“From Western Shores,” Gatekeeper’s Epic Metal Sails On Mighty Wings (Interview)
Improvement, evolution, and epic heavy metal are some of my favorite things–what could make for a more perfect combination? Over the years I have never pretended to be a particularly big fan of the older material from Vancouver’s Gatekeeper, nor have I been silent about my admiration as they’ve refined their sound and gotten better and better over time. Most bands stagnate, and it’s rare for a debut to miss me and then later releases to capture me, but Gatekeeper have done exactly that, each release being better and better.
Gatekeeper's core sound, always rooted in the side of the genre inspired by Solstice and Atlantean Kodex rather than by the obvious names that even now fill stadiums, is one that deeply appeals to me. Combined with that laudable and inspirational improvement, it’s impossible to see their new album From Western Shores as anything but a juggernaut: pounding riffs, soaring melodies, and a killer new singer that’s stepped up amazingly to fill the shoes of his much more famous predecessor JP Abboud (Borrowed Time, Traveler) all merge together to make a sound that’s familiar but no less exciting for it. This is not a band that falls into the traps of their genre or their influences, and a pleasant variety of songwriting (an underrated approach in this modern age of rigid genres!) keeps the album fresh throughout each new song.
Many bands are obvious; once the first song starts, the course of the album is apparent, and this is especially a common trap for contemporary epic heavy metal bands to fall into. Once a killer slower Manowar riff hits, the rest of the album stays there. Gatekeeper choose to not do that, and songs vary from pounding mid-paced rhythmic assaults with cool Solstice-style gang shouts to bits of punishing steel that might not fall out of place in a DoomSword album to sharper, more power metal inspired riffing, each flowing together in a way that makes it clear that this is a proper album and not merely a collection of their best singles. As much as comparisons are made to other bands for the sake of simple explanation, these all really feel like Gatekeeper more than like other bands–truly the mark of a band that has found their own, and a place that many bands, even great ones, never achieve. Gatekeeper have more than just quality: they have identity.
This is only Gatekeeper’s second album, but the band have been around for nearly fifteen years now and the experience that main man Jeff Black brings from years of writing is made clear in that ambitious flow that makes it up. The stellar art and effortless grace on From Western Shores make it clear that Gatekeeper are not a band that is arriving–they’re a band that is here.
Read below for an interview with Gatekeeper’s rhythm guitarist and founder, Jeff Black.
Gatekeeper’s previous singer, JP Abboud, was rather well known and left big shoes to fill. How did you go about hunting for a new frontman, and what were your criteria for him? What led to the selection of new singer Tyler Anderson? Why didn’t you just do it yourself?
I was pretty nervous about the whole process. As you say, Jean-Pierre has made a name for himself (and rightly so) and he has his own built-in fanbase. So the thought of having to make such a massive change put us all on edge. We obviously needed to find someone who could sing the songs and do justice to them. JP is a unique guy with a super creative style of writing and performing and we didn’t want to just find someone to try and copy him. We kicked around the idea of doing the vocals ourselves as our guitarist Adam is also a very good singer but after trying it out a bit we decided that we would be better off sticking to our roles as guitarists and backing singers.
We put our heads together, decided on a few main qualities and styles our potential new singer would be to bring to the table and then we started putting the word out online. We would send potential vocalists a few songs to sing over and eventually that led us to Tyler (or as we sometimes call him, “Tex”).
Tyler was able to tap into all the stuff we needed—the fierceness of “Blade of Cimmeria”, the bardicism and storytelling of “Bell of Tarantia” and he could even slip into the softness required for songs like “Moss”. Furthermore, he was able to very quickly write vocal parts and lyrics for the newer songs. He’s also a great team player which is super important. We had some very talented singers audition but ultimately Tex felt like the guy who understood the music and what we are trying to accomplish the best.
Going forward, will Tyler be helping with the songwriting of new music directly outside of his vocal lines and lyrics? What is Gatekeeper’s process like, and how collaborative is it?
