SILENT SKIES – A Different Shade Of Grey
October 11, 2023, a month ago
BraveWords and keyboardist Vikram Shankar share a history going back to 2017, when we challenged him to cover a Devin Townsend song, specifically something from Ocean Machine in celebration of the album's 20th Anniversary. Up to that point, Shankar had made his presence known on YouTube via single camera clips featuring his piano renditions of songs from Evergrey, Behemoth, Amaranthe, Sabaton, Rush and many, many more; BraveWords was happily drawn in. Discussions of which song Ocean Machine song to cover eventually turned into the gauntlet being thrown down; why not cover the whole album? Challenge accepted, and what Shankar conjured up was a jaw dropping 28-minute medley (check it out here).
This was an exercise drawn up simply for the love of metal and music, and since then we've seen Shankar's star rise as a member of Redemption, touring with Pain Of Salvation, his prog-metal trio Lux Terminus, and perhaps most importantly, his Silent Skies partnership with Evergrey frontman Tom Englund. They have just released their third album, Dormant, once again to positive reviews from that part of metaldom with a blackened heart for dark, melancholy keyboard / vocal-based music.
"There is a direct line between the covers and where I've ended up, pretty much with every gig I've done," Shankar reveals as we reflect on the Ocean Machine medley. "The one direct exception is Redemption because I'd never done a Redemption cover. I got that gig through Tom, and I got in touch with Tom because of an Evergrey piano cover I'd done way back in 2014. I played a dodgy-sounding version of 'Missing You' in the conservatory practice room in college, and I guess he watched it. Incredibly, it stayed with him for three years. He hit me up in 2017 to start Silent Skies. Pain Of Salvation was much the same, where in 2017 I covered 'On A Tuesday' and the drummer of the band, Léo (Margarit), saw it and remembered it five years later when they needed an American keyboard player."
"These covers are how that happens," Shankar says of securing gigs and starting projects, "so I view it as a form of marketing, but it's also a way of showing the bands in question that I understand their music on some kind of deep level. The quality of a cover shows the level of your musicality, and I think especially in Tom's case, he could tell that we were kindred spirits and that we understood the music the same way. But it is very surreal. It's strange to think of where I was in 2017; I was just finishing up college, doing these things in my parents' basement, and here I am."
Dormant marks Silent Skies' third album in three years, which is quite the accomplishment given how busy Shankar and Englund are with other projects, and in Englund's case, Evergrey.
"It's three albums in three years, yes," says Shankar, "but it's actually not quite as impressive as it sounds because we finished the first album in 2018, and we were kind of waiting for the right label. It's really three albums in five years, but we do stay very busy. Even while finishing off Dormant, we were working on our next album. There's so much stuff happening, and Tom and I also work on video game music. We're quite active in that world, and we routinely work together in sessions and productions, so he really is my musical partner in a grand scheme, not just Silent Skies."
As mentioned, the seeds for Silent Skies were planted with Shankar's piano cover of an Evergrey song, but Shankar says he and Englund went about the whole process of launching the project backwards.
"Typically, people would come into contact and start talking, and over time you'd say 'Hey, there's something here, let's write a single...' and it grows into an album. But that's not what happened here. Tom messaged me in January 2017 and basically said, 'You don't know me, but I think we should make an album together.' That was right from the first message. He told me what kind of a sonic headspace he was in, told me which the vein of music he wanted to go into, and I think the next day I sent him 12 cellphone audio recordings of things I had done recently. From there, that was it. We were making an album together before we became friends. It was a very targeted process, and I think that's why it's been so efficient since the very beginning."
"Now we're extremely close friends, but that developed later," he adds. "I flew to Gothenburg in April 2018 to record the piano for the first album, and I had met Tom once very briefly before that. It was a span of a year-and-a-half that the friendship caught up to where we were a musical partnership."
Anyone who has followed Englund's work with Evergrey would call Silent Skies a logical offshoot of the band. Shankar agrees.
"There's a soul to what Tom does, and I guess through extension what we do, and that transcends the limits of our format, I suppose. If you listen to the average piano / vocal song - and I love it - it has a certain limit to how people perceive it could be. Can it really be dark? Can it really be heavy? Can it really have this overwhelming melancholy? The thing is, there's actually a lot of music out there which has that. It's not just us. A lot of rock and metal fans just don't know about this whole universe of music that's out there. We're tapping into this, and maybe also in the process we're introducing some people to that larger universe of what's possible, while staying true to you loving your music dark and emotional and powerful. There are other ways to express that other than guitars and drums. It's like we're putting different clothing on a familiar character."
Shankar, likewise, has developed a signature sound of his own. It's at the point now where, like Jon Lord or Derek Sherinian, you're able to pick him out of crowd through his playing.
"It's flattering you say that. I like to think I have my own sound when I play, and the interesting thing is I don't always think it's a good thing. In every musical scenario that I'm in, sometimes my natural instincts of how I like to play are not always what people want to hear, or it doesn't always fit every circumstance. I'm pretty adaptable, I've played so many different genres of music over the years - from pop to country to jazz to metal - but if left to my own devices I am going to play things in a particular way. That really comes across in that Devin Townsend medley, I think. It's the way that I approach emotionality and sensitivity, and my touch, are particular things that I think stand out in my playing, and the beautiful thing about Silent Skies is it just strips everything away."
As Silent Skies is a two-man show, Shankar and Englund share the work evenly, but their creative process has evolved at a steady pace since the beginning to what it is now.
"I'd say the first album, in 2017 / 2018, we pretty much stayed in our lanes," says Shankar. "I was doing pretty much all the musical concepts and Tom did all the vocal concepts. The thing is, we never planned on that divide; it was never a conscious decision. Over the years things have really opened up, and in the process of writing Dormant we were at the point where we're completely equal in everything."
One of the high points a most-talked about moment on Dormant is the duo's take on the galloping Iron Maiden classic, "The Trooper". Silent Skies has transformed the song into a dark and brooding piano-led ballad, with Englund putting in a vocal performance very much the opposite to Bruce Dickinson raging delivery.
"That specific song choice came from Tom because he has a close attachment to Iron Maiden," says Shankar. "I like and I respect Iron Maiden, but I don't have the same relationship with their music that Tom does. It's a great song, and when we were choosing the covers - we chose a lot more than the three on the album - I think we picked songs that people wouldn't expect us to do, typically because they're very different instrumentation. The way 'The Trooper' sounds originally is not the way we do it. It steps outside of metal and rock."
"Listening to our version, people might say 'I don't know if I've heard or ever appreciated or understood that there is something here.' Some metalheads who hear it might say 'This is weird, it's not doing anything for me.' But with all the covers we have done or will do, it's about thinking of the emotional essence behind the song, going into that core and seeing what's there. To see if we can express it in a potent way."
"'The Trooper' is such a sad song. It's so sad, and you don't necessarily hear that when you watch Maiden sprint on stage all guns blazing. The story it tells is so sad, it's from history, and as we know history repeats itself. We especially started talking about doing 'The Trooper' when we heard about the invasion of Ukraine. It was foremost on our minds to see if we could give it the Silent Skies treatment."