Ghosts in the Machine

"Sometimes the ones most people don’t see or choose to look straight through -- the ghosts of society, as it were, dead to the world -- end up having the biggest impact." Theocracy's Matt Smith expounds on the world behind the band's latest album, 'Ghost Ship.'

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Photo by Clarissa Lueg

Every Christian hard rocker worth their weight in metal has been anticipating this new release from America’s own power metal masters, Theocracy. This progressive metal quintet from Athens, GA has been shockingly proving that Athens is not only the mecca of acoustic-based alternative music but also a home for shrill guitars, ethereal keyboards, power drumming and some of the most impressive vocal histrionics.

Since the 2003 release of their self-titled debut, every five years or so the band has proven that they’ve got what it takes to not only satisfy a few prog-metal fanatics with a new album, but also to catch the ears of Japanese labels and European promoters, successfully expanding their reputation and taking their live show worldwide. The band’s 2008 sophomore album, Mirror of Souls, was released on Ulterium Records in the U.S. and Europe, Soundholic Records in Japan. The release would later be named by the staff at Heaven’s Metal* as the No. 16 Best Christian Metal Album of All Time. The band waited three years between their second and third albums, but it would be another five from that third release, As the World Bleeds, until the band released Ghost Ship this year, and one listen to any of the tracks proves it was worth the wait. HM’s founder Doug Van Pelt goes into the hull to find out more about the album from Theocracy frontman and main songwriter, Matt Smith.


What was going on in your minds prior to recording this latest album?
It took awhile to get everything rolling, for several reasons. First, we re-mixed and re-released the debut album, and, between recording the drums for that and finding/preparing all the files, that undertaking ended up being almost as much work as doing a full record from scratch. Plus we all have day jobs and a few of us travel a lot, so scheduling is a nightmare. Add to that the fact that I’m a slower composer than I’d like to be, suddenly it’s 2016. Unbelievable.

What sort of topics did you want to talk about?
If there was any grand plan, it was just that I wanted to write a positive and encouraging album. I love As the World Bleeds, and I think it was a timely and much-needed message — albeit hard to hear — and I wanted to follow that up with something a little more uplifting.

I was greatly inspired by experiences on tour: meeting so many kids after shows who were looking for direction and for a place to fit in, who were desperate for their lives to have real meaning. I had this “ghost ship” idea about a place for the invisible people, the ghosts in the eyes of the world. I was thinking about how Jesus had a tendency to use the unpopular or unremarkable ones to do great things.

What song ideas, sounds or directions did you formulate during the initial songwriting process?
It’s difficult to remember what came when in the process, because it was over such a long period of time. Initially, I was toying with the idea of writing for an overarching concept, but it wasn’t really coming together and I didn’t want to force anything. I remember that “Castaway” was probably the first song written. But other sections of music — most notably the main riff from “A Call To Arms” and the intro and verse from “The Wonder of It All” — are many years old. So those have been around for awhile, and “Easter” took years to put together.

How often do you play live in and around your area?
Not very often. We play in Europe more than here because people seem to be more into what we do over there. But the U.S. seems to be catching up, especially starting with As the World Bleeds. We have CD release show coming up in Atlanta on December 3, and we’ve been talking about putting together a small U.S. tour to test the waters. I hope it happens!

What opportunities have you had to play overseas, Europe, elsewhere?
We’ve done three full European tours and are headed over there for our fourth this month. In addition to that, we’ve played one-off festivals in Europe here and there, as well as other cool places like Costa Rica.

How do you feel about the power metal or progressive metal scene today? What’s good? What’s lame?
(Laughs) Well, I feel like music, in general these days, is oversaturated and almost impossible to keep up with (or maybe I’m just getting older!), so I’m not that hip to a lot of the latest and greatest. It does my heart good to see old favorites putting out particularly strong records far into their career, though. Fates Warning is one good example; Theories of Flight is great.

