By Carl Begai
Suffering from what has been documented as “stress-related burnout”, After Forever guitarist/co-founder Sander Gommans’ condition put the band on forced hiatus for the duration of 2008. The downtime gave the band members an opportunity to explore other musical ventures, and for Gommans it meant taking a serious stab at bringing his long-fermenting side-project HDK to life. Initially meant as a lighthearted showcase of his heavier side – the Hate Death Kill moniker is an intentional metal cliché – he decided prior to the break that the material was strong enough to be taken far more seriously. Calling on pop rock / temporary Epica vocalist Amanda Somerville, who had collaborated with After Forever several times in the studio, for her assistance, the pair settled in to create what is by far the most brutal piece of work in their respective catalogues. Sadly, the release of the HDK debut, System Overload, was punctuated by the announcement that After Forever had decided to call it quits. Rather than look back Gommans has chosen to push forward by starting a new chapter in his musical career; one that starts on an unexpectedly brutal note.
“It’s a brutal album, yeah,” Gommans says, more than pleased with System Overload. “After Forever was pretty versatile for a band that’s been labelled gothic metal. Experimenting with a band is good, but you’re asking a lot of the fans when you do that. After Forever had to remain an experimental band, each album had to be different, but you have to set some limitations. It’s not that After Forever wasn’t technically capable of playing the stuff that I wrote for HDK, but it’s wasn’t the type of band for that. I started working on these songs over three years ago – the rough ideas are that old – and I knew when I was writing this stuff that would never work with After Forever.”
“I came in half way through,” offers Somerville. “Sander had talked to me about this a couple years ago. I think this was when we were doing the Remagine album. He was recording some stuff and asked if I could write a couple of songs, and he told me it was quite aggressive and figured I hadn’t done anything quite like it before. I like a challenge so I suggested a test run; ‘Send me a couple songs and we’ll go from there.’ But Sander can never do anything a little bit. He’s the kid that says ‘I’m just going to have one candy…’ and ends up eating the whole bag (laughs). That’s how HDK started, with him saying ‘You know what, this is so cool, why don’t we do the whole thing together?’”
Gommans explains his thinking in asking Somerville along for the ride…
“I knew how I wanted the instrumental stuff to sound, so I didn’t have to think of playing in a different style compared to After Forever because it was just natural. But, I really needed someone that could write lyrics, and secondly, could also do some vocals. Someone to represent the female vocals, but they also had to have balls, and that’s Amanda. She’s got an aggressive side and that’s a cool thing. The vocal lines she came up with, they fit flawlessly into what I was doing musically, and she’s not really all that experienced in metal in that respect yet. Bands like After Forever and Epica, sure, but not the real heavy stuff like HDK, which makes this a really cool thing. It’s clear to see that everybody has a metal side (laughs).”
Somerville continues: “Sander had a couple lyrical ideas at first and sent them to me – I think there were three – and the very first songs I wrote lyrics for were ‘March’ and ‘Terrorist’. He had some ideas but really didn’t know how to express them, so he asked me to help put those ideas into words. We were sitting in my living room listening to the test mixes of the music, and I thought ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ I didn’t expect it to be so heavy and aggressive. The crazy thing is, I recorded all the vocals on the demo tracks for the vocalists that ended up doing the work, and they’re golden (laughs).”
While the idea of Somerville pulling off death metal vocals is disconcerting, hearing her in the death / thrash HDK environment isn’t in fact all that off-putting. She sounds like she belongs amongst the slavering beasts growling and riffing up a storm around her, adding some class to the violence.
“It’s like theatre for me,” she explains. “I’m playing a role but it is a part of me. You adapt to certain things and you adopt the other elements. This is another of my babies just like (metal opera) Aina. You hear some mothers talk about having an instant connection with their child and it’s like, well, come on, you have this thing that’s been growing inside you like Alien shoot out of you and you’ve got to get to know it. That’s what it was like with Aina and a lot of the things I’ve done, and HDK was definitely like that. It was like ‘Oh my God, this is all gooey and sticky and gross, I’m not sure that I’m going to like it…’ and I totally fell in love with it. It’s a beautiful thing (laughs).”
“I didn’t expect it to be so heavy and aggressive,” she admits. “When I was first writing the lyrics I forced myself to sit down and listen to the music with the idea of putting vocal lines to it. I wanted to put some structure in it, a frame of reference by which the normal person makes their way around a song. I remember the first time I heard ‘Fight Or Flight’ and I was like ‘Oh. My. God. Am I going to be able to do this?’ But, I really got into it and I loved it. I guess as you get older you’re supposed to mellow out, but I’ve gone from as soft as you can be northern California dream pop shit to this crazy, menacing, fearsome metal.”
To make thing even more intersting, Gommans invited ex-ANGRA frontman Andre Matos in for the song ‘Request’. The track features the most aggressive performance of Matos’ career to date:
“I think the caipirinha helped,” laughs Gommans. “We had quite a few drinks that day. A lot of the time, when a recording works out it’s because of the atmosphere at that moment, and with Andre and all the vocal recordings things were really good. It was a lot of fun, especially with Andre. We had a lot of fun in the studio and he was really wanting to try different things with his voice. It was the only vocals we recorded for HDK at Gate Studios, because he was there recording his solo album. I had a great time because he was making these caipirinhas and doing a really good job of it (laughs). We were listening to the Painkiller album and stuff like that, so it was really cool.”
Matos’ performance, for the record, is completely off the wall. While his trademark high-end vocals are featured in ‘Request’, they are mixed as harmonies against an aggressive low range lead vocal.
”It amazes me, too,” says Gommans. “It was Amanda’s idea to get him involved because she knew he would be in the studio at that time. I knew his work because there was a period where I listened to a lot of power metal, and I thought ‘okay’, but I actually wanted to have a rough voice on the track. It was so cool to hear Andre doing that kind of stuff because his voice stayed really big, so it was very cool to mix. His voice stands out on the album for me because I like his interpretation of the song.”
It’s interesting to note that although System Overload features Gommans’ heaviest guitar playing to date, easily overshadowing the bulk of his work with After Forever, he seems to have put much greater emphasis on the vocal aspects of HDK.
“The cool thing for me about HDK is that a lot of metal projects are based on really good instrumental stuff,” he says, “but vocally there’s not much going on. A lot of metal bands forcus on the instrumental thing because that’s usually what makes them heavy, but to my mind it’s really interesting to focus on the dynamics in the vocal parts. I’m really happy that, thanks to my collaboration with Amanda, I was able to cover that aspect of it. That was really important to me, and if I’d had to do it myself it wouldn’t have been comparable to what it has become.”