Angel Witch Conjures the “Angel of Light” (Interview)
The new wave of british heavy metal, better known as NWOBHM, is one of the most historically significant moments in metal history. The genre foundation which began in the very late 1960’s with Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple had filtered down through the later half of the 1970’s to where bands like Judas Priest, Motörhead and Rainbow brought about something new and exciting. This all exploded right at the cusp of the 1980’s where most famous of all, the mighty Iron Maiden, broke through along with many others who never gained that level of success, but their influence in later generations would prove to be just as consequential. One such band was forged on the streets of London by a young kid named Kevin Heybourne, worshiping Black Sabbath among fantasies of apocalypse and occult forces. All of which gave birth to Baphomet’s favorite sons, Angel Witch.
Angel Witch’s sound is markedly a bit darker and more sinister than any of their contemporaries, barring Venom, which makes it no wonder that some of the earliest founders of extreme metal, such as Hellhammer/Celtic Frost/Triptykon legend himself Tom Gabriel Fisher, ”continually praises" the band ”whenever possible". Tracks like the pre-Slayer fame penned ”Angel of Death" and Metal for Muthas compilation track “Baphomet” brim with a sort of devilishly sinister tone combined with headbanging riffs that can easily be seen as foundations of genres like black metal. Such historical significance hasn’t been lost on metal fans, nor on the media as illustrated by Decibel Magazine, including Angel Witch’s self-titled debut in their illustrious ”Hall of Fame" feature.
Unfortunately, constant line-up changes and what can only be described as too many bouts of bad luck prevented Angel Witch from building upon their successful beginnings resulting in a legacy mostly contingent on their first album and earlier work. Yet, like many a myth of old, Angel Witch rose from the ashes creating 2012’s comeback As Above, So Below and now their latest release some seven years later for Metal Blade records, Angel of Light. While the previous record was thoroughly enjoyable with red hot moments of metal glory, it also had a few tracks that felt out of place or seemed to mess the momentum of the album. Such issues are absolutely absent on Angel of Light’s infectious eight tracks. Every song works well on its own or combined with the album whether it’s the lead off headbang from the starting gun shot single “Don’t Turn Your Back” or the doomy yet vocally melodic march of “I am Infamy”. The sound of the album is warm and organic just like the pre-computer dominated studio era of metal classics Angel Witch helped forge while never feeling dated or poorly produced. Special mention has to be given to Kevin Heybourne’s vocals which some 40 years later have matured like wine rather than be destroyed by the ravages of aging. Heybourne truly is a master at intertwining the gruff melody in his voice with the honed songwriting and command with the power of a damn good guitar riff.
We reached out to Kevin Heybourne via email and long running bassist Will Palmer over the phone to discuss the new album. Along the way we talked about the long path taken that’s lead to Angel of Light, some of Palmer’s own unique experiences, Heybourne’s perspective as metal elder statesman, and why nothing quite beats the old school way of recording.
-- Joseph Aprill
It’s been over 40 years since Angel Witch formed and next year it’ll be the 40th Anniversary of your legendary self-titled debut album. Kevin, how does it feel to have made something that legions of metalheads the world over from metal titans like Metallica and Ghost to everyday fans young and old dearly love and for many still love what you’re doing?
Kevin Heybourne: It’s great! I’m happy that bands will talk about the influence we have had on them, I’m sure it has helped to keep the flame alive over the years while we, perhaps, weren’t doing it ourselves. But everyone takes influence from somewhere, so I think we are just part of the jigsaw which makes up how those band’s sound. Just as there were many, many influences we took on board to create our songs. It’s quite surprising that forty years have passed since I recorded those songs, and we get out and play them all round the world to people who aren’t even half the age of the material. It’s wild!
Will, you’ve lived quite the life of a metal renaissance man. You’ve played in bands since the 1990’s, worked at Rise Above Records, founded your own record label with Bad Omen records, published the Iron Fist zine, and have been playing well over a decade now with one of the most legendary NWOBHM bands in Angel Witch. What do you chalk up to being able to have done all that and still be going?
