Interview with vocalist Dan Ortega
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: March 3, 2013
Cyst, a brutal and ferocious 5-piece Thrash Metal act from West Palm Beach, Florida, released a very well received debut album, Concussion Symphony, on the small independent Hook N Mouth label in 2002. They then went on hiatus between 2006 and 2010. The band wasn't completely inactive during that downtime, writing two more albums, Despisers of This Mortal Coil and Requiem of Ruin. The first album was released in 2011 and the latter should be out soon.
Vocalist Dan Ortega kindly shed some light on the latest comings and goings of Cyst. He also talked about his influences as shared his thoughts on the state of Floridian Metal scene that seems to be stronger and better than ever.
Luxi: How's life these days Dan?
Dan: Things are truly great. I married the love of my life a little over 2 years ago and we bought a house together a bit before that. She's a metalhead as well, so we love to blast old Heavy Metal vinyl while we're at home! I've done a bit of traveling over the last few years; Japan, Italy, Spain, etc. I'm hoping to visit Germany soon! Other than that, just going to tons of Metal shows and discovering lots of new music! Life is good!
Luxi: Since Cyst reformed in 2010 you guys have kept pretty active writing new material, playing gigs and so on. However, what I would like to know is what made you to go your separate ways in 2006? Was it inner conflicts within the band, lack of motivation or your families and jobs?
Dan: Well, I'm happy to say that it wasn't any internal conflicts in the band. We're all good friends and we still all hung out together a lot during the years we were inactive. Cyst mainly split up because a few of the members felt that there wasn't much of a future for Cyst and they wanted to try some new things. While I didn't agree fully, I respected their decision, and along with the remaining members decided to just put an end to the band for the time being. Fortunately, when I called everyone up for a reunion, all the members wanted to return!
Luxi: Even when Cyst was split up, officially or unofficially, were you still writing new material and did you regret that you were forced to put an end to things back then, at least temporarily?
Dan: We pretty much stopped writing any new Cyst material, but we actually already had two unreleased albums written and recorded: Despisers of This Mortal Coil, which we finally released when we reformed a couple of years ago, and Requiem Of Ruin, which should be out in the next month or so. I never did want to bring Cyst to an end, but I will admit that it was nice to have a break for a while and focus on other things. But yes, now that we're back in action, I do regret that we missed a couple of good years, especially with Thrash Metal coming back full force during that time. I should mention that a few of us worked on a side project called Thunderbeast for a little while and even played a few local gigs. That project was more on the side of Doom/Sludge Metal, with lyrics that mainly focused on old spaghetti western films. Sounds odd, but it worked. It was a great project, but I missed being in Cyst.
Luxi: When Cyst's debut album, Concussion Symphony, came out back in 2002, it was very well received all over the world. And no wonder, it is a hell of a brutal slab of vicious and violent Thrash Metal, with some slight Death Metal overtones. Do you think the debut has stood the test of time since its release ten years ago and are you proud of your achievements on that record?
Dan: There are a couple of songs on Concussion Symphony that I feel haven't aged too well, but for the most part, I'm really proud of that album and what it accomplished. It came out during a time when Thrash Metal was certainly not very popular (at least not in the US) and still managed to catch on to a truly dedicated fan base. I was extremely excited to see some good reviews start rolling in and when I started getting emails from fans around the globe, it was like a dream come true. I even started seeing it on some people's online lists of greatest Thrash Metal albums of all time! I never expected stuff like that. Seriously, I'm really honored that people liked Concussion Symphony and we still play songs from that album live, like "Curse the Fates", "Deterioration of the American Psyche" and so on. I think it's a great debut album and I'm happy it has this cult status to it.
Luxi: Slayer has always played a big role in the sound of Cyst. Would you say that without Slayer there probably would not be a Cyst?
Dan: I think I would have still started a Thrash Metal band, but it certainly wouldn't sound exactly like Cyst does. It's no secret that Slayer is one of our biggest influences and a lot of people have compared my vocals to Tom's, which is extremely flattering, since he's obviously a huge inspiration.
Luxi: So, basically, at the end of the day your cover version for Slayer's "Angel of Death" was an obvious choice for the Concussion Symphony album, as a bonus?
Dan: Our cover of "Angel of Death" basically started out as a song we would jam on at practice since everyone knew how to play it, and eventually we started doing it at shows. People would go completely insane when we would perform that, so it became an obvious choice to record it for the first album. But you know, looking back, I would have picked a different Slayer song to record. Even though it's one of my favorites, I think I would have rather had a recording of one of their lesser-known songs, something a little less obvious like "Tormentor" or "Epidemic", or something along those lines. However, people really liked the cover a lot, so no harm done.
