History, as a subject, is one that tends to appeal to metalheads. Between the battles, struggles for power, delusions of grandeur leading to downfalls, and more death and destruction than a disaster flick, history is ripe with plenty to mine for inspiration for metal fans and bands alike. For those with a more nuanced approach to the subject, history helps us to better understand ourselves as a species. It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been or how you’ve gotten to where you’re at. Combining the huge, exciting elements of history with the more introspective side of human nature isn’t necessarily what one would call an easy task but, over the past decade, Judicator has done it with ease.
Since forming in 2012, Judicator has crafted six varied, deeply thought out albums of the highest caliber of power metal. The Salt Lake City based outfit’s sixth album, this year’s The Majesty of Decay, found the band exploring concepts related to life, death, and mortality. It is, to say the least, a heavy album but one that’s richer and more rewarding than a lot of records put out this year. I recently caught up with vocalist John Yelland to talk about the new record and Judicator’s history.
First off, what is the origin of Judicator? What made you want to tackle this kind of band and how did you guys all meet and want to form a band with each other?
John: I met guitarist/songwriter Alicia Cordisco at a Blind Guardian concert in 2010. We exchanged information and developed a friendship. That friendship grew into an idea to produce a metal album together. We called ourselves Judicator. She wrote all the music and I wrote all the vocal melodies/arrangements and lyrics. The album was surprisingly well received, so we decided to make it into a legitimate band. Hence, Judicator was born.
How did you decide on the name and what does it mean to you? Were there others considered
John: The band name was suggested by Alicia. Judicator is the name of an Imperial Star Destroyer in the Star Wars universe. We did consider some other band names, but I don’t think any of them were anywhere as good as “Judicator.”
What got you into metal in the first place and who are some of the bands that got you into the genre?
John: I got into metal when I was a kid. My friend’s older brother learned how to use Napster and Limewire, and he was burning a lot of CDs. They gave me some CDs, some of which had metal songs, like “No More Tears” by Ozzy and “Master of Puppets” by Metallica, not to mention “The Bum Bum Song” by Tom Green.
As a result of this, I came to enjoy metal in general, but it wasn’t until I saw Iron Maiden’s DVD Rock in Rio that I became a rabid metal fan. From that point forward I knew I didn’t just want to participate as a listener, but as a creator as well.
What’s the writing process like for the music side of things?
John: The Majesty of Decay‘s writing process was fairly straightforward, as I just wrote all the music and lyrics. With our next album, however, we have split songwriting duties. We prepare for our albums well in advance. Point being, our next album is already written, minus lyrics.
For this next album, I wrote the music for about half the songs, and the other band members wrote the other half. Everyone in the band makes minor alterations and additions to each other’s music so that there’s a thread of continuity between all the songs, even if they were written by different people.
What’s the writing process like for the lyrics side of things? What do you try to do with the words to a Judicator song and is there anything that you turn to in particular for inspiration?
John: The lyrics have always been exclusively my job in Judicator. How I determine the next album’s concept simply depends on where I’m at in life at the time. When I wrote the lyrics for King of Rome, Sleepy Plessow, The Last Emperor, and Let There be Nothing, I was reading a lot. Whatever fascinates me at the time is what I’ll end up writing about.
For At the Expense of Humanity, all the ideas I tried out weren’t working. One day while I was in the library struggling to write lyrics, I found myself reflecting on the melancholy music that Alicia had written for this album. I couldn’t find a subject that fit the somber tone of the music and which also just felt right. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but the idea came to me that I should try writing about my oldest brother, who died of cancer when I was 18. I wrote the lyrics for “God’s Failures,” liked it, and the rest is history.
Regarding The Majesty of Decay, I had that phrase, “the majesty of decay,” in my back pocket for many years. I had reflected for years on the effect that At the Expense of Humanity had on audiences. I have been told by many that it’s a beautiful album that helped them process their own grief, and I’ve also been told that it’s a great album but hard to listen to sometimes because it’s so depressing. I reflected on the effects I can have on people as a writer, and the story of The Majesty of Decay began to take shape. It was still a primitive version of the story, however.
What set in stone the way I would go with The Majesty of Decay is a tarot card reading my wife gave me. She was into tarot at the time, and she wanted to do a four spread for me. This is where you draw four cards and what you draw is supposed to tell you something about the question you had in mind when you drew the cards. I asked what my death would be like, and I drew the following cards: Daughter of Swords, The High Priestess, Judgment, and Metamorphosis. This was what made me decide to make The Majesty of Decay a sort of thought experiment about my own death.
I’m always interested in how bands get the chance to make their first records. What was the writing/recording process like for the debut, King of Rome? How did the process go for you and how happy were you with the final product? What did you learn from the process that you took to subsequent recording/writing sessions?
