ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 2, 2000
It’s dark and dingy in the downstairs “rock room” of Ken Firomski’s Queensborough home, but he doesn’t mind. Firomski’s a heavy-metal bassist, and those guys aren’t always drawn to the sunny side of life. The walls and ceiling are plastered with posters of HM gods like Ritchie Blackmore and Randy Rhoads, and Spiderman and The X-Men comic-book covers. A Gibson Flying V—perhaps the ultimate heavy-metal instrument—hangs on one wall, right next to autographed and framed cassette covers from Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune and The Revolution by Night.
On the floor are strewn metal magazines like Japan’s Burrn! and Germany’s Heavy, and it’s to these foreign publications that my attention is turned. Firomski’s band, Empyria, had its second album reviewed in Heavy, and it scored 10 stars out of a possible dozen. (Unlike that of some less-rocking mags, Heavy’s rating system goes all the way to 12, which is even further than Nigel Tuffnill’s prized guitar amp went in Spinal Tap.)
Firomski shows me a write-up in Burrn! of the same CD, Changing Currents, but only the words Queensryche and Dream Theater are in English—the rest is indecipherable to our unilingual eyes. “It’s a rave review, as far as we know,” says Firomski, and he may be right. It seems that Empyria’s brand of prog metal is appreciated more in far-off lands than in its own backyard. “It’s still popular in Europe,” claims Empyria guitarist and main songwriter Mike Kischnick, “and also Japan, South America. And to a certain degree there are people in Canada who still buy it, or else stores like Scrape Records would not be open.”
Kischnick works one day a week at Scrape, the kind of metal haven where fans of Queensryche and Dream Theater can feel at home, and where prog-metal tunes that clock in at nearly half an hour are not scoffed at. For Firomski and Kischnick—as well as vocalist Phil Leite and drummer Simon Adam—that’s a good thing, because Empyria has a 25-minute song, “The Lighter Side of Darkness”, on its upcoming CD, The Legacy. The four-part tune has its origin in the band’s 1996 debut, Behind Closed Doors, which garnered an encouraging grade of eight out of 10 in Canadian hard-rock expert Martin Popoff’s The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal. (And he only gave Blue Oyster Cult’s debut a seven.)
Empyria is an old-school rock band that prefers to make music the old-fashioned way, as stated in The Legacy’s liner notes: “There are NO punched-in solos and ALL sound effects have been played, not sampled on this CD.” Kischnick felt it was important, in this day and age, to point that out. “All the sounds that are done on it—the water rushing, the wind—I played off of my guitar synth. And the thing about the guitar solos, I only wrote that because I heard a Dokken album with Reb Beach on it, and he wrote ‘no punched-in solos, like Eddie Van Halen used to do.’ Ken’s always tellin’ me, ‘Why don’t you just chop the takes up?’ but I’m like, ‘No, I’ll do ’em all full solos, beginning to end.’ I feel better knowing that I did the whole solo without any cheating.”
Empyria is clearly committed to its heavy brand of music. You can hear it in the hyper Kischnick’s voice, and see it in the metal cross that dangles around his neck, Tony Iommi–style. The group has gotten some welcome exposure from the likes of CITR’s Power Chord radio show, as well as the influential Canadian metal mag Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles (formerly M.E.A.T.), but it’s still a tough haul for a prog-metal group in Vancouver.
Nevertheless, the quartet takes encouragement from the fact that some local acts have made serious headway in the metal realm. “Annihilator do well,” Kischnick points out. “And Devin Townsend—I mean, that man has done a helluva lot for metal guys from around here. He’s got three or four side projects, plus Strapping Young Lad, so that shows you that you gotta do a lot more nowadays, ’cause there isn’t 10 wicked bands in this style of music selling 100,000—there’s 100,000 bands selling 10 albums!”
Empyria is negotiating for a distribution deal with interested labels in Europe and the States, and expects to have The Legacy in stores, “one way or the other”, by early April. When it is released, if that previously mentioned 25-minute opus doesn’t storm the charts, maybe the more compact cover of the Police’s “Synchronicity II” will. If that happens, good ol’ Sting will be in line for some royalties. “That’s right,” notes Firomski, taking a swig from his bottle of Pilsner, “and he’s pretty excited about it, too.”