|Times are changing. A couple of years ago an experimental act such as New Light Choir would not have stood a chance to make it. Now, with free-thinking bands like Aktor, Dawnbringer and Hammers Of Misfortune around, people are having more of an open mind. 'Volume II', as the title already suggests the band's second album, hits the current zeitgeist perfectly.
New Light Choir came into being in 2010. It's a collaboration between two musicians: John Niffenegger (vocals, guitars, bass and M-Tron) and Chris Dalton (drums). Chris explains how the band came about in the first place: "John and I played in many bands prior to meeting. He had a batch of songs that were very broadly 'heavy' rock and he asked if I would be interested in rehearsing and subsequently having them professionally recorded. As our relationship unfolded, the more we found we had in common. Both of us loved the fact that nothing was either 'too metal' or 'not metal enough' for our creative process to tackle. Well before the first recordings were done, we knew we wanted to continue to work together. And the more comfortable we became with one another, the heavier the material and the wider our grins became."
Chris Dalton adds: "The first New Light Choir recordings saw very limited release. They were essentially pressed as CDs and handed out to friends and family. It was much more like a demo, though the recording, mixing and mastering were all top-shelf professional. With 'Volume II' we did a very small pressing on CD. Invisible Oranges picked up the information that we were self-releasing and mentioned it in one of their 'Upcoming Metal Releases' round-ups. Shortly after that, they ran an extremely flattering review. Other than another small blog or two, that was about the only press we received. John and I wear many hats in our endeavour, but 'publicist' is not one that either of us are going to win any medals at."
John Niffenegger takes over the story: "We haven't really done much publicity to date. Finishing the first album was a huge personal achievement for me, and I learned a tremendous amount during the process. We never really gave much thought of having it properly released. More importantly, I think we both realized that we really enjoyed what we were doing, and kept at it. 'Volume II' was much more of a collaborative effort, and I think we grew musically, and also honed in on our sound. After we finished 'Volume II', Chris sent a copy to some folks he knew at Invisible Oranges. They mentioned it as an upcoming release, and even did a nice review of it. A couple German guys read the review, bought copies, and spread the word abroad. So far, we've received very positive feedback from our German fans, including kudos from Rock Hard. As for myself, I'm much more interested in the creative aspects of music versus the work required in publicity."
As just mentioned, 'Volume II' was voted "Demo Of The Month" by Rock Hard chief editor Boris Kaiser in issue 333. "Yeah, that was definitely a big surprise and honour!," exclaims John. "It's always been my aim to make the music I want to hear. While I've always believed in what I've done, it's been a positive surprise and honour to see that our music appeals to others, too."
Stylistically songs such as "All I Need", "Frost And Fire" and "April Witch" are, not unexpectedly, really hard to pin down. Chris tries to describe his personal metal evolution: "I was sixteen in 1984. John was sixteen in 1991. Those are two of the most important years in heavy metal history. My year was engulfed by the sounds of Accept, Mercyful Fate, Queensryche, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Loudness, Slayer, Torch, Venom, and Exciter. John's year was consumed by Maiden, Trouble, Candlemass, Solitude Aeturnus, Bathory, Tiamat, Paradise Lost, Cathedral, Entombed, and Confessor. And both of us now bring twenty-five more years of experience as fans of this music in our respective artistic toolboxes. So, although there are many other inspirations and influences creeping through from other sources, the roots of the proverbial heavy metal mountain run very deep."
John adds: "Both Chris and I grew up listening to and playing metal. The first song I learned to play on guitar was Iron Maiden's 'Revelations.' I've been writing and playing music for the past 25 years, and there has always been that connection to heavy metal. Obviously, both Chris and I like and have also been influenced by a lot of music that isn't metal, so there are other influences. When NLC was starting out, I didn't really associate it with any one particular genre other than heavy, dark rock. I wanted to combine all my influences into something my own. As 'Volume II' began to take shape, it became very obvious to me that the DIY aspect of black metal and the rawness of Black Sabbath's 'Volume 4' were going to influence the process of that record."
When listening to 'Volume II', very early Rush does indeed spring to my mind, and also a lot of '80s Goth Rock, coupled with some early proto-metal. Could the band live with that description? It's a very eclectic mixture but it surely works...
Chris tries to explain: "Descriptions are always a tricky thing, aren't they? The '70s heavy rock act that John and I have the most shared passion for would be Ulrich Roth-era Scorpions. Scorpions, Thin Lizzy, UFO, Rainbow and Rush are all in a similar category to my mind. They are the bands that bridge the technicality/creativity gap between the titans Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and the N.W.O.B.H.M. There is much of that spirit in our veins."
