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Onslaught (l-r): Michael Hourihan, Jeff Williams, Sy Keeler, Nige Rockett and
Andy Rosser-Davies

The guitarist suggested that the song ‘Dead Man Walking’ boasts a Judas Priest vibe, meanwhile. “I think that was the second song that we had actually written for the album, and that was another feel that we hadn’t used,” he notes. “It wasn’t a hyper-fast track, but more of that just… Priest do a lot of it, where they just have the double kick-drums going all of the way through a song, and it’s just relentless pounding. We had never tried something like that. It’s kind of a more standard’y metal song.

“Although it’s heavy and very aggressive, when we finished it, it just reminded me of that relentless Judas Priest drive, where the drums just go ‘Dagga-dagga-dagga’ all of the way through and don’t let up. That’s what we tried to do with that song. We dropped it a little bit in the middle, but it was just constant pounding. People are really digging that track at the moment. That’s probably the most standard metal track we’ve written I think, but because it’s so aggressive it really works, and fits in with the rest of the material on the album.”

Stepping behind the kit to supply double-kick drums on ‘Dead Man Walking’ – and drum parts on VI’s fellow compositions – was Michael Hourihan, of Welsh death metallers Desecration. “We had just released the Sounds Of Violence album, and Grice quit the band about two weeks before we were due to go on tour,” Nige tells. “That obviously left us with a big dilemma, and Jeff (Williams, bass) knew Michael Hourihan obviously from Cardiff, and through Desecration. He quickly gave Michael a call, and said ‘Are you up for doing the tour?’ It wasn’t gonna be a permanent thing, or at least it wasn’t planned that way at the time.

“Mike said ‘Yeah, I can do it. I’m free.’ He said ‘I can learn the stuff no problem,’ which he did. He learnt about 14 tracks in 12 days, which was absolutely amazing. He did learn them to a really high standard, as well. I guess after the first eight to ten shows, he was just so good and such a nice guy that we decided to offer him a full-time job there and then. We haven’t looked back since. He obviously played a big part in the album in making it as aggressive as it is, and that’s obviously helped us expand our horizons a little bit with the more technical edge on things. It’s been amazing having him in the band. He’s a lovely guy, too.”

The reasons behind the departure of longtime sticksman Steve Grice are seemingly unclear. “I really don’t know why he quit, to be honest,” the composer accepts. “I keep reading loads of different reasons. My take on it – and I think the rest of the guys’ take on it – is that he didn’t wanna go touring as much as we did. The band needed to be out there touring. We needed to raise our profile, and he didn’t wanna tour extensively. He liked doing the festivals and the odd weekend shows, but that’s not what the rest of us wanted. We had two tours booked; we had South America and the European tour booked. I guess he looked at that, and said ‘I don’t wanna do this.’ It was a case of ‘We are gonna do it, and that’s it,’ so I guess he decided to walk. It was slightly unfortunate timing for us, but we were lucky enough to find Mike.”

Steve Grice alleged that there was a ‘recurrence of old patterns of behaviour that fuelled the band’s original demise in 1991.’ “I think that’s just an excuse that he would like to bring up, and not admit that the reason he quit was because he didn’t wanna tour,” Nige responds. “I don’t know. The band is in a very happy place to be right now, so I don’t really know what he was on about there. I don’t know. It’s been a strange thing, but that’s our past. He decided to go, and he has to live by his decisions.”

Parting ways under acrimonious circumstances, Steve Grice and his erstwhile bandmates haven’t remained in touch. “No, not at all,” the lyricist affirms. “He’s not been too decent to everybody since he’s quit, which speaks volumes I think. We’ve just gotta ignore that, and move on. As I said, he made his decision. If he regrets that, there’s nothing we can do about it. Everybody’s gotta move on – I think he should move on. He’s got his own band now, but we’re just moving on, looking forward, and enjoying what we’re doing.”

Michael’s rhythmic contribution towards VI is audibly evident, Nige submits. “If you just listen to the difference on Killing Peace to this album, you’ll hear a vast difference,” he critiques. “There are no limits to what he can play, basically, which gives us no limits as musicians to write whatever we can. He’ll play anything that’s thrown at him, and he will come up with some amazing drum patterns to go with what guitar patterns we’re making. Some of the double-kick work that he does is just mind-blowing. We just laugh sometimes, because it’s so crazy and so cool. But no, like I said, it just gives us no limits any more. We can have any technical stuff, and it’s just so effortless for him. He’s just a pleasure to work with.”