John: As I touched on earlier, Alicia had approached me asking if I would like to sing on an album she had written. I was eager to do so, so I began working on the lyrics. I was a big fan of the 1970 movie Waterloo, and was already reading a book about Napoleon Bonaparte, so I decided to make the album a concept album about Napoleon’s return from exile and the Battle of Waterloo.
The production on that album isn’t very good. The drums are fake and it sounds thin. But we were just starting out and learning. For a first effort, I think it’s pretty good and. Alicia and I are proud of it. The songs are terrific, I just wish the production had a spit shine!
Going to the new record then, what was the writing/recording process like for that one? With this being your sixth LP, is it easier to make a record with all the experience or harder since you don’t want to repeat yourself?
John: The Majesty of Decay was a difficult album to produce. Alicia had left the band two years prior. This was impactful because she had always handled the bulk of the band’s business and logistics. She was our band manager in everything but name. So when she left, that vacuum had to be filled, and it just made sense that I would ascend to the captain’s chair. Suffice it to say, there was a big learning curve. Heck, I’m still having to learn and adapt.
All that being said, The Majesty of Decay was still an enjoyable experience because there were so many talented and driven people involved.
I wanted to ask about the lyrical and musical inspiration for a few songs on that album. Could you tell me how the song “Euphoric Parasitism” came about from a musical standpoint and where you got the ideas for the lyrics?
John: From a musical standpoint, “Euphoric Parasitism” came from a desire to write something completely new sounding. I liked the idea of having a slow-growing, almost hypnotic acoustic sequence that would culminate in an epic, mid-tempo song. I think it’s a very pleasant song.
Lyrically, it sets the scene for the album’s story. The protagonist is bedridden, afflicted with cancer, and struggling to maintain his sanity in the daily monotony of hospital life. He grapples with “the demons,” whatever they are, and comes to a realization about them and his relationship with them.
“From the Belly of the Whale” is another favorite of mine. Where did the musical and lyrical ideas for that one come from?
John: This song still gives me goosebumps. It competes with a few other songs for being my favorite song on the album. Musically, I would say my primary goal was to communicate despair. Doing that was a challenge. Despair isn’t just horrible things happening. I think despair is characterized by its relationship to good things.
To me, despair is having good things in your life, but they’re tainted and/or infrequent. If everything was just horrible, you might acclimate to it. But if most things are horrible, and sometimes good things happen, this creates a relationship with existence where you feel like you’re constantly being teased or toyed with. You can taste the good things but never take a bite. You’re reminded of what’s good just long enough to make an impression, so that when you descend back into the darkness you have something to miss.
All this to say, when crafting “From the Belly of the Whale,” I wanted to juxtapose very sad sounding sections with more upbeat sections.
Lyrically, this song is about our protagonist reflecting on his relationship with his father. How has his relationship with his father affected the way he himself performs as a father? If you’ve inherited bad behaviors and habits from your father, can you correct them and spare your own children from inheriting them too?
“The Black Elk” is another song I really dig from there. Could you talk about the inspiration for that one?
John: This song was inspired by Hypocrisy’s album End of Disclosure. I was in love with that album when I wrote this.
Lyrically, it’s another song about daddy issues. The Majesty of Decay is like a mirror in that song 1 relates to song 10, song 2 relates to song 9, etc. The songs on the first half of the album are the negative of the subject whereas the songs on the second half of the album are the positive of the subject. So, track 3 (“From the Belly of the Whale”) relates to song 8 (“The Black Elk”), and the former is a negative take on fatherhood whereas the latter is a positive take.
How about the story behind “Metamorphosis?” That one really jumped out to me as well.
John: I really wanted to explore some more overt elements of prog rock/metal with this. I adore the saxophone solo, which just seemed like a great fit.
Lyrically, it explores deathbed reflections and what it might be like to die. What lies beyond? I don’t know with 100% certainty, but this is an idea. Take it with a grain of salt if you like. It’s beautiful and poetic, I think.
That cover to the album really jumps out to me as well. Who did it and how much direction did you give them? To you, why does that image best represent this album?
John: The artwork was created by Marc Whisnant, who has also done artwork for Battle Born and Helion Prime.
For The Majesty of Decay, I described to him in detail what I wanted. The man, his hair, what he’s wearing, the hand gesture he’s making, what is going on with his other hand, where he is — it’s all intentional and it all means something. I think the artwork (both pieces he did for us) represents the album very well because they encapsulate many aspects of the story, both narratively and also philosophically.
Lastly, what’s next for Judicator? What are your goals for the future of the band?
John: We just released The Majesty of Decay, and we are very happy with how it has been received. Our next steps are to release an EP next year, probably Q2, a music video next summer, and work on our next album, which will be released in 2024. We will be performing at Hyperspace Metal Festival next year, and we intend to play another show or two. From 2024 onward we will be focusing much more on touring, so buckle up!
Photo at top: The Majesty of Decay album cover.