The best thing about my BraveWords career are the people I meet along the way. Children Of Bodom frontman Alexi Laiho is one of them.
Sure, as a music journalist getting music weeks and months in advance is great, getting passes and guest-listed for shows is a gift, but without the artists doing all the work and putting up with my media hack chatter none of that would be a reality. Over the past 25 years many of the interview victims that I’ve had have become drinking buddies, acquaintances or friends; I consider myself blessed.
The news that Alexi has passed away is heartbreaking. He was only 41 years-old. Far too young to be taken from this world, a world that he kicked in the ass with the gifts he’d been given. And if one really stops to think about it, Alexi Laiho was a game-changer in the metal world.
When I look back on how often we crossed paths over the past 20+ years – always with fond memories in the aftermath – I’m very grateful. We didn’t know each other well on a personal level, but whenever Alexi and I spoke or met up it was as if we’d been hanging out the day before. That sort of rapport with anyone is priceless.
I first interviewed Alexi in 1997 for Children Of Bodom’s debut EP, Something Wild. At the time they were just another band on Nuclear Blast’s ever-growing and increasingly diverse roster. Everything about the EP piqued my curiosity and BraveWords boss Tim Henderson agreed we should do a small piece on the band. Nobody could have predicted how Children Of Bodom would explode within the next couple years, or just how much of an influence Alexi would become to metal guitarists, and ultimately metal bands, the world over.
Blame Soilwork guitarist David Andersson for the band’s new EP, A Whisp Of The Atlantic. It’s all his fault. And he’s proud of it.
Of course Andersson’s bandmates were all present and accounted for when Soilwork put the EP together over the summer, but it was the 45 year-old guitarist who fired up the machine again and put everyone back to work. A Whisp Of The Atlantic offers up some startling work from the band, spearheaded by the monstrous 16-minute title track that, once again, makes a bold statement with regards to collective talent that Soilwork bleeds into their music. For Andersson it was a chance for the band to continue exercising this creativity rather than waiting for the world to get back to something resembling normal before releasing a follow-up to their previous spotlight-worthy album, Verkligheten.
“We released Verkligheten early last year, and this line-up of the band has a really good time together, so we’re very creative and enthusiastic about what we’re doing,” Andersson explains. “I thought it would be a waste to wait two or three years before we record something new, so I wrote a few songs starting with ‘Feverish’. I made a few more and everyone seemed to like them. Since I joined the band in 2012, I’ve always had this idea of writing one long epic, progressive song. Just because I loved prog rock growing up, and I also think that Soilwork is a bit underestimated as a band. People think of us as writing catchy Swedish melodic death metal but we’re more than just that. With this line-up we’re pretty much able to play any kind of music and it would be really nice to just be able to show people that we’re much more than they think.”
Guitarist / vocalist / self-styled hand model Jason Bieler was a founding member and the main songwriter for Saigon Kick, launched in 1988. The band’s on again / off again career had more twists, turns, ups and down than a drug-addled rollercoaster designer’s masterpiece, but longstanding fans agree to a man (and woman) that Saigon Kick’s first two albums – the self-titled debut (1991) and The Lizard (1992) – are untouchable works of distortion heavy art (your arguments are invalid). While the band has since been laid to rest Bieler continues to make music, and in fact he never stopped even when they were in a holding pattern for years at a time. Most of it has been released independently over Bandcamp under the Owl Stretching moniker, but Bieler decided towards the end of 2019 to work on a second full blown solo album rather just single releases. The end result is Songs For The Apocalypse featuring a literal truckload of guest musicians playing to and for Bieler’s unique vision. And even though it will satisfy many a Saigon Kick fan’s want for something heavy from the man – this is the loudest he’s been in ages – one should leave all preconceived notions at the door before going in.
Prior to the making of Songs For The Apocalypse, Bieler began moving away from the Owl Stretching name in favour of his own. Devised as a one-man project with the goal of bringing a song to life within 24 hours of coming up with an idea, Owl Stretching was an ongoing experiment used to refine his craft. Sadly, not as many people were aware of it as there should have been, but the new album may change that by putting the Jason Bieler name in lights.