Turning the negative development of a membership change into a positive development is always an aim. “It’s never a good thing to have a line-up change really, but if that situation arises, then you have to try to make the best out of it, and that’s something that we’ve always done,” the axe-slinger feels. “If you have to have a membership change, you must go out and find somebody who’s equal if not better, because there’s no point in taking a step backwards. There’s no point in finding a lesser drummer or a lesser guitarist, or whatever, because that’s detrimental to what you’re trying to achieve. If we have a line-up change and we find somebody better, then we know we can improve the band, so for sure. We always try to turn those negatives into a positive thing, and move on.”

Onslaught 2011 (l-r): Nige Rockett, Sy Keeler, Jeff Williams, Steve Grice and
Andy Rosser-Davies

‘Dead Man Walking’’s Judas Priest vibe emanates more from the Brummie quintet’s Painkiller (September 1990) period, meanwhile. “More the Painkiller type of stuff really, yeah,” Nige confirms. “I think that’s where they get a bit more relentless with the drums, just driving away at you. We’ve always been big Priest fans anyway, especially Sy – he loves (Rob) Halford’s vocals and stuff like that. It was a nice little nod to that, I think.”

‘Dead Man Walking’ lyrically concerns “just general hatred that goes on in the world. There’ve been so many situations throughout time, with even Jesus Christ and his alleged disciples (laughs). It can go back through there where people basically screw you over, and how you feel about that when people do that. It’s just a hate song. There’s so much hate in the world. I think a lot of people can relate to the lyrics on that, because there’s always somebody out there who’s really gonna piss you off and make you feel that way. It’s just a generic hate song.”

Such lyrics are timeless in some respects, because hate is an emotion which has existed for millennia, and will continue to do so. “With ‘Fuel For My Fire’, it’s the same kind of thing,” the axeman compares. “You go through life, and a lot of people piss you off. We just had this really cool idea for that, and ‘Fuel For My Fire’ had the same kind of basis as ‘Dead Man Walking’. There’s kind of a link between the two. As I said, a lot of people are gonna relate to those lyrics. I think they’ll be good sing-along tracks live especially, because people can really feel where they’re coming from.”

Vocalists generally assume the duty of penning lyrics for the most part, yet Nige solely takes on that aforementioned mantle. “I’ve written the lyrics from day one in the band, ever since we’ve been together,” he shares. “It’s something that Sy feels particularly comfortable doing, really. He’s never written any lyrics for Onslaught at all. He’s happy to work that way, and whatever I write, he’s such a fantastic interpreter of my lyrics. It’s amazing that he actually gets such emotion and such feeling across. He loves the way I write, and I love the way he sings my words. It works great for both of us, so we never really need to change that.”

Overall, the guitarist’s rhythm work wasn’t simple for him to master. “It was very difficult, some of it,” he laughs. “I really had to put a lot of hours into practising to get it nailed on. It’s a lot more intricate I would say than on past albums. We’ve been able to expand our musical horizons a little bit, I think. The album’s far more technical than anything we’ve ever done before, but at the same time, thrash metal’s all about catchy riffs. We still need to balance the line between technicality, and having very cool riffs that are gonna stick in people’s heads. I think if it goes a little too technical, it kind of whizzes over the top of people because there’s too much going on. That’s something we pride ourselves on; trying to write good, memorable riffs, as well as trying to make them more interesting this time around as well.”

It’s a shame not all fellow music listeners share the same pattern of thought. Full-lengths are recorded for listening pleasure, not for merely impressing fellow guitarists. “That’s it,” Nige concurs. “As I said, if you listen to the early records, then thrash is all about hooks and vocal melodies, and catchy lines and great riffs. That was what was the real challenge for us this time, because we wanted to be a little more technical just to make this album a little more varied from our past. As you say though, it’s got to be catchy. People have got to remember those riffs, otherwise – like you say – you’re not gonna sell records.”

Authoring material is more about penning great compositions, as opposed to playing technically difficult parts just for the sake of it. “That’s it,” the songwriter approves. “You hit the nail on the head there. Everything is about the song. Even the solos I think have gotta have some kind of hooks in them, or some kind of catchiness, because every little instrument in there is there to make the song, and that’s how it’s gotta be. So yeah, that’s the way we work. That’s our philosophy; from the first time we started, it’s been all about the song.”

