BENEDICTUM – At The Gates Of Success
San Diego, California-based heavy metal outfit Benedictum formed in 2005, the central members of which are vocalist Veronica Freeman and guitarist Pete Wells. The pair had been members of a band named Malady for several years, and stayed together to group together a new collective following its demise. Drummer Blackie Sanchez and keyboardist Chris Morgan completed Benedictum’s inaugural line-up. “We decided we wanted try one more shot at really putting a little demo together and seeing what would happen out of it, like one last ‘Let’s do this one more time’” explains Veronica Freeman, vocalist and frontwoman for Benedictum. “Craig Goldy had always said if there was something that I came up with that he really felt he could get behind… I mean, he’d always been very encouraging but it was never just the right formula. And so finally when he heard the practice tapes that I had, he was like ‘Ok, this is the one’. He then put us in touch with Jeff Pilson (Foreigner / ex-Dokken / ex-Dio), and it went from there. Jeff took us on, and did our three-song demo.”
That three-track demo was cut at Pilson’s studio named Pilsound in Lake Balboa, California, with Pilson additionally contributing bass. Erstwhile Warlock bassist Tommy Henriksen, meanwhile, shared mixing duties with the ex-Dokken bassist. Attracting the attention of several interested labels, Benedictum eventually announced the inking of a record contract with Locomotive Records on July 9th, 2005. Inaugural full-length Uncreation arrived in January 2006. “I look back on Uncreation very fondly,” the singer exclaims. “Every moment of that was very exciting because it was our first real album that we had ever done, so all of that was so new and the songwriting process was new. Everything was pretty raw and new, and one of those experiences you don’t ever forget. You then go onto the next one, and you’re all stressed out because of the first one (laughs). There’s always that stress factor there.”
The Californian native deems Jeff Pilson “a member of the family.” “He is extremely musical all the way around, so in working with him there’s just a chemistry that we have as far as creating certain songs,” she reckons. “I’ll bring something and he’ll say ‘You might wanna try this’, and so a lot of that was going on with the first two albums and he’s just a joy to work with.”
Cover interpretations of two Dio-era Black Sabbath tracks in the shape of ‘Heaven And Hell’ and ‘The Mob Rules’ were included on Uncreation’s track listing. “That was not the intent,” Veronica stresses. “We already knew that we were going to do ‘Heaven And Hell’ and that that was gonna be part of the album, but then we were told that we had to do a bonus track at the last minute and so it was a matter of time and money. We hadn’t planned on having that song on there, and we were told that it was only gonna be on there for a limited release. As you see though it didn’t work out that way, so that’s why there was two. There was only supposed to be one. Don’t get me wrong; we love Dio. We had Jimmy Bain play on ‘The Mob Rules’ and it doesn’t get any better than that – it was a real blast – but it wasn’t planned for that to be a part of the album as far as the regular track listing goes. It was just gonna be on the special edition, but it’s fine. It is what it is.”
Ronnie James Dio (Black Sabbath / Dio / Heaven And Hell / ex-Rainbow / Elf) sadly succumbed to stomach cancer on May 16th, 2010 at the age of 67. “I didn’t think it was true, honestly,” the frontwoman reflects. “When someone gave me a phone call and I heard about it, I just didn’t believe it. When I then started getting more information about it, I was just floored because I had talked to Craig previously. I know that everything seemed like it was doing better, and then all of a sudden such a drastic turn was rather surprising and devastating.”
It’s a shame that Ronnie passed Veronica, as you might’ve possibly duetted with Ronnie in the future. “That was my plan; that was always my dream hon, it really was. It’s just a shame it won’t come true.”
Sophomore record Seasons Of Tragedy was issued in Europe during January 2008, arriving in North America two months later in March. “That was also a little bit stressful because when the first one got good reviews, and then you feel like ‘Ok’,” the vocalist admits. “When Locomotive then took the option for a second album, we thought ‘What do you do next?’ I think for that one, we had learnt a lot from the first album about how we wanted to approach things and in particular the songwriting. With Uncreation we had a reserve of music that we brought to Jeff which he listened to, and a lot of that stuff got hacked apart. Two songs became one and all that stuff, so that was a little more shocking because I had never had that particular scenario happen before. I was a lot more prepared for it, plus I learned the way he puts a song together. When we came in with Seasons Of Tragedy what we brought to him was more complete, let’s put it that way. The songs just got a little bit more embellishment. By the time we got the stuff to him it took a little longer to get everything going, but we kind of knew how we wanted the songs formatted.”
