Twenty years ago, the term metalhead meant a guy with long hair, usually wearing a jean jacket with a back patch, plenty of chains, torn jeans and white sneakers. Over the years, that scene has evolved (or splintered, depending on your perspective) into a dozen or more sub-genres. That old school metalhead might now be identified with Bay-area thrash. Others may be into death, doom, black, power, progressive, or even operatic metal.
Hold the phone, Cat. Did you just say operatic metal?
I did. And I might not be saying it if not for sharing a stage with one of the East Coast’s best operatic metal bands; Cassandra Syndrome. Here’s an image: take deep, electronic-backed rhythm section, add in pounding, crunchy guitars. Good, so far? Now add an operatic soprano songbird to the mix. Operatic Metal.
I told you so.
I was fortunate enough to meet Cassandra Syndrome when they performed together with my band, Division, in Richmond, VA. They’re as humble as they are talented. Lead singer Irene Jericho took some time out of her busy schedule to accept an interview with me, even as their second CD, the interesting and inspired “Satire X” is released to the public.
Irene, thanks first for taking the time to answer some questions and to meet our readers. Let me sort of set the stage, if you will, and ask you to describe the theme behind “Satire X”.
IJ: Thanks for having me! Satire X is our second full-length release and we’re really excited about it. Our material tends to focus on socio-political commentary. The lyrical theme within Satire X is about consumption; specifically consumption to the point of ignoring everything else that’s going on. That’s actually where the name of the album comes from. Juvenal was a first century satirist. In his tenth Satire (Satire X), he talks about ‘panem et circensis,’ which means ‘bread and circuses’ or ‘bread and games.’ He was talking about the propensity of the political leaders of his time to satisfy the shallow needs of a people (fun and food) rather than to expend the effort to govern well. We definitely feel like it’s happening here in the United States. Everyone’s so caught up with the next gadget, reality TV show or toy that they’re not really paying attention to what’s happening to our country. The ‘circus’ concept came through on the album art—we tried to create a dark carnival, a circus of the damned, for the album to live in.
Interested readers may already have hit your site. The first audio single is “The Magus.” Can you tell us a little bit about that song?
IJ: “The Magus” is actually part of our Tarot series. The song is based off the second card of the Tarot Major Arcana, the Magician or Magus. In our quest to create a song for each of the Major Arcana, a big goal is to make the cards relatable to our current lives. In the song The Magus, the Magician is portrayed in his role as the power behind the throne, the puller of strings. In this case, the stockbrokers, bankers and power mongers that contributed to the global financial crisis. In live performances, The Magus gets a huge reaction--it has rapidly become one of our fan base's favorites. It was definitely on the top four list for singles off the album. Our other consideration for a single was songs that make an impact--a song that combines listenability with message. In light of the continuing strain on countries around the world and the citizens that rely on them, we felt The Magus was most relevant to our world right now.
Despite “The Magus” being the first download, it’s not the first video from the CD. Can you tell us a little bit about “Shackles”? Was this your first video shoot, and what was it like trying to bring your idea to life on film?
IJ: “Shackles” is our most direct musical attack on consumption out of the album. Other songs tackle related topics, but “Shackles” shoots straight at the heart of the issue. One of my favorite lines from the song is “Where has all our outrage been?/Bread and Circus lured us in.” That encapsulation of the theme of Satire X within one song was part of why we chose it for the music video.
The other reason is that it was the only one I had a visual concept for. I don’t normally think in terms of video—it’s a new medium for me. When I’m writing a song, I think in words, then in sounds, then sometimes in stationary artwork. For “Shackles,” for some reason, I had this very clear vision of a camera following a chain across the floor, leading the viewer in to see people chained to their possessions and obsessions.
We were really lucky to have some resources in-house to call on for the making of the video. Jen Tonon, our rhythm guitarist, runs a production and indie film company called More Brains Media. She and her counterpart, Steve Grainger, helped me flesh out the idea then bring it to life. I’m really happy with the result. I think the video definitely gets our point across.
You’re the primary lyricist for the band. Did you determine the entire theme for the CD, or did the writing process evolve over time? I’ve seen band members come in and say “play this”, and I’ve seen others say “here’s an idea, what do you think?”. Which is more accurate with Cassandra Syndrome?
The writing process is a group effort for us. I write lyrics/rhyming verse pretty frequently. The best ones go into a stack of lyrics to pull from. When we sit down to start work on a new song, one of the instrumentalists will introduce a riff or beat and everyone will jump on and add to it. As the musical sequence develops, I pull out that stack of lyrics and see what will fit. The lyrics do generally shift a bit from poetry to song, too. The rest of the band helps me decide which lines stay and which ones get cut. Sometimes we rephrase certain sections to make the words fit the music better. Since I write lyrics as poetry first, I have a tendency toward word choices that work well when spoken but can be very difficult to sing. So there’s generally some reshaping to get to the core message of a section without using five-consonant words ;)
Has promoting this disc differed from promoting your original release? (The band’s first CD was 2009’s “Of Patriots and Tyrants”.) This one seems much more closely in step with your chemistry as a band.
