Interview with Tommaso Riccardi
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from www.facebook.com/fleshgodapocalypse
With their brand new third album Labyrinth, Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse have unleashed a masterful mashup of death/black metal brutality and aggression starkly contrasted by orchestral beauty and operatic grandiosity. Tied together by a metaphoric storyline built around the myth of Theseus and his journey through the Labyrinth of Knossos to kill the minotaur, it is an exercise in taking everything over the top — yet it is adeptly executed and avoids the common traps that seem to trip up these sorts of albums time and again. It’s a benchmark of symphonic extreme metal that raises the bar for performance and presentation – and sheer audacity. As the band were preparing to leave for the states to join a tour headlined by Finland’s Wintersun, lead vocalist/guitarist Tommaso Riccardi took some time to chat over Skype about Fleshgod Apocalypse’s remarkable musical growth, the trial and error that enabled them to pull off something as ambitious as Labyrinth and their desire to bring their music to the masses, wherever those masses might be.
You’re obviously still in Italy, Perugia according to the Skype locator, I thought since you were doing all these press days you might be coming over to the states early to get everything set before the tour started?
Tommaso Riccardi: We’re actually leaving on Monday morning [Aug. 5], so it’s the day before the first show. We’re still preparing everything and fixing the last stuff and doing also rehearsal until the last day because we want to be prepared.
At this point a flight is nothing terrible, we’ve done some crazier stuff. We’re used to it after four years of crazy traveling. I remember we had a tour with All Shall Perish where we had the last gig in Sacramento and we had to leave the van in Boston before flying home, but we had like two days and half in between, so we drove all the way back, like 55 hours, 3,000 miles or something like that (laughs). So at this point we can do whatever.
You must be excited to get things rolling. Have you been doing any shows at home or around Europe, or when you get to Baltimore it all starts from there?
Tommaso: We did a couple of festivals in Germany last week, so that was kind of a warm up. We also tested one of the new songs and some new stuff. We needed to test some technical stuff. We’re going all digital and using in-ear monitors. Everything changes from that point of view so you need to get used to the new sound.
It was OK. We feel pretty comfortable. You always needs to do the new songs on the road to get into the songs perfectly, even if you rehearse them for a month it’s a totally different thing when you’re playing them live. You need some gigs before being back in shape and able to do the show as exactly as you want to. We try to be the best we can from the first day when we do the actual tour.
As grand and demanding as your music has become, I’d imagine the technical side of things has become almost as important as the performance side?
Tommaso: In a way it has, but the performance certainly will always come first. Over the last two years, we’ve started to become pretty comfortable from all the touring we’ve done. We’ve been finding our way to interact between the people in the band, from a musical point of view we’re starting to be really tight, we know each other and we now how to act and we know how to play in many sound situations because we’ve been doing everything from open airs to indoors, big stages, small stages, so everything changes every time.
But this is a step forward that we wanted to do. We’re using a rack and everything is inside of there so we’re having the same sound wherever we go, so that’s much better even for the sound guy. And when you have 15 minutes for change-overs like we do on some of these tours, it’s always hard to get the right sound, it takes three or four songs to get a good sound – and sometimes you’re not playing much more than that. This system is easier for [the soundman] to adapt for the different venues and on the other side, having the click track and the orchestra in your ears, it makes it ever more tight for your playing.
I think the final result will be great because the show will be even tighter than before and more enjoyable because we’ll be able to find ourselves in good acoustic conditions in any case. What we try to do is give the best result every time, so it’s not only rehearsal and practicing, it’s having a system that can help the band have the good conditions and bring the same quality of show every night.
For the orchestration, does that require a lot of samples and tapes, or is Francesco Ferrini able to replicate a lot of those sounds with his keyboards?
Tommaso: For some parts of the orchestra, the brass and the strings, we use backing tracks just because it’s one of those things that to have the best sound possible you need to have the sounds that you had on the album. We work really hard to get that sound on the album and you could never get the sound on the keyboard. Of course, the best thing would be to go around with an orchestra (laughs) but for economic reasons it’s not possible.
