Impellitteri – Spitting Venom

Wednesday, 8th April 2015

The power of the axe holds court in the halls of heavy metal. There’s just something magical about striking the right chord through a tremendous amplifier or listening to a blistering lead break that connects musicians to their audience. During the 1970’s, Chris Impellitteri caught this bug and began his love affair with hard rock and heavy metal – which would lead him into the realm of AC/DC cover bands, Vice, and eventually starting his own band namesake Impellitteri as a teenager.

Gaining prominence for his neo-classical, shredding lead technique put him in a similar stature as Yngwie Malmsteen, but there is more to Impellitteri than that aspect. The man can write a lot of memorable riffs, catchy hooks, and tight arrangements – often in compact, 3-4 minute time frames. And Impellitteri also has a killer lineup through the years – currently including vocalist Rob Rock, bassist James Amelio Pulli, and drummer Jon Dette.

After numerous spins of the band’s tenth studio album Venom, it seemed more than appropriate to catch up with Chris from his West Coast home base regarding a whole host of topics. The man lived through heavy metal’s heydays and its major media collapse, and still stands strong while others have fallen by the wayside. Learn about perseverance, tenacity, anime, white boots, life as an orphan, and the music business from a true gentlemen of the scene. The floor is yours Mr. Impellitteri…

Dead Rhetoric: Venom is the latest album – how did the songwriting and recording go for this in comparison to 2009’s Wicked Maiden and have you changed things around a bit in comparison to the 80’s and 90’s recording techniques for Impellitteri?

Chris Impellitteri: Wow, good question, quite in depth! Yes, first of all, in preparation for this record we had four years to write this. I was doing a side project, the Animetal USA thing with Rudy Sarzo, so while I was busy with that I had a lot of down time in between, 3-4 months here and there. I wanted to write a record that would allow the band to grow musically speaking. I was spending a lot of time listening to various classical music records believe it or not, a lot of Vivaldi with The Four Seasons, things like that. Just to listen to composition and structure – which was different because Wicked Maiden was definitely a more aggressive rock/metal record. And not to say that Venom isn’t – because I believe that’s even more aggressive than the last album. I started around mid-2010 with the writing – I think the first song I wrote was “Empire of Lies”. We wanted to challenge ourselves to see if we could write and perform on a record, a record that would be as equally as good as some of my favorite records like Van Halen, Blizzard of Ozz, Master of Puppets – and this is not meant to be arrogant in any way or form. Coupling the classical influence, studying the composers in that realm, plus challenging ourselves to see if we could develop a record that would stand up to our favorites that we knew as kids, that’s a process we followed for three years. I can’t even tell you the amount of songs that we wrote that didn’t make the record- only the 10 or 12 best is what we kept. Once the writing was done, then it was about rehearsing and really getting this band to sound like a live band- we didn’t want to have it sound like we were sharing files and using Pro Tools.

I did a lot of demos by myself for Wicked Maiden without the band, so that was more initiated from myself, listening to a lot of rock music as a guide. Venom is more of me reaching into myself as a musician, I wanted to show my maturity and have a more aggressive record and tap into the best composers in music history. Mozart, Beethoven, Vivadi. We went to NRG Studios in Los Angeles, we rented the biggest studio we could so we rehearsed all these songs. It was a different experience for 2015, because most bands do not use this method anymore. Most of the record you are hearing is us performing live.

Dead Rhetoric: You often compose hundreds of tracks to whittle things down to the final cut. How do you know what separates the acceptable from the outstanding in Impellitteri material – as standouts to me include “We Own the Night”, “Time Machine”, and of course the title cut?

Impellitteri: I am so happy you said those tracks as we are shooting videos this coming Thursday and we have been asking everybody about their favorite songs, but without a bias. We are doing five videos, and “We Own the Night” plus “Venom” made it. As far as whittling it down, I don’t know if we ever truly know what is the best song and what is the worst song – because we are really close to the music. I’ll write a riff and I’ll really dig it, and maybe 2 years later I’ll go ‘this sucks, what was I thinking?’. It was more about me playing the riffs for the band guys, and if they smiled or said it was great, then it would be developed further. By the time we did that we had a sense of the best songs. Once we record the original demos you get the time to get away from it- and having 4 years of down time we could listen to the songs with fresh ears.

