Interviewed by: Anders Sandvall
Thanks to Roberto at Rockshots Records for setting up the interview.
Thanks to Rockshots Records for the promo pictures of the band.
Coming out of Finland, progressive power metal act Ultimatium released their fourth album, VIRTUALITY, in 2020. It’s been a five year wait since their previous album, VIS VIRES INFINITUS, so I made sure to ask mastermind & keyboardist Matti Pukinnen about it during our chat.
VIRTUALITY is a theme album, a metal opera for which the band invited various lead singers to help make the various characters come alive. Since the band lacks a permanent bass player, I had to ask who played on the album, as well as the album’s story and other details. If you’re interested in listening to some fresh, fun, energetic and skilled power metal and are a fan of Stratovarius, Dream Theater or Symphony X, make sure to check out VIRTUALITY as soon as possible.
Hi Matti, how are you doing today? Are you ready to kick off the interview?
Hi, thanks for asking, I’m doing fine. Yeah, ready to rock!
Starting from the beginning, why did you form Ultimatium back in 2001?
The reason was quite simple actually: the previous band that I played with, Triolity, ceased to exist and I had little to show of my talents so I figured I should so a solo album, mainly an instrumental one, which I could send as an example of my keyboard talents to any bands seeking a keyboardist. So that kind of got out of hand, eventually 😀
Have you been involved in other bands prior to Ultimatium?
We had couple of bands back in the days in my home town, Suomussalmi: Triolity and Mephisto (cover band). Then at the same time with Ultimatium, I’ve been in Santhyr, Angry Machines plays Dio and a live keyboardist with Stargazery for couple of summers.
I know the band recorded a few demos between 2001-03; did you send those to record labels or what was the purpose?
We sent the demos to media/promotion sites only actually, we kind of thought that we were not a real band since we didn’t have a drummer at any point so we thought there’s no point trying to get a record deal but for our surprise we got one.
How did critics and fans respond to the 2004 debut, NEW DAWN?
I think they responded to the album pretty well, reviews were around 7-8/10, or at least the few that I saw since the album was not promoted much.
Where does the band name come from and does it have any special meaning?
The name’s a combination of my nickname back in the old days, combined with metal-sounding ending “um”. The original form is Ulti-Matti, so I twisted it to something that sounds like a band name. At that time my English was not so good so I didn’t realize it’s pretty close to ultimatum, so that has caused some issues with Google visibility etc.
Quite a few members have come and gone through the years, why the changes in the line-up?
There’s been a lot of personal things when the band started to get more serious, some of the members thought they could not contribute that much to the band and the changes in 2010-11 were due to musical & productional differences.
HWAINOO is the name of the band’s second album (2008). Again what response did the album receive from the masses?
That album was not as accepted as NEW DAWN. I guess the “new band” status was worn off and critics and audience were expecting something different from us.
That album was the first one for singer Tomi Viitola. Why did previous singer JT Partanen leave the band?
JT (and we all) thought that third demo wouldn’t end up as our breakthrough, but it did and as things started moving rapidly, JT had no time to participate in the band as much as he thought was required, so we agreed we find another singer for the job.
Besides a demo released in 2011, it got pretty quiet from the band, what happened?
It was quite a turmoil for the band, we were not simply moving anywhere since the half of the band wanted to move to completely different way than the other, so getting that resolved took a lot of time.
Has the band toured a lot in Finland and have you done any shows or tours outside Finland?
We have done couple of gigs in Finland, but we haven’t toured outside. At some point, some “pay to play” gigs were offered, but obviously we won’t go with that.
In 2015 the band’s third album VIS VIRES INFINITUS was released. Were fans glad to hear from you again?
Yes and no: I think fans were glad that we were making new music again, but old fans were expecting us to do “NEW DAWN 2” instead were moving towards more progressive stuff, so old fans really didn’t seem to like it.
Is Ultimatium big in Finland, where in the world do you think the band has the biggest fan base?
No, we’re not that big in Finland. I think we still have the biggest fan base in Finland, but looking at the stats, the U.S. is not far behind. Our fans seem to be spread quite evenly to Europe and both Americas.
How would you like to describe Ultimatium’s music?
Prog-power that is recognizable as Finnish melodic metal.
Finland is mostly known for bands playing either goth metal or extreme metal, what’s it like to play progressive metal in Finland?
I don’t think it really matters what kind of music we play. I think we spice up the Finnish metal scene quite nicely and have now found our own voice & style.
New album VIRTUALITY
When did the band start to work on material to the new album?
I started seriously working with the material around a year after the release of VIS VIRES INFINITUS. I had couple of songs ready before that, but most of the songs were composed in 2016-2017.
