Interview With Guitarist Jason Schultz from Chicago Progressive Metal Band Monolith

One of the things we love about this running this webzine is how we get continually exposed to so many bands that we might never have heard of before. And it’s just great to hear a band that’s starting out and just kills it from the get-go!  A good case in point is the Chicago band Monolith who, after releasing their all-instrumental album Divisions, have returned with a vengeance with the first of two albums promised for 2016. As we mentioned when the first album, “The Mind’s Horizon: Desolation Within” was released early last month (post link HERE),“this one hell of an album from this fairly new Chicago band. Formed in 2013, this album will surely knock out any fan of heavy melodic prog metal. This album, at over 75 minutes is just all over the place stylistically but somehow all fits together extremely well – from heavy thrash (with clean and harsh vocals) to masterful songs that have elements of jazz and acoustic prog rock. Per the band, “five of the album’s seven tracks comprise a conceptual suite, the titular “Desolation Within” that examines the struggles of a warrior that realizes the error of his ways after committing an unspeakable act, and who subsequently questions his true nature and tries to escape and later undo the evils he has perpetrated in his master’s name.” If their promised late 2016 second album comes out we could be in for one of the great prog metal achievements for 2016!”

The band members are Kyle Ludovice (Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Keyboards), Jason Schultz (Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar), Jake Quintanilla (Vocals), Ben Rose (Bass) and Marshawn Fondren (Drums, Percussion) and we recently had a very in-depth chat with Schultz about his band’s monstrous new album, what we can expect on the next album and his love of all things metal and prog! You can also hear a full stream of “The Mind’s Horizon” via the YouTube video below and you can also purchase a copy of the album for yourself from the Amazon.com link after the interview.

Hey Jason, thanks for getting in touch with us to talk about your band’s pretty monumental new album.
I know I speak for the rest of the band when I say we really appreciate the opportunity! Your site has always been a great resource in discovering new bands, and we really can’t understate how much we appreciate the support! It’s great to see how much everyone in this scene supports each other, since progressive music is definitely something that we all are passionate about and devote ourselves to. We all have to stick together when our hobbies include writing half hour long songs! We definitely aren’t the cool kids!

Can you give us some background on the band – how you guys got into playing your very diverse style of progressive metal. We’re very impressed by how many musical elements you manage to throw in on this album including thrash, prog and death metal along with some extremely beautiful and accomplished acoustic progressive music.
The band has been through a few incarnations since its inception in 2008. We were originally an instrumental act, and our first album “Divisions” is an hour long collection of instrumental music. When we started out, we always promised each other that we would try to stay dynamic, to keep our horizons broad and not settle on one sound.

After solidifying this current lineup in 2014, it became very apparent just how diverse all of us really are and strive to be. Our drummer Marshawn plays and has played in Gospel choirs, RnB, pop, and funk groups whereas our singer Jake has played and sung in theatrical productions, punk, rap, and rock groups. Bassist Ben lives and breathes power metal, atmospheric-post rock, and thrash metal. The other guitarist in the band, Kyle, has a background in classical and jazz, while he also has played in projects that focused more on acoustic, rock, and funk. I originally started playing guitar because I became enamored with the guitar heroics of the 80’s thrash heroes, later moved on to the Shrapnel artists, and eventually discovered Symphony X and Dream Theater through the guitar community. The one undercurrent that keeps us all on the same wavelength is our deep love, fascination, and appreciation for Progressive metal and Progressive rock music.

With that extremely strong foundation, we try not to think in terms of cultivating one style, but instead use different sounds and styles where we think they fit best, depending on what story we are trying to tell. Nothing is off the table, and everything is fair game.

Who have been some of your most important musical influences, prog, metal or whatever has really inspired you?
I know that this question would illicit five different answers from every individual in the band, but I will try my best! If I had to hone down some elements that have really made an impact on us in terms of how we approach music the first one that comes to mind would probably be the widescreen “epic” nature of what good prog can really accomplish. That is to say that this type of music can be so transformative when made by people that really believe in it and give it their all.

We all have discussed before the “feel” of songs like “Octavarium” and “A Change of Seasons” by Dream Theater, or “The Odyssey” and “The Divine Wings of Tragedy” by Symphony X. To me, and I’m sure to the other guys as well, these songs just take you somewhere else. You become part of another world, another story for 2o minutes at a time, and this “feel” is something we’ve tried to capture. We love going on journeys, whether it’s reading a good book, getting lost in a movie or TV show, or in this case listening to a well-crafted song.

The idea of the “epic” is one that drives us in everything that we do, and we always aim to make it cohesive and interesting. In terms of musical influences, we all have an appreciation for the giants of the genre such as Dream Theater, Metallica, Between the Buried and Me, Symphony X, Devin Townsend, Riverside, Mastodon and more acts that reach into the metal realm like Dimmu Borgir, Behemoth, Nevermore, Gorod, Sylosis, etc.

I read that you guys said that it took you three years to produce this album and it certainly shows! At over 75 minutes plus another album planned for later this year I can see why it’s taken you so long to put this stuff out. Were you guys spending a lot of time expanding and refining on your core sound?
It has been a long process! We had the idea three years ago to write an album that really captured the “feel” that I talked about previously, and we also knew that we wanted to take everything up a notch from our first album in terms of arrangements and playing. Although we are still really proud of our first album, the songs are a bit more conventional in the way they’re written. We wanted to push ourselves in every possible way, and really grow and get better as a band.

So with that said, it’s worth it to point out that the vast majority of this album, split in two but collectively called “The Mind’s Horizon”, was written between 2013-2014. We spent the intervening years demoing, honing, and recording the songs, and the project ultimately totaled about 140 minutes’ worth of music. When you are a self-produced, funded and recorded band that features five members with differing work, school, and family commitments, that ambitious pipe dream of a two and a half hour double album becomes quite an undertaking!

The process has been extremely time-consuming, but ultimately we couldn’t be more proud of the way it all turned out. This much writing and recording really helped us grow as people and musicians, and did much in developing and refining our “sound”.

One thing that really struck me about The Mind’s Horizon is not only its diversity but how “relentless” the album is except for the few softer parts (thank God for that stuff!). Five of the seven songs are over ten minutes long with the closing number “Last Light” clocking in at over 20 minutes. With the diversity of your music yet usually keeping to a heavy, punishing sound, I was amazed at how I never felt that any song was too long. Do you think that has to do with your sonic variety or how you always focus on the emotional core of the song while generally keeping it heavy?
The focus of this disc, really the concept of it in a way, was to write a love letter to progressive metal, and to heavy metal as a whole. So we always kind of knew that the songs on “Desolation Within” would be heavy. If the first goal is to make the songs epic, then the second goal is to try to imbue them with emotion and really connect the subject matter to how we feel.

As the main lyricist of the band, I always try to focus on these feelings and try to personalize whatever topic we’re tackling, be it fictional or not. I love the way that certain moments in the songs really come out of nowhere and break up the heaviness. I think those parts are absolutely necessary and are among the best “moments” on the disc. We really tried to make it a dynamic listen, and although the pace is pretty relentless at times, there is always a light in the darkness that is personified musically in a lot of these songs.

Can you talk a bit about the album conceptually? I know from your band bio that Desolation Within “examines the struggles of a warrior that realizes the error of his ways after committing an unspeakable act and who subsequently questions his true nature and tries to escape and later undo the evils he has perpetrated in his master’s name.” Do you have anything more to add to that description? Will the next album be a continuation of that story line?
Conceptually speaking, every song on the disc except for “Perihelion” and “Deathless Delirium” are tied together by a story thread. When writing the lyrics, I broke down the story into three “chapters” that tell the saga of a man and his legacy. “In Effigy” and “From Darkness Unto Dawn” pick up in media res and chronicle the story of the man in his younger years, crusading across a war torn landscape. Brainwashed, he doesn’t realize it’s his own village he is razing until it’s too late, and enraged, kills his family. By the end of this chapter, he realizes what he’s done and deserts the crusade, swearing to start anew and never pick up a sword again.

The second chapter comprises “Embers on the Wind” and “The Monolith”, and sees our character fleeing the forces who seek to find him. He assumes a new identity, starts a family of his own and is then visited by the personification of his past in “The Monolith”. Chapter three comprises the entirety of “Last Light” and describes the vicious cycle that the main character, now an older man, must face when his own son seeks to join the very same crusade that he escaped from so many years earlier. The other two tracks are standalone, and deal with mythological and sci-fi topics. The second half of the album doesn’t tie into the first half thematically or musically, they are separate entities in sound and vision, but we do explore two other conceptual suites over the second disc’s 75 minute runtime.

To discuss your music a bit, right from the get-go, after a short intro, “From Darkness To Dawn” has so many great elements, from heavy thrash, death to doom and then that beautiful, soft atmospheric prog rock mid-section along with some very cool choral vocals. How did you manage to fuse such disparate musical elements so cohesively?
“From Darkness Unto Dawn” is a special one because it is actually the oldest song on this record, and it was really the song that sparked this whole project. We had just finished recording our first album, and had been jamming on some riffs and ideas that we all felt really good about. We knew that whatever we did next we wanted to be heavy, epic, and really progressive. We wanted it to go through lots of emotions and have definite movements, and through collaboration that’s exactly what we got. This one is definitely a song that we all had a hand in writing. I think I brought in the thrash-y intro, Kyle brought in the wacky instrumental section and classical part towards the end and everyone else added the glue that kept the wheels from coming off! It’s still one of my favorite songs to play and one of our proudest achievements. When we finished the song it provided the catalyst for us to sit back and say “That was great, let’s write another one that makes us feel that good when we play it!”

