Baltimore, Maryland-based progressive metal duo Intentional Trainwreck return in May with the release of the sophomore studio album “Smokestack of Souls,” a follow-up to 2014’s “The Accident.” Singer and guitarist Pete Lesko and drummer Patrick Gaffney speak for Progarchy about the new material, challenges, prog scene in 2021, and more.
You are about to launch a new full-length album with Intentional Trainwreck entitled Smokestack of Souls. How do you feel about the release?
PL: I feel great about the release. The material on it is solid and none of the tracks are filler. Everyone I’ve played it for so far has had good things to say at worst. I write material for this band which, as a fan of music, I would like to hear. And I think that comes through strongly in the compositions, production, and performances.
PG: We are definitely stoked for the release of Smokestack of Souls. We’ve made massive improvements in our musicianship, songwriting, recording and production. We’re using more online resources as a mechanism to reach a wider, more-specific audience. This is exciting because we know there are a lot of people who enjoy new and interesting music. We believe in the music, stand behind it, and endorse it passionately.
Where does the new record stand comparing to the debut album—2014’s The Accident?
PG: Frankly, Intentional Trainwreck has left the Accident in a pile of its own rubble and dust. Unfortunately, we still love playing songs such as “Lunchbox” and “Metric” so we can’t be in complete denial of the Accident’s existence. In comparison, Smokestack of Souls has a production which towers over the Accident and there are obvious improvements in the vocals, musicianship, and technicality of the songwriting. Smokestack of Souls is heavier; it’s more aggressive; the songwriting is more mature and it is a new beginning. This is certainly a professional effort and we made sure it is something that average listeners as well as those with a trained ear will get into.
PL: I think the new record blows the debut album completely out of the water. The writing and production on this record is more cohesive overall. I stopped smoking just before the Accident was released and began to focus a lot more on getting better vocals down, which it turns out is a lot easier to do when you can breathe! In general, we were able to avoid a lot of the mistakes that we made the first time around.
How much of a challenge was it to work on Smokestack of Souls?
PL: A massive challenge was avoiding the production pitfalls of the Accident while doing most of the recording and all of the mixing and mastering for the new album. There were so many points when I just wanted to throw in the towel. In particular, during the last year as the album was on the precipice of release, I was working in the healthcare industry which was not getting less busy but rather the exact opposite. My family was mostly stuck at home and, on top of this, I was doing guitar tracks and some vocal recordings for Isenmor’s Shieldbrother. So, things became rather chaotic to manage. This coupled with the challenges of writing guitar parts, lyrics, vocal melodies, and even bass parts! Because Mike was unable to record a number of bass parts, there are a few of tracks on Smokestack of Souls featuring me on every instrument except drums.
PG: Intentional Trainwreck always challenges itself to write better and more interesting music. It’s not a big deal because we are creative and constantly have new ideas to share. But we still needed to make sure that we held ourselves to a high level of songwriting. And, we know our audience likes to have expectations met and surpassed.
Another challenge was improving listenability. We know the Accident should have sounded better and we owe it to everyone to improve the production and sound quality on Smokestack of Souls. Pete spent a lot of time on his studio techniques for mixing and mastering. He ended up doing a fantastic job. Also, we never stopped rehearsing the parts, so you’ll notice better vocals, drums, and guitars all around.
And, the global pandemic was a huge challenge which delayed everything from rehearsals to live shows. We are extremely lucky in that we still have our health, but it has made things very difficult for rehearsing and mixing the music. And we’ve missed seeing our friends and fans during live performances more than words can say.
Speaking of challenges, have you set any in the early phase of what has become the final result?
PG: The most noticeable challenge associated with the finished product has got to be the way in which music is distributed, marketed, and obtained by the listener. The traditional process of creating CDs, sending them off for review and making a lot of noise to get people to buy them is no longer the norm. The new model involves digital distribution via online submission of files and artwork which all needs to have codes assigned so that royalties can be tracked across a myriad of social media and distribution platforms. And, marketing through videos and playlists is ever more popular and unavoidable. So, in many ways it seems like we’ve gone from a band creating an album to social media entity associated with music. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it increases the scope of work and schedule of an album release tenfold.
PL: That’s an interesting question, I don’t know that I had specifically or explicitly talked about it, but I certainly wanted to make sure is that the next album was going to be better than the first one. When I went into writing, I didn’t want to write songs that people say well that kind of neat, I went into the process with the intent of writing songs that hopefully would become some folks’ favorites that they slam on a loop.
Tell me about the topics you explore on these new songs.
PL: We explored a lot of dark places on Smokestack of Souls – the uglier parts of society that can crush a person into a tuna can. Inner-darkness tolls on a person. But we also explore some lighthearted subjects like the philosophical deconstruction of what quality is, and even one about playing dungeons and dragons.
PG: There are several topics presented in Smokestack of Souls, and they all come from places close to the heart. For example, the audience-friendly “Basilisk’s Gaze” is a story derived from one of Pete’s D+D games and takes the listener on an epic journey through a fantasy realm. The video for this song adds a level of surreal exploration. “Family and Friends” comes from real-life emotions and situations; some topics are based on political unrest (“Charismatic Agenda”) and some pertain to individual strife (“Kamikaze Tom”). “Phaedrus” involves metaphysical communication on the smallest levels. The subject matter of the songs usually comes about after the music has been written but the two become intricately tied together as a composition develops.
What is your opinion about the progressive rock/metal scene in 2021?
