“Necessity is the Mother of Invention”: An Interview with Imperial Triumphant’s Zachary Ilya Ezrin

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“I remember having some sort of revelation in music school where I was trying really hard to be really clean or really technically proficient and I thought, you know what let’s just go the other way with it.” It’s arguable that this modus operandi was the birth of the world’s new favourite avant-garde jazz-metal outfit, Imperial Triumphant. For over a decade now, the band has existed in a realm unto themselves. They do not fit into the parameters of most of the genres and sub-genres they inhabit, but instead stand anathema to convention and what could be deemed ‘normal thinking’. Their relentless refusal to play by anyone’s rulebook but their own makes them a force exciting and dangerous in equal measure, for what is more terrifying to tribal metal fans than something that challenges the status quo? If you think Deafheaven pissed black metal fans off, wait until they hear Alphaville.

Even though the band formed in 2005, it wasn’t until relatively recently that they established a stable line-up and started on the unfathomable journey to find the sound that is distinctly Imperial Triumphant. Founding member and arguable mastermind behind the outfit, Zachary Ilya Ezrin, doesn’t seem to think the band are even close to the apex of their powers; “We’re heading down the same path as before, refining our sound, trying to be unique”. So Alphaville isn’t the be all end all of what the band can do. A terrifying and enticing prospect indeed. What was the driving force behind Alphaville? “To create music that’s really song-based”. Ezrin muses on the struggle of creating art that is satisfying to both the artist and the listener. “How do you take something that is so technical and so crazy, how do you make that memorable? How do you put a hook in that? […] We definitely played around with a lot of things regarding that ideology.” So, can fans expect four-minute, bite-sized chunks of straight-ahead blackened death metal on this outing? Ezrin says, “the album has a great flow which we do really care about, but [we wanted to] try and make each song stand out on its own, have some recapitulation not be just straight riff A-Z, but really try and create some memorable moments.” This is not your common or garden black metal. This is something special. Something unique.

Ask anyone what Imperial Triumphant sound like and you’ll get a blank stare as the neurons fire on all cylinders to really encapsulate the breadth of their sonic palate. It’s a thankless task. In Metal Injection’s mini documentary, The Making of Alphaville, Ezrin describes Imperial Triumphant as “a rock band”. This seems at first a constrictive and reductive view of what they do, for surely rock is glitz and glamour, power chords and stadium filling choruses, not the dark, metropolitan sprawl that Imperial Triumphant serve up. Ezrin however doesn’t care for labels as he claims “I use [rock] as an umbrella term where we can do whatever we want because we’re a power-trio rock band. I think if you get super specific with genres you get more restrictive because you think ‘Oh I’m not doing something that’s super uniquely avant-garde death metal or black metal’. We’re just going to play the sound that we wanna play and whatever people want to call it is fine with us.” So don’t work yourself up into a knot trying to define Imperial Triumphant. They certainly don’t and this lack of definition lends an air of mystique to the masked trio. If you can’t describe them, you’ll just have to shut up and listen.

Imperial Triumphant’s artistry is distinctly metropolitan, from the root influence behind each note to the final artwork that adorns each album as well as their frightening live presence. Taking cues from Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis isn’t enough however, the band wanted to really represent the city they hold so dear. A city that defines global conceptions of their country: New York. Inextricably linked to the fair city, Ezrin tells us that “the amount of influence we take from New York has not run dry yet. It defines our music in many ways, but some examples would be the actual sounds of the city we try and incorporate into our instruments. The sounds of sirens, of subway screeching, I’ll try to play that sound on the bass or the guitar or make the rumbling [of the city] to create a soundscape. The skyscrapers, the lifestyle, the incredibly heavy life of living in this grand metropolis influences us.” Don’t expect Imperial Triumphant to deviate from their intrinsic sound and influences any time soon; they’re just getting started: “We’re already working on new stuff. We’ve been working on live music and also trying to be more creative about how we can promote the album and create more content, more products for people when we can’t go out and play for them so it’s forced us to think in other ways and we’re working really hard to keep the fires burning.”

How exactly does one promote an album without the ability to perform the new material live? Ezrin has exciting propositions in mind for keeping this flame burning bright. “We’re working on some new music videos now that New York is opening up again, we are going to try and branch out into other media like film scoring and television scoring, building more interactive merchandising and really trying to create a community and brand within the Imperial Triumphant sound. Just building any sort of art is interesting to me and I think Imperial Triumphant is a great springboard into that.” This obsession with art and all forms of media makes Imperial Triumphant stand out from so many of their peers and contemporaries. It doesn’t stop at music. Everything is carefully considered and meticulously crafted it is heartening and exhilarating to think of the potential they have and what they could do with it. But where will the band look for their next projects? A band like Madrid’s Toundra chose to rescore Das Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for their latest album, but Ezrin doesn’t see the band embracing this idea. “You know we’ve thought about scoring the first thirty minutes of [Fritz Lang’s] Metropolis and it’s an interesting concept but at the end of the day you’ve got to look to the future and I think there’s plenty of great art, be it film, video games, television, coming out now that you could put your efforts towards rather than rehashing the past. We all have backgrounds in film scoring, we’ve all scored plenty of films before so I don’t think it would be an issue for us. It would be an incredible experience for us to take on something like that, bringing out the moods of a film or a video game or something. That’s the job of the music; to give you another dimension of experience while still doing what we do best; something that’s dark and compelling.”.

It seems that Imperial Triumphant have limitless possibilities and ambitions laying at their feet, but as Ezrin points out, “if you wanna think outside the box, you have to know what the box is. If you have no limits it can become overwhelming and you start to not push yourself enough. Necessity is the mother of invention and if you hear a sound you think you can’t create, then you figure it out. I’m still practicing a lot and make sure that my timing is strong and I’m not a shitty musician, but at the same time I want to be able to play loose and not be worried about messing a note up, because at the end of the day it’s how you play and not what you play.” This open-minded approach to creation and experimentation makes Imperial Triumphant one of the most exciting bands around in 2020 and will likely keep them at the forefront of people’s minds for years to come. Whether it’s in cinema, video games, television or the next album, wait with bated breath for what comes next from the band. It might just be the next landmark in extreme music. “Don’t worry, I’ve still got a few more tricks up my sleeve…”

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