Kev Bower – Hell
Interview by Arto Lehtinen
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) started a new chapter in the Heavy Metal genre over 30 years ago. Several bands were founded which have achieved fame and glory or everlasting cult status. Some of them just vanished without much of a fuss. Hell, hailing from Nottingham, achieved cult status by putting out demos, EPs, and above all creating an occult based visual approach. The band disappeared from the map and years passed by until 2010 when Hell returned due to Andy Sneap’s neverending support and pushing towards the band. The debut album called HUMAN REMAINS is a masterpiece of occult heavy metal with an old school metal grip. The band’s guitarist Kev Bower enlightens more on how Hell reunited and goes back in time to the old days.
How’s it going there in England and in general what’s up in the Hell camp ?
It’s going great Arto, thanks. We’re rehearsing hard right now as we have a series of shows coming up at festivals in Europe and Scandinavia which will all be officially announced very soon. We’re already confirmed for Rockstad Falun in Sweden on June 4 and TUSKA on July 22-24, but there are at least five others confirmed but not yet announced. We also hope to drop onto a larger European tour sometime in the Autumn. It’s sounding great considering how complex some of this music is to reproduce live – many of my keyboard parts are played with my feet whilst I’m doing guitar at the same time, so I’m re-learning how to dance on footpedals right now.
THE DEBUT ALBUM – HUMAN REMAINS
The interview could be started out by focusing on the upcoming album of Hell titled Human Remains – how did the recording process of the album go under the observation of Andy Sneap?
The recording process was a total pleasure – Andy’s not just HELL’s other guitar player and the producer of the album, but he’s also my best friend, so although the process was a long one, it was a blast from start to finish. On a personal friendship basis, he’s quite simply the most genuine, honest, down-to-earth, self-effacing person I ever met, and the friendship is a particularly close one because it’s based entirely on mutual respect for each other’s skills and abilities, complete trust, the love of curry and beer, and the fact that either of us would do absolutely anything for the other – and we frequently do so. He’s been very, very good to me, and my gratitude at his kindness is boundless. On a professional level, I think it’s important for your readers to understand the difference between Andy the musician, Andy the audio engineer and Andy the record producer, because although they’re inextricably linked, they’re also very different. The audio engineering skill is always what hits you first, as this gargantuan, blistering slab of perfect-sounding metal battle-charges out of your speakers and grabs you by the throat. His skill in that arena is, in all probability, untouchable by anyone else in the industry. What the listener doesn’t immediately hear, however, is the input of Andy the musician and producer, constantly making suggestions how to ‘metal up’ a too-ordinary guitar riff, how to reshape a sound so that it hits harder, how to move riff patterns around so the structure is right, running through a dozen combinations of guitar and amp to find one which sits perfectly in the mix, along with supporting, coaching and encouraging the player to deliver their absolute best performance – stuff like that. His job as a producer is to portray a band in their best possible light within a given slice of time, and his ear for music is razor-sharp. He knows exactly what will work and what won’t. Plus – he’s a killer musician in his own right – there were several instances during the guitar tracking process, for example, when he would come up with some oddball idea which I couldn’t get my head around – so he would just grab the guitar off me and play it himself. It was really this which saw Andy become a permanent guitar-playing member of HELL as we exist now. We also have exactly the same work ethic and we think very much alike – uncannily so, in fact. Right from the beginning, we’ve both always been very tuned-in to the finished result in our heads and consequently we’ve come up with exactly the same ideas over and over again at the same time, so we don’t disagree that much. When there is a difference of opinion, I almost 100% go with Andy’s suggestions because ultimately, he’s the producer, and a track record like his just can’t be argued with. He did let me have my own way once, though. I think it was a Tuesday.
The album consists of the old material from the era of 1982 – 1987 with the fresh touch and arrangements, right? Was it an obvious choice and way to refresh and give new sound of the 21st century to the old classic Hell material under Andy Sneap’s observation and but meanwhile keeping the old Hell spirit alive in the songs was however the major part in the re-recording process?
You have completely hit the nail on the head with that question, Arto – and you’re 100% right. The whole objective of this was to produce a killer album which was 100% relevant and 100% viable in 2011 – but to retain the essence of HELL in a totally undiminished and undiluted way, and I think we have totally succeeded in doing that.
The level we all went to (especially Andy) in keeping it as authentic as possible was ridiculous at times, he spent ages on internet guitar forums trying to track down the original ’79 black Hamer guitar I used with HELL back then (he joked that finding that guitar would speed up the recording because ’that guitar already knows all the songs’) and he was very adamant about retaining the characteristic oddball moments of the band. I suppose one of the major HELL ‘quirk’ moments on the new album is the vocal intro to ‘Macbeth’, which is a 28-year-old recording of myself, Tony and Dave performing the Shakespeare ‘three witches’ soliloquy in full-on Monty Python style. I cringe every time I hear it, but Andy reprocessed and cleaned up the original recording and used it as the intro to the song. I practically begged him to remove it, disguise it or at least shorten it, but he was adamant. “NO!! It HAS to go on!! This strangeness is the very spirit of HELL! It’s that quirkiness which makes it what it is”, and I guess he’s absolutely right.
What kind of process was chosen to make the album with current modern day advanced technology as you had worked as Hell with the total different kind of technology in the 80’s when recording the demos and the Ep?