“That could happen,” agrees Bieler. “Having the label I’m with now (Frontiers) and talking to different people that I work with, they all told me ‘Dude, you don’t realize you’re already obscure, so by naming it Owl Stretching you aren’t helping the cause in any way, shape or form. You’re making looking for a needle in a haystack the logical choice compared to what you’re doing.’ And they were right, of course. I decided to just change it to my name to make it a little bit easier for those people that were looking.”
Diamond Head may not be a household name, but their influence on the metal world is undeniable. They don’t share the spotlight with the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard or Motörhead, but they are a recognized part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal circle that took the distortion-loving world by storm in the ’70s and into the ’80s. A prime example is Metallica who spent the early part of their career cranking out and covering no less than five Diamond Head songs – “It’s Electric”, “Helpless”, “Am I Evil?”, “The Prince” and “Sucking My Love” – taken from the band’s debut Lightning To The Nations, an album that turns 40 this year. Listening to Metallica’s first three records in particular, the Diamond Head references are easy to find if you’ve been paying attention.
Commercial success eluded Diamond Head because they were seemingly only able to keep things together for a few albums at a time over the course of four decades. Still, they’ve managed to put out eight albums and keep their name alive. To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Lightning To The Nations, founding guitarist Brian Tatler and his bandmates decided album #9 should be a re-recording, figuring the updated version would appeal to the younger generation(s) of metal fans as well as the old guard. Particularly since there has been a renewed interest in Diamond Head in recent years.
“I think that’s partly due to our new singer, Ras (Rasmus Bom Andersen), who joined in 2014,” Tatler says of the band garnering new found and long overdue attention. “We released the self-titled Diamond Head album in 2016 and then The Coffin Train last year. Now we’ve got management (Siren), a label (Silver Lining) and an agent, so everything seems to be going really well. We realized it was creeping up to 40 years for Lightning To The Nations, and we could have just done some live shows – we did that in 2010 for the 30th Anniversary – but Karl (Wilcox / drums) suggested we re-record the whole first album with this line-up and this sort of modern sound and technology. I thought it sounded like a good idea.”
If the name Mark Mangold sounds familiar, it’s no small wonder given that the pop singer / songwriter / producer has a career dating back to the early ’70s. He has written songs with / for Michael Bolton, Cher, Paul Rodgers, Jennifer Rush and Laura Branigan to name a few, as well as making waves of his own with the band Touch in the early ’80s. Most recently, he co-wrote the song “Lost In Time” for Swedish melodic metallers Cyhra’s second album, No Halos In Hell. Prior to all of this, however, Mangold released three albums between 1974 and 1977 with the keyboard-dominated outfit American Tears, and the end of 2020 sees him returning to his old stomping grounds. The new album, Free Angel Express, is a massive 14-track romp of ’70s prog rock for folks that grew up in the era of warm and organic headspace-moving music, when challenging the listener was normal rather than being a contrived move for shock value. It’s a far cry from the realms of writing formulaic big money pop hits, and Free Angel Express makes it clear that Mangold is most certainly in this business for music.
“I really missed playing synthesizer solos, the freedom of American Tears,” Mangold says of resurrecting American Tears, although he is the sole remaining founding member. “I don’t know if you can call it prog, but whatever it is, it’s not normal music, it’s not formula. You don’t have a safety net. It’s very free, so this is almost like I’m rebelling against the pop music and all the generic stuff that’s out there. With all due respect to Whitesnake, Foreigner and all those great bands, how many songs ripped off from those guys do we need to hear? And the record companies, that’s all they want, and I’ve done some of those records. I’m trying to do something original with American Tears, and it was always a case of doing whatever the fuck we wanted to do and being creative.”
“We started in 2004, so we’re not the most productive band on the planet. At least to other people it looks like we don’t do shit (laughs).”
