Interview by Miriam C.
I’m sure that when mastermind Victor Smolski decided to move on to the next musical adventure after his consexual separation with the premium heavy/speed metal band Rage, many fans were disappointed but Victor made a solemn promise and he’s back with Almanac: soundwise, the band continues where Lingua Mortis Orchestra left off. Not enough of this, the Byelorussian artist surrounded himself with some interesting vocalists as Andy B. Franck (Brainstorm), David Readman (Pink Cream 69) and Jeannette Marchewka and here we come to “Tsar”, their debut album: let’s read it from Victor and Jeannette about it.
Hi Victor and Jeannette, welcome to Femme Metal Webzine, how are you?
Victor and Jeannette: Hi Miriam, you are welcome and it’s a pleasure.
Back in 2015 and after the separation from Rage, Victor, you decided to found a brand new band called Almanac. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but what prompted you to this decision? Is this related to a different musical vision?
Victor: It is no secret that over the last few years in Rage, I was not happy anymore with how things went down. I was mostly alone when it came down to creative things, we did not rehearse anymore and the overall feeling was just not right anymore. All the fun and the great energy we once used to have was gone. So after a while I came to a point where I was really unhappy and where it was time for a new start. When I decided I would leave Rage, it was obvious that there would be something new coming. There were several ideas for concepts, but what I really wanted to do was not any kind of project, but a real band, with friends and excellent musicians, where I would have the chance to make music without any compromises and have a lot of fun and enjoy doing so again…
Can Almanac be considered the reincarnation of your past project Lingua Mortis Orchestra and according to your personal view, what traits do Almanac have in common with LMO‘s debut “LMO” ?
Victor: My concept to work with many singers was born with LMO. I like this combination between orchestra and band with a different spectrum of singers. You can use all these different spectrums by creating dynamics in songs. I like very much this concept and decided to keep pursuing the same ideas with Almanac, but with much better musicians.
Having said that, aside from female singer Jeannette Marchewka , Almanac features in its ranks the male singers Andy B. Franck (Brainstorm) and David Readman (Pink Cream 69). How did they get involved in this project?
Victor: Basically this band, exactly as it is now, was my dream and was existing in my imagination for quite some time. I knew Jeannette, Enric and the Orquestra Barcelona Filharmonia from the work on the LMO album and back then it was already so much fun to work together with them. I did always love the voice characters of David and Andy, finding that both of them are among pretty much the best singers in rock and metal. Armin, the bass player, already played on my “Majesty & Passion” solo album back in 2004, and we had so much fun together back then. Same with Michael, the drummer, who I did see perform several years ago and was very impressed with the way he plays, so the idea to work together was present for quite some time. Also I felt that everyone who is in the band now are pretty passionate and pleasant characters, really easy going and fun people to be around, so I was figuring, that this combination of people would make a great band. So, when the time came, I asked everybody if they could imagine doing a new band with me and I was very happy when everybody accepted the offer right away…
On March 18th, you released via Nuclear Blast Records your debut album called “Tsar”. What you can say about its genesis?
Jeannette: It was great to see how everything developed from the first demos on, through funny “dummy nonsense lyrics” and our first experiments with harmonization. Every one of us brought in their very own ideas and out of that grew a terrific final result. I particularly appreciated the fact that we were able to work in an extremely concentrated and highly professional manner, while still splitting our sides with laughter. We had a lot of fun without ever losing our perfectionistic aspirations. It is quite astonishing for ourselves to look back on the process and see how much we accomplished in such a short space of time. To make it happen that faster, it was possible because everyone involved was really in it without any compromises and we were ready to give it the best we have.
Even if it was a lot of work, we were enjoying ourselves and having lots of fun all the time during the process. I cannot remember having laughed that much in any other production during the last couple of years. We worked in 8 different studios to be able to get the best results for each element and also all the crews and technicians were very much dedicated and did their work with a lot of passion, making it the best they can. Same goes for Rainer “Zipp” Fränzen and his team, who were in charge of all the video work… really pleasant people who love what they do and gave it all they had. The whole process is nicely documented on the bonus DVD which is enclosed in the amazing digibook version of the album, so if you guys wanna know how it all went down, get the digibook version of the album while it is still available.
Does “Tsar” have to be considered as a whole band effort, and to what extent have the other band members contributed to the creation of the album?
