When discussing the realm of 'shred' guitarists, many would-be aficionados will confess to having found solace amid the speed-of-light wizardry of Michael Angel Batio, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen. Despite this, many others have found themselves searching for a fresh alternative to the mainstream choices of yesteryear. Among the most compelling of these is Ledyard, Connecticut-born axeman Chris Impellitteri. Unleashing their self-titled debut EP in 1987 and the Graham Bonnet-fueled gem Stand In Line in 1988, the guitarist (who was once voted 'The Second Fastest Guitar Shredder' by Guitar One) and his eponymously-titled group quickly earned a reputation as a bona fide creative force not to be ignored. Now, with the release of their latest full-throttle opus The Nature Of The Beast upon us, they are seemingly poised for the international recognition they truly deserve.
Todd: What can you tell us about The Nature Of The Beast? How does it differ from your previous recordings such as Venom (2015) and Wicked Maiden (2009)? Do you feel each new record is a separate musical statement?
Chris: “With every new record we do, I feel like it's an evolution in our life. Because every day we get older and we mature, so I think we evolve as human beings but we also evolve as artists. Naturally, every record we do is going to be part of our evolution as we're maturing. A new record is never going to be exactly as the old record or the first record because we've grown musically and as human beings. Having said that, The Nature Of The Beast feels very much like an extension of the other records. It feels like we're picking up where we left off, but at the same time, we're doing everything more advanced, a little faster, more heavier, a little higher and more technical. There's many little nuances that I could say are different on this record and although we can't truly repeat the past, I really do feel like it extends from the way we started with the Black EP (1987), ya know? That's a record that really cemented who we were as a band. To me, thinking back as a fifteen year old kid, it reminds me of listening to bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, but on steroids with all these crazy technical guitar solos and screaming vocals. The music on The Nature Of The Beast releases many of those old elements.”
Todd: Once the writing and recording process begin anew, do you consciously plan how everything will sound?
Chris: “No, but we have done that, but we have fallen into that trap. The first record we did with JVC/Victor was Grin And Bear It (1990). It was a lot of fun, but it our approach was almost like 'Hey, can we sound more like Guns N' Roses or a Funk Metal band?' ...So that record is more about saying 'Let's try to fit in with what's going on'. But the majority of the records weren't that way. Most of them were more of an expression of where we were at that point in our lives. As musicians, we express all of that through our instruments and our writing.”
Todd: What prompted you to record cover versions of “Phantom Of The Opera” (Andrew Lloyd Weber) and “Symptom Of The Universe” (Black Sabbath)? The group isn't known for recording materials from other artists.
Chris: “Symptom Of The Universe” is a song that I've always loved. It's a funny because when people think of Black Sabbath, you don't really talk about “Symptom Of The Universe” unless you're a musician or really into Sabbath. I think it has one of their greatest riffs ever. It's frightening, ya know? It's based off the diminished scale, so it's very dark and haunting and very mysterious. I used to play that riff a lot at rehearsals and sound checks before gigs at big venues and also in the studio to get that really fat, powerful sound. One day, we were playing it and I was fooling around and all of a sudden these orchestrated parts start coming to me to put over it. I started playing some really crazy guitar solos and it all worked. We don't generally do covers of other bands. We've rarely done anything like that, so it was a bit foreign and it was also a bit of a risk. We were like 'Do we want to do this?'. Plus, it's Sabbath? Do you really want to touch that? Is that sacrilege? Their fans may hate us for doing that. But we started playing with it and it just took on a life of it's own. It became ours, it became us. By the time we got done with recording it and sent it to it, people were like 'You've got to do this and put it on'.”
Todd: Did you find it difficult to put your own personal stamp on those songs without obliterating the original compositions? As you said, working with material of such a legendary nature is tantamount to musical sacrilege.
Chris: “As a guitar player, it's a blast to play those solos because they're really hard, especially the intro solo. The finger stretching is taxing. You're doing these arpeggio things, almost like an F sharp minor, but you're doing some serious stretching, ya know? So it's not the easiest solo to play in the front. You got to be really dialed in and very warm. Your hands have to be able to do those really crazy stretches. Plus it's all very fast, alternate picking, so it's a little challenging. But it's a lot of fun and when you do it right, it's really rewarding. It's like 'Yes! I Nailed it.', ya know? It makes you feel good. That's what you hear on the record. That's basically how “Symptom Of The Universe” came about. And of course that vocal is very challenging. It's probably why Sabbath never really did it very often live. I think they did it in 1975 and 1976, but I'm not sure how much they ever did it after that. (It was also featured on the 1994 Cross Purposes tour and can be heard on Cross Purposes Live, 1995) Rob killed it and he made it his own, which I thought was really cool. Now, the jury's out and want to hear what (vocalist) Ozzy (Osbourne), (guitarist) Tony Iommi, (bassist) Geezer (Butler) and (drummer) Bill (Ward) think. I hope they like it and I hope their fans like it, too. They're either going to love it or really hate it.”