I’m certainly open to it. Tyler is a good guitar player and riff-writer himself so if he wanted to pitch new ideas or contribute to songs I’m very open to that.
I’m not sure if we have a precise process for our writing. We’ve done songs that were basically written from top to bottom by a single member and brought to the band and everyone puts their own little flavor on their individual parts. We’ve also done the songs where one person brings a couple riffs into the room and we hash it out face-to-face. We’ve done everything in-between. I think how collaborative it ends up being depends entirely on the person spearheading the initial song idea and how they feel about it. I think only one song gets entirely credited to a single band member (“Desert Winds”, by Adam Bergen).
One thing that I can say for myself is that when I sit down to workshop an idea or a song, I try to have a sketch of what I want that song to accomplish in my mind. So if I come up with an idea, I’ll try to have an instinct on whether that idea is part of a short ‘n sweet barn-burner or if it’s a slice from a longer epic or whatever. I try to start with the end in mind.
For the third time, the new album is graced by fantastic artwork from the legend himself Mr. Duncan Storr. Did the process of getting the artwork created for From Western Shores differ from previous works now that you have more experience working with him? Where did the concept come from?
Working with Duncan Storr has been a joy and a pleasure from day one. Our first piece with him was an unused painting that he already had lying around, but Grey Maiden and From Western Shores are original commissions. For this album we simply sent him the songs and told him about the lyrical themes and inspirations behind the songs and he came back with what you see on our cover now. He has such a vivid imagination, a masterful hand and an eye for colour that is not so common in traditional metal artwork I think. Overall, the artwork is a blend of all the songs–the viking ships, the fantastic castle structure, the mangled bodies hanging from the towers, the shorelines, our wolf emblem… it’s all in there. Duncan makes artwork that makes you feel clever for noticing the tiny details he’s left for you to discover.
Is a continuity of aesthetic important to you and a consideration for staying with Duncan? If he became unavailable or otherwise off the table, would you be looking for someone with a similar artistic approach?
I think it’s a fun thing to aim for. Makes it feel like there’s a certain canon to the band. When we were coming up with artists for “East of Sun” we made a short list of pie-in-the-sky illustrators and contacted them all just to see what would happen. Duncan Storr replied to us right away and was extremely pleasant and fun to work with.
If we needed to work with a different illustrator I would still want to work with someone who does physical, paintings and has a fantasy/historical background. That style and imagery is so entrenched in the vibe of the band and I wouldn’t want to deviate from that.
This is the first release with Adam playing lead guitar. How did his presence change the songwriting (if at all) from the last one?
Adam is a killer riff-writer and a very talented singer himself so having him onboard is a great asset. He wrote a few song ideas from top to bottom and one of them (“Desert Winds”) is on the album. He comes from a classic metal background but his tastes diverge from myself and David’s in a few areas which I think makes things more interesting. A lot of the songs were already written when he joined the band but he was able to punch up some of the guitar parts that I’d written, which I always appreciate.
Gatekeeper seems to play more festivals, in other parts of Canada and even abroad, than in your local Vancouver scene. What keeps you from playing a bountiful amount of local gigs?
That’s not true. During our touring years (2016-2019) Vancouver was always a part of that equation–probably three or four times a year, which is pretty often when you consider that our previous singer had to drive 8+ hours and endure a thorough border-frisking every time. In 2022 we played two shows in Vancouver and only one out town gig. Things will be slow in 2023 but I’ll be surprised if we don’t sneak a local show in.
That being said, I don’t really see the point of playing piles of local shows at our stage in the game. It just stops being special and you end up playing in the same circles at the same bars to the same people. I enjoy playing live but it’s more of a bonus feature than the main attraction of my “band life.” We have members who live out of town and have families so there comes a point where we’ve had to make firm decisions about the amount of shows we play and what kind of shows we want them to be.
From Western Shores releases March 1st via Cruz del Sur Music.