HENNING PAULY and SHADOW'S MIGNON
HAIL and KILL - The Metal Words
Interview by Carl Begai
If you really think about it, metal can be downright comical. The glam explosion of the mid-‘80s that gave us Poison and 1,000 make-up and hairspray-powered copycats, grown men and women belting out Cookie Monster-meets-Godzilla vocals being hailed and conquering heroes, corpse paint and latex vampire goth fashion upstaging the musicians wearing 'em, a quartet of leather-and-loincloth clad New Yorkers singing songs for over 20 years about warriors of the world, swords in the wind and gloves of metal… it is to laugh. Or it would be if us metalheads analyzed our respective choices of mayhem seriously. More often than not we reserve the brain cells for the more mundane aspects of life, allowing the music to take us where it will and simply enjoy every note along the way.
German prog metal guitarist / songwriter / producer Henning Pauly’s path has led him to create a good-natured piss-take on the world of metal. Best known for his work under the Frameshift banner, he abandoned his trademark prog tendencies for Shadow’s Mignon, what he refers to as an “authentic” metal project. The debut album Midnight Sky Masquerade is big, dumb, tried and true metal fun, ranking up there with Devin Townsend’s black metal-goes-punk parody, Punky Brüster, and actor Jack Black’s finest metal moments, ‘Tribute’ (Tenacious D) and his films School Of Rock and The Pick Of Destiny. Imagine Dio, Manowar and Judas Priest getting together for a Best Of compilation and you have a good idea of what you’re in for.
“If you know me, if you like my stuff, and if you’ve stuck with me this long, you’re pretty much used to the diversity and different kinds of things in my music,” says Pauly. “And we’re all metal fans, so we can’t deny that we like this stuff. On an instinctive level it really moves me and I can really sing along to the stuff even though I’m singing total crap (laughs). If you don’t know me and you just like metal, you’ll still like it.”
Pauly will be the first to tell you Shadow’s Mignon isn't particularly original beyond the band name. The riffs, licks and lyrics will be familiar to anyone from the '80s metal old school.
“Here’s the problem: how the fuck do I talk about this in an interview?” asks Pauly, sensitive to the fact that the very people he wrote the album for may view Midnight Sky Masquerade as insulting once he reveals the truth behind the project. “The problem is, metal fans don’t want to know that they’re being bullshitted by the metal artists, and I’m sorry, that’s what the metal artists are doing. The fans don’t want to know that the lyrics are meaningless and that it’s all the same thing Maiden did in ‘83. On an intellectual level this album doesn’t work, and it doesn’t sound original. But is it something that you put on in the car and have a shitload of fun with? Absolutely. And that’s the funny thing because even though I know how bad this is (laughs) and that I was kind of trying to make fun of metal, I react to it emotionally. For example, in ‘Kingdom Of The Battle Gods’ – I really love that title – when that way overdone first guitar solo come in I have a smile on my face, and the reason is… where are you allowed nowadays to play solos like that? I mean, unless you do overdone prog with way drawn out 10 minute songs, you’re not allowed to play solos like that. And even if you are, not with that sound. Everything on the album has a chorus (effect). The guitars, the bass, the piano in the cheesy ballad; it’s all got way too much chorus, and do you know why? Because in the ‘80s you did that.”
For the record, Pauly speaks with a tongue-in-cheekiness that offers up a good indication of just how much fun he had writing for Shadow’s Mignon. It’s almost as if he’s glad to be away from his technically demanding prog-metal world for a bit, sorta like the bartender coming in to work on his day off to kick back and get hammered. He explains how the “concept” for Midnight Sky Masquerade came about.
“I went to (CD/DVD/electronics store) Media Markt and they had one of those tables laid out with the cheap-ass bargain CDs, and I never owned any Dio stuff before so I bought a Best Of Dio compilation. I listened to it in the car one night on the way home from music school and I thought ‘This is horrible!’ (laughs). The cheesiest keyboard stuff, the cheesiest riffs, and the lyrics… have you actually ever looked at the lyrics for the song ‘Holy Diver’? One of THE metal songs of all time, and it goes ‘You’ve been down too long in the midnight sea / Oh what’s becoming of me? / Ride the tiger / See his stripes but you know he’s clean / Don’t you see what I mean?’ No we don’t, Dio! (laughs). The thing is, what people react to in lyrics is not meaning or depth, they react to metal words – ‘fire’, ‘rain’, ‘dragon’ and so on – and no matter how cheesy it is, they love it. No shit, Dio uses either ‘unicorn’ or ‘rainbow’ in every song, sometimes both in the same song. And in every single song he rhymes ‘light’ with ‘night’. I analyzed his stuff, you should check it out. It’s pathetic but it’s done well for him because people don’t think about it. They want to hear The Metal Words at the end of the line and that’s it. ‘Blood’, ‘fire’, 'unite', ‘destruction’, ‘kingdom’, ‘queen’, any of those words. The funny thing about metal is that you can sing something that sounds cheesy, but as long as they’re strong words that people can relate to it doesn’t matter.”