Will Palmer: Well, I mean it’s luck. I found myself in a situation where I managed to juggle a load of things and end up essentially with a day job. That sometimes is completely exhausting but it’s a real blessing because instead I could be working at McDonalds’ or something, right? [laughs] I don’t know if there’s a secret to success, although I don’t like to call it that, other than you put your head down and work. A hell of a lot of luck and opportunity came my way. You just gotta grab that shit by both hands. If you get offered the chance to play in a band you grew up loving then you just do and you think “well I’ve got these other things to do as well,” but I guess it just means you go into the office on the weekend if you need to. Which I’ll be doing this weekend as I’ll be packing mailorder for Angel Witch.
Can you detail a bit how exactly you joined Angel Witch back in 2008? What is it like playing in a band you grew up with?
Palmer: Yeah, Dave Ling who is a journalist over here who writes for Classic Rock Magazine, Metal Hammer, and some others, Kevin [Heybourne] contacted him asking, “do you know anyone who I could contact? I want to put the band back together properly in the spirit of the late 70’s and early 80’s incarnation.” And Dave said yea contact Will. So Kevin got in touch asking if I knew anybody and I said well yeah, I know a bass player [himself]. And then we got another drummer from a band called Winters [Andy Prestidge] at the time who was touring the London circuit. Then we just started jamming, you know. Me and Lee [Dorrian, owner of Rise Above Records along with ex-Napalm Death, ex-Cathedral, and current With the Dead vocalist] decided we would be up for putting out an Angel Witch album and Kevin thought the time was right. Later Bill Steer joined the band and then it was kind of like a gang. A sort of gang of mates really. That turned out okay, but it happened quite quickly. This time we’re a lot more prepared and feeling more like a band after really solidifying the lineup. It’s mad to think it was a decade ago that this all happened. I mean when Kevin heyborne contacts you about getting Angel Witch back together and you're given a chance for an audition. Which by all rights I should have failed [laughs].
[laughs]Why do you say that?
Palmer: I wasn't up to it. You know I played only in doom bands before man. It’s all heavy metal sure, but it is different.
Seven years is hardly the longest wait for an album in respect to Angel Witch’s history. That said it’s not exactly right around the corner either. Was the wait just part of the natural process for the band to compose and work on new material or were there any unique circumstances that delayed a sooner release?
Heybourne: Well, we never intended it to take that long. But we never intended it not to, either. There wasn’t really a grand plan and I work at my own pace. But, looking back, there was a weirdness with our former drummer, which really kicked in on a tour in early 2013, and when you have such negativity in a band, and all those power games and psychic warfare, you can be sure nothing creative is going to happen! We had to make some changes to get the whole thing back on track, and by the tail end of 2017 we’d had a good ten months with a solid new line up, and everyone was feeling good, so I just decided it was time to work on new material. When you have a good unit of people who are all pulling in the same direction, it happens a lot easier. I mean, it’s not “easy” to write songs, but it’s a lot better when you have three other guys who are all on the same page.
Angel Witch’s last album was on Rise Above Records but this past August it was announced that the band had moved to Metal Blade. What brought about the move?
Heybourne: Rise Above did a decent enough job on the last record, but once we had started writing this album, and we knew how good it would be, we knew we really needed a real “machine” to help spread the message to as many people as possible. Metal Blade have already excelled themselves in terms of the marketing things they have been devising and the sheer amount of promo we’ve had to do, so I know it was the right choice even though, as we are having this chat, it is still a week or so away from release. Still a possibility for calamity!
Palmer: We only did one album with rise above and they did a good job, but we wanted a bigger deal really. Not for the money but for the, machine…
For the opportunities they could give you?
Palmer: Yeah. I mean we had offers from everybody or at least the main metal players. There was a bit more money on the table from some other labels but I'm pretty sure we could have pushed that up more with metal blade if the advance was the driving motivation for us which it wasn't. We needed enough to get it done but what we wanted was the firepower. They've really gone to town for us, like they did this competition for a cassette of “Don’t Turn Your Back” which resulted in us getting like a thousand new emails on our mailing list along with maybe 500 new Spotify listeners. it was cool because we were giving away a cassette of a song so it was kind of done our way in terms of a marketing campaign. We also got a flexi-disc on the cover of Deaf Forever in Germany. Things like that we think are cool and they aren’t cheap to do. iSo they’ve marketed the band in a way that the band should be considering its legacy. It's been like a bigger label market but with an underground aesthetic. It does feel a bit odd like The Wizard of Oz and pulling back the curtain when I just wanted to play bass in one of my favorite bands. Really we just want people to know that the record exists and that the band still exist. So we wanted someone who could do that for us but without us doing something daft or make us look stupid and uncool. We're doing a video which is currently being edited. I live in Brighton and the band all came down so we shot this video here. It's all sorts of 70’s sci-fi, really the worst shit.