Todd: Did you take a similar approach to the “Phantom Of The Opera” cover? When I initially heard you had recorded a cover of it, I wrongfully thought it was going to be the Iron Maiden song (from Iron Maiden, 1980).
Chris: “When I was a kid, “Phantom Of The Opera” was one of those songs where I remember thinking 'Man, this would be really cool to turn into a Speed Metal song'. Originally, I didn't want to do it because the band Nightwish who had already done it (on Century Child, 2002) did a great job. But they didn't do any guitar solos and it was done as very basic Rock. It has an incredible vocal performance, but it wasn't anything where where I went 'Oh, man. There's so much craziness'. So we started fooling around with it and again, we're still thinking 'I don't want to do this because it's already been done'. But we started playing it and yet again it became us. The song has been 'Impellitterized' if I can use such a term. ...We bastardized it, made it our own, went into the studio and said 'Screw it; let's do it. Let's see what comes out of it'. We did it and it just came to life. We were playing and we were all on fire. It was so much fun. Then of course, Rob was just like 'Can you do this?' because not only did he do the male part, the tenor, but he did the soprano or the alto, which is going to be very, very high. He played around with it and sure enough he delivered in a big way. It's very difficult for a male to sing like that with any type of power. After it was recorded and we listened back, we did the same thing where we played it for some friends and some industry guys and said 'What do you think? Should we do this or should we not?' and they were like 'You've got to do this. You've got to put it on the record'. We were like 'Dude, but this is also two covers now. Out of twelve songs, there are ten originals and two covers' and they were like 'No, you've got to do it'. So we buckled and said 'We're having a blast with it. Screw it. Let's share it with everyone.'”
Todd: What are your current touring plans? I would assume that with the release of The Nature Of The Beast, the group will be playing as much as humanly possible. With sales being what they aren't, the road must beckon.
Chris: “We'll always tour Japan and certain paces in continental Europe and we have every intention of doing the same thing this time around. We're desperately trying to play the U.S. ...I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this one, but we absolutely promise everyone out there that if we get invitations and they're decent venues and decent dates, we will play. I will stay out on the road for three years playing if we get decent offers. But the problem we have in the U.S. Is that the promoters know there is a risk involved. I try not to be biased and one-sided because we don't know what we can and can't draw in the U.S. Again, whenever we go overseas...the last show we headlined, we did almost ninety thousand people. Obviously, I don't expect to do anything like that in America, but we do know we can we play a two or three thousand seat venue. The problem is, will only three people show up? That's the fear that we all have. None of us know that answer. We've done secret shows in L.A. where we won't announce them. They'll be at Whisky A Go Go or something. We'll sneak in so we can play with our friends in preparation for a tour. We'll go in the afternoon and there will literally be a line around the block trying to get in for a show we won't play until nine or ten that night. I do think there are people that really want to see us here, but convincing promoters, that's a whole other issue. I can't force them to invite us. Unless they invite us, we can't come, so that's where we're at now. ...I don't know how to change that.”
Todd: To what do you attribute the level of success the group has achieved in Japan? Frankly, the group is huge. It must feel incredible to have made such a lasting and significant impact, even if it's not amid the United States.
Chris: “This is only my perspective and I can't prove it, but I think the reason Impellitteri became so big in Japan is because we're probably more technically advanced than the average musician. It's probably why I get thrown in with all the other guitar hero guys and Rob with guys like (Iron Maiden vocalist) Bruce Dickinson. And that's not to sound egotistical or arrogant. It does feel like I'm saying that, but that's not my intent. What I'm trying to say is we're very disciplined. We really try to push ourselves as artists so we can improve and master everything so there's nothing we can't do on the guitar or vocally. In Japan, they're very well educated and very disciplined and I think they hear that in our music realizing 'Wow, although this is fast, it's fun and it's Metal'. They also see that you have to play like a virtuoso or sing like Bruce Dickinson to (late Queen frontman) Freddy Mercury to do a lot of this stuff. You have to be able to compose really well and I think that's really important to their culture. I think that's why bands like us and a few others have been really blessed in Japan. Again, that's just my theory. I can't prove it and I don't know if that's right or not, but when they do something, they make it right. For example, look at a company like Lexus. I've has a bunch of Lexus cars and they last and last. I buy new ones, but the old ones never die. Nothing goes wrong them and I think it's because the Japanese have so much pride in what they do. ...When they try to tackle something in life, they don't give up until they succeed or get to a really high level of competency. That's the culture that I've seen in Japan, so I really do think that translates. I've had to ask myself 'Why are we competing with bands like Metallica over there?', ya know?”
