Overwhelming. Terrifying. Exhilarating. Mind-bending. If you had to verbally describe a live performance by extreme metal band Prophecy Z14, it’s almost certain that you’d use some of those words, or some of their synonyms. Formed in 2008 under the initial moniker of Algorithm in Melbourne, Florida, the band plays music that’s as furious as it is complex. Seven-string guitarists Tommy Marshall and Dan Cannon (who also handles lead vocals) deliver heavily distorted, pounding riffs that both mesmerize you with their complexity, and pummel you silly with their utter savagery. Drummer Damien Elder’s dexterous yet hard-hitting attack behind the drumkit is like a freight train gone off the rails, brutally carving its own path, but still able to retain almost-metronomic precision. And underneath it all, the truly astounding 7-string bass virtuosity of a man known simply as Oz.
Their show at the Brass Mug in Tampa was nothing short of stellar. I went right up to the front of the stage, literally inches from Mr. Oz, and I just could not believe what I was witnessing. He was masterfully employing a vast array of techniques, many of them still unorthodox in the death metal realm. If you’re a bass player, his speed, dexterity, and sheer stamina might either make you want to practice more, or quit playing altogether.
Oz is a true connoisseur of music, and appears to be a huge bass geek. He dropped so many names I had to edit a few out just to avoid feeling like you’re reading a directory of bass greats, instead of an interview. He’s got so many favorite bass players, I stopped counting!
Some of his musings on metal, his apparent indecision regarding how many strings his bass should have, his love of both extremely complex and extremely simple music and his struggle to express both in his playing might make him look like a conflicted person. This is not a negative, by any means, but rather the sign of a restlessly creative soul which seeks total freedom of expression. The creative mind itself has no such limits. Those limits are inherent qualities of the physical and conceptual vehicles used to deliver what an artist’s creativity conceives. Musical genres and the number of strings on a bass guitar are simply elements to contend with in the journey toward self-expression.
And, as the saying goes, the greatest art comes from conflict.
What does the “Z14” in Prophecy Z14 stand for?
It’s [Bible chapter] Zacharias 14. Either Damian and/or Justin came up with that name. It’s based off of that, but they’re not religious whatsoever. Everybody in the band is atheist, except for me. I’m a deist, and I’m a Freemason and Esotericist.
Are Dan and Damien the only original members of Prophecy Z14?
Damien [current drummer] and a guitarist by the name of Justin, who’s with the Marines, were the founding members. He’s not in the band anymore, Tommy Marshall replaced him. I met him once, he wrote some of the material, and I wrote bass lines for it. He’s an awesome guy.
How did you join the band?
I came from California. I lived in Las Vegas for about 4 years. After that I moved to San Diego for about 2 years. I played in a band there called In Perfect Agony. It was more thrash-based. Before that, I was playing more jazz-type stuff. I was playing in a rock band called Stocklan in Boston. I’ve played all kinds of styles.
When I came here [to FL], it was just to visit my parents. I was going to go back to Vegas. But my parents had some health issues, and issues with their house, and I decided to help them. So, I decided to stay in Florida. I looked on craigslist, and I saw a death metal band with 7-string guitar players looking for a bass player. So, I thought, “Hey, I play 7-string bass.” So, I called Dan Cannon, the singer.
I sent him some of my own recordings, which are more jazz-oriented, and some solo stuff. He liked it. So, they asked me to come down. I ended up joining and writing bass lines for their songs.
Is there a main songwriter in the band, or is it a completely democratic process?
It’s very democratic. At first, the main songwriter was Justin. Even though he’s no longer in the band, he wrote a good portion of the material we still play. Dan wrote some of the songs, too. My job is similar to Obscura’s bass player. They wanted something a little different. Counterpoint, using more of a Bach-type thing. I play a lot of chords, which you saw me play tonight. Jeff Hughell from Brain Drill [now with Six Feet Under] and Dan Hauser from Veil of Maya play 7-string basses, they’re both amazing players. But, there aren’t really that many 7-string players in metal.
What inspired you to become a musician?
My father’s a piano player. I grew up listening to Bach, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff and such. Mostly piano music. My dad wanted me to play piano, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to play electric guitar. Then my uncle brought me a bass. I went, “What’s this? I don’t want a bass, I want a guitar.” My father basically slapped me upside the head and told me, “You take what you’re given. It’s a gift.” So, that’s how I started playing bass.
My biggest inspiration on bass is Sting. That’s why I started playing bass. Him and Paul McCartney.
Sting’s style is extremely simple compared to the music you play.
Yes, but he’s an amazing musician. He’s a real bass player, because he plays upright, and is jazz-trained. He’s a real musician.
You can do all this flashy stuff on the bass, but a real musician can do the vocals, and do everything. It’s the whole package. That’s what makes Sting and McCartney so incredible, and among the best bass players in the world.
What led you to the 7-string bass guitar?
My first bass instructor was Beaver Felton, who inspired me big time. He was the one that inspired me to get into chordal theory and the tapping stuff. I don’t do much tapping anymore, because it seems everybody’s doing it. So, I try to do more chords. I try to take the Jeff Berlin approach. He’s probably my favorite bass player, even though he probably wouldn’t be into what I do, because he doesn’t like multi-string basses from what I’ve seen. But yeah, Beaver Felton, and Wally Voss were huge inspirations on my approach.
So, it was basically your desire to explore more chordal possibilities that led you down the extended range path.
Yeah. The whole chordal stuff started with the piano. So, I wanted that spectrum of being able to do more chords.
I practiced certain Czerny and Hannon piano exercises with each finger for speed and agility.
Did you play on all the songs that are currently posted on the band’s websites?
Yes, I played on all that stuff.
Tommy Marshall (guitar) is the Guitar Pro genius. He tabs everything out. So, when it comes to working on the music, I sit down with him.
Can you give me a rundown of all the techniques you use?
I use Matthew Garrison’s and Gary Willis’ style. I use my thumb, index and middle finger for the chordal stuff, sometimes throwing in the ring finger. If I’m playing hypersonic, super-fast chordal picking style, kind of like Béla Fleck, I use a banjo technique – the forward roll/backward roll, which was taught to me by a banjo player who I used to work for. I’m very grateful to him for that. I use it on the song “Fragments.”
I also use the Alex Webster/John Myung/Steve DiGiorgio technique of plucking with three fingers. On the super-fast stuff I throw in the fourth finger, similar to Stephan [Fimmers] from Necrophagist. I don’t use the four-finger technique very much. When I solo, I use two fingers, very similar to Stanley Clarke. On the song “Diplomatic Breakdown,” which is really fast, I use that technique, in which I angle my hand over the strings, like Stanley, to pick really fast. I can hit 280bpm with two fingers. I try to use all my fingers, I don’t play with a pick. Nothing against that, though.
I saw you using a technique in which you basically rotate your wrist back and forth really fast, and it looks like you’re hitting the string as it moves in either direction: with your thumb, and with the side of your third or fourth finger.
I do a weird slap, similar to the Victor Wooten double-thumping. On the song “Letting Go” I’m using that technique to play sliding double-stops. I’m using the thumb to hit the lowest strings, and my third and fourth fingers to hit the chords above. I’m just trying to be original.
When creating your bass lines, how do you decide when to add something “extra,” and when to stick to following the guitar riff as is?
It depends on the song, and what the drummer’s doing. I’m trying to follow the drums more, and hold back a little bit. Death metal is getting to the point where you have to have the separation between the guitars and the bass. I double the guitars on certain parts, but I chord over a lot of stuff. I have to do a lot of muting, it’s pretty hard. And, a lot of extended-range bassists have a scrunchie over the headstock, but I don’t use that. So, I use a lot of left hand muting with the tips of my fingers. People complain that I don’t move around much onstage, I’m like, “Dude, I’m trying to focus! It’s very hard, man!” When I first got the 7-string, I almost sent it back, it was so intimidating. And yet, I’m thinking of getting an 8-string, like the bass player from Borknagar, who plays an 8-string fretless.
Do you think going lower (in pitch) is always heavier? Or do you think it’s possible to play brutally heavy and complex music on a 4-string using standard tuning?
Yes, it is. It would take a lot of creativity. Billy Sheehan plays a four, and he could play circles around most death metal bass players, because he’s the master! Sheehan to me is the bible of death metal bass.
Even though he’s never played death metal, to my knowledge.
Well, he could definitely play death metal. He might have to do some gear adjustments and such, but he definitely could.
Here’s something that really bothers me, as a bass player myself: When I go to rock or metal live shows – big or small – I often can’t hear the bass very well, if at all. Even tonight, I was standing inches from you, your rig was directly ahead of me, and I had trouble hearing you most of the time. The guitars and drums were drowning you out almost entirely. Thoughts?
This is a major point of contention I have with metal, and one of the major reasons I didn’t want to play metal. One of the reasons I didn’t play metal for years was because the bass is drowned out. On the CD you can year it very well, though. I love the Brass Mug, and I don’t mean to say anything bad about them. But, there’s other venues I’ve played at in which my bass cuts right through.
I could easily turn my bass rig up. I have 1,800 watts of power. I could turn it up to 4 and it would blow up the room. I did turn up a little a bit later in the show, because people were telling me to, they said they couldn’t hear me. I don’t really like to do that, though.
When you’re playing metal, you’re dealing with a lot of distortion, usually two guitars, so the bass gets left behind. Unless you really, really fight for your frequencies. I did with this band. I told them I wouldn’t join unless my bass is heard.
I have a love/hate relationship with metal. I love it, but then it becomes just drums and guitar.
Describe your gear.
If you hear my bass, there’s a lot of midrange frequencies. The gear I use is SWR. I use 2 SM 900 watt heads and two 4×10 goliath speakers. I also use a Sonic Maximizer, a Boss rackmount stereo chorus unit, and a Rockman stereo chorus unit, as well as a Dunlop switchless wah pedal for solos, and a specially modified by Analog Man, Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer.
My bass was designed by Fred Bolton, who owns Bee Basses. I was playing Modulus Quantum 6-strings. I love the graphite necks. So, I called Fred. He mentioned a bassist by the name of Edo Castro. He’s an amazing bass player who was playing the original prototype which became the basis for my bass. I talked to Edo, and he was really nice, and he recommended the bass. Mine has a different wood configuration. I went with a bloodwood top and fretboard. It’s a very heavy bass. It has Delano pickups, with an 18-volt preamp.
I use D’Addario Pro Steels strings, I have a partial endorsement with them. I hope D’Addario reads this, because I’m upset with them. Please make a wound .20 (high F) string! That’s what I use, but I have to get that one string from S.I.T. So, I buy a 6-string set from D’Addario, and then have to buy that extra string from S.I.T.
What is the most non-metal music in your collection?
That would probably be [flamenco/world music acoustic guitar duo] Strunz & Farah.
What are Prophecy Z14’s short- and long-term goals?
Our goal is to get a big following in Europe and South America. Those seem to be the big markets for death metal. America right now seems to be kind of bleh. Unless you’re playing Ozzfest and all that.
If I ever stopped playing death metal, I’d probably go back to playing Latin Jazz. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen. Or, I might end up playing country…it pays well.
You won’t need your 7-string to play country music, I think.
Listen to this: I had a big audition at the Bellagio a while back. I brought a 6-string bass to the audition. There were about 10 other bass players, all four-stringers. I did some bass solo stuff, because they asked me to show them what I could do. The guitarist and drummer loved me, but the singer did not, so I didn’t get the gig. The lesson is this: If you really want a gig, do NOT bring your extended-range bass.
I love the technical stuff, but I also want to capture the dynamics, the beauty in a simple piece of music. It’s like I have to live in two worlds, man.
I think, eventually, I’ll probably end up going back to the four string bass. I’m a very spiritual person, and since I like Afro-Cuban and Bossa Nova music so much…
I want to say this, though. A lot of guys tell me how I’m such an amazing bass player, how I shine, etc. But, if I do shine, it’s because of the musicians I play with. Dan, Tommy, and Damien are probably the best, most technical musicians I’ve ever played with. All three of them are extremely talented.
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-Héctor Rodz for Eclectic Listener