Victor: The concept idea for “Tsar” came up in a meeting with Andy Siry of Nuclear Blast. We were looking for a topic which had a certain kind of strength, but also which had not been used on a metal album yet. So we came to Ivan the terrible, a character I find highly fascinating. Of course being from Belarus myself, I have an emotional connection to Russian history, but then also the story of Ivan the terrible itself is a very interesting one. It shows how social and personal circumstances can tragically change a man from a basically good and constructive character to the complete opposite. Additionally, the life span of Ivan the terrible offered so many events which were very dramatic and exciting, which is an important factor when it comes down to writing music alongside it, and when David Readman and Andy B. Franck, who wrote the lyrics to the songs, told me that they felt similarly and could imagine writing lyrics about the topic – we decided to go for it. I always have many ideas going around in my head, but I really love to write especially for the people I am working with, and I also really love to experiment and improvise a lot in the process.
So I basically started from scratch some time during the summer, at home I started with experimenting with motives, riffs and basic ideas, having in mind each one of the musicians involved and what I imagined would sound great and be fun for everyone to play and sing. Once I had enough ideas for what would make a great album, Michael, Armin and myself met in the rehearsal room and started jamming with the single ideas, playing around to see how it feels and what works and what does not. Once we had something we liked, we recorded it and after a few days, we pretty much had the basic versions of the 8 songs which are on the album now. Everybody was contributing ideas to the arrangements, and Michael even co-wrote the song “Nevermore” with me. The next step then was to write the vocal melodies and orchestra scores. For the vocal melodies, I had in mind all of the three voices and their very special characters – and how they would blend the best way to make the result a really great one. Once this was done, David and Andy recorded demos of the vocal parts, so they had something to start writing lyrics with. At the same time Jeannette recorded lots of amazing ideas for vocal harmonies. For the orchestra part, since I already knew what the Orquestra Barcelona Filharmonia can do, it was a real pleasure to write the scores and happened pretty quickly and smoothly. Same goes for the choir parts, which were recorded by my old friend Vlad Kovaliov in Minsk.
After all of this was finished, we were ready to hit the studio. As I already said, we worked in 8 different studios with the intention to get the best results possible for each instrument and element on the album. There are studios in which certain things work really well according to the sonic and technical environments, so we tried to envision where we would be able to get the best results for each element. The studio work was really a lot of fun, and we were making no compromises at all, and we did improvise a lot and tried a lot of things spontaneously, on the spot. I like to do this since it keeps the process exciting and the energy stays fresh: for instance with all my solos on the album, none of them were prepared before entering the studio – all of them were improvised as we recorded. This way I can have a lot of fun, surprise myself and best case come up with something really new, which did work quite well on this album, I like to think.
The mixing process was very intense this time, I think we ended up with a total of 242 tracks to mix and the final version of the mix was version No. 165. But in the mixing process, it was the same thing, there was a lot of things to keep in mind, a lot of decisions to make, how to make every single element sound the best way possible – but at the same time really paying attention to the big picture, to making it sound great as a whole; which was my main goal for this album. Here we also had a lot of fun, and it was very exciting to watch it grow to the final result which we have now…
It’s not the first time that you act as a producer (and mixing too) for your release. Though, this time you have decided to solely handle the production and you have chosen to confide in Sebastian “Seeb” Levermann for the mixing. Why?
Victor: As a producer I like to concentrate on music and have always somebody to mix and record the whole stuff on the mixing console. All these computer programs, plug ins and effects disturb me while feeling the songs. The last few years I have worked together as a team with Charlie Bauerfeind and this was a great experience. For Almanac I was looking for something new and find that the style of work from Seeb fits very well to my vision and I really like the result.
Nowadays, metalheads are getting well-acquainted with the use of an orchestra in a metal song but in specific I’d like to ask you for some more information about the Orquestra Barcelona Filharmonia and in general, which is the most demanding obstacle that a metal band must face when they hire an orchestra?
Victor: In the last 20 years I’ve worked with a lot of different orchestras for my solo CDs, Rage, Lingua Mortis Orchestra and many other bands. This was a great experience and I’ve learned a lot of things. The biggest problem is that a lot of orchestras don’t have any idea what metal is about and that music needs to be recorded on drums. Playing straight/tight/on time is sometimes difficult for classical educated musicians. Also tuning could be a problem, because classical musicians tune the instruments higher than the regular 440 tuning. So, I would not recommend hiring an orchestra who doesn’t have experience in playing Rock music. If anybody needs help, you can contact me.