John laughs: "You're not the only one who's been reminded of early Rush! While we both appreciate early Rush, I wouldn't say that they're one of my main influences. As far as music from that time period, I'm much more directly influenced by Sabbath, Scorpions, and Uriah Heep. We're both big 70s rock/proto-metal fans, though! We both also have an appreciation for a lot of the darker 80's rock. There was a phase in my life when I listened to a lot of The Chameleons UK, and they left a mark. Although they're not from the 80's, I'm a huge fan of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, as well as some of the other Denver bands in that style. I still remember hearing 16 HP's first album, and it was as life-changing as the first time I heard Iron Maiden and Bathory!"
Are New Light Choirs surprised that people "get" their complex music at all? I mean could it be that with bands like Dawnbringer around that New Light Choir somehow hits the zeitgeist perfectly?
"It is very surprising and extremely humbling," remarks Chris. "You know, it is peculiar, our first recording was completed a month or two before Dawnbringer's 'Nucleus' was released. 'Nucleus' is probably my favourite metal album of the past five years. It very much does seem that we almost preternaturally emerged into the zeitgeist when we did. Dawnbringer's 'Nucleus' and 'Into the Lair of the Sun God,' specifically, would define what I call 'classic heavy metal' as opposed to 'retro metal.' The songs, the riffs and melodies, the production, the artwork; the whole aesthetic is neither a throwback to some earlier time, nor a mere modern recreation with all the current techniques and trends. Those two records seem unstuck in time to me, far beyond such things that date so much art. This is just my interpretation. For my part, what I wish to accomplish in New Light Choir is something similar. Classic heavy metal, stuck neither in 1976, 1985, 1992 or 2008, something a little less tangible, yet still thoroughly emotionally compelling and engaging."
New Light Choir is only two people, so is it a band or a project?
"You could call us a project," is Chris' answer to this question. "John is a massive Darkthrone fan and he has remarked how there are numerous similarities between how we both exist as creative entities. Of course, we do not have a massive, genre-defining, tectonic plate-shifting discography of fifteen acclaimed studio albums under our belts. We are predominately interested in writing songs, recording them and making albums, documents of our spirits at a place in time and space. But we would never rule out playing live if the right opportunity presented itself."
John is of the same opinion: "That is correct - it's just Chris and me. We haven't played live, yet. At the moment, being a touring band isn't something we desire. We're much more interested in the creative aspect. We're a bit like Darkthrone in that regard, although I wouldn't say that we'll never play live. Circumstances would have to be right, though."
The band's lyrics are not your typical "heavy metal lyrics" at all. The words do indeed match the thoughtfulness of their music perfectly. Are there any religious/Christian undertones in the lyrics?
Chris weighs his words: "We are born with hope and desire, existing in an embrace of light and dark, sentient in this timespace where we yearn for some peace yet ache for the chaos of novelty to birth those moments of so-called 'magic' where we experience the ecstasy of Being. I believe John's lyrics speak to these themes."
"I can only speak directly to the lyrics I wrote," is John's sentiment. "K.L. Thigpen, a close friend, has also contributed lyrically over the years. It doesn't take much effort for me to look upon the world and see negativity. At the same time, there's beauty all around me, whether I'm experiencing nature or the very immaterial essence of life - love, longing, and loss. That's what I want to write about and convey with the music."
As you can clearly see from this interview, New Light Choir do take their music very seriously. For them it's more than a hobby, surely an art form, but maybe even more, a way of life...?
Chris answers first: "I have a full-time job, a wife and a fifteen year-old son. And I am still driven to be in two bands. I suppose I would say that music is far beyond a mere hobby or a lifestyle choice. It is an integral part of my being. I moved to North Carolina from Missouri twenty years ago so that I could play music and it's been essential to who I am ever since. Even if I were to quit playing music tomorrow and live on to be a hundred years old, the mark that it has made on my person and my history can never be erased. It can never be taken away from me. It is one of the most singularly defining and crucial strains to the ridiculous narrative of my life."
John's way of looking at this question is quite similar: "Music has been one of the most important parts of my life since I was a teenager. The feelings I get when listening to really great music or composing my own are incomparable. Music is always in my head, and has helped shape who I am. I honestly don't know what I'd do if there wasn't music. It's never been about paying the bills for me. I made that decision years ago. At the same time, it's much more than a hobby. It's what I'm most passionate about. Any financial compensation for making music is just icing on the cake for me."
That's the spirit of true art for me.