UNISONIC - Straight Out Of HELLOWEEN
August 11, 2014, a month ago
When Unisonic surfaced in 2012 it was something of a milestone in that former Helloween bandmates Michael Kiske (vocals) and Kai Hansen (guitars) were officially working together again. They crossed paths several times following Kiske's departure from Helloween in 1993 - Hansen having jumped ship four years earlier - beginning with Kiske's guest appearance on Gamma Ray's Land Of The Free album in 1995, but it wasn't until Avantasia's European tour in 2010 where they shared the stage for a few songs each night that the prospect of collaborating on bigger and better things became serious. Kiske already had Unisonic on the go with former Gotthard guitarist Mandy Meyer, Pink Cream 69 bassist/producer Dennis Ward and drummer Kosta Zafiriou, and the decision was made to bring Hansen on board. Interest in the band spiked once the news went public, but the self-titled debut received a mixed bag of reactions. It wasn't the Helloween Mark II people had expected
beyond the "Unisonic" single that kicked things off, yet the band was able to tour extensively and successfully on the strength of the album. Light Of Dawn is Unisonic's second shot in the arm, and the band remains unapologetic for doing things their own way rather than according to other people's designs.
"We came from our Place Vendome roots - me, Kosta and Michael - doing AOR stuff, and we knew we wanted to make melodic guitar-oriented music," says Ward of Unisonic's focus from the get-go. "I don't want to insult anybody, and I sure don't want to be rude, but we said from the beginning in a million different interviews that we're not going to try and do anything remotely similar to Helloween. That was well stated so many times in advance, but we brought the record out and people were complaining that it wasn't as heavy as they thought it would be. It was like, 'Fucking hell, don't you read? Don't you care about what we said?' I don't want to be insulting, and with all due respect, we don't give a shit about those complaints because we did what we wanted to do."
"You have to look at the roots of the people in this band other than Michael, who has his metal roots way in the past. Kai came very late to the band, and the rest of us make hard rock music, not metal. It's like Paul McCartney making a record that sounds like The Beatles; is he supposed to apologize for that? I don't think so (laughs). No matter what we do we're going to disappoint somebody, so we just stay true to ourselves. Slowly but surely we're finding our way. On this album we tried some new stuff, we ventured farther into the dangerous metal realm (laughs). We left the dragons out but we tried to give the fans a little more of what they want to hear."
For all the talk of Unisonic being more rock than metal, which they are, Light Of Dawn is considerably heavier in places compared to the debut and very Helloween-ish at times. Odd considering Hansen played a huge part in kicking the songs into shape for the first outing, yet he did no writing for the new record.
"Funny, isn't it?" Ward laughs. "It's true that Kai didn't write anything for this record but we did have a few pre-production sessions where we met. He was involved in getting some arrangements finalized and coming up with some idea here and there, but the actual songwriting was myself, one from Mandy, and a couple from Michael. Kai didn't have the time because of his Gamma Ray commitments and it was a shame. That being said, going back to the development of a new band, we started off as a one guitar band and all of a sudden Kai came in and my head wasn't really wrapped around that. After making the first record I realized I should take advantage of the fact I have two great guitar players in this band. I said that I wanted more guitars and more riffs for Light Of Dawn - this is the musician and the producer talking - and I wanted more melodies for Michael to sound epic. I wanted it to be more of a guitar album than the last one."
Ward also focused a great deal on Kiske's mindset as well as his voice going into Light Of Dawn. It's no secret that Kiske has had issues with the metal scene in the past, but with Unisonic it seems he's breached whatever barriers were holding him back from committing to a full metal approach.
"I can't speak for Michael; I can only say what I know or what he's told me," says Ward. "He feels he's been completely misunderstood in the past. Michael is a spiritual guy, he believes in God, and for him the turn-off in metal is the context and the message in some of the songs, not the distorted guitars and the speed and all that. He doesn't want to sing certain things, so before I write a song I'll tell him about the concept I have in mind first. I have to respect his views, and I do because you're not going to get a great performance out of a singer that doesn't like or believe in the lyrics."
Knowing that, it makes the addition of "Night Of The Long Knives" to the tracklist a surprise given that it deals with the political murders committed as a purge by the Nazi party in June/July 1934.
"I saw a documentary on Adolf Hitler, specifically the Night Of The Long Knives and the things that happened within a matter of 14 hours," Ward explains. "I was fascinated by the concept of people being so loyal, people of status who must have had a few brain cells at least, would be willing to do something so grotesque. It was a mindblowing subject to me, so I threw the idea at Michael. Now, we're a German band so we can't just write about Nazi shit and say 'Well, it seemed like a good story.' When you have a bald singer in the band and start talking about that stuff you have to be careful. It was okay with Michael because of how we were presenting the story, and reactions were quite positive even though some people were surprised that a German band would tackle the subject."
Musically speaking, it's hard to imagine anyone telling someone like Hansen - with a 30 year career and a huge catalogue of material under his belt - how and what to play on an album even if he didn't do any songwriting.
"Kai is very spontaneous," says Ward. "He comes up with ideas on the fly and it's great because it gives the music a real identity. I offer ideas, I don't insist on anything and I believe everything can be improved. As a musician I say 'Here's my music, if you've got something better let me know.' As a producer I'm saying 'Is your idea better than mine?' because if it's not I'll argue against it (laughs). I don't have to do that very often because most of the time their ideas are better than what I propose. On the song 'For The Kingdom', for example, it was Kai's idea to start it with that staccato riff and I'm grateful stuff like that happened when we were writing. That's a band in action."
Light Of Dawn also features Zafiriou pulling out the stops on drums. Known for a not exactly intense rock approach, Ward's Pink Cream 69 bandmate has a few noteworthy and completely unexpected metal moments on Light Of Dawn if you know his history.
"I have no sympathy for the guy (laughs). What people don't know is, metal here and there, 'Your Time Has Come' was the only song intentionally written fast and it was Kosta's idea. It was a 4/4 mid-tempo rock song and he was the one that said 'I'd like to try it with double bass.' And actually 'Find Shelter' was the same thing because he wanted to make it sound tougher, and I said 'Okay, but you've gotta play it...' (laughs). He regrets a couple things now because he's got to practice a lot more than he thought he'd have to."
Ward also gets to shine on the single "Exceptional", which features an instantly infectious bassline beneath Kiske's earworm melodies.
"I blame myself. I'm a bass player and for years I've been saying 'Why can't I come up with a goddamn bass riff like all these other bands do?' I can't do it and that's piss poor (laughs). I fucked around until I finally got something. I had an honest-to-God bass riff and I sent it to the guys asking if it was anything that could be used, and Kosta said 'Finally, it's about time...' (laughs). From there the song wrote itself, and it was done in half a day."
In closing, Ward addresses the Helloween comparisons that have cropped up since Light Of Dawn's release, which Unisonic comes by honestly.
"We play Helloween songs live because we're expected to," says Ward. "We have no problem with that, and we're doing them in normal tuning. A lot of people don't realize that our counterparts with that actual band name play two steps lower. Check it on YouTube. We've discussed many times whether we should pitch down or not, and Michael is totally agianst it. He doesn't like the way the guitars sound and I agree with him, but we told him 'Fine, but you've got to hit those notes.' As people know by now from all the touring we've done, Michael has no trouble with that at all."
(Band photos by Erik Weiss)