Spending years stuck in a mailroom transcribing seminars for tax professionals was not how Taylor Washington expected his life to turn out. A trained guitar virtuoso with an eruptive vibrato, he was born to play music — but after a decade spent unsuccessfully shuffling between various local Atlanta bands, he accepted the fact that there was more security running his fingers rapid-fire over a computer than on his fretboard.
He never stopped playing, though, and in 2015, well into his seventh year of data-entry oblivion, he once again felt a glimmer of hope, in the form of his then-new power-thrash band Paladin. The group had major promise — which it recently delivered on with a scorching debut LP, Ascension, that situates them at the forefront of rising guitar-hero acts — but at the time, Washington would have to survive a few more pitfalls before he found his footing.
The first setback arrived when Paladin's drummer left, effectively killing their momentum, followed by Washington unexpectedly getting laid off from his job — events that triggered a full-blown existential crisis and a profound life change for the musician.
"I was just contemplating my whole life, like, I have no idea what I want to do or what I'm doing," the singer-guitarist says now. While adversity plunges many into darkness, Washington went the opposite direction; he doubled down on his desire to shred and decided "to try paying the bills by playing music."
The power of positive thinking worked wonders for Washington. Scouring classified listings for cover band gigs, the six-stringer came across an opening with Metalsome Live Band Karaoke, an A-Town institution that offers barflies the chance to belt out everything from Metallica to Katy Perry. He landed the gig, and, to this day, spends three-to-four nights each week jamming on a catalog of over 400 songs. He gets to dedicate his days to writing originals for Paladin. (He also periodically moonlights as touring guitarist for technical death-metal veterans Arsis and live bassist for power-metal combo Theocracy).
Freed from data-entry hell and armed with his boundlessly optimistic "just go for it" attitude, Washington was able to focus and refine Paladin's absurdly uplifting power-thrash sound into the 11 crushers that eventually made their way onto Ascension. "It's basically about following your dreams, and doing things regardless of setbacks," says Washington of standout "Shoot for the Sun," which epitomizes the abiding inspirational message of the entire album.
Based off Ascension's swashbuckling shred theatrics, soaring falsetto vocals and fantastical lyrical backdrops, you wouldn't guess that Washington counts the stormy sounds of Seattle circa 1991 as a formative influence. But well before he was delivering dizzying dive-bombs and lightning-fast scales, he cut his teeth playing gloomy grunge classics in his childhood bedroom, about 40 miles south of Atlanta in the small town of Jackson, Georgia.
"Thankfully, the bands I was listening to when I first started playing were known for having simple guitar parts, like Nirvana," Washington enthuses. "It was, 'All right! I can play "Come as You Are" right now!'"
As his guitar work improved, his tastes progressed from early Nineties alt-rock to Metallica. Eventually, after buying a Sonata Arctica CD on a whim at a closing sale of a local record store, he pledged his allegiance to the triumphant sounds of power metal. "That was my first exposure to real power metal. It immediately captivated me, the melody and the keyboards — just the cheesy nature of it."
Though he started jamming with friends in Jackson, live music wasn't an option back home. Instead, he'd hitch a ride with friends to the state capital to see shows by Joe Satriani and Les Claypool. After graduating high school in 2006, he enrolled in the Atlanta Institute of Music, moved to the big city and finally started wailing onstage. "I didn't even become aware of local scenes until I joined a metalcore band when I was 19 or 20, just to have some people to play with," he says. "I was totally ignorant of that stuff due to living in such a small town."
Since his teens, Washington has spent thousands of hours practicing his instrument, building up the necessary speed to nail the mile-a-millisecond leads heard on Ascension's melodic thrashers like "Black Omen" or "Carpe Diem," the latter sounding something like Bruce Dickinson covering "2 Minutes to Midnight" with Slaughter of the Soul–era At the Gates. He confesses: "I'm an obsessive person. Once I take interest in something, I go full bore and try to do as much of it as I can. Being in Jackson, in that isolated little world, I would just shut myself away and go to town."
As escapist as it was, pushing himself to such extremes came with a dark side, the guitarist concedes: specifically, the development of a stinging self-critique. Compared to the brute-force simplicity of a hardcore breakdown, shred is one of metal's most meticulous subgenres. There's constant pressure to be the fastest player around; the mental and physical gymnastics involved in hitting every note of 180 bpm exercises like Ascension's "Awakening" or "Fall From Grace" is exhausting. Each flubbed trill or fudged arpeggio is a dagger to Washington's heart.
"I'll beat myself up afterward," the guitarist says of slipping up onstage. "'Oh, I messed this part up. I did this wrong. It sucked.' I know it's never as bad as it seems. I'll watch videos sometimes, and you would never even notice [my mistakes] if you didn't know to look for it. And even then, it's not bad. But it never fails — it's so hard for me to not uphold myself to some ridiculous standard."
While the upbeat thrash melodies and affirmations found within Paladin's music play to the conventions of power metal, they're also genuine reflections of Washington's tenacious positivity. The aforementioned "Shoot for the Sun" acts as a reminder to keep the bandleader's head up high; "Carpe Diem," naturally, is a headbanging take on the Latin maxim for seizing the day. The lyrics for "Awakening," the blistering dash that kicks off Ascension, take inspiration from 1993 hand- held video game The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, but also serve as an ambitious mission statement for a group "in search of adventure unknown." ("The verses make explicit references to the game, but I tried to write the choruses in a less-direct fashion so that they can be universally applied," Washington explains.)
Signed to Prosthetic Records alongside onetime Megadeth shredder Marty Friedman, Paladin — which also features guitarist Alex Parra, bassist Andy McGraw and drummer Nathan McKinney — are poised to climb the ranks with Ascension. To paraphrase "Awakening," after struggling with unemployment and a string of unproductive bands, playing in Paladin is a veritable waking dream for Washington.
"I finally have an original band putting out an original album on a good label," he says. "It's weird, but I'm super excited. Some of these songs, I've been wanting to get them out forever. To finally have something that I've contributed to [get released] is very satisfying."