CRIMSON GLORY – Astronomica, 20 Years On
December 27, 2019, a month ago
Hard to believe, but it has now been more than twice as long since the release of Astronomica as it was between said '99 reactivation and its ill received Strange & Beautiful predecessor!
Speaking to mainman/guitarist Jon Drenning prior to Astronomica hitting the streets, he was adamant the dawning Y2K millennium unlocked new possibilities, deciding the time was right to reform the band. “The year 2000 was certainly an impetus for me to start to think about doing a record, absolutely. I could have done this years ago, but didn’t think it was the right time. I don’t think the music scene was ready for another Crimson Glory record. I wanted people to be able to remember, going from 1999 into 2000, on their stereo was a Crimson Glory album, because it was the best album at the time. There’s only one millennium, every thousand years."
"I knew, in order to make a Crimson Glory record that our fans were truly looking forward to hearing, I had to have the best performances possible from everyone involved. This band would still be together and done many more records, had Midnight taken better care of himself. I needed to find a singer who was as hungry, talented and dedicated to the project if we were to have any kind of a future. I wasn’t going to do another Crimson Glory record until I was damn sure that I could depend on the people involved and make a record fans would be proud of and we could be proud of as well."
“After Jeff (Lords, bass) and I approached Midnight and gave him a demo of stuff we were working on, it was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to do it, at least not up to the standards we all hoped. Luckily, three years earlier, I’d seen Wade perform in a band called Lucien Blaque, in Tampa. I distinctly remember telling Jeff, ‘If we ever have to do Crimson Glory again and find another singer, this is the guy.’ I could tell the guy’s voice was wicked. Wade’s background is more Pantera-like. He can be a heavy, gruff singer, but also has a wicked high end. That’s rare. A lot of people would have dismissed him as just another metal vocalist. Just like when Midnight originally joined, no one thought he was very good at all. He wasn’t a metal singer at all. The songs we knew, the Scorpions, Priest, Iron Maiden... he knew none of them."
Enter Wade Black, an unknown, who eventually parlayed his time with Crimson into stints with Seven Witches and Leatherwolf, before joining forces with guitarist Ben Jackson, first as part of Sector 9, and lately, in Avenging Benji. He just announced his intention to tour as The Wade Black Project, performing music from his past endeavors. At the time of Astronomica, Drenning handled the majority of the press. Thus, the singer's thoughts and memories from that era have largely been unheard, until now.
"Jon was playing with Erotic Liquid Culture, with David Van Landing. That's when I met him. (Years later) he found my number, on a little napkin, in the back of his drawer and when he called, I thought it was one of my friends, playing a joke on me. I ended up hanging up on him, at first! Thankfully, he called back. Next thing I know, I'm doing demos, laying down the songs for the Astronomica record. It all just fell in place, no second guessing."
Obviously, as a metalhead, growing up in Florida, Wade was well aware of the band he was asked to front. "I'd always known of Crimson Glory. Midnight and myself took vocal lessons from the same coach, Al Cohen. When they would come around to play, everyone would go and see them. They were pretty much the premier band, the one you knew was going to do something (big)."
Years ago, Drenning admitted that some of the songs were constructed well in advance. "‘Touch The Sun’ and ‘War Of The World’ are riffs Jeff and I had recorded demos for years (earlier). We wanted Transcendence to be the evolution to Astronomic. To do that, we saved some of the ideas we had a long time ago, for this record." Thus Black's ability to influence the final product was minimal. "I think you're right. There were a lot of songs that they had (previously) worked on with Midnight. He was involved in all the early Astronomica songs, material that turned into songs, with me (doing vocals). At that particular time, I wasn't a songwriter. David Van Landing came in and helped a bit, but in terms of my style: the way I sing, the way I enunciate, I was allowed to do what I did. I think I gave it the more heavy sound."
The drums are also prominent. Credited to ex-Savatage skin beater Steve "Dr. Killdrums" Wacholz, while briefly a part of the project, he ultimately was not involved, whatsoever. "He was around for the first photo shoot," confirms the singer, as evident on promotional posters and album artwork. "His name was available for the press. I came down for a couple of rehearsals and then, poof, he's gone. Never did get a reason why he wasn't used, not on the record, not on anything. I never understood the reasoning behind that. We had two rehearsals, then (Steve) was out and we started to look for a drummer. Shortly thereafter, we got Jeese Martillo (aka Rojas), from Sarasota, one of the Crimson Glory friends."
Elaborating, not so much as an explanation, but just reiterating the facts, of that time, Black continues, "Jon had a lot of vision on where he wanted to take the music; how it was created, how it was placed…really kind of a genius status with that. Still I think it takes the vocalist to meld and mesh with it. It was a learning curve, in a sense. You had to have the right mindset, in order to achieve what had to be done." His comments seem to corroborate what the guitarist mentioned to me, two decades ago, even before the album was public. "Not only was I songwriter, but I also engineered, mixed it and produced. I wore a lot of hats in this project. I really wanted to do something different, not your typical metal album. We recorded (Wacholz) uniquely, using these new Roland drums, called V drums. They’re an electric kit. The sound is different and he had to play differently. Everything on this record is digital. I don’t think you hear bass guitar like in our songs. The guitars are not the typical metal sound, that big bottom, no mid-range guitar. It’s a totally different approach than we’ve done in the past. I don’t know if sonically, it’s the best record, but I do think we’ve created our own sound.”
While longtime fans were just happy to have the band back, and hear those classic songs, in concert, the heavier tone, and especially the vocals, unfairly cast newcomer Black as the villain. Outside of a short European run, unfortunately not enough people got to hear Black on the older material. Those who did see him on "the Midnight songs" were floored by his ability and resemblance. The reason Drenning picked him in the first place! "He allowed me to be who I was," the singer says of the guitarist. "It was always sort of stressful, because of the level of performance required. I had to step it up. Once it came together and I began to feel part of the music, it became easier. I never tried (or was told) to emulate, or be like Midnight. I tried to sing his songs to the best of his emphasis, his feelings, what he put into it. (Fans) could have chewed me up and spit me out, but they embraced me. Of course there were a few who didn't like it. That's fine, you can't please everybody. It was a different representation of the band. It was a super strong release, from a legendary band."
Speaking to BraveWords scribe Carl Begai, a decade ago, Drenning commented, “Nobody could copy Midnight, but Wade fit the Crimson Glory style. Astronomica was originally written and recorded for Midnight. He had agreed to sing that record, but when it came time to actually start recording the album Midnight was going through a difficult time in his life. He felt that he couldn’t do it and he just wasn’t in the condition to do a whole record, so we were in the position where we either had to shelve the whole album and do nothing or finish it. Jeff and I elected to go ahead and finish the album with Wade, but our first choice was Midnight.”
"'War Of The Worlds’ and ‘Touch The Sun’ were written back in the Strange And Beautiful days, (for what) was always intended to be a double album: the Strange part being the heavier songs, (ones) that didn’t get used on the album because the record company didn’t want us to do a double record. They wanted a single record and weren’t keen on the heavy material, so the Beautiful side became the whole record. We weren’t trying to pull a U-turn on people. We just wanted to create a new dimension to Crimson Glory and show we were more than just a heavy metal band. We wanted to do something different, give fans a new perspective, and bridge that sound by having a double album, with more traditional Crimson Glory material on it. I have no doubt that the fans would have been very pleased with the result had we been able to make Strange And Beautiful the way we intended.”
Back to Black, and his recollections, from the present day.