“Embers Of The Wind” has an almost militaristic fury in it at the start but ends in an upbeat Dream Theater-esque flourish. Is that song a good representation of your musical ethos – to fuse those darker elements with a more hopeful sound?
I think that’s a really cool observation and a great way to put it. The song “Embers” above almost all the others I think is a really good distillation of what we’re trying to do. We might not ever write another song that sounds like it, but it is a perfect example of the combination of sounds and elements that make this band tick. If someone asked me “What does your band sound like?” I would probably play them “Embers” or “From Darkness Unto Dawn” because of how dynamic those songs are. It has the darkness and the light, it has melody but also heaviness, it has emotion and tells a story, and we tried to make it as epic and as tasteful as possible. I really like that interplay of dark and light, and I find that it is ever present in all of our music, including what’s yet to be released.

“The Monolith” because it’s a song named after your band, is that the best encapsulation of your style? That driving intensity that stretches and bends over ten minutes or more on almost all of your songs. Btw, the drumming on that song is just incredible – what a foot Marshawn has!
 “The Monolith” was written to be the exception to the hopefulness and “light” that I think is found elsewhere on the album. We really wanted to write a song that was full-on dark, and as heavy as we could get. I would never label us a death metal band, but we definitely let our death metal influences show on this track, especially in the drumming and vocals. At this point in the story, this entity that is the monolith is berating our character for trying to escape his greater nature, and revisits all of the atrocities he has committed.

So we wanted to craft the music as a reflection of that, and make it as hostile, menacing, and oppressive as possible. While it does have different sections that reflect different things, I think this track showcases us when we are writing with the mentality of a “metal” band, but put through our songwriting filter that likes to develop ideas and let them breathe. It is the least “progressive” track on the disc but undoubtedly the most hostile, dark, and angry and I think that is an interesting dynamic to have.

“Deathless Delirium” is only eight-minutes. Kinda short for you dudes huh? Love those wild tech death flourishes throughout for sure! 
“Deathless Delirium” was a fun one to work on and is the brainchild of Kyle. He brought in these crazy technical death metal riffs and we all just looked at him and said “Uh…seriously?” This one was our attempt to make something that felt sprawling and really intricate in a more compact song structure (eight minutes being compact). Although it has some really odd shifts in feel and rhythm, the underlying lyrical theme of alien abduction and sleep paralysis holds it together in a really creepy and (hopefully) interesting way. Kyle and I did some cool experiments with 12 tone chance music also, writing the entirety of the middle instrumental section randomly by throwing darts at a dartboard! We had a lot of fun, and I know that Kyle’s penchant for these types of riffs will materialize again on future recordings…

“Last Light” is such a great way to end the album – at 20 minutes the constantly building intensity is just amazing. The opening few minutes have a real retro-melodic rock feel and then by the time it ends you’ve gone through the whole history of progressive metal! That must have been one hell of a song to write.
Thanks! I really appreciate that, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it! “Last Light” is my “baby” on the album. I pitched the idea to the guys of a thrash metal prog epic and after some preliminary jam sessions, we had an intro. Working through this one and writing it was an absolute challenge but also extremely rewarding. We knew it was going to be a longer song, based on what we wanted to do, but we had no idea it was going to be a 20-minute epic. Kyle and I sat in our practice space endless nights working out harmonies and rhythm parts, pushing our rhythm playing into thrashier territory, and it really forced us to get better as guitar players in order to pull it off.

From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to make something extremely dynamic to the point of almost being theatrical, and that we wanted to have alternating periods of build and release. As a matter of fact the working title was “Peaks and Valleys”. We kept throwing around the name of the Metallica song “One” while we were writing it, and really tried to sustain and encapsulate the total “put on your seatbelt” vibe the end of that song creates. In many ways that “history of prog metal” vibe was intentional. We wanted to go to as many places sonically in this song as we could.

The ending section, with the epic guitar solo by Kyle, is absolutely one of my favorite parts of the whole album, and totally nails the vibe at that point in the story. I always wanted to do a song like this, and with everyone’s contributions, (Ben’s soulful bass in the intro, Jake’s chameleonic and ever shifting vocal performance, and Marshawn’s ability to go from crashing straightforward rhythms to full on thrash intensity) it all came together and made this one very special. It’s also the only song from the record we haven’t played live, and I’m itching to cross it off the list!