A lot of bands will put extra guitars or vocals in the backing tracks, and we don’t do that, we care a lot about the fact that we have to play as much as possible on our own what we did on the album. Francesco plays all of the piano parts with the band and if you notice, on the new album Labyrinth, the piano is present throughout all the songs, it’s like a concert for piano and orchestra. Cristiano [Trionfera, guitar] and Francesco Paoli [drums] are doing all the screaming backing vocals and Paolo [Rossi, bass] is doing all the clean vocals.
And also, we tested this in Germany, we’re bringing Veronica [Bordacchini], who’s going to do the lyrical and operatic parts live. This is our focus because we really want to be as close to an orchestra as possible and bring everything live. We’re very old school from that point of view because in the end I think it pays because people want to see real people performing the songs, so we try to do that as much as we can. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll be able to something like Dimmu Borgir and play shows with an actual orchestra. That would be amazing.
Well, never say never because you never know.
Tommaso: That’s one of our biggest dreams, because it would be incredible to play with that kind of ensemble. But obviously we need some time. For one thing, we couldn’t afford it – we’d have to be more popular than we are now.
And then the orchestral parts in our songs are really hard, I think even for an orchestra it would take time because the songs are very fast and the arrangements are crazy throughout the songs. Sometimes we probably break the rules of classical music so maybe some things that would be easy to think on a guitar or a piano maybe it’s not the same thing for violins. So that’s something that would require a rearrangement, when you play with real people you need to adapt the music, so it would be a massive work. But we’ll try to get ready for that, at least possibly by having an actual orchestra record on an album, so I hope that will happen as soon as possible.
The way your sound has grown and developed in such a short period of time is pretty amazing. Has it been a matter of your abilities catching up with your ambitions?
Tommaso: I think most of the time what we try to do is have a very natural flow. Not only in inspiration, but letting yourself learn while you’re doing. This kind of music is very complex. To write this music and record it, and also try to do something that is going to reach the people, is very difficult. And there is also the need of time to get through many things and try new things.
This is why I really think Labyrinth is a step forward from Agony because what we did on Agony was the first time we were writing music with the orchestration interacting with the whole songs, it was the first time Francesco Paoli and Ferrini were working together, because before that Francesco Paoli was the main composer. And with them working side by side it’s very different because there’s so many things involved and Ferrini is taking care of the orchestral arrangements and it is being processed together with the rest of the music.
The first time we did that there were a lot of things we didn’t know and we had to learn it on the field while we were doing it, even the production. So Agony was great, but there were many things that could have evolved, in my opinion. And this is what we tried to do with Labyrinth. We had a longer time to dedicate to the album and when we got there we already knew that because we had learned this and this and this, we could do this and this and this.
We took a lot of care with the guitar riffs because in Agony in some way we gave to the guitars a role that was maybe closer to a section of strings in the orchestra. But in this case we tried to rescue the guitar riffing from the rhythmic point of view and try to mix it up better with the orchestra. So we had to learn how to balance those two things. But I think the result is good because you have a lot of riffing going on but in the meantime it’s not going in contrast to the strings and with the rest of the orchestra. Everything found a better balance, in my opinion.
Yeah, I was going to say everything meshes together here. Symphonic concept albums a lot of times seem to have a hard time getting all the pieces to work together.
Tommaso: It takes time to understand how all of the instruments interact with each other. We try to really listen to the music, and to other people’s music, and understand what the next step is you can do. How can guitars and fast drumming like this work with an orchestra, what are the right BPMs to make this kind of riff work, even the vocals, we really studied a lot on the lyrics to understand which kind of sounds are needed to give that impression in that part.
It’s very meticulous work, but it’s the only way to understand how to do this. You need to create new mechanisms, and the more you go on the more you have these mechanisms in your mind and next time you’re going to write a song you’re going to know which things are working and which are not working and you can take your time there to do something new and maybe introduce some new elements.
I think we did that a lot during this album. In Labyrinth, there are three or four songs that are atypical, like “Towards The Sun,” it’s the first time we introduced something like the arpeggio during the first part of the song and the vocals are not exactly growled, they are more like whispered and more clean and then it goes into the growl and screams and the structure is different. “Pathfinder,” too, is very different, the kind of riffing we’re using. Now we are pretty confident in some things that are already a Fleshgod trademark and then we can move over and discover other sides of our music.