What keeps Theocracy together this long?
So far I’ve continued to feel the need to create. All I ever wanted to do was write songs, and, thankfully, I still feel that drive. The feedback that we get is beyond amazing. The way that God has used our songs completely blows my mind, and is far beyond anything we could achieve in our own power. When people look at you through tears and explain how this song made them decide not to commit suicide or how that song somehow helped save their marriage — it keeps you going.

What would you prefer most and why: a) The riff that would slay your audience, or b) The melody audiences love to sing along to?
Hmm… Well we try to do both consistently (laughs). I would say b), because it’s more difficult to do. I feel like most anyone can write a great riff; at least, to me, it comes very easily. But an awesome chorus that gives people goosebumps — and that they want to sing along to — is the mark of a great songwriter. It separates the men from the boys, so to speak. To put it another way: I’ve heard hundreds of bad songs with good riffs, but there’s almost no such thing as a bad song with a great melody.

Now let’s talk about the recording process, looking back.
It sounds funny to say, considering how long we take between albums, but it was quite rushed and stressful. The label set a deadline that we had to meet for the album to come out this year, and suddenly it was, “Alright, these are the ten songs we have — go!” That’s not easy for a perfectionist, but I’m very pleased with how it came out. I converted an old farmhouse into a makeshift studio for recording the drums and recorded the rest at my normal studio.

Who produced the album for you?
I produce and engineer all of our stuff. I mix for other bands as well, so the sonic side of things is both a great passion and a day job for me.

How did the recording process and studio time go for you?
It’s always extremely stressful wearing all the hats, but also gratifying. In terms of recording the vocals, it was by far the hardest I’ve ever worked on that. I spent ages making sure I got the absolute best performance I could of every single word. It took forever, but I’m proud of the result. The weirdest thing about this record was that we did it kind of backwards. I recorded the vocals first, to the (music from the) demos. We had to do it that way because of scheduling.

What songs stand out to you?
I love them all, but “Easter” is my favorite. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.

Tell us some stories about some of these songs…
“Paper Tiger”:
It’s funny — I started this “positive and encouraging” album with probably the most lyrically harsh Theocracy song yet. But it was a subject that was on my mind a lot, and, when that happens, I usually have to write about it. It’s about this trend here in the United States, tied in with politics, where religious people like to talk about how persecuted we are and pretend that everyone is out to get us. The President will say something or a random law will be passed, and people will go crazy and act like we’re being fed to lions.

Meanwhile, we have complete freedom to worship and believe, while in other countries across the world people are being beheaded for being believers. We have it so good and so easy compared to countries with real persecution, and yet we like to pretend we’re somehow oppressed. It’s so narcissistic and almost blasphemous, and it really bothers me. We should be on our knees every day thanking God for our freedoms. I hate politics, so I didn’t want to write it, but I felt like I needed to. Since As the World Bleeds started with a big epic in “I AM,” I loved the idea of starting this album with a short and energetic song. No long intro, just straight in and go.

“Ghost Ship”: As mentioned earlier, this song was inspired directly by conversations I had with people I met on the road. A lot of them were searching for purpose and a place to fit in, and, having grown up as an awkward and unpopular kid myself, their words really stuck with me. I started thinking about what a band of misfits Jesus’ disciples were: fishermen, tax collectors, and people of little consequence in the eyes of the world. Sometimes the ones most people don’t see or choose to look straight through — the ghosts of society, as it were, dead to the world — end up having the biggest impact. That’s where the title and idea for “Ghost Ship” came from: all the misfits, the uncool, the outcasts — there is a place where you do fit in. I love its heavy, mid-tempo drive and anthemic feel.

“The Wonder of it All”: I had this thrashy intro section for quite some time, and it kept growing. Lyrically, I thought it would be interesting to compose a song of nothing but biblical paradoxes, so all of the lyrics are things that seem to contradict but have a deeper meaning. “When you are weak, you will be strong.” “The last will be first…” things like that. I spent a long time researching and made a big list of all the paradoxes I could find, and I tried to work them all in. It was a challenge but something I haven’t seen done in a song before, and I think it came out cool! Another thing I like about that song — besides being jam packed with great riffs — is the way the choruses and post-chorus sections are so strong. I like songs that trick you: “That was a great chorus… Oh wait, maybe this is the chorus!”

