A special “split” interview with the bands responsible for my AOTY
Firstly, full disclosure: Visions of Esoteric Splendor was my 2021 album of the year. [See my review HERE.] And not only mine, it made it to #11 in The Metal Observer’s Top 30.
Sure, it’s a split with a quarter of the songs made up of covers; yes, neither band has yet released a full-length; however, that doesn’t diminish the creative brilliance and pure offbeat charm that Ezra Brooks and Serpent Rider poured into the release. To celebrate that fact, the driving force of each band agreed to take part in a “split” interview by occasionally answering questions about each other, as well as revealing all the pertinent knotty details about their own projects. We consulted our timetables, checked our clocks (quite carefully, since we live in 3 different continents), and finally began to talk. And, in a blinding flash of pure dumbassery, I failed to save the main audio recording properly, which provides the main reason why the quotes used in this article are generally brief despite the musicians’ generous sharing.
The 2 instant takeaways from the 66 minute chat with Serpent Rider guitarist Brandon Corsair and Ezra Brooks mainman S. Vincent were the phrase “big dick energy” and the word “contrary.” While those snippets don’t appear to sum up either band all that thoroughly, both were used more than once in the interview and in more than one direction. Indeed, the former appeared right off the bat when the musicians were asked to describe one another’s bands in a sentence. S. Vincent described Serpent Rider first.
SV: Arcane metal for connoisseurs of the old. You know, it’s got some esoteric energy.
BC: That’s just what I want it to be. There are so many bands repeating stuff that’s been done over and over again since the ‘80s and I’ll listen to those bands, sure – some of them are my favourites. But I wanted Serpent Rider to be something else. It’s boring for me to just repeat what other people already did better.
For a fact, Serpent Rider is quite something else, a skewed cross of epic heavy metal arrangements, occult lead guitar, and ghostly soft vocals. Though Visions of Esoteric Splendor is destined to prove their only release with that line-up, the quartet produced concise shots of intriguing atmosphere and adventure such as “The Wretch”.
Regarding Ezra Brooks’s sound, Brandon started his summary with just “big fucking riffs,” expanded to “big fucking riffs, dank wizard vocals,” and then went on to elaborate.
BC: Big fucking riffs, but done in a weird way. Heavy metal is all about those badass riffs that make it different from other kinds of music.
And, as the 3 of us agreed, heavy metal also has its own wilful attitude and bravado – the so-called “big dick energy.” With just one man handling almost all the instrumentation and vocals for Ezra Brooks, and that man being guitarist for heavy/doom prodigies Smoulder, one could expect shit-kicking riffs to form the basic element of the project’s heavy metal craft, although winding songwriting, imaginative hooks, and an ongoing sci-fi concept make up the whole experience.
Staying on the theme of big dick energy a moment longer, doesn’t Serpent Rider sound a little bit, er…penile? It’s no secret that drummer/bassist Andrew Lee has a few joke bands, so perhaps we should expect him to be behind that.
BC: The name was chosen before Andrew was even in the band. At first it was pretty much the Brandon show, just me writing everything by myself. The name is from a Manilla Road lyric, “Ride the serpent and make your stand.” [“The Ram”] I guess it’s got a bit of that big dick energy too!
So Manilla Road influenced the bandname of Serpent Rider, but the musical inspiration might be a different kettle of fish. Each musician had a shot at guessing the top 3 musical influences on one another’s projects, and neither were prepared to make silly mistakes. After long thought, the Serpent Rider guitarist spoke first.
BC: I’m going to play straight, and say Brocas Helm, Manilla Road, Tales Of Medusa.
SV: That seems fair. “The Helm of Sacorb” is a tribute to Brocas Helm, which the more apt listeners might have picked up from the title, and the lyrics are all Brocas Helm song titles scrambled up into a reasonable kind of order. I also made a t-shirt with the same font as the Brocas Helm logo, so that made it a bit more obvious. A lot of people didn’t realize that and were asking me, “What’s a sacorb?” The entire song structure is roughly based on the Brocas Helm song “Cry of the Banshee”. The main riff was originally going to be part of a solo, but it made more sense to start the song with it. Similarly it made sense to start my side of the split with it, just as “Cry of the Banshee” starts Brocas Helm’s third full length, Defender of the Crown.
