Russell Watson. Leprous. Aled Jones. The Dillinger Escape Plan. They’re unlikely bedfellows, by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s a band who link all of these artists together. And it goes by the name of Utopia.
Rich Holmes met chief songwriter and guitarist John Bailey and vocalist Chris Reese to talk sonic extremity, experimental Russian cinema and freaking out the builders…
He co-wrote, produced and performed on Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s classical collaboration, Barcelona.
He’s worked with Ozzy, Queen, Kate Bush and George Harrison.
He’s an accomplished keyboard player and film score composer.
Mike Moran had seen it, done it and bought the t-shirt.
Until he was asked to play a keyboard solo on Smiledyawnednodded, a song from Utopia’s debut album, Stalker…
A thrillingly experimental, jazz-inflected and thoroughly warped take on extreme metal, Stalker saw Moran sharing sonic space with a host of alternative artists, including Billy Rymer of legendary US mathcore pioneers The Dillinger Escape Plan.
And it’s fair to say that on Stalker, the rule book has been thrown out of the window and flattened by a steamroller.
Utopia’s John Bailey chuckles as he remembers asking Moran to guest on Smiledyawnednodded…
“I said, ‘Mike do you want to do a synth solo on the album on this track?’ and he said, ‘yeah what’s the harmony under the solo?’. I said, ‘don’t really worry about that’. He said, ‘ok, what kind of time signature is it? I said, ‘well, don’t think about that too much: you’re going to have to play something crazy’.”
That Moran is part of Utopia’s DNA is not surprising, when you consider Bailey’s background.
An accomplished jazz musician, the Yorkshireman is a touring guitarist for classical singers Russell Watson and Aled Jones.
He has performed with orchestras and even performed in Sting’s musical, The Last Ship.
Bailey has released a slew of highly-regarded jazz albums and is in demand as a guitar teacher.
Metal, though, is his first love.
And after teaming up with old uni pal Chris Reese – vocalist with North West sludge/grind unit Corrupt Moral Altar – Utopia burst into life in March 2020.
The origins of Utopia
Bailey and Reese met as students at The University Of Central Lancashire 18 years ago and formed Microsleeper, a short-lived, Will Haven-inspired act.
Microsleeper, says Bailey, journeyed into more technical territory as time went on…
“We would sit in our drummer Graham’s room and watch Drummer World, with amazing drummers like Derek Roddy from Hate Eternal, and all sorts of mad stuff.
“And then when we first saw (Leeds deathcore outfit) Tangaroa and (Yorkshire hypergrind unit) Executive Distraction Tasks I thought, ‘oh, we’re fucked, they’re too good, they’re ridiculously good!’.
“I really started piling into that and we were really experimenting with stuff, playing proggy grind and jazzy grind.
“And then Graham, Reese and I moved away and I went full tilt into jazz, because I thought that the harmonies and sounds that I wanted to use were very much from that world, but I didn’t understand them enough.
“So, I did a Masters in Jazz and then made a lot of jazz albums!”
Bailey “left metal altogether” for more than a decade.
But then the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
His ‘day job’ gigs were cancelled.
And a window of opportunity opened.
He recalls: “I guess I felt at the beginning of lockdown that ‘now is the time’.
“I can programme drums and it’s easier for me to programme a drum idea in a metal sense than it would be if I was writing a jazz album, which is much looser and more improvised.
“And when I started Utopia, Reese was the first person to get involved in it.”
Stalker takes shape…
Bailey reveals that the “crazy” drum patterns he programmed were only intended for a select few drummers to play.
As well as Rymer, he recruited Baard Kolstad of Norwegian proggers Leprous, Fawn Limbs/Psyopus sticksman Lee Fisher and Si Blakelock of Tangaroa and Dream Troll to lend their superhuman talents to Stalker.
And those illustrious guests were joined by guitarist Simon Peter King and bassist Arran McSporran, formerly of London death metal crew De Profundis.
As you might have guessed, the album, written by Bailey, was recorded remotely.
However, Reese did call in to his mate’s house for the vocal sessions…
“I built Reese a vocal booth which was about 12 inches square and it was the middle of summer and insanely hot!
“I remember there were people doing work on the house next door. I spoke to the guy who owns the house a couple of days after and he said the builders were round and told him you could hear someone screaming. Not shouting, screaming – like what’s going on?
“It is unusual for someone who doesn’t know this music to hear that.
“When are you ever going to need a grown man to be screaming as aggressively as possible in a creative setting? It’s a weird thing.”
For Reese – not exactly a stranger to extreme metal vocals – Utopia has provided the chance to stretch his abilities even further…
“John demoed what he had in mind, so I just took the lead and gave him options of different voices,” explains the frontman. “I showed up and did my range, mid-range to low.
“And then John pushed me to do some really high, shrill, pterodactyl screaming stuff, some of my lowest, bellowing guttural vocals and some roaring vocals.
“I don’t think I have ever performed that well before when recording.
“When I heard the record for the first time, I didn’t recognise myself in it.
“It was an amazing experience where I got to hear something I was part of for the first time, even though I had been through the process of recording it and looking at the lyrics.”
Released last month via rising UK label APF Records, Stalker is already set for several Album Of The Year lists, if the critical reception is anything to go by.
Bailey, however, freely admits that Utopia’s first opus “on the periphery of anything acceptable in music”.
But he points to the impact of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s gamechanging 1999 debut, Calculating Infinity as proof that true sonic extremity can take many forms.
“When Calculating Infinity started with Sugar Coated Sour, I don’t know what the expression on my face was,” he says, recalling his introduction to that seminal record. “It was just like, ‘what?’.
“And it went on from there to just be insanely violent. Not just fast, but disorientating.
“I think that brutality in music is really effectively captured when you aim to be disorientating, not just fast, sludgey or heavy. Just a car crash basically.
“That’s what the most intense sections (of Stalker) are supposed to be like, punctuated by nicer and more coherent sections.”
Reese adds: “As far friends in the DIY, metal scene and grind scene are concerned they are like, ‘fucking hell this is crazy!’.
“But I think they can appreciate that it’s still extreme. It’s just a different flavour.
“As soon as I got a mix I went round a friend’s house and smashed them with it.
“Some people were like, ‘it’s a bit much, that’.
“But in a way it feels more extreme than the straight up ‘evil’ stuff.”
The echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky
Utopia was heavily influenced by Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose dreamlike sequences made him one of the most influential figures in world cinema.
Indeed, Stalker shares its title with Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi drama, named in a British Film Institute Poll as one of the 50th Greatest Films of All Time.
“I think the way Tarkovsky structures things is so amazing,” Bailey opines. “There is so much patience in his shots. It’s just so interesting.
“A lot of the lyrics are taken from scenes in his films.
“The opening lyric for What About Me is from a scene in Mirror when a guy walks across a field.
“It’s quite a long shot and he is walking and walking and the moment he turns round, the wind blows all the grass towards the camera.
“It is one of those moments in art that gives you some hope. Like, thank fuck people are doing really hard things artistically and trying to make the world more beautiful.”
A helping hand for Utopia
Seismic Jazz contortions, avantgarde Russian cinema concepts… Stalker isn’t exactly an easy sell.
Bailey, therefore, is full of praise for APF Records boss Andrew ‘Fieldy’ Field for taking a chance on Utopia and backing the album.
“The label feels like a good fit to me,” Bailey explains. “Fieldy is really into the music and as prepared to invest in the album which helps us to reach a wider audience.
“It’s a debut album so a lot of people just don’t want to touch that.
“And he’s almost always available for a chat. This is really important for me as I’m a bit obsessive with things so getting quick answers is really helpful!
“And APF is based just down the road, so there’s something appealing about it being a North West label that’s near to where we live.”
Utopia go live
Utopia recently announced that they would be taking to the road in February 2022 for an extensive UK tour.
Kicking off in Preston on February 4, the jaunt will take in Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham, London, Newcastle, Glasgow, Liverpool and Leeds.
“I am looking forward to gigging it, I think it’s going to be ace,” says Bailey, conceding that it might also be a ‘technical nightmare’ to recreate Stalker on stage.
Even so, a Utopia show may not be as nerve-shredding as his regular gigs…
“For me, there are different types of hard live playing,” he explains. “Utopia is technically difficult and rhythmically hard to get a handle on. It changes all the time. But you have the benefit that you are not that exposed.
“There is me, another guitarist, a bass player, a drummer and Reese, making loads of noise. And we are all supportive of each other.
“Then there is playing really ‘exposed’ stuff.
“Part of what I do outside Utopia is like being a classical soloist, sometimes with orchestras and normally in opera halls or theatres.
“Playing like that is not as ‘hard’, but if you fuck it up it’s horribly embarrassing.
“It’s crushingly, oppressively stressful in those situations.
“The last time it happened was at the Sage Gateshead. It was full. I put a chair at the front of the stage and the spotlight came on and the first four or eight bars were all just me, and then the orchestra came in.
“I couldn’t have fucked it up more. It was like I was mindless pissed trying to play it, with the added horror of 2500 people watching me.
“It was humiliating. My parents were there!”
The future of Utopia
“I would like to make it a thing, I am very proud to be a part of it and to be performing it live,” says Reese, when asked if Utopia will be more than a one-off project. “This is part of my life.
“I’m definitely up for doing another album as long as John is!”
Well, his bandmate has already written around a quarter of the next Utopia record.
And despite the logistical challenges of pulling Stalker together and getting a tour off the ground, it sounds like Utopia is here to stay.
“I love it and I will push for it to keep going,” Bailey states. “I am sure it will!”
Check out our review of Stalker here.