Imperial Triumphant’s Zachary Ezrin on his wild approach to guitar: “There’s tons of cool stuff you can do when you stop worrying about hitting the note perfectly”
“I bought a noise gate and I was like, ‘Fuck this! That’s not my thing,'” Imperial Triumphant guitarist and frontman Zachary Ezrin tells us from his New York home.
“But aren’t things getting a little…out of control?”
“Of course,” he said, laughing. “It’s Imperial Triumphant!”
Good point really. From the explosive beats that reinforce diminished tremolo seventh chords to the opulent gold-plated art deco imagery that accompanies it all, everything about Imperial Triumphant is extreme.
For the uninitiated, Imperial Triumphant is a jazz-fusion black metal power trio that has spent the last decade creating an entire world out of dissonant high-gain guitars, nightmarish soundscapes and intense polyrhythms that give you the felt like the whole world could come crashing down at any moment.
If you can’t imagine what it looks like, that’s okay, because Imperial Triumphant really isn’t like anything else.
Formed in 2006 “like a pretty typical black metal band”, they have evolved to incorporate a range of jazz elements; a natural result, Ezrin says, of the three members’ musical backgrounds and becoming a more collaborative unit.
With every release that passes, including that of 2018 Despicable luxury and the highly acclaimed 2020s Alphavillethey sowed the seams of their influences to forge a unique identity.
Signal, The spirit of ecstasywhich sees the group go further on the path it has set itself, but which always covers new horizons.
It also happens to be their most extreme outing yet. Extreme in every sense of the word, but especially when it comes to dynamics – the softer parts are softer and the heavier parts hit harder, according to the cliche.
“I don’t think we intentionally went after that, but at the same time, I don’t think we ever said to ourselves, let’s make a cooler record,” Ezrin explains. “I think we’re very true to ourselves when we write. We hope people enjoy the record, but we don’t write music for anyone; it’s just very organic. At the same time, we work very hard to create in order to make this kind of music as accessible as possible without sacrificing anything on the actual composition.
Songwriting is something Zachary and his bandmates, drummer Kenny Grohowski and bassist Steve Blanco, take seriously, and they leave no stone unturned when writing for Imperial Triumphant.
All contribute to the process, whether it’s contributing individual parts or ideas, creating songs together in their New York rehearsal space, improvising in the studio, or contributing scores of complete compositions to Table. All possibilities are explored.
There’s also no shortage of amazing guests and staff on board to help them do that too. The spirit of ecstasy was produced by at Mr. Bungle Trey Spruance, designed by Colin Marston of Gorguts and features guest spots like Alex Skolnick of Testament, Snake from Voivod and even smooth-jazz icon Kenny G – the latter may surprise on paper but there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it.
“We worked quite a bit with Max Gorelick and ended up getting him and his dad Kenny G to have a one-man duel where there’s a lot of call-and-response on Merkurius Dore. And this solo is really very nice.
“With all these guests, I hardly give them direction, I just tell them where I imagine them playing and they come back with incredibly perfectly played games,” he explains. “And we’re very grateful to work with such talented people because it allows us to take these songs to a level that we never would have been able to achieve without these contributions.”
“We always want to work with guests on every record because I think that’s part of the inclusive nature of Imperial Triumphant and New York music in general. But I wanted this album, in particular, to sometimes feel like you just walked into a late-night jazz bar downtown, you know, everyone’s sitting to tunes.
New York’s influence on Imperial Triumphant is hard to overstate, with the city itself playing a part in everything from the band’s aesthetic choices to how Ezrin approaches the guitar.
“New York City has a huge influence on many aspects of our music,” says Ezrin. “There are extreme dualities when it comes to this city, where there are super high highs and super low lows, and that becomes evident in our lyrics as well as our musical dynamic. That’s where some of the richest people live, and that’s where some of the poorest people live…and they’re only a few blocks from each other.
“Beyond that, musically I would say Imperial Triumphant is inspired by the sound of New York, which is extremely loud and extremely chaotic. And if you’ve ever walked down the street and heard sirens whistling, or been on the subway, or the train literally creaking through tunnels. I get inspired by all this stuff and I think, ‘Oh, let me play that on my guitar.’ You know? Like, there are a lot of times where I think, ‘Oh, should I taste this?’ But then it’s like, ‘Why bother sampling? I’m just gonna play it on my guitar. “
Ezrin’s approach to the guitar is interesting in itself. A scholar of the instrument in a range of styles – from classical to jazz, thrash to blues and everything in between – Ezrin mixes traditional and unorthodox methods to create something out of the box.
“There are a lot of things that I will take inspiration from and fly from, like this style of play like Charles Mingus,” he explains. “It will bend the string on and off the fretboard and give it a flutter effect, which just sounds super fucked up – and I stole that and put that in a song, because it’s a crazy move. There are tons of cool things you can do when you stop worrying about hitting the perfect note.
“As a player, I really like having some kind of parameters that I have to work with, because then I find ways to play creatively. As my guitar is in E standard, but I definitely play well below – I I’m just going to take the whammy bar and create a melody well below low E.
“It’s helpful for me as a player to not have all the options available because it forces me to think more and be creative. You get to the eight-string guitar and you can pretty much do anything. I think it’s a little cooler if I have to figure out a way to get that sound, if I want to play like low C I have to lower my tremolo bar and find it, which I sometimes do and it sounds more wobbly and screwed up than if I just hit perfect low C.
The tremolo arm is definitely something that Ezrin puts a lot of use on. The spirit of ecstasyexplosive, Alan Holdsworth-inspired jump-rope solo opening Chump Change to the dissonant ambient drones that spice up the first half of Benzumnaya, a reliable Floyd Rose system is a must for Ezrin.
So much so that the newly signed Gibson artist is now the proud owner of a Gibson Les Paul with a Floyd Rose – a controversial move within a certain sect, no doubt, but Ezrin couldn’t be happier. .
“Gibson Guitars isn’t really known for their Floyd Rose guitars, so it was a really fun project to find all six guitars they’ve ever made that have Floyd Rose systems,” he says. “They first sent me a Les Paul Axcess that has a Floyd Rose in it, and it’s a really amazing guitar, it’s really sick!
“Then I just bought a Flying V90, 1989 – it’s like one of the few races they did for about three years or something that had been a Flying V with Floyd Rose. Again, just an amazing instrument that hardly anyone seems to play.
With a relatively modest pedalboard consisting of an Ernie Ball VP Jr volume pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Eddy vibrato/chorus, an Electro-Harmonix Canyon delay pedal and an Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 reverb pedal which is mostly used for subtle echo, it’s safe to say largely in the hands of Ezrin.
In fact, much of the material he writes for Imperial Triumphant begins on an unplugged electric guitar “because if it sounds heavy and fucking unplugged, it’s going to sound super heavy when you play it with an amp with a lot of gain.”
For this, he was an almost exclusive user of the Peavey 5150 on disc but recently upgraded to Victory The Kraken V4 Amps to help lighten the load as Imperial Triumphant turns to a massive tour in support of The spirit of ecstasy.
“To be honest, the Kraken sounds 90% like a 5150 and weighs 2% more,” he says. “I’ve just done a whole European tour with it and didn’t feel like I didn’t miss it once and didn’t mess my back loading it up.
“My sound engineer who did all the European tours didn’t even notice the difference. So I’m very happy with that, as far as the live rig goes because, you know, if I’m loading into my own gear, I’m going to go for the lighter option.