After his stint as a finalist on the tenth season on American Idol, where he stood out, choosing Judas Priest songs to perform amid a group of pop singers, James Durbin like so many other Idol finalists went on to make records. But they were not at all the kind of music that got him excited as a teen metalhead growing up in Santa Cruz.
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Now, after releasing two very Americana and singer-songwriter influenced albums with Celebrate and Homeland, Durbin is ready to make the kind of record he always dreamed of as a kid, and while briefly fronting Quiet Riot in 2017. Frontiers Music SRL gave him that chance after signing him to a multi-album deal, starting with his first release, The Beast Awakens, out now, released under the simplified moniker ‘Durbin.’
“They are the go-to house of Rock and Roll,” Durbin told American Songwriter about the signing. “I wanted to do something heavier like classic metal, something really retro, you know in theme and style. I thought of Black Sabbath, Motley Crue’s Too Fast for Love, early Judas Priest, and older Sammy Hagar.”
Genre-specific themes also accompanied the classic ‘80s heavy metal and first-wave of British heavy metal Durbin had in mind.
“I wanted to write about dragons, wizards, warlocks and demons and stuff like that,” Durbin said about the album. “But I also didn’t want to write filler. I wanted every song to be the best that it could be. I didn’t write a pool of 40 songs, I wrote 13 songs, and there’s 13 songs on the album.”
With speed and guitar solos at the forefront of classic heavy metal, Durbin knew he’d need to invite some friends along, as he was an avid singer, but a rhythm guitarist at best. Chris Jericho and former Machinehead guitarist Phill Demmel were just a few people who came along for Durbin’s epic reconstitution of metal on The Beast Awakens.
“Kings Before You” was written by Durbin and features a duet with Jericho, who Durbin has been friends with since the two performed on Idol together. Both metalheads, Durbin and Jericho always wanted to get together to record. All it took this time was a phone call between friends and a perfect song about wizards to bring Jericho in.
“I felt like ‘Kings Before You,’ out of all the songs that I had written at that point, was the most duet worthy,” Durbin said. “So I texted Chris and I said, ‘hypothetically if you were to sing on a heavy metal like ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ kind of concept album, what kind of character would you want to play?’ And he said, ‘well, the villain of course. But if not the villain, then like a wizard or something.’ I was like ‘I just wrote a wizard song.’”
It was a same kind of friendly invitation for guitarist Phill Demmel, who also played blistering leads on the song. Durbin and Demmel had met through Jericho at a Fozzy show in San Francisco and stayed in touch afterwards, since they both resided in the greater bay area.
“It was a very communal thing,” Durbin said about tracking the record with friends.
The wizard theme in “Kings Before You” would parallel every other song from the record, which included epic titles like “The Prince of Metal,” “The Sacred Mountain,” “Battle Cry” and “Rise to Valhalla.” Though these themes were not new to metal, the connection Durbin found in them was. At the time of writing the record, Durbin was inspired by a lot of Norse/Scandinavian and Greek mythology. As he learned more about these topics, he began to see its massive presence in metal music and wanted to part of that link.
“I definitely lean pretty hard into the mysticism and the mythology,” Durbin said about the record. “I was starting to write and kind of get material to build on and feel inspired by and whatnot. I picked up a bunch of books on Greek and Norse mythology. And I started to make all these connections to mythology and astrology with songs that I loved by Judas Priest, like ‘Dreamer Deceiver’ from Sad Wings of Destiny and ‘The Sentinel’ from Defenders of the Faith.”
Family, nature, and his surroundings also inspired Durbin on the record and it’s no coincidence that those are also pillars of Norse lifestyles and beliefs. Durbin’s favorite song, “Riders on the Wind,” was written at the beach while holding his crying daughter.
“I came up with the idea for the song at the beach holding my daughter, who was cold,” Durbin remembers. “It was a windy day, and I was just watching this airline blanket that I had kept from first class tied to a stick that I had put in the ground like a flag. And I was still in this mode of songwriting of trying to pull inspiration from the world around me-—like ‘The Sacred Mountain’ is a mountain right outside my window. Trying to pull these ideas from my community and from my surrounding nature was kind of like a spirit guide. And it came at a time of need.
“It’s very reminiscent of something Ronnie (Dio) would have done with the way he sings about demons and wizards with so much conviction and so much gravity that you’re hanging on every word. I just really took that took that into account when writing, especially this song.”
Boasting with lyrical prose, old age inspired fiction and a connection to the earth, Durbin has laid out a clear epic with The Beast Awakens and he has every intention of continuing and expanding further on the world he has created in its songs.
“I’m working slowly on figuring out and conceptualizing what a follow-up to The Beast Awakens would be, because there is a story,” Durbin says about his next record. “And I want to be mindful of that. I’m toying with the idea of realms. I’m such a fan of the idea of creating a world. It’ll be inspired by the events that happened on The Beast Awakens and I will find ways to put more truths within that fiction.”
With Durbin’s multi-record deal with Frontiers as the ‘go-to house of Rock and Roll’ you can be sure to hear the second installment of Durbin’s saga sooner rather than later. Until then, you can immerse yourself with wizards, kings, heroes, and villains on The Beast Awakens, out now.