Keep a lookout for
Machines of Grace
By Naughty Mickie
Unless you follow the members of Machines
of Grace's other projects, then there's a good chance you
haven't heard of them... yet. But you should and you will when
their album, "Machines of Grace" (Machines of Grace), comes
out July 7. The hard rock band from Boston includes vocalist
Zak Stevens (Circle II Circle, Savatage), guitarist Matt Leff
(Trigger Effect), bassist Chris Rapoza (Trigger Effect) and
drummer Jeff Plate (Trans Siberian Orchestra, Metal Church,
Savatage). Their talent and experience makes for excellent
resume fodder, but what is even more intriguing is that
Machines of Grace is actually the new name for Wickedwitch,
which has been one of the longest hiatuses ever heard of in
the industry... at least for as long as I've been covering
It had been a long, warm afternoon when I
answered the phone. Zak Stevens' voice surprised me, as he had
a strong accent and an easy laugh, unlike his vocals which are
crystal clear and seriously good. Within a few minutes we were
"talking shop" like a couple of old friends.
"This was the band I was in even before
Savatage, I joined Savatage in '92 and was in there for about
nine years and five albums," Stevens begins. "But this was the
band that I was in before Savatage because it was the early
demos of what became Machines of Grace. This band actually got
me the Savatage gig, that went on to sprout other things like
the band I'm in now, Circle II Circle.
"We decided we wanted to go back and do it
right again, that was the original dream. Back at that time it
was called Wickedwitch, when we first formed, so we changed
the name to Machines of Grace and reformed again so we could
go back and do it right and get some unfinished business
done," Stevens continues. ""When I went with Savatage I had to
cut out of that band so that left them in a bad situation back
then, 'Oops, we just lost the lead singer. Good for you Zack,
we're glad for that.' What are they gonna say? 'We're proud of
ya, go make it what you will.' But now we have a chance after
all these years and coming back around full circle to do it
Music has long been a part of Stevens'
"Drums was first, but I started singing at
the same time because we had a problem, we had to play in the
fifth grade talent show and we didn't have a singer," Stevens
shares. "I was holding it down pretty good on the drums by
then, when I was 10. We winded up winning the thing, but I had
to sing three songs from behind the kit, so I actually started
singing at the same time I started playing drums at nine years
old and I had my first show at 10."
I ask Stevens if he had any proper vocal
"Yes," replies Stevens. "I do some of that
stuff on my own too. I have a few kids that I work with and
teach them the curriculum of the things I've learned through
the years because, gosh, talking about forming Machines of
Grace, Matt Leff, the guitar player, where I originally met
him at and where we originally got together and recorded that
song, 'Fly Away,' Musicians Institute, it has GIT, Guitar
Institute, VIT, vocals, BIT for bass and on and on. We were
both going there and it was the first year they had VIT, which
was the Vocal Institute and it was only a six month program.
Now you have to go a couple of years or
"That's where we met and we winded up
moving to Boston to really have the band there to play and use
the New England circuit as our place to play. That actually
goes back to the very beginning." Stevens goes on, "That was
one of the places where I went to be a vocalist and I made a
break from drums at that point. It did a good job and in six
months, it was very, very good. They'll tell you, 'We'll teach
it to you in six months, but it will be seven years before
you've internalized it. Now be a good student and sit down.'
And you've got to go, 'Oh great, really?' And it was actually
true, probably six and half, seven years later I got it. It
takes so long to internalize all that, I'm into that part of
it, as far as the study of vocals."
I prod Stevens to spill if he worked any
strange jobs while getting his career going and he laughs.
"I worked in retail stores," he confesses.
"I like to sell clothes, 'Put on this and try this.' And while
you're in there I'll bonk you over the head with some shoes.
No. Then I got into building pools. Then into insurance
working with doctors and billing doctors' procedures codes and
diagnosis codes for insurance purposes."
Stevens then tells me about his free time,
"I've got two daughters, Cassidy's 11 and Zoey is 5 and let me
tell you what, between those two girls they can take up a
block more time than I can actually give in this time outside
of music. I've got two full-time bands right now too. We got
to movies and they hang out with me and we go to restaurants
and the mall. There's a lot of mall trips so they can stop in
their favorite stores. You know, girls. I don't have any guys
at this point so I'm dealing with the girl experience."
It's time to return to music talk, so we
discuss how Machines of Grace writes.
