These days, the metal scene is more diverse than ever, with numerous bands branching out and covering a myriad of subgenres. The point? Simply put, if you’re a fan of metal, there’s a hell of a lot to consume, making it a wonderful time to be alive.
For the last twenty years, one band amongst the so-called “new wave of traditional heavy metal” has stuck out more than most, and that’s Icarus Witch. Indeed, if you’re a fan of the early years of Judas Priest, Ronnie James Dio, and Iron Maiden, Icarus Witch is for you.
Linepinned by founding member and bringer of proverbial thunder via a bass guitar, Jason Myers, Icarus Witch delivers the goods in spades to an adoring and loyal fanbase. Now five albums and one EP in Icarus Witch are veterans in a scene flush with talent, still managing to stand out. That is to say – despite their success, and 20-years-strong longevity, they aren’t taking their foot off the gas.
After a beastly run of successful European shows, Icarus Witch is now back on American soil, preparing their next record and doing what they do best: harken back to metal’s golden age. If you’re part of the initiated, your time is now to soak in the band’s back catalog before their next release hits a shelf near you.
Taking a moment away from the studio, Jason Myers dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount the origins of Icarus Witch, their place within the pantheon of heavy metal, the recording of their latest record, and a whole lot more.
What was the moment that first sparked your interest in music?
I became interested in music around the age of five. My brother was four years older, and like many kids of the ’70s, we were enamored with KISS. I remember saving up allowance and buying KISS albums, posters, bubble gum cards, and comic books. So, from my first band obsession – music, image, mystique, and marketing were all woven together.
Who were some of your earliest influences that first shaped your style? How would you say that style has evolved as you’ve moved through your career?
As a bassist, my earliest influences were Geezer Butler, Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, John Entwistle, and John Paul Jones… players who really stood out in the mix. Those cats injected creativity and melody into their parts and didn’t simply blend into the background the way a lot of bassists did.
What were some of your earliest gigs where you first cut your teeth?
If you mean the earliest gigs I played, those would be the junior high and high school talent shows. I loved playing on those big stages with all of our friends there going crazy. There was one time we were playing onstage doing covers of Sabbath, Maiden, and Anthrax, and our singer urged everyone to come up on stage and “thrash with us.” This was the late ’80s, and the school principal had apparently never seen moshing. Let’s just say they appeared confused and worried.
There was another time around 1990 when my metal band Invid was playing. For some reason, they tried to close the curtains on us to shut us down, and rather than stop playing; we just kept playing behind the curtain while our singer got trapped out in front of the curtain by himself. Eventually, they must have realized that we weren’t going to stop playing, so they opened the curtain in defeat, and the place went nuts. It’s all on video and will hopefully get digitized soon to share with anyone who enjoys that sort of thing.
Another early gig I’ll always remember was with a cover band I played in when I was in junior high. The other guys in the band were much older, so we’d play bar gigs on a regular basis. One Wednesday night, we played at a local bar, and my dad came down to catch the set. It just so happened that night the cops raided the bar for some reason. I remember the band was quickly whisked into the kitchen, yet eventually, the police made their way back there to figure out if I was supposed to be there or not.
I recall my dad having some words with the officer, and I was allowed to stay and finish the night. I also remember later that night having a fun conversation with an older [than me] fan in her car between sets. I often wonder what my fellow 15-year-old students were doing that Wednesday night at midnight while I was blasting Rush, Zeppelin, and Thin Lizzy covers out of a Peavey stack. I know I was experiencing some of the rush that makes the rock life colorful, if not alluring.
Fast forward 15 years, and I was preparing to play my first show with a band I’d dreamed of forming for years. The band was Icarus Witch, and our first show was our record release show for our debut full-length album, Capture The Magic. It was at an awesome metal-friendly record store called Brave New World in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Even though it was in a store, we treated that gig like it was the biggest theater in the city. We had props, backdrop, special effect lights, fog; you name it. I remember being extremely nervous yet relieved that we were finally on our way.
Take me through the formation of Icarus Witch.