Dead Rhetoric: How did Jon Dette integrate as the new drummer? He is one of the hardest hitting guys I know, after seeing him on tour with Heathen a few years back…

Impellitteri: (Laughs) I’m so glad you noticed that, and it’s so true. When I was doing Animetal USA, I brought him into the band. My Marshalls (amplifiers) are always obnoxiously loud, and he hits so hard that some of his cymbal hits are a guitarist’s worst nightmare because they get in my frequency. Our old drummer Glen Sobel who is now playing with Alice Cooper, I love him, great friend, and he’s done some tremendous work on many of the Impellitteri records and tours. But Jon, he had this tremendous energy coming into the Impellitteri band. When I was writing a lot of the music, we had brought Jon in for Scott Travis when we did the first Animetal USA record. He made the band, and when we completed the tour I went right into writing mode for Impellitteri. Well Jon got called to fill in on the Anthrax tour, Charlie (Benante) couldn’t make all the gigs. At the same time I was doing some festivals in Europe, Slayer called him because they had a falling out with Dave Lombardo and they asked him if he could do both gigs. So Jon was doing festivals, playing an Anthrax set, taking a 20 minute break and then doing an hour and a half with Slayer. When he was finished with that he was in great shape so I brought him in and we were going to do stadium festivals in Korea. We rehearsed as a band, he was giving us a breath of fresh air. He made us feel like we were 15 again, it was great.

Dead Rhetoric: In your formative years Uli Jon Roth and Eddie Van Halen had a major impact- please tell us what captivated you about these two guitarists, and has your philosophy regarding technique, arranging, and feel changed as you’ve performed this many decades in?

Impellitteri: I still love those guitar players. In all sincerity if I’m being honest – personally any guitarist who has ever played, ever recorded a record, ever played out or that I’ve seen, has probably had a positive influence in some way. Whether you are a shred guy like Al Dimeola, Yngwie, Steve Vai, or Paul Gilbert – I guarantee I’ve watched you, studied you, tried to take things in and incorporate it someway for my own. And Uli- he was such an influence because he was doing the harmonic minor scales, the diminished things, long before anybody. Listen to his work on Virgin Killer – I was probably 7 years old and he was doing that shred stuff. At first when I heard Yngwie- I still love him too- I thought he was a copy of Uli. You know the white Stratocaster Yngwie plays? Uli had that in 1975, cream color, maple body, wearing the white boots – the same thing. Uli’s composition was amazing. About 5 years ago Uli was doing a show at UCLA Theater and invited me on stage to do “Virgin Killer” along with Francis (Buchholz) the old Scorpions bass player. That was a blast.

Eddie Van Halen was my biggest inspiration as a child. He was the one that made me want to be a solo guitar player. Even though back then it wasn’t called shredding. Eddie’s influence – he affected me based on his work on the first 3-4 Van Halen records. Things like the solos in “Ice Cream Man” or “I’m the One”- that’s the stuff that really got me as well as the bootleg stuff pre-first album, he was doing a lot more shredding before he was even recording on the Van Halen albums. Plus the purity of his tone.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you handle the fact that the style of neo-classical oriented melodic heavy metal you play is more popular in other parts of the world where it struggles to sustain any sort of healthy following in the United States where you are from?

Impellitteri: It is interesting. In Japan the band is huge and I don’t know why. I mean there are so many other great bands as well but for some reason we’ve been able to reach a level that (only) bands like Metallica and Bon Jovi attain, bands like that have that success in those markets. Parts of Japan and Europe, the education system is different. They are classically trained, and you’ll hear a lot more classical radio stations than you will in the United States. I am considered one of these technical shred guitarists, whether you like me or you hate me, it is because I’ve matured and advanced based on music theory. I think they gravitate and like that because it’s part of what they’ve grown up with. Whereas in the US, we grew up with Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, then we grew up with Van Halen, Aerosmith, Metallica – which may be considered a little bit more crude then say listening to Uli Jon Roth, Yes, progressive bands.

Dead Rhetoric: What is it like to have such incredible voices such as Graham Bonnet and Rob Rock singing over your compositions? Do you have any special stories through the years regarding their work ethic or musical philosophy?

Impellitteri: First of all, they are both great singers. I love Graham Bonnet’s voice. Graham as a child I knew about in Rainbow, I used to hear him sing the Michael Schenker Group material. I thought what he did in Alcatrazz with Yngwie and Steve Vai was great. Really good stuff. He’s a unique singer- he doesn’t sound like anyone. He is by far the loudest and most powerful singer I’ve ever worked with. Picture what Pavarotti and those tenor operatic singers sound like – he’s got one of those voices. And Rob Rock – the same thing, not as powerful as Graham but he’s got tremendous range. Great vibrato and great soul.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the state of current rock and heavy metal? Does it concern you that reality television skews what it really takes to be able to sustain a career in the music business?

Impellitteri: (laughs). Yeah. That’s a sad part of culture accepting that, but remember – Hollywood is… I live in West Lake Village, outside of Malibu. I am around the culture all the time. Hollywood has billions of dollars – it’s a powerful machine. It will decide what you will be fed, whether it’s music, television, or film. Right now because of reality television and gossip magazines, that seems to be the ticket to gaining acceptance and entrance for a lot of artists. These people aren’t musicians- it’s like all of a sudden an actor that becomes a musician and picks up a record deal. Some girl makes a sex tape and all of a sudden she’s a pop icon. That’s a bit disturbing- but I don’t see a lot of rock bands having a successful career because of reality tv. What makes a really good rock band is determination – make sure you practice and master your craft, your instrument, your writing – that’s far more important. If your music can’t stand up, and they figure out you can’t play or sing, the masses are going to figure out that you suck and then dismiss you.