Also, connected to the previous question, how did you manage, in your pieces/compositions, to balance between the orchestral parts and the metal ones without exceeding in both cases?
Victor: To make orchestra arrangement you have to learn a lot and you need a lot of experience to create the right balance between the orchestra and the band. Also acoustic recording the orchestra is very important. When you want to have a tight sound you need to make a dry recording from the orchestra.
Jeannette, it’s not the first time that you have collaborated with Victor (I recall the Lingua Mortis Orchestra S/T album) but I was wondering how everything started? When did you meet Victor for the first time?
Jeannette: I met him at the rehearsals for the 70.000 Tons of Metal Cruise. Actually my very first instrument was the violin long before I started singing. I didn’t play for years and when I started again a friend saw a picture of me playing the violin on Facebook. He asked me if I was interested in playing in an orchestra on a metal cruise from Miami to Grand Turks and back. Before my mind’s eye I saw the ocean, cocktails and paradisiac white-sand Caribbean beaches, without any hesitation I accepted the offer and there I was playing in the Lingua Mortis Orchestra! As I prepared myself for the cruise the songs blew me away! It was amazing to play them. It didn’t take a long time for Victor to find out that I was a singer too and that’s how it all began…
During your career, for what I can garner from your personal website, among your diverse background we can count even the participations in some musicals (such as “Cats”). How did your diverse experiences help you face a particular and different artistic environment such as the metal scene?
Jeannette: I have always been swaying in between different musical worlds. At first I wanted to study musicals because I was interested in the ample education of acting, singing and dance but in the end I decided to study classical singing (opera). Already during my time in school I sang both classical repertoire and Rock/Pop music. It always bothered me to be told that you can only sing the one or the other – so I did both!
Hungarian artist Gyula Havancsák is the author behind the creation of the cover artwork of “Tsar”. How this cooperation was born and what insight you can share about its visual concept?
Victor: For the cover artwork of “Tsar” I contacted a lot of different artists to get the best ideas, and these were definitely Gyula‘s ideas. He brought all of my ideas to the point and it fits perfectly to the concept – showing the power of Ivan the Terrible.
Both the digital singles “Tsar” and “Self-Blinded Eyes” were taken from your self-titled debut, would you mind giving us a few of words about the songs?
Victor: So, let’s start to talk about “Tsar”: it describes how Ivan the Terrible lost his parents as a child and was drawn into a power struggle for the throne and his sovereignty. Intrigue, rumors, constant fear and lack of love impressed upon Ivan’s childhood, it made him a suspicious man and formed a cruel and vindictive character. Already at a young age he put his initial thoughts of revenge into action. Instead “Self Blinded Eyes” it illuminates the period of his reign in which he, as a pious, intelligent ruler, put to death anyone who disagreed with him, and let them suffer the most terrible death possible. These sad stories increased his celebrity status, which was made even stronger for example with nine mass executions which he described as a cleaning process.
You also had the opportunity to shoot a video for “Self-Blinded Eyes”. Could you tell us a bit about the concept behind it and the filming?
Jeannette: We tried to include the story of Ivan The Terrible without losing the focus on the presentation of the band. The medieval castle of Ehrenburg was the perfect location. Rainer “Zipp” Fränzen and his crew did a great job on the video!
What are the next tour plans? Where can your fans catch you in the next days?
Jeannette: Right now there is a lot of organizing, planning and tinkering going on behind the scenes. Several festivals were already confirmed for the summer and we are already planning the next tour. For sure, we are thrilled with every new follower on Facebook: this is where we always announce our latest news, tour dates and some private statements and so on. We are also very pleased to answer all of your questions – so write to us on Facebook and give us a “like”!
So, Victor & Jeannette, it’s time for your parting words – I really thank you for your time – please greet freely our readers and your fans. Thanks again!
Jeannette: Thank you for the interview, Miriam! Greetings to all the Femme Metal Webzine readers out there…keep rockin’ and see you at the next concert!
Victor: First of all, thanks a lot to you, Miriam, for the interview and interest in Almanac and “Tsar” and thanks a lot to all metal heads who are buying “Tsar” – and listening to and supporting Almanac!!! We would love to come and play for all of you sometime soon… Take care and see you around!!!
Photos (in order) by Diana Hank and Micheal Mai