Alt-metal quartet, Ritual, are the most talked about and envied band in Hertfordshire. How many other artists can boast an upcoming EP featuring Anneke van Giersbergen, Jørgen Munkeby (Shining) and a cameo from Devin Townsend?
“I remember when we were writing ‘Pandemonium’ and thinking, imagine if Anneke were on this song. Then Covid hit, and she put it out there that she’d be accepting submissions for bands that were looking to hire her vocal talents,” says vocalist, Franco. “I think we missed the deadline, didn’t we?” adds bassist, James Marinos.
The band contacted her after the deadline and explained that the song they had in mind would be perfect for her. It intrigued the charismatic Dutch singer to give it a listen. She responded days later with a glowing appraisal. “That was unbelievable,” says Franco. “We all grew up listening to The Gathering, so to hear her say that was amazing.”
Ritual started work on the upcoming Enigma EP as far back as 2019, yet we’re in 2022, and it still has no official release date. I ask them the question on everyone’s lips – why is it taking so long to release it? “There are so many loose ends to tie up,” says Franco. “Yeah, we don’t want to just put it out and nothing happens,” chimes in guitarist, Mike Lewin. “And of course, you had Covid as well. We went into lockdown the day we started recording it.”
I probe deeper, and the truth is they can’t afford something as career-defining as this to slip under the radar. Devin Townsend adds a melodramatic narration to closing track, ‘Walk of Shame’. It’s the Devin we know from his Deconstruction era – humorous, absurd, self-mocking. “As a result of doing the track with Anneke, an opportunity to get Devin involved presented itself to us, and we couldn’t not take it by the horns,” explains Franco. “I sent him the lines, which I was going to originally do on the outro myself, but, frankly, I don’t have Devin’s savoir-faire. We all thought there was no way in hell we’d actually get a reply. But a couple of days later… hey presto …a message arrived with his contribution and unsurprisingly he absolutely nailed it!”
We’re already on our second round of drinks after five minutes of conversation. Today’s setting is the Garden City Brewery in Letchworth Garden City. It’s one of England’s few success stories in town-planning since the Second World War. You can still feel the naïve optimism of the 1960s when you walk up the high street and through the spacious walkways and abundant tree plantations. But it’s an optimism that glitters with a pang of nostalgia. Few shoppers grace the streets. The shops that open today are ready for a quiet day of trading.
By contrast, the craft ale pubs have much more reason to be optimistic. Our venue for this interview offers a selection of beers from Europe and America. People walk in and out with wide eyes and twitching eyebrows. Some are even tourists. The bar woman takes one look at Mike Lewin’s six-foot-four frame and ten-inch beard and concludes that he must be a hipster with a love of craft ale. Ironically, it’s bassist, Marinos, who’s the craft ale buff. He writes an online blog called Jimmy Brews and works in the industry as a freelance consultant.
So, what was it like working with a musician as accomplished as Norway’s most respected black metal/jazz fusion artist from Shining (not to be confused with Swedish extreme metallers, The Shining)?
“It was weird. First time he called me, I’m about to get in the bath,” says Franco. “So, I’m there, face-timing Jørgen Munkeby, and we’re talking about his saxophone parts.” As a man grounded in music theory and virtuoso standards, you’d think Shining’s frontman would be a hard person to overrule if you disagree with his ideas. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. “He’s such a nice guy,” says Franco. “He’s too polite to outright say, ‘Do this or do that,’ but he’d say, like, ‘Maybe you should do this here’, and we’d be like, oh, okay. Sure. Why not?”
The most enjoyable feature of Enigma is its unpredictability and colourful range of genres. The song, ‘Seven Gates’, starts with a mid-tempo Megadeth riff and gears up into a Therion-style symphony of distorted guitars and operatic female vocals. Franco doesn’t know whether to laugh or smile when I say his vocal range is like somebody with dissociative identity disorder. One minute he’s rapping like Mike Patton in The Real Thing era, the next moment he’s snarling like Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys or hitting you with the hoarse-throat voice of Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke). Lewin’s guitar tone is sludgy in a Mastodon way, but his riffs are more like Black Sabbath than Behemoth. You can see why the demo track for ‘Pandemonium’ caught the ear of Anneke van Giersbergen. This is what you get when you mix abrasive punk rock with the Beastie Boys and Twelve Foot Ninja. Pioneering British jazz harpist, Amanda Whiting, adds her touch to the middle eight when you think it can’t get any better.
I ask them if the genre-hopping in their music can be as polarising to some as it is mesmerising to others. “That’s it,” says Lewin. “Promoters don’t know what to do with us.” It’s the classic Faith No More conundrum of the late 1990s. What can you do when you’re too heavy for the indie crowd and too artsy for the metal crowd? “Yes, exactly,” agrees Franco.
Ritual’s singer doesn’t consider himself qualified enough to be a metalhead these days. He reached this conclusion at Bloodstock 2014 when he found himself going back to his tent to listen to Motown records rather than moshing through a line up a Megadeth, Carcass, Obituary and Emperor. This bothers him because of the music his band play, but most people would be sceptical if an alternative metal act listened to the heavy stuff and nothing else. “I was watching Obituary, who I’d seen playing a bunch of times before,” he recalls. “I was watching them but had just been listening to a Four Tops album properly a few days before and had a hook of theirs stuck in my head. So, I ended up leaving early to go back to the tent to get food and listen to more of that but ended up staying listening to Motown all night. Then I wondered what the hell I was actually doing at the festival seeing that’s what I wanted to listen to.” His eyes bulge when he remembers that Shining were on the bill at the same festival. “Yes, in fact, that’s the year that I was headed to one stage and then got distracted by Jørgen’s sax and headed in a completely different direction.”
Marinos joins us once more after getting another round of beers. I’m talking about the current stagnation of the brutal death metal genre with Mike Lewin, yet this animates Franco. He sits up and enthuses about the day he first heard Cryptopsy’s None So Vile record. My mouth widens when he talks about his favourite records from the Canadian bruisers. “For somebody who no longer considers himself a metalhead, you know a lot about this genre,” I chuckle.
Each member tells me what they had on their playlist over the last twelve months. Lewin enjoyed Cannibal Corpse, The Four Tops, Ghost, Twelve Foot Ninja, Abba, and Exodus on his stereo. Marinos smiles when I ask him for his playlist. He and Franco have an obsession with the exotica music of the legendary American composer, Les Baxter. The bassist also likes his jazz fusion and the classic early 90s metal of the Lollapalooza era. All agree that Ghost are cool. “The problem is people see an image of Ghost and expect them to be like a death metal band or something,” says Franco. Mike Lewin assures me that Ghost’s Abba influence is ingenious.
The band have two music videos in post-production and need to start on their electronic press kit to showcase their music to promoters and record labels. These are exciting times for Ritual. “The songs on Enigma are old,” laughs Marinos. “It’s like a completely different band.”
The good news is they’re well on the way to finishing their debut album. Any attention they receive from their Enigma EP should also give Hertfordshire alternative metal groups like Skarlet Envy and Silverhex a boost. Let’s hope this is only the beginning of an exciting chapter in their career.
*** Ritual aim to self-release their Enigma EP featuring Anneke van Giersbergen, Jørgen Munkeby, Amanda Whiting and Devin Townsend in the late spring of 2022. You can find their first two EPs on Bandcamp here.