The gradual entry of “The Helm of Sacorb” initially gave me the impression that Ezra Brooks’s style was too off-kilter or the production was too demanding, arriving in stages with bass, then guitar, and finally drums joining the same motif, though ultimately that jangly string sound defines the more esoteric side of the music, alongside US power metal and epic metal influences. Tales Of Medusa, despite not having the groundbreaking status of the other bands, have built a strong cult following through extremely low-profile physical releases, causing them to be treasured in some circles as epic metal heroes of the underground. Their sense of spontaneity and smoothness in structuring can be heard in Ezra Brooks and Serpent Rider, while both interviewees would have heard of the band as avid collectors. Of note, Brandon appeared in front of a massive amount of vinyl on the video call and S. Vincent recently displayed a rare cassette on Facebook of An Achaean Invocation (one of only 50 copies of this Tales Of Medusa demo).
SV: I’ll play straight too, I’d have to say Manilla Road, Rotting Christ, and Tales Of Medusa as well?
BC: Actually less Manilla Road than you’d think, but they’re definitely an influence!
If the combination of black metallers Rotting Christ and epic heavy metal seems odd, Serpent Rider’s Varathron cover should set your doubts at rest, as well as the omnipresent occult feel of their other songs on Visions of Esoteric Splendor. Brandon explains the link.
BC: If you ignore the programmed drums and the vocals, a lot of Greek black metal is basically just heavy metal with big fucking riffs. The Greek scene is more inspired by that stuff than some people think, sort of ignoring what was going on elsewhere in the world and instead forming a whole sound of their own… Personally, I always find myself going back to heavy metal, but I’m really a terrible guitar player and have trouble trying to write in that style. I learned guitar on Immolation, Celtic Frost, Darkthrone, Morbid Angel… I need to play to my strengths to write anything, and so even when I do heavy metal it’s filtered through those influences.
That brings us neatly onto the cover songs on the split, each of which end a side of the recording. Serpent Rider chose to cover Varathron’s “Flowers of My Youth” (His Majesty at the Swamp, 1993) and Ezra Brooks recorded a version of “Legions” (Ironsword, 2002) by Ironsword, a more typical heavy metal band from Portugal.
BC: I love cover songs that aren’t just a copy of the original. For the Varathron cover, I don’t think anyone else in the band had listened to Varathron before that, so I sort of just gave it to the others and said, “Do your parts like you normally would.” That let them approach it like it was one of our own originals, because I write all the songs anyway. The same with your Rotting Christ cover [on Ezra Brooks’s 2019 split with Emblem].
SV: Yes, that was a very heavy metal version of Rotting Christ. I even had to create my own vocal melodies, as the original did not have any. I like covers that do something a bit different, but also ones that play straight. For Ironsword it’s pretty much a straight cover, but a few vocal melodies were altered to better match my vocal style.
All the same, putting cover songs on a split sometimes produces a feeling more like a compilation than a true album, but Visions of Esoteric Splendor ends up a much more cohesive experience than expected. Not only do the bands overlap sonically without effacing their individual identities, the title, cover art, and whole philosophy of the release coexist wonderfully. The pair reveal a little more about how the split came about.
SV: We met through a mutual friend – the bassist of Smoulder, Adam Blake – then I asked Brandon if he would want to do a split back in 2019. At that point, I had 2 songs ready and “The Helm of Sacorb” half done…
BC: I had nothing! Usually the band that suggests doing a split has the material ready, haha! And because I heard demos of his tracks and they were great, I was really under a lot of pressure. Thinking, “Shit, I’ve got to write something that can match this.” But the whole thing took a while, then we were searching for a label for a long time. No Remorse was actually one of the last labels we asked, not because we didn’t want to go with them but because we thought they wouldn’t want to release a split. I think the only other one I can think of that they’ve ever done was for fucking Eternal Champion!