You previous albums had thematic elements to them. But going into Labyrinth, was the plan to do a full-blown concept album, with more of a narrative?
Tommaso: Actually, the concept was one of the first things that came up. With Oracles, Agony and Mafia, there was a concept in some way, like you said, even if the story was not chronological. We were always talking about certain issues, but in this case, I think the fact that this is a chronological story, it’s taken from a Greek myth, so it’s a real story even if it’s metaphoric, helped to find all of the variety throughout the album.
The songs really describe different moments, so it was really inspiring for the songwriting to have more variety, you’re inspired by different parts, different moods, different things going through the story. So the concept of the Labyrinth was the first thing that came to mind and then we moved into the music. We did a lot of trials in different directions to see what would work and after a lot of testing, this was what came out.
What was it about the myth of the Labyrinth that made you decide to focus the storyline on the new album?
Tommaso: We’re really inspired and we’re really into the inner issues of life in general. We started this kind of path with Agony, we were trying to talk about how people can hurt others and themselves with their frustration, reflecting their fears onto others.
But in this case we wanted to do something that was even more personal, more about the individual, and we used the story of Theseus because we thought it was a very good metaphor for talking about something that in the end everyone has to do, which is discovering yourself, understanding yourself and fighting against your fears.
And this goes through recognizing your roots, and that’s the case of Theseus who discovers he is the son of the king of Greece and decides to go into the labyrinth to kill the minotaur, that is like a curse. His father was forced to send people there to be sacrificed because he lost the war with Crete. He had to go there and enter the labyrinth and kill the minotaur, and to me that is a perfect representation of what you do when you start looking inside and trying to understand what you really are and not what people tell you you are. And you discover you have a dark side and you have to deal with the dark side and try to face your deepest fears and kill them, and that’s what happens in the story.
He enters the labyrinth, which represents ourself because it’s something that’s very complex and it’s easy to get lost, and after killing the minotaur the next step is to get out. We really liked the idea of introducing this character, Ariandne, the daughter of King Minos, who helps Theseus by giving him this golden thread so he can find the way back from the labyrinth. That’s cool because that represents the need we have of others. Even if you are a hero and you’re fighting the biggest fears, you always need the help of others because they also are a reason to win this fight and return to serenity.
That’s a lot to digest, and as brutal as the music and the vocals are, it’s probably going to be hard to pick all that out. Will you at least be including the lyrics this time with the album?
Tommaso: Yes, this time we are putting all of the lyrics in the booklet with the CD to give people the chance to read what is inside. You can kind of recognize it’s a chronological the story, we really stay in the metaphoric side so the cool thing is everybody can interpret it different. But this might also push people to read something more about the myth of Theseus himself because it’s very interesting and if you read that you can make your own idea of what’s being said in the myth and get your own meaning.
After the tour here with Wintersun, what comes next for you guys?
Tommaso: (Laughs) This is one of the things I would like to answer already, but I have to stay quiet. I cannot say anything official, but we’re working on a lot of other stuff, we are trying to find a way to bring our music as much as possible around to different parts of the planet, so we’re working on Europe but also trying to think about other things.
For example, we haven’t been to Southeast Asia, we never did Australia, we never did South America, so we’re trying to work on all these things to see if in the next one or two years we can really do all those things. The first thing after the U.S. is our home, is Europe, and we’re still working on that. I am sure we are going to have plenty of gigs in Europe.
Between 2011 and September 2012, we really did a lot of gigs for Agony. We did Summer Slaughter in America and we did America again with Decapitated, then we did Europe with Decapitated, we did two tours in the U.K., we did an Italian tour, we did a South African tour, we did another American tour with All Shall Perish and another with Kataklysm.
The only different place from Europe or Canada we’ve been to is South Africa, so there’s still a lot of places that we have to go. And we know we have to go because there are a lot of people who are asking for it. One example is Indonesia, they are asking all the time because there is a big fan base there. And a lot of bands are going there, there are a couple of big festivals there, and we want to do that.