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This article was originally published in issue #26
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Both incredible 7-string players, the two came to the guitar world’s attention in different ways: Loomis through a 20-year stint in metal legends Nevermore, and Merrow through his personal website and social media channels like YouTube. Now, the two are taking on the world with their bone-crushing new instrumental project, Conquering Dystopia.
Jeff Loomis and Keith Merrow are taking Metal guitar to a new level with their Conquering Dystopia project. GI's resident extended guitar guru Sam Bell meets the two fret-melters. Richard Morgan fills in the background.
'Jeff' and 'Keith' are perhaps not the first names that spring to mind when you’re thinking of the ultimate contemporary face-melting Metal guitar heroes. Rather, these unpretentious monikers conjure up images of fingerpicked Folk music, large amounts of body hair - both facial and otherwise - and pipes stuffed full of scented tobacco. Oh, and sandals.
Thankfully, Jeff Loomis and Keith Merrow are about as far from this clichéd bohemian utopia as it is possible to be (Merrow’s pure metal goatee notwithstanding!). Both incredible 7-string players, the two came to the guitar world’s attention in different ways: Loomis through a 20-year stint in metal legends Nevermore, and Merrow through his personal website and social media channels like YouTube. Now, the two are taking on the world with their bone-crushing new instrumental project, Conquering Dystopia.
The collaboration, which also features the talents of Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster on bass and Alex Rüdinger of The Faceless on drums, was first mooted after Loomis and Merrow - who had been fans of one another’s playing from afar - met in the flesh and got on like a house on fire (napalmed, of course). Riffs, songs and videos came quickly, and an album seemed like the obvious next step.
Loomis is no stranger to the recording process. He was heavily involved in all of Nevermore’s seven full-length studio efforts, as well as singles, EPs and a live album. He’s also released a number of solo records and guested on cuts by the likes of God Forbid, Annihilator and Guitar Interactive favourite Marty Friedman. Merrow, meanwhile, grew his career in an entirely DIY fashion, posting his first two albums on his website for free download - although fans also had the option of donating as much or as little as they liked when they ‘purchased’ them - and building his profile bit by bit around the web, gaining more fans with each video and blog post.
Ultimately, though, when the time came to lay down the eponymous Conquering Dystopia album, the duo found themselves with no label support. As many web-savvy amateur bands and musicians these days will know, this was not a huge problem, but Loomis and Merrow wanted the recordings to be of the highest possible quality. They turned to the Internet, and crowdfunding site Indiegogo, to ask their fans for help.
The goal was to raise $15,000, a sum which would enable the band to produce the album to professional levels, and the guys offered all sorts of perks to fans to get them to stump up any little bits of cash they could spare. Those giving $10 would receive a download of the album, for example, and donors could add in more goodies - like T-shirts, DVDs, signed vinyl, and more - as they pleased. For those with slightly deeper pockets ($100 deep, to be exact), one-on-one Skype guitar lessons were available which both Loomis and Merrow, and fans could even pay for one of the guys to play a guest solo on one of their own tracks (for a mere $300) or record a brand new composition for them ($1,500). Perhaps the ultimate incentive for particularly affluent metal lovers was the chance to get their hands on the very guitars used to record the album - Loomis and Merrow’s Schecter 7-strings, to be exact, each autographed and available with extras and deluxe copies of the LP for $2,500.
In the end, though, none of that extreme carrot dangling proved particularly necessary - the $15,000 was raised in under 24 hours, and in the six weeks their campaign ran, Loomis and Merrow actually managed to raise more than $35,000 towards production costs. Needless to say, that windfall allowed certain extra artistic and creative freedoms - and, presumably, access to a shedload of great recording gear - that have made Conquering Dystopia a modern Metal masterwork, the album’s ever-shifting tempo and time signature changes, thumping riffs and draw-dropping solos setting a standard that the competition will struggle to get anywhere near for some time.
Of course, Loomis and Merrow are both outstanding players, with the full range of modern metal techniques available at their command. What makes their collaboration special is each man’s instinctive understanding of the other’s performance style and traits. Merrow’s rock solid rhythm playing, for example, is deft and complex, and very demanding of the listener’s attention, yet it always stands well back from Loomis’s nimble lead lines, giving them space to move the song on in new directions. Watch a few of the group’s videos online, or go and check them out live to see what we mean.
Then there’s the tones. Using plenty of gain-friendly guitars and FX, not to mention the pretty standard drop tunings - Merrow’s a big fan of BbFBbEbAbCF, by the way - the guys have been able to infuse Conquering Dystopia with a wall of guitar sound that’ll crush all your senses. In a good way, of course.
Loomis and Merrow are both huge Schecter fans, and both have signature 7-string models. Loomis’s maple-boarded JL-7 has been his main axe for the past five years, with a new, subtly updated 2014 version recently hitting the streets. The newer model has a swamp ash body, EMG 57-7H and 66-7H humbuckers and a slim, satin-finish neck, which possibly goes some way towards explaining how the man can play so damn fast! Meanwhile, Merrow’s brand new signature KM-7 also features a swamp ash body and an ultra slinky neck, but this time with an ebony fingerboard, and Merrow plumped for Seymour Duncan pickups - a Sentient in the neck, and a Nazgul at the bridge.
Another piece of kit that both guys love - and that we’re sure must have played a big part in getting Conquering Dystopia’s guitars sounding as brutally huge as they do - is the Fractal Axe-Fx processor, beloved of metal players across the globe. Also used by tech metal titans like Dream Theater’s John Petrucci and Meshuggah, as well as full-on guitar gods like Steve Vai, Alex Lifeson and Guthrie Govan, it’s a piece of kit that is becoming ubiquitous on modern heavy Rock albums.
Despite the Conquering Dystopia project being relatively new, Loomis and Merrow have been out on the road a fair bit already, doing clinics for Schecter throughout Europe and appearing at the likes of NAMM and the Frankfurt Musikmesse shows. They’re also taking part in a mammoth summer 2014 jaunt supporting Animals As Leaders, which is sure to get the Conquering Dystopia message out to a whole new potential fanbase. If you like your Metal challenging and instrumental, your guitars heavy and your time signatures varied, then, head out and give the Jeff and Keith show a try - or at least give them a listen or watch online. Just don’t mention the beard…