Establishing a new melodic heavy rock band back in early 2015, In Dread Response bandmates/producers Trajan Schwencke and Steve Boag promptly located an ideal vocalist in Richie Simpson, attracted Marcus Powell as third guitarist, nabbed Daniel Insley for bass and drummer Corey Friedlander – labeling this new ‘super’ ensemble City Of Souls.
Blindspott, Cold By Winter, IDR, New Way Home, Solstate, 8 Foot Sativa and Blacklistt are band names any reputable Kiwi musician across the hardcore/prog/metal/rock spectrum would be pleased to include on their CV, and all feature in the collective resume of the Auckland six-piece.
With songs at the ready the new alternative-progressive powerhouse’s first single Sleep featured on NZ On Air’s own debut NewTracks digital compilation in April 2015, and as quickly took them to the top of the local iTunes rock chart.
Sophomore single Water received recording and video funding a few months later, and to good effect, the music video (directed by Ziga Zupancic) winning recognition at international film festivals and a silver medal in the 2016 US-based Global Music Awards competition. By third single Long Gone the band were enjoying high profile opening slots for touring international acts including Stone Sour and Dead Letter Circus.
Such early successes must have led to some internal fast-track expectations, yet the release of their first album ‘Synaesthesia’ has taken City Of Souls a full five years. If there’s disappointment in that Richie Simpson and Marcus Powell are sanguine enough to mask it, laughing now about various adversities and referring to events that have delayed the album as resets rather than set-backs.
Reflecting the five-year gestation ‘Synaesthesia’ runs to an unusually substantial 16 tracks, including seven that have been released as singles over that period, the three mentioned above plus Shimmer, Ferryman, Wolf and Cruelty.
Since those very first singles the band have effectively been working towards an album release, with the aid of Australian producer Forrester Savell (whose long list of full credits includes I Am Giant, Karnivool, Cog, Dead Letter Circus), and oversight from Shihad’s Melbourne-based drummer-turned-manager Tom Larkin. NZ On Air announced City Of Souls had been awarded Project Funding in March 2018, helping justify the still-fledgling band’s investment in a very Aussie-focused support team.
“We decided to do a track with Forrester and he came over and produced it from the ground up. That was Long Gone,” Marcus explains. “He really picked it apart and helped us build it in a different light. A really good working relationship came out of that and we really liked the result. Compared to what we had been getting, we felt that was more in line with what we wanted the vibe on the album to be, so we thought, ‘We’ve got to get this dude.’
“NZ On Air came to the party I think through Tom, and we stumped up our own cash as well. I think it was worth it, I think he’s amazing.”
Long Gone was recorded with Savell at The Lab in Auckland. Drums for next cab off the rank, Shimmer, were subsequently recorded at Roundhead but the balance of the album tracks were built mostly at the band’s practice room, actually a suburban Storage King lock up. Though apparently well-appointed and insulated, Richie admits struggling a little in recording some of the vocals at the practice room – mainly because he would have to stop whenever the lift arrived on their floor.
“If you solo some of the vocal tracks you’ll probably hear husband and wife arguing over who should carry the fridge,” he laughs.
“Eventually the rest of the drums (except for Wolf) were done at Forrester’s studio in Perth. Trajan went over with Corey [because] he’s responsible for a massive amount of the material, and knows how to get good results out of him. It was a better deal for us to fly them both to work over there than to pay for Roundhead, which is beautiful but a bit out of our price range. And that would have meant flying Savell over and putting him up – it would have been too expensive.”
For Trajan Schwencke there was pleasure in having a new, knowledgeable voice in the room.
“We spent so long working on the songs that we felt they really deserved a look over by someone we respect and whose work is on the money. It was a long recording process spread out over lots of different studios and two different countries, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way, but I would recommend making sure that you are happy.”
Richie notes they wanted this record to sound big, with a wide sonic footprint, and Savell’s work has that size and space they were after.
“With a lot out there in terms of heavier music following a similar footprint of programmed drums, autotuned vocals and perpetually shifting riffs we wanted to solidify and simplify our sound. We wanted good honest songs.”
2019 started with plenty of excitement for City Of Souls. In January it was announced that the band had signed to Melbourne-based indie label Wild Thing Records (also home to The Ocean and Circles) for worldwide for the release of their debut album anticipated later in the year. Alongside that came an arrangement with UK touring company Artery Global, meaning they were looking well set up to take ‘Synaesthesia’ to the world.
The band’s pedigree and support from both this country’s rock-focused radio networks mean local success is, tbh, pretty much a given, but City Of Souls had clearly been working on establishing themselves in Australia ahead of any further international push. To date though their trans-Tasman gigging has surprisingly been limited to the Progfest festivals staged late-January in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne – and associated with Wild Thing.
“In Australia there seems to be quite a following for prog metal,” relates Marcus. “I don’t think we quite fit into that category, but it was strategic in terms of using that platform to launch ourselves into Australia.”
Unfortunately, the contract with Wild Thing Records fell apart well before the year ended, and ahead of a planned Australian tour with now ex-label mates Circles. Marcus describes it as a situation where both parties couldn’t agree on things.