With that in mind, Midnight Sky Masquerade took shape faster than you can sing “Kill with power! / Die! Die!” Pauly explains:
“On the first day we actually made a list of about 150 words, and they were The Metal Words. We put them in different categories: weapons, animals, elements, other words like ‘honesty’, ‘rage’, ‘truth’, and the standard rhymes like ‘light and ‘night’ and so on. All the words that make metalheads go ‘Fuck yeah!’ Then we pretty much put them together at random. One or two songs on the album actually tell a story, but the rest are just The Metal Words. The song ‘Goodnight Boston’, it’s just a break-up song, and it’s called ‘Goodnight Boston’ because everyone has frickin’ songs about L.A. I lived in Boston, fuck it, I can write a song about it. And ‘Kingdom Of The Battle Gods’, because of its three act nature – starts off quiet and hyper-cheesy, becomes big and mean, then goes back to cheesy – I wanted it to have a story. And it’s a very metal story about love and swords and battles and honour and shit like that.”
“I laugh at the songs on this album, but emotionally I react to them,” Pauly adds. “I’m having fun on an instinctive level. I know the lyrics are bad, or at least they’re supposed to be, but a song comes on and I’m loving it. I mean, the line ‘Flame-like fire…’ Of course fire is flame-like, it’s frickin’ fire (laughs). How many people will question that lyric? In that regard it was easy to write the album, and for Juan (Roos / vocals) it was insane. We wrote the lyrics, I told him ‘Go!’, and he knows metal inside out so he would sometimes end up getting a verse in one take without having sung it before. He was that good. Like on ‘Midnight Sky Maquerade’, he nailed it without ever having sung it before. And it came out metal. Not modern metal, not original metal, authentic metal, because Juan did what came naturally. So in that regard the album was very easy to write.”
Composing the music required Pauly to hold back and avoid slipping into highbrow intellectual prog metal patterns, particularly when it came to writing and recording the guitars.
“That was the toughest thing to do,” Pauly admits. “Actually, that’s not completely true. I listened to some Dio and some Rainbow, which he recycled and used for his Dio stuff, but I went with the first instinct I had, meaning I’d pick up the guitar and play the most standard metal riff that came to mind and run with it. I didn’t ask myself if it was any good, because the moment you stop an analyze things it’s not this kind of music anymore. I’m not saying that it’s crap. You just go with what’s ingrained in you over all these years of listening to metal. I simply let it out. The thing is, nowadays if you start to do modern music – Frameshift and stuff like that – I can throw those standard riffs away because they’ve all been done before. Those riffs aren’t appropriate for modern music. So instead of throwing away what comes naturally, or instead of bending and massaging what comes naturally, I simply let it come out. It was very easy because we all know those riffs.”
“It was a hard album to play,” he adds, “because of having to be precise on some of the riffing and the speeds, like on ‘Out Of Control’. That’s something like 180 beats per minute 16th notes, and I’m not used to playing that fast and that precise.”
As for the band name, more brainstorming in the realms of Dio and other assorted metal gods.
“Calling the band Steel Titan was one idea we had, but obviously that band exists already. And guess what kind of music they make? One that I came up with was Ice Blaze Warrior, because you have to have and element in the name and something to do with steel or a battle or something…”
One could accuse Pauly of having way too much of a good time with this…
“It’s complete fun to do this kind of music,” laughs Pauly. “To do this kind of music for 20 or 30 years, releasing an album every year or two, and taking it so seriously like Manowar does, that’s ridiculous. That’s what I have a problem with, because they’ve been doing this forever and each time they release something they act like they’ve re-invented the wheel. I recently saw a video blog where they’re in a studio in Germany somewhere, and they’re going on as if they just came up with the newest, hardest shit anyone has ever heard and lyrics that will be the next evolution of lyric writing. Why can’t they just say ‘Okay, emotionally we’re having fun, this stuff’s about magic and ghosts and wizards and shit like that, but it’s metal and it’s fun…’? If you look at their promo pictures, they always have to look evil, they always have to look bad, and they’re dead serious. I find that ridiculous.”
Fuel enough for a follow-up?
Pauly smiles. “Well, there are still lots of metal clichés out there…”