Hellripper Take A Thrilling Step Forward On “Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags” (Interview)
Few bands’ music will make you pull this website’s titular gesture more than Hellripper. The one-man project of Scottish musician James McBain, Hellripper's 2020 barn-stormer (and first on venerable UK label Peaceville Records) The Affair Of The Poisons struck an effortless chord with metal fans across the world. Drawing on black and speed metal acts of yore such as Bathory, Venom, Sabbat and Motörhead, McBain throws these iconic styles into a potent mix, one that feels admirably-timeless rather than just shamelessly-retro.
McBain's latest, the masterful Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags, is a rip-roaring step forward. It maintains everything so distinctly Hellripper but blows its scope and scale wide-open. Inspired by the darker myths and folklore of McBain’s Scottish Highland home, these eight tracks are bigger, sharper, more bold but no-less thrilling than anything Hellripper has released thus