Dead Rhetoric: Music consumption has changed so much since Impellitteri’s early years to now. Physical sales are declining, people prefer digital/streaming means, and younger fans often believe that music should be ‘free’ as they support bands through their live performance/merchandising in terms of payment. Where do you stand at this point?

Impellitteri: Oh boy! Unless you are an institutional band and had a market place that succeeded financially, an area where you are able to monetize it (things are tough). We were very lucky – we sold a couple of million records in Japan alone. I also have an MBA so I’m pretty well educated, so I was always smart with money and so were the other band guys. We were able to do this for a living, we owned businesses outside of it that provided positive cash flow. A lot of mega bands do the same thing. Because the music industry has changed so much, piracy – big albums now… huge bands (are) selling 100,000 records now, and I can assure anybody reading this that selling 100,000 records isn’t going to make you a decent living. By the time you have to cut the money with 4-5 guys, a business manager, and pay taxes – there’s no money left. Building your brand now is about touring, and having something else as a financial support mechanism so you can do this for a full-time endeavor.

What you are seeing is what has always been happening. I am friends with a lot of legendary bands, but some of them had mommy and daddy money helping the band, buying them advertising, funding their touring. Had it not been for those kind of families, they would not have the kind of success that they are having now. I don’t know him, Adam Levine (Maroon 5 vocalist) – his dad owns Fredericks of Hollywood. That helps you to have a good head start. David Lee Roth from Van Halen – his dad is a mega ophthalmologist surgeon, you can put two and two together to see that these bands had a lot of help financially.

Dead Rhetoric: Frontiers Records has been one of the more successful record labels successfully handling the transitioning business model – what convinced you to sign with them this time for mainland Europe and North America?

Impellitteri: Actually a few people had talked to me about (Frontiers). I saw Whitesnake and Journey had signed with them. By the way, even though I’m a metal guy and a shredder, Journey in all honesty is one of my favorite rock bands. We did the Sweden Rock Festival and played on the same stage with Black Sabbath, Dream Theater, and Journey. We played for a metal concentrated audience, 35,000 people – but I remember wondering how Journey was going to go over with that audience. The smiles on the faces when people heard “Separate Ways” all the way to “Don’t Stop Believin” it was hilarious.

So people told me to check out Serafino (head of Frontiers), as he can do a great job with bands that can actually sing, play their instruments, write and not just chasing fads. A lot of the metal labels want the bands that do the cookie monster voice, or more of a death metal vibe. A great band is a great band, and their priority is to have great songs and great product. I knew he would be a good business partner for us.

Dead Rhetoric: I know that your parents committed suicide when you were 9 and you grew up an orphan. How did this change your outlook on life as you went through adolescence and teen years – do you feel fortunate you had guitar playing as one of those outlets to channel your swirling emotions?

Impellitteri: That’s framed very eloquently. My grandmother and grandfather adopted me when I was 9 years old, and I think they sensed that if they didn’t find something for me that I really found passion in I would end up messed up. So they bought me a guitar – they originally asked me if I wanted to play an instrument and I probably went ‘yeah – the drums’ and they said ‘not a chance in hell’ because of the noise. They brought me into a guitar store and up on the wall was a copy of this black Gibson Les Paul. Next to it was a Stratocaster – they were both just cheap knock offs. There was something about it that I wanted – my grandmother bought it for me, and I’ll never forget that she went to the store owner and asked if there was someone available to teach me. Every week she would take me religiously to guitar lessons, and it was amazing. I had this great guitar teacher, learned scales, theory, reading music, chords – all of it. It really gave me a sense of purpose in life- I was really lucky as my parents were very young when my mother and father died. They had me at an early age, so it gave me this sense of fulfillment. My first concert was Kiss’ Destroyer tour, and I knew I wanted to do this on stage. Then I saw Van Halen, and that’s all there was to it. I could have thought that I was screwed in life, being an orphan, having no parents, this sucks – I remember a lot of times in the winter walking home from school. I’d walk to my house in Connecticut, it would be dark out and the lights would be on in other houses and I’d see the moms and dads and kids sitting at their dinner tables. I’d go home, run into my room and grab my guitar to play.

Dead Rhetoric: How are things going with Animetal USA – do you enjoy your role as ‘Speed King’ and the makeup/theatrics that go along with things?

