You might have noticed that the Last Rites’ staffers are always on the lookout for quality power metal. Sadly, it’s not always that easy to come by. However, upon hearing Judicator’s latest album, The Last Emperor, we knew we had to not only review it and premier a track, but also have a chat with Tony Cordisco (guitars) and John Yelland (vocals) about this marvelous project and the incredible story behind the concept behind the record.
Recently, Manny-O-War (that’s me, the resident Jew) was brave enough to sit down and talk to these masters of power metal about their latest LP, which tells a harrowing, fascinating and historically accurate tale of the First Crusade.
So, without further ado, here are the scholarly shredders behind Judicator.
I’ve heard people refer to you as “Tony the Tiger.” Does that upset you? Were you annoyed or honored when Frosted Flakes chose a version of you as their mascot?
Tony: Not upset at all, as I actually collect about 74 cents worth the royalties monthly from Frosted Flakes for use of my namesake and likeness. We get an additional 20 cents as a band too because Judicator actually wrote the Tony the Tiger theme song. It’s a little bit out of our range, stylistically, but we like to challenge ourselves and try new things. I guess given that you could say we are succeeding both financially and artistically, which is really what it’s all about.
John: Oddly enough, it’s me who becomes annoyed when people call Tony a tiger. He’s a boy, okay? Not a tiger. Tigers can’t even riff. They can only eat unsuspecting villagers and be ridden by Dio.
Let’s talk about emperors. They are pretty amazing at wearing really fancy robes. What kind of robe do you picture “The Last Emperor” wearing? Do you think he used actual dogs for slippers?
Tony: He has a black robe with a hood, wrinkled, deformed skin, red sunken eyes, and likes to say things like “I will make it legal” and “I am the senate”.
John: He wears a cloak, toga and Ugg boots. You know, like a classic Roman emperor.
I want to ask you about the current political climate and how Crusades are an actual potential today, not only in the historical religious sense, but in the ideological sense as well. Violence, particularly as a method of pacification, seems to be back on the table here in America, particularly by groups that claim serious religious affiliation. You think it’s a possibility? Not only in America, but also abroad.
Tony: It’s absolutely a possibility and already a reality in many ways. However, if you removed religion from the world tomorrow, we’d still find just as many excuses to cheat and kill each other, and nothing would change, because humans are humans. Money, land, power, eliminating riffless power metal, getting rid of digipacks and picture discs, etc. People will always find excuses for wars both cultural and physical, but it’s something much deeper and darker that really drives it. Religion has just as much potential for kindness and charity, but ultimately any system or institution or belief set—excluding obviously those that are actively violent in ideology like Nazis, etc.—is only as good as the people that use it and how they choose to use it.
John: Political and religious extremism is something that genuinely scares me. Left or right, it always leads to the same carnage. The Crusades had a very real and understandable justification, and the same can be said of popular political movements today. This is what makes your opposition so frightening, that they fully believe in what they are doing.
This is why political discourse in particular can become so heated, because you’re not just talking with someone about an idea—you’re talking with someone who has an idea and a vote—a vote that could affect the world in which you and your family live. Your uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table isn’t just an obnoxious liberal or conservative, he’s someone whose vote could very likely cancel out yours!
In my experience, I have only seen two ways to overcome this. One way is through loving, patient dialogue with one another. It requires a concession on both sides, which is hard to do, but is worth it, because the only other option seems to be fighting.
Where did you get the inspiration for the aggression that this album has? Were you angry while writing the musical aspect of it, or were you just listening to some stuff that made you dial that up a notch?
Tony: Speaking only for myself, it was definitely an intentional move. At the Expense of Humanity covered a lot of territory musically, and was a sprawling, personal effort, and what I never, ever, under any circumstance want to do is put out a victory lap album. There will never be an At the Expense of Humanity Pt II or Sleepy Plessow pt II, etc. The next album will not remind you of The Last Emperor very much. I don’t want people to make jokes like they do about Powerwolf (who I adore, for the record) and say “Hey look, Bible of the Beast Pt 5 is coming out!”. It takes a lot for us to be able to make an album, and it doesn’t happen easily or through any convenient means, so everything we do has to be intentional and thoroughly crafted. It has to count because it takes a lot of personal sacrifice for us to be able to do this. And one aspect of that is making sure we don’t do anything that cheapens what we’ve already done or re-treads the same ground without expanding or adding to it in some way.
