Masked New Yorkers Imperial Triumphant have been pushing the boundaries of extreme metal for years now. By incorporating horns, strings and jazz composition on dizzying albums like 2018's Vile Luxury and 2015's Abyssal Gods, they've positioned themselves as one of the leading American representatives of black/death metal's avant-garde wing — an otherwise largely French movement led by bands like Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord.
The connections between Imperial Triumphant's genre-warping style and the French avant-garde tradition have become even more pronounced on the band's latest album, Alphaville, which is available for pre-order now in a highly limited, Revolver-exclusive "Ivory Towers" 2LP edition. As it turns out, the record's title track was inspired by French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film of the same name. "In addition to the film inspiration, the album title is also inspired by the literal French translation, which is 'Number one city,'" Imperial Triumphant guitarist, vocalist and mastermind Zach "Ilya" Ezrin explains. "Which I feel very much applies to New York and the New York state of mind."
Alphaville sees Imperial Triumphant exploring even more radical territory with the inclusion of a barbershop quartet and Japanese Taiko drums. And the album's recording was overseen by two of extreme music's most forward-thinking musicians: Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance, who produced Alphaville, and Krallice/Gorguts guitarist Colin Marston, who engineered, co-produced and even contributed some playing. But perhaps the album's biggest coup is a cameo from Meshuggah drummer and lyricist Tomas Haake, who joined Ezrin, drummer Kenny Grohowski and bassist Steve Blanco in the studio for a very special guest appearance. Ezrin gives us the rundown below.
YOUR LAST RECORD, VILE LUXURY, WAS AN HOMAGE TO NEW YORK CITY. IS ALPHAVILLE A CONTINUATION OF THAT THEME?
ZACH "ILYA" EZRIN In some ways. We're a New York band, and a lot of our songs are about New York City. I find it's best to write about what you know, and this has pretty much been my home for my whole life. It's what I know the most.
DO YOU THINK IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT WOULD BE A DIFFERENT BAND OR HAVE A DIFFERENT SOUND IF YOU WEREN'T IN NEW YORK?
Absolutely. Not just lyrically, but even the way that we play. If we grew up in different places and maybe studied different styles of music or were different types of players, everything would be different. It's so funny — I was talking to a magazine in Poland a few hours ago and they compared us to Odraza, which is a Polish black-metal band from Kraków. I'm a huge fan of theirs, and it's interesting because they also sing about this disgusting kind of city life. They don't sound like us, but that's what a city band from Kraków sounds like. We're a city band from New York. So I feel like it's definitely regional.
YOU GUYS INCORPORATE A LOT OF NON-METAL ELEMENTS INTO YOUR MUSIC, LIKE JAZZ AND — ON THIS ALBUM — A BARBERSHOP QUARTET. IS "AVANT-GARDE" A TERM THAT YOU EMBRACE?
Yeah, sure. I love that stuff. Avant-garde is something that has been placed over many bands from New York over many decades, like the Velvet Underground and all the Eighties art-rock stuff. It's avant-garde, but still very true to the art scene and the music scene in the city.
TREY SPRUANCE FROM MR. BUNGLE PRODUCED THE RECORD, WHICH IS SOMETHING HE OFFERED TO DO AFTER CATCHING ONE OF YOUR SHOWS IN SANTA CRUZ. WHY DID HIS OFFER APPEAL TO YOU?
We'd never worked with a producer before, so we were excited about the prospect of having an outside set of ears coming in and helping us with decisions. And having Trey Spruance as your first producer seems like a pretty good pick. He was a great presence to have in the studio, and it definitely only helped.
WHAT KIND OF INPUT OR SUGGESTIONS DID HE HAVE?
He immediately understood the songs, the purpose, the atmosphere. There was no clash over any fundamental ideas. He brought in a lot of synths and samples and said, "I wanna bury these in the album so you can't hear them but they influence the sound and overall atmosphere." So there's tons of that stuff everywhere on the album. He brought a lot of great ideas to the table as far as mixing, too. It was invaluable to have him there.
WAS TREY FAMILIAR WITH IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT BEFORE HE SAW YOU PLAY THAT SHOW?