Benedictum’s relationship with Locomotive Music ceased to exist around that time. “Locomotive doesn’t really exist anymore,” Veronica laughs. “We knew something was happening for awhile there after Seasons Of Tragedy was released, so that was part of the reason why there was such a lapse between that album and this. All of a sudden, I didn’t hear from them (laughs).”
Was Benedictum stuck in legal limbo then? “Thankfully no. We were one of the fortunate ones because we had a two-album contract and we were offered at the time another one, but decided to wait to see what else was going on. We then realised that it didn’t make any sense, because all of a sudden it just didn’t exist anymore. We were very fortunate to be at a point where we could move on.”
November 2009’s Ballads Of A Hangman – the fourteenth studio album from German metal outfit Grave Digger – included a duet between the Benedictum frontwoman and Grave Digger vocalist Chris Boltendahl, entitled ‘Lonely The Innocence Dies’. “I’ve known Chris Boltendahl for a very long time; he was working with Locomotive when we first got signed,” she reveals. “He and I have had a working relationship for quite some time. I was really honoured when he sent me an email ‘You wanna do a duet?’ I thought he was joking, but the rest is history. I really had a good time with that.”
There’s definitely a rapport between you and Chris in the song Veronica. “Yeah – I’m glad you noticed that. He’s very responsible for a lot of the things that’ve happened with Benedictum, so it was very much an honour to be on anything with a band that’s had that kind of longevity and that many albums under their belt. It was really cool.”
‘Lonely The Innocence Dies’ was a very different song for Ballads Of A Hangman. “Yeah,” the singer concurs. “I was surprised when he was sending me the track. I assumed it was going to be something heavier and harder, so I’m very glad that that song was the way it was. It had a little different vibe to it, which was really cool.”
On July 6th, 2010, it was publicly announced that Benedictum had signed a record contract with Frontiers Music Srl. “Actually, that came about through a dear friend of mine from your neck of the woods; he’s actually from Wales, and his name is Jeff Collins,” Veronica discloses. “I had asked him if he had had any contact with some labels that had a good reputation, and that we were looking for something new obviously. He put me in touch with the people at Frontiers, and it kind of just grew from there.”
Issued in March, third full-length Dominion is the first Benedictum album to be released under this agreement. “Obviously, it was quite a bit of time between Seasons Of Tragedy and this one,” the vocalist feels. “We had some line-up changes. I don’t wanna say we took a different direction, because we really didn’t; we were just building on the foundation of writing with new members that had different influences, so that’s basically how that process went. With the other two we had more of an arsenal of material, and this time we worked a little harder at coming up with stuff that I felt really comfortable with. It took a little bit longer, but there you have it.”
The departed Benedictum members in question are drummer Paul Courtois and bassist Jesse Wright. “Jesse had some family problems; he had some ailments in his family, so he had to take care of that,” Veronica divulges. “With Paul, I’m still in touch with him; he ended up moving to Las Vegas for awhile, and it just didn’t work out to keep the practising schedule going. He got a new job and had to move. There were just life changes involved, and no big drama or anything like that.”
Bassist Chris Shrum and drummer Mikey Pannone filled their positions. “Actually, we found Chris and Mikey through friends of friends,” the frontwoman informs. “Pete had heard Chris before because Chris and Paul had worked together at one time, and then Chris had worked with Mikey. It all kind of worked out real well, so one person kind of led to the other.
“I love Paul’s work, but I think with Mikey and the combination of Mikey and Chris, it’s definitely a lot I’d say more explosive (laughs). It was a little bit of a challenge at first writing with Mikey and stuff because of where he comes from, and he’s just got such an aggressive style. It’s really great though, and it made me learn a lot as well – it worked out really well. The only problem is logistics; half of us are in Phoenix, and the other half of us are in San Diego. We make it work though.”
Recording sessions took place at Area 52 in Scottsdale, Arizona with producer Ryan Greene (Megadeth / Lita Ford / NOFX). “There were a couple of different reasons we decided to work with Ryan,” Veronica enlightens. “We thought ‘Well, we have a new line-up so maybe it’d be time to also try something a little different.’ I had talked to Jeff Pilson because he’s like a member of the family as I’ve said in the past, and he has so many obligations himself being with Foreigner and touring with them. It worked out well that Ryan was able to take us on.
“Ryan is very driven, and also made us look at things. He’s a drummer himself as well, so he’s musical too but comes from a different angle. I mean, him and Jeff are two different people. I think working with Ryan was especially a real treat for the rhythm section with Ryan being a drummer, and they learnt a lot too. I think Pete had a chance to discover a few other things with his own craft as well, and with Jeff he brings out a lot of stuff with me that I may not normally do, like a softer side sometimes. That’s kinda cool, to have people draw out different aspects of yourself.
“I think Ryan wanted to really go with a lot more of a modern sound, and that’s fine because I think a band should always grow and evolve. I wanted to make sure we still kept the integrity of what Benedictum is though; that’s the halfway-point we had to come to, and it worked out really well. When I hear it now definitely you can tell it’s Benedictum, but I think it also has a little different feel to it. It’s a lot more aggressive.”
In the past, Benedictum had exclusively recorded with Jeff Pilson. “In some ways it was exactly the same working with Ryan, because I made a point of meeting Ryan personally before we got started,” the singer believes. “I wanted to make sure that we clicked on a certain level other than just the music, and after having met him and having spent some time with him it was obvious that this was gonna work out well. Ryan has a different approach, so it took a little while to get used to. He’s very, very straightforward (laughs). He tells you if something isn’t working out, but he is open to suggestions and stuff. I think he had a very clear vision of where he wanted to take Benedictum, so we had to kinda make sure we were seeing eye-to-eye on that. He definitely brought a fresh and little different perspective to things though. He’s great to work with, and all of us really stepped up our game working with him.”
Veronica views Dominion as a “product of evolution.” “You have to look at the fact that we had a different producer and a different rhythm section,” she emphasizes. “With all these things put together, that’s what we came up with. I think it’s just a natural thing. I don’t know what the next one’s gonna sound like – it’s just the way that it evolved.”
And with all that being said, the Benedictum vocalist refuses to be drawn on whether Dominion is the strongest of the assortment’s albums. “I think that just depends on one’s perspective,” she concludes. “I think everybody has a little different opinion on it. It’s the newest one (laughs) Whether it’s the strongest one? I really like it, and I like where it’s going. I have my favourites on both of the other albums as well though, so I guess that’s for other people to decide.
“From my perspective, it’s a mixture of things. Some of the songs on there I think are stronger but there’s some what I call Benedictum classics too, so I have mixed emotions about it.”
Veronica adopted a specific approach in cutting vocals for Dominion, but nothing that was premeditated. “I think it was just a reflection of where I was at the time, and that was a little bit frustrated and a little bit really wanting to get out there,” she surmises. “It had been a while since we had done anything, so I think I had a lot of built-up stuff. I just wanted to really bring it with as much power as I could and then also show some other aspects of my voice too, like if you listen to ‘Loud Silence’ or if you listen to the acoustic track – there’s other things like the beginning of ‘Dark Heart’. I just do some different things with my voice – it doesn’t have to be aggressive all the time.”
Ronnie James Dio informs the frontwoman’s vocals of course, but he isn’t her only influence. “Tina Turner influences me as well,” she acknowledges. “I have a very eclectic taste in music, so I like everyone from Rob Halford and all the metal singers but I also like big band music. I like to listen to a lot of different things because I draw different energies from them, so it keeps things fresh in my head (laughs).”