“Wishing Well”: This is a song I originally wrote for Project Aegis. It has a slow and heavy mid-tempo feel and a big chorus, and it kind of reminds me of “Mountain” from the first album. Then, towards the end, it takes off into a more thrashy feel, with some nice riffs and solos. Lyrically, it is about the differences between words and actions in how we treat those in need. The message is that wishing someone well, with no action, is not worth very much. Hence, “A penny for the wishing well.”

“Around the World and Back”: This is just a shameless sing-along ballad — I didn’t know if the other guys would like it because of the poppy edge — but it turned out that they did. Jon (Hinds, guitarist), in particular, loved it and wanted to play the solo, and he did a great job. This track talks about the confusion of sitting under bad doctrine and bad teaching and how easy it is to get misled. It’s about how you can add more and more baggage to the simple concept of salvation as you get older until, eventually, you come back around to the wonderful concept of simple grace and faith. I think, as humans, we tend to complicate things, because we want to graft our own effort onto it because of our prideful nature.

“Stir the Embers”: I wanted to write another heavy song in drop-D tuning like “Laying the Demon To Rest” from Mirror of Souls, but I wanted it to be quite different from that song. I love the riffs and how short and energetic it is. I also really love the tempo and drive of it; I think it has a different feel from anything we’ve done before and rocks in a very particular way. Lyrically, it’s a sort of cry for revival.

“A Call to Arms”: This one was inspired by a conversation I had with one of my best friends, who is also a pastor. He was talking about the idea of “making war” with the flesh and areas of sin in our lives, finding the strongholds and mercilessly chasing them down. I thought that was a cool idea for a song. Musically, this one goes way back; I’ve had that main riff since either the first album or Mirror of Souls, but I could never come up with a strong enough chorus to go with it to make it a song. I’m happy that we finally did it.

“Currency in a Bankrupt World”: One of my personal favorites. It’s an anti-suicide song. I wrote the lyrics pretty quickly for the demo, but I was afraid it was too cheesy and thought I would probably change them. But the other guys said they liked them, so I ended up keeping the original lyrics, which had a story feel with these characters. This is another key example of what I wanted to achieve with the encouraging theme of the album; I really hope that it touches and helps someone out there who needs it. I love the way the chorus just kind of slams in. It’s less bombastic and layered than a lot of our other songs, but I think it’s really strong. I’m also especially happy with the way the vocals came out on this song.

“Castaway”: I think this might have been the first full song written for the album; it was definitely one of the earliest. It’s also probably the most “traditional power metal” track with its speed and catchy chorus. This is another example of the lyrical thread of encouragement throughout the album. It talks about counting the cost and doing the right thing when it’s not the popular thing. It’s about someone who stands firm in their convictions even after their so-called friends forsake them for it.

“Easter”: The big epic, and, as mentioned earlier, my personal favorite song on the album. Plenty of songs have been written about Easter and the resurrection, but I was thinking about the perspective of the followers of Jesus during those days immediately after the crucifixion. It all seemed so hopeless then. They were expecting a new kingdom — they had risked their lives and given everything — and, at that point, it seemed like it was all for nothing. Like, “What do we do now?” So I wanted to come at it from that perspective. I think it’s a good epic that doesn’t feel like ten minutes and goes through many different sections. I love the acoustic sing-along section toward the end and the emotions of it all.


This feature is co-brought to you by Heaven’s Metal Magazine: It’s back! Doug Van Pelt and a band of metalhead writers have joined forces to bring the original name and focus of all hard rock and metal back to the publishing world. Visit the online magazine at www.HeavensMetalMagazine.com for the latest news, reviews and interviews in the world of Christian metal. While a completely separate entity from the publication you are currently reading (HM Magazine), these two magazines are happy to support one another, linking related material back and forth, as brothers in publishing. Don’t forget to listen to the audio companion, Heaven’s Metal Radio.com.

Theocracy was posted on November 7, 2016 for HM Magazine and authored by .