PG: The music scene in general is amazing. We are blessed to live in times when you can search for and find excellent new music in a matter of seconds. Sharing information and music is easier than it has ever been. The progressive rock/metal scene is alive and well albeit a slightly different one when compared to 20 or 30 years ago. There will always be extremely talented and innovative musicians out there; however, today you are more likely to hear music which is heavier and much faster at times than previously. Perhaps you’ll find new bands which are darker and edgier than before. And, the amount of technical shredding today seems to have surpassed that of the past prog-metal scene. But the classics won’t go away either. The founders of progressive rock and metal had something which, to this day, remains quite unique and inspiring.
PL: With the Internet these days, the number of options can be overwhelming! Lots of amazing music is being made right now and I have been trying to make a regular habit of listening to new music as much as I can. It’s a competitive field, but I’m hoping this is one that stands apart.
I’m well aware of Patrick’s involvement with Cerebus Effect, and one of my personal favorite acts in the last two decades—Deluge Grander. As someone who has been involved within the scene for a long time, would you say that the genre has progressed or did it reach its peak long time ago?
PL: Oh, that’s something I just don’t talk about, not since the accident.
PG: “Progress” can embed itself into music in many ways. And, what constitutes progress is subjective. Personally, I feel that progress lies more in whether things like your creativity, conceptual approach and efforts continue to grow and bring forth interesting results and likeable sonic passages. I feel there is an opulence of new music stretching the realms of progressive rock and metal. While certain bands and musicians may have reached their peak, in no way do I feel that progressive rock and metal are even close to stagnant. Sometimes, the distinction between music genres gets a little blurry but, in the end, there is a variety of thriving genres really close to and including prog rock/metal.
Let me know about your influences—the artists that in a way shaped and continue to shape the music of Intentional Trainwreck.
PG: This is a loaded question because I am continuously inspired. As mentioned, I believe the world of music is constantly presenting amazing works. None the less, when I was 11 or 12 years old, my older brother’s friend played Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow, Dixie Dregs’ Freefall and Yes’ Fragile albums for me. That was the first time I’d heard anything outside of pop and classical music. I knew right away that my musical direction had changed forever. Since then, I am thankful for and motivated by so many. To name just a few drummers – Carl Palmer, Dave Kerman and Trilok Gurtu each took me to new levels of inspiration. I can’t say that my performances on Smokestack of Souls sound overtly like any other drummer; yet, without my influences I’m sure my drumming would sound less inspired.
PL: I draw in influences from bands like Mastodon, Gojira, and Devon Townsend Project, and the sound I try to go for is a cross between a few different guiding principles. I mean, it must be, if not heavy, something dark or scary or something like that. I want riffs that bring you time signatures, keys, and scales that you wouldn’t expect, but I like to find a solid grounding element in each song, a hook if you will. I like growly vocals sometimes, but only if they are decipherable? That’s important to me; I don’t want to be just another cookie monster sounding band, and most of the vocals on this album are melodic anyway. I like songs with a complex groove that follows something catchy enough that you could sing it around a campfire. That’s not to say that indecipherable vocals don’t have their place in the right context, but I think that’s not us for the most part. I have these bands that I listen to and I’d say that’s the kind of goal I’m going for, but I am all about pretty much every kind of music. My taste is eclectic in that I like pop, classical, metal, jazz, country, electronic, indie, soundtrack stuff, and more obscure outsider music. I try to do my best to pull from those influences and build that into what kind of strange, but digestible, heavy metal kind of music we do, because I want music that is… mmm, without boundaries, but still with boundaries? Quantum metal, if you may.
What are your top 5 records of all time?
Megadeth – Rust in Peace
Archspire – Relentless Mutation
Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve
System of a Down – Mezmerize
Alice In Chains – Dirt
Allan Holdsworth – Secrets
Univers Zero – Uzed
Watchtower – Control and Resistance
Jeff Beck – Blow by Blow
John McLaughlin with Shakti – Natural Elements
Besides the release of the album, are there any other plans for the future?
PG: Playing gigs is a huge future goal. We really have a connection to our audiences and want to get back in front of people. I love to play live because it gives me an opportunity to give back to all the musicians who have inspired me.
We have a ton of music just waiting to be formed into songs. So, technically, there is already an album in the works.
And, thanks to the hope of successful COVID-19 vaccinations, we will most likely be rehearsing and writing together…in the same room! There is a true element of brotherhood and comradery when we work together. It is indeed a friendship that also rocks out pretty hard.
PL: We’re hoping to eventually get back out and start playing some shows. But right this second, I’d like to reach into the riff box and start putting some new material together. The ideas have been sort of piling up. I just they just need some time to arrange them into songs instead of a heap of disorganized noodlings.
Any words for the potential new fans?
PL: Thanks for listening! I know that it’s not easy for everybody to find the time to listen to new things, and I appreciate them spending the time to check us out. We’ll be releasing some music videos, and I’ll be putting together some play through videos for social media once the album is released. Make sure to follow us on Instagram and subscribe to the Youtube channel!
PG: Please don’t judge us on our past so much as the present. We have come a long way and Smokestack of Souls is a perfect place for new listeners of Intentional Trainwreck to start. Write us an email or hit us up on a social media to let us know who and where you are. It’s nice to know your fan base and it gives us a good idea to where we might want to travel and perform. Also, if there are people reading this article who are unfamiliar with our Top 5 albums, listen to that stuff, too. Finally, be safe and take care of yourself.
“Smokestack of Souls” is out on May 15th. Follow Intentional Trainwreck on Facebook for future updates.