SV: The entire split was fully complete even before we started asking labels, so we were prepared to self-release it if No Remorse had passed on it. As for the name… I had a split with Emblem called Visions of Power, and I wanted to call it the same name, and use the same cover art even. Brandon wanted something at least slightly different, so we kept the “visions” and went for “esoteric splendor”. The cover art is a drawing by Michał Elwiro Andriolli that I stumbled upon and thought it was perfect for epic heavy metal. At first it was black and white, and I added the green tint myself. Later I discovered a full colour version but it only existed on a postcard and no scan could be obtained.
Putting out multiple splits with the same title and same cover? Only the most obvious sign of S. Vincent’s tricky contrariness. Naturally, I wanted to find out about the songs that meant the most to their composers, but playing the “split” card again proved irresistible. That meant asking the pair about their favourite song from the other side of the split. Brendan was extremely fast with his choice, even though the song in question initially has odd construction, such as conspicuously long pauses in its first half.
BC: “When the Future Fails”. It just builds so well, it’s one of those songs I wish I was good enough to write. The way everything fits together so well with the solos as well.
SV: Mine’s “The Mask of the Wolf” because it’s written about Baron Maliadus, a Michael Moorcock character that’s not usually written about in terms of The Eternal Champion, not nearly so much as Elric or Corum. And the vocal melodies have been stuck in my head since I heard rough demos of it.
BC: I like to write about stuff that’s contrary! I love Elric but everyone’s written about Elric already.
SV: Anyway, it’s still a great song.
Both have much to say about Moorcock’s sword and steel world, even admitting that it has an influence on their musical choices in the realm of epic heavy metal. “The Mask of the Wolf” itself opens the Serpent Rider side in excellent form, quickly getting down to business with a direct riff and Kelly Kuciemba’s distinctive lead guitar. However, would the musicians choose the same tracks as their own favourites?
SV: I’d also choose “When the Future Fails”. When Matt Preston came in to do the lead guitar it took everything up a level. I really loved his work in The Swill and Ghost Tower and Borrowed Time, so I wanted him to do the solos. I’m more of a rhythm guitar player.
BC: Same thing here. Kelly brings a special atmosphere to Serpent Rider, something different – it’s just instinctive for him. It’s funny though that even when I played a demo of some songs to a friend without telling him who was involved he said, “Oh, it’s you and Kelly in that band,” and just knew Kelly’s style straight away. But although he’s spent all this time playing super heavy death metal in Drawn and Quartered, he grew up with heavy metal and whenever he wants to show me some special new guitar or something it’s not an Immolation one but a Holy Diver one.
For me, my favourite from the split is “Echidna”. It’s the simplest song on the split but that’s what I love, it only has 4-5 riffs and it’s very basic. I’m always trying to write complex 8-9 minute songs with a jillion riffs, so for this one just to focus on structure is great. I even wrote a transition for the lead guitar which I’ve never done before, and then gave it to Kelly to do the final solo since he’s better at that than I am. And what she [R. Villar; Serpent Rider vocalist and Brandon’s wife] did with the vocal lines too…We often sing lines back and forth and change the lyrics to something silly, like why the dog is sad or something, but that’s definitely the one we sing the most.
If even the dog knows the sound of “Echidna”, I’ll say that’s a catchy number! The smoothness and dexterity of the piece is probably its finest quality, with that lead guitar transition a pivotal moment in its progression. At first, “Echidna” seems an odd song title to find among the others, but Brandon is quick to explain that he didn’t write lyrics about the hedgehog-looking animal.