I think he was somewhat. He knows us through Kenny, our drummer, because Kenny plays in Secret Chiefs 3 with Trey. So I'm pretty sure he'd heard our music before, but I think there was an aspect of the live show that won him over.
TOMAS HAAKE FROM MESHUGGAH MAKES A GUEST APPEARANCE ON ALPHAVILLE. WHY DID YOU SPECIFICALLY SEEK HIM OUT?
He's definitely an influential musician to us as writers. The work he's done with his band has definitely inspired us. And we love to collaborate with other musicians. It's something that we pride ourselves on. We try to get new artists involved on every record. We very much had our hearts set on tracking Japanese Taiko drums for this album, and when we were thinking about who we could get to play them, Tomas's name came up. He's friendly with Kenny, as well, so it was just a matter of syncing our schedules and getting a studio date booked to track it. It was really fun.
DID EITHER TOMAS OR KENNY HAVE ANY EXPERIENCE WITH TAIKO DRUMS?
None of us did, but it was a lot of fun to mess around with them. They did a lot of jamming and playing along to a set rhythm. We have over two hours of Japanese Taiko drums tracked, so the odds of them ending up on the next album are pretty good.
WHY THAT SPECIFIC INSTRUMENT?
Well, it's a pretty dramatic and serious sound. When you hear them, you instantly recognize it. I think it was Steve, our bass player, who suggested it while we were mixing Vile Luxury. So we made it happen. But we're always looking for new instruments and new sounds to bring into our black-metal or death-metal world.
COLIN MARSTON FROM KRALLICE AND GORGUTS ENGINEERED THE ALBUM — AND PLAYS GUITAR ON IT AS WELL, RIGHT?
Yeah. I'd even go as far as to say that he helped produce it. During the mixing process he was helping us make decisions. It was a huge collaborative process. But yeah, he played guitar, too. When we tracked the Voivod cover [of "Experiment"], we didn't tell him what we were gonna play — we just told him to hit record. Voivod is one of his favorite bands, so we surprised him. And then he surprised us back when he sent us the rough tracks from that session, because he had recorded the left guitar for that song. So it was really cool to have him play on one of his favorite tunes, which is also one of our favorite tunes.
IN ADDITION TO VOIVOD, YOU ALSO COVERED THE RESIDENTS. IS IT SAFE TO SAY THOSE ARE KEY INFLUENCES FOR IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT?
Definitely. And we also try to surprise our fans — I don't think they're expecting us to cover an Eighties thrash band and a bizarre, avant-garde rock collective. Those are pretty out-there choices. But we wanted to do things that were outside of our genre that we could bring our sound into rather than a note-for-note play-through.
YOUR NEW SONG "ATOMIC AGE" STARTS WITH A BARBERSHOP QUARTET, WHICH MIGHT BE ONLY TIME THAT'S EVER APPEARED ON A METAL ALBUM. WHY DID THAT APPEAL TO YOU?
Like I said, we love to surprise our fans. With a song like "Atomic Age," that deals with atomic bomb testing and post-WWII stuff, I wanted to bring the listener to that era and set the stage for what's to come in the song. I also wanted to see if we could put a barbershop quartet into a death-metal song and make it work without being cheesy, because a lot of barbershop quartet music is terrible. [Laughs] It's really, really cheesy. So I had to do a lot of research before I wrote that, but we're going to keep trying to push the boundaries and surprise our fans.
THE COVER ART BY ZBIGNIEW BIELAK IS INSANE. HE'S WORKED WITH GHOST AND PORTAL — IS THAT WHY YOU SOUGHT HIM OUT?
He actually sought us out. Many years ago, I'd written him and told him I loved his work — especially the Portal album cover he did. And then way later, after Vile Luxury came out, he said he was a fan of that album and that he'd love to do our next cover. He seemed like a good fit because he's got a background in architecture. When you see the Portal and Ghost covers, they're both very deco and skyscraper oriented, so we knew he understood where we were coming from. He wasn't going to just do a melting skull, you know? It was a great collaborative process — we dig the same architects — and we're very excited with the results.