Nige Rockett: "For The First Time Ever, It Feels Absolutely Perfect...The Writing, The Lineup Of The Band..."
It’s hard to believe that Onslaught has been around for over 30 years now. At one time, the band set a pace to become one of the greatest thrash bands of all time, until a dynamic shift in the sound of the late 80’s led to an eventual downfall. Prior to “In Search of Sanity” (1989), the band had released two of the most critically acclaimed thrash masterpieces ever released “Power From Hell” (1985) and “The Force” (1986). They deserved to be spoken of among the genre’s greatest offerings. In 2004, the band reformed with vocalist Sy Keeler and the band was given that rare “second chance” to start anew.
In 2007, “Killing Peace” re-established the band’s thrash roots and the reviews reinforced it. “Sounds of Violence” followed in 2011 and the band was back in stride and running on all cylinders. With the release of “VI,” this year (see review here), the band progressed further – adding newer elements in songs like “Children of the Sand.” With this rebirth, the band has ascended the throne once again and deserves the attention of any critic or fan of thrash. Band founder and guitarist Nige Rockett checked in with Metal Underground.com to discuss the new album – the new elements the band has added – and what it was like to rock the boat on 70,000 Tons of Metal back in January 2013.
CROMCarl: First of all, congratulations on the album...its phenomenal. The first question I’d like to ask is after 30 years of doing this - you would think bands would be on a decline, but it seems you guys are just hitting your stride really well since the comeback in 2007. There are only a few bands in my opinion who play better thrash than you guys at this point. Do you feel the band has never been stronger?
Nigel: Yeah, for sure. I mean, as you say, we got it better now. For the first time ever it feels absolutely perfect - the writing, the lineup of the band…just everything seems so clicked, especially in the last 3 or 4 years you know, it feels really good. It’s probably the most enjoyable time of our career and the rewards and success is coming back too. It’s absolutely fantastic.
CROMCarl: Right, and on “VI” there’s some real kind of throwback going on especially lyrically on “66'Fuckin'6” it reminds me a little bit of the song “Onslaught (Power From Hell) with that “fuck you, we play the devil’s music” kind of deal. Is that sort of the theme of the band….”fuck you, we play what we want!”?
Nigel: Yeah, I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s kind of like a throwback. I never thought if it being that kind of “power from hell” thing. I kind of see that now that you’re saying that. A couple of reasons why we wrote that song in particular was we play the track “Metal Forces” - it’s kind of our live anthem. That track is 27 years old now…so it’s time for a bit of a fresher. So we thought we’d try to something and bring it up to date with something to not really replace “Metal Forces” in the set, but for a new kind of sing a long song…bit of fun for the crowd you know. The other reason, which is kind of funny too, was we had a review on amazon in the U.S. of the “Sounds of Violence” and this guy had a short review and he actually said “these guys are basically like the worst influence in your life, there’s nothing good in this band, the lyrics of every song are hate, evil, hell, destruction they are telling you a new world order is coming, and they play the devils music,” basically. So it’s kind of where I got the influence for that song to come along, so its kind of the best review we ever had. I’m sure the guy didn’t mean it that way, but it inspired me to write “66'Fuckin'6.”
CROMCarl: That’s great. It’s funny that you mentioned you read the reviews and were inspired by that. One of the things I love the most about this interim period between “Sounds of Violence” and this new album is that I saw on Facebook that you guys were polling the fans as to what they wanted to hear on the next album. I participated in that, because I thought that idea was really cool. How much does that really play in to your writing? I mean, I know generally bands like to know what fans want to hear, but does that drive what you do?
Nigel: Yeah, for sure. I mean you’ve got to listen to your fans. I think that if you kind of ignore what everybody said to you and live in a bubble, you probably wouldn’t be very popular. You probably go out and do your own thing regardless of what people are saying. I think that’s the way to look at things, you need to take criticism constructively and definitely listen to what your fans have to say…especially ours. Our fans are very important and we’re constantly attached to fans. We are talking all the time, every day, to people all over the world getting opinions on what we should do right or wrong. You got to take all that on board and we get ideas where the band goes and that’s always within the kind of remake for Onslaught. We are not gonna step outside that and improve on what we think the fans are gonna like to take all sorts to the next extremity and I’m quite confident we got it right on this one. Having worked with the fans and put a lot of effort into this record it seems to paying dividends.