We’ll definitely do more progressive tinged stuff and some more experimentation with mixing styles, and there will always be shades of all the things we’ve done in future things that we do, but it will always be new territory for us. We’ll never reinvent the wheel musically, and I make no claims to any sort of originality, but I at least want to make sure the band is going to new territory in and of itself, otherwise there isn’t much point for me. I don’t want to do the same things all the time.
This album felt like it needed to go for the throat and be just a massive release of energy. We decided to go for more straightforward classic power/speed metal influence, focus on up-tempo songs, not utilize harsh vocals, put more emphasis on lead guitar harmonies and vocal choirs, and cut the running time down significantly compared to past albums. And also avoid anything that could be perceived as filler or fat, like ballads, interludes, intros/outros, excessive keyboards/orchestrations, etc. We wanted it to be lean, but most of all FUN. Especially given the personal trauma we heavily exposed on our last album, it felt very important to do this. To me, this album is exactly how you respond to personal tragedy… you punch it in the face with riffs.
“Convert or die” is a pretty serious sentiment. Obviously that was a huge part of the Crusades. What’s something that you’re willing to die for? Do you have any harsh lines in the sand that you would wage a Crusade in honor of?
Tony: I would absolutely draw a line in the sand in favor of early power metal being the trope codifier instead of modern interpretations. Riff or die. No longer shall we abide riffless power metal. 246 riffs per album will be the minimum. No Ballads… No Masters.
John: DEUS VULT!! DEUS VULT!! DEUS VULT!!
Were any of these ideas, more than musically, alive when you guys recorded King of Rome back in 2012? Was the title track just fortuitously in line with this album?
Tony: No, this album was written musically 100% after At the Expense of Humanity was already released, which was quite different from the approach on Sleepy Plessow and At the Expense where I used a lot of ideas from my riff-savings-bank, as it were. I actually wrote a bulk of our NEXT album before this album was even an idea. The decision to re-record “King of Rome” was a personal one, as its become a signature song for us, especially at live shows. And given that our first album was a glorified easy-bake-oven demo that we threw together in a couple weeks thinking no one would pay attention, it seemed like a good time to do a song that was so special to us “The Right Way” and make it big with the full band, proper production, and music video. We wanted to bring it to life in the best way possible, and given that this album is closer stylistically to “King of Rome” than any of our other material, this was the right time to do it.
John: I had always wondered if I could write an album’s lyrics about something Crusades-related, but it wasn’t until Tony presented me with this album’s material that I saw this as a possibility. The music tells me what tone I need to go for lyrically, and I love that because sometimes he presents me with something I can’t quite grasp. It’s a very engaging, fun challenge.
Are any of you guys religious? I’m wondering what it’s like to play behind these lyrical themes and concepts if you’re connected to them or if you’re not connected to them.
Tony: I was raised Roman Catholic, and I follow the teachings of Jesus, but I am not religious. In the same way schooling and education are two different things, so are spirituality and religion. There is too much I don’t identify with in mainstream US religious culture that I find problematic, and that human factor definitely makes me feel like an outsider and makes me want to distance myself. There are many people in those communities that are wonderful, charitable human beings, and the institutions themselves do some great things at times, but there is no place for me in any of it as long as I continue to value the things I value.
I do, however, enjoy being in a band that is willing to tackle challenging and personal topics. Whether that’s through the lens of actual personal stories, or historical events and figures, I think it’s a great means of expression. I think regardless of where you fall on the belief spectrum, and speaking as someone who has been through my own challenge of a faith journey, you can find something to relate to and appreciate in our music. It might not be easy or comfortable all the time. I don’t know that ruminating on death, depression/suicide, a crisis of faith, misanthropy, betrayal, abuse, war, the loss of a loved one, etc., is necessarily fun, but it can be constructive and even therapeutic, and art is the best medium for tackling tough personal thoughts—even the ones we are afraid or even ashamed to talk about with other people—from a safe distance. And I think what John does a great job of, and what I really enjoy about being in this band, is that we can go down those dark avenues and do it with a smile on our face, clowning around on stage, with people singing along, and ultimately tackle these things in the enjoyable context of a shared love of heavy metal. If that bridges the gap between grief and acceptance, or differences in belief, then I consider myself happy to be a part of it. And that’s always been one of the most incredible aspects of heavy metal to me. You may not believe the same things as me, but we can share our appreciation of life and even our troubled experiences through a mutual love of this type of music and a tasty bowl of frosted flakes, available NOW at your local grocery store!
