~ PLAYING WITH TURDS ~
Eight years after retiring from the music scene, cult prog band Sieges Even make a surprise comeback with what many reviewers have hailed as the progressive rock album of the year.
Andy Read speaks to vocalist Arno Menses, for whom the whole experience has been like a little boy’s dream, come true.
Even in his wildest fantasies, the Dutchman admits he never expected, to go from playing drums in a local rock band called Turd, to being lead singer for his favourite rock band!
Oliver Holzwarth | Arno Menses | Markus Steffen | Alex Holzwarth
Sieges Even has always been a bit of a chameleon. Founded in Munich in 1988, their first two albums were very much in the technical progressive metal vein - where every track tries to beat the world record for the number of notes a band can cram into a song.
The third release, saw the arrival of a new singer and a sharp change of musical colour to a more open, progressive rock style. Albums four and five, heralded another vocalist and another change of colour, this time, to one with a very heavy hint of jazz/rock fusion.
Predictably enough, their sixth studio album, ‘The Art Of Navigating By The Stars’, sees the arrival of another voice, this time in the shape of Arno Menses - a Dutchman, who has really left his mark on the band.
I start by congratulating Arno on his performance - one which far exceeds any of his predecessors. It has allowed the band to release an album which can compete with the best that the progressive rock genre can offer. I wonder, just how he came to join Sieges Even.
ARNO: ‘Just like you, I listened to the first albums, years and years ago and I was a big fan - especially after the ‘Sense of Change’ album. In 1997 the band broke up, but a few years later, they got back together with guitar player Markus Steffen and started Looking Glass Self, with Andre Mathos (Angra) on vocals. I also got into that, and so checked, every so often, on their website, to see what was happening.’
‘Then one day, I read that they were looking for a new singer. At the time, I was a backing singer playing drums. So I wasn’t used to singing lead. However, I thought ‘What the hell’. If I don’t try it now, then it’s never gonna happen. So I sent in a short demo of myself singing the Kansas track ‘Play The Game Tonight’ and, to my surprise, they called me back and invited me to come to Munich to record something with them.’
ANDY: You obviously made an immediate impression! It must be an amazing feeling to go, literally overnight, from being a fan of a band, to being their lead singer?
‘Oh, it’s like a little boy’s dream isn’t it? Standing on the sidelines, you always dream of being in a bigger band. But suddenly, there I was, in a studio, with my heroes. Kind of a strange experience.’
What was your musical background beforehand. Had you played in some bands where you live in Rotterdam?
‘Yes. From the age of 10, I’d been in bands - always as a drummer. I’d done a lot of progressive stuff before – so I was familiar with the scene. At the time I was playing in a band called Turd. They play louder, guitar rock influenced by bands such as Pulp and Frank Zappa, I’m still in that band too. Actually I’m in the studio with them as we speak.’
The new album consists of one main song, split into eight tracks, or as the band prefers to call them – sequences. Were you involved in the songwriting, or was everything written before you joined?
‘Well, when we got the deal from Inside Out, we had to still finish three songs. So it was a bit of a hectic time, before going into the studio. But as far as the vocal lines are concerned, I completely do that on my own. Markus writes all the lyrics - because he writes better lyrics than I do. But I have complete freedom, in terms of the vocals and the backing vocals – whatever I want to do.’
‘It’s something new for them also, because from what I’ve heard, before they’ve always had to dictate to their singers what, and how, to sing. So it gives a bit of freedom to them as well – they can just focus on their own parts.’
The result of this new partnership, is certainly causing quite a stir, with many people being pleasantly surprised at how melodically addictive and accessible it is! In the words of guitarist Markus Steffen, the biggest difference to the band’s earlier albums, is that the Sieges Even of today is much more song-orientated.
‘Now, good melodies and logical arrangements are the important criteria,’ he says, in the notes which accompany the album. ‘In the early days, we often wanted to put as many notes as possible into a song. Now we want to write expressive music, which grips the listener on an emotional level, rather than a rational one.’
It doesn’t really strike me as a concept album, but there are clearly lyrical and musical themes which are repeated throughout. Is there a key theme that ties everything together?
‘No, it’s not really a concept album. There is a red line going through all the songs, musically and lyrically, with themes returning every second or third song. But each song also works as a normal song. As far as the lyrics are concerned, there is a connection, but we’ve tried to leave it as open as possible. It’s really up to the listener to see the connection. But if they want to see the songs on their own, then there’s no problem either.’
In that respect, the album really reminds me in a lot of ways, of Fates Warning’s classic ‘A Pleasant Shade of Grey’.
‘Yes, a lot of people have mentioned that. Actually, the first intention was to write one long song of 60 minutes. But that would be commercial suicide. The danger lies in keeping the audience eager to hear more, and not to bore them with all sorts of musical complexity.’
But what does the repeated: "The view from here is frightening" line in several tracks signify?
‘Well, a great deal of the lyrics deal with fear and overcoming fear. This line refers to the starting point of it all. Fear can be a dominant factor in many people’s lives. The challenge is to deal with it, and to turn it into something positive. The sequences on the album, tell stories of success and failure, in trying to overcome these fears. We end the album with the line: ‘Will the view from there be frightening’.
In terms of the demo material, is there a plan to ever release any of the Looking Glass Self or Val’Paraiso songs in the future, maybe as bonus material. Also, has Inside Out shown an interest in re-issuing any of the band’s back catalogue?
‘Well, of the Val’Paraiso material, there were two tracks. ‘The Lonely Views of Condors’ is on the new album. The other song was called ‘Where Shadows Sleep’, and yes, we may do something with it. Maybe take it apart, or maybe leave it as it is and record it as a bonus track.’