BC: In ancient Greek mythology, Echidna is the mother of monsters. The song even has the names of some of those monsters in the lyrics, you don’t have to look hard to know what it’s about. It’s inspired by the cover art for the upcoming first album, which was actually drawn for the demo and was so good that we had to have Karmazid draw a new cover instead of wasting it on 2 songs. The art features a beast that immediately made me think of Greek mythology and made me want to write about it. I contacted a mutual friend of mine and Shawn’s who is a professor of the classics – Jeremy Swist – to point me in the direction of primary source material for my research on the lyrics, and “Echidna” is the earliest result. My fascination with Greek mythology and with the heavy metal scene all sort of made sense to have it tie into the band; after all, our first singer [Nick Varsamis] was Greek, our record label is Greek, the band we covered on this split and some of our biggest influences are Greek…
Serpent Rider’s current singer is apparently only one room away when the interview takes place, and that brings us to a special question – regarding partners in bands. In Smoulder, S. Vincent plays guitar alongside his vocalist wife Sarah, while the recent period of Serpent Rider has obviously involved a couple sharing musical space too. Relationships can sometimes be tested in these situations, so difficulties would not surprise, nor a sense of freedom when playing solo in Ezra Brooks. However, both musicians are very positive about either side of the experience.
BC: It’s a fantastic experience to be able to share making music with her. We talked about doing a project together for a long time. In fact, I was originally going to sing on these tracks, but I’m so proud of what she’s done with her vocals.
SV: It’s not weird to play in Ezra Brooks without Sarah, the project started out before we even met. And the situation in Smoulder is perhaps a little different, we weren’t dating at the time we started the band.
On the other hand, doing Ezra Brooks alone has allowed S. Vincent to broaden his range of themes, crafting an ongoing narrative about a character who adventures through time and space. As one of my favourite cuts from the split, I wanted to know how “Am I Just Paranoid?” fitted into that narrative, or whether some personal feelings worked their way in.
SV: It’s about Ezra Brooks being on the run for years and she’s not sure who to trust. That song’s not about a particular story, more of thematic piece. Similar to “Forever on the Run” from the Target demo. The whole band concept is about a time-travelling character who goes through lots of different episodes, but they aren’t always in order, it’s not linear. Like a Robert E. Howard book, where the previous story often has no impact on the next one. That being said, many of the songs contain references to each other. For example the closing track on the upcoming full length is part one of another track on the album.
Second point in evidence of a contrary character, your honour. And as for a third, I was pretty sure that the name Ezra Brooks came from a whiskey brand…
SV: Yes, it’s a brand of bourbon whiskey. At first, I was using the name Amulet, but then the UK group with that name released a great demo, so I thought that was their name and they should use it. My roommate suggested – kind of as a joke – that I should use Ezra Brooks, because it’s a whiskey name with character, like Cutty Sark, for instance. After a while I started thinking, “Well maybe…” It’s a nice, different kind of bandname.
All this points to an enticingly weird forthcoming album, something that should be on the way from both bands. Each have their own way of working though.
SV: For the new album I’ve finished writing the music and about 80% of the lyrics, which always take me the longest, as I plan them out very carefully. I’m hoping it will be out sometime next year. My goal is to have everything recorded by the end of this year. I record all my parts at home, so I can take my time and record whenever I feel like.
BC: Next? Bigger, harder, longer. The full-length is going to be great, and I’m also working on getting the other guys more involved in the band and to write more collaboratively. It’s still my band but I don’t want to be a tyrant, and I think having other eyes on it helps keep the quality up. We have a new bassist and drummer so we can start doing live shows, but I don’t think it’s right to announce who before we do it officially. Andrew of course is out: he knew that he was basically just helping me out until I could put together a line-up and we’d talked about it from the beginning, so he understood when I told him he was out of the band. We couldn’t have one guy playing bass and drums that doesn’t even live in the same state as the rest of us!
Thus both Ezra Brooks and Serpent Rider left me with high expectations for the coming months: not only a full-length from each project but a few new episodes in the Ezra Brooks saga and the promise of live shows from Serpent Rider, most likely around their base in Seattle. Though it doesn’t sound right to say, surely it would be amazing to see some of that big dick energy in the flesh!
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