If someone was to take a survey of random citizens in the area and ask, “What is northeast Indiana’s most dominant musical trend?” there are serious doubts in my mind that anyone would answer with “power metal.” In fact, I doubt it would make a dent in the final percentage. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it has allowed Fort Wayne’s premiere power metal maestros, Zephaniah, to stand out in the local scene and garner a healthy following. The band began as a more bare bones rock act in 2005. Lead guitarist Justin Zych is the only original member of the band, and he describes the situation thusly: “I just wanted to throw my hair around and have fun.”
With this statement, Zych provides the origins of his reputation as an onstage wild man. I first saw him when he was playing bass for, now defunct Under The Wake at last year’s whatzup Battle of the Bands. He owned every inch of the stage and helped draw a lot of people into a metal performance that already had a lot of attention. His guitar prowess is no less intense, but more on that later.
Within some of the early line-up changes, another mainstay was gained in drummer Ian Bender. “We wanted to get serious about it, and no one else did,” he says. Serious is a good way to define Bender as a drummer; the guy is extremely focused while behind his kit – as if any extra movement might just cause him to pass out. Playing music as intense as Zephaniah’s, I can see how this sharp focus is essential to their performance.
The band finally took shape with the inclusion of the other three current members: Tyler Sumwalt on bass; Logan Detwiler on vocals; and Tyson Miller, also on lead guitar. Hailing from Bluffton, Sumwalt rounds out the low-key, yet no less intense rhythm section with his four-fingered bass attack. With his operatic training, Detwiler brings a welcome change to the ever-increasing Cookie Monster vocals of so many new metal bands (though I did spot some King Diamond-esque vocals on a new song still being worked on). That leaves the band’s other lead guitarist, Tyson Miller.
Miller and Zych make up the best two-guitar assault in the area. Sweeping arpeggios, heavy riffs, virtuosic soloing – you name it and they can play it with style to spare. The co-lead guitarists do have their differences, though. Zych’s solos are fluid and smooth; Miller tends to be a tad nastier and dirtier in his approach. He once practiced 14 hours straight with nothing but a metronome after a bungled passage in one song at a show. When the two harmonize, you might think you were playing an old Nintendo game, an actual influence of the band. Onstage, the duo is always moving, using synchronized moves to enhance an already impressive performance.
Songwriting tends to be a group collaboration. “Someone will bring in a riff and we’ll structure it and then work it out,” admits Zych. Detwiler handles a lot of the lyrical duties, but a fair share of the words are also a collaborative effort. When asked what the lyrical focus is, Detwiler responds, “Epic battles and rhyming.”
Zych adds, “Anything that’s brutal and awesome.” Songs such as “Avenger of Souls” and “Sword of the King” represent this position well. The music itself is epic: huge heavy metal landscapes, with a keen pop sense and catchy hooks, but never treading into hair-metal territory. Manowar, Symphony X and Modest Mouse are all influences here, though the latter is for more melodic purposes. “Fight for Love” is a perfect example of Zephaniah at their catchiest.
With all this focus on things clearly mythology-based, you’d think that the group is deep into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Wrong, says Zych. “We’ve played with bands that, after the show, we’ll be like, ‘Hey, let’s hang out.’ And they’ll say, ‘No, we’re tired. We’re going to go back home and play World of Warcraft.’”
“I don’t play D&D. I play XBOX 360,” admits Detwiler.
“I don’t play video games. I play guitar. All the time you spend playing those stupid games you could spend getting good at your instrument,” reacts Miller.
The band has had a great year, including being endorsed by In Tune guitar picks, opening for Finntroll in Cleveland, touring the country, making a fine showing in the whatzup Battle of the Bands and recording and releasing “album of the year” contender Stories From The Book Of Metal in Wisconsin at JTW Recording Studio. “It was hectic, cold and stressful,” says Bender, of the January recording session, “I used it as a free recording seminar.”
Whatever stressors may have occurred, you can hear the fun these guys have on the record, such as opening track, “The Metal Prayer,” with its tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the Lord’s Prayer. Make no mistake, for all the fun they have, Zephaniah are serious about their music.
The band is currently thinking ahead and looking to expand the family. “We’re looking for a keyboard player, preferably someone with a keytar,” stresses Zych.
Adds Bender, “Long hair is preferred!” The band wants to make it perfectly clear that there are no specified gender qualifications.
What’s next for a band that’s had a truly breakout year? Bender says, “We’re planning on touring, and maybe put out a new album next year.” Another month-long jaunt is in the works for November with Mobile Deathcamp and Habitual Coersion.
Some in the area might not be aware of what power metal is now, but after the year is up Zephaniah should place it in their lexicon.
I suggest seeing this band live as soon as possible, before a label snatches them up.