Although their first release was in 2015, for some reason Azure has not been on our radar before. DPRP's Menno von Brucken Fock is setting the record straight with a review of their latest album, but first an interview with guitarist and vocalist Christopher Sampson.
Chris, the band originates from Brighton UK, what is your background musically in terms of education and what kind of music did you listen to when you were (even 😊) younger?
We all met in Brighton. Galen and I met at the very start of our music degree courses, and we eventually met the rest of the band in Brighton through either education or the local music scene. As for beforehand, I also did music all throughout my education leading to university, so I've been studying it for a while now!
My music tastes were definitely initially cultivated by my family's love for Iron Maiden, but I also spent a long time adoring artists such as Avril Lavigne and Green Day, before slowly falling in love with Genesis who, combined with my love for Iron Maiden, probably led me into my love for bands like Pain Of Salvation and Dream Theater growing up.
How did you get hooked on music and what made you decide to try and become a 'recording artist'?
My dad sings in a band, so I guess I always aspired to do something similar. I have early memories of changing the words to 'Brave New World' by Iron Maiden and then trying to record my version, and it seems I've been trying to record my own songs ever since.
When and how did you meet Galen Stapley and when did you decide to be 'partners in crime' so to speak?
We met pretty immediately at university. I had a Dream Theater bag for some reason, which prompted Galen to come and talk to me about progressive metal, and then after a bunch of late nights, and a lot of hummus and pitta bread, we were writing partners.
Before Of Brine And Angel's Beaks was released , Azure have released two albums, an EP and a single. How was the response to those earlier releases and did it affect your approach to making music?
I would definitely consider OBAAB to be our "second album". The initial mix tape Dreaming Of (Azure) was more of an experiment to see if, A, the music translated well into recording and B, to get a gauge of if people liked it! Haha.
That's where the Azure sound originated from anyway, especially with songs like Nymph's Love Song and To Nourish A Viper. Those songs are the reason we carried on to do Wish For Spring (album, 2017 - Ed.), and delve more into our sound. Redtail (2018 EP with one 20-minute track - Ed.) was the first time we actually even attempted any promo at all, though our attempts were super minimal. The music did attract a bunch of new attention for us however, and we were invited to play Euroblast off the back of that release.
Redtail was actually part of the writing sessions I was doing for OBAAB but we ended up separating it from that album and releasing it first, because we were becoming increasingly busy and didn't want to be silent for much longer.
Annoyingly, we remained busy after the Redtail release, which is why we needed to release Mistress (single, 2021 - Ed.) prior to OBAAB, in order to remind our fans (though they were fewer at the time) that we still existed!
Thankfully Mistress completely redeemed our brief hiatus and the attention we've had since has been a total dream!
Having listened to the other music by Azure I would say there'a marked progression. Did you change the way you compose and/or arrange songs the last 6 years?
Oh absolutely. We are constantly taking inspiration from different situations we find ourselves in, and the difference between Wish For Spring and OBAAB is largely due to a more stressful and less enjoyable lifestyle we'd undertaken at the time of writing the second album, resulting in what I would consider to be a much more bitter and unusual album. Of course, it's still packed with hyperactive glitter prog, but there is a guitar driven, heavier edge to those songs which give them a totally different personality to the previous record. Don't worry, those writing sessions were a few years ago now, so we're all happy again now!
Do you write all the music together with Galen or do you compose separately and exchange ideas? What comes first: the story/lyrics or the music?
I write all the fantasy narratives and lore separately to the music, and then once the correct song starts to form, I start to incorporate the concept I think fits best.
I tend to do the bulk of the arrangement, but a lot of our coolest moments nowadays tend to come from ideas or parts that Galen has sent me, which I've then built arrangements around. Sometimes we work very separately, with Galen sending me ideas online, or sometimes we write together in the room. We tend to do the more complex ideas remotely so that we don't rush them, and the "vibier" stuff happens in person.
The album was recorded with Christopher Sampson (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Galen Stapley (lead guitar), Bella Lee (bass), and Sam Calder (drums). Bella and Sam parted ways with the band after the album was recorded. Then, Alex Miles joined on bass, Sol Sinclair on drums, and Shaz Dudhia on keys. This is the line-up in the photos and for future recordings. Chris Sampson
What kind of technology/tools do you use to transform your ideas into a finished song?
I score the entire arrangements on Sibelius, which we then import all the midi from into a DAW. From there, we swap out the midi instruments for real ones, and I experiment with a million different synth sounds before settling on what fits best!
How did you guys get through the lockdown and the still ongoing pandemic? Did it influence you to sit down and write this new album?
The album was actually already written by the time lockdown began! It did give us time to redo the production remotely with Gareth though, and I'm grateful for that extra time!
My English is not nearly good enough to sense what this (at least to me) strange title Of Brine And Angel's Beaks is all about. Can you explain?
Without over-explaining, the title track (and album cover) are about the great bird Yiiq passing on its role to its sole offspring who, for the duration of the song, is listening from inside its egg. Yiiq's role is to convey the souls of those lost at sea to "Pjerakisch", which is the afterlife for lack of a better word. Because of this role, Yiiq is essentially a beaked angel, who rescues sailors from a briney damnation, hence the "Brine And Angel's Beaks"!
For my ears the keyboards play an essential role in your music and musical style but on your new album there's no keyboardist credited. Do you handle all keyboards yourself or do you use software? What does 'programming' mean exactly?