Which is how Dimmu Borgir guitarist Silenoz – born Sven Atle Kopperud – sums up life in his side project, Insidious Disease. To date, the band has only two albums under their collective belt: their Shadowcast debut from 2010, and the just-released After Death. The in-your-face line-up featuring Silenoz, vocalist Marc Grewe (ex-Morgoth), guitarist Cyrus (Susperia), bassist Shane Embury (Napalm Death) and drummer Tony Laureano (ex-Nile) has finally put an end to their extended silence in a big way, and if not for the all-too-familiar pandemic’s chokehold on daily life the band would be delivering their goods to the fans first hand on the touring trail. This will happen eventually, Silenoz assures us; it’s just a matter of time until that becomes a reality. The same thing that plagued the making of the new album: time.
“Some of the ideas are from as far back as 2011 or 2012,” Silenoz says of After Death. “For instance, on the ‘Divine Fire’ demo I used the heartbeat of my unborn son at the time as the intro, and we kept that. And, Marc’s unborn son’s heartbeat is at the end of the song. That goes back to 2012 and it’s probably the oldest song on the new album. There was a good stretch of time between the material that we had, which was about 16 songs, but we trimmed it down to these 10.”
Given that Insidious Disease was locked away for a decade, fans may be left with impression that Silenoz, Grewe and Co. were content with getting back to work if and when they had nothing better to do. Not so, says Silenoz.
“The thing is, the debut album just kind of got buried because we were eager to start touring and promoting it, and things just hit an anti-climax because I got busy with Dimmu. There was never a reason as to why we shouldn’t tour, but it just didn’t take off. I think we could have worked harder on that end, but we always wanted to have Insidious Disease and not my solo project. We want to do everything to promote this new album.”
With the global pandemic’s continued stranglehold on everyday life, the goal here – unlike the tabloids that masquerade as metal websites – is to push conversation far away from everything virus-related in the interest of (blackened) soul-healing music. There are some instances, however, where it’s necessary to address COVID-19 and its effect on an artist’s career. Or in Devin Townsend’s case his current activities. Forced to scrap his Empath tour plans for 2020, Canada’s own Strapping Young Lad has released Order Of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1 to commemorate his December 2019 show in London, England, but this is only a dusting of what he’s been up to. Since March, Townsend launched a semi-ongoing podcast, streamed a series of off-the-cuff songs Quarantine Project songs to keep folks entertained, launched an effort to raise money for his out-of-work crew through merchandise sales, has performed a series of Quarantine Concerts to raise money for hospitals in Canada, the US and the UK, and put together a “virtual band” livestream show to make up for this year’s appearance at the Bloodstock Open Air getting blown out. No, boredom is certainly not an issue for Townsend in these trying times.
Devin: “I think I’m okay. It’s obviously very stressful in a lot of ways. Whether or not one subscribes to it, it’s the underlying anxiety that comes from this toxic and divisive period in time. It’s impossible to ignore. I think that undercurrent has made the fact that I’m finally at home and I’m finally in my studio a bittersweet thing because there’s not a lot of inspiration. It’s like, what are you going to write about? Are you going to compound the existing anxiety by writing about how you’re anxious? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s forced me to be outside my comfort zone, and that has propelled me down a lot of different avenues that I never anticipated being a part of. It’s been very fruitful, to be honest, and I should feel much worse than I do. All signs point to constant darkness and anxiety, but I’m trying to be as pro-active with that as possible so I don’t let that happen.”
In 2018, electro-oriented metal band Season Of Ghosts made the decision to relocate from vocalist / founder Sophia Aslanides’ native Greece to the UK in the interest of the band’s future. With their second album, A Leap Of Faith, making the rounds it made more sense to Sophia and partner-in-crime / guitarist Zombie Sam – a solo artist and producer in his own right – to be located in the UK as it’s a central hub in relation to Europe and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the birth of a nasty bug dubbed COVID-19 knocked the world on its ass with a global pandemic, effectively putting their plans for 2020 on hold. At least in terms of Season Of Ghosts getting back on the road in support of A Leap Of Faith.
