Since the late seventies and throughout the eighties San Antonio has long since been a haven for classic heavy metal music. Enriched with such notable underground acts as S.A. Slayer, Byfist, Oblivion Knight and countless others the River City helped write the pages of Texas metal lore. You can count Syrus among the names of the band’s that defined the sound of eighties metal in San Antonio. Now reformed and stronger than ever Syrus has re-recorded a CD of their classic material with new vocalist Geoff Dee at the helm. We caught up with original guitarist and founder Al Berlanga who filled us in on the latest happenings of the band…
How are you doing today, Al?
Thanks Robert for the opportunity!
Hailing from San Antonio, Texas; the longtime Alamo city prog-power metal collective better known as Syrus formed all the way back in 1983. What was the metal scene like in San Antonio back when you guys formed? Was it already established? Just blossoming into fruition? Were there a lot of other like minded bands to jam with and clubs to play at?
San Antonio has always had a strong hard rock, heavy metal scene. More so than a lot of other places in the US. My family moved here from the east coast in 1982 and over there AOR was the predominate music. Because we lived in Virginia, southern rock was a huge deal. Molly Hachet, Skynyrd. 38 special and so forth. Once we got down here it was Sabbath, Priest, Moxy, Maiden and such. There were lots of bands playing original music and some covers just for fun. SA Slayer, Watchtower, Juggernaut, Militia, Byfist, us and many more. There was no live music club scene for what we were doing. We did full show productions…renting venues, hiring sound guys, light guys, etc. Between SA and Austin its was killer.
I understand you guys were originally known as Sacred Prey? Why did you guys decide to change your band name to Syrus and what does the name mean to you?
Funny because I don’t remember us going by that name but it was thirty-years ago so it’s possible. The name Syrus came from the character from the cult movie classic “The Warriors”. We didn’t care for the ”C” in that name, ala Billy Ray Cyrus so we changed it to an “S”.
Michael Vasquez was the original vocalist for Syrus. Why did he leave the band in 1987 and what was it like working with his temporary replacement Ray Alder (Fates Warning)?
Michael was an awesome frontman full of energy and showmanship. But he wasn’t our first choice. We had a couple of others but for a few reasons it didn’t work with those guys. Mike was a friend of our drummer Ken Ortiz and came to rehearsals just to hang. We saw him mouthing the words to covers we did and asked him to do it. That was that.
Although not a great singer back then, he worked on it and got a lot better. We rehearsed at a furious pace, kind of like it was a job. We spent a lot of time together but there were two distinct cliques, Mike and our drummer Ken, and the Johnny, Julio and I. Nothing negative just vibe differences.
Over time like a lot of bands; patience, decisions and differing musical direction lead to his and Ken’s departure. I was never one to wait for shit and so I approached Ray who playing in another band at the time called Bad Newz with his brother Rob. I assume because we were moving up the popularity ladder he accepted. Ray was a blast to jam with because he could pick up on the vibe of a tune so quickly. Then of course were his chops. But he was a bit younger than us and the desire to party was sometimes a problem when it came to working on songs.
When the opportunity came with Fates Warning, I suggested he audition. We were having a BBQ blowout at our rehearsal space with the guys from Fates and Omen. It was a Fates/Omen/Syrus bill in Austin and then it was supposed to be the same bill in San Antonio the next night but that was cancelled because Saxon was also playing that night. So the promoter added Fates/ Omen to that bill as not to draw away attention from Saxon’s gig. We all had a blast and jammed together. But that was Ray’s door opening.
Do you guys still keep in touch with Ray? Should we expect to see you guys open for Fates Warning next time they pass through San Antonio?
Ray’s a good friend and his brother Rob and I have jammed/ noodled in the past. But Ray being in Fates Warning has taken him out of the area and it’s cool. When we meet it’s like high school buds you haven’t seen in awhile. With the release of our CD this year, and Fates Warning’s new release, there has been talk of putting us together for a couple of shows when they are in the South Texas area. Of course Bobby Jarzombek was also a San Antonio musician from the Juggernaut days. His brother Ron and I are friends also…his days with Watchtower and such. The idea is exciting but it will be a wait and see.
Another former Syrus alumni would be former bassist Pete Perez (RIOT/Leatherwolf) who had a two year stint with the band from 1988-1990. What are your memories of working with Pete?
Pete Perez and I are good friends and had a blast during Syrus and after Syrus. Pete was awesome to work with because of his chops. Like Ray, we could do more musically because of the raised bar on skill. The only song to come out of this lineup was “Demonracer”, an instrumental. For many years after Syrus, myself, Pete and a few other members stayed active by playing in cover bands. Of course Pete went on to work with Riot and others.
Syrus reformed after a pretty lengthy twenty-year hiatus. What lead to the reunion and what are the current goals of the band?
There had been suggestions throughout the years but nothing really serious. Mike had done several other projects as well as Johnny. But really it was 2014 when Austin’s Militia and San Antonio’s Karion reformed and created a buzz.
Mike approached and said we should give it a go. Johnny came in as well as second drummer Jay Gomez. Original bassist Julio Paz had no interest so we rehearsed for a year hoping he would change his mind. Didn’t happen. One of Mike’s friends was asked to do it and it worked out well. Band formed. We Practiced for several months with the goal of re-recording all of the old tracks.
Geoff Dee (ex-Wicked Angel) is your current vocalist. Tell us about how you guys ended up hooking up with Geoff and what you feel he brings to the table as a metal singer…
During the bands hiatus, I continued writing songs and such, while keeping busy working in cover bands. I met Geoff a few years back but didn’t think he had the skill yet I was looking for. So we moved on. After Mike dropped out of the new band early last year 2016, our third drummer back then and current drummer now Tony Ramos and I decided to get the ball rolling on the recordings.
A couple of months later, Tony got a call about Geoff, who parted ways with the reformed Wicked Angel who wanted to try out after hearing of Mike’s departure. I had him sing “City of the Sky” and everything fell into place. He matured vocally from a few years ago so my reservations about him faded. He has a strong voice that has not been abused or worn over decades of use. So really he’s kind of new to the game. He has been very receptive to suggestion and direction, which has made him a better vocalist. Some bad habits are still there but have faded with practice. Tony, Johnny and I feel it’s a good mix for us all. Doesn’t hurt he looks the part too!
Your current self-released CD introducing your new vocalist Geoff Dee to the masses is called “Tales of War”. Where did you guys record this album? Who produced it? Are you currently shopping this recording to some underground indie labels?
We had time to record nine songs for the current release. We wanted eleven but with our Udo Dirkschneider gig this past February, we wanted to have the CD available as a quiet release….something for the merch table. So we just ran out of time. Most of us are fifty-plus and have families and careers so being able to take several months off to make an album was not going to happen.
It had to be done at night, on weekends, etc. We did drums at Tony’s place using portable gear. The rest was done at my place. Vocals were mostly done early afternoons before the schools in the area let out, minimizing noise. Tony on drums, Geoff on vox, and I did everything else…guitars and bass.
Original guitarist Johnny Castilleja had also left when Mike did but had a change of heart later on. But by that time all tracks were recorded. Time waits for no man! I also mixed and produced it. There are no standard record labels to submit to anymore, at least not without a top manager or some support/ backing from already established artist. Most indie labels want to sign you to 1000-1500 deals with clamped rights for 2-5 years to give them an opportunity sell through.
We did that with Steel Legacy for the White album/ CD/DVD. Didn’t matter then because there was no intent to re-form back then. So this time we’re self-releasing it. Yes I have heard all the pitfalls about going that route also but it doesn’t concern me or the guys because we are not in it to become famous.
At fifty-plus those days are long gone. We have some notoriety from the old days and are just gonna have fun with what ever comes our way. CD’s/ downloads are available from our website www.syrusclassicmetal.com and from CDBaby distribution service www.syrus.hearnow.com !
That means Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, etc. We also have a few indie services selling the record on their sites also. We offer any distributor who wants ten or more CD’s wholesale prices. Would we like to tour and play some big shows? You bet. But at this venture it’s about having fun.
Besides your new singer Geoff; your current bassist K.C. Sass is the newest blood in the band. What’s K.C.’s musical background like? I’m curious why you guys didn’t reach out to one of your former bassists when you initially reformed?
Original bassist Julio Paz was reached out to but declined the offer. His priorities are not with music anymore and haven’t been for a while. We did keep pestering him though! When that did not materialize, K.C. a.k.a., Kevin agreed to do the gig. He came in early 2015. But along with Mike, he departed also. Kevin had been out of music for awhile and only agreed because Mike asked him to. It was fun jamming with Kevin but he only did it for Mike. When Mike left, so did he. Our current bassist is Lawrence Lobitz, a longtime guitar/bass guy from the San Antonio scene.
Considering all of the band’s early material was self-released and long out of print are there any plans to reissue the demo material from 1986 and 1987 (similar to the 12″ vinyl compilation Steel Legacy Records put out in 2008)?
The current CD is done and ready. www.syrusclassicmetal.com is the place for details. We think it sounds good and people will like it. There have been positive reviews already. These are nine of the original tunes re-recorded, re-mixed, and re-mastered. Old school with a modern feel. I mixed and produced.
Syrus is set to perform at the inaugural installment of the Legions of Metal festival in Chicago, Illinois. Is this the band’s first show outside of Texas? What should metal fans expect from a Syrus live performance?
Yes, it is our first gig outside of Texas. We’re excited and can’t wait to play for the fans. Some great bands on the bill!
Tell me about how you originally got into heavy metal music. Who were the bands that inspired you to pick up a guitar and devote the rest of your life to your obsession with heavy metal?
As a kid I was into all kinds of music. But Kiss, Jethro Tull, Kansas and Zed Zeppelin were huge influences. Probably were I got my prog side of things. Later Iron Maiden and Sabbath with Dio were the guys I really dug. If I had to take one artist catalog with me to a deserted island it would Maiden.
From the perspective of a metal musician who has been involved in the scene since the early eighties, what advice if any would you offer to young guitar players looking to follow in your footsteps and form a heavy metal band?
Thirty plus years is a long time for anyone, rockstar or local musician. I would say stick to your guns. Learn the rudiments. These basics will help you understand other theory later as you grow on your instrument. Be diligent and don’t be afraid to say no to those that want to go “party” or the girlfriend that says “you can skip tonight”. If you like prog…do it. Reggae…do it. Practice. A big one is BE COOL. There is always someone better than you so check your ego. Every band needs a leader but you don’t have to be an ass. I could have taken some of this advice when I was younger but then things wouldn’t have gotten done.
What’s next for Syrus? How do you guys plan to spend the remainder of 2017? Any upcoming plans you’d like to disclose?
2017 is about gigs. Getting back on the radar. Later this year we will begin recording the next album. 3-4 of the older tunes that need to be redone or have never been released and 5-6 new songs. Some just need vocals. Then hope for a Jan or Feb 2018 release. Metal is my passion.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk metal with me, Al. Any last words for your fans reading at home before we wrap this up?
Thank you so much Robert for allowing me to share some insight with you and the metal fans of the world. We, you and I, do it because we love it and whether at fifty plus years of age or twelve years of age we just wanna rock. Bad pun. Take care and let me know if I can help you in any way!
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