Who writes the music and lyrics and what are the lyrics about on VIRTUALITY?
I wrote all the music and lyrics, but we’ve been discussing with the band that it might change a bit in the future 😉 Lyrics are about four gamers getting stuck in a virtual world in a near future setting, so it’s a theme album. The fifth character, the “villain”, is our drummer Matti A, who’s a kickass vocalist as well.
Who’s idea was it to make a theme/concept album?
My idea, although I wrote five theme ideas and presented them to the band and we decided to go with this one.
Was it your plan from the start to incorporate many different singers on the album?
Actually, no. It was again due to some scheduling & participation challenges that we decided to easy up Tomi’s workload by adding additional vocalists there.
Did you know the other vocalists (Emily Leone, Peter James Goodman, Jukka Nummi, and Matti Auerkallio) before?
I knew Jukka, since we played in the same band for many years in Oulu and obviously I knew Matti A, since he played the drums also on VIS VIRES INFINITUS. I did not know Emily nor Peter before hand.
The Seer (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)
What did Matti A. think of being given a singing part as well?
He was very happy about it since he’s a multi-instrumentalist. He likes to do different things.
The info sheet says that the storyline is of four gamers getting stuck in a virtual reality game in a near future, are there anything you would like to add to that description?
Well, not much besides that. The story really opens up when you listen to the album with lyrics in your hand and really concentrate on that you hear. The story features some “classic” plot-twists and such and the music follows the mood of the lyrics quite nicely.
Bass player Juha Haipus left the band back in 2018, was his departure expected?
I was not that surprised, he also had some scheduling difficulties and since we live in different parts of Finland, I kind of knew he’d probably leave at some point.
On the album Petteri Gullsten is listed as session bass player, you don’t have any solid member on that position yet?
No, we don’t.
Run Like The Wind (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)
Are you seeking active for a new bass player?
We haven’t really decided that yet. For the meantime we go as a quartet. We’re not in a rush since we have two multi-instrumentalists in the band and no plans for any gigs, so we’ll see what happens.
VIRTUALITY includes 12 songs and clocks in at 70 minutes. Did you use all of the songs you wrote for the album or were there any of the material that didn’t made it on to the final edition of the album?
We used almost all the songs. One of the songs didn’t really fit the theme but it had a really good mid-part and track #11, “Scream” had a very lousy mid part originally, so I mixed up those two songs to make a one really good song.
Why did you choose to incorporate one strictly instrumental song?
Yeah, that’s a good question. We have an album full of excellent vocalists and still we decided to do one instrumental song 😀 When I composed the album, I did not think of theme album at that time and wanted to write an instrumental song for a very long time. When the album was finished and the theme was starting to become clear, the song seemed like a perfect match to that spot and as I made the synth-vocals there, it nicely deepened the storyline.
What are the longest songs “Mindcaptives” (11.49) and “Together” (9,19) about?
Those two songs are the backbone of the story, alongside with track #9. They songs carry the plot the most. And those songs were really fun to make since the compositions just kept going and going and at some point you realized that those songs are going to be epics.
Why did you choose to release “The Seer” as the first single/video?
We wanted to give the best impression of what the album is, so we chose “The Seer” since it features Emily, is a progressive song, and has catchy chorus.
Where does the title VIRTUALITY come from? Who came up with the title?
Choosing the album name has been always a difficult task for us, for some reason. The working title was “Virtureality” so after some back and forth with the name, I came up with that.
Are you happy with the cover artwork made by Cadies Art? Were they given free hands to create the art work?
Yeah, we were very happy. We had been looking for his cover art for a while and his style matched perfectly with the album theme and that cover was actually one of his pre-made art. Since it fit with the theme nicely, we contacted him and worked out some modifications to it.
I read that the band are inspired by bands like Stratovarius, Dream Theater, Symphony X and Rainbow, is that correct?
Yes, that is correct. Stratovarius-influence is especially heard on our early albums but the later ones are influenced more by the prog bands.
Which other bands would you consider as an inspiration?
Ayreon, definitely and Queensrÿche.
Have you read any reviews of the album yet? I saw it was given quite a high rating in one of the magazines 🙂
The reviews seem to vary a lot. Yes, there’s been some very positive reviews and a lot of reviewers have really realized what this album is about, but there have been some that just want us to play straightforward power metal and not really understood or even properly listened to the whole album. I mainly look at the reviews to find if there’s some common thing that keeps popping out so I can avoid such things in the future. Sometimes we go over the top when were really exited and not always think things through.
Are there any differences in how the band is treated and written about if you compare the foreign and native media/press?
