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5th March 2012
Prolific German metallers Rage have now reached a rather remarkable twenty eight years in existence over which time has seen them unleash a mammoth twenty one albums (if you count their debut under the band's ephemeral Avenger moniker). And their recently released twenty first, the aptly titled '21', undoubtedly contains some of the heaviest material they've ever recorded, albeit awash with a multitude of stylistic divergences that also incorporates rock, thrash, power, prog, and melodically catchy hooks in a seamless blend through some skilfully arranged compositions. Metal Discovery spent half an hour chatting to guitarist Victor Smolski about the new album, touring plans and his active involvement in motor sport...
METAL DISCOVERY: How you doing?
VICTOR: Yeah, Iím fine. Sorry Iím a little bit late. Iíve just come back from the rehearsal room and the highway was pretty full.
(Victor Smolski on new album '21')
"...we were planning to do a Rage CD thatís pretty heavy, and we have so many heavy ideas so it was very easy for us to prepare this."
Rage - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2011 Pia Kintrup
MD: Thatís okay! So youíve been rehearsing for the tour then?
VICTOR: Yeah, just checking the setlist and preparing equipment.
MD: And that all went very well?
VICTOR: Yeah, everything was fine. We were trying some old stuff; some songs we havenít played before. Some surprises! [laughs]
MD: I have to say, first off, a fantastic new album. I have to ask though, what came first Ė the song title ĎTwenty Oneí which is obviously about the gambling kind of thing or the album title Ď21í because itís your twenty first album release?
VICTOR: Yeah, at first it was just a number because we counted how many CDs we did and 21, yeah, and then we started talking about this number because I was on a solo tour in America and I was in Las Vegas, and we played a little bit just for fun. I told Peavy that 21 is a game, blackjack, and we were talking about making a song about this. And all this gambling compares to real life, you know, because itís a risk sometimes and you lose. You can compare the game to real life a little bit.
MD: I guess itís good having a song on there called ĎTwenty Oneí as having an album called Ď21í just because itís your twenty first wouldíve been a bit tooÖobvious!
VICTOR: Yeah! And it was really crazy for me because I saw so many guys who really destroyed their lives in Las Vegas and lose everything. Itís crazy to see this, you know.
MD: A lot of the material on the album has to be amongst some of the heaviest Rage stuff ever recorded, or that Iíve heard from Rage anyway. Did you plan from the very beginning that Ď21í would be a much heavier album?
VICTOR: We toured pretty long with ĎStrings to a Webí, the last CD, and we played some orchestra shows also, and the last show was at the Rock Hard Festival which we headlined with an orchestra, a great show. After the show we talked to the record company that maybe we can split this because we have so many old fans who like the heavier stuff from Rage, like Rage as a trio, but also we have a lot of new fans from our orchestra time with orchestrating songs, and itís very difficult to combine at times. When we go on tour with an orchestra, our setlist, itís not so easy to put together. And also for me as a producer in the studio itís very complicated because when you split it, like half/half, you have very powerful, aggressive, thrashy songs which I like to make sound really heavy but itís not possible to do with an orchestra because an the orchestra needs dynamicÖso finding a compromise. Itís very difficult and I donít like compromising! [laughs] So we tried to do two different, separate CDs so we were planning to do a Rage CD thatís pretty heavy, and we have so many heavy ideas so it was very easy for us to prepare this.
MD: The albumís probably at its heaviest during certain passages of ĎSerial Killerí, like with all the growling over the blast beatsÖis that actually Peavy growling?
VICTOR: Yes, yes, this was funny because when we started writing songs and checking the ideas, I also did some demos for my solo CD, and one song I wanted to make very aggressive and needed growls. I was asking Peavy, ďah, can you just help to do the demo?Ē; and Peavy said, ďoh, Iíve never done that beforeĒ; and I said, ďletís maybe try it, letís do it.Ē He was checking and learning how to do this and the sound was very good so I told him, ďwhy are you doing this on my solo CD, letís do this for Rage!Ē [laughs] So it was cool.
MD: Yeah, it works really well. Throughout the album, thereís a really good balance between all the different styles because youíve got the heavy riffing, some rockier parts, a bit progressive as well in places, tons of cool melodies, a bit of thrash, a bit of power metal Ė did you have to spend a lot of time on the arrangements to make all those different elements fit together?