Hammer Horror kind of stuff?
Palmer: No, more like space stuff like “Space: 1999”, “Blake's 7”, and “Doctor Who”. That sort of stuff. It's brilliantly terrible or terribly brilliant, I don't know which way really. It's everything we watch as a band. All the influences we pull from are from old culture, old books, and old movies. So why would we want to do some modern-looking video like some bands today.
Another change since the last album has been two new members in Fredrik Jansson on drums and Jimmy Martin on rhythm guitar. What made them the right guys for Angel Witch and how has it been since they’ve joined?
Heybourne: It’s been a breath of fresh air. Everyone is so motivated and into it. Which makes it easier for me to feel the same. Fredrik has been in the band almost three years now, and it feels like the blink of an eye. That’s got to be a good sign! He is a great drummer; the right mix of heavy-hitting bastard and metronymic precision. And he loves Bill Ward, so that’s speaking my language. Jimmy has been around even longer and is just a diligent rhythm player, no ego – just digs in and keeps it tight and constant.That’s hard to find.
Angel Witch is Kevin’s creation and it’s interesting to note Will has been the longest running collaborator in the band’s history. What do you credit for you guys getting along and lasting so long as band mates?
Heybourne: It’s hard to say, I suppose things just click sometimes, and this is one of those occasions I suppose. We’ve had the odd explosion of course, but mostly we just look out for each other.
Palmer: I don’t know really and it doesn’t feel like that long of a time if I’m being honest. I’ve always enjoyed being in the band and we get along very well now. We’ve been through some ups and downs but I think we trust each other. He trusts me and that took a while. He kind of trusts me to get on with things now I think. He knows I work in this business and he knows I know what’s up. So he’ll kind of let me steer the ship there while he’s getting on with making sure the music is fucking good. He doesn’t want to think about that sort of stuff but I do make him think about it. I don’t want him to go into anything blindly so he has to read the contracts even though it’s been through the lawyers. He has to look at the excel sheet with everything off it so he knows where it’s all gone [laughs].
It’s always good to be open and honest like that.
Palmer: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s weird. Like we’ve had a few sort of drunken bonding sessions while recording the album like, “oh it’s been a long time Will, ain’t it?” [laughs] And that’s all been good.
Speaking of the new album, Angel of Light, the sound is really impressive because it feels neither overproduced nor dated. How did you accomplish such a dynamic sound in the studio?
Palmer: First things first we made sure we had the songs together and we demoed most of them. That made it easier because then it’s just about capturing sound and getting good takes. There isn’t a single drum edit on the record. That's just Fredrick [Jansson] playing drums so there's a lot of air moving. We used Kevin's old amp head from about 1980 to record all the guitar parts on. Frederick has this vintage Ludwig kit that sounds great. We specifically thought we didn't want to make a retro record but we did want to make a record that sounded like us playing live in a room. No messing around with triggered drums or using amp modelers and all that stuff. We wanted to spend the time to get it right and just lay it down correctly so we didn't have to go fix it in a computer. The guy who did the record [James Atkinson] he's just brilliant and a friend of mine. He's in that band Gentlemans Pistols who did a couple albums on Rise Above before they went to Nuclear Blast. He's into what we're into. He's into Angel Witch, into Sabbath, into 70’s rock, and NWOBHM. He's a great guitar player, a great singer, a great engineer, and he's got this new studio that's really good. It's a brand new studio but it's not super expensive yet so we were able to spend a month there and then he mixed for about 10 days. We were really able to take our time on this album. It’s not super 70’s in recording techniques or anything, we weren't trying to go back to that era completely or be slavish to it but it is a heavy rock record, now isn't it? The classics of that genre for me or all recorded in the 70s and early 80s. It's not reinventing the wheel and I think knowing you’re not reinventing the wheel is important. We're just trying to write good songs and make them sound good. Of course most bands go to the studio unprepared and then just fix it later in Pro Tools. That method can't be made to sound live because it's just not live. Then the trend of production becomes so it doesn't sound live and then before you know it that's what records just sound like. Eventually that's what people expect it to sound like even if they come to the studio prepared. I don't play that game and don't listen to that stuff really.