The idea for the band first came to me when I was living in Los Angeles, California, around 2001 or 2002. I wanted to write songs in a traditional metal way, yet as I drove around from audition to meet up, it seemed everyone I ran into wanted to play nu-metal or re-hash Metallica, neither of which I was interested in. So I moved back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I grew up and knew that there were still a lot of talented folks ignoring the trends and playing classic metal.
When I moved back to Pittsburgh, I was staying with my friend Keith Hurka, the drummer from Invid, the band I mentioned earlier in the school curtain-closing incident. He had a demo CD of a singer he thought I’d dig, a mysterious character who’d just rolled into a town named Matthew Bizilia. My first thought was, “Wow, this guy sounds like a cross between King Diamond and John Arch with a little Halford thrown in.” Obviously, he and I got along well from the start and soon bonded over our shared love of Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and early Scorpions.
I was still doing some A&R work for Cleopatra Records and was working on a tribute to Black Sabbath, to which I wanted to contribute music in addition to producing the album. So through some mutual friends, we found a local shredder named George Sabol, a gentle giant of a guy who was into bodybuilding and gothic horror.
We recorded our version of Sabbath’s “Falling Off The Edge of the World” and took some fun promo photos at a local haunted house called Castle Blood. The original intent was for the band to be more gothic and theatrical, as those photos indicated. However, it soon became difficult enough to find the right players to keep the band going, let alone those who would agree to wear stage makeup and gothic costumes, so we compromised our look to a more traditional metal aesthetic and focussed on creating original music to follow up the buzz we were getting from the tribute release.
George didn’t want to be a permanent member of the band, so we held auditions, and Steve Pollick and Greg Gruben both brought unique complementary playing styles to the table so we became a two-guitar band for our debut EP, Roses On White Lace.
As founding members of the “new wave of traditional heavy metal,” how did the band hone its sound?
Honestly, the sound developed completely organically. We made it clear this project was created in honor of the classic heavy metal that we grew up loving yet had all but been abandoned by subsequent generations. We were honing in on that post-classic rock/pre-thrash era of metal in its prime. Dio is a touchstone. Many bands came along that were faster, heavier, darker, sang higher, etc. Yet for all of these extremes, no one ever managed to be more metal than Dio circa 1983. So we were confident building our band on that simple foundation.
That doesn’t mean no one in the band listened to metal or other genres; we were far from close-minded. It was simply that there were already plenty of bands doing power metal, speed metal, etc. Our niche was small yet sincere, and we’ve mostly remained in that lane ever since while still striving to get creative and paint with different pallets as the years have marched on.
Walk me through the recording of Capture the Magic. Were these songs written going into the studio, or did the band need to work the tracks once there?
By the time we started to work on Capture, the band had already changed significantly. We’d gone back to a single guitar lineup with Steve remaining onboard from the EP, and though we were between drummers, we stuck with JC Dwyer as our session guy because he was solid in the studio and one of the best around to keep the recording moving forward.
The songs were mostly written and demoed ahead of time, though, believe it or not, we’d yet to play a live show, so there was no period of working out the kings or getting familiar with the tunes outside of rehearsal. There was certainly some polish and ear candy added while tracking, yet we were on a tight budget and deadline, so there wasn’t a lot of room for experimentation in the studio. We had to get in, get down to business, and get out on a relatively strict schedule.
Once out on tour, what were some of the biggest challenges in supporting your debut?
Touring has always been challenging, particularly at the underground level. You’re often up against things like shady agents and promoters, thieves (we’ve had our van broken into and pilfered multiple times), money (gigs tend to pay low, yet costs of traveling are high), and then you’re always faced with the way various personalities within a band get along together in those traveling situations. It can be extremely fun, yet it takes a certain type of person to feel comfortable in those less-than-ideal situations on the road. Not everyone is cracked up for that lifestyle.
Going into 2007’s Songs for the Lost, what were the largest takeaways from your first album which helped shape your second?
Since we recorded Capture prior to being a live band, we soon found that certain songs and styles didn’t translate as well as others to a live setting. On Songs for the Lost, you heard a slightly more seasoned band. We’d toured the east coast, played festivals in Germany, and had a better sense of who we were and wanted to become.
By this time, we’d also added a second guitarist again in Quinn Lukas, who brought incredible energy to the stage and fresh ideas to the songwriting team. Where Capture was the sound of song ideas that had been brewing for years, waiting for an outlet, Songs was the sound of a group of musicians hitting their stride, ready to make a mark in the metal scene.
In Draw the Moon and RISE, it seemed the band began to experiment more. Would you agree?
I’m not sure I hear that experimentation in Draw so much. If anything, I always felt that album was a darker, more stripped-down return to basics. Quinn was now the lone lead guitarist though this was our third time in the studio with Erik Klinger producing, so his presence and ideas were more strong on that one, including playing drums and contributing rhythm guitar. Draw peeled away a lot of the grand production and proginess of Songs and came through as more of a straight-ahead, doomy, almost Sabbath-like record.
The biggest change in sound happened between Draw and RISE. The band parted ways amicably with Bizilia and brought in Christopher Shaner on vocals. Where Matthew was more of a wild classic metal screamer with killer pipes, Shaner brought a more controlled, almost Euro-power metal-type finesse to the band’s sound. He was also a songwriter with a lot of solid ideas, so we gave him a platform to develop that side of himself in Icarus Witch.
At the same time, the band returned to a dual-guitar lineup bringing in Dave Watson from Mantic Ritual (and later of Argus) to play, write and produce the RISE album. Additionally, we brought in Tom Wierzbicky on drums, a self-proclaimed Rush freak which made it fun for me because we were also sharing a house at the time (yes, things got loud and crazy). This would be the first time Icarus Witch had a drummer in the studio that would also play the songs on the subsequent tours.
So, nearly every element of the band had changed by this point. Aside from Quinn and I remaining at the core for three albums in a row, we now had a completely different group of musicians around us. Guys who were, in my opinion, the best in the business for our region. My thinking wasn’t, “How can I get these killer players to sound like Icarus Witch?” I was thinking, “How cool can Icarus Witch sound if we let these guys spread their wings and inject their ideas into the mix?”
RISE wasn’t contrived; it was the sound of five seasoned professional heavy musicians giving their all. Yes, there were new sonic, and visual paths explored. While we always prided ourselves on our classic metal roots, we never wanted to stagnate or write the same album year after year. If this band was going to live on, it needed to have room to stretch, explore and breathe. It was an exciting time in the band’s history.
Goodbye Cruel World is a cohesive combination of all your influences. Was that the intention going in?
My intention was to finally record and release these songs we’d been working so long to create. Many of the Goodbye tracks date back to right after the RISE sessions, yet six years transpired between releases, and we were once again put in a situation of building a new team around the core of Quinn and myself. I’d been living in Salem, Massachusetts, for a while and decided to return to Pittsburgh and get down to the business of resurrecting the Witch. By this time, Quinn had also joined Ironflame, and since Christopher opted to part ways with the Witch, this left an important hole to fill, one that Ironflame mastermind Andrew D’Cagna was fortunately eager to fill.
I think Quinn and I missed that original spark of what made Icarus Witch such a unique creature in the traditional metal realm, and we were eager to get back on track and show the world what we had up our sleeve for the next round. The writing process this time around was different in that it was completely him and I working out every facet, from programming drum ideas to writing lyrics and demoing vocals. Once we got the demos solid, we’d send them to Andrew, who would take our vocal ideas to the next level.
I can’t say enough about Andrew’s performance, professionalism, and positive attitude at every level. My favorite part of the writing process became those nights when a new demo of Andrew singing would come in. I get goosebumps every time. It was like being a kid opening eight presents and getting exactly what you’d wished for each time.
Similarly, when we went into the studio, we were between drummers, so we did what we’ve always done, hired the best available player; in this case, we were fortunate that Jon Rice was available, interested, and even had a working relationship with our engineer, Shane Mayer. This way of writing was actually the most efficient we’d ever experienced, and it was fun. It gave Quinn and me a chance to really push each other to be our best. By this phase, we were over the egos and drama that plague many new bands. We were enjoying our “veteran” status and creating some of the best music either of us had ever recorded.