“Part of that was the promise of funding some of that tour leg. We had to come up with about 50% and were hoping the label would stump up 50% as an advance – but we just couldn’t work it out with them.”
Reset. With the loss of a label the band turned to manager Tom Larkin and also Tim Price from Collision Course PR and The Faction, Australia’s online radio for heavy music, sharing the album via Soundcloud so they could provide feedback for the band to base a new release strategy on.
“It’s interesting cos we’ve had songs released here that haven’t been released in Australia and Cruelty was the one people put their hand up for over there,” Marcus observes. “So Cruelty went out there two weeks prior to the album release, which was perfect for Australia, and it definitely shows in terms of stats. Since that release our artist profiles on Apple and Spotify have been boosted phenomenally – we’re having more streams and listeners in Australia than we are in NZ.”
“To be honest we weren’t too bummed about the whole Wild Thing buzz cos we were really wanting something different from what they were wanting, and it didn’t feel quite right,” confesses Richie. “So we have been stoked about how things moved on from that. But the whole Blindspott tour and playing with Deftones going up in smoke right on the cusp of that album release was just like, really?!” They both laugh at yet another reset moment.
“But at the same time we’ve got a captive audience. It’s almost like sitting your family down and forcing them to listen to your music!”
Which does bring to mind a couple of important questions – how do we say ‘Synaesthesia’?
“You have six beers and then you say sinastheza!” Richie laughs heartily, leaving the strong impression it has been liquidly discussed in their practice room.
And what, if anything, does it mean?
“It means hearing in colour. Our guitarist heads in colour – Chino from the Deftones apparently hears in colour too. It’s an interesting phenomenon, you get visual representation of emotions and sound, it’s like aura-style representation of what you’re hearing. It fits as the album title because there are so many colours in the album, heaps of vibes – heavy stuff, pretty stuff, super mellow stuff, there’s all sorts of different textures and colours. It felt right.”
It was Steve Boag who named the album and Marcus explains that the final track, which shares the name Synaesthesia, is Steve and Trajan’s baby. The unexpectedly languid (well, for the most part) instrumental is embellished with classical style string arrangements provided by Richie Allan (of Kora and Heavy Metal Ninjas fame), elegantly wrapping up more than an hour of varied heavy musical entertainment that takes full advantage of all six musicians.
The self-released album’s planned schedule included a month of support slots with a reformed Blindspott, the nu metal band that redefined Kiwi rock in the late 1990s then re-emerged in 2010 as Blacklistt. As the sole guitarist in both versions, any shared City Of Souls gigs see Marcus taking the stage for two quite different acts. He laughs that with Blindspott headlining it’s the adrenaline from City Of Souls that carries over, and while he doesn’t necessarily change t-shirt there are certainly differences in what he’s up to on stage.
“It’s totally contrasting between the bands. The tuning in City Of Souls is a tuning that I haven’t used prior. It’s like F# F# C# F# A# C# C# – whereas Blindspott’s standard tuning with a dropped A. In that sense the playing and performance on guitar is quite different.
“Blindspott will take me back to Westie parties and all the things that went with that, lit up,” he says laughing. “The level of musicianship within City Of Souls is quite different. Being able to jam and play alongside Steve and Trajan has definitely improved my playing, it’s allowed me to explore more. It’s challenging, whenever you step into a circle when there’s people doing stuff you either have to step up or move on. I feel my guitaring has improved. Because it’s been a five-year journey in creating the album the emotional attachment to these songs and knowing everything behind them there’s a different feel.”
Having the Covid-19 lockdown completely mess with a popular NZ-long tour ahead of their album launch, not to mention the chance of opening for influential Californian metallers Deftones in mid-March, was hopefully the last reset. With Level 3 restrictions still in place when we talk they’re rightly reluctant to reveal concrete future plans, but aside from finishing off the Blindspott tour Marcus reckons they’ll likely do a few low audience number shows during Level 2, in particular as a thank you to fans for actively assisting in the album’s internet promotion, something which has seen them engaging much more online.
“That’s one thing I really admired about the camaraderie in the band,” adds Marcus. “When it all happened it didn’t stop us, we just talked about how we can engage still. We had someone help us with a digital marketing strategy and it actually gave us an opportunity to observe how we communicate with our fan base. Like we’ve got this street team now and I feel like I could rely on them if I ever needed help.”
“There’ve been constant conversations, group chats, they’re making memes – it’s actually really nice, a real community. It’s kind of turned into a little family thing of people who share our stuff of their own volition, are constantly messaging us – it’s just awesome. I feel that one of the great things that’s come out of this lockdown is we’re probably connecting better with our fans than we were pre-lockdown, when we’d been just concentrating on the music and not bothering to answer messages and engage in conversations – which is just as important, you know? Connecting with people and giving them ownership of our music in some respect is really valuable, because they’re the people that come out to the shows and help break a band.”
That said, with ardent fans from as far apart as Chile and Des Moines, Iowa they’re itching to get back to playing their music live. It would be a surprise if an album as long, strong and colourful as ‘Synaesthesia’ doesn’t break City Of Souls here and in Australia – and certainly a tragedy if any more resets prove one bad break too many.
Made with the support of NZ On Air.