May the fourth is gone, June the fourth has come, and with it the force of Van Canto’s new release “To The Power of Eight”.
Van Canto is THE A-Capella Metal band, proving that metal is not only screaming guitars, pondering basses and harsh vocals, but that a human voice can overcome them all. Legendary is their version of Iron Maiden’s “Fear Of The Dark”, a highlight of every festival they play.
Van Canto nowadays consists of seven members.
Hagen Hirschmann – Lead Vocals Inga Scharf – Lead Vocals Ross Thompson – Higher Rakkatakka Vocals Stefan Schmidt – Lower Rakkatakka Vocals Jan Moritz – Pad and Bass Vocals Ingo Sterzinger – Bass and Backing Vocals Bastian Emig – Drums and Backing Vocals
“To The Power of Eight” contains twelve songs including some cover versions of well-known songs in a completely different sound colour, and reintroduces their former singer “Sly” Schunke as guest musician for not only one song as planned but on every single song.
I had the pleasure to talk with Stefan Schmidt himself about this and that, important things, unimportant things, facts, rumours, gossip and of course the new album so let’s have a look at the interesting interview before we focus on “To The Power of Eight” itself.
Funny enough, we realized that we were wearing t-shirts of the same festival – Summer Breeze 2019 and the special lost edition 2020.
After a short introduction – Stefan was interested in learning about Obscuro and surprised that we both live in neighbouring districts, separated by the river Rhine, keeping in mind that our webzine’s origins lay in Czech Republic – I mention: I already met Van Canto some years ago during a signing session at the Rock Harz Festival 2019 which was a pleasure because Van Canto was in a cheerful mood and very communicative.
Stefan replies: “We have had really good memories about this event all over the years, especially because it was at Rock Harz where we played our first show on a bigger festival.” We both feel sorry that it was cancelled this year but hope for later festivals as the Summer Breeze will happen. [Meanwhile Wacken ‘21 was cancelled, not a good sign].
I’m still hooked on both festivals which were the last two shows Van Canto played at the time. So I ask Stefan about the different set lists they had for both shows and if there was a special reason for them.
His answer is straight and simple: “With now eight, at that time seven albums reduced to 45 minutes, there is a lot to choose from and even more to be left away. Of course the show should always sound fresh and further on, there indeed are people who visit several festivals as Rockharz, Summer Breeze or Wacken and if they happen to watch a band three times, they deserve to hear different songs, that’s our idea about it.”
I reply, obviously not all bands share their attitude, which surprises Stefan: “Really? I don’t know. Well, yes, perhaps with the really big ones, like when Metallica or IronMaiden are on and not all the hits are played, people are annoyed. But actually I think there are quite many bands in Metal who kind of feel like varying their setlist at least when you only have a 45-minutes slot.”
We had anyway planned to record a new album in 2020 (Stefan Schmidt)
I raise the omnipresent problem of Covid-19. How was your situation? Has Van Canto been affected? What about you personally? Of course, Van Canto used the time to produce a new album .
Again Stefan replies with an easy confidence: “In fact, we had anyway planned to record a new album in 2020. We only had three [cancelled] festivals on our schedule and plenty of time around these shows to spend months for the album. So it didn’t hit us as hard as many other bands. Apart from the collateral damage caused by Corona everywhere, none of us were facing serious health issues, etc. So we really are on the lucky side. We took the chance and made the best out of it, no pressure, no fixed release date etc. Just as in ‘normal’ years when the tour is already planned. It was the first time we did that since our debut album which was really nice.”
I tell him, that I once saw a very popular band in the early 80ies at the beginning of their world tour. As the album was not finished, they had a set list with a lot of unknown songs.
Stefan replies that the same happened to them too. He believes for the “Break The Silence” album, the release was on a Friday and at the very same evening they played the first gig of the tour. The audience still had good fun though they didn’t know the songs.
Have you ever played a new song just to check out how the audience would react?
Stefan confesses “As far as I remember, no. We need the albums and the production of the albums to find the songs, no we never did.”
You need to sell a lot of albums (Stefan Schmidt)
All Van Cantos still have their day jobs beside the band…
At this moment my cat Sookie gracefully tiptoed over my desk passing the camera. Stefan: “Hell-loooo”, typical cat – attention seeking and stealing the show.
He explains, “Around 2014, we were thinking about becoming fulltime musicians with all disadvantages and constant touring, 50 – 60 gigs per year, new albums in time, etc. But the decision finally was made to remain as we were with all freedom and advantages. Still on a professional level but no pressure to make money with our music to pay the rent or other economical requirements. Most people who say they fully live on the music make their music in addition to other things, example guitar lessons. Of course, the really big bands don’t have these problems but otherwise, you need to sell a lot of albums and constantly sell out venues holding 1000s of people to make a living above a student’s level.”
Creativity – Big Bang Or Jamming?
I want to know about the creative process. How does Van Canto find the entrance into a new album, do they – or you as the main composer – sit down and wait for the idea to pop up or is there just a “click” all of a sudden, and the song is there?
Stefan is honest: “You have illustrated the answer to your question yourself actually. Sometimes you plan to write a song and wait for the inspiration to come, sometimes you fiddle around on guitar or piano and ’bang‘, there is the song – which certainly is the nicer situation. By the way., we describe just this situation in our first single of the album, “Falling down” very well: waiting for the notes and words to come to your mind.”
I’m honest too and admit that I haven’t listened to these lyrics that much while writing the review of “To The Power of Eight”. I was hooked by the colours of the soundscape and the rougher vocals, which are so different to the previous two songs.
Stefan agrees that he also is someone who listens less to the lyrics and more to the overall sound, small technical details etc. He explains that Van Canto is a band with no political or social statements in their music, so it is just fine to listen to the sound only.
We use very picturesque lyrics (Stefan Schmidt)
Coming back to the lyrics though, a lot of songs to me seem fantasy inspired – elsewhere I read their lyrics contain Christian aspects. Where does the inspiration come from?
Stefan mentions: “We use very picturesque lyrics and a lot of people seem to recognize themselves within them – no matter if fantasy fans or religious people – because it motivates them to believe in their inner strength and “do your own thing”. That theme is very much related to both groups.
Talking about their cover songs, not played note for note but turned into their very own songs, Stefan figures out that it is important for Van Canto to make them their own songs. Those are an important share of their music and a good part of their popularity is based on them.
“Nevertheless, we care for a good balance, more original songs than covers, high quality of these original songs so they don’t fall behind the quality of those covered world hits. The cover-songs are a good reminder of how many great songs there are and we have to stretch to reach the high levels of for example, Iron Maiden, Metallica or Blind Guardian.”
To Create A Very Different Sound
I throw in that my first contact with Van Canto was indeed their cover of “Fear Of The Dark” from Iron Maiden, and Stefan falls in “Yes, that was one of the ideas since the first cover “Battery” of Metallica. People who listen to Van Canto for the first have to get used to a very different sound. They have to accept that there are no guitars and realize that it still is metal. Therefore, we wanted that people already know the song, can sing along because it is their favourite song to find in our A Capella style, and listen to a full album including our own songs.
I was very skeptical about “Thunderstruck” –AC/DC, monotonous, stupid, simple, not quite up to Van Canto’s level. But I am also surprised at how well it worked out. Stefan disagrees about AC/DC and explains why it is a great band and a great song. Van Canto already covered “Hell’s Bells” on the previous album and decided ‘why not another AC/DC song?’ It would always be okay to cover two songs from the same band anyway.”
Possible Covers – What Can Work?
Staying on the cover-songs topic, “Run To The Hills” of Iron Maiden. Compliments to Inga for fantastic vocals. I thought it could almost be a love song when sung her way – apart from the lyrics of course.
Stefan replies: “Yes, we have noticed very often, if a song is really good, it is much easier to turn it into a completely different version. Sometimes we want to sound exactly like the original – like the Metallica covers or “Raise your horns” [Amon Amarth], where we sing the guitar parts note for note.
Same counts for Iron Maiden’s “Fear Of The Dark” with all the harmonies, chords and patterns. Maiden songs work very well in this case, compositionally they are very deep so even if you change a lot, you still recognize the original song. The idea of “Run To The Hills” was to create a choral, melodic version of this old school ruffle.”
He continues “We talk about the possible covers before a decision because everybody should have the sane relation to the song. It is normal with eight [!] people in a band that it is not always everyone’s favourite song but at least the lead singer must be convinced 100%. The others should at minimum, like it. For example, Inga is not a big AC/DC fan though they rock her. But it is not that important because she is not the lead singer of the songs but just “sings along” with it. But at “Run To The Hills”, she must give full speed or she couldn’t perform it. The second decision is that the song must fit into the album. If we already have two ballads on the album and someone has ideas for four cover songs which are ballads too, we would at that point say, it’s better to cover a fast song because it fits best on the album.”
We hear a click track with piano chords (Stefan Schmidt)
During your shows, do you use click-track?
“Yes we do”, replies Stefan, “we hear a click track with piano chords to stay with the song, not to lose its harmony, etc. Because depending on the conditions on stage, we do not always have perfect monitoring to hear each other all the time. The bigger the stages have become over the years, the lesser we have needed the click-track though because we can hear each other better. But during the time of the smaller and louder clubs, we would have had no chance without it.”
What do you think about Lip-Sync? is my next question, because a lot of pop musicians make big use of it nowadays instead of actually singing live.
Stefan is surprised, he just knows it from music videos and believes it is very seldom used for metal music, especially the lead vocals “Though it is obvious when you have a lot of orchestration and choirs on the album and go on tour, those parts come from the tape. I don’t find that approach really exciting and we don’t claim to soundexactly like the studio album when playing live, because then you could simply listen to the album. So when we recorded twenty choirs but there are just eight people on stage, some voices are missing.”
A word in from myself: Then it sounds like an 8-voices choir instead, which is also fine. Stefan replies: “Or the audience sings along anyway. A fantastic sample in this case is Blind Guardian, on the albums they create a bombastic sound with 1000s of guitars but live they have only the one guitar which plays the main theme and melody and everything else falls away, which is much better than having the sound from the tape.”
We discuss the pros and cons of fan demand for perfect, “just as in studio” live sound, rather than “rough” live versions. It seems to be a question of the generations according to Stefan.
Stefan grants our chilled conversation a couple more minutes: “The next one can wait a few minutes …”
We eventually get to discussing some aspects of tour life, like food and beverages.
Stefan explains “I cannot speak for the whole band, of course, but I am happy if it is fresh and not always the same usual stuff. We have two vegetarians in the crew, one is super strict about it. I myself am not much of a carnivore on tour, not because I am vegetarian or vegan but due to the level of energy I need. Luckily though, the venues we play at are big enough and the catering is diversified so that everybody is happy.”
Stefan reports one bad experience from the earlier days though: “We once had a catering of schnitzel and fries only, which basically is nothing bad but there was something wrong with it, and during the night, everybody had to hang over some bags. I don’t want this to happen again of course. But generally, we were mostly lucky and venues had an excellent catering.
We have no favourite drinks during tour life. We certainly drink a lot more water than most other bands and, we have to wait longer before we can drink a beer, because with a hangover you can still play guitar but certainly not sing for 90 minutes.”
I am almost at my final question. Does Van Canto have a special ritual before they enter the stage?“Yes, we form a circle, speak out some motivating words, we shout “Rakatakamotherfucker” and then it starts.”
Now the final question, if you could be an animal, which one and why?
Precise answer: “Either my, or because I have now seen her, your cat. Because first of all I like cats and I’ve had cats my whole life. When I see them laying somewhere completely relaxed I think, they have an awesome life. Preferably I’d be my cat than your cat though.”
Sadly, Stefan reports that no tour is planned for 2021, simply due to lack of time for preparation, booking venues, etc. But in 2022, they will return to the stage if possible.
That’s it, I thank him for the time and the interview. He still has three to go today and 20 in total during the week.
It was a very friendly, informative and interesting talk, but on a chilled and relaxed level, just as you would have with one of your buddies. page up
But now let’s come back to the main cause for this interview…
To The Power Of Eight
The title says it all: “To The Power of Eight” and that’s how it starts with.
TO THE POWER OF EIGHT
as the two-minutes intro: crashing and screaming guitars, a thunderous bass line and drums rushing through the song. Wait, wrong, not this time, not this band. Instead it’s a very celestial harmony, which builds up all the tension ready to explode with:
DEAD BY THE NIGHT
“Let there be light. We breath fire. […] We salute the gods of fire.”
I don’t know why but now I need a dragon but enough said. Straight away it’s a pure power metal anthem with an interesting ‘bass’ line in the beginning, plus impressive choral and chorus. I can imagine it as the perfect opener of a show, mosh pit guaranteed.
FAITH FOCUS FINISH
“Armies align at the end of the night. […] I am carried away to a world I reveal.” (video)
Not so much slower than the previous track, and my mind is stuck in a historical fantasy spectacle. Impressive lyrics, powerful arrangement, Inga’s innocent vocals. There is not much space left for improvement to make it any better.
“Now that I’m falling again I savor the endless ride. Now that I’m falling again I’m one with my time.” (video)
Male voice leading though the beginning of the song. It sounds a bit dirtier than the previous tracks until, after a mixed intermezzo the female vocals take control, followed by interesting exchanges of the vocals and a weird ‘guitar’ solo. Believe me, you won’t be falling down while listening to this song and please pay attention to the fine lyrics as mentioned by Stefan.
HEADS UP HIGH
“In the dawn of the creation the wings of a butterfly beat to a cause and effect.”
Again a song with very epic and inspiring lyrics. It would be a perfect title track for one of those fantasy TV operas full of knights, gods and dragons fighting each other, and heroes who never surrender but hold their heads up high.
RAISE YOUR HORNS (Amon Amarth Cover)
Sung with lowest growls possible and the song turns into some nearly orchestral harmonies. Still, where is the orchestra? Compare it with the original song and you will understand that they are two different beasts. As Stefan reported, it was a long termed wish of Van Canto to make an Amon Amarth song their own though or because it seemed to be impossible in the beginning.
TURN BACK TIME
“If I could turn back time I wouldn’t do. Forever I’ll be coming home to you.”
Well, although there exists a closely titled song by Cher – remember the battleship and the nearly naked mid-fifties woman surrounded by navy soldiers – it has nothing to do with that for the better of the song. Greatly sung harmonies and again the melody has a historical touch, very ancient -maybe I should not have watched a full season of Outlander in one go last Monday… A ballad at its finest and best!
RUN TO THE HILLS (Iron Maiden Cover)
Congratulations to Inga for the perfect lead vocals! Her voice is far over the top and she nearly turns this great and iconic tune into a speed metal ballad. It simply blows you away! I am fascinated. I could even imagine a slow version with ‘piano’ accompaniment only and it still would be a perfect song.
“It is unleashed. Shiny and stunning. Hardrock Padlock, lock me away.”
The song reminds me a lot of one of the winners of the ESC [Eurvoision Song Contest] early the 2000s, a rather unknown Finnish band back in that day. Hallelujah, I forgot their name…. Very catchy melody, very straight lyrics, a classical Hard Rock song and none misses the guitars. Please don’t lock this song away.
THUNDERSTRUCK (AC/DC Cover)
I have to confess, I am not the biggest fan of the Australians but what happened here is legendary. I wonder how someone can sing this song without destroying the vocal cords forever, and how this song can exist without guitars and bass. Well it does, and it does well for itself too. Again a long wish of the band and after the great success of their “Hell’s Bells” a natural evolution.
FROM THE END
“I rise again from the ashes of the end. I am the only survivor, the sole resident of a planet earth.”
The last of the eight self-written songs. A critical song in the disguise of a very pleasing, not too slow, not too fast but very ear-catching melody. But it is mean. May be that is the idea behind it. Anyway whatever happens, as the phoenix we will rise again from the ashes of the end, because every end is the chance for a new and better tomorrow.
I WANT IT ALL (Queen cover)
The original song is already a great tune with a perfect Freddie Mercury, and impressive harmonies between him, Roger Taylor and Brian May. It was clearly beaten. I wonder how it would sound if Van Canto did a complete Queen cover album containing gems like “Somebody To Love” or my longtime favourite, “The Prophet’s Song”. I am sure if there is one band that can keep up with Freddie’s skills, then it is Van Canto. Sadly it might only remain my dream because first of all, Van Canto is Van Canto original and not a cover-band.
Finally… nobody played the guitars!
Van Canto Is Not A Cover Band
Eight original songs and four cover songs make a good mixture.
Of course the cover songs are well chosen and a real challenge mastered extremely well by Van Canto, but their own compositions are not worse. Just to make it clear, Van Canto is no cover-band. They choose songs from other bands that fit their taste and turn them to their very own songs.
Most of their own compositions on this album would count as a healthy mixture between Symphonic and Power Metal, apart from the ballad.
It is again impressive that you really don’t miss any instrument other than the drums and their well apprenticed voices.
I would be deeply disappointed if “To The Power Of Eight” doesn’t hit the top 10 of the charts. It should not only meet the taste of Symphonic and/or Melodic Metal Heads, but also of average radio listeners because Van Canto has a song for everyone. I would be deeply pleased if suddenly, one or more song were to be used for some streaming or TV fantasy opera, just because they fit perfectly. AND I hope we can see and hear the brand new songs live as soon as safely possible.