In the rendering of the Priestess style, frequent use of the robust ’70s-style riff is integral. Instead of overreaching their ambitions, the group uses said riffs to craft rich and crunchy songs that don’t stop to meander into pointless asides or flex self-gratifying guitar solos. The real freedom here is that in spite of how competently orchestrated their work is, the material moves effortlessly and never feels anchored in affectation. There’s an unmapped expansiveness to the Priestess sound and, from track to track, there’s unexplored territory to be discovered.
The Canadian quartet’s non-instrumental firepower comes in the form of lead guitarist Mikey Heppner’s vocals. Eschewing abrasive screams for full-bodied singing and enormous calls, Heppner hammers at words during verses and stretches every inch of strength from his cords for his choruses.
However, for someone possessing a robust voice seemingly custom-fitted for this kind of content, Heppner didn’t initially intend to fall into Priestess. Even though he clearly now has a stake in the genre, he admits, “I’m not a Metalhead.” Originally landing in Montreal with hazy aspirations of forming an Experimental Rock group, Heppner had trouble finding what he was looking for so instead turned elsewhere. Looking for something with which to “fill in time and play shows,” his unripe talents unexpectedly led him to — of all things — Punk Rock.
Taking the moniker of The Dropouts, the group played melodic Dickies-esque Skate Punk with nasal vocals provided by Heppner.
“I didn’t know how to sing back then,” Heppner recalls. “I was just singing in place of whoever would be the singer.”
It was during his stint in The Dropouts that Heppner discovered what he was really capable of.
Heppner and future Priestess rhythm guitarist Dan Watchorn participated in a Misfits tribute show in a bar at which Heppner worked. In imitating Glenn Danzig’s lofty cries, Heppner figured out that vocalizing from his torso rather than nose would produce more resonant rhythms. It was here that the seeds for Priestess were planted.
Soon, The Dropouts crumbled. “I didn’t want to do Punk Rock anymore,” says Heppner. “(The band) wasn’t a serious thing. We split up because we wanted to focus more on other stuff.”
While Heppner briefly claimed The Dropouts name for his burgeoning ambitions, everyone else formed Indie Rock group The Stills in 2000. Prosperity struck almost immediately for his exbandmates. Heppner does acknowledge that The Stills’ swift accomplishments were a surprise, but he quickly adds, “I didn’t expect that I was going to have any success.”
Eventually, he found his niche. After abandoning the name of The Dropouts, Heppner was determined to start a new group that would “carry on that intensity but do more serious music.” He, Watchorn, bassist Mike Dyball and drummer Vince Nudo came together in 2003 as Priestess. Hello Master, the group’s first full-length, was the product of a few years of work and was released in Canada in November of 2005 and then re-released in the States the following June.
Heppner finds his new project to be “closer to the older side of Metal than contemporary or ’90s Metal.” Instead of being governed by any manifesto, his work in Priestess is produced by happenstance.
“Writing songs shapes what we are rather than having an idea and writing songs to that idea,” he notes.
The band’s sonically diverse home base of Montreal has had no effect on his work, either (“The most impact it’s had has probably been on interviews,” he playfully informs). Hell, even the lack of high-pitched howling that sets Priestess apart from the pretenders is an unintended plus.
“That’s just the way I sing, I guess,” he ascertains. “I couldn’t really scream if I tried. I’d sound like a girl, probably.”
Four years after releasing Hello Master and using it as the crux of their setlist for years of touring, Priestess has prepared a second album. The freshly titled Life Giver is currently scheduled for a summer release and is expected to show off a few new traits.
“Anybody who has seen Priestess live before knows that we don’t really sound the way Hello Master sounds. We’re a lot dirtier,” Heppner says.
Engineered by David Schiffman, a studio veteran who’s overseen recordings by Weezer, Johnny Cash and Rage Against The Machine, Life Giver “is a bit more in the Prog Rock direction I was originally going in,” Heppner says. It’s still heavy riffs (and) driven Rock music. It’s a bit rawer in production but it sounds really good. It translates nicely into the Metal world.”
In the interim, Priestess will stick to criss-crossing North America constantly. While the young band’s profile has been raised by the inclusion of various Hello Master tracks in TV shows, movies and video games (most notably, lead single “Lay Down” is in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock), there is still much work to do.
“The degree of our success is subjective. We’re quite poor. We’re always reaching for something, so it’s hard for me to sit back,” says Heppner. “We’re still really, really fighting to do it for good.”
PRIESTESS plays with GWAR Saturday at Bogart’s. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.