Heybourne: It’s not brain surgery! We just plugged into some good amps and played the songs as live as we could. I think it helped that we had demoed 7 of the 8 tracks and, and had really gotten them under our skin. That gave Atko the opportunity to simply record a band, as opposed having to fix a load of mistakes and create music in a computer. Which, sadly, seems to be the norm these days – even in heavy metal. You couldn’t get away with that shit in 1979, so I see no reason why we should be able to get away with it now just because some clever tech people have created a cheating mechanism which would allow us to.
If I read the press info correctly both “The Night Is Calling” and “Don't Turn Your Back” are songs dating back to the 1980’s only now getting a studio recording. Why was now the time to lay down both of these songs?
Heybourne: We’ve been playing “The Night is Calling” in the set again for about ten years! We love it, and it always goes down really well, so we thought we should try and do it justice in the studio, the main worry was that it would be too tight, too “played in”, and that it wouldn’t feel fresh, but I think it sounds the same as the rest of the album, in terms of the energy and vibe. I am glad I finally got a chance to do it properly. “Don’t Turn Your Back” happened by accident, really. We posted a photo from the studio and a fan of ours from Finland asked us if we’d record the song. The other guys in the band had never heard of it, but this Finnish guy had some mp3’s from 1984 and Will made him email it over, turns out it was from an original tape of mine actually, which I still have. So, I wasn’t too into the idea at first, but I could feel that the other guys were about to gang up on me, so I caved in and I started running through it with Fredrik, right there in the live room. What do you know, we listened back to it and it sounded pretty good. We couldn’t make sense of the lyrics from the old tape, so Will & Jimmy worked on some new ones, keeping the odd phrase or two from what we could understand from the live recording. We’d watched a film called The Love Witch a couple of nights before, and the lyrics are loosely based on that.
As I mentioned earlier, Will you were the publisher for Iron Fist Magazine. Since the last issue was about a year ago...
Palmer: A little bit less, just a little bit less [laughs]. We just put a new one in the printer this week.
Oh! Well, I was going to ask if the magazine was done and over with.
Palmer: Sometimes it feels like it, it treads water. Print media is pretty fucked. I don’t want to do something that’s rubbish. So we upped the pagination and we upped the paper stock. I don’t know if you saw our last issue, issue #23 with the Sabbath cover, but the paper is thicker and the cover is matte. The whole thing is really high-spec. I thought that had to be the way to go rather than reduce pages and make it look flimsier. So I think the future for a magazine like that is to do it about four times a year, which is the current plan. Of course I’ve already tried to stick to that but I failed to do so this time around. In my defense, not that I want to use it as a defense, we were in the studio working on the record and then my mother passed away. You know how you were talking earlier about how I juggle all the different things? Well that was having the spinning plates all fall down really. It was just the thing that tripped me up for a second and I already had a lot going on with Angel Witch. So something had to go on the back burner. I’d like to get it to a point where I can get some people to help me work with it. When you have to do everything yourself you can’t always make it happen but if you pay some people you’re afforded the ability to delegate. That’s where we’re at for the moment. The new issue has gone into the printer but the one after it is basically all commissioned.
When you look back Kevin is there anything from the scene back in the early 1980’s you wish was still the same and conversely is there anything about the scene today that you think is better?
Heybourne: I think there were more bands around trying to make their mark from being good players and just trying to be as good a band as they could be back then, that was the main goal. Remember, when I first formed Angel Witch we were only 7 – 8 years after the debut Led Zeppelin album, and all the bands we looked up to were really, really good. Even Sabbath, who were my favourites and also like, considered by the press not to be real players, were amazing! They had all grew up with Jazz, swing, The Beatles, soul, psych – you name it. Now there seems to be a “scene” mentality where you just follow the rules and that seems enough.
Angel Witch's latest album Angel of Light is releasing on all formats November 1st via Metal Blade Records. Stream it here: