Vancouver power metal gods, Unleash the Archers, released one of the finest albums of the year with Abyss. Like any genre-defining record it also has crossover appeal. Critics lapped it up with the relish of a Covid-19 vaccine. Many, including Scream Blast Repeat, predicted this could be the ‘Black album’ of the power metal genre. It’s heavy, it rocks, it never wavers, yet the hooks are undeniable and the creativity infectious. We challenge anyone to listen to it with their hands in their pockets to see if they can hold back the urge to stick a fist in the air and bellow the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
As perhaps the greatest metal vocalist to emerge in the last five years, Brittney Slayes sets a high standard for herself and the band and shines once again on Abyss. It might not be possible for her octave range to expand any further, but the power and emotion are unmatched in contemporary metal. Guitarists, Andrew Kingsley and Grant Truesdell, refuse to be left behind in the virtuoso stakes and know they must be at their best to keep up with their charismatic singer. Abyss is the record of their greatest metal fantasises, full of pinch harmonics and string sweeps and riffs that can stand next to Judas Priest and Megadeth. Like fellow Canadians, The Agonist, this Vancouver quartet are metal to the core and proud to carry the flame for the genre’s march into the future.
We discussed the latest album with Brittney Slayes for a lowdown on what makes the band click, their adjustments to a year without touring, and the challenges they overcame to make Abyss one of the standout records of 2020.
Let’s start with the new album, Abyss. It sounds so inspired, like a band at the top of their game. All ten tracks are excellent as individual compositions and there’s no shortage of fist-pumping anthems. To the listener, it seems like you could have continued writing to this standard for a double album. But in previous interviews, you’ve talked about the trepidation you experienced in the studio on your first record in 2009 and also the stress of recording your 2015 album, Time Stands Still. Tell us more about the importance of the pre-production process this time around in making Abyss as stress-free as possible.
Pre-production is always a huge part of our process. It allows you to make sure you’ve got everything just the way you want it, and thanks to how accessible engineering programs are these days, you can get a pretty good idea of the final sound before you even hit the studio. Andrew did all of his demos with Pro-Tools, so we basically had perfect guitar tracks to write our own parts to. He programmed drums for me as well, but I didn’t want to set anything in stone until I heard Scott’s parts because he often writes things quite a bit differently than Andrew does. Having everything written or at least very fleshed out before you hit the studio means all you have to concentrate on is getting the best takes possible. Studio time is expensive, ha, ha. So, we always book just as much time as we need, nothing more, and we make sure to get everything done that needs to be done, no messing around. I know there are a lot of bands that like to write on the fly in the studio but that is just not us, especially on Abyss. We knew we were going to be doing a lot of genre-mixing on this record, so it was very important that every riff had a purpose and that it worked with every riff that came before. The songs were all written very much with one another in mind, so it was quite calculated, and unfortunately that kind of writing style takes time!
In previous interviews, the lack of recognition of Canadian metal bands in their own country comes up quite a lot. You seem to agree with this sentiment. We know Jeff Waters of Annihilator is often overlooked but this is not the case on the international stage. From a British perspective, Canada has some of the most influential metal bands of all time. Voivod, Strapping Young Lad, Gorguts, Kataklysm, Cryptopsy, the entire tech death scene in Quebec – it’s an impressive list. What differences do you still notice in how Canadian metal bands are perceived at home and on the international stage?
Well I must say that things are getting better. Metal is starting to be noticed on a bigger scale in Canada, and almost all of those bands you mentioned above have all won a Juno award now (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, only much, much smaller, ha, ha). The metal scene in Canada was always very underground, we had our own publications and venues and websites. It was never a part of the mainstream. But our big station (CBC) has an ‘alternative’ station now that plays metal, and the big arts magazines are taking notice. It’s nice, I guess. I mean, it doesn’t really matter because I think metalheads will always find you, regardless of whether or not the rest of the country knows who you are – know what I mean? It’s about embracing what you have and appreciating the people that supported you before the rest of the world thought it was cool. In our case, particularly, we have a huge fanbase at home and had to work extremely hard to be noticed outside of Canada. It was like the opposite, ha, ha. Local Canadian metalheads have always been there for us, and now the rest of the world is just catching up!
You’ve been singing in choirs since the age of eight. The staff at Scream Blast Repeat played Abyss for various people who don’t normally like metal, and they all responded with surprise and an appreciation for the music, especially the prowess of your voice. “She must be classically-trained,” is always the reaction we get from these people. What is your experience in the last twelve months in picking up new fans that would not normally listen to power metal or metal in general?
We love making new fans, regardless of whether or not they are traditional metalheads; all types are welcome! After we released ‘Northwest Passage’, a cover of a beloved Canadian folk song, we had a lot of non-metalheads reach out to tell us that they were trepidatious at first (being fans of Stan Rogers) but that they thought we did the song proud and enjoyed being introduced to metal this way. That is such a cool feeling, knowing that music-lovers in general enjoy our stuff, because I think that means that they hear what’s underneath it… The passion we have for our craft, the care we take with our writing, the effort behind the stories and the lyrics. It’s not just surface listening; they are really taking it in, and that means a lot to us. I hope we may have converted a few over to the dark side this last year. The world needs more metalheads.
You have a voracious reading appetite. What is on your reading list at the moment (fiction and non-fiction), and how do you find time to read on tour if your daily routine involves waking up at 4pm every day?
Ha, ha, ha. Who told you that?! No, it’s true… You get into the strangest rhythm on tour, ha, ha, ha… Right now, I am in the middle of The Witcher series, plus I have Testaments by Margaret Atwood up next and Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark on constant standby. I have read it once but am reading it again to soak up more of the sweet, sweet science. I am also reading a bunch of different comic/ graphic novels series’ including Rat Queens, Black Science, East of West and I just finished Descender. Usually on tour I read after the show. When everyone gets ready to party, I go to bed because my voice can’t handle late nights like the boys can. But when we have a day off…
Napalm Records approached you in 2015 at a critical juncture when you’d just finished Time Stands Still. The band had their mind set on a career as an independent artist and reservations about inking a deal with a record label after eight years of going it alone. Even now, you have high-level involvement in the band’s merchandise operations and promotional activity. So, what benefits do you get from your deal with Napalm Records that you could not get as a self-sufficient artist?
The opportunities that come from being on a label are much greater than when you are independent. Booking agents will not even look at you without a label because they want to make sure that the band will be pushed on all levels and help sell tickets. It also helps with collabs and finding tour mates. I think we would have gotten to the point we are at eventually without Napalm, but it would have taken much, much longer. We are happy to be a part of the Napalm family and know we made the right decision all those years ago!
Covid-19 put a stop to the excitement that comes with visiting a host of new countries on a world tour. Which three countries were you most looking forward to visiting for the first time in 2020 and why?
Australia was a big one for us… We have had fans down there since we put out Behold The Devastation in 2009, and we so badly want to come and play for them! Plans to tour there have thankfully been salvaged for late 2021 though, so hopefully that works out. We were also slated to go to Brazil this year for the first time, and again we have had a lot of fans wanting to see us down there for some time, so we can’t wait to get that going. Plus, we hear fans down there are nuts so can’t wait to see that first-hand! Lastly, I think we were most excited to get to the Scandinavian countries. We had festivals booked in Finland and Sweden, and we’ve never played up there before, so we really wanted to do some sightseeing and play for our fellow northern brethren!
In our review of Abyss, we stated: ‘These Vancouver natives would have been millionaires in the era when CD sales were the dominant model. But this is the age of streaming and few people buy albums, which is a shame because Abyss is a record everybody should own in a physical format.’ Other than merchandise sales, which other income streams do you rely on?
Tour is a big one. If you book it in a route that makes sense, in venues that are the right size for you, and save money every way you can, then, tour can be really lucrative. I will always remember the first time we came home with money; it was such a great feeling, ha, ha, ha. Took about ten years of touring for that to finally happen though. Funny enough, the bigger you get the more you need to tour and the more expensive it gets, so you kind of have to make sure you don’t overextend yourself and try and do a huge production before you’re ready, otherwise you go back to the days of coming home with thousands of dollars on your credit card, ha, ha, ha. But yeah, merch and tour are definitely the only way a band makes money these days!
In the early days, you used to work forty hours per week in two full-time jobs while writing, rehearsing and performing with Unleash The Archers. That must have been tiring. Tell us more about the jobs you were doing at the time.
Early days, ha, ha! We all still have day jobs. It’s insanely difficult. We have to save up all of our vacation and use it for tour, so that means tour IS our vacation, but we don’t mind. It’s all worthwhile in the end!
There’s no prospect of touring any time soon. When will you and Andrew Kingsley get together to swap ideas for new material? How do you develop the songs? Does it start with him sending you a demo of guitar riffs with programmed drums, etc?
That’s pretty much exactly it, yup. He will come up with a riff or sometimes the better part of a song and send it over to us, and we’ll nit-pick it – if it needs it – or just help with the arranging, do some editing, that kind of thing. Once the song is pretty much laid out, he will send a guitar-only track to Scott to write drums and a track with programmed drums to me to write vocals. Once we’ve got a pretty good idea of the complete track, we will get together and jam it out and work out all the kinks that can only come out when you’re playing it live together. I think we probably will start writing casually quite soon here. We have some ideas for what’s next, but we don’t want to do a whole new album before we have even toured in support of Abyss, so, who knows?
A lot of musicians we talk to say, “If only I knew back then, what I know now, in this industry”. What examples do you have where this applies to you since signing to Napalm Records in 2015?
Well it’s not so much about when we signed with Napalm, aside from the exposure they have provided I wouldn’t really say that was a ‘turning point’ or anything. I think that actually came with Apex, when we sat down and really focussed on writing a cohesive record together as a band, instead of it being something that we just threw together on the fly. Both Apex and Abyss were carefully planned and laid out, and the writing process was much more involved than on our past albums. The idea to actually spend some cash and record with Jacob Hansen was the biggest change we made, and if I could go back in time, I would tell myself to do it sooner! We had originally wanted to record with him for Time Stands Still, but he was all booked up by the time we contacted him. I would also tell myself to listen to Lost Horizon a lot sooner, ha, ha, ha… And to stop being so nervous in the studio! That’s a big one. No time to look backwards though. Gotta focus on what is to come and do what we can with the time and resources we have now.
*** Unleash the Archers released Abyss on 21 August 2020 via Napalm Records. Read the original Scream Blast Repeat review here.***