By Michael Popke
For years, Devon Graves has inhabited the dark, outer edges of progressive metal — first with the seminal Psychotic Waltz (when Graves was known as Buddy Lackey) and later with his solo project Deadsoul Tribe (whose tribal sound often was punctuated with strategic flute arrangements). Both bands achieved critical acclaim and garnered cult followings.
Now, the vocalist and flute man has recruited former Pain of Salvation bassist Kristoffer Gildenlöw, Threshold drummer Johanne James and newcomers Arne Schuppner on guitar and Demi Scott on keyboards for his latest group, The Shadow Theory. The collective’s debut album, “Beyond the Black Veil,” has a lot in common with Deadsoul Tribe’s material and tells a ghost story about a drug-addled rock star and the enigmatic woman who haunts him.
Plus, Graves and Psychotic Waltz have reunited for a European tour with Symphony X and Nevermore in early 2011, and a new album is planned for 2012. Graves says Deadsoul Tribe (which released five albums on InsideOut Music) is “on hold,” but he admits that The Shadow Theory likely “will make Deadsoul Tribe obsolete, in that I expect more opportunities to come to The Shadow Theory than to Deadsoul Tribe.”
Indeed, when Goldmine caught up with Graves a few weeks before the U.S. release of “Behind the Black Veil” on InsideOut, his optimism about his most ambitious work was obvious. “We have only touched the surface of our potential, and it is very exciting to imagine all the future possibilities,” he says, adding that he hopes The Shadow Theory also will tour. “It exceeds my visions.”
How did you musically approach The Shadow Theory? What are your objectives with this project?
Devon Graves: I have been doing Deadsoul Tribe albums for several years now. I had been the sole composer for nearly all of that material. Musically speaking, in The Shadow Theory, I take a less-prominent role in the instrumental composition, but act more as a producer. I choose the material from that which is presented to me, written by Demi and Arne. Once the material is selected, I set about arranging the compositions in a way that I think best serves the songs. I make emotional decisions on which parts should remain and which parts should be taken away. I often completely restructure a composition, like turn an intro into a verse, a chorus into a middle section, and a verse into a chorus. I make these decisions [based] on how well the parts invite melody and how well the song flows. It is not an intellectual process, but an emotional one. I just trust my instincts. If it doesn’t make me feel euphoric, it’s gone. So far, the guys have been very happy with the result, and so am I.
How did the process of choosing your bandmates for The Shadow Theory differ from previous projects? Did you really choose Deadsoul Tribe’s live band based on, as InsideOut’s bio says, “who had the right hair?”
DG: That is basically correct. Aside from Adel [Moustafa, drums], who I chose because of his playing, the other guys I chose more or less for their stage appeal. I only needed a great drummer to make the albums, because I played all the other instruments myself. This meant stage presence and a certain look, or more correctly, a certain vibe. That is why I prefer Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore over more-contemporary guitarists who can play technically better, but don’t have near the charisma and stage presence.
What one thing excites you most about this band?
DG: I think the unknown potential, and the fact that we can go in any direction we want musically. Another aspect is the live potential. Each member is certainly a more-than-capable player in his own right, but each is also an extraordinary stage performer.
Throughout your career, your music has remained adventurous and challenging, both musically and lyrically, and “Behind the Black Veil” is no exception. How do you find a balance between challenging fans and making music that is still accessible to casual listeners? Or do you not worry about casual listeners?
DG: I think the key is to just keep it interesting for myself. I mean, that is the only basis on which I can critically judge what I am doing. I can’t begin to guess what other people want; I only know what works for me. If it doesn’t work for me, I can’t expect anyone else to like it, either. I just do what I do. Either the world has a need for it or not. That is not to say I wouldn’t be happy doing other styles of music. There are things I would like to do that would be outside of metal, and someday I will hopefully get to do that. I remain in the metal genre because the metal audience is by far the best music audience an artist could play to. They love their music on a very crucial level. But one day, I may grow up and move on. If I do, hopefully my audience will grow up with me and be ready for the next thing.
One mail-order Web site selling “Behind the Black Veil” asks, “Does flute have a place in prog metal?” I think you’ve proven it does. When you wrote songs for the new album, especially “I Open Up My Eyes,” how did you determine what role the flute would play?
DG: I certainly knew I would be using flute somewhere, as I always do. That is one of my trademarks, and it is special to people, because you don’t hear a lot of flute players in rock and especially metal; I think it’s just myself and the great Ian Anderson, who was my sole inspiration to play the thing. When I am working on my vocals for a song, I choose where I will sing first. On the empty spaces, I realize there should be some focal point for the listener. Traditionally, this is a guitar solo or a drum fill. In the case of prog, a good keyboard solo is often held in high regard. I just like to use more variables to create more colors to the listening experience. So my list of go-to instruments expands to the flute, which I find very expressive.
How did the story for “Behind the Black Veil” come to you? And are you compelled to write another concept album?
DG: “Behind the Black Veil” was a story I kind of stumbled into along the way of writing my lyrics for the album. Initially, I had no continuous story, but I only wanted to work within the motif of ghost stories or some kind of classic horror theme for each song. I chose this as a motif because the music worked very well for scary stories. Originally, the songs weren’t connected to each other, but each a separate short story. About halfway through, I saw how a few of the songs fit together and I developed a storyline from there. That meant some of the songs needed to be completely rewritten. The next album will also be a story. I don’t think of it as a “concept album,” because it’s not a concept; it’s a story. I think of our music as audio cinema: The music is the score, I sing the story and the movie plays in the head of the listener.
Finally, in Jeff Wagner’s new book, “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal,” you are quoted on page 315: “Good music happens in the clever places left between notes.” How does that comment relate to the music on “Behind the Black Veil”?
DG: Some of the most important notes in a song are the ones that are not played; it is the spaces and pauses that give the played notes their weight. This is a bold statement in a genre such as prog, where solos are played furiously without a pause or space anywhere. It takes courage when you are playing a guitar solo to play for half a bar, then leave a bar and a half empty. It is not something you commonly hear in prog or metal, period. It is not always appropriate in metal music — especially the faster stuff — to play this way, but I do try to approach my vocal melodies this way. If you sing a line — or better yet, part of a line — then leave a space of silence before the next words, you will draw the listener into what you are going to say next. This makes the lyrics have stronger emotional impact. Think of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He sings one bar, then leaves one bar free, sings one bar, leaves a bar free. Maybe this is why his messages get heard. Gm