I am still smiling from ear to ear after really sinking my ears in to the latest studio album by German "Hero Metal A Cappella" Rockers called Van Canto. Their latest offering goes by the name of 'Dawn Of The Brave' and in conjunction with presenting such a striking album cover with super hero style artwork, the music contained behind this sleeve is just as cool.
They are made up of six individuals, one who plays the drums and the other five who use their voice to provide a certain style of musical accompaniment. When reading this you'd be forgiven for thinking that the sound would resemble a bunch of folk trying to be heard over some manic drumming, but they are a cohesive lot and make some great music.
I took the plunge when offered the chance to chat with a key member of Van Canto as I was smitten with their new album. Stefan Schmidt was on the other end of my conversation, and is known for his lower "rakkatakka" vocals plus his contributions to wah-wah solo guitar vocals. Would we just make musical instrument noises at each other?! Maybe we might end up collaborating on something as I lay down my very best vocal beat box rhythms to his fine vocal displays?! The mind boggled as I made contact with the main man.
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"The main difference compared to the former album is that the former album was written while we were on tour, and this one was written while we were at home in studio and we had the time to work out everything quite detailed. I think it's the most compact album because we really had the time to work everything out." Schmidt replied to my enquiry about any lessons that had been learned from the recording process of their previous four albums.
Knowing how Van Canto had done their fair share of cover versions, I was curious to know more about their thinking process behind this. "We don't have any master plans concerning that, so we decide from album to album which covers we want to, and if there are any covers we want to do, and in the beginning we thought about covering three songs.
"The last one we did was 'Paranoid', was intended to be a bonus track but we liked it very much. Ross did the main vocals, one of the guitar singers, and we thought it was quite a special version and thought we would put it on the album as well." Stefan didn't stop there as he rounded up his flow of thoughts regarding this topic of conversation. "In general we try to keep the balance between covers and originals, so that on every cover we have two original songs. This works quite well for us."
Sensing the pride in his voice, I asked Stefan whether there were any favourite tracks above the others that he wanted to talk about. "Actually this is the first album where I really do like all of the songs, and we spent a lot of time concerning the song order on the album because it just wasn't clear which one was the best opener, or which song should be on the first three positions. Literally we could have taken every one in our opinion so this is where every original song is one hundred percent in our review."
Noting how Blind Guardian were referred to in connection to Van Canto thanks to contributions and collaborations on each other's albums, and using the same producer for various aspects of recording, I wanted to know a little more. "It was on the second album 'Hero', where we got our first deal with a record company and we sat together wondering who was the right producer for Van Canto. I went to my room and watched the credits on my CDs that I own and noticed that half of them were produced by Charlie Bauerfeind, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a producer that's known to work with a lot of voices like he has to do with Blind Guardian and all the choirs."
Stefan continued explaining this relationship with Bauerfeind also pointing out that their last three studio albums involved Bauerfeind producing only the drums. Thanks to this alliance and the respect each band had for each other, they ended up becoming involved in various ways.
Allowing my curiosity to stray, I asked the accommodating lower rakkatakka artist to explain why they called their music "Hero Metal A Cappella"? "In the beginning where we thought about how to describe our music, we got the idea to call it "Hero Metal A cappella" because we wanted to have the Metal in it of course, and we wanted to have the a cappella in it, but we also wanted to have the word in it that describes our music that should create a good mood and a powerful mood for those who listen to us. So we decided to call it "Hero Metal A Cappella" because the attention of Van Canto is to let the listener feel like a hero himself."
With a short intake of breath, Stefan then lets rip with the rest of his thread of thought on the subject: "For the current album we thought okay, if we call ourselves "Hero Metal A Cappella" then it would be a good thing to have a complete album concept around the super-hero theme starting with the album title and the artwork, and the photos we did and the own compositions and the lyrics; even the chosen covers especially 'Holding Out For A Hero' and 'Into The West' which feel very hero-like in our ears."
If you get a spare moment, please check out their video for the single 'Badaboom'. It is regarded almost as a separate entity to the track itself. You can see the video here.
"Sly, our lead singer had the idea. What we wanted to do was to develop the story that works independent from the song that's chosen for the single. In the past we always waited for the album production to be completely finished, then decided which song is best for a video and then just shoot a performance video clip because we didn't have the time to develop a complete story as we didn't know which song to take. So this time we wanted to develop a story that would work with every Van Canto song and then just take the best song to shoot the video." He then elaborates by explaining the thought process of the storyline.
It was a rhythmic conversation which flowed really well. Stefan revealed to me how he would go walking in the countryside and ideas and melody lines would just come to him creating the basis of a new song. During our relaxed chat, I asked him what triggered his interest in Heavy Metal in the very first place. "In the very, very, very first place it was actually 'The Final Countdown' because I was six or seven years old at the time the song came out, and it was the first song that really was my own personal favourite song."
Towards the end of our conversation, I had a query regarding whether their album titles came first and then their song-writing was shaped to fit that theme, or whether their songs dictated what the album would be called. "Actually, 'Dawn Of The Brave' is the first album where we had the album title or at least the direction, we also had three or four super-hero sounding titles before all any songs were written; and this is the first time that we did so.
"The first four albums were written and produced completely and then the record company came and said you need a booklet and you need a cover and you need a title." It's really good knowing that you've asked a relatively appropriate question that the artist hasn't heard before. It must get really boring after a while being asked the same questions hour after hour?
Due to Van Canto building their foundation of sound on vocal performances, they tour for short intervals before taking a break, and then returning to live activities for another short duration before resting their voices again. Stefan did confirm that there was a London gig planned (Underworld) thus far, so anyone wishing to see them will get an opportunity.
With a strong album in the form of 'Dawn Of The Brave' out there, Van Canto will be touring other countries and will be busy promoting their form of Rock music. If perhaps you're not overly familiar with these guys yet, this could be a good time to catch up. It's novel, it's hook-laden and more importantly it's Rock!