Ha! The last time I entered a ‘proper’ recording studio I remember huge 2” analogue 24-track machines and all the old analogue equipment driven by steam, coal and horses walking on big wheels……. Nowadays there are no tape machines, everything’s recorded directly to computer using a system called ProTools. To be honest, although I was fascinated by the new recording technology, I didn’t take too much notice of it because I was too busy focusing on getting my head around the new keyboard technology I was using. Once again, back in the 80’s I had a fairly large keyboard rack, but each synthesizer would only do one thing at a time. So if I wanted to create a multi-layered part, it was difficult and complex, and also required about three pairs of hands. Sampling technology was just in its infancy and was very expensive, so I was continually frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t reproduce the stuff I heard in my head. Now – I just use two keyboards, each of which does about 5000 times as much as the whole of my old rack put together, and I’ve used this to great effect on the album. Rather than just having a bunch of songs on the CD with silences in between, for example, the whole album runs non-stop, it’s blended together with aural soundscapes which I’ve painted using synthesizers and sampling technology, so that the listener can close their eyes and use what they hear to visualise a carnage-strewn battlefield, a defiled human soul being sodomised by Lucifer, a plague-ridden Mediaeval marketplace witnessing the horse-drawn arrival of the body cart – that kind of thing. Andy’s really given me free creative rein on that side – he basically printed exactly what came off the keyboard rack – but he has also come up with some equally fabulous stuff himself – a great example being that of the Gregorian choir in the middle section of ‘Blasphemy And The Master’, which was all done for us by an opera singer called Stephen Svanholm – Andy recorded him singing the same vocal harmony parts 20-30 times over, and the result is breathtaking. There have been some real advances in guitar and amp technology as well, but basically the guitar is still a plank of wood with strings on it, so it hasn’t moved on as much as the keyboard technology.
How long did you spend working and mixing the material with Andy Sneap and was it after all an easy going process ?
The recording process was a very, very long one – almost three years in fact. The reason for this is that Andy’s obviously a top-name producer at the top of his game, he spends half of each year in the US, and he’s had the small matter of albums by Megadeth, Exodus, Testament, Nevermore, Dimmu, Accept and many others to deal with……..so HUMAN REMAINS was literally pieced together a day here and a day there over that extended period, as and when free time became available. I guess if you added it all up, it would come to about 10 weeks in total, but spread out over this extended period. The recording process was a joy, as I’ve already said – for anyone who’s interested in reading the entire timeline, I posted a regular ‘New Album Update’ blog at www.myspace.com/bowersdad so you can read the story of the whole session-by-session process on there. Mixing-wise it was 100% Andy – because that’s what he does. He’s said though, that this was one of the most difficult mixes he’s ever done because he was so emotionally close to it and he wanted it to be utterly right. I have about 20 versions of the ‘final, final, final, final, final, final’ mix which he kept sending me. He’d then tweak something again the next day……..
Hell has released four demos and one Ep in the 80’s, how did you select these songs for the album release from the past outputs ?
I have to tell you that putting together the track listing for ‘Human Remains’ was not an easy task. The major advantage (or not?) of having such a substantial back catalogue to choose from, made the choice of exactly what to put on this album – or more to the point, what to leave off it – extremely difficult. First off, Andy and I realised that certain songs which hit the spot in 1985 wouldn’t necessarily sit well in the new millennium without some serious re-working. Since HELL is a living, breathing and serious 2011 contender, the choice of material was important so that this fact was clearly reflected. Furthermore, certain songs which were always a must-play at gigs (‘Bedtime’, for example) only became infamous courtesy of the dildo-wielding stage lunacy which accompanied their live performance – and this obviously just wouldn’t have translated given an audio-only scenario. The choice just had to be ‘ALL KILLER – NO FILLER’. We hope you will agree that in the final analysis – our choice is a good one.
Andy and I also felt it wholly appropriate and necessary to include a RACE AGAINST TIME song, to tip our collective hats at the considerable influence Dave Halliday’s previous band had on HELL’s initial forays into theatrical lunacy, and equally to acknowledge the outstanding talents of Alan Short – R.A.T’s bass player and joint songwriter – an all-too-tiny sample of whose music and lyrics are featured on this album. What remains isn’t necessarily a ‘Best Of’ collection – far from it – but it is a wholly representative collection of material which conveys the essence of HELL in its wild, dangerously unpredictable entirety.
So far I have heard two songs and in my opinion they sound vital, timeless and pure metal to the bone. Did you find it amazing how timeless the old songs of Hell sound after 25-30 years later?