Do you have any female metal influences Veronica, like Doro Pesch (Doro / ex-Warlock) and all those singers? “Of course,” she replies. “I mean, it’s all in there. Leather Leone from Chastain was out doing that kind of stuff for a long time, and I have the pleasure of speaking with her. I think she’s gonna be doing a little comeback thing, so that’s pretty cool. And even Pat Benatar. There’s so many strong voices out there, like Melissa Etheridge. There’s so much good music out there that I would say it’s a product of all kinds of influences – there wasn’t just one. I’d say the main one obviously would be Dio for me, because when I heard his voice for the first time I thought ‘I wanna do this.’ I think that was a driving force for me, and then I branched out and listened to other things. That was how I developed.”
Within the metal sphere, women are mainly portrayed as sex objects. “That’s in all kinds of media though, and it’s always been that way,” the singer clarifies. “I don’t say that it’s good or that it’s bad. It is what it is, but as far as women in rock and metal there were times when that was much more of a novelty than it is now. There’s so many female-fronted bands each with their own style, and with their own thing to bring to the table. You mentioned Doro earlier; I think I learned more about performing by watching her as far as the physical aspect of it, how to take care of yourself, how to get out there and really push yourself out into the audience. She’s beautiful and she’s all those things. The media’s gonna do what it’s gonna do, so as long as you can bring it it’s all good.”
Would you say that your type of female vocals aren’t common in the metal domain? A lot of female singers seem to be more pop or opera-oriented. “I know. I was just thinking about that earlier today, and I kind of have to chuckle to myself because I feel sometimes like I don’t quite fit, like I have this little spot in the middle somewhere. I don’t do the opera thing, because that’s not my style. It’s all good but that’s just not me, and I don’t do the complete growling thing either. I just try to bring that power and aggression that I have in my voice.”
When you listen to Veronica’s vocal tracks, it’s evident she enjoys rock music. With many other female vocalists though, they sonically resemble pop vocalists singing over a metal tune. “You’re right,” she recognises. “I don’t disagree with you in some cases, but it is what it is. Like I said, everybody’s got something cool to bring to the table (laughs). I just do what I do and Benedictum does what Benedictum does, and I hope that we get a chance to keep on doing it and growing, and seeing how everything all works out. It’s interesting to see how a song starts out, and then how it ends up. I have some of the old practice stuff and I think to myself ‘Wow, that turned out to be this song’, so the developmental process of everything is interesting.”
Rudy Sarzo (ex-Ozzy Osbourne / Dio / Quiet Riot / ex-Whitesnake) guests on the composition ‘Bang’, while Jeff Pilson duets with the Benedictum frontwoman on bonus track ‘Sanctuary’. “Actually, a friend of mine named Razor from a band called Metal Knights was able to put me in touch with Rudy,” she tells. “Of course Craig was able to step up too and so was Jeff. I made sure I did have a chance to work with Jeff on the acoustic songs when he had some time, so that’s ‘Sanctuary’ the bonus track. It’s just a different style of approach, but it comes out really well. It was just a lot of fun having everybody and being able to be a part of it.
“I didn’t get a chance to actually work with Rudy in the studio; I had a chance to talk to him, which is the magic of technology nowadays. With Craig it was different; he came out here and actually stayed with us, which was good, to see him again. With Rudy, we sent him over the files and I talked to him on the phone. He liked what we were doing and agreed to do it, so that really made me feel great. He was very gracious. I know how busy his schedule is, so that was really cool he was able to do that. With Jeff I had a chance to go out to his studio and actually work with him and see him again too, so that worked out really well.”
Guitarist Craig Goldy (Dio / ex-Rough Cutt / ex-Giuffria) performs the second solo on the tune ‘Epsilon’. “He’s wonderful,” Veronica confesses. “He’s one of my dearest friends, and although it’s one of those friendships where you don’t always get a chance to see each other as often as you’d like, we never seem to miss a beat. I’m really proud of him and love him very much, and he’s always been there for me.”
As alluded to throughout this article, Benedictum are massive Ronnie James Dio fans. However, nothing which features on Dominion was specifically inspired by his passing. “I think all of us… I’ll speak for myself: all of my work really reflects a huge influence from Ronnie James Dio,” the singer affirms. “It’s as though I felt the need to do something different upon his passing, and because he’s already been such a part of my life. So many people that I know – musicians and non-musicians – he’s affected in one way or another through his music, so I guess everything that we do is a testimony to all the power and great energy he brought to this music.”
Whenever Veronica pens lyrics, those lyrics are usually “a reflection of some aspect” of her life or herself. “The lyrics are about something I’m going through either physically, spiritually or emotionally,” she confides. “I think a lot of the theme on this album was a lot of pent-up anger or frustration, but the will to just keep on going. You know what I mean?”
Yeah, especially in these times with the recession and everything. “Exactly. I have my own business, and it’s difficult sometimes. I’m very, very grateful because there are a lot of people who aren’t doing so well; it gets a little tough sometimes, but I’m really grateful for what I have. I have a motorcycle business; we sell motorcycle accessories, and we ship internationally and so on. It’s called StreetFighters Inc. (www.streetfightersinc.com). And also Alien Helmets, we sell motorcycle helmets too. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years, importing most of the stuff from Germany and some of the stuff from the UK, and trying to bring the Fighter scene to the US as well.
“It’s difficult juggling my business and musical career. It’s like a hurry up and wait thing; there’ll usually be a flurry of things that need to get done for the band and that throws everything into turmoil, and then it’s back to business. With a home-based business though and a business that you have to run on your own, it’s not like we have a store so there’s no-one to cover. You just have to make it work; you come back and you have stuff piled up, but you make it work. It does allow me a lot of flexibility as well, so when things need to get done or I need to go somewhere I can do just that. It’s a double-edged sword.”
While StreetFighters Inc. covers the Benedictum vocalist’s financial bills, Benedictum – though a wonderful thing – doesn’t pay the bills so much. “That’s extremely correct,” she confirms. “I would love for that to be different, but all of us are doing it more for the passion and love of the music. Of course we would love it to be financially viable, but yeah, you’re absolutely right; my business is the thing that’s paying my bills at this time (laughs). It’s rough out there, so I don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea. It’s hard, and the music industry was hit hard as well. So yeah, you’re right.”
Naturally, financial restraints hamper Benedictum’s potential to tour Europe and other destinations outside of North America. “I think it’s hampering a lot of bands’ potential to do a lot of things,” Veronica deduces. “Definitely the cost of getting a band from the US to Europe is sometimes prohibitive, and in a rough economy it’s gonna be a little bit more difficult. You’ll see a lot of clubs out here doing the pay-to-play thing but it’s difficult getting the numbers in, so we’re hoping that we can flip that paradigm and change things with this album, and get out and support it.”
Live performances are where revenue mainly comes from nowadays, as opposed to album sales. “It is,” the frontwoman affirms. “Basically, you’re seeing a shift. You’ll see the CDs, but a lot of people are making their money from live shows and mostly from merchandise. That’s the only way to see that. It’s the thing that’s actually gonna bring some income in because CD sales are not what they used to be.”
Illegal downloading has been attributed as a possible cause of declining sales. “The music industry has changed; it changed a little while ago, and it will never go back to being what it was,” Veronica states. “It may morph into something else – who knows where it’s going to go? It’s at that stage of flux though where it’s changed from ‘There’s the illegal downloading’ to ‘There’s the legal downloading’, so now there’s income revenues from legal downloading, but it’s hard to stop people from doing the illegal stuff. It has changed things drastically. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that if I purchase something, that’s still a sale. It doesn’t matter which vehicle I used to make that purchase, but if I’m taking something illegally then that’s a different scenario altogether.
“I’ve had some people email me – and I appreciate their honesty – saying ‘I illegally downloaded your album, but I absolutely love it. Can I buy a T-shirt (laughs)? There’s a bright side to everything, so you’ve gotta make the most of it. There’s a lot of music out there now that’s getting heard that wouldn’t have gotten heard before, and that’s the upside.”
Dominion was released on February 18th, 2011 in Europe and on March 8th in North America, all through Frontiers Music Srl.
Interview published in March 2011.
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