The wait is over! Long-running American metallers PHARAOH return with their first album in nine years, «The Powers That Be»! A nine-song offering of challenging melodic metal featuring a guest solo from Voivod’s Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain! PHARAOH’s journey goes on and they deliver what you expect but also something else. We talk about it with guitarist Matt Johnsen, that for example explains that the long wait in releasing this new album is almost all his fault :). A cool interview that by no means you cannot miss!
Hello Matt, at last the wait is over! When did you decide it was time to give the fans another good album from Pharaoh?
Right after we gave you the last one! Seriously, Chris Black and I got together in Chicago to write in 2013, only a year after the release of Bury the Light, and those sessions produced the kernels of «The Powers That Be,» «Dying Sun,» «Ride Us to Hell,» and «Lost in the Waves.» We really did intend to make this album much more quickly, but, in the end, we didn’t. I would say it was probably 2018 where we decided «enough is enough!» and tried to get back on track, but even that didn’t really take for another year. Life just got in the way, but nothing especially interesting or out-of-the-ordinary. I wish we had a more exciting explanation for our long absence than we do, but alas…
It seems the classic lineup is complete, no news here?
Pharaoh is these four guys, and these four guys only. If any of us were to say, «I don’t want to do Pharaoh anymore,» then Pharaoh would simply cease to exist. There’s just something special about this lineup, and we all agree that it just wouldn’t be the same without any of our voices.
Nine years between The Powers That Be and the previous album Bury the Light, you feel any difference between them or it is as if time has never passed?
A little of both, I guess. I had some complicated feelings about that album when we made it; mainly I was worried that we were repeating ourselves, but now that quite some time has passed, I’ve made my peace with that album and I feel that it does represent enough of an evolution from Be Gone to justify its existence. I think the songs hold up really well, although after making The Powers That Be, it’s a little hard to listen to our earlier albums, because by comparison they sound much worse. That’s fairly typical, though – lots of musicians have a hard time listening to the production on their older albums. I still think they’re all well-written and played, and if those are my legacy, I’m satisfied!
Chris Black has been very active and successful with his band High Spirits, is this the reason for a low activity with Pharaoh?
No, not at all. Chris is well able to juggle lots of projects successfully. It’s almost certainly my fault that we took so long this time around. I’m a slow writer, and not the best project manager, and it generally falls on me to wrangle everyone involved in the making of a Pharaoh album. But there wasn’t any single thing that caused the delay – just a lot of ass-dragging and laziness!
How long have you been working on the new songs?
Almost since the last album came out! But, while Chris and I demoed some skeletal arrangements of some tunes back in 2013, most of them changed dramatically as I made complete demos at home. «Dying Sun» and «The Powers That Be» in particular were cobbled together over the course of years, as I obsessively tweaked them. «Freedom,» I think, was mostly written before Bury the Light even came out. I think Chris Kerns made his first demos of «Waiting to Drown» and «When the World Was Mine» in 2012, but we didn’t write the melodies and lyrics until Tim was actually at my house to record those songs. So, all in all, these songs were constructed over long timeframes.
Has the pandemic era we are living helped you to focus on writing new songs?
It certainly provided a lot, maybe too much, lyrical inspiration! But I found it hard to be really creative during the lockdown. It was a lot to deal with, psychologically, and except that we actually made the Pharaoh album during this period, I didn’t do much writing otherwise. Now that we’re starting to get to the other side, though, I’m feeling very rejuvenated and creative, and I’m hoping to make some progress soon on the next batch of Pharaoh songs.
The cover design is also very similar to the old albums which gives a good clue of what we are gonna find here
Yeah, I agree. It was a big change to switch artists – just as Pharaoh has always been me, Tim, and the two Chrises, our cover artist has always been J.P. Fournier. But, literally the week both Chris Black and I had it on our calendars to get in touch with J.P. about a new painting, he was arrested for murdering his father. I wish I knew more about what happened, but no matter what, we needed to find another artist, and we pretty quickly settled on Chris Cooper, who is a lifelong friend of Chris Black and who painted the covers of the first couple Dawnbringer albums and the first release on which Pharaoh appeared, an Iron Maiden tribute album called Maiden America. He was originally going to paint the cover, but after he sketched it out digitally, he realized it would take him too long to complete unless he did the whole thing in the computer. We loved the design and trusted him to make a cover that didn’t look cheesy or cheap, so we let him do it his way, and I think it turned out great. Cover art is really important to us, so I’m glad to hear that this one has had the impact we hoped for.
What about the lyrics?
A lot of them were written during the lockdown, and I think that’s pretty obvious. Chris Black lamented to me that there was really nothing ELSE to write about. We didn’t really write about the experience of living through a pandemic, but that global upheaval starkly illuminated a lot of the injustices and indignities of modern life that Pharaoh has written about since the beginning, and it felt somewhat like a call to arms. The last couple years have made clear that a lot of the bullshit we all endure is totally unnecessary and engineered expressly to keep everyone in obedient servitude, and I hope that finally enough people will realize that not only can’t we keep going like this, but that there’s no good reason why we should.
