“Dark-Prog” act STONE LEADERS came to life in early 2016 when renowned drummer John Macaluso (of ARK, Yngwie Malmsteen, TNT, Symphony X, James LaBrie, Labyrinth and Michael Romeo) was contracted to do a drum clinic in Zagreb, Croatia. Asking the clinic organizer to find a band to accompany him in the clinic, Macaluso then met guitarist Ivan Mihaljevic and bassist Marko Karacic of Croatian band Side Effects ten minutes before the clinic began and decided on what they would play. The start of the clinic (now basically a full-fledged gig) was the Deep Purple classic “Burn” and it brought the house down. Right then, the trio knew they had something special here so when New Yorker John went back to Italy (where he now lives) he contacted Ivan and plans were made to get together and write and record an album. Throughout the meetings together in Italy and Croatia the band discovered that they also clicked as friends as well. As songwriting began. John and Ivan started the process with Macaluso recording his drum tracks with song arrangements in mind after which Mihaljevic then took the drum parts and started writing riffs and moods over top with some help from Marko on a couple of songs. John lays out the writing and recording process. “The writing and recording process is much different than the way most bands do it. We did it the way my past band Ark did. First I went into the studio and did a demo of only drum arrangement before any notes were written. I recorded the track with songs in mind, intro, verse, chorus etc. Then I sent these tracks to Ivan and then the songwriting process began: recording over the drum tracks while writing the song. I also gave him a song title so he could capture a mood and not just write cold over drum beats. It worked with Ark and worked for STONE LEADERS also. Ivan and I really click as a writing team, he is very talented and thinks out of the box.”
The songs started to take shape, morphing into something different than just the usual prog, rock or metal album. “This was something darker and more mid-tempo but hypnotic and deep at the same time,” John says. “Ivan then wrote vocal melodies over the riffs and I chimed in with lyrics that really fit the vibe of the music and there it was, STONE LEADERS was formed.” The band was done and ready to start laying down tracks for the album.
“You know, before a band records it’s better for the mood and work ethic if the band already has a name, obviously, but sometimes the hardest part is actually coming up with a name,” Macaluso discloses. “I had this book of lyrics for my old band, Ark and Ivan was looking through it. One of the songs that we never finished was called “Stone Leaders,” which Ivan said would be a great name and I agreed. The song was about world leaders immortalized as stone statues, so basically Stone Leaders are statues.”
Staying with the “stone leaders” lyric idea, John designed a cover where the soldier is being told from the war angels that lead them into battle and are the guardians that peace is here so they are no longer needed. The soldier holds an alligator on his lap to show peace within the universe, an idea he got from an actual Gettysburg photo from in which an American Civil War soldier actually posed with an alligator on his lap. “You don’t see it initially but once you do it grabs you!”
Fellow Croatian Dino Jelusic (Trans Siberian Orchestra, Animal Drive) was brought in to add a second lead vocal to the mix as well as his keyboard talents. “For the music we wanted to make and the mood we wanted to create we realized that keyboards were necessary as well as having a different voice in the mix rather than Ivan just layering his own voice behind his own lead vocal.” Ivan knew Dino so he called the talented keyboardist and vocalist to set up a meeting and to run through a few songs. And that was it, the final piece of the STONE LEADER puzzle was in place.
With a solid lineup in place, the band entered Ivan’s The Attic Room Studio in Zagreb to begin work on the quartet’s self-titled debut. Produced by Macaluso and Mihaljevic, the album is 12 songs of “groove prog.” As the sticksman explains it, “The songs are more groove oriented than mathematical like most prog metal bands today. We have time changes that are really only there to fit what the lyrics are telling. The music is there to compliment the story that the vocal is relaying. Another thing, the songs aren’t so extended that you don’t remember what the intro of the song was when it ends. They’re medium songs filled with hooks. Lyrically, the songs are both spiritual as well as realistic. There’s some fantasy but not really in a sci-fi sense, more in the way of mind battles, searching, life, death, addiction, religion. We try to touch on everything.”
The punchy “Box of Time” opens the album, a track that addresses erasing and deleting someone or something from your life and eventually your mind. “You know, one day you’re doing fine until soon you’re walking down a street and a voice or scent, or even a song, pulls you right back to where you were before,” explains Macaluso. “Ultimately, the song is about the power of the mind because sometimes survival depends upon this deleting mechanism in the brain. “Fire Up the Oceans” touches more on contemporary prog rock than perhaps the rest of the album, while enveloping itself in fantasy. “However it can also be interpreted in modern day reality with war and religion,” muses the drummer. “Every religion prays to their own god, which, of course, is the only God. Everyone wants to bring their God to life but, what if you do and you find out that you really dislike them? You’ve ritualized to get them here and it can’t be reversed. You’ve played with fire, it’s not what you expected and now you’re about to get burnt.” The infectious “Toxic Guide” opens with a touch of a jazz riff before settling into a melodic moody piece driven by Mihaljevic. “This one is about that girl. You know the one – you’re convinced that she’s the perfect one for you but she winds up being toxic. The song is about the moment you realize she’s the devil’s daughter and you need to get the hell out of there. “Ignited” was written by John in memory of his longtime friend and bandmate Randy Coven (1960 – 2014), “When someone passes away they’re actually with you for eternity.”
Sometimes it’s good to step away from the box. Musically speaking, STONE LEADERS grab the box and throw it out the window. The European / American alliance isn’t afraid to take their collective influences and histories and hang them out to dry, experimenting with anything they set their minds to.