Much of VI was recorded in South Wales. “We did all of the guitars in our own studio based in Llanelli, and the bass,” Nige relates. “The drums were recorded at a studio just outside of Swansea, and we went to a studio in the middle of a forest in Carmarthenshire to record the vocals. Each studio was horses for courses; each studio specialised in their parts, and that was how we came to get the good results we got. We actually mixed the album in Skara, Sweden at Panic Room Studio with Thomas Johansson, though. That’s where he’s based, and he’s got a great studio over there, really nice. We were so impressed with it that we’re talking about possibly making the whole album there next time around.”

VI was self-produced. “The way me and Andy write, we pre-produce everything as we go basically,” the wordsmith discloses. “As we record absolutely every part of every song as we’re writing, we never lose anything. We also know if something’s not working immediately, so we change it. Basically by the time we come to record the vocals, all the music is nailed bang tight, and the arrangements have been worked on over and over. There may be a few tweaks once the vocals go in, but we do all of that ourselves. It’s then all basically ready to mix. We took it to Sweden. Thomas had a few ideas about what he wanted to change, which we did over there. Basically all of the pre-production and production is done by myself and Andy, really.”

Onslaught (l-r): Andy Rosser-Davies, Jeff Williams, Sy Keeler, Nige Rockett and
Michael Hourihan

The type of mix Onslaught was “exactly the one” they “got,” Nige quips. “That was exactly the sound that we were looking for when we started working on this album. I spoke to Thomas about it before he mixed the record, and he was very much on the same wavelength as us. We wanted really heavy kick-drums, quite a fat, low bass with a really aggressive high end on it, and quite mid-range’y guitars, which is something we’ve not gone for before. We wanted a lot of separation on this album, because it was more technical than anything we had ever done before.

“It was quite busy, and had lots of different guitar parts going on. It had to be really clear, so you could hear everything. He achieved that amazingly well, I think. He did the mixes really quick as well, which was… Because we knew exactly where we were going, he didn’t have to waste too much time searching. I was just over the moon with what he did. The clarity is there, the heaviness is there, and it’s definitely aggressive. That was exactly what we wanted.”

VI is Onslaught’s sixth full-length opus of course, hence its moniker. “We did put some thought into it, honestly,” the axe-slinger retorts. “If you look, on previous albums we always had names like Power From Hell, Killing Peace, Sounds Of Violence, and In Search Of Sanity. There was always a track on the album that really encapsulated the whole album, and suited the whole album as a title. On this album though, there wasn’t one track that really fitted the whole thing. We had to kind of look outside of the box a little bit, although a few people have said ‘Did you just call it VI for the hell of it?’ We didn’t.

“We’ve obviously got a history with the 666 thing. It was our sixth album, yeah, but we’ve obviously tried to make it a little more… If you look on the sleeve, with the three skulls wearing the helmets and the letters VI on each one, it obviously depicts 666. There’s also a song on the album called ‘66 ’Fuckin’ 6’, but we really couldn’t call it that for obvious reasons. We would’ve struggled to get into some stores I think with the CDs, so yeah. We tried to give a nod to the past with the sixes, and just simply call it VI at the same time. It was obviously Roman numerals, and not the number. It just seemed to work for this album.”

Independent record stores aside, it’s difficult to believe that outlets situated on British shores actually stock product by the likes of Onslaught. “Not so much in England, but I think it’s a little different in Germany and places – they still have some decent music stores there,” Nige emphasizes. “With the UK, I’m not sure there’s gonna be much in the main stores like HMV, because there aren’t so many of those and what have you any more. So yeah, it’s gonna be down to independents, which I guess wouldn’t be offended so much. I’m not sure about the States. There are still some stores there I believe, but as I said, in Germany there are still a few big chains. We obviously don’t wanna affect any kinds of sales, especially with how tough it is out there at the moment.”

Sweden’s Par Olofsson designed VI’s cover artwork. “We’ve always been responsible for our own artwork on 90% of the albums we’ve released, but this time we wanted a completely different approach, and completely different imagery,” the axeman analyses. “We went for a painting rather than a compiled image, which we’ve used in the past. We gave him a rough outline of what we wanted, and he came back with pretty much what you see on the first draft. It was incredible. Obviously he did a lot more detail after that, but he was so close on the first draft that it was incredible.

“The record’s fairly modern in terms of the sound and stuff. We wanted to keep old school ties. There’s obviously a modern feel to some of the music, but we wanted that feeling of when you went into a record store when you were a kid – you saw an album sleeve and you didn’t know the band or the music, but you still bought that album because the cover looked great. That’s the kind of approach we wanted to take with VI, and I think he’s done an astounding job. We’re really, really pleased with what he did. It was incredible.”