By the way, another incentive is the album is the appearance of Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain from Voivod delivering a guitar solo, how did it happen?
We have a tradition of guest soloists, and in the past, we’ve had uncanny good luck in securing the participation of everyone we wanted to work with. This time, though, it was a lot harder, and we wasted a lot of time chasing down other soloists who ultimately wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. Daniel was a last-minute idea I had, although I’ve been a big fan for many years, and from the moment I considered him as a candidate to the time he was delivering his finished solo was just under a week! He was a pleasure to work with and his solo is awesome, so I guess he should have been our choice from the beginning!
This album will not disappoint all fans, I think is just what they can expect from Pharaoh
I’m happy to hear that, but of course that was always the goal. We try not to make the same album over and over, but we also do want to maintain whatever fundamental character attracted people to Pharaoh in the first place. That’s harder to do than it sounds, so we’re never quite sure if our fans are willing to come long for the ride each time we launch a new album, but the reaction to this one so far has been very positive and I’m happy with how everything’s come together. I’m really just making the metal that I want to hear, and I trust that my own taste is good enough that if I can satisfy myself, I can satisfy other discerning metalheads. We’re never going to make a lot of money or become household names, but if there’s still someone in 10 years who chooses to listen to a Pharaoh album, I will consider this band a success!
You are really a great team, good vocalist, great guitars… but I am really happy to listen to Chris Black delivering his pure heavy metal drumming, something that for example is not so much in the sound of High Spirits but here is a key element
Chris truly delivered his finest drumming performance to date on this album, and I love it. The simplicity of Chris’s work in a lot of his other bands doesn’t reflect his historical influences: when I first met him, his practice regimen was to play along with Rush’s Moving Pictures or Slayer’s Reign in Blood (or was it Hell Awaits? It’s been a long time!) and he has a great command of drumming rudiments, so I know he’s capable of quite a lot behind the kit and I always push him to his limit when we make Pharaoh albums. This time I wasn’t there in the studio with him when he recorded, and at first I was worried that he’d pare down the harder beats to a simpler core, but he did exactly the opposite and really went balls to the wall. His performance is matched by Matt Crooks’s mix, which presents Chris’s playing with perfect clarity. There just aren’t a lot of bands in this style who emphasize rhythm the way we do, and Chris is obviously key to that. He’s a really talented dude, as if it weren’t obvious!
A strong point of this album is thar all songs have a rich composition base but they are still easy to enjoy, fun all the way!
Yeah, I love a lot of progressive, technical, even avant-garde stuff, and I try to bring all those influences into Pharaoh, but without making Pharaoh some exercise in boundary-pushing eclecticism. We want our music to be catchy and immediate, but also deep and rewarding, and that’s a tough balance to strike, which is partly the reason why it takes us so long to do it.
In that sense, it’s my imagination or The Powers That Be has something of progressive veneer?
Definitely! If I could play any kind of music, it would be something like Spiral Architect or Watchtower. But, I can’t play like that, and I’m not sure I could even write like that, and even if I could, no one else in Pharaoh would want to make that kind of music. I think we’re progressive more like Fates Warning in the mid to late 80s, or maybe Queensryche pre-Empire, or even early Forbidden, or Realm. We want to advance metal as a musical form, but we’re not out to impress people with our chops or music theory mastery. Our progressive impulses spring simply from the desire to make something new when we make a Pharaoh album.
Time seems not to pass for Aymar’s voice…?
It is amazing that he can still muster that grit at his age, for sure! I’ve been working with Tim for a very long time now, and I’m quite aware of how his voice has changed, but it’s just as fair to say my guitar playing has changed, or that Chris Black’s drumming has changed. We’re human, we’re getting old like everyone else. There’s no sense in pretending we’re the same men who made After the Fire 20 years ago. There are far fewer high harmonies on this album than there were even on the last one, but the way to deal with that is not to just drop the high parts and hope no one notices. As Tim’s voice has evolved, we’ve tried to write the best melodies for his voice right now, to get creative in our vocal arrangements, and to explore new possibilities that have arisen as his voice has matured. We surely couldn’t have pulled off a track like «Waiting to Drown» in 2003!
Now that you are on fire again, there will be more material to come from Pharaoh in the future?
Yes! But then again, I say that every time, so maybe I shouldn’t be trusted. We’re not getting any younger, so hopefully our looming mortality will keep us motivated. Fingers crossed!
Oh yeaaah! Congratulations for the great work, if you wish to add something…
I’ve been on a bit of a classic Spanish metal kick lately, spinning the first few Baron Rojo albums, and a new-to-me discovery, Thor from the Basque region. Their first album is especially awesome! Unfortunately, despite using the Duolingo app daily for over 5 years to learn Spanish, I can’t understand a word. I guess I just need to move to Spain! Thanks so much for supporting Pharaoh. Stay heavy!