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Unsigned NZ prog metal band is cracking the pop-topped industry

In a country dominated by pop and hip-hop, being an unsigned progressive metal band like New Zealand’s City Of Souls can be a tough gig.  Radio stations prepared to give airtime to metal are scarce and the record-making process can become costly and complex. Nevertheless, the Auckland-bred six-piece, which formed in 2015, are making it happen.  The first positive sign was when their debut single, Sleep, went straight to number one on the iTunes rock chart. Following singles Water and Long Gone were added to influential radio station The Rock, and they also kicked off extensive local touring and high-profile opening slots for international acts.  

Now, their latest single, Ferryman, has debuted at number 15 on the NZ music singles charts.  City Of Souls guitarist Marcus Powell thinks that’s not too bad for a metal track tuned to low F-sharp.  “Rock music in New Zealand hasn’t really been in the limelight for some time – I guess since the shift of our media outlets,” he says.  “It’s very much a pop and probably hip-hop kind of environment over here. We do have Radio Hauraki which do support rock, but I guess progressive metal is more of a struggle.  After doing Progfest through Australia (in January), we can definitely see the market’s a lot stronger over there and there’s a lot more support for it over there … for us to get onto the charts over here – to me, it’s a really big deal.”

Not only did playing with the likes of The Ocean, Monuments, Ebonivory, Circles and Skyharbor at Progfest (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane) open them up to new markets, it also better educated them.  “Being on the road with those guys, you got to hear intimate details of their journey and paths that they took.  And what’s also good about having that time with those guys is that you hear about the failures.  I think sometimes you don’t hear about the areas where people are failing, so that’s a really awesome thing to listen to.  ‘Don’t do this, don’t try that, this is what happened when we did that’ – that kind of thing.  It’s rare to have that opportunity in an intimate kind of setting; to bounce those stories across each other’s table, so that was really cool.”  

City Of Souls was formed by guitarists Trajan Schwencke (Cold by Winter, In Dread Response) and Steve Boag (In Dread Response, Blacklistt). Vocalist Richie Simpson (New Way Home) found the tracks Schwencke and Boag had written immediately captivating and joined the band. Guitarist Marcus Powell (founding member of multi-platinum bands Blindspott and Blacklistt) then joined, and the line up was complete with Daniel Insley on bass (Solstate) and drummer Corey Friedlander (In Dread Response / 8 Foot Sativa).

Part of their career ascension has involved supporting bands they have idolised, and for Powell, the highlights have been Stone Sour, Bring Me The Horizon and Sevendust.  “They all said that they listen to our music and they effectively decided on who they wanted to open up, so hearing that is really humbling,” he says. Storm The Gate festival was another big moment for the band, featuring acts like Limp Bizkit, Sublime, Suicidal Tendencies and Hed PE.  “Again, really blown away with the humbleness of those bands. You just get the opportunity to talk. We take every opportunity we can.  Whether I find the contact, whether Richie or one of the other band members initiate that, or whether it’s management or our touring label, everyone’s on the ball all the time.  I think you kind of have to be like that in a band.  It’s always in the back of your mind. There are always opportunities to be had.”

The touring side of their career has no doubt been beneficial, but it has delayed the release of debut record, ‘Synaesthesia’.  “We’ve had a few hold ups – they’ve all been good ones.  When we released all of our songs, there has been something else that’s come up, like when we released Long Gone, then we got offered the gig to open up for Bring Me The Horizon.  When those opportunities come up, we change our strategy and release dates to coincide with those opportunities.  We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few record labels and touring labels approach us, and when they have marketing plans and touring plans that could coincide with, say, an awesome headliner that we could possibly support, then we’ll remarket ourselves and strategise to suit that as well.”

Just when they thought things were running smoothly for 2019, they were dealt a setback.  “We originally did try to setup an agreement and a contract with Wild Things but for various reasons, it fell through, so we’re doing everything ourselves.  We are still managed by Triple V Management, which is based in Melbourne, and also, we have support through Artery Global in terms of international touring, so things are still very bright.”  Powell assures fans that City Of Souls have two more singles coming out around December/January and then it’s time for the album. “The album is definitely getting released in February. Finally!”  

With no label backing them, the six-piece decided to go it alone.  They approached a prog metal producer and hero of theirs – Forrester Savell of Sikth, Cog, Shihad Karnivool and Dead Letter Circus fame.  “What can I say? He’s one of the greats in my mind. Obviously, we love the albums that he recorded and produced already, so he was pretty much the first person we approached.  We brought him over to New Zealand and he recorded, mixed and mastered the singles Water and Long Gone. After that experience, we just knew straight away that he was our guy. And after hearing our album, we’re really, really happy with the result.  I mean, he’s phenomenal. There’s definitely no one in New Zealand of that calibre who could achieve what he did, and we were very fortunate.”

City Of Souls have not gone at it totally alone financially, with Kiwi musicians able to access funding assistance.  “We do have support from various, almost philanthropic investors. There’s NZ On Air – they are a huge funder of New Zealand music, and New Zealand television – so you have to apply to them with a very clear plan of attack and support from the station, saying: ‘We are going to get supported, we have management, we have distribution, we have all these things in place’, and then they will fund your project, so we were successful with that.”

Powell is very familiar with the idea of giving musicians a leg up, running his own organisation, The Crescendo Trust of Aotearoa (CTOA) (Aotearoa meaning ‘New Zealand’ in Maori). CTOA received official charitable status in 2012, which allows Powell to employ industry professionals to work with young people and educate them around photography, videography and find pathways into employment and education.

If prog metal is your thing, keep an eye out for Synaesthesia is February.

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