Todd: Once the touring in support of The Nature Of The Beast officially begins, what type of set list will you be working with? I'm assuming there are aspects of the catalog that you 'absolutely must' play at every single show.
Chris: “We always will do songs like “Lost In The Rain” because that was the very first song we ever recorded. I still love that song and it's so much fun to play live, so it always makes the set list. “Stand In Line” is a given. We have no choice. Obviously, that was all over MTV in the '80's and was big globally, so we play that one and it goes over really well. We'll also do things from Answer The Master (1994), especially in parts of Europe and Japan as that was a really big record for us. That record probably sold a hundred thousand copies in its first day. It was big and people love the songs “Warrior” and “Fly Away”, so a lot of them also make it to the list. ...Our Screaming Symphony (1996) record has songs like “Rat Race”, which people really seem to really migrate to. And we also go into our Crunch (2000), which I love. Everybody thought the end of the world was going to happen because the clocks were resetting from 1999 to 2000, so we have some really fun songs on that record like “Speed Demon”, which is a lot of fun. It reminds me of Dio because it almost sounds like a Dio rip-off. And that takes us into the Venom (2015) record, which did really, really well for us so people love it when we play songs like “Face The Enemy”, “Venom” and “We Own The Night”. We definitely do all of of that and now, with The Nature Of The Beast, we're having so much fun playing it, so I really hope we get to play a lot of the tracks. We're definitely going to do songs like “Run For Your Life” and I'm pretty certain we're going to do “Symptom Of The Universe” and most likely “Phantom Of The Opera” because we've been rehearsing it and it seems like it's going to be one of popular songs on the record. Plus, people already know it. Sometimes, it's easier for people to digest something if it's already been accepted by the masses in some form or iteration. So that's where we're at as far as our songs are concerned. ...Before you know it, we've got twelve to fifteen songs.”
Todd: The group has obviously endured several line-up changes. Have there been common factors behind them?
Chris: “But how many have we really had? On the Black EP, it started with Rob and I, Ted Days on bass and Loni Silva on drums. When Rob quit and we did Stand In Line. Now even though I respect the record, I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love Stand In Line and certain songs from it, but it always felt like a project band to me. It never really felt like Impellitteri. After Stand In Line, Rob returned, which is when we did Grin and Bear It, Victims Of The System (EP, 1993) and Answer The Master, which is when (bassist) James Pulli enters and he's been with me on every record since. James has been in the band since 1990 and he's an equal member. He's just as important as I am to the band. ...We've had changes with our drummers change, but for the most pat it's been Rob, James and I. Then, around that we did Grin and Bear It, we brought in (ex-Alice Cooper, House Of Lords and current Flotsam And Jetsam drummer) Ken Mary. He also did Victim Of The System, Answer To The Master and Screaming Symphony, so we had a pretty solid line up with him, but he never toured. He always did the studio records and Glen Sobel, who's currently with Alice Cooper and also plays with (actor) Johnny Depp and the Hollywood Vampires. I feel like I'm name dropping when I do that, but Glen did all of those tours, so eventually he stepped and toured with us during '92 and '93. His first record with us was Crunch and at that point, Rob decided to do a couple of solo records with (Producer) Roy Z, so we brought Graham back in and did System X. Glen and James were still with me along with (acclaimed Jazz) keyboardist Ed Roth was with us, so it was pretty much the same foundation of guys again. After System X, we had (vocalist) Curtis (Skelton) come in and we did a fun parody type record (Pedal To The Metal, 2004). It was still James, Glen, and I, but the Curtis left, Rob came back permanently. After Wicked Maiden, Glen joined Alice Cooper and (Iced Earth, ex-Slayer, ex-Testament drummer) Jon Dette, who I'd already played with in Animetal USA, came aboard with us.”
Todd: For the uninitiated, can you please explain how the group evolved from the Black EP Rob Rock on vocals to Stand In Line with Graham Bonnet on vocals in the span of less than two years? That is a very drastic change.
