By Adam Smyth
Some say that musical styles seem to run in cycles and that possibly may be the case with thrash. In just the past two or three years, the metal sub genre has been reinvigorated and revitalised. With the Big Four – Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, who were notorious for their rivalry in the 80s and early 90s – currently touring, you could forgive metalheads for thinking hell has indeed frozen over. In the US, bands such as Warbringer, Municipal Waste and Bonded by Blood and the UK’s own Evile have all been bitten by the thrash bug and are keen to spread the disease to others. Older acts have reformed and have been re inspired to make fast aggressive metal, which is exactly what happened in the case of Onslaught.
Starting off as a hardcore punk outfit in 1982/83, the band’s sound took on more metal orientated elements which were revealed in their debut album Power from Hell (1985). Continuing in this vein, the band released The Force (1986) which is widely considered a thrash metal classic by fans and critics alike. The band were gathering momentum and seemed unstoppable, and with their signing to London Records their third album looked like a safe bet to be the one that would cement their place in metal history. All was not well in the Onslaught camp though as the label decided they needed a more polished singer to accompany their newly refined sound. In came Steve Grimmett and out went Sy Keeler. The resulting In Search of Sanity (1989) had high production values but left many of their thrash fans feeling alienated by their new direction. With their label deciding not to renew the bands contract and with Steve Grimmett leaving in 1990, the band decided to call it a day in 1991.
It isn’t quite clear yet why thrash has resurged in popularity. Some critics believe that because it was looked back on as such a reckless and energetic genre it deserved more credit than many had given it. Possibly it may have taken on the original movement’s principle of rebelling against other music genres; only in this case the first bands laying down the foundation for the thrash revival in the 2000s were reacting against nu – metal as opposed to glam. With time, the reasons for it becoming widespread again will become evident. In Onslaught‘s case, they reformed in 2004 (with vocalist Sy Keeler) and after finding their musical feet again they released Killing Peace in 2007. The album revealed that Onslaught were not afraid to take inspiration from their own past, but were also willing to absorb elements such as down tuned guitars and almost death metal vocals at times that more modern acts have embraced.
In January this year, the band released their fifth studio album Sounds of Violence, which sounds like, well…exactly what it says on the tin actually. Although you won’t find particularly thought provoking lyrics, thrash fans will be pleased to tick off all the hallmarks they would want and expect from a thrash album- fast double bass drumming, face melting guitar solos, screamed vocals, sing along choruses and riffs as tight as hell.
With the music industry adapting to the digital revolution and partly because of the recession, the focus for most bands these days is on their live performances and on selling merchandise rather than making money off album sales. With this in mind I went along to Studio 24 in Edinburgh to see whether Onslaught sound as good live as they do on record and to experience this so called thrash revival.
Currently touring the UK and Ireland in support of Sounds of Violence, Onslaught have brought along younger thrash acts Gama Bomb from Northern Ireland and Fallen Fate from the North East of England. While those bands were no doubt warming up in their dressing rooms, the audience were treated to Scotland’s own Circle of Tyrants from Glasgow and Edinburgh locals, Black Talon.
First up, Black Talon do an impressive job of keeping their composure in spite of a small audience. When those at the bar eventually find their adventurous side and lurch towards the direction of the stage they gather momentum and put on an impressive display of no nonsense, if slightly amateur thrash. Their impression is helped greatly though by front man Johnny Steel’s comic charisma: before their ‘speed metal song about a World War II flamethrower trooper called The Incinerator’ he produces a chocolate bar from his pocket which has been flattened and saturated with sweat- ‘If this is what speed metal does to a galaxy caramel…imagine what it will do to your fucking mind!’ A solid start to the evening.
Next to take the stage are Circle of Tyrants, providing much foul mouthed stage banter and interaction with the hecklers word for word. They definitely deserve praise for whipping up the few drunks who’ve peaked too soon into an almost mosh pit but the occasionally static performances from their guitarists and bassist kill the mood slightly. The band more or less redeem themselves when they play Headhunter, a mid-paced, thrash number which revealed vocalist Kwondo can do a good Tom G. Warrior impression when he wants to.
Unfortunately your scribe didn’t get to see enough of Fallen Fate as he was interviewing a couple of the lads from Onslaught– oh how terrible for you, I hear you cry! From what I did see however, the band commanded the stage from the get- go and were much more serious and focused in their approach than the first two warm up acts. Aesthetically speaking, guitarist Piers Donno- Fuller quite possibly had the longest hair of anyone in the building which he wasn’t afraid to use for some serious headbanging. For some of their tunes they had breakdowns that wouldn’t have been out of place in a metalcore song. No surprise then that Fallen frontman, Lee Skinner, was sporting an As I lay Dying wifebeater. Sub genre pedantry aside, the band were very tight overall, but one impression noticed was that they hadn’t learnt to relax on stage yet and take part in some needed band to crowd banter.
No such problems for Gama Bomb. Musically they oozed effortlessness, and between bassist Joe McGuigan and vocalist Philly Byrne they would have won the whimsical stage banter award of the night, if there was one. Case in point being Byrne’s hilarious Freddy Mercury routine of getting the crowd to sing along to ‘ay – ohs’ before he sang a quick rendition of ‘Day-Oh (the Banana Boat Song)’. With Byrne taking the piss out of the guitar soloing and getting the audience to pretend to smash their heads for the song Hammer Slammer, Gama Bomb strode the line between being a joke band and a thrash band with a keen sense of humour. Although Fallen Fate were a tough act to follow, the Northern Irish group played their socks off with some truly light-speed talent. If the band continues to keep their token sense of humour and keep doing what they are doing, they deserve to be considered amongst the elite of the new wave of thrash acts.
With four thrash acts seen and many more beverages sunk, the anticipation of the audience for tonight’s headliners was reaching its height. When the intro tape of Into the Abyss played, there was a surge forward to the stage and the lights went down. Onslaught opened with Killing Peace, an appropriate fiery attack featuring a sing-along, shout out chorus of ‘spitting blood in the face of God’.
For a band playing as long as Onslaught, their enthusiasm for what they do didn’t seem to let up for one moment of their set. Frontman Sy Keeler, clearly loving every minute, didn’t waste any chance to interact with the crowd nor to show off his gurning metal look. Of note in particular was the versatility of Keeler’s voice- from low growls to high pitched King Diamond- esque shrieks – he showed he could nail any note. New songs such as Sounds of Violence went down well but possibly the highlight of their set (and moshpit) was when they played Metal Forces from the ’86 classic The Force. A nice touch came towards the end of their set when Sy welcomed Fallen frontman Skinner onstage to sing a cover of Motorhead’s ‘Bomber’. With Keeler proclaiming Skinner and his band ‘the future of heavy metal in this country’ it was clear to see that, without sounding too corny, a symbolic baton had been passed on. If tonight proved anything it was that without a doubt both Onslaught and thrash music in general is very much alive and kicking.
During the night I caught up with Onslaught axemen, Nige Rockett and Andy Rosser-Davies to talk all things thrash, metal and music in general:
Adam Smyth: So when was the last time you guys played in Edinburgh?
Nige – I think that must have been 1990. It was at the Edinburgh venue which we’ve played twice before. The only two times we’ve been up here it’s been insane. The first time, it must have been one of the hottest gigs I’ve ever played. The ceiling was literally dripping, it was like it was raining or something!
AS: So you’re currently touring the UK and Ireland in support of Sounds of Violence which was released back in January. What sort of response have you guys been getting from the UK thrash fans for this album?
Andy – It’s been really really positive since the album came out at the beginning of the year. We’ve done a European tour already but this is our first UK tour supporting it. From the press attitudes and fan attitudes the feedback so far has been good. People love the new stuff. The best thing we see from the fans is when we play the shows: people get to know the words in a relatively short space of time y’know? Singing along with the choruses, that sort of thing. We couldn’t have asked for more really.
AS: When I listened to the album it struck me as extremely aggressive and angry sounding. I would have thought that you had spent all your anger on (previous album) Killing Peace. How have you guys maintained such aggression in your music?
Nige – I don’t know really. It’s always been in me one way or another! I guess these days, not like when I used to be a bit of a tearaway, it’s the safest way to get rid of a bit of aggression without getting into big trouble (laughs).
AS: After listening to a couple of interviews I heard Sy saying that perhaps a couple of songs during the making of Killing Peace were rushed. Did you approach the making of this new album any differently?
Andy – It was fairly methodical. Nige and myself worked on the songs in a partnership. The remit was to really make the best record that we could and once we developed a system of working together, it was a constant process of appraisal and reappraisal. Hopefully what comes across on that record is that nothing was just good enough on it. Nothing on the record was like: ‘ok this will do ya’ know?’. It was like: ‘No, this has to be the best. This has to have every single note on it justified. And that sort of ethos is what we are going to carry on for our next album which we have started writing. When you write album after album I think what you effectively try to do is improve yourself continually. That applies as well to playing live. You just keep trying to improve as a band otherwise you become stale and irrelevant really.
Nige – One of the things with this album was that we did it in a real studio as opposed to the rehearsal room where you’ve got so much input and you can’t hear everything clearly. This way we were able to edit it quickly, chop it quickly and just change it to the way we wanted to hear it. We definitely found a unique way that worked for us.
Andy – It was thorough. We would lay down the basic outline and then pass it over to the band and bounce ideas back and forward. We would listen to it and then not listen to it for a while and just constantly keep working at it.
AS: For you guys what are your favourite or most challenging songs to play live?
Nige – I mean, it’s all tough. We push ourselves to the limit in terms of what we play.
AS: Sports metal?