"We collaborate." Stevens explains, "Matt
will give me riffs on guitar. He gives me all kinds of stuff,
like CDs full of a verse/chorus type situation or maybe a
pre-chorus and a chorus. In the very beginning it will be just
that on a CD and I start singing with it whatever comes off
the top of my head. We have a lot of fun with our little scat
tapes where I'm knot really singing anything, but I'm
scatting, that's the secret to the beginning of the process.
We don't do it for everything, but we have a lot of fun with
it. We like to drink and do that to tell you the truth,
because it's a lot of fun and you are singing nothing, but
you're actually singing some melodies and you're singing words
that mean nothing, you're pulling out of thin air, and you go
back and listen to that and it's hilarious. I've actually
tried to sing before what I think the guitar solo would be
like and I would lose big time on that every time, trust me.
"I'm in charge of all the lyrics, all the
vocal melodies, helping to make sure it's arrangement as best
we can." Stevens goes on, "I get involved in arrangement and
make sure everything makes sense. Holding down the vocal area
from top to bottom, that's me, that's what I do in Machines of
Grace. I do a little bit more in Circle II Circle in that I'm
the producer as well, but we'll see how everything goes in
Machines of Grace. There's a lot of good people doing a lot of
stuff so I'm happy. You've got more people doing everything it
"I'm writing a good piece of the time, but
what I just do is put it in and whatever you've got to do to
get loose and let this thing say something to you. Once it
speaks to me and I go, 'Hmmm, I'm kind of hearing this' and
I'll sing something. Later I'll know how that goes and then
when it comes time to put the lyrics down, I'll go, 'Well,
here's the way it's going to look poetically,'" continues
Stevens. "It's weird because the way you sing things
melodically affects the way it looks on paper. When you're
actually writing out the words, it's got a certain shape to
the poetry and the shape changes, so you get in tune of where
you are with the shape of that and where you come from with
the melody. Then you try to get some meaning in there and
that's where the lyrics come and it all fits together like a
puzzle. It's very strange, but it's a lot of fun."
I wonder how this differs from Steven's
"With Circle II Circle me and Mitch (Paul
Michael Stewart) the bass player are the writers. We do the
same kind of thing I'm talking about with me and Matt, pretty
much exactly that." Steven says, "On this record there's going
to be a lot more guys than in Circle II Circle stepping up.
Bill Hudson our new guitar player, he's been submitting quite
a lot. He's got some really good little parts too. It's going
to be fun, more people are stepping up in all the camps."
So how does Machines in Grace fit in the
"I think there's just really basic good
hard rock that everybody goes, 'Wow,'" replies Stevens.
"There's a place for that now and there's stuff sounding a lot
like that. There's brand new bands, younger kids, we're a
little bit older doing that, but it's just hard, basic,
melodic, metal at times."
I comment that their age isn't important,
as it has given them the experience and musical background
that many younger bands lack.
"Gosh, we could start on the next one any
time," Stevens says, sharing an inner thought. "I've got a
whole lot of stuff, those CDs, I'm looking at two or three of
them stacked up right here for a lot more Machines of Grace.
MOG written everywhere. MOG, MOG, stop it already, let this
one come out. It's ridiculous, you know how it goes, it's
always a little bit of hard work, but it's fun and you get to
see the benefits of the hard work the longer you work on
something, you're really beating yourself up to get something
right then you finally get it. That's what I'd like to do in
Machines of Grace, but I don't want to drive myself too
Machines of Graces is planning to tour
through the New England area in August and is working on a
"We're lucky because our soundman back in
the time, Paul (David) Hager, is an amazing lead, he's a heavy
hitter now (The Goo Goo Dolls, Avril Lavigne, Pink and Tracy
Bonham)," Stevens tells me. "We're getting everybody coming
back around after what they did, 'What have you done and
please remind the crowd and do a good job on this record, will
ya?' We laugh about it, we have fun with it. 'Step up Mr.
Plate. Now how many years have you been playing drums there?'
Well, 26, sir.' Really, some crazy number, no wait a minute,
I've been playing over 30 years now, the drums so that tells
you a little something. It's getting bad. But I play whole
albums and, wow, you've got to just stay at it and I think it
keeps you really young just staying at your thing, stay at
your craft there."
You can visit the Machines of Grace's Web
sites to get a listen to their album and order it online. A
pre-order before July 7 includes an entry into a drawing for
an array of prizes.