Not actually much of difference. There has been a lot of Finnish reviews but in overall, there hasn’t been any noticeable difference.
I read one review that labeled the album as a power prog opera, what do you think about that?
That they really got the album idea 😀 Yeah, it’s a prog power opera in the end, there’s no denying it. We just didn’t want to point that out that obviously in the marketing material. We don’t want to change the name of the band to “Matti Pulkkinen’s Ultimatium prog power opera” cause the bands name seems to be difficult enough already. 😀
Many bands often think their latest albums is their best one yet, is it also so with you and VIRTUALITY?
Of course, it is best one for us too. It’s a giant leap forwards when it comes to the material and production.
I’d say that VIRTUALITY is a great album that’s well written with good music and great vocal efforts, are you happy with the outcome of the album?
Thank you for your kind words. Yeah, I’m really happy how the album turned out to be.
Studio and production
In which studio was the album recorded and where did all the guests record their parts?
Drums were recorded by Matti Auerkallio at his own premises, the guitars were recorded by Harri in his own home, basses by Petteri in his own home as well. Emily’s vocals were recorded in Grey Realm Studios by Harri Koskela (and Matti P nodding his head for approval) and rest of the stuff is recorded in my own home studio. We have couple of videos about the studio and vocal booth in our youtube channel youtube.me/ultimatiummetal.
You produced the previous albums, have you also produced VIRTUALITY?
Yeah, I’ve been the “musical producer” in all of the albums and on the last two albums the actual producer as well.
On you website it say that the recording began 2.5 years ago. Is that correct? Why did it take so long?
It’s a long and complicated album, so it took quite a long time. A couple of us also have day jobs so it’s not always easy to find time to record such a massive piece. Also since we had lot of vocalists, it took some time to get everyone to do their parts and then do a second round etc.
Who did the mixing/mastering job and where was it done?
We did the mixing & mastering as a band in my own studio. The workflow is that I do the rough mix, send it over to all the relevant people and then the guys come here and we change almost everything. 😀
Isn’t it hard to produce your own band and stay objective and what does the rest of the band think of having you as producer? 🙂
It’s not always easy but that’s the way we’ve chosen to go. I don’t think bringing in an extra producer would do us any good since we have a clear vision of what the album should sound like and we do everything together. I think the rest of the band is quite happy about it, since someone’s gotta do that job anyway.
Label and management
Why did you leave Mastervox which released your first two albums?
Basically he could not license the albums anymore and did not want to take the risk of making the third album without ready made license deal, so it was clear thing that we needed to depart.
You released VIS VIRES INFINITUS on you own is that correct?
It was licensed to Underground Symphony for five years, so they originally released it.
Who own the legal rights to your albums today?
For the first two albums, Mastervox owns the rights currently but for the rest of it, we own.
What it is your opinion regarding labels in general? I read on your blog that the band is not so happy with the previous labels you had in Europe and Japan?
Yeah, we were not happy with the Mastervox, but we basically had no European label at the same time. I really can’t say anything about the Soundholic records that released/licensed two first albums in Japan since I know nothing of them and they only did business with Mastervox. In general, I think the roles of the labels and bands have changed quite a lot since the days we started this band. In my opinion, labels are still very much needed, I don’t have interest of releasing the album by ourselves and I’m a very poor salesman, so someone has do that job for us anyways. 🙂
Now the band is inked to Rockshots Records, how did you end up signing with them?
Yeah, well actually, the situation is similar than it was with the Underground Symphony, we have no future ties with them, at least not yet, so it’s just a licensing deal about this album. I just sent a lot of emails during spring 2020 and they were one of the labels that responded and their deal and marketing plans were just so much better than others, so we chose them.
Were you without a record deal a long time?
We haven’t had a “traditional” record deal after leaving Mastervox. Since we have our own studio and capabilities to do albums, I don’t think we even need a traditional recording deal at the moment, where label gives us a bunch of money and we go to studio for four weeks to record something. We like to keep things “independent”, but of course you should never say never.
Are you happy with the work the label have put into the band and the album so far?
Yeah, I’m very happy with the effort and promotion they’ve given us. For VIS VIRES INFINITUS it was me who had to make the videos and stuff and send out some promos as well. Now we have a local promoter for the first time and decent media coverage so yeah, we’re really happy.
Any plans on re-releasing any of the older albums?
There’s been some plans about acquiring the rights for the old albums, but currently we don’t have any solid plan to release those. VIS VIRES INFINITUS is available thru Rockshots records as well.
Any plans on releasing VIRTUALITY on vinyl?
No, not currently. A lot of people have been asking is, but it’s up to label to decide if it’s worth it. And it would have to be double vinyl anyways so it’s costly, I think.