Luxi: Besides Slayer, when I was listening to Concussion Symphony the other day, I was also reminded of bands like Demolition Hammer, Atrophy and even early Deicide, here and there Undoubtedly the more brutal, vicious, raw and aggressive side of Thrash Metal has been something that has really turned you on and inspired you to create similar, violent-sounding stuff with Cyst, too, correct?
Dan: Absolutely correct. I've always been a fan of the really heavy and violent Thrash bands, so that influence is certainly intentional. We get compared a lot to stuff like Demolition Hammer, Exhorder, old Sepultura, etc. And even though Thrash has seen a big comeback lately, not a lot of the bands are in that vein, so I think it helps Cyst stand out a bit! There was also always a bit of Death Metal influence in Cyst, even in the vocals. Our goal was always to play Thrash Metal, but to not hold back on throwing in some other Metal influences into the mix, as long as they fit well with our sound. That's why you'll hear everything from the occasional Death Metal growls to a Judas Priest-inspired riff in our music. You'll even hear a Celtic Frost-style grunt every now and then, hahaha!!
Luxi: In the booklet for Concussion Symphony, drummer Alex Opritsa is listed along with the other band members but a note in the session/guest member section states that all drums were performed by Victor Bonilla. I am sure many have found this sort of confusing, so can you kindly explain what the story is?
Dan: Yes, the story is slightly confusing. Basically, Victor was the original drummer for Cyst and he recorded the drums on the first album. He quit the band almost immediately after the recording, so by the time we were ready to release the album, Alex was our drummer. That's why he is listed as the drummer, even though he didn't actually record. Alex left soon after that and Victor returned long enough to record the second album, Despisers of This Mortal Coil. He then quit AGAIN, so we finally recruited our current drummer, Phil Pinto. It's a bit confusing. Luckily, when Requiem of Ruin is released, it will feature the current line-up of Cyst.
Luxi: Cyst's follow-up album, Despisers of This Mortal Coil, was recorded in 2004 but wasn't released until 2011, seven years later. What's the story behind this major delay?
Dan: There were definitely plans to get it released, but when the band decided to split in 2005, we pretty much ceased moving forward with any plans for Cyst and shelved the album. Not a very exciting story, unfortunately! Looking back, I wish we had still released it back then so our fans could have gotten their hands on it. We knew once we reunited that we had a second chance to finally get the album out, so that became one of our main priorities!
Luxi: Are you pleased with the outcome of the Despisers record, compared to your debut album, Concussion Symphony? What kinds of things did you miss on the debut album that the Despisers album gave you the opportunity to do?
Dan: Overall, I think Despisers is a better album than Concussion Symphony. We did a better job of editing ourselves and making every riff count. Also, I think there is a good amount of variety on Despisers. It's probably the most diverse out of the three records. Also, the first album had a few songs formed around some very old ideas we had (songs like "Become Wrath", in particular), while Despisers was written in a very specific frame of mind and with a much higher level of collaboration among all of the band members. Kyle, in particular, was very new to the band when we recorded the first album, so he was able to contribute much more to Despisers. I'm confident saying that the elements we liked from the first album were incorporated nicely into Despisers, so I don't feel we missed anything in that regard.
Luxi: For the Despisers record, you decided to do a cover song again. This time, Sodom's "Agent Orange" was chosen, so I assume Teutonic old school Thrash gets a lot of respect in the Cyst camp, too. Now, while we talking about early Euro-Thrash, how much of an impact did bands like Sodom, Destruction, Exumer, Assassin, Celtic Frost and the like, have on Cyst's sound?
Dan: German Thrash Metal, in particular, is a HUGE influence on what I do. In fact, I think that when you hear the upcoming third album (Requiem of Ruin), you will hear many more nods to the Teutonic Thrash Metal sound. It's funny you mention these particular bands, because Sodom, Destruction and Exumer are actually my three favorite German Thrash bands, and a lot of that influence has made its way into my vocals over the years. In fact, I think it's fair to say that our third album probably sounds a little more like Destruction than Slayer. So yeah, I would say these bands are just as important to Cyst's sound as bands like Dark Angel, Exhorder and Slayer are.
Luxi: All of you in Cyst, except Marcel Salas (on bass) and Phil Pinto (on drums), have been in the band since the beginning. How integral have Kyle (Bennett) and Mike (Maxson) been when it comes to songwriting and Cyst's sound? Are they crazy Slayer maniacs like you, by the way?