Chris: “The Black EP is our first record. That's the record that everybody had heard. It's very raw, almost like a live record. There are songs on it such as “Lost In The Rain” and “Burning” that I'm really proud of because it captured the youthful energy that we had. It shows you our skills and our talent, but at the same time, there's something very exciting about it all. Maybe it's because it wasn't over-Produced. It got really popular globally in the Metal community. Kerrang magazine immediately gave us five stars. Japan had also started taking notice and we really started making an impact. We were playing some live shows and they were packed. People were digging it. And then Rob Rock quit. He wanted to do something that was more Christian-based and we're not a Christian Rock band. ...Rob was more Christian at that point and he wanted to do something Christian-based. There was a band in Germany that was working with the Producer that had done a lot of records with the Scorpions and he quit. I had just signed a record deal with JVC/Victor and Sony and I was under contract to deliver another record. I was like 'Oh my God! What am I going to do? A key element of the band had just quit'”
Todd: Did Graham approach you directly regarding the vacancy? It's odd, really. I would imagine there would have been an array of lesser known, but perhaps lesser-qualified, candidates to work with in the absence of Rob.
Chris: “Graham had called years earlier to see if I'd be interested and replacing Yngwie Malmsteen in the band Alcatrazz. During that time, especially in the early '80's, Graham was a legend. People don't realize how big he was. He had replaced Ronnie James Dio in the band Rainbow, had sold a lot of records and he was a very respected vocalist. Me playing in Alcatrazz didn't work out. To be honest, I was much too young. I was still mastering who I was about to become. ...Graham is eighteen years older than me and the rest of the band was also way older. Eventually, Steve Vai got the gig, but eventually it fell apart. At this point, I'm really starting. I've mastered my playing, we've got this big buzz going on, but we needed a singer. I don't know why, but I picked up the phone and asked Graham what he was doing and he's like 'Nothing' and I go, 'Well, I need a singer. I have to do this. Are you interested?' and he's like 'Absolutely'. But at that point, I realize there's a problem. I'm pretty much writing music that sounds like Iron Maiden on steroids with crazy Vivaldi soloing But Graham's music is quite a bit different. I realized that I couldn't write what Impellitteri does now or what we did on the first EP for Graham, so an associate suggested that I should write music that is geared more towards what Graham had done and had been known for. That was hard for me to do. It took me out of my element. I was Metal and more aggressive and Graham was more almost Blues-based, coming from Rainbow and the Michael Schenker Group. We sat down and brought some guys in and it ended up being a little challenging emotionally for me because everyone was so much older than me. I couldn't relate to them, but I don't know what happened. The riff from “Stand In Line” came out and it just naturally came out of Graham. ...It became this really cool song. It's one of those songs where I look back at and really grateful to have been part of it. Overall, Stand In Line...I don't fell like it's an Impellitteri record. Yes, I get that it has my name on it, but I really, all Impellitteri records evolve from me writing everything. ...With Stand In Line, (future Mr. Big drummer) Pat Torpey was helping us a lot with arrangements because I was like 'What do we do with Graham? How do we do this?'. It's a record that's like an outlier of our catalog. It became a very well-known record. Some people loved it and some hated it. I'm in both groups. Some of it I love and some of it I absolutely hate. I hate the fact the way they Mixed my guitar solos. The Engineers (Bill Freesh and Mikey Davis) buried my solos in reverb and I really hate that. But other people love it and I do love playing the song “Stand In Line”. Graham was amazing on that record and Pat Torpey had an insane feel. ...But it was quite different going from the Black EP to Stand In Line.”
Todd: At this point in your career, how would you describe your relationship with Rob Rock? You've obviously had multiple periodic breaks from each other. Have any of these hindered your abilities to collaborate with him?
Chris: “It's really good. We're really good friends. You have to remember that we came up in the bars together learning how to compose music. We grew up playing together and I think because we did that, now when we when we compose things, we draw from some of the same sources. It's creates an incredible bond and synergy, if I can use that word. We've been together now on and off for over thirty years, so we have a good relationship. As a matter of fact, and I'm being very sincere when I say that when I'm writing a riff, music and verse, I already know how Rob's going to sing it even though I haven't given him the song yet. I can already hear him in my head. I know him that well musically and that's a beautiful gift to have. That's part of the evolution because we've been together for so many years. That's my relationship with Rob and we're also really good friends, too.”
The Nature Of The Beast (2018)
Wicked Maiden (2009)
Pedal To The Metal (2004)
System X (2002)
Live! Fast! Loud! (1998)
Fuel For The Fire (EP) (1997)
Eye Of The Hurricane (1997)
Screaming Symphony (1996)
Answer To The Master (1994)
Victim Of The System (EP) (1993)
Grin And Bear It (1992)
Stand In Line (1988)
Impellitteri (EP) (1987)
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