Nige – Tell me about it! (laughs) It was a challenge to write and be able to perform it after. There’s probably only two songs that we haven’t tackled live yet. Technically, the hardest two are probably Born for War and Rest In Pieces. They’ve got really intricate riffs and are really fast. I think being able to nail them and having Mike [Hourihan] in the band has made that easier as he’s a phenomenonal drummer.
AS: What is it like to tour with the likes of Gama Bomb and Fallen Fate? How does it feel to be revered as an older thrash band and touring with these younger thrash bands?
Nige – We never look backwards, we’re a forward thinking band. The past is kinda irrelevant to me not that I can remember much of it! (laughs). We don’t expect to be treated any different and as far as we’re concerned we’re the same age as them- we go out and kick their ass every night (laughs). We get on great with all these guys.
Andy – It’s surprising, there doesn’t seem to be a generational gap. I’d say this for a lot of bands- that simply a band is just a band. It doesn’t really matter when you started, as long as you just get up on stage and play music and have respect for each other. With Gama Bomb and Fallen Fate its been really really good.
AS: You’ve recently taken part in the film documentary ‘A Story of a Time to Come – The Story of UK Thrash’. What was your part in that?
Nige – We only really did a short interview in it. It’ll be nice to see how he [Josh Callis Smith, director] approaches it but I think he’s maybe focusing a bit too much on the newer bands which I find a bit odd since its supposed to be a history of UK thrash. Maybe he should have started right at the beginning y’know? It will be interesting to see how it comes out. Its a good idea though.
AS: Obviously, you guys have been around for such a long time and have seen a lot of genres come and go. What are your thoughts on the general state of metal now and where is it going in the future, especially with this whole thrash revival thing – can it last?
Nige – It’s ok calling it a thrash revival. I guess it is in many ways, but what you’ve got to look at is the fact that Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax have just gone out and done massive tours. And then you look at the likes of Testament, Exodus, Overkill, Onslaught, Kreator, Destruction- they’re all still here. Admittedly, a lot of us stopped and then got back together again so its hard to say how far it can go. I guess as long as the original big bands keep playing live and keep playing massive shows and turning out good albums it’s there for the foreseeable future.
AS: My take on it is that Metal ebbs and flows. In the mid 80s metal was huge, then it went through a bit of a lean period in the early 90s.
Andy – Trends always happen in cycles. I’m sure we’ve had a little bit of a revival in 80s pop music and i guess in the next few years all the 90s trance and house stuff will make a big resurgence. I think the difference now is people’s access to music. I think albums being deleted and back catalogues not being available- that’s never going to happen again. If I mentioned to you a band, you can instantly go online and access the back catalogue instantaneously. I think metal will find its own place but it has always been there though.
Nige – My only concern for the future of metal is that right now its on the crest of a wave, maybe not so much in the UK but definitely in Europe and elsewhere- its going up and up again but, when you look at the bands these days you’re not seeing another Metallica or Motley Crue or Aerosmith. That’s what its severely lacking and I can’t see it ever happening again to be honest.
AS: Maybe it’s also a case of things being outside of the music industry as well, such as the recession, digital revolution and even bands courting social media so much these days. What are your thoughts on that?
Nige – I was chatting to a young lad last night in Newcastle who has just joined a band and he asked me for advice. I gave him the same advice I gave to the Fallen Fate guys. He said that his band wanted to make an album but didn’t know whether to release it themselves or go with a label. My opinion was that I know a lot of bands newer bands like Evile and Gama Bomb have got these 360 deals, from Earache in particular, where the label puts the record out, markets it heavily and then takes everything back. But, in this day and age the labels have to protect themselves. They can’t just throw money willingly because they’ll just go bust. So I said to this young guy, look, if you want to go up the ladder as a band my advice would be to go with one of these deals whether you like it or not. I don’t see how, if you go and release your album on the internet. . . y’know, how many copies are you going to sell?, how are you going to promote it outside your Facebook or Myspace? If you go to a label they will market it worldwide or at least with however many territories you signed for. They may take about 90 per cent of all the money you’ve ever earned though. Its a tough call. If you release it yourself, you earn nothing. If you go with a label these days you don’t earn a lot of money But, you’ve got the exposure to go on and do things and move up the ladder. Its really tough for young bands.
AS: Ok, enough depression then. What has been the funniest or most embarrassing incident that has happened on tour so far?
Andy– Sy nearly fell off the stage in Swansea! He went to put his foot down and realised that there wasn’t any stage there and just managed to grab on. We’ve managed to be pretty incident free though haven’t we?
Nige – Yeah luckily! Usually there’s a falling incident somewhere (laughs).
AS: Nice. So after this UK and Ireland tour, you play in South America before finishing up in Spain. Do you guys have plans post- touring, or is that all top secret?
Nige – Well, some of it’s secret. There’s something being negotiated for January hopefully at the moment with Transatlantic Records. We’re also meant to be going to India in February to headline some Wacken metal battle show. It’s where there’s a competition all around the world for bands to come and play. I think there’s five stages in India. We’ve been offered to go and headline which is great.
Sounds of Violence is out now!