John: Through the course of my research for this album I didn’t just read about the history of the Crusades, Europe and the Middle East. I did a lot of reading about the history and theology of Christianity and Islam as well. This, combined with my wife being religious, caused me to look at religion differently than I had in previous years. Long story short, I became fascinated with the Eastern Orthodox Church and am considering joining the fold.
I think we’re all connected to the lyrical themes and concepts explored not only in The Last Emperor, but in all our albums. Everyone can all identify with fighting a lost cause, trying to overcome an abusive or unhealthy relationship, losing a loved one to cancer, or struggling with your sense of self in a world dominated by groupthink. It isn’t our job to tell you what to think. Our only job is to tell a story.
Who’s the scholar in the band that fact checked all these stories? You’ve got, from what I can tell, some pretty spot on ideas here.
Tony: I fact checked the riffs on www.turnitin.com. They are definitely German in origin, with some Hetfieldian textures.
John: The album is historically accurate and assuredly fact checked. However, being that the story is communicated lyrically, there are certain elements that require embellishment. If you ran these lyrics by a professor of history, I feel confident that everything would check out.
Finally, I just want to ask you about working independently. I know your album leaked and ended up on YouTube before you planned to release it, but aside from that, what are some of the challenges you guys faced? Is it nice to have complete control without deadlines or pressure from a label? What was it like making a video without label support?
Tony: Producing the video independently was great because we were able to do it cost effectively, with people we trust, in the manner we wanted. Sure, we can’t do anything too crazy because of budget/time constraints, but what we did produce was professional, presentable, and a fantastic representation of the band and its personality. Definitely hectic to get there, but totally worth having that extreme ownership.
I think the main challenge of being a band that doesn’t work with a major label is the ethos and exposure that comes with it. I like having complete creative and legal control, but there is definitely only so much I can do as an individual. But on the same token, that also helps us because of the dedication and support that third party sources send our way knowing the context of the band. We’ve been so blessed, for instance, to work with Divebomb Records for our last album, and Alone Records is pressing vinyl for this album and helping us with distribution. Labels like that, to me, are the real heroes of DIY metal. They are in it purely for the love of metal, and you can tell guys like Matthew at Divebomb and Emmanoel at Alone Records and other people/labels like them are tried and true veterans with an absolute passion for the music and its history. Whether they are signing bands, or doing pressings for them, or helping distribute indie releases, or repressing old classics, that’s the kind of stuff that keeps metal alive in addition to all the great bands still creating content and all the fans keeping the love of it all alive. Divebomb in particular and services like Bandcamp have been major players for helping us establish ourselves and have enough success to continue to produce content.
As well, reviewers and interviewers like yourself, other media outlets, metal discussion communities, podcasts (POWERFUL!), the word of mouth of fans and friends, etc. are truly what drive a band like us forward. I’d be here for many hours listing all those types of sources and people that have been critical to allowing us to do what we do. It’s easy to look at us like a DIY band, but we are not self made at all. Whatever we do that may be perceived as hard work is offset many times over by the enthusiasm and dedication of those who have supported us. We’d literally just have home recordings and bad drum machines up on bandcamp still otherwise, and probably would have went our separate ways shortly after King of Rome. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to make albums like At the Expense of Humanity and The Last Emperor in the way that we made them, go on tour, create music videos, have my album stocked at record stores around the world, make great merch, etc. That was never available to me until this band, and now I’ve been able to do all of it many times over. I’m personally not doing anything different than I’ve been doing since high school, the difference is the gracious people around us. They are everything, and I’m eternally grateful and humbled by their support.
Oh and the Frosted Flakes deal. Honestly, that’s most of it. At least, that’s how I bought my mansion and private jet.
John: I think deadlines are not a good thing when it comes to Judicator. If we had a deadline to complete The Last Emperor then we would not have done the music video for “King of Rome.” Sometimes production delays are a blessing in disguise.
Producing the video was hectic, but a joy! I was working for a video production company at the time and so we had a professional studio at our disposal. This is the setting for both setups in the video. My best friend Austin also worked there at the time, and we got him to direct it. I’m very thankful to everyone involved, especially the band for driving all the way up to Salt Lake City. That drive is grueling!
Thank you to Tony and John of Judicator for taking time out of their schedules to talk with us. The Last Emperor is available digitally and on compact disc NOW, and an LP is in the works for the not-too-distant future through Alone Records. Go >>here<< and support great people making great power metal.