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 music.

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 again."

Music has long been a part of Stevens' life.

"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 training.

"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
something.

"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 seems like.

"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 other project.

"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 scene?

"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 crazy."

Machines of Graces is planning to tour through the New England area in August and is working on a national tour.

"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.

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