VICTOR: Yeah, for sure. I was really taking care of arrangements because we decided no orchestra, no keyboard, so you just make arrangements with drums, bass and guitar. And I spent a lot of time to find really interesting arrangements; I donít want to make this boring so I tried to give every song a special atmosphere and special arrangement, and make it as tight as possible and, yeah, I was really working hard. We were in the rehearsal room and working old fashioned Ė we donít do any demos. I donít like all those kind of modern demos on computer and so on. I like old style, like pure rock Ďní roll, go to the rehearsal room and just playing, playing, playing until we like it and just try everything. And I always do a live arrangement, like when we can play this live and it sounds good then itís good enough for the studio. But, yeah, it was really hard work. I tried a lot of stuff with drums and try to find the perfect balance between guitar and drums and all scales mixed together. Also in the studio it was very hard work for me to find the right sound becauseÖfor me, it was important to not just make a good hi-fi sound but to find the right sound for the songs, for the energy. And, yeah, we like it very much.
MD: It works brilliantly because itís seamless as well, you donít really notice when it changes from one part to another with the different styles, you just listen to the song as a song. It all flows really nicely. So, yeah, it works brilliantly, I think.
VICTOR: Yeah, and it was a good team in the studio because it was Charlie Bauerfeind who Iíve worked with for ten years already so he took care of all the engineering, all the technical crap so I could concentrate on only playing music and how it feels. Itís a good team.
MD: Also, the album has a classic Rage sound but it has a very modern edge to it as well in certain parts. Is that something you were aiming for, to mix the old with the new?
VICTOR: Yeah, we always try to find something new and Rage, I think, is a very special band because when you look back to the long history, like twenty eight years already, you never find two CDs sound similar. Itís always we try to find something new; we make a lot of experiments. Itís very interesting and thatís almost the reason we all still have so much fun with the music because we just play what we like and just enjoy every songwriting process and every recording so itís always a lot of fun for us. It gives a lot of energy, you know, itís never boring; we donít want to repeat. Some bands look back and are like Ė ďoh, the last CD was very successful, letís do the same.Ē We always do just what we want in this moment; what we likeÖ [laughs]
MD: Which is good; which is the best way! Artistic integrity!
VICTOR: Yeah, we donít like it when the record company or someone else tells us what we must doÖwe just enjoy music! [laughs]
MD: So in trying to keep it fresh all the time and adding new dimensions to your sound, do you find youíre able to attract newer, younger generations of fans or is your fanbase mainly an older one?
VICTOR: Itís really mixed at the moment. When I see the audience in front, itís really fourteen to fifty! [laughs] Itís funny as itís a lot of different audiences also from different kinds of tastes of music. There are a lot of true metal, thrash guys but also a lot of modern, a lot of musiciansÖyeah, itís mixed up and itís great.
MD: Definitely, thatís the wide appeal that Rage has I guess. You filmed a video for the albumís title track, a gambling themed one in a casino. That looked like it was quite a lot of fun to shoot?
VICTOR: Yeah, we really thought about these songs and what was the bestÖand a friend of mine, heís an owner of a casino in the Czech Republic. Itís very difficult to find any private casinos in Germany. So we went to the Czech Republic and had a lot of fun! [laughs] It was really party time!
MD: Pretty ladies, gambling, beer and metalÖlooked like a good combination!
VICTOR: It was everything mixed up, it was great! The atmosphere, great girls and everything was perfect! [laughs]
MD: I think you kind of alluded to this earlier but have you ever had an interest in gambling yourself or is that something youíve always avoided?
VICTOR: We donít really play; we do sometimes but just for fun. Itís nothing serious.
MD: I have to say, your lead work on the album is totally stunning, as usual. Do you improvise various versions of the solos before you settle on a final take or are those written more formally as part of the songwriting process?
VICTOR: Yeah, itís funny but when we go in the studio I always prepare arrangements, riffingÖbut never prepare any solos. When itís a melody maybe, for example, like ĎSerial Killerí has a kind of melody, a classical melody I compose and prepare, but all of the freestyle solos, itís completely improvised in the studio because itís easier for me. When I jam at home I donít have the right sound. Sometimes you get some rough ideas and then I change them in the studio when I get a real sound. The last years, I never prepare solos, I always get the mix sound good and then improvise three of four different versions and then decide which fits the best, and then start to learn how to play them live!
MD: Yeah, having to re-learn them!
VICTOR: Yeah! [laughs]