the album to make sure that I could really get it sounding exactly how I wanted it. There were many hours spent agonising over one note here and one note there to make sure everything was in the right place! Then of course after all that work, I really wanted to give the album the best chance to reach a bigger audience, so I decided to have Nightmare Records release the album, compared to the first two albums which were both self-released. So all the time adds up, but I think it's made for a great release!
So you are now three albums into the life of Aeon Zen. Have you been pleasantly surprised by the impact that your music has made on people?
It's always fantastic to receive messages from people that have enjoyed, and still are enjoying my music, especially when you're working in such a technical genre. I think it's a fantastic achievement that we've managed to reach fans on such a personal and emotional level with music that is more complex than what generally is perceived as emotive, and something that I wasn't quite expecting.
Your first album A Mind's Portrait started out almost as a solo project. Was there a reason that you hadn't initially formed a band to realise your musical ambitions at that stage?
By that point I had been in several different bands that ended up dissolving due to other commitments and people just drifting apart, but yet I still had a very clear musical vision and decided that I was going to get my music out there no matter how I had to do it. So I decided to record and write almost all the parts myself, as well as handling the production and mixing, and I think it was great experience and really set a solid foundation for where Aeon Zen is now.
Then through some live work and into album number two The Face Of The Unknown a band line-up did start to come into place, but it didn't stay together very long. Why was this?
We've always had a live band line-up, before forming a full band line-up around 2010/11, but it consisted of some revolving door type musicians. It's always great to play music with new people, and with these musicians serving more or less as session guys it means that there were often different people filling different roles.
So in 2010 the line-up of yourself (guitar/bass/vocals), Andi Kravljaca (vocals), Matt Shepherd (guitar), Shaz (keyboards) and Steve Burton (drums) came together. Has having a fixed line-up for Aeon Zen altered how you approached creating Enigma?
I think to some extent, yes. After playing with most of these guys for a few years now, their own styles of playing have become a bit engrained into my own writing style, so on a subconscious level I think it has helped the band progress and evolve. It also made me consider the live aspect of these songs as well, making the tracks crossover well onto the stage, particularly with myself and Andi trading vocal parts.
But I take it that it is still yourself who is solely writing, mixing and producing all of Aeon Zen's music?
Yeah, that's right, the new album was 99% written by myself. As you mentioned, Aeon Zen started as essentially a solo project, and even though we're now a full band, we have a sound that was built on that first album, so I think it helps us maintain Aeon Zen's musical identity.
Is that something that you see changing the longer this line-up of the band stays together?
Not particularly. I do invite the guys to write their solos and that sort of thing, but I have so many ideas for music that I could put out an album every few months if it were possible!
Does not having an "objective" outside opinion on your music as you are creating it ever leave you wondering if you are heading down the right, or wrong, path with what you are putting together?
It's not really something that I tend to worry about, which is the great thing about this sort of music. The way I see it is that there are no rules to Aeon Zen. Sure, our music might follow some formulas and have certain reminiscent sounds, but what I love about recording and producing Aeon Zen music is the ability to take it wherever I want and to go with the flow of wherever the music takes me as well. I've never felt the need for an outside producer or anything along those lines.
You mentioned earlier that you've teamed up with Nightmare Records for the release of Enigma. How did that come about and what do you think they will bring to the album release?
The whole deal with Lance King and Nightmare Records started through promotion I was beginning to do myself for the album. A radio interviewer recommended me to Lance and it basically grew from there. Working with Nightmare has been a great experience so far. The album seems to be doing well and reaching a larger audience than that we would have otherwise reached too, so it's all looking positive!
Whenever I read anything about Aeon Zen, I always see the band referred to as Progressive Metal. Now you definitely have both progressive and metal elements in your sound. However the Aeon Zen experience is far from the standard image often conjured up by the term Prog-Metal. How do you feel about that tag?
I think there's quite a difference between prog music and progressive music. I look at being progressive as incorporating many different elements and pushing the boundaries of what you can do within the music, not just sounding like one particular style. There are lots of genres that you could classify individual songs of ours under, such as a technical death metal track going into a somewhat pop ballad style track, but it always fits within the context of the album. I think progressive metal is probably the most representative out of all the choices of terms to be put in a box with, but there is definitely a lot more to it than that!
And the ever impossible question... How would you describe the Aeon Zen sound?
I would describe it as the music I love to create. There's so many different styles that we encompass, I always think it would be doing myself a disservice to try and sum it up in a sound bite! If anyone wants to know how we sound, the best thing I can say is to give us a try and check out our music!
I know you have a live show organised for March as part of the Enigma release party. How much other live/touring activity do you have organised to support the album release?
We mostly have gigs around the UK scheduled so far, including that show on March 9th at the Islington Academy in London, and the HRH Prog festival as well which should be a blast! We're currently working on some others but we'll have to see how it all pans out.
How much of a challenge is it to recreate all of the different aspects incorporated in the Aeon Zen sound when you play live?
There's definitely a lot that goes into our live show. First of all there's a lot of learning that goes into it, making sure that all the nuances of the album can be recreated while still maintaining a live atmosphere. I think seeing us live is like hearing the album and then some!
Will any of the guests who appear on Enigma be involved in any of your live shows?
It would be great if they could join us onstage, they are always more than welcome! We'll have to see what happens.
Thanks for answering all my questions Rich. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Thanks to you and to everyone that has read this and for your interest in Aeon Zen. Please do check out our new album Enigma, it's out now, available from all the usual online retailers, and take a look at www.aeonzen.com and www.facebook.com/aeonzen for updates and more about the band!
(Click here to read our reviews of World in Front of Me)