BY KAT H. WENTZELL
Zack Zalon is the mastermind behind the world’s first “Rock Novel,” produced and performed by what he calls his “brand,” the new rock sensation Into the Great Divide. The self-titled record has already received great applause from many outlets since its release on January 26 of this year; the popular music site Metal Injection even named it “one of the progressive metal albums to beat in 2018.” The record is one hundred percent instrumental, and was produced with the help of Dream Theater’s Mike Mangini and esteemed recording engineer Richard Chycki. The record is surely an adventure, a story told with sound, and the message behind it is even more inspiring.
In Maestro: I [of the album’s booklet], you mentioned that music had to take a backseat for a while. What kind of work were you doing?
Zalon: "I’ve been developing high-profile digital services for my entire career. I started out working for Virgin, leading the charge to build digital products for their entertainment division, and then I started my own company 11 years ago. I love what I do, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work with the companies that have hired me, but in some ways it’s not that different from composing music: the best music is the music that’s thoughtfully considered, that tells a story, and that drives engagement and connection. Same with digital products – you need a hook, something that people can truly connect to, and then you can have a very successful service."
Many people have misconceptions about the term “progressive rock.” In your own words, what exactly is “progressive rock,” and how does it differ from other types of rock music?
Zalon: "I see it as rock that pushes boundaries… any boundaries. Some progressive artists work to master unique timing or key signatures, some try new song structures, some focus on pure prodigious playing. They’re all progressive in one way or another. For me, it’s about telling a story inside of a song; that’s what I’ve personally been working to achieve."
How did ITGD become an official band?
Zalon: "I wouldn’t actually call Into The Great Divide a band, I’d call it a brand. ITGD stands for something – it’s a platform for storytelling with progressive instrumental music. There are numerous people who have been involved in helping to bring our ideas to life, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them part of a band. I’d more refer to them as champions of the message, and people who I hope to be able to collaborate with on a long-term basis."
Who/what were some influences for the record? How did you come up with the idea of the “rock novel?”
Zalon: "Well, I guess in a way it was a byproduct of necessity. I wanted to tell a story with instrumental music, to bring some ‘context’ into each track so listeners could understand the meaning behind them, but I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know where to start, and then it struck me that if I wove some narrative elements between each song, setting them up for the listener before the track started, it might help make some sense of the whole thing to people. It wasn’t until I was well underway that I realized that this was a Rock Novel, and that, to my knowledge, hadn’t ever been done before."
What is the significance of creating a record with only instrumentals? What do you hope listeners get out of the experience?
Zalon: "I hope it drives people to listen a little deeper. There’s a lot of significance in the tracks, with different instruments playing different roles, and different sections of the tracks working to weave the story together. There is a lot more deliberate planning than may seem obvious on the surface; my goal was to compose the music to let people really dive in and feel the story unfolding along with the narration itself."
What was it like working with Richard Chycki and Mike Mangini? How did working with them shape the album?
Zalon: "It was an amazing experience. It started with Rich – right from the beginning he was a mentor and supporter, and drove me to create something where each and every detail mattered. He has such incredible and varied experience, and it was invaluable for me to have him pushing me along the way and providing me with guidance throughout the process. Once the tracks were mostly done, Rich reached out to Mike directly – they’re friends from working on Dream Theater together – and that’s how we ended up with the drums we have. And as to Mike specifically, he is the baddest drummer I’ve ever seen play; the guy is a monster. But he’s also a consummate professional, [and he’s] so prepared. He came in to the studio with so many spectacular ideas for how to elevate the album, and my personal belief is that he brought it to a much higher level, and in the process, demonstrated that he is far and away the best progressive rock drummer in the world today."
What was the writing/recording process like for the album? How did you come up with each instrumental part to have them all become one cohesive unit?
Zalon: "It was very deliberate, very planned. I worked with my business partner to lay out the story before any music was actually composed, and then I brought in a voice actor to give life to the narrative. I used those voice introductions to inspire me as I composed each track. The recording process itself was pretty intense; I played all of the instruments, so it was really time-consuming to lay down each section and to weave it all together so it would sound natural. Our goal was to create the feeling of a full band playing in the studio, with energy and drive, and so it took a lot of work to build out the tracks without losing that vibe, that energy."
In A Final Word: VI [in the album’s booklet], it says “once you fall Into The Great Divide, you – and the world around you – may very well never be the same ever again." What does this mean?
Zalon: "It’s a little hokey, but it’s a play on the idea that The Hero’s Journey – which is the narrative structure of the album – changes people at a fundamental level. Here’s the storyline: our hero chooses to undertake a journey of epic proportion. He/she takes the first steps, and walks a path fraught with trials and tribulations. Eventually, our hero is ready for the big battle, the test that will take them to their stated destination, and so they step into the ring. But, unbelievably, they are DEFEATED! The hero actually loses. This is a huge blow, a devastating outcome. However, by losing, our hero realizes that they are not infallible, that they require new strengths to accomplish their goals. So [then] they reach deep, they use the lessons of their defeat to build up the courage to try again to reach for the brass ring, and this time they emerge victorious; they achieve their dream. Now, nobody who experiences that kind of journey ends up the same person as when they started. They are changed by the experience, born anew so to speak. And so that’s what we meant by that line, that you’ll never be the same again. Think about people throughout history who have lived the storyline I just described: people like Nelson Mandela, who labored in prison for 27 years before leading his country from apartheid to freedom. Or think of Muhammed Ali, who was defeated by the system for his anti-war beliefs before digging deep and emerging a champion from his rumble with George Foreman. There are countless stories that follow this narrative, but the one common theme is that the heroes in these stories are radically changed by the experience of going through it."
What is in store for ITGD? What are some important dates/events coming up that people should know about?
Zalon: "We’re working on new ways of connecting with people, new ways to tell stories with the music. I don’t have dates to share, but I can say that there are some really cool things that we’re planning, and that I’m really looking forward to talking about later in the year."