Although I played some of the more rhythmically free keyboard parts on the album, anything that was beyond my abilities and a keyboard player remained as the midi exported from my sibelius files. The synth parts are too important to lump into the production category, so I felt as though they needed their own category, and "scoring" didn't sound as cool haha!
There are some live video's available on the web where you play as a four-piece. No keyboards? Are you planning to take a keyboardist with you on tour next time around and if not, why?
The parts are incredibly difficult, so we've only ever wanted to have live keys if the player was AMAZING. Thankfully, after we dropped Mistress, Shaz Dudhia (who we'd wanted to work with for ages) sent us a message, and now he's part of the live line-up!
You don't exactly spare your voice. Aren't you afraid it'll fail you at some point? Do you use some kind of vocal coach?
Absolutely! But whenever it does fail me, I just make sure I understand why so that it doesn't happen again. It's a constant learning process, when so many vocal techniques are at play you never know which ones might cause problems first. For now, I'm my own vocal coach haha!
You have an amazing vocal range, would be a shame if you wouldn't be able to perform the songs the way you recorded them or not? My impression is you're using your extremely high range a little less than on the previous albums/songs. A deliberate choice?
Thank you! If I'm honest, the newer stuff is actually higher for the most part - but I spend more time using a darker timbre in the new album, so it might give the impression that the notes are lower, but if you checked the notes I was singing on a keyboard you'd find that this record spends a lot more time in the danger zone than anything previously, including all my highest recorded notes to date.
I keep an eye on my voice for the most part - I don't drink or smoke, and I exercise a lot, so my vocal health is really only at the mercy of things like illness and misuse now. I never want to have to stop singing the songs the way I do, so I'm particularly mindful to look after myself!
What are your sources of inspiration for the songs?
Nowadays, the inspiration comes from everywhere. Largely from books, and our own storyboards, as well as art we've seen, or nature! Me and Galen go on walks or adventures at least once a week, so we're always taking in new scenery!
If it's not too much trouble, maybe you can comment on each track and tell us a bit about the background and/or origin?
A Night Of Superlunary Gazing: I had been working on hours worth of sleep ambience at the time. This was a brief snapshot of that genre through a fantasy themed lens, which ended up introducing the record.
Self-Crucifixion: This song was just so high energy that we had to put it at the start! This had an unusual writing process too - I wrote the song on Sibelius but hadn't written any guitar parts. Then, Galen came over and wrote AND recorded all the guitar parts in one afternoon!
Ameotoko I - The Curse: This one inspired a LOT conceptually for the band. It was a rainy day when I wrote this, and I was about to go and see The Shape Of Water at the cinema when I came up with the main theme and the concept. Then I saw the film and there was a really nice accordion part in the soundtrack, which led to me incorporating a very quite accordion into the mix!
The Jester Who Cheated Death: The first song I properly wrote for the record!
Lustre: Siphon Of Umbra: This is cool to me because whilst being a fairly progressive track, based on one of our own fantasy concepts, it has this one particularly triumphant refrain that has an almost Meatloaf / classic rock kind of groove, which I think was inspired by the time me and Galen spent in a classic rock band.
Outrun God: I've said this before, but this song was literally born after I spent 3 days straight playing Sonic The Hedgehog and consuming questionable alcoholic energy drinks! Love the end result, which was boosted by Gareth's own ideas.
Mercy: This is another of the oldest songs on the record. The chorus came from an idea I had for a song called Heroin back in maybe 2013, but was never recorded. Mercy is one of my favourites to sing!
Of Brine And Angel's Beaks: The title track was the last song written for the album. There was originally meant to be a Dream Electric PART 2 instead, but the song wasn't strong enough for the mid-album breather, so we wrote this instead!
A Sailor Will Learn: I love this song, it was inspired by the creaking boat sounds I could hear from my old bedroom at night!
Cup Of Poison: Possibly the song that underwent the most cosmetic surgery post-demo phase. I adored the song but I wasn't happy with my vocal takes, among other things. But once Bella laid down her bass, and Adam turned up for the extra percussive recording sessions, I started to fall in love with this song all over again.
The Jellyfish: Simply put, this is a pastiche of the student music scene, with lyrics about being IN the student music scene, being a struggling art student. A lot of our friends related to us for this track. Also, our silly DIY video for this cost me my entire laptop due to water damage!
Ameotoko II - Cloudburst: I'd been reading a lot of Elric at the time for this one; Galen and I just wanted to make some incredibly intense music that felt like a battle of truly sorcerous proportions!
What song, from all the songs you have released as Azure so far, are you most proud of?
This is SUCH a tough one. I'll try and narrow it down, but I'm so proud of everything we've done. My favourite from each release has to be, in chronological order: To Nourish A Viper, Fairy's Tale, Redtail, Mistress, and finally Ameotoko II - Cloudburst.
Those are the last tracks from the releases, interestingly enough!
What are your plans/expectations for the future?
Other than our gig in London at the end of October, we have not set in stone gig plans for the rest of this year. I'm working on getting some of the Azure lore published into a book, and we are writing like CRAZY on what I think is the best music of our lives so far. It's so good that it's literally taking up priority for us at the moment. We love writing music, above all else, so when we're inspired, we let that lead the way.
That being said, when the right gigs present themselves, we are very much looking forward to gigging and touring again, especially throughout Europe. We have a lot of friends out there who we're dying to hang out with and gig with!
Thanks for this, Chris, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Thanks so much for having me!
Discography, with links to Bandcamp: