It’s been quite an eventful year so far for Stormzone, arguably the foremost force on the Northern Ireland heavy metal scene, with a new album, on-the-road shenanigans involving one Sebastian Bach and the recruitment of a new guitarist, Dave Shields.
In a slightly different way of doing things, PM set the band’s long-serving guitar tech Mikk Legge the onerous task of getting the inside scoop on the current state of affairs from their veteran frontman, the always affable John ‘Harv’ Harbinson…
The last couple of years have seen Stormzone very much on the rise with being picked up by SPV Steamhammer records, releasing two critically acclaimed albums (‘Death Dealer’ and Zero To Rage’) and making some high-profile appearances at prestigious festivals such as FireFest, Raismes and the legendary Wacken Open Air. What’s been the highlight for you as a band?
Every one of those can definitely be regarded as a highlight but one particular festival not mentioned stands out as my favourite: The Headbangers Open Air festival. Organisers Thomas and Jurgen, as well as the true metal maniacs who attend this fantastic event, really work hard to make sure that classic traditional metal stays alive, and bands which continue to play that type of metal get a chance to perform to people who genuinely want to hear classic heavy metal as it was always intended to be played. We loved the festival. We had been aware of it for quite a few years and loved the fact that there was a stage there for bands which I thought had disappeared off the face of the planet. It’s an environment for legends, or newer bands prepared to play NWOBHM style metal. There’s no room for glam or death, you seriously won’t be accepted unless you fall under the banner of traditional metal. There’s no room for huge stage shows, so each band has to give everything they have purely delivering straight bare metal to an audience who only want it raw, loud and true! For being restricted as far as attendance is concerned it is run on a very professional basis and the bands get treated really well.
We would have been one of the lesser known acts, yet we shared a hotel with Virgin Steele and Anvil Chorus and we were able to interact with those guys on a personal level that never exists at the bigger festivals. Backstage we drink together, share stories and eat great food, and although the headliners and larger acts below them are definitely in the class of legends, they are still at a level whereby they’re just not that massive enough to have inflated egos and demands, so they were all approachable and the friendly nature of everyone involved made it a very special atmosphere. I mean we played, had a few beers backstage and then made our way into the audience to watch the rest of the bands, had some photos taken, drank more beer and talked to a lot of people, but the thing was we were a band that shared their love for what was happening at that festival and the music involved. The rest of the bands did exactly the same thing and I know that because I particularly wanted to see Stormwarrior that day, then afterwards met the band walking around the beer tents like we were doing, it was nothing to them, that festival is just one big family: the organisers Thomas and Jurgen are wonderful and they care about keeping traditional metal alive… I hope they keep doing that for many years to come!
Your latest album, Zero To Rage, is considerably heavier than it’s predecessor,“Death Dealer.” Was this a conscious decision or simply the natural evolution of the band’s sound?
That may well have been more to do with the production! We recorded the album in our guitarist Steve Moore’s studio, FireMachine Studios with him handling the engineering and producer roles. It’s exceptionally important when we are writing songs that we remain true to ourselves and we are proud to be able to create music in the heavy style that we all grew up influenced by. We take reviews into consideration of course, and when we released ‘Death Dealer’ last year most of those reviews were really positive: some of the minor concerns were maybe about the length of songs and the fact that we seemed to be playing classic NWOBHM influenced metal in an era which has seen heavy metal progress in so many different ways. So I guess with ‘Zero To Rage’ we were supposed to act accordingly and fall into line. But, we had to remain faithful to our true metal roots so ‘Zero To Rage’, in our minds, had to be consistent with our last one.
We approached the song writing in exactly the same way, which of course meant some of the songs are of epic length and we never tried to sound as if we were experimenting with other styles of metal. If we are asked why we still persevere with lengthy songs, well, I guess even classic metal bands can help the economy in some way, and in a period of financial hardship for people, if they have to pay over 10 euros for a CD and that disc can contain 70 minutes of music, well, maybe there should be 70 minutes of metal on there!! So yeah, heavy, proud and true describes us very well, true to our objectives, heavy at heart always and proud to be giving people a lot of metal for their hard earned cash!
While it’s clear that Stormzone’s music is very rooted firmly in traditional NWOBHM, it also has a thoroughly modern edge to it as well. The songs hark back to the “golden years” of heavy metal while still sounding fresh. What bands or artists inspire you as a singer, and as a band collectively?
Well, I hope that when people listen to us they know that they’re listening to Stormzone: we do definitely sound like bands from the period you mention – the NWOBHM influence – but we’re honestly not deliberately trying to be another Iron Maiden or Saxon. Our aim is to keep the music alive that great bands such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden made so popular all over the world. They will hopefully be around for a long time more, but when they decide to call it quits then it shouldn’t mean that a great style of metal should be confined to the history books.
I don’t think we actually originally set out to sound like our influences, but I guess if we do then it would be a natural thing. I’m a big fan of Helloween, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Hammerfall, Edguy and UDO etc, and it just so happens that the other guys love the same bands and obviously there will be hints of those bands running through our sound. Our last album, ‘Death Dealer’, was also compared at times to Iron Maiden, so with ‘Zero To Rage’ we were aware of those reviews and agreed that we had to be careful not to be classed as Iron Maiden clones. When the album was finished we all agreed that we had made a better album than the second one, and reviewers have been agreeing – but also again mentioning Iron Maiden, Hammerfall and Helloween as comparisons!! We just can’t help it! We write freely without even thinking about those bands, yet we always seem to end up with hints of them in our sound. I don’t really mind though, they are great bands to be compared to and it would be awesome to get to the levels they’ve reached!
You recently recruited a new guitarist, Davy Shields (pictured left), after the departure of Andrew Baxter, and indeed Stormzone’s list of former members reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Northern Irish guitarists. Do you think it has influenced the musical direction of the band having such a diverse range of guitarists in its history, or is there an over-arching direction you collectively aim for?
We have been really fortunate to have always had great guitarists at various stages of the band’s development, and we’re absolutely delighted to have found Dave Shields. We now have five guys who all want to be in Stormzone, and our writing and playing will definitely benefit from having someone in the band who fits right in with our style and working method! We have a great way of writing songs, and it involves every band member collectively or individually: Graham (McNulty – bass), Steve and now Dave come up with an exciting riff, sometimes based on a drum rhythm that Davy (Bates – drums) has developed. Those guys get together for a night in Graham’s studio with small amps and small drum kit and together they knock out a basic instrumental which they think constitutes an intro, verse, chorus and lead section. That gets emailed to me and I’ll then work out a melody and lyrics and one more night is spent working out any changes if necessary. Then the guys go at different times to Steve’s FireMachine studio, which has all the bigger instruments and recording equipment and the music for the song is laid down. I get a rough mix emailed to me and I finalise the vocal melody, lyrics, etc., and then make my way to Steve’s place to lay down all the finalised vocals. As previously mentioned, Steve is also a great producer/engineer, so he gets to mix and master the songs. That’s exactly how every song on ‘Zero To Rage’ was created, and a method that was fast, effective and definitely the way we’ll be writing and recording future albums.
Northern Ireland’s music scene is known for being fairly insular and self-contained, yet further afield Irish bands are getting more exposure and recognition than ever. Does this affect Stormzone’s plans for the future and if so in what way? Is it possible for a Northern Irish band to “make it” within their own scene any more?
I think the metal scene in Northern Ireland is improving a lot: we have regular metal and rock nights here in Belfast that are well attended by young metal fans. Having said that, a typical set during a metal rock disco here will mainly focus on modern metal, with an occasional 15 minute diversion into the world of Maiden, Saxon and Priest, etc.
We have some great up-and-coming bands here too – but most of them, although powerful, wouldn’t really fit into the European metal magazines’ ideas of heavy metal! I personally think that bands such as Triggerman, Trucker Diablo and Million Dollar Reload have the potential to make it big, although as you say, along with ourselves, we can all play locally to maybe 70 or 80 people but then head over to Europe and do festivals in front of thousands!
Sweet Savage and Stormzone are probably looked on as old-fashioned by the younger bands, but they soon get an education if they play on a bill that features either band, or both. Sweet Savage and ourselves have exactly the same attitude that was around in the exciting times of the NWOBHM. That ideal is to give people a show, more than just play music, to make it look and feel great during a live performance. Raymie Haller, Sweet Savage’s singer/bassist, is a very charismatic character, and I like to move around and look like I’m having a good time on-stage too, so both bands appeal to people on the local scene because even if it’s a small venue, we play as if we were on a festival stage, it’s all the same to us, people need entertained. So, the other younger bands see this and agree that they have to do the same thing. Their shows are becoming more flamboyant and that’s how things are improving.
Sweet Savage have been going (albeit with a few breaks) for over 30 years now! That’s an incredible statistic – and, of course, we have the connection that Stormzone drummer Davy Bates was with them for a long part of their earlier years.
With “Zero To Rage,” being well received by fans and industry critics alike and your name continuing to grow, it’s clear that Stormzone are the real deal. To that end, what are the band’s plans for the future? Are there any “dream gigs” you’d like to play or things you specifically want to accomplish?
Absolutely, at the moment we are talking with agencies with regards to touring at the beginning of 2013 to promote, incredibly, our fourth album! That’s what we’ve been concentrating on for most of 2012.
Writing songs for albums is always exciting, but it’s something that can be done individually or collectively, but a live performance brings us all together and just simply has to be done that way and it’s our favourite part of being in Stormzone. Even rehearsals are great as we get to discover just how much of what we create as a writing team can be put into practice on stage, and so far we have been very fortunate to discover that there will be no lessening of power and excitement when it comes to our delivery of the ‘new album’s songs live!
We will be playing live around Ireland immediately after its release in promotion of it here locally so we can get used to playing the new songs in front of audiences and then definitely at the start of 2013 we are hoping to get a lengthy support tour which will take us to mainland Europe in promotion of the new album. We will, of course, still play some of the ‘Death Dealer’ and ‘Zero To Rage’ classics too. Spain has been a great friend to us over the last few years, we’ve played there recently with Stryper, Cinderella and Y&T – and no matter what happens we will be touring there soon.
‘Death Dealer’ and ‘Zero To Rage’ were released more or less within a year of each other. In an age where bands often take breaks of several years between albums, what inspired you to follow ‘Death Dealer’ so quickly and is it a trend that you’d intend to continue with future albums?
I think each album’s release has been as a result of a new guitarist joining the band and the creativity which naturally develops. At the start of 2011, we had just recruited Steve Moore and our initial priority was to focus on the live shows which we had to do – a tour with Stryper and, of course, our Wacken appearance. So, recording an album that year didn’t seem like a possibility at all, and as you say ‘Death Dealer’ was less than a year old, so we didn’t feel under any real obligation to concentrate on a follow up so soon. Then we just began writing songs with Steve to see how that would turn out if and when the time came to actually begin working on a third full recording. All of a sudden ideas started flying between us and before we knew it we had written a batch of songs that we felt were much more than just exercises in seeing how a new member writes. These songs were ready to be considered for an album, and we told SPV that we were really happy with what we were producing. They told us that if we could step things up a gear and finalize the whole package by mid-September that they could guarantee a release before the end of 2011.
We´re very happy with how things turned out with ‘Zero To Rage’, especially as we were under a little pressure to get the masters to our record company SPV within the required schedule. After Wacken, we really began to speed things up, finalized arrangements and recorded the finished songs to the best of our ability, and we made the deadline! So I’m not sure if ‘Zero To Rage’ shows Stormzone at our best, but we are absolutely happy with how this phase of the band’s career has been catalogued based on how fast we had to work to achieve it. Now Dave Shields has joined the ranks, the same productivity has been achieved and therefore album number 4 is on the horizon!
Speaking of future albums, is there a new album in progress?
I jumped the gun there a little, didn’t I, hahaha! As I write this Steve (Moore – pictured left) is mapping out the tempos and doing the pre-production on the 12 songs selected for Stormzone’s fourth album. The drums and bass have all been recorded, Steve and Dave have laid down guide guitars which will now allow me to finalise the vocals. All the recording for the new album will have been completed by the end of September 2012 and then it’s over to Steve to handle production and mastering duties. We were supposed to be touring Germany in September, but this has been put back until next February or March – which is cool as it’ll tie in with the release and necessary promotion of said new release; so, not wanting to waste an opportunity we decided September was now going to be the month we nailed everything in the studio. We’ve already done a lot of pre-production and unusually we really looked at song lengths this time, and although there are still a couple of epics on there we also made a conscious effort to streamline most of the songs this time, so the album won’t be such a journey to get through. It’ll make a change not having to look at a live set requiring only 12 or 13 songs to play for an hour and a half, lol!
The band have toured fairly extensively in the last couple of years, are there any places that you’re particularly fond of playing?
We have built up a great following in Spain and we love going there at least once a year to play, either as a tour support or part of a Spanish festival.
Festivals are just awesome to play at and this year we played at the Skulls Of Metal festival in the south of Spain and realised an ambition, to play outside during darkness – a fantastic atmosphere and something that we hadn’t experienced at a festival up until that point as we were always playing during the day. Anywhere we go to play a festival ends up with a real feeling of fondness. As mentioned before, we’ve played at Headbangers Open Air, Sweden Rock, Lorca Rock, Raismesfest and, of course, last year at the legendary Wacken Open Air festival! I’m still not sure early afternoon daylight appearances are the best way to portray the power of traditional heavy metal, I think it’s best put across with darkness, lights and smoke etc, but we were very grateful for the invitations to play at these important festivals and hopefully made the most of them.
It’s getting harder and harder for a band like Stormzone to get these shows without being up at the level of, for instance, Hammerfall, and most festival goers these days are more-or-less into the much heavier bands, especially at Wacken. But what I loved about WOA was the fact that we were sandwiched in between these extreme metal bands and yet when we (eventually) attracted people into the W.E.T. stage area to watch us play: we went down really well to what ended up being a packed area!
If you can deliver heavy metal in an enthusiastic and powerful way then you can get the attention of even the heaviest of fans and Wacken proved that against the odds we weren’t out of our depth. I think promoters and festival organisers have forgotten how good and exciting traditional melodic heavy metal is, and I feel that we were a refreshing change for most people who had basically been getting bombarded that day with all sorts of extreme and death metal, we’re heavy in a different way, but we’re still heavy and hopefully, after Wacken, organisers will see our reviews and take more of a chance on us!
Finally, given the amount of shows and tours you’ve done with some true legends – Y&T, Stryper, LA Guns, Tesla, Ratt, etc, – you must have picked up a funny road story or two. Any anecdotes stand out that you want to share with our readers?
Well Mikk, you of all people know the old saying, ‘what goes on on the road stays on the road’, hahaha…
But, I can tell you quickly of one particular incident which makes us laugh every time we think about it. The driver had picked us up at our hotel to transport us to the festival site at Headbanger’s Open Air. He was a German guy but spoke a little English so we started talking to him and he understood most of what we said as long as we talked slowly. It had gone quiet for a minute and I decided to ask him what music he was into. ‘What’s your favourite band?’ I enquired. He asked me to repeat the question, and again I asked, ‘What’s your favourite band?, to which he scratched his head and answered, ‘I would have to say Sean Connery’! I did speak slowly, but there’s no accounting for a thick Belfast accent: he thought I’d asked him, ‘What’s your favourite BOND?’…
So, there you have it, the inside scoop on the current situation with Stormzone, from right inside the heard of the band…
Photographs by Marc Leach, Robbie Rooney and Shaz Ashby.