That’s very generous of you to say that – thankyou. It’s certainly been said many times before that HELL were extremely innovative, and the acknowledged influence on SABBAT then translated through the metal generations into the influence they then had on bands like CRADLE OF FILTH and many others. So – in that sense, it’s almost like looking at someone’s family tree, but it stops when you reach HELL. Andy has said that for him, the greatest aspect of the new album is that it’s completely pure and untainted by any outside influences, so as a consequence it just doesn’t sound like anything else out there. Throughout the whole long recording process I made a conscious decision to hide away and not to listen to anything else, because I didn’t want this originality to become compromised in any way – like when you hear a great guitarist play a fantastic riff – it sticks in your mind – you learn how to play it – and before you know it, there’s a diluted version of that player’s riff incorporated into your own music almost subconsciously. It’s simple human nature to emulate what we like, but I always tried very, very hard to keep it pure so the finished result was completely non-derivative. The ‘timeless’ aspect of it is what’s really exciting people – and I’m sure the main reason is that maybe I’m getting old, but so much modern metal sounds virtually identical to me – I sit there for hours watching Scuzz and there are a hundred bands who all sound and look exactly the same. It’s all getting very generic, very predictable, very stale and very ordinary. The most significant thing for me, though, is that once you take out the (admittedly technically brilliant) swept guitar appeggios, take out the kickdrum blastbeasts, the perfect production and the growled vocals, there’s just no song there….and I think that this return to good songwriting is a key element of why it sounds the way it does.
How and where do you ladle the source of inspiration for the lyrics?
A key objective of HELL’s music and lyrics was always to generate thought within the listener. Many of our lyrics tell stories which have a clearly defined beginning, middle and ending, and it’s always a challenge to fit something like this into a relatively short song – so commencing the storytelling process using subject matter which is exceptionally interesting, historically significant or macabre was, and still is a great starting point. I still honestly don’t know where a lot of it comes from – they start as little seeds of ideas which I scribble down, and the best ideas then get developed into something bigger. I would also mention that the most disturbing things in life are often those which we can’t see, hear or feel – so our minds make up their own versions of them with sometimes alarming consequences. Historical atrocities and events should teach us, but collectively and individually, we inevitably fail to learn from them and we commit the same horrors, and fall into the same traps over and over again, and I find that a fascinating subject to write about.
Could you tell more about the lyrics of Hell? Referring to the previous question, did you re-write some of lyrics for the album or are they untouched ?
Apart from a few very minor changes, corrections and additions, they are exactly as they always were. Regarding listener expectations relating to the band’s name and our lyrics – don’t be fooled into thinking that this album is all about religion, carnage and gore, despite the fact that we have a ‘666’ emblem as part of our branding. A young, drug-addicted street prostitute is right now experiencing a HELL which has nothing to do with religion. An old man is married to his wife for 50 years and now she doesn’t know him anymore because of her Alzheimers – he is experiencing his own personal HELL which has nothing to do with religion, as is the thin, starving slum child living on a garbage dump in Brazil, along with all those poor souls in Japan right now. So you can see that HELL can take many forms – all of them dark, but not necessarily anything to do with the religious connotations of HELL maybe expected of a metal band. On ‘Human Remains’ – sure, there are songs about religion, but there are also songs about other equally challenging subjects as well – mental illness, prisoners of conscience, alien abductions, fire and disease, just all sorts – it all goes way deeper than that which you might expect. The original artwork for the album cover, for example, showed a fantastically-painted picture of Satan’s head with our faces spewing out of his eye socket, all surrounded by burning churches and bodies hanging from crucifixes – but we rejected it because it was too obvious, too clichéd, too one-dimensional and nowhere near thought-provoking enough. It goes back to what I was saying about wanting to generate some thought in the head of the listener.
Nuclear Blast is going to release the album, but what made you decide to ink a deal with them? I mean, I for one believe other labels must have pointed out their interest toward Hell?
Most definitely. We actually ended up with firm offers from five labels including three majors, which was an unbelievable situation to be in. There was a leak on the web at one point saying that we had signed with Metal Blade, but in the final event Nuclear Blast were the best possible choice for us, and always the first preference of Andy who had already worked with them and their artists for over 10 years.
One of the most important reasons for that choice was that Jaap Wagemaker, NB’s A&R guy, was an old-school tapetrader who had known of HELL for a long time, he had all the old demos, he loved the band and totally understood what we wanted to achieve by releasing this album. They have been intensely supportive of us, it was one of those classic ‘Shall we? Shan’t we?’ situations – but within the first week, we knew we’d made the right decision.
Inking the deal with them was definitely tremendous boost for Hell as they have nothing but the tremendous reputation of being the leading metal label in the market, but was having the deal with Nuclear Blast the first thought when negotiating with labels as they have the promotion and advertising channels and contacts ready ?
NB actually came to us quite late in the day – last of all, in fact. We already had offers on the table from Metal Blade and Century Media, but we sensibly waited a little longer – and NB came along. Their promotion capabilities are fantastic, obviously, and we took this into consideration – especially since we understandably want to get this music heard by the widest possible audience.
Back in the day Hell was supposed to release the debut album on the Belgium label Mauseloum which went bankrupt, were you kind of skeptical with whom you could make a deal or did you already know in the early stage of when looking for the labels which label would be the most idealistic one for Hell?
No – not at all. The horrible truth is that we had gigged for five years, we had amassed a massive pile of label rejection letters from every imaginable record company, and we signed with Mausoleum simply because that was the only offer we ever had. We signed this deal with Mausoleum because we’d spent years being ignored by major labels who couldn’t get their heads round what we did, and I suppose in hindsight, we had reached the stage whereby we would have signed virtually anything with anyone just to get some product out and to try and advance our career. The contract probably would have looked fishy if we’d put in front of an experienced music industry lawyer, but we had no money available for anything like that – nowhere even close, so it was almost like putting a wet finger in the air and hoping that we were dealing with someone honest and trustworthy. The only other thing I really remember about that time, was firstly the constant phonecalls Dave Halliday used to make to Belgium and his enormous phone bills which I helped him to pay, plus the experience of agonising frustration at the delays combined with naïve excitement at the fact that somebody had finally signed us.
LINE UP OF HELL 2011
Originally Martin Walkyier was involved in the reincarnation of Hell, but his place has been taken over by David Bower, why did Martin Walkyier leave Hell?
What happened here was that Martin recorded all the vocals for the album in its entirety, but as he’ll freely admit himself – he really, really struggled with a lot of it, simply because he’s a vocal brawler whose style just didn’t mesh particularly well with a substantial proportion of the HELL material which required high-pitched, defined melody, along with the kind of light and shade which Martin just doesn’t do. The other issue was that his sound and style are both so individual, and the singer’s voice is the instantly-recognisable sonic signature of any band. So, after a great deal of work, we ended up with an album which no-one was really 100% happy with, and which sounded more like an unreleased SABBAT set than a HELL album. We therefore decided amongst all of us that it wasn’t to be – and Martin was comfortable with that. He’s a lovely guy, we get on very well indeed, and we’re all adult enough to realise that sometimes you try stuff and it just doesn’t work out. David first became involved when I invited him along to do a small narrative – a voiceover on ‘Plague and Fyre’ in fact. In between takes, he just started casually singing along with the track, and Andy (wearing his ‘producer’s hat’) immediately realised there was something special going on. I had no idea David could sing like that, honestly, and once I’d heard him do a try-out on some other tracks and agreed that it was worth pursuing further, it was then just a question of him working alone with Andy to capture what you’ll hear on the album.
David Bower is your brother, did you immediately consider to approach him asking to join Hell as a singer, cos he has played with his hard rock band Crazy Diamond, or how did this come about?
No, he wasn’t considered at all because no-one (including me) realized he could do that stuff!! I’ve seen him in the theatre singing all kinds of songs – but in a totally straightforward, clean theatrical-tenor style. To put things into perspective, Crazy Diamond just consists of a bunch of friends who occasionally go out and play covers in small pubs to crowds of maybe 50, and that’s really to fulfil David’s needs as a guitar player – he’s actually pretty good, but of course HELL already has two guitarists. They aren’t really a serious band at all.
How has David Bower adopted a singer job in Hell, cos the material and of course the image differ from his band?
He’s done a killer job and I’m very proud of him. He’s also dropped into the frontman role brilliantly well, which is largely as a result of his extensive acting career and the acquired ability to be totally comfortable in front of an audience whilst doing wacky stuff. We have rigged him up with a headset mic, which means that he’s not confined to holding a mic stand throughout the set. This has freed him up to basically do anything he wants with both hands, and we’re working on some ideas right now…..
After the split up in the late 80’s did all of the members go separate ways after Hell cos as far as I know none of you continued in the making of the music ? Did you loose the contact to each other or did you time to time discuss about resurrecting Hell even though you had gone a tragic loss?
The only original member who continued playing was Tony Speakman, who played with various bands on the tribute/cover circuit. Both myself and Tim Bowler stopped playing altogether – we got jobs, got married, got divorced, all the usual shit !! And yes – we gradually all lost contact with each other, as we moved around the world doing our jobs and trying to earn a living and build a life. There was never any discussion about a resurrection – no-one even considered it, since Dave Halliday was no longer around and there was a general feeling that it would be like trying to re-form a dead Rush without Geddy Lee.
When the rebirth of Hell was started to seriously be considered, was every former member immediately willing to give it the second chance or … ?
For the recording part of it – yes, straight away. For live work – I think it’s fair to say that both Tony and Tim were initially skeptical, but for different reasons. Tim has a very responsible job where time off is hard to come by, and Tony is settled with a family, and he understandably felt cautious about the possibility of putting that family stability in jeopardy whilst he went away to re-live his glorious youth….for me, though, there were no questions. At all. I’ve always been a great believer in the fact that everything happens for a reason, and that each of us has a whole life path which is mapped out and pre-ordained for us way, way in advance. When I look back upon the last couple of years – it’s a story which you honestly couldn’t make up, and if, just a few short months ago, someone had told me that a HELL album would be completed and released, and that I would be shredding away and planning gigs – I would never have believed them. I consider myself exceedingly fortunate and so, so blessed to have been given such an amazing second chance. When a door like this opens up in front of you, you don’t just walk through it – you fucking run.
Andy Sneap, well I am pretty much convinced you will be answering more than a few questions about his role in Hell, but according to several sources he has been a close friend and fan of Hell since the early days. How much did he encourage you to bring Hell back to the limelight ? And how do you sort out if he has some studio project going on at the same time when Hell has a gig ?
The bottom line, Arto, is that none of this would exist if it hadn’t have been for Andy. When talked about old times, we gelled again almost instantly, and within a few days, I found myself sitting in the control room at Backstage Studios holding a guitar in anger for practically the first time in 23 years, putting down a few HELL song guitar guides to a clicktrack, ostensibly just for fun. But the buzz it gave me was just immense and it was extraordinary how it just came flooding back. Andy had this permanent, cheesey, Cheshire-cat grin on his face, and he kept saying – “We’ve got to do a HELL album. We just have to……….”
Apparently you were supposed to re-record some of the older tunes to in conjunction with the old demos, but it seems it is like a snowball effect as things have started rolling a big time unlike you may have expected in the first place. You are getting the album out, festivals, gigs booked and booking managements work for Hell, apparently you didn’t have that kind of thought in your wildest dreams?
The original plan for this was – ‘There is no plan’. We thought it would be cool and fun to re-record some old songs just for ourselves, and maybe to press up a few CDR’s for friends and family. But it just grew and grew – it took on a life all of its own and snowballed just as you say. But maybe this was meant to happen? I have to tell you that some strange things happened during the making of this, and both Andy and I have become totally convinced that Mr.Halliday’s around, exerting some influence here. For example – we decided to use a Scots pipe band as the backing pad to a twin-lead guitar break in ‘Macbeth’ – but if you’ve ever tried to find a full-on pipe band, you’ll realise that they’re not exactly easy to come by. So we decided that if we could find just one good solo piper, we could record him playing the same part many times, and then multitrack the result into what would sound like a full 30-piece band. I scoured the Yellow Pages, I tried everything, but all to no avail. Then, a few days later – I was driving along the A61 between Chesterfield and Sheffield at about 530 in the morning, and fuck me – there’s this guy standing in a layby, in the fog, skirling away on the bagpipes!! What are the chances of that? It turns out that this poor guy’s wife couldn’t stand the noise and she wouldn’t let him practise in the house, so he used this miles-from-anywhere layby all the time. You should have seen his reaction when I screeched the car to a halt and asked him if he would play on a metal album. I’m sure he thought I was out of my face…….and there was a black rook which sat on a wall outside the studio control room window, looking in at us for practically the whole week we were tracking guitar parts. It was always there – and it eventually started to come over to the window, tapping its beak on the glass. How do you explain that? There was another instance of us being in the studio kitchen, and all of a sudden, music started playing in the studio despite the fact that it was empty. As soon as we all came running through, it stopped. How do you explain all that? We’re convinced that he’s around all the time, just keeping an eye on things – plus, when Andy did the final mastering on the album, he almost fell off his chair when he discovered that the total running time was sixty-six minutes and six seconds exactly.
GOING BACK IN TIME
Going back in time to when Hell was founded from the ashes of two bands – Paralex and Race Against Time and Overdrive…. Well could you tell a little bit about those bands? Tony, Tim and you played in Paralex, but why did that band split up and how come you continued together and formed a new band Hell ? Was it basically a new venture for you to start from the ground zero ?
It was early in 1981 and I was playing in Newark-based Paralex, who were a basic, no-nonsense foot-on-the-monitors NWOBHM outfit. Having already poached Tony Speakman from Tokyo Rose to play with Paralex, I was introduced to Dave Halliday and his band Race Against Time by a mutual friend, and I knew instantly that this was the only guy I’d ever met who thought the same way I did, and that if the opportunity ever arose, I’d move heaven and earth to play alongside him. RAT’s sound is best described by imagining early Black Sabbath playing unreleased Rush songs.
The friendship grew stronger when Paralex and RAT joined forces with Radium, a Nottingham band, to form a cooperative – we would hire out local leisure centres and pool our resources to stage larger gigs, with each band taking it in turns to headline these shows.When I heard that RAT had broken up later in ’81 – that opportunity finally came. I left Paralex immediately, taking Tony with me, and approached Dave to start talking about forming a new band. We had already decided on our choice of drummer (Tim Bowler from the band Overdrive – he never actually played in Paralex) and the four of us met at Dave’s flat above Swanwick Post Office in Derbyshire. I recall that the only food available in the place consisted of half a loaf of bread and a tin of peas, so Dave made peas on toast and we all ate that. The outcome of that gourmet meeting was a new band which was to be called Hell. Since Dave and I were the principal songwriters for each of our previous bands, we started to write material both together and individually, and the results of that partnership (along with the all-important musical contributions from Tim & Tony) are the basis of everything you’ll hear on this album. We acquired a rehearsal and equipment storage space in a freezing brick outbuilding of the Four Horseshoes pub in Alfreton, Derbyshire, courtesy of the landlord ‘Mr. Fatbastard’ (we never knew his real name) and we spent every Sunday there from around 10 in the morning to 10 at night, polishing and honing these songs for a full year before we gigged.
Have you ever thought of releasing the older material of those bands with the unique sounds and booklets when Hell is getting more attention and interest as metal people is definitely eager to get a hold of demos etc of those three bands or especially your former band Paralex ?
To be honest, I spoke with Phil Ayling (former frontman/vocalist with Paralex) a few years ago – he wanted to do what HELL have done in terms of re-recording some old songs, but I have to say that I declined the offer because my heart wasn’t really in it. I enjoyed my time with Paralex, but I left to form HELL for good reasons, and those reasons are still valid – principally because I wanted to be involved with something which was way more challenging than Paralex ever was.
Hell was and still is known for the visual side as well. In the late and mid of the 80’s you definitely paid attention to how these pics were taken as you didn’t show up with t-shirts and jeans. You didn’t look just another metal band with spandex and t-shirts. In my opinion having the more shocking values, leather clothes, fire breathing, spikes, was the approach how Hell differed from other metal bands, but how carefully or systematically did you develop the image thing of the band or did this just come by natural?
It was all meticulously planned to the tiniest detail. Because we were musically so different and off-the-wall for the time, we decided that strong visuals would be a good way to make sure an audience stayed to watch a show even if they didn’t immediately understand the music. With regard to the concept behind it all, you have to remember that back then, there was no black or dark metal, no zillion other metal genres, no blastbeats, no high-gain amps, no active pickups, no Photoshop, no in-club house PA and lighting rigs, no endorsements, no designer metal clothing, no digital sampling, and virtually none of the visual imagery and technology-driven soundscapes which your readers will associate with metal nowadays – this stuff simply didn’t exist. If you wanted to research the writings of Crowley, you had to go out, buy the books and actually read them because there was also no computer, no internet and no mobile phone, which also made spreading the word so much more difficult – it all had to be done in other ways – like this interview would have been hand-written in pen and then posted out to you in an envelope covered in stamps, taking two or maybe three weeks to reach you. You want some music, Arto? Here, my friend – have this cassette tape………… Where a lot of the above things did exist, though, was in my head, but without an infinite bank balance the only way to make them happen was to invent them yourself and do what we just did for our video – build a set of great-looking fake church organ pipes for a video shoot using materials bought from the local DIY store. Those ideas (and hundreds more like them) were what drove the whole thing – the music, the lyrics and the show, and I believe that one of the main reasons why HELL is looked on as being so innovative is the fact that we were innovative. There was no-one doing anything like this back then. The image you speak of was all brought to pass as much as time and finances allowed, especially in terms of the stage show we mounted, the scale of which was virtually unknown for a small, unsigned band. With regard to the other aspects you mention in your question – that was all part of the focus we had (and still do have) on being totally professional in everything we did, and about differentiating ourselves from the herd in any way possible, no matter how small. Some of the ideas didn’t always hit the mark – but that’s inherent in the very nature of being prolific, it’s not always possible to be 100% right all of the time. Some of it undoubtedly bordered on lunacy upon reflection, but all I can tell you is that everyone I have ever spoken to who ever went to a HELL show remembers it like it was yesterday, even almost 25 years down the line. Doesn’t that tell you something?
The image, look, and visuals of Hell have always dealt with the darker side, mystical issues, occultism, but continuing this a little bit more as I can’t help asking if you were kind of influenced by these cult occult bands such as Coven frontlady Jinx Dawson, Arthur Brown and decided to create the visual and image of your own for Hell, but more into the occult and darker approach?
The occult thing happened almost by accident, both myself and Dave Halliday were very interested in it, and as the songwriters it naturally transpired that our subject matter would revolve around our personal interests, but I have to stress again that we weren’t especially influenced by any outside sources (although we did do a killer cover version of Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’ for a while.) We wrote songs about exactly the realms we most closely identified with, and these were usually ones which had nothing to do with fire, brimstone and all the other aspects associated with our common visions of the occult and the netherworld. They were often about people, or more specifically about some of the earth-walking scum who have dared to pass themselves off as human beings. You should also maybe ask Andy Sneap what realms were going through his mind during his recent visit to Auschwitz. We realised that there was no need for anyone to imagine a netherworld, because it’s right here, all around us, every day. The politicians and religious leaders see to that, and the principal reason why I’ve always been so resistant to following any real or imagined spiritual figurehead is that it’s necessary to become part of a so-called flock, which by definition means becoming a sheep. Sorry, but no thanks.
The occult theme had been used by bigger bands like Black Sabbath and of course another British metal bands like Angelwitch, Witchfinder General and of course Newcastles own Venom were heavily into it, but as for Hell, being totally different as far as I know. I think Mercyful Fate or The Brats or Black Rose at that time was sharing the same philosophy like Hell? All in all did you come across these Mercyful Fate mentions back in the day even though both Hell and MF started at the same time?
To be 100% honest, the first time I ever heard a Mercyful Fate album all the way through was just six weeks ago, so no, as a songwriter I was never influenced by Mercyful Fate, although I can imagine why people would make that connection and it’s strange to me that the comparison is only being made now, rather than back then. Did HELL inspire Mercyful Fate? You’ll need to ask King Diamond about that………and I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve never heard anything by the other two bands you mention.
Back in the day according to my research about Hell you shared the stage with Uriah Heep and even Mama’s Boys. Did you face possible conflicts with these main bands because of the Hell image and the way of how you used to play and have some visual thing at live shows?
No, I’m happy to say that every band we ever supported just let us do our stuff, they were all extremely professional and we were always treated very well. I have to tell you about a great ‘Spinal Tap’ moment on one of our support gigs – the time we played a support gig with Tobruk. Tony Speakman (our bass player) was our chief firebreather at the time, and his fuel of choice was lamp oil, which blows and flames really well, but also gives you instant and horrific diarrhoea if you accidentally swallow any. Towards the very end of the show, there was an onstage accident which resulted in Tony swallowing a whole mouthful of this stuff. As we sat in the dressing room immediately after the gig, there was this blood-curdling scream, the door burst open and Tony ran in. The toilet was already occupied, so in total desperation Tony kicked down the door, picked up and threw the somewhat surprised toilet occupant onto the floor whilst simultaneously removing his trousers and blasting the pan with the entire contents of his bowels in a humongous, tidal wave-like torrent. Now that’s something Nigel Tufnell would have been proud of.
Regarding the releases as you mainly released the demos and one Ep, where did you usually record these demo outputs? Did they get spread out via tape trading world wide?
The 1983 ‘Save Us’ single was our only official release. Absolutely everything else which is out there consists of either rehearsal-room tapes, or copies of the various infrequent studio visits we did. Because there were no computers and no proper small-scale audio recording technology available at the time, we used to record every rehearsal on a little Philips cassette deck using its inbuilt microphone, constantly wiping and re-using the same tape because we couldn’t afford new ones – and it’s mostly those ancient, distorted, mono cassette recordings which have been circulated and tape-traded.
As far as I know Hell did four demo tapes which presented the occult heavy metal. But regarding the demo 1986 was it purpose to find a new label after the Mausoleum catastrophe or did you feel to record the more and new material on the tape?
We were basically offered some free studio time and the 1986 demo was done to get a feel for how some of the songs would sound on the album when they were properly recorded. All of the other demo tapes were done by ourselves either in the rehearsal room, or on a little 4-track cassette Portastudio.
That Ep “Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us” came out in 1983, where did you record, how many copies were made and how released it or was it self financed Ep?
It was recorded at Revolvo Studios in Hull by a guy called Darryl Johnston, who later went on to form Ebony Records. The studio was basically Darryl’s house, which he had somehow soundproofed and put a tape machine and a mixer in. We pressed 1000 copies, and financed the whole thing ourselves. It was sold mainly at gigs, there was no proper distribution or anything. Here’s an interesting fact for you – the total cost for recording and pressing 1000 of those EP’s in 1983 was around £250 – and that’s what one single original EP is now selling for on ebay. Inflation’s a terrible thing.
I have read in various places Hell was ignored and overlooked by the press, did they just ignore Hell by having no word and article written in magazines or how?
No, we did receive some press but the comments were almost totally negative. We’ve lifted some of the funnier and more scathing ones (‘HELL – amateur demonic inept ramblings, the songwriting is very weak and the vocals are annoying’) and we’re printing them on the bonus booklet which accompanies the extended Digipak version of the CD which contains remasters of some of the old demo songs.
Well are you stunned and surprised at having the complete opposite reaction in the press nowadays as there are nothing but high praises and positive feedback everywhere, have you pondered how this happened now?
Not surprised at all – because my total genius is at last being recognized (laughs). No, seriously it’s amazing to see what such knowledgeable people on the industry are saying about this – it’s very flattering and incredibly humbling. The way I look at all this is that out there somewhere, are a hundred guys who could drive an F1 car round a circuit faster than Michael Schumacher, but the difference is that he’s in the driving seat and they aren’t. It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how much support you get, unless you get that lucky break and get seen by the right person at the right time in the right circumstances, everything else becomes almost completely irrelevant. Over the years, I’ve seen some fantastic bands go largely ignored because they didn’t fit the profile on that particular day, but it’s a fact of life and we just have to accept it, as do the thousands of young lads who play brilliant football – but who will never get the opportunity to walk out onto the Old Trafford pitch in a Manchester United shirt. As I said before, perhaps it was HELL’s destiny to have to wait 25 years before this happened, who knows? But it’s incredibly encouraging to see that people are finally ‘getting’ the fact that we never set ourselves up to show how clever or pompous we could be, but we consciously avoided the repetitive and obvious in everything we did, so I guess you could say there was ahead-of-its-time intelligence displayed in that element of it. We just didn’t want to be boring, y’know? We also spent (and still do spend)a great deal of time and energy thinking ‘outside the box’, and have always tried very hard to come up with ideas which are new and different from the norm, and as I mentioned earlier, some of this worked, sometimes it was just too off-the-wall for anyone to understand, especially back then when metal listeners weren’t as clued-up or open-minded as they maybe are today. Just in terms of some of the sounds you’ll hear on the ‘Human Remains’ album – there’s bagpipes, there’s me doing a low-level impression of an old-style Yorkshire comedian performing a narrative from an 80’s TV bread advert, there are soundscapes of a mental asylum and an alien invasion craft, there’s a Gregorian choir, I’ve used ethnic ney, yayli, santur and similar instruments to add depth and texture, there are horses, people vomiting, there’s just all sorts going on against the backdrop of this guitar-driven metal thunder. And you know what? None of that should work on a metal album – but it all somehow just does.
As mentioned earlier Hell was signed to the Belgium label Mausoleum, but things fell apart when the whole label went out of the business. Did you record any material, still unreleased, ready for the album release or did the label go bankrupt before you managed to enter the studio ? But were you about to record the material off from the demo releases for the album ?
No – the label collapsed three weeks before we were due to start the album, so nothing was recorded.
As the label vanished and the deal went up in the smoke, did you simply loose the interest and passion to continue, were you more or less disillusioned about record label at that time cos they mainly used to rip off bands or the co-operation didn’t just work between a label and a band ?
Not really, it was more a question of the fact that I had lived and breathed this band for five years with zero result, I was tens of thousands of pounds in debt, I had no home, almost no possessions, and I realized that unless I changed my life path, got a job and started to earn some money, I would be in serious trouble. So I made a decision to draw a line in the sand and stop altogether.
I have seen a few videos of gigs of Hell on youtube, but the quality has been kind of muddy, but how were the shows of Hell back then?
They were pretty wild on reflection, and as I said earlier, people still remember them vividly. The whole show was rehearsed and choreographed to the last detail, with a combination of theatricals, props, costumes, visual effects, lighting, pyro and stage movements all combining to great effect. It was almost like watching a play rather than going to a gig.
Have you developed something unique and mindblowing for upcoming shows I couldn’t help asking?
The stage show will be as good as we can make it given the constraints of a zero budget – bear in mind that right now we don’t have Rammstein or Iron Maiden’s money or major-label technical support, but obviously if the album does well and we gig on a more regular and serious basis, this will undoubtedly improve further, you better believe it. I’ve already taught Andy and David to fire-breathe. Back in the day, we used vast quantities of pyro, but that’s simply not acceptable anymore after the tragedy caused at that Great White gig in the USA some years ago where so many people were horrifically killed. We’ll do something interesting, though, of that there’s no doubt. It’s all about refusing to accept compromise unless it’s utterly unavoidable, because in the long run – quality, thought, creativity and hard work will always shine through. It would have been easy, for example, to accept the fact that we aren’t 20 years old anymore, and just go ambling onto a stage in a pair of jeans and a Pantera T-shirt. But we didn’t. We thought long and hard about what kind of visual image we wanted to project, and then designed our own stagewear accordingly which serves not only to fit in with the musical messages, but also sets us apart from everyone else out there. This stuff’s really important to us – it always was – and that again maybe explains why people still remember our shows so clearly. I also hope that when we go out and tour the album, the show we’re able to put on this time around will be just as memorable and different to the norm. I suppose the point I’m really trying to make is that it’s perfectly possible for a band to just stand there and play. But where’s the interest in that? We want to give audiences a show – something they will get excited and inspired by, something they will really enjoy and tell their buddies about. Of course stuff like that is largely determined by factors like budgets, but rest assured that it will be as good as we can possibly make it. If we had the money and the stage space, we’d use a cast of hundreds of souls with real Bubonic Plague, real body carts pulled by real horses, you name it.
This is definitely a difficult question to ask, but when the original singer Dave Halliday left this world in 1987, How much did his solution change the way how young metal heads looked at the world and life?
Any death is always tragic – but one at your own hand is the worst of all, because it’s the most definitive statement you can possibly make about your inability or unwillingness to deal with your current situation or surroundings. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I can tell you that Dave was an incredibly deep, complex person who hid much of his true inner self behind an outer mask of humour and general madness, and because of this I often wonder if there was anyone who really knew him. Whilst his devastation at the Mausoleum outcome and the subsequent collapse of the band was obviously a major factor, I’m not convinced that it was the total reason why he did what he did – I believe there were other factors in his life which drove him over the edge, and although I’m aware of some of them, this isn’t really the time or place to talk about those because he was my dear friend and I would feel like I had betrayed him if I spoke about it. But life is like that – every single soul who reads this article will have experienced great loss and sadness in their lives at some stage. The test of human character, however, is how we deal with those events, how we learn from them, and what we can salvage from the sadness to make us stronger. Right now, someone will be reading this who has just suffered a terrible loss and who is feeling desperately low. But – tomorrow, the sun will rise, the birds will sing, a new day arrives and the bad thing which happened today becomes part of our history. That’s the attitude I always took, and whilst sad memories remain strong in the lives of all of us (especially the memory of Dave, who will always be with us in spirit), nothing we can do or say will ever change what’s happened, so don’t look back and don’t even try – do something positive instead. Shout! Scream! Drink lots of beer! Record an album! Anything! Just don’t allow your life to become dominated by yesterday.
As for following the metal scene four decades and you still have the passion left for metal, do you view the metal music has become better or worse from your point of view? Which genres appeal to you most?
I already gave you my general overview of the scene several questions ago, but one other thing I wanted to say is to share with you how much I despise the obsession with pigeon-holing bands into genres, sub-genres and sub-sub genres which serves only to cruelly limit a band’s potential audience before they even get off the starting blocks. How many kids out there won’t even listen to a Dimmu Borgir album because “That’s symphonic black metal and I don’t like that – I only like category 4 subsection 3 pro-death anti-grunge emo non-symphonic melodic part 3 (subsection 2) metal-grind-genre-core?” One über-significant thing about HELL is that we have always been totally impossible to hole or label like this because there’s so much variety, so many extremes of light and shade in what we do – so you either have to just accept us for what we do, or fuck off. Maybe that’s why no-one could get their heads round us back in the day. This, to me, is also exactly the reason why record labels each have about 100 bands who all sell around 5,000 units each worldwide. It’s just too formulated, too generic, and I just can’t understand why talented players spend years learning their craft – only to enter a band which sounds identical to dozens of others. What’s the point?
Alright, I for one thank you for your time and interest in doing the interview for Metal-Rules.com and of course the last words are yours…
And thank you too, Arto, it’s been my pleasure. If you’re just going to buy one metal album in your life – make sure it’s this one. You won’t regret it. Thanks to all of you for reading this, and for your support and encouragement. It’s genuinely appreciated. Let Battle Commence!!
The official HELL sites