Tying together the sci-fi/X Files motif surrounding the record, including the 20 minute, police recorded UFO investigation that ends the Spitfire (North American) edition of the CD, there was hype about the initial recordings being erased, during a governmental/Big Brother break-in, at the studio. "There was a slip of the finger, one night," admits the singer. "I was (in the studio) singing and heard, ' Oh shit!' I asked, 'What's going on,' and Jon said, 'I just deleted this.' I asked, 'Just deleted what?' He claimed he deleted the whole record. I don't know how much truth there is to that. It pushed the album back a year after it was supposed to be released. All I know is I had to sing the record twice, although I think it came out better the second time anyway."
Speaking of the otherworldly content, the singer comments on a couple of tracks.
"Astronomica": "Jon's a huge sci-fi freak: the pyramids, Tiwanaku... (oddly Black formed a band, by that name, with ex-Nocturnus bassist Emo Mowery, Death drummer-turned-Howard Stern sidekick Richard Christy and wunderkind Rob Rock guitarist Rick Renstrom). He writes about what he loves. ("Edge Of Forever") is about being tranquil. Midnight always wanted to do his own thing, be off by himself. He didn't like to be told what to do. Maybe that was a little bit of the turmoil in the (original) band. It's just a great song."
Speaking of rough patches, once the album was finished, the band hit the road, in Europe, but things quickly unraveled. "There were questions about me. Whether I was the singer for the next record. I went off and did my thing, with numerous bands. I was kind of green, like a piece of clay that they molded, into what they wanted. It just didn't seem like it was going to come together again. That's when Todd (La Torre) came in." Although he hadn't left on the best terms, it was not the last time he'd hear from Crimson Glory. "Shortly after I joined Leatherwolf, I got a call from Ben Jackson. He asked, 'Is there any chance you can come over to Greece with us?' They'd said Midnight was in decline, wasn't doing the songs up to standard. I respectfully had to decline, as I had a lot on my plate at that time. They took Midnight over there." Asked about others, mythical songs for a supposed follow-up (rumored to have a working title of Metetron, Lucifer & Divine Chaos), Black succinctly says, "Not even close. Jon said he had a couple of songs. Todd sang one, before all that stuff happened with his departure. Other than that, I never heard any new music from Crimson."
Asked what advice, with the respect of hindsight, he would now give his 20 year younger self, he deadpans, "Hire a lawyer...I'm only kidding. When you're offered something like this, the terms are always going to be in someone else's favor. You have to weigh whether you're going to pay your dues (which I had to do). You have to be tenacious, hungry and stand up for yourself. That's what I pride myself on."
Since his Crimson days, Black has remained active (although he does admit to laying low for a while, "To recharge my batteries"), including all the aforementioned, plus Leash law, Disaster/Piece (Metal Tim and myself catching one of the only gigs, featuring King Diamond alumni: guitarist Pete Blakk & Hal Patino, on bass) and since '11, War Of Thrones. "We just did seven weeks (overseas): Denmark, Norway, Sweden. Went to Prague, for a week. We played Sabaton (Open Air festival) with U.D.O. All kinds of good stuff." If that weren't enough, plans call for the singer to hit summer European festivals with the multi-national Wade Black Project. "It will be fun! To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Crimson, as well as all the other records I've been on, we're going to do a slew of songs, the heart of each record I've been on. I've got an incredible line-up (members of Paragon, Deathriders, Eternity's End). We've been talking to people about getting us over there. There's lots of people who still want to hear those (Crimson) songs. We continue to fly the flag for metal."
The final words on Astronomica are Midnight's. In my '04 interview, he reiterated his thoughts on the Crimson Glory disc without him. “That’s a tough one," he began. "I heard it. I’m very critical, so it’s not really fair for me to comment on someone else’s music. There’s very little I like. I don’t want to diss anyone, but there’s very little I found interesting on there. I don’t hold any bitterness. I love everyone. The whole break-up, as far as I’m concerned, was what everyone wanted to do. I don’t look at it slanted, like ‘It’s not me, so it can’t be good.’ There are a couple of songs that are OK, but don’t ask me about other people’s music. I’m not a good judge.”