Dan: I would say that both of them have been utterly crucial in developing Cyst's current sound. Both of them like many of the same bands I do (including Slayer, of course), but we also have enough differences in our tastes to keep things interesting. The great part about Cyst is that everyone, old and new, knows what the band is all about and, maybe more importantly, what it isn't about. No one ever pushes to write a ballad, or asks me to do clean vocals, or wants to bring in a keyboardist, or any of that other "stuff" that tends to happen to bands over time if the members become bored. We all love what we do, and if we want to do something that doesn't fit in with Cyst, we start a separate side project.
Luxi: How well have the new members fit in the Cyst line-up since they joined? What new elements have they bought into the sound of Cyst and are there things you expect both of them to bring to Cyst, whether it be more active roles in the songwriting or whatever?
Dan: I honestly think Marcel may just be the most talented bass player in the South Florida scene, so I would love to have him take a larger part in the songwriting process. He's brought an airtight precision to the role that the band hasn't had before and sometimes just pulls off the most amazing stuff. Phil's is just a ball of non-stop energy behind the drums, and his style is over-the-top and aggressive. Perfect for what we do. Phil actually worked the closest with Kyle when we were forming ideas for Requiem of Ruin, and, together, they kind of kick started the feel and flow of that album. And I'm glad they did, because the album contains our best material to date. I think it's safe to say that the current line-up of Cyst is, by far, the ultimate.
Luxi: Is Cyst a completely democratic band or does tyranny reign?
Dan: Some might say that I am the band's cruel dictator, haha, but in reality, Cyst is a democratic unit. Since we have reformed, I have usually acted as the band's makeshift leader, but only because the other guys generally trust me to make good decisions for the band and take everyone's input into account. We're all friends, so we try to make sure that no one feels forced into anything in Cyst.
Luxi: Let's get a bit more serious and have a few words about Cyst's latest album (#3) that will be coming out soon, Requiem of Ruin. Would you say it basically follows the same musical formula that you had used on the two previous albums, or are there drastic changes?
Dan: While I don't feel that there are drastic changes to our overall sound, I do feel it's our most consistent and thrashiest album to date. Instead of just a collection of songs, Requiem of Ruin was thought about as a whole while we were writing it. There's a natural flow from one song to the next, and you can tell we were really going for the throat with every track. Overall, I would say that both the lyrics and music are more violent this time around. We really wanted this album to just bash the listener in the face relentlessly, almost so you feel drained once it's all over. I will say this, after recording the first two albums, I pretty much moved on from them. I didn't listen to them much afterwards because I was just so tired of hearing those songs over and over. With this third album, I liked it so much, that I kept listening to it for weeks after we recorded. I still listen to it a lot. In my personal opinion, it's the kind of album I've always wanted to create. One that I could enjoy listening to like an old tried and true thrash album from the 80s. So you could say Requiem of Ruin helped me finally achieve a really big personal goal!
Luxi: Was it easy for you to get the songs written and recorded for Requiem of Ruin or was it a tougher process this time, compared to Cyst's previous works?
Dan: I think this may have been the toughest album to write and record. We had such specific ideas of what we wanted to achieve, that we ended up throwing away many ideas and editing ourselves much more than usual. We were also on a tighter budget for this album, so there was a lot of pressure to really nail our takes in the studio and get it all down as quickly as possible. But I think that level of intensity probably just helped the sound you hear on the album!
Luxi: Do you have some favorites on the new record that you enjoy doing live more than others?
Dan: Oh definitely. I really love "Spirit of 86", "Beast of Consequence", "The Collapse" and "Celluloid Night Massacre". Also, I think "The Reckless Hearts" has the best guitar performances in any Cyst song to date. I'm really, really happy with this album. We've already played many of these songs live and the response has been great.
Luxi: This time you broke tradition and did not record any cover songs. Why not?
Dan: Because this was such a focused effort, I really wanted to have this album simply represent Cyst at its best, so I felt a cover song would have been forced this time around. The previous albums brought together individual songs that we basically just worked on during those time periods. I feel Requiem of Ruin is the first album we wrote as a complete whole, so bringing in a cover song felt like it would just sort of be hanging on at the end, you know?
Luxi: As for playing live, you performed Helloween's "Heavy Metal (Is the Law)" live at Area 7 in Ft. Lauderdale on November 3rd last year. How long have you had that song in your set list and what made you decide to cover that particular Helloween song? Some of you, or maybe all of you, must be fans Helloween, right?