‘Of the Looking Glass Self material, most of those songs have been taken apart and used on the album. The song ‘Stigmata’ for example - about 60 per cent of that old song is now in this album. Again we might do something with those songs. There was some talk by Markus of maybe recording some of them acoustically. We’ll see what sort of room we get from Inside Out to experiment with albums in the future.’
‘Another idea we’ve talked about, is an acoustic album. We have tried reinterpreting some of the songs in an acoustic format, but also we could maybe do it the other way around and turn some of the acoustic songs into a rock song.’
‘Of the old albums. The first three are still freely available but we have plans to remaster them and I believe that there are plans to reissue the two most recent albums, as they can only be got as illegal downloads.’
In terms of live shows, Sieges Even is due to take its music out on the road in the coming months. The tour begins with two shows in Greece in December, followed by a date in Moscow. Then after Christmas, there are eight, rather enticing dates with fellow Inside Out act, Dead Soul Tribe. Will you be playing the whole album or will the set be a mix-and-match from your career to date?
‘The tour should be a double headliner. One day we’ll open, and the next we’ll headline. We’ve had some discussions, and I think we’re gonna play the whole of the new album plus some tracks from the first CD and also ‘Tangerine Windows of Solace’ - the 25-minute song from the second album.’
Sieges Even actually returned to the live stage with a headline performance at the Headway Festival in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. I’d heard that you were planning to record that show for a live album. Did you follow the idea through?
‘Yes that was the first plan. We didn’t have anything as the new Sieges Even so we thought we’d take along a sound guy to record the whole concert. In the end, the guy couldn’t make it, and I’m glad he didn’t, because we didn’t play that good. We had to rehearse the whole set in just one-and-a-half months. So I think, first we should gain some experience onstage as a band and then maybe after one or two studio albums, we can release a live CD or even a DVD if we get the chance.’
As a fan of the band in the past, it must now be great to be able to sing their songs yourself, in front of a crowd. What were your favourite songs from the past, and which do you like the most from the new album?
‘For me, of the older songs I love ‘Epigram for the Last Straw’ and ‘These Empty Places’. Of the new stuff, well, it’s all crap really!! (laughs) I don’t know which is my favourite. If you listen to ‘The Weight’, then it has the most rock elements - I like the energy. But ‘Unbreakable’ is a very emotional song, and also ‘To The Ones That Have Failed’ is also a very progressive song. But I think, I will choose ‘Unbreakable’ as my favourite.’
Back to the new album, and another talking point is the eye-catching album cover. I’ve only seen the front of it on the promo version, but I guess, that as the baby crawls off the corner of the cover, his head turns into an older person’s on the rear side of the sleeve. Is that the way it’s been done?
‘Just before we went into the studio, we were sitting in a pub and were all thinking of a cover with stars or navigational instruments. Then Alex, the drummer, came up with the idea of the baby breaking away from the strings of the marionette (puppet). This represents one of the key themes on the album – that the child still has the opportunity to chose its own path in life. We were originally going to put an old man on the back of the cover. But Markus decided to just go for a middle-aged man - like us. Because we don’t yet know the rest of our life journey either.’
As you mentioned earlier, the demo which led to the deal with Inside Out was recorded under the band name Val’Paraiso. Why did you then decide to revert back to the old band name? This album is so different from the early Sieges Even material. Surely a new name would give you a fresh start. There must be a lot of potential fans who won’t even consider an album with the Sieges Even name on it, because they associate you with technical progressive metal and they don’t like that sort of music?
‘Yes, a lot of people are saying that they expected something containing three thousand notes per minute. Just before we were offered the Headway Festival, we were discussing what name to use. And the point was made, that it’s really hard to get a record deal as just another new band. Whether we were called Looking Glass Self or Val’Paraiso - we were just another band.’
‘However Sieges Even, was a name that had a bit of history behind it. And if you listen to this album, there is still a lot of Sieges Even shining through. So I think it was a tough, but an obvious choice.’
‘It could have been a wrong choice also, because people expect us to play the sort of music that was found on the band’s last two albums which are completely different to the whole concept of Sieges Even. But I think it has been a wise choice. All the old fans have picked up on us. We just have to convince people who didn’t know about us, or who didn’t like us before, to give us a try. By the reviews we’re receiving so far, I think we’ve done quite a good job!’
Well, if you call releasing what has become my album of the year a good job, then yes, with ‘The Art Of Navigating By The Stars’, Sieges Even has done a very good job indeed.
INTERVIEW FOR DPRP BY ANDY READ
Live & Publicity Photographs - © 2005 Sieges Even
03 December 2005 - Larissa Greece
04 December 2005 - B-Live Music House Athens Greece
11 December 2005 - Underworld Moscow Russia
Double Headliner Tour with DEADSOUL TRIBE:
06 January 2006 - Amstelveen, NL
07 January 2006 - P 60 Weert NL
08 January 2006 - De Bosuil Vosselaar B
09 January 2006 - Biebob Paris F
10 January 2006 - La Boule Noire Pratteln CH
11 January 2006 - Z7 Aschaffenburg GER
12 January 2006 - Colos-Saal Essen GER
13 January 2006 - Zeche-Carl Karlsruhe GER
Sieges Even Official Website
Headway Festival Official Website
DPRP Review of Sieges Even's - The Art Of Navigating By The Stars (2005)
DPRP review of Val'Paraiso - Footprints Of Angels (2003)
Fates Warning Official Website