IJ: Definitely. I’m still very proud of ‘Patriots,’ but it was our first go-round with releasing a full-length album. There was a lot of run-up to the actual release date of Satire X. We allowed press outlets advance copies of the album in early June, so we had reviews to share with people fairly early on. More Brains Media did a series of interviews with the band and our production team and released a little behind-the-scenes mini documentary about the making of the album. We released a music video, as we discussed earlier. We hosted a live streaming listening party online—we played all the tracks and took questions from viewers about the songs, the band, the album…everything. It was a great way to get in touch with our supporters who don’t live close enough to get to a live show. We’ve also offered a few different options for purchase of the album. There’s a download-only, a physical CD and a special edition release. That release, called the Juvenal, is a special tshirt, the CD and the first three Tarot cards from our Tarot series. There are only 100 of those, and that’s all there will ever be of that particular printing. The combination of all those different activities has had a huge impact on people’s awareness of us.
One new step you took to promote the band was to appear on local TV. I loved seeing you and Jay (Jericho, percussion) on the Front Row TV Show with host David Byrne. Will you recap that experience?
IJ: That was so much fun! David and Phil Hartgis (producer) were wonderful to work with. They made us feel very comfortable, so talking about Cassandra Syndrome and Satire X was easy. I think I did give David a run for his money in terms of ‘most awesome hair,’ though J I definitely recommend their show to any other local musicians interested in appearing on the airwaves around DC. They’re very professional but also quite easygoing and fun to interact with.
I admit that I singled you out a bit in the description of the band, because without your voice, it might be placed in a different genre. Will you take a moment to introduce the band and the culture of Cassandra Syndrome?
IJ: We’re a five piece band. The other person who gets as much mention as me when it comes to reviews and interviews is our lead guitarist, Chris Kackley. He’s an amazing lead player, and I’m not saying that just because he’s in my band. I still remember the shocked silence after he came to audition for us back in the old days. He’s amazing. It was hard to believe someone as talented as he was wanted to join a weird metal band like ours! His lead lines really help carry the drama and dynamics of our work. On a personal level, he’s the most un-stereotypical-lead-guitarist I’ve ever met. He’s kind and funny and has none of the flashy attitude sometimes associated with that particular role within a band.
The guitars are rounded out by Jen Tonon. Jen comes from a punk background and lends this wonderfully trashy/thrashy sound to the rhythm lines. She’s also a trap set drummer. That background of percussion really comes through in her guitar playing—you could set a metronome to her riffs. Jen’s an amazingly multifaceted artist. Along with the film company and playing guitar for us, she’s also scored a couple musicals and the soundtracks for some video games. Because of that unusual background, she thinks about music differently than the rest of us. When we’re stuck on a section while writing a song, Jen’s often the one that finds the way out.
Bass is carried by Joe Cariola. Joe and I go way back—we went to high school together and have been friends for about 15 years now. He and I both joined the military out of high school. When I was forming Cassandra Syndrome, he was just getting out of the Army. The timing was perfect, so I drafted him. He writes wonderfully groovy bass lines. When you find yourself nodding your head along to a song, that’s probably because of Joe.
Our percussionist tends to get us a lot of attention, too. Jay doesn’t play a trap set, although you’d never know it to listen to a track. He plays a really cool percussion instrument called a Zendrum. A Zendrum is a pressure-sensitive midi-controller. It’s worn like a guitar, but looks like a giant piece of purple pizza with Oreo’s on it. Each of the “Oreo’s” is a pressure-sensitive pad. When he strikes them with his hands or fingers, the Zendrum triggers a sound. Depending on how hard Jay hits, the sound is greater or lesser in volume. He also uses a few foot pedals. The end result is that we have a hand drummer who sounds like he’s playing a really amazing trap set. It’s a great instrument—they’re rare, so we definitely get a lot of questions about the Zen.
The release of “Satire X” marks a big release for Cassandra Syndrome. Tell us a bit about what our readers should expect to see as the resulting tour/interview/appearances.
IJ: Thus far the buzz has been great and a lot of doors have been opening to us—it’s very exciting. We have some great shows coming up—our official CD Release Party is August 20th at Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore, MD. The locals will probably be familiar with that place, but for those you further afield, it’s Baltimore’s biggest, best rock club. To be invited to play there for our release party is an incredible honor. We’re also playing at the Sidebar and Sinix in Baltimore over the coming months. We’ll be once again joining Division on a bill in March for the Rockin’ Massacre. There are some other really exciting shows in the works, but since they’re not finalized yet I can’t really talk about them. As soon as things are signed, though, you’ll see them on our web page. You can expect to see interviews in a few different publications (Metal Maidens, Seeker of the Winterheart, Rock & Metal World, etc) plus more reviews, of course. The live streaming listening party was such a neat experience that we’re also kicking around the idea of more ‘live, online’ activities. So definitely stay tuned for that.
I want to thank Irene and all of Cassandra Syndrome as they promote “Satire X”. Give it a listen. You may find you like something you have never considered before. More information on Cassandra Syndrome is available at http://cassandrasyndrome.com.