What can we expect to hear on the next album that’s due out later this year? Will there be any differences between it and “Desolation Within?” I really love the classical guitar on the intro to “Perihelion” and the mysterious ambient opening with percussion that opens “Deathless Delirium.” Will we be hearing more of those elements on the next album or will it be mostly a heavy record?
The idea to split the album into two halves arose when we wrote a few songs that didn’t really fit the vibe of the heavy material we had written. At that point, we probably had about 75 percent of what would become “Desolation Within” completed, and the songs that prompted the split had a really rock-y vibe, one even being completely acoustic. Being fans of all music, we really wanted to stretch out and try some experimentation with different sounds. From the beginning we knew there was going to be a prog epic on the album, before “Last Light” even materialized we already had a plan for an epic in the vein of “Octavarium” or “Hemispheres”.

With a half-hour epic under way and a rapidly growing list of stylistically diverse ten-minute songs, it made sense to split the album up. We thought the sound jump would be kind of jarring and made the decision to have one half be the more metal focused disc and the other be the more rock focused disc. So although I would say a lot of the material on disc 2 is heavy in a sense, it isn’t anywhere near the intensity of “Desolation Within”. If anything it’s a lot more expansive and progressive, with more of an emphasis on experimentation, melody, and clean vocals.

A lot of the disc explores a rock based sound that up until now we never really incorporated into our music. But pushing in this direction really helped us diversify and expand what we can do. The disc is defined by a 35 minute suite of separate shorter songs that create one long epic, a 30-minute stand-alone prog rock epic called “Mind’s Horizon Part 2”, and two more stand-alone tracks. To us changing it up like this is the essence of prog: trying new things and constantly trying to push forward and be different.

What do you think will make Monolith stand out in a very crowded musical landscape?
I think we’re in it for the right reasons. There aren’t any egos in the band, and we are making music simply because we have so much fun and take so much enjoyment out of the process. We aren’t trying to follow any trends, and we are constantly trying to get better and expand our sound. We are our own worst critics, and strive to always get better. There is so much to learn. I think the refusal to settle or to water down our music will be good for us in the long run because hopefully it will keep our music fresh and dynamic.

There may be some misses, be we are always going to shoot for the stars and be as ambitious and honest as we can be. Being self-produced and collectively having the skill set to handle all of the nuts and bolts of producing and recording music at this point really liberates us as well, because we can make the music we want to make, and we really like being in that position.

How is it going with getting the word out about your music? I know how tough it can be in this age with so much music (much of it quite fantastic, especially in this genre) to get people to notice you without a big promotional arm behind you.
We’re just trying to get the music out to as many people as possible, and without a promotional arm sites like yours and the underlying community are so important and vital to getting the word out. Obviously in our genre we aren’t going to be getting played on the radio anytime soon, so every single person that checks out our music and gives us feedback is extremely important to us. We love connecting with people and we are all extremely approachable. Every single fan or follower we have is a real person that has seen us play, or checked us out through your site and others and we appreciate everyone more than we can say.

Before a few months ago, no one outside of Indiana knew we even existed and now I am getting daily messages from people in South America, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean telling me that they really like our sound and what we’re doing. To me and the other guys that is absolutely amazing, and we couldn’t be more appreciative. We want to keep growing our fan base how we always have, one person at a time, because prog fans are definitely the best fans: they are the most passionate and dedicated people you could hope to meet and have on your side.

Thanks again for devoting yours and the band’s considerable musical gifts to this amazing new album.  Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
I would just like to say that I appreciate the interest everyone has given us since the album release. I especially appreciate the support and kind words of Jeff and everyone at Prog Metal Zone and Rob at Progressive Music Planet. We are so excited to finally be able to share all of this music with everyone, and we have much more to come through the end of this year and beyond!=

Please stay tuned to our Facebook and YouTube pages for updates and please get in touch! I am always available, and there isn’t anything I love more than chatting about music! We hope you like what you hear and hope to hear from all of you soon! Thanks again!

Interview by Jeff Stevens

Monolith – Official Site

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2 Comments

  1. Joerg:

    Thanks for highlighting this band, it’s an absolute gem of an album, unapologetically complex and beautiful, and a local band too!

  2. Joshua Knechtel:

    So I googled Monolith and noticed that there is a Canadian melodic death metal band called Monolith, a Bulgarian band called Monolith, a doom metal band in Germany named Monolith. That is kind of confusing, especially when two of the others are also metal and could possibly have same following. They might have researched a little more into the band’s name.

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