Dan: Our guitarist Mike and I are big fans of the early Helloween albums, especially Walls of Jericho, so that song was a lot of fun for us to cover. However, it actually came about because that particular gig was being headlined by a local tribute act called Made of Metal. That night they were doing a tribute to Helloween and all of the opening acts were asked to perform a classic Helloween song. We chose "Heavy Metal (Is the Law)" because it's one of my personal favorite Helloween songs and it just has a really energetic live vibe to it. It was pretty awesome when the crowd caught on and started singing along!
Luxi: What other songs have you covered live since you started playing live again?
Dan: We recently performed Motörhead's "Killed by Death" at a couple of shows, which I think was a great choice for us, because it's a bit slower paced and not all that predictable for a Thrash band to cover. We'll be working on some other cover tunes soon, but I can't spoil the surprise just yet...
Luxi: As part of Rob Barrett's (Cannibal Corpse) Metal wedding celebration, Cyst were invited to play live at the House of Rock in Doral, FL on January 20th this year. You played there with the Floridian Death/Thrash legends Hellwitch, Mexico's Strike Master and Florida's Murder Suicide and, as far as I know, even Rob Barrett joined the stage to do a few songs with the bands. A pretty special night for all of you, wasn't it?
Dan: It was a great show! It's always a pleasure to play with the legendary Hellwitch, and the guys in Murder Suicide are good friends of ours. In fact, their vocalist Dean is the same Dean that was the bass player for Cyst on the first two albums. He left the band years ago, but we've remained great friends and he still does all of the artwork for our albums and shirts. Strike Master kicked ass as well! Overall, a really fun night, although I don't think there were ever any plans for Rob to get on stage with the bands.
Luxi: The Florida scene has always been more or less awesome with many killer Metal bands from that area. Is the general spirit and vibe still the same as it used to be at the end of 80's (or in the early 90's) or do you feel like that's pretty much missing these days? What are some of the local Metal bands that Cyst feels a strong spiritual or mental bond with?
Dan: I'm glad you asked this question, because the local scene here has really exploded lately with tons of great local Metal acts. And I think a lot of that unity that's been missing has come back as well! I already mentioned our ex-bass player Dean's new band, Murder Suicide. There is also Response Negative, who are all really old friends of ours. We have Thrash bands like Atomik and Thrash Or Die, Death Metal like The Glorious Death, Hibernus Mortis and Masticator, and tons of other great, hard-working Metal bands like Shroud Eater, Suns Of The Morning Star, Faethom, Nekromaniak, Fall Of Olympus and more! The scene has really been growing quickly, no doubt. It's a huge difference from how it was years ago before we split up, and it's an honor to be a part of it.
Luxi: How do you see the state of Thrash Metal today? Surely the 80's heyday of Thrash Metal cannot be experienced anymore but Thrash Metal still seems to be doing really well these days, much better than for many years...
Dan: When I look back at the late 90s when Cyst was practically laughed at by some for playing Thrash Metal, it seemed like anything besides watered-down Death Metal or Hardcore was a "no-no". It warms my heart to know that this new generation of metalheads has really helped to bring Thrash back full force. And while I agree that we can never bring the 80s back, this is certainly the next best thing. I was really excited when I first heard Toxic Holocaust's first release on the Witches Brew label. I consider that one of the first releases of the modern Thrash movement. Then I heard a great debut album by a little band called Municipal Waste and, before I knew it, a flood of new Thrash bands came along and just like Thrash's heyday, we have some quality bands and some filler as well, but it's awesome to at least get some fresh new releases! But even before the modern Thrash movement, a few great Thrash albums were getting released, like Destruction's The Antichrist and Dekapitator's We Will Destroy... You Will Obey. I think it's important to remember those as well, since they definitely didn't get the respect they deserved.
Luxi: What's in store for Cyst this year? More gigging, obviously, and perhaps one or two festival appearances on the European soil, if we can be this hopeful? ;o)
Dan: I would LOVE to get on a European fest. Cyst has yet to perform outside of the US, and it's a dream of mine to do so. Hopefully, the word spreads quickly about Requiem of Ruin when it's officially released and we can make this happen! Other than that, we're currently working on updating our line of merch; new shirts, new stickers, beer coozies, patches and more. We are hoping to put together a small US tour, likely along the east coast.
Luxi: That's all I have, for now. Thank you for your time, Dan, and all the best to you and Cyst. And let's hope that Cyst's European fans will also get a chance to catch you live someday soon. As for the last words, if you have anything to add then feel free to do so now...
Dan: Just a huge thanks to everyone who takes the time to appreciate Cyst, even if it just means downloading a song, checking out a Youtube video, or whatever. There's tons of music out there to check out, so it's an honor to hear that we have fans all over the globe! We know you guys are out there and you kick ass! Thrash 'til death and then get up and thrash some more!
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