Are the members fans of the vinyl format?
I don’t own a vinyl player, but I think Harri is a fan of vinyl, at least the old Rainbow & Deep Purple vinyl.
Both VIRTUALITY and VIS VIRES INFINITUS are available on Spotify but not the older ones, why?
I don’t actually know.
Which format do you prefer, vinyl, CD or download?
I prefer download, but when it comes to good theme album, I still purchase cd. I think the whole digital music business is lacking some new format, where bands would get decent compensation and fans would get a cd/vinyl like experience when listening to albums.
Does the band currently co-work with any management?
No, not at the moment.
Past present and future
The band has a really good looking website and is also active on Facebook and Youtube. Are there any other forums you’re active on?
Currently, those are the only platforms. I’ve been researching that on what platform we should also be on, but we’re really lazy about the social media, so will stick to those what we have now.
At the moment the band has about 1,200 likes on FB, do you think that number is going to increase with the release of VIRTUALITY?
It has already increased with about 100 followers during the first single and now, but we’re obviously hoping to grow our audience even more.
What’s the most common question you get from fans?
“When is the next album going to come out” 😀 Since we are notoriously slow on releasing albums, that’s the most asked question.
The band threw a live stream release party on Youtube. Tell us about it, how was it, what did you do and were there many that participated?
Yeah, that was our first live stream ever. There was not a lot of live audience, but people have been watching if after the show. That was exiting, we were supposed to gather to one place but because COVID got a lot worse in Finland, we decided that we all participate by Teams, so if was a lot of technical hassle. Basically we just streamed the whole album and commented the tracks before and after and that kind of usual blabbing.
Vengeance (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)
Any plans on doing another live stream soon?
No, but we are doing couple of “behind the scenes” and “drum videos” etc.
What’s the status regarding the COVID-19 situation in Finland at the moment? (Dec.’20 at the time of this chat)
It’s a lot better than in many countries but seems to be getting bit worse. Let’s see how the new restrictions and vaccines affect it.
How has the pandemic affected the band? Did you have to cancel many or any shows?
We hadn’t any gigs planned, so it did not have much effect. We decided to skip the whole band promo shoot and just made a best out of pictures that everybody had unused from their own previous photo shoots.
How many can you be in Finland at one time now? In Sweden we have maximum of 8.
I think the usual restriction is 10 people in the same place at the same time currently.
When do you think that the start of live shows can start again?
I think next summer because last year the situation rapidly got better because of people went outdoors and UV radiation seems to kill the virus pretty nicely, so I’m hoping that next summer there will at least be outdoor gigs and festivals.
It’s harder to promote an album these days. Have you come up with any smart way to get in touch with fans and promote VIRTUALITY?
Sadly, not 😀 I’ve been trying to figure out what are the things we should do for our fans that doesn’t mean we’d have to leave our premises, but so far haven’t really got anything. We’re probably doing a promotion campaign to our Facebook page this month to at least increase the followers count, but because of the Facebook policies, our posts are only shown to a max 300-400 followers if we don’t pay money to boost the posts, so that sucks.
What plans does the band have for 2021?
To try and promote this album as much as possible. At some point we’re going to discuss and plan for the next album, most likely.
Are the guests on the album going to participate in live shows?
At the moment we’re not planning to do live shows regarding this album. Even in normal times, it would be pretty difficult to schedule rehearses with everybody involved, but maybe we could do some smaller set in some festival at least, who knows.
Is the theme/concept thing something the band is going to continue with on the next album?
I don’t want to say that right now. We need to first discuss about this thing with the band before saying anything to public…but at least my personal opinion is that this does suit us pretty well. 😉
What would you say to the ones who haven’t heard the music of Ultimatium yet?
Start from this album (VIRTUALITY), not NEW DAWN.
Could you give them three reasons why they should buy VIRTUALITY?
1. Very good theme album
2. Lot’s of great vocals
3. Support the band
Is it Europe or Finland that is the band’s main priority at the moment?
I think it’s the whole world. We have no need to prioritize any country now, since we’re not planning on live gigs, so we might as well prioritize every prog-power fan in the world with our digital marketing efforts.
It’s soon Christmas and New Year, what do you wish for this year and for the coming year?
Well, I hope that people would stop building mental barriers and realize that we don’t all have to agree on same things to get along.
Well, that was all for me and Metal-rules.com this time, thanks a lot for taking the time to make the interview. I wish all the best to you and the band. Stay safe and healthy, do you have any final words of wisdom to share with fans and readers?
Thanks for interviewing me, have fun and take your vaccine when it is your turn.