CROMCarl: Right! One of the biggest things I noticed about this album is the play of your drummer Michael. This is his first album with you guys, but I saw him play with you guys on 70000 Tons back in January and he really blew me away with his play and even more so with this album. He made a huge impact with you guys. How would you describe his effort on the album?
Nigel: It’s just fantastic what he’s brought to the band in such a short time [that] he’s been in the band. This is obviously the first time he’s got to work with myself and Andy, you know. Basically, he’s just been playing the back catalog with his kind of touch and this is the first time he’s had real input into a recording and what it has done is allowed me and Andy to expand our musical horizons for Onslaught, because Mike can play anything you can throw at him. However crazy a riff we give him, he will come up with something equally as cool on the drums, which is double great. He’s such an aggressive player as well, so it’s pushed us all and it’s given the band a whole new level of aggression.
CROMCarl: So let’s get more specific with the album. On the last release (“Sounds of Violence”), you had a song called “Code Black,” which is probably in my all-time top thrash songs already, because it’s has a riff that truly unbelievable. It was interesting to find out that the ending part of “Chaos is King,” the opening track of the new album, is actually playing at the beginning of “Code Black” an album earlier and that “Chaos is King” is sort of the prequel to the story arc. Was it the intention that it happen that way…was “Chaos Is King” supposed to be on the last album?
Nigel: Yeah, it’s kind of a weird thing for music I guess. It happens a lot in films. We decided to do it musically to try to experiment on, and it’s kind of worked well actually. So we dropped the tuning on “Code Black,” where it was really seriously heavy. What we did…we had the basic riffs for “Chaos is King” already and we brought filled it in to give that sort of thin radio feel, with it being so fast and kind of thin sounding we done it just to really emphasize the heaviness, when the intro of “Code Black” came in it came with such massive sound like you were listening to this radio and this huge burst in with “Code Black,” so it kind of works in that effect. The lyrics are all tied to that to that song as well, which [is] a prequel lyric. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I think it does work once people realize what we’ve done and listen to the intros and the end. We were actually rehearsing “Chaos is King” today and we just burst into “Code Black” at the end of it and it sounded great!
CROMCarl: What is the storyline behind those two songs?
Nigel: It’s just basic story. “Code Black” is the story of this dictator and what he was trying to achieve and his evil ways and all the horrors he brought to the world, whereas “Chaos is King” is his rise to power into this dictatorship and the kind of nasty ideology he had on the buildup of what he became.
CROMCarl: ….and just when I thought you couldn’t top Code Black as a better song…then you come along and write “Children of the Sand,” which is probably another one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. It has some different elements for you guys, especially the middle eastern sounds and the female voice. How did that song come about?
Nigel: Thank you very much for saying that, it means a lot! I’m quite proud of that. It’s a special song for many reasons. Firstly, the lyrics were inspired. We have some friends in Afghanistan we had there for some time and they kind of explained to us some of the thoughts and some of the things they actually face on a daily basis and its really quite horrific and quite shocking. It’s far beyond what we ever imagined or what we were told by the media and its really kind of scary, so they sent a lot of stuff back. They and said you’re welcome to use these things for lyrical inspiration, whatever you chose its fine. It was so moving that I really wanted to use some of the stuff which I did on a couple of songs, one being “Children of the Sand” and the other one being “Slaughterize.” So obviously, it is kind of a little bit personal in terms of where the lyrics are coming from and the inspirations, because of the subject matter. We really wanted to do it musical justice as well, to try to make it sound authentic with Arabic-Middle Eastern feel just so it felt genuine and from the heart. So, we deliberately used all the kind of Arabic scales and chord progressions and I think it sounded really, really cool, we were very happy with it where it was going. I just wanted that final gloss, something to really paint the final picture. We tried out some keyboards in the chorus just for some sort of stringy sounds. It sounded okay, but it just wasn’t real and I hate the idea of keyboards in thrash metal…it’s just not right. When I got to Sweden to mix the album with Thomas Johannson, I was discussing it with him and he said he actually knew of this great string player, who lived in this small town near the studio. So we gave him a call and he was free for the next day, so he came down and discussed all the parts and he brought his cello down and he let it rip basically. As soon as he started playing it was absolutely incredible and sort of made all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck…it was that haunting. The cello just blended so well with the guitar tones that we have, it was absolutely amazing. So we played all the parts and let him go with all the stuff you hear at the beginning, and he played all the stuff and it sounded so perfect. It’s a beautiful song ya know, and then we just do metal vocals and discussed putting these vocal lines in and it wasn’t working so we put in the female voice just to give that final flavor. So that’s what we did. We got the female vocals in there and once we started mixing it we just sat back and were gobsmacked. It’s one of those moments…you have this vision, but rarely does a vision come to its full extent…not 100% how you imagined it. But this did for me and its one of the best feelings in music I’ve ever had. It was incredible and I’m so proud of that song.