Having been a band for twenty years, how have your collective experiences shaped your current sound?
One major difference is that I’ve learned what not to play. Often with youth comes a desire to show off. A lot of the parts I wrote early on were overly complicated as I was pushing myself and trying to make a mark. While there’s a healthy side to that, and I do love those progressive bassists, the downside is that you’re also responsible for playing those ridiculously complex parts night after night, year after year. I’ve found that the moments I enjoy most on stage aren’t when I’ve nailed a tricky sequence of notes staring down at my fretboard.
What I get off on is being able to close my eyes, feel a groove in my soul, astrally project around the room and transcend the physical experience to enjoy the moment on a more spiritual level. That’s easier to do when you’re laying into a sick groove than doing math on stage.
Having said that, we’ve just demoed some of the most progressive songs in our history; so much for learning from your past [Laughs].
The buzz from your last record was electric. How will Icarus Witch build on the momentum?
The feeling within the band is that anyone who liked Goodbye will love the next album. While Andrew is returning for his second round leading the Witch’s vocal department, he’s still objective enough to tell whether or not the material we’ve written is strong, and he says it’s the best thing he’s ever heard from this band which is saying a lot considering he’s been a friend and fan of the Witch since our earliest days. I’ll take that as a good sign.
I will say we always strive to push ourselves into some new territory each outing, and this next album is no exception. We’ve undertaken some ambitious songwriting techniques that are breaking new ground for us, even two decades in.
To that end, where are things currently standing regarding new music?
Currently, the album is completely written and demoed. We’re now in a holding pattern waiting for the next run of shows to end and for studio time to open up so we can track these songs and get them off to the label. It’s looking more like an early/mid-2023 release at this point.
One secret weapon we’ve got on our side this time that we didn’t on Goodbye is that our new drummer Noah Skiba will be recording in the studio with us and playing the live shows. He’s already brought such incredible energy, precision, and force to the new songs. Those who’ve caught our shows with Noah cite him as a high point, so we’re looking forward to unleashing his unique drum skills to the Witch faithful on record as well.
Going forward, what are your goals that you’ve yet to accomplish, and how do you plan to make them a reality?
I’ve learned to be more present both in my personal and spiritual life as well as in my music career. While the old me would have been planning five steps ahead, the more “mature” me has learned to enjoy the ride more than the perceived destination. To that end, I’m keeping my goals focussed more on what we’re doing in the moment. You’re never guaranteed any certain amount of time in a band or on earth if we want to get more existential about it. My current goal is simply to enjoy the shows we’ve got coming up, perform our best, and then get back to the work of recording the most ambitious album of our career.
The metal scene in Europe seems to be as vibrant as ever. Why do you feel metal has remained as vital as it has there compared to the US?
It never truly waned over there. Even as far back as 2004 and 2005, when our first records were coming out, the European scene was hungry for traditional American metal and offered us record deals and festival appearances. We’d sold 500 copies of our EP in Germany on our own before we’d even put it out in the states or elsewhere.
My observations over the last couple of decades are that European metal fans know what they like and are confident in themselves without being swayed by trends. In those same two decades, I’ve seen countless trends rise and disappear in the American metal scene. Currently, traditional metal is having a moment here which is fantastic, yet when we were driving around city-to-city in our old van back in the early 2000s trying to sell trad metal in America, let’s just say it was a much more niche audience.
What’s next for you in all lanes?
Right now, we enjoyed playing the shows over the summer, including a return to Germany and our first concert in Switzerland (where the members of Krokus were in attendance). Now it’s back into the studio to cut our seventh record. It’s crazy; 2023 marks our twentieth year as a band which feels like it’s worthy of some celebration. Hell, even the Beatles were only around for eight years [Laughs].
The music business can be a war of attrition, and we’re like that steady stream of water that cuts through the rock, not by one big blast, but by consistently and persistently dripping in the same spot year after year after year. We refuse to go away, so you might as well enjoy us while we’re here.
Jason Myers of Icarus Witch: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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