“As far as opportunities are concerned there are plenty of them, lots of people to meet and network,” Sophia says of the decision to relocate, “but on a different level, if you want to work or evolve as a person in any way imaginable you can do it in England. It’s very fertile ground. Sure, the pandemic came along but it hasn’t swayed my thinking because I’m pretty much an introvert and a nerd (laughs). I work from home anyway, and I never stop working for the band. Because we couldn’t tour this year, we started working on the Season Of Ghosts infrastructure. Sam started working on new songs and new ideas, we’ve both contributed on different levels, and we’ve also been studying to improve on and gain more skills both related to music and our day jobs. It’s safe to say that we’ve worked more during the pandemic than before (laughs). We’ve just tried to use the time as creatively as possible.”
Swedish not-so-pop metal sextet Amaranthe have released their sixth album, Manifest, and it’s safe to say this is the record the fans wanted and the band needed to make. Their previous album from 2018, Helix, kept the Amaranthe name alive and in the public eye through extensive touring, but it definitely wasn’t delivered with the enthusiasm that, at its core, makes Manifest the band’s strongest record since their second outing, The Nexus. Even before the album was recorded, Amaranthe kicked off the year with two non-album singles – a cover of Sabaton’s “82nd All The Way, and “Do Or Die” – and haven’t stopped to take a breath since. In between recording sessions, social media updates and appearances, and an international press junket – as much as could be accomplished during a global pandemic – the band managed to shoot four big budget videos and unleashed them between June and October to highlight the release of Manifest. And the singles chosen weren’t exactly predictable, particularly in case of over-the-top track “Archangel”. To say Amaranthe have recaptured the fire that made them stand out amongst the rabble at the beginning of their career almost 10 years ago is an understatement.
Prior to the release of Manifest, BraveWords spoke with guitarist Olof Mörck, vocalist Elize Ryd, and former Arch Enemy singer Angela Gossow, who is now Amaranthe’s manager.
BraveWords: You had a rocky start to the making of Manifest, as in COVID-19 almost stopped the production in its tracks.
Olof: “We were supposed to leave for the studio in Denmark (Hansen Studios in Ribe) on a Sunday, and we were setting up on the Friday before to write some music when our drummer Morten (Løwe Sørensen) told us we had to get across the border before 12:00 PM the next day. So we had to take the train at 6:00 AM to get across the border on time, and we were taking a lot of stuff with us for staying two-and-a-half months not knowing if they would even let us in. That was more adventure than we wanted (laughs).”
In 2004, Dutch multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and über-nerd Arjen Lucassen released his ongoing Ayreon project’s critically acclaimed sixth album, The Human Equation. It was yet another concept album featuring a line-up of guest vocalists and musicians, but unlike its predecessors The Human Equation was not a sci-fi based metal opera. The record became a fan favourite, so much so that it was brought to the stage as a full production in 2015 under the name The Theater Equation. Lucassen returned to his science fiction stomping grounds for the three albums that followed – 01011001 (2008), The Theory Of Everything (2013) and The Source (2017) – but 2020 sees him exploring new territory once again on new album, Transitus. Boasting a cast that features performers including Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Cammie Gilbert (Oceans Of Slumber), Simone Simons (Epica), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Amanda Somerville, Marty Friedman, Joe Satriani and The Hellscore Choir, the record is far more down to earth – close to it, at any rate – and was originally imagined by Lucassen as a movie soundtrack. Three years in the making, Transitus is the Ayreon album that almost wasn’t.
BraveWords spoke with Lucassen, Keravik and The Hellscore Choir’s founder / conductor Noa Gruman (Scardust vocalist) about the making of what is being regarded by many fans as Ayreon’s strongest album since The Human Equation.
BraveWords: You’re going to hear a lot of comparisons between Transitus and The Human Equation, largely due to the fact Transitus is the warmest album you’ve done since then. It’s a lot more open than some of your previous albums, far less dense on the musical side of things.
Lucassen: “It’s cool that you say ‘warmest’ because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. The previous Ayreon album, The Source, is not a warm album. It’s a pretty cold subject, it’s a prog metal album, it’s very guitar oriented, and this time I only wanted to use real instruments. I’m so glad you said that…”