CROMCarl: Yeah you definitely should be…it really is an incredible song, not only the beginning but especially that whole middle part where there’s a riff breakdown. You guys are just so great at writing those and it almost forces people to move! You can’t just possibly listen to that song and not move around.
Nigel: That’s part of the criteria when we’re writing. We write riffs and ideas on people’s reactions. We watch crowds when we play and see what kind of grooves they headbang to, or pit to, or stage dive to or whatever. Everything we do has to work to a crowd reaction. All these songs are made to play live, so we don’t want to want to go out with anything kind of half ass that the crowd can’t be able to do anything to. They’ve got to be able to bang their head at least!
CROMCarl: Right, exactly! In my review, I mentioned that it’s about time you guys get mentioned in the same terms as bands like Slayer. I think the more people who realize that the better. I just can’t fathom why you guys just can’t get that kind of attention, especially with the quality of material that comes out. I know there is a ton of bands and all of that, but the quality of the material is on par and supersedes bands that are considered in the “top tier.” Do you ever wonder why the band isn’t as big as it should be?
Nigel: I know! I understand. We feel the same. Maybe it’s not too late…you never know! This album…we feel the response is impressive. The band has been amazing. Who’s to say it can’t break on the sixth album…many bands have done that. The bizarre thing was back in, I think it was early ’86, there was a magazine in the UK called Kerrang. It was the biggest magazine in the UK at the time. They ran this article on thrash metal and the question was ‘who will be the next big band who breaks…Slayer or Onslaught?” Unfortunately, it wasn’t us. I think we are partially to blame. We had some bad making back then, and obviously things wen’t kind of wrong in the late ‘80s. So, we possibly got ourselves to blame a little bit but who knows. Slayer kept going and we didn’t, so we had to start sort of - not really all over...obviously, we came back with a great fanbase…which gave us a good kick start again. And this is our third album again, you know, instead of the sixth, which is actually this time around number three. So we were still building and the fact that….who knows…obviously it’s a different market out there nowadays than it was back then. There’s nothing to say that this one can’t go the distance and obviously we hope that it does.
CROMCarl: You know, it’s funny because there’s this thrash revival - that came around in the last five or six years - and then there is this modern thrash movement, which isn’t the old school stuff I love more. I find it really funny that in 2012-2013, you have bands like Kreator, Sodom, Overkill and Onslaught that just continue to put out the best quality thrash material in their careers on a consistent basis and continue to school the rest of the rest of the world on how to play it the right way. For Onslaught, is that your goal musically – to generally keep it in the old school style with some newer elements like you used on “Children of the Sand”?
Nigel: Yeah, you need to strike a balance. I think obviously we can’t forget where we come from and where we come from has gotten us to where we are today…and that’s what the fans expect from Onslaught. But, at the same time we need to move forward because there’s a new generation of fans who don’t want to particularly hear everything regurgitated from the 80s, so we need to keep twisting it a little bit and keep the modern elements in there and bringing new ideas in. But, I think we got a pretty good balance on this album…there’s some fairly modern stuff. There’s a lot of old school ideas in there and in the songs. So, yeah we are really happy with the balance we got and next album we are gonna twist things a little more. We need to keep evolving, be it slowly and steadily, not do nothing really drastic and stupid…. just keeping my steady ship and bringing our old fans along with us and pick up some new ones on the way.
CROMCarl: Of all the places that you have gone and played live, where do you find that the reactions have been the best for Onslaught?
Nigel: It think, it varies too much. If we’ve got some great fans, we go there. We’ve just come back from Russia….we were there for like eleven days and seven shows. Some of the shows were just absolutely insane and these guys just circle-pitted all night long - that hour and fifteen minutes…nonstop, it was absolutely crazy! Those people, they just didn’t stop, it was mental. It was so hot and they just carried on and on it was absolutely amazing. Then you have South America and the crowds are really old school - stage diving all the time and really violent stuff going on, and that’s kind of insane down there. The crowds in the US and Mainland Europe are a bit, well I won’t say ‘reserved,’ because we get some absolutely crazy scenes going on, but once you go to the more kind of extreme places you will find the crowds are even more brutal.
CROMCarl: What is one of the strangest things you have seen from a crowd either playing live or just attending a live show?
Nigel: I’ve seen so many things. I was thinking about when we were down in Chile two years ago and we just got on stage. It was a huge crowd there. All of a sudden, about a hundred and fifty guys just came piling through this audience and just split everybody open and charged to the front and just went berserk with a massive circle pit going. I was like ‘that was kind of weird.’ So we finished the show and we decided it was so hot - it was like 100 degrees in the venue - we decided to head to a bar across the road until the next band came on. We walked out the doors, which were kind of left on the floor. There is these two massive steel doors about ten foot high about 8-10 feet wide and there was like fifty policemen outside and these doors are on the floor and there was blood everywhere. We were like ‘what happened here?’ They said ‘when you guys started playing, none of these guys had tickets, so they just ripped the doors off and beat their way into the venue.’ That was the surge that came in. It was absolutely crazy. These were huge doors and they were just ripped off their hinges! It was absolutely insane.
Nigel: Yeah, there are some crazy guys in Chile!
CROMCarl: Just one last thing about 70000 Tons of Metal - How special was it to play “The Force” in full on one of your shows there?
Nigel: We had done it before, a few shows. The whole 70000 Tons was just surreal for me. It was like…wow…I really didn’t know what to expect to be honest, because I never really liked the idea of going on a cruise ship. I just thought I would feel really confined and couldn’t get off and a little claustrophobic maybe. But once we got on there and set sail, it was just absolutely out of this world. It was superb to be on a boat like that with normal people - you know, real people and dining in posh restaurants with fans and just normal people. It was absolutely amazing and it was probably one of the best things we’ve ever done. It was such an enjoyable experience just to hang out with everybody and have such a great time. It was absolutely incredible…I would recommend, and you probably would recommend, anybody - if you ever get the chance to go, please do it. You will never be disappointed!
CROMCarl: Oh absolutely! That pool deck show you did was phenomenal. I was shooting photos for all the bands and that pool deck show was unbelievably great. That was my first Onslaught live experience and I’ve been a fan since 1986, so it was one of the biggest pleasures I’ve had - not only being on the cruise, but seeing you guys on it as well!
Nigel: Cheers man! It was very weird. It wasn’t necessarily a typical Onslaught performance, because once we got on there and the first song kicked in and we started headbanging….all of a sudden it was like ‘whoah, hang on!’ You can hardly stand up…I started headbanging and I swore I was gonna fall off the stage or fall sideways, because I didn’t realize how much the boat moves when you stood there just chatting and stuff. I didn’t realize that once we were on stage, so I did that “shit, I’m gonna fall man!” So, I looked across the horizon and you can see the boat going way, way up, and when your balance starts to throw a little bit, when you start headbanging, it like ‘whoah, I need to calm down!”
CROMCarl: For me, it just felt like I was drunk for the entire cruise!
Nigel: You sure you weren’t? [Laughs]
CROMCarl: [Laughs]I was almost there the entire cruise…and that helped a lot! Well, that’s all I have Nigel. This was a pleasure, and I really appreciate your time and good luck with the album! I really look forward to seeing you guys coming back to the U.S.!
Nigel: Yeah, thank you! The pleasure’s mine, actually. Keep in touch and I’ll let you know when the dates are and we will catch you when we come over!
For 70,000 Tons of Metal 2013 Photo Galleries, check out:
Carl Frederick is a staff writer for Metal Underground.com. From the early to mid-90's, Carl published his own fanzine called C.R.O.M. In 1997, he released a compilation entitled "CROM: The Resurrection of True Metal," which featured songs from bands from around the world, including the first U.S. release of any kind for bands like Italy's Rhapsody (n/k/a Rhapsody of Fire) and Brazil's Angra. Follow Carl on Facebook and Twitter: @CROMCarl.
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