Priestess fuses prog and metal for hard-rocking Prior to the Fire

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In one of the current promo shots for Montreal hard-rock quartet Priestess, singer-guitarist Mikey Heppner is pictured front and centre, standing out from his black-clad bandmates in a white Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe T-shirt. Now, a Yes spinoff act ain’t exactly the type of fashionable group you’d extoll to curry favour with today’s hipsters, but Heppner could care less.

“I’m a fan of Yes,” says Heppner, calling from his group’s van en route to a gig in Quebec City, “so all four of those guys are heroes of mine. I’m not crazy about that [ABWH] album, but when you find a T-shirt like that you can’t say no.”

While old-school prog-rock elements are more prominent on Priestess’s new CD, Prior to the Fire, than they were on the band’s 2005 debut, Hello Master, there’s very little on it that brings to mind any group fronted by the meek Jon Anderson. In fact, Heppner and his mates—rhythm guitarist Dan Watchorn, bassist Mike Dyball, and drummer Vince Nudo—raised enough modern-day racket during the recording of Prior to the Fire that the cops told them they had to move on from the Hollywood bungalow that had been converted into a studio.

“The bass was so loud it was vibrating the whole house,” recalls Heppner with a chuckle, “and the next-door-neighbour’s as well.”

You don’t have to wait long for a taste of Prior to the Fire’s sheer rockingness: the first thing you hear on opening track “Ladykiller” is squealing feedback courtesy of Heppner’s trusty 1976 Gibson SG.

“We have it running through this wicked MXR rack flanger from the ’70s,” he explains. “It’s a really cool thing. And you’ll notice when ”˜Ladykiller’ kicks in there’s like a huge flangelike effect going on.”

The music on the new disc fuses the galloping metal vibe of Iron Maiden with the melodic, sci-fi–oriented prog stylings of Coheed & Cambria. “Murphy’s Law” was inspired by the subversive ’80s action flick Robocop, and other songs are also based on film and TV characters. Heppner doesn’t have cable at home, but when he’s on tour he scours the hotel tubes for CSI-type forensics shows. During one channel-surfing episode he stumbled on a character who said something like “the amount of carbon dioxide in the victim’s lungs proved that she had died prior to the fire,” and the last words struck him as a cool title.

Four years is a long time between albums—especially when your previous one was as well-received as Hello Master—but Heppner says the reasons for the delay were many. After the release of Hello Master the band toured for two-and-a-half years straight before it started demoing new material, which its label at the time, RCA, was not impressed with. Once Priestess was finally given the go-ahead to record its follow-up, two producer scenarios fell through, killing more time. Then, after producer-engineer Dave Schiffman (System of a Down, Nine Inch Nails) helmed Prior to the Fire last fall, RCA refused to release it. Fortunately the two parties agreed to part amicably, and Priestess was allowed to keep the record, which is a good thing, seeing as it’s a thrilling guitar-rock masterpiece.

“We just thought it was insane that the label wasn’t understanding it,” Heppner notes. “I think they were hoping we’d make the transition into a Foo Fighters–type band or something.”

Priestess plays the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday (December 3).

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