For the second successive year, PlanetMosh is delighted to be the main media partner, and main stage sponsor, for Monsters Of Rot, the annual celebration of the best in the extreme Irish metal scene. As part of our continuing build up to the August 1 event, we today turn the spotlight on Belfast bruisers Altus – a band who, in the three short years they have been around, have changed their line up more often than guitarist Michael ‘Mikk’ Legge has done his boxer shorts!
So, what better place to start than by asking the Jackson-wielding axeman [pictured left] about these changes: by this writer’s reckoning, Altus have, with the exception of Legge himself, more or less changed their entire line up and, with the latest incarnation, undergone yet another switch in musical direction. Do these changes make it difficult for the band to build a solid fan base, as people don’t quite know what to expect when they go to an Altus show?
I think the line up of the band has been a natural evolution. At the risk of slipping into tired soundbites so early, this is unquestionably the best line-up we’ve had. I honestly believe that any of the other four guys (vocalist Steve “Sleeve” Reynolds, lead guitarist Dara Monaghan, bassist Terry McHugh and drummer Paul Gallagher,) could legitimately claim to be among the very best in the country at what they do. It’s a lucky position to be in but also a hell of a difficult one for me, trying to keep up with those guys!
The line up changes aren’t as myriad as people may think – we’re nearing three years in and have five former members, and the lineup changes have been gradual. People come and go, it’s the nature of the business, but all the transitions have been smooth. Dara, Sleeve and Terry have all been in for a while now and I’ve been there from the beginning, so it’s not quite been the revolving door the numbers may suggest at first glance. We’re hardly Guns ‘N Roses (thank god) or Megadeth.
Regarding a fan-base, it’s up to people to make up their own minds. There are people still attending our shows and keeping up with our social media stuff who’ve been watching us from our very first show. But there’s a lot more new faces there too, which is obviously great to see. Like I say, it’s an evolution. We’d rather keep moving forward and keep things fresh and relevant than feel like we’re tied to some kind of nostalgia and ten years from now still be playing the exact same venues to an ever-decreasing circle of the exact same people, reminiscing about who we used to be. A band is a living thing in its own right, and like all living things, you either adapt or you die. It’s something I personally am taking tremendous pleasure from- people think they know what we’re about and then we get up, do what we do, and you actually get to watch as the penny drops with them. Metal fans are notorious for judging bands on what they think they know and challenging those preconceptions is a lot of fun. Of all the feedback we’ve had from people, I’d say “well, I was NOT expecting that,” would be one of the most common, particularly with this line up.
So, what has the current line-up got that you feel was perhaps lacking from previous incarnations of the band?
I think we’re definitely a more cohesive unit musically and in terms of song-writing we’re all very much on the same page and pulling in the same direction – we all contribute to writing sessions and everyone has a valid and equally valued input. There’s a real sense of determination and focus that maybe wasn’t there before. That’s not to say that I feel things were necessarily lacking from old line-ups – it’s certainly not a case of I feel that any previous incarnation of this band has been weak – it’s just that this one is so good. With all due respect to all that’s gone before, and I mean that, we’re now a much, much better band than we’ve been before.
With each line up change, is it difficult to rewrite older songs to suit your slightly amended style – you’ve gone from out-and-out groove metal to death to now a combination that lies somewhere between the two – or is it a matter of constantly writing new material to echo that shifting dynamic?
Much like the line-up of the band, the songs have evolved naturally as different players of different styles have passed through the band and left their mark on it, and it’s all been for the better. For instance, listen to our last EP then watch us play those songs live – ostensibly the same songs but delivered very differently. As regards new material, it’s much easier to write new stuff than it was previously. Songs like (last single) “Malignant,” are a clear indication of where we’re headed. But we won’t be pigeon-holed or genre-tied, we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done, which is whatever we like. From the very beginning of this band we’ve had people tell us what we should, must, couldn’t or daren’t do and we’re still utterly ignoring them, no matter who they think they are. We are beholden to, and answer to, no-one except each other. Still to this day I’m unable to put a specific “label,” on what kind of music we play, and I like it that way.
You recently took part in the first ever Bloodstock Metal 2 The Masses competition to be staged here in Northern Ireland, and indeed made it to the semi-final: what did that experience teach you in terms of your development as a band and as musicians?
We actually really enjoyed it, the gigs were well organised and well attended and from a personal point of view I got to play alongside some bands I’d been keen to share a stage with. It also definitely taught me the importance of always staying gig-ready and “in shape,” if you will – our semi-final appearance was done with our new drummer Paul (Gallagher, Bad Boat/Yellow Car No Return) only having joined the band like a week previous. I think we acquitted ourselves rather well, if I may say so myself. I was very pleased to see Overoth win, I think with all due respect to all the other bands they were just a cut above, and that’s all that should count on the day.
Do you think competitions of this nature are a fair way for bands to gain exposure and gain access to major events such as BOA, or do you see a different way of doing it?
With all Battle Of The Bands contests, there’s always a danger that it’s going to end up a case of either who’s bestie mates with the promoter, or the whole thing turning into a popularity contest – I’ve seen both happen at previous “contests” here, although nothing whatsoever to do with the BOA one. I have to say, at that contest it wasn’t like that for a minute – it was a straight shoot-out the whole way through, and I don’t think anyone who was involved in the competition in any capacity would dispute that Overoth were extremely worthy winners. A Battle Of The Bands affair can turn in to an utter farce if it’s not done well, but when it is done well and it’s a fair fight, it can push bands to pull off some incredible performances. An idealised BOTB can be a good way to decide these things as it all gets left on the stage rather than coming down to who has greased the right palm or kissed the right ass.
Of course, there are five bands altogether from the island of Ireland playing BOA – our biggest representation yet: do you think this is a fair reflection of the strength of the metal scene, and the depth of talent, we have here at the moment?
The local metal scene is stronger than I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been at this for a while now. There are some legitimately killer bands doing the rounds in Belfast at the minute and there’s at least a gig a week, or far more if you’re counting other genres. We’re no longer just that wee rock beside England, the big hitters here could give any local band in the UK a run for their money any night of the week. I think the strength of the “scene,” much as I hate the term, is something that’s also borne out by the fact that more and more big touring bands are now considering Ireland, both north and south, as viable options when planning a tour.
You play quite frequently in Dublin: do you see any differences between the crowds there and those back home in Belfast, and do you think there are any lessons Belfast could learn from its southern neighbour?
I love playing in Dublin, it’s great fun. We pile on to the bus, have the craic for a couple of hours, fire into the venue, have a beer and a bit to eat, raise hell, then have the couple of hours of the bus back to hang out and wind down. I genuinely love it, we get to make an evening of it. I’d play there every week if they’d have us. People there are attentive and enthusiastic about what bands are doing. That’s not to say Belfast hasn’t been kind to us in fairness though – I love playing Belfast too, we’ve had some very good crowds on home ground as well. All that being said, anyone who knows me knows I’ve always been a bit of a gig-hound, I’d play at the opening of an envelope. Anywhere there’s electricity, as they say.
I think it basically comes back to what I mentioned earlier about not falling into a rut of playing the same venues to the same people all the time. That’s maybe something we’d let ourselves do before and people probably got sick of us. In the beginning it seemed like there was a while where it was harder to find a gig we weren’t playing than one we were! Playing further afield helps us keep things fresh and vital and helps get our music out to new people. We’d hate to become one of those bands that fall in to the trap of resting on their laurels – ending up a big fish in a small pond isn’t for us.
We’re talking because, of course, you’re playing Monsters Of Rot… what do you know about the festival (apart from that it’s backed by PlanetMosh and therefore must be totally freaking awesome)?
MoR has long been on the Altus hit-list, for me it’s on the same level as the likes of Day Of Darkness (RIP) or the Siege Of Limerick. It’s an honour for us to play it and I for one am absolutely itching to get at it. We aren’t going to be what people expect. Plus, a rake of bands playing demented metal in the arse-end of nowhere with booze and camping – what’s not to love? The guys organising it (Henchman Promotions) really have their heads screwed on and they are not fucking about, this is going to be one of the Irish gigs of 2015, north or south.
What do you know about the other bands on the bill? Have you played with any of them before?
With the exception of Bad Boat, we’ve never actually played with any of the other bands on the MoR bill before. That’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to about it – checking out some bands that are new to me. You can never have enough new music to look into.
And which ones are you keen to see?
Xerath and Abbadon Incarnate, along with Bad Boat, would be the obvious ones for me. But as I’ve never seen most of the bands before I’m going to make it my business to catch as much of each other band’s set as I can, and enjoy watching some other fucker play for a change!
Given MOR’s penchant for mixing up genres, and especially its championing of grindcore, have you any plans to through some piglet-style vocals into your mix of sounds in honour of the occasion?
Ha! Not even a little bit. Sleeve [pictured right] will continue to do his thing and I’ll throw the occasional incoherent bellow in, but don’t be expecting us to be going down that route any time soon. It’s just not our thing. That’s what I like about Sleeve’s vocal style so much actually, as vicious as it is you can very clearly make out what he’s saying. I think that’s an important aspect of our sound and our impact.
So, what’s next for Altus after MOR? Recording? More live shows?
The band have been talking about this over the last couple of weeks, as it happens. Priority one is a new release, I’d say. We want to get a recording done with this line-up to show people who we really are and what we’ve got. We’re already underway with writing songs for it – we will be focussing on that for the next little while. Starting to kick some big ideas around for next year as well, but it’s too early to go into details just yet. We’ll actually be playing one of those brand new songs at Monsters Of Rot, for anyone who’s planning to attend.
Finally, do you have any message for anyone who is thinking of heading to MOR and hasn’t quite made up their minds yet?
Anyone who isn’t convinced by this, just get off your ass and go to it. I really can’t stress that enough. A common complaint in “the scene” (that term again…) is that there aren’t any legit “festivals” locally. Well, here’s one on a silver platter. A wide musical range of bands from all over the show playing in one place, at a very reasonable ticket price. Plus, it’s on a Saturday. And there’s camping. There are buses running from Dublin and Belfast, amongst other places. How many other reasons do you need to go? All the folks at Henchman have worked incredibly hard on putting this together, and they deserve a turnout worthy of that amount of effort and dedication. Personally, for me August 1 just can’t come quick enough.
Monsters Of Rot takes place in Letterbreen, County Fermanagh, on Saturday August 1. Next in our series of interviews, we will be talking to Abaddon Incarnate.
Live photographs by The Dark Queen / (c) PlanetMosh 2015