Impellitteri: Animetal USA is really targeting a very specific audience. Anime is a fascinating, fantastic world to me. I’ve been going over to Japan for 20 years, and Rudy Sarzo told me about this a while back- that (anime) is a huge part of Japanese culture. We watch reality television, horror, comedy – all of that stuff, and anime is Japan’s outlet and entertainment. Some of it’s dark and thematic, other parts are comical. When they presented it to us, they wanted us to create metal versions of famous anime music, and they wanted us to perform it for the anime market specifically. That’s what we did when we started this. A lot of the kids at first who were die-hard Impellitteri fans, or Judas Priest fans because of Scott Travis doing the first record with us – they are probably wondering what the hell are we doing? They hear the words and probably thought it was lame – even if the metal music and the soloing was still there. It was our way of saying thank you for a culture that has been so generous to us. We are still doing it – I am told Warner Japan has signed us for another record, I haven’t been told much more than that, and another full tour. Right now Impellitteri is my focus.

Dead Rhetoric: Looking back at some of your documented history (YouTube clips of your Headbangers’ Ball appearance in 1989 with VJ Adam Curry for instance), is there a fondness or are they aspects that just make you cringe?

Impellitteri: (laughs) The white boots! To some degree we all try to fit in with some sort of current moment. I think that is just a part of who you are as a human being. There are times where you look back and you go, ‘oh my god- what was I thinking?’. I started writing the material for the first Impellitteri black EP when I was 15. “Lost in the Rain”, I embraced the mid-80’s. You can hear a lot of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in what I was doing, we go into the 1990’s… Rob is still doing the screaming, I am doing the shredding, but bands like Pantera are coming into their own. We started de-tuning our guitars and getting a little deeper. We have gone through each of these times and made part of those eras who we are. We’ve embraced it and I wear things as a badge of honor. We are still here, and there are hundreds of bands who sold millions of records that are gone and not even talked about anymore. I should be proud of that.

Dead Rhetoric: What are the Impelliterri plans over the next 12 months as far as touring? Do you plan on hitting some festivals or doing small jaunts possibly across North America, Europe, and the Far East?

Impellitteri: God I hope so. The one question I get on every interview is, when are you going to tour? I think we’ve become the Steely Dan of heavy metal (laughs). Musicians loved them, they had a following, but they never really toured much. We are going off to Japan in May, Frontiers our label is doing a festival in Germany in October, and we are talking to agents in Europe and North America for a full blown tour. The hard thing as you can imagine for us is in this day and age, promoters want bands that have been doing things every year and have a proven track record. In America it’s a little more challenging, they are fearful that if they put us in a 3,000-4,000 seat venue which in Japan we can easily do, even in Europe too – they may be half full here. I don’t know if Impellitteri tours (here), would we fill a venue or have 3 people show up.

Impellitteri – Venom (Frontiers Records)

Tuesday, 7th April 2015

Rating: 8.5/10

Hailed as one of the fastest axe men of all time by a number of prominent guitar specialty magazines worldwide, Chris Impellitteri at age 50 has no intention of straying from his neo-classical oriented heavy metal formula for the tenth studio album of his name sake, Venom. Many may remember the impact the band made in 1988 through Stand in Line, a time period that put a lot of shredders on the map (Malmsteen, Moore, Becker, MacAlpine) and featured ex-Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet holding down microphone duties. Even as personnel changes plus experiments have taken place in more staccato laden directions, rest assured that Chris has come full circle in giving the followers a hefty dose of melodic songs and ripping leads that straddle classic and power lines.

The quartet on hand spit out 10 songs that slither between double bass oriented anthems that contain a lot of riffing in the 80’s Ozzy meets Priest vein if channeling a touch of the neo-classical arpeggio feel during certain bridge segments (title track and “Domino Theory”) or slightly more commercial arrangements that could rival Whitesnake on “We Own the Night” or Helloween on a lot of the harmonics within “Time Machine”. Rob Rock is one of the best vocalists for this melodic, neo-classical oriented metal style – the man knows the right range and picks his spots for those high money notes, and can engage with killer chorus harmonies on “Empire of Lies” as well as the sinister, slightly much more fierce “Nightmare”- the latter having a little King Diamond meets Alice Cooper tact during the verses and echoing chorus.

It’s fair to say Chris squeezes out every possible note he can during his lead break opportunities – and there’s no questioning his ability and prowess throughout. What delights me is the fact that he takes an equal amount of care to the main riffs and proper construction song to song to establish individuality in tight 3-4 minute maneuvers, which should help the appeal of Venom beyond the classic musician/Shrapnel audience.

Given the fact that Chris and Rob also have other present engagements running hand in hand (Animetal USA and Rob Rock solo respectively), it’s adequate to get new Impellitteri records in 4-6 year intervals. The fans (and fangs) for Venom wouldn’t want it any other way.

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