Originally featured on August 1989’s In Search Of Sanity, limited digipack editions of VI included a re-recorded version of the track ‘Shellshock’. “It’s always something that we wanted to do, because Sy was the original singer for the In Search Of Sanity album, and a lot of fans wanna hear Sy singing that stuff,” Nige gauges. “Everybody’s aware of the situation with the In Search Of Sanity album, about how we weren’t necessarily happy with it, how our fans looked at that album, and what that album did to the band’s career. That’s something that we wanna put right, really. I think this is a chance to show everybody what Sy can do on that album.

“There was always gonna be a time when we came to look to re-record something off of In Search Of Sanity, and now is the time for us to do that. We’ve kept it as close to the original as possible. Obviously the production’s the same as everything else on VI, so it’s very aggressive and very heavy. We’ve now got Sy Keeler singing vocals on it, and it sounds absolutely amazing. It sounds how it should’ve done back in 1987, ’88, so much so that we’re actually gonna re-record the whole album in 2014 when we’ve got a little bit of down time as a special release.

“The chances are we will re-record the album with Thomas Johansson in Sweden, so everything’s gonna have the same flavour as the latest version of ‘Shellshock’. We’re gonna rework things a little bit, because I think some things are overly long on that album. It needs the fat trimmed off of it a little bit, but yeah, we’re gonna make it sound how it should’ve done. We’re all really looking forward to it actually, especially Sy. He’s really excited about doing it, which is cool. I know the majority of the fans wanna hear that, and I’d like the fans who didn’t necessarily like that album to hear it with Sy in an aggressive form.”

Onslaught 1989 (l-r): Steve Grice, James Hinder, Rob Trotman, Nige Rockett
and Steve Grimmett

Fans who share misgivings with respect to In Search Of Sanity didn’t care for its overall sound. “It was just too polished,” the guitarist judges. “It doesn’t sound like an Onslaught album. If you listen to the rest of the albums, they’re all very aggressive, very angry, and with lots of energy. I think that album probably sounds more like a power metal album, a speed metal album, rather than an actual thrash album.

“As much as Steve Grimmett is a great singer, he wasn’t the right guy for Onslaught I don’t think. Maybe because of the fact that we were signed to a major label at the time and they took control of a lot that was going on, we ended up sounding too polished, too commercial. It definitely doesn’t sound like any of our other releases; it stands out too much as a different thing altogether and that’s something I’d like to put right, especially for myself as the person who wrote the majority of those songs. I’d like to hear them how I heard them back in the day.”

In Search Of Sanity was the lone Onslaught release to boast Grim Reaper frontman Steve Grimmett behind the microphone. “It was kind of a difficult time,” Nige reflects. “The label were putting so much pressure on the band to do stuff, and they weren’t happy with what Sy had done vocally. I’m not exactly sure how it came about, but the name of Steve was bandied about. Whether it was our management or our label, I’m not sure, but it was a case of ‘Okay. We’ve got to live with what the label is saying, and we have no choice in the matter as such because they’ve invested a lot of money in the band,’ blah blah blah. We didn’t wanna be stuck with an album on the shelf not being released, so we kind of went with what was being thrown at us if you like.

“As much as Steve was a nice guy – and as I said, he was a great vocalist – the fans never took to him whatsoever, and it just didn’t work, hence why Steve was probably in the band for less than a year, or around a year. The album sold great because it was massively promoted, massively marketed, and had great distribution, but at the end of the day, the majority of hardcore Onslaught fans didn’t take to it. I still think it was a crazy thing to do. It seemed like a knee-jerk reaction. They wanted to sell a million albums immediately – there was no patience involved, or no sort of ongoing thought about it.”

By the time of In Search Of Sanity’s issue, Bay Area thrash titans Metallica had already experienced platinum certification in North America. London Records sought similar success, perhaps. “Without a doubt,” the composer surmises. “We know that for a fact. I reckon they were looking to do at least 500-600,000 units in America, and that wasn’t realistic for a first album with a major. They had to give us time and develop the band, and get us over there touring and stuff. They did a good job in the UK. We charted the album in the top 30 in the UK, which was a good thing back then, but because it didn’t happen immediately in America, they felt the need to move us on. They fired our A&R man who was there, and every band that he had signed went with him. Looking back, it was probably a bad mistake to sign to that particular label, but then again, hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

VI was released on September 20th, 2013 in Europe (excluding the United Kingdom), on the 23rd in the United Kingdom, and on the 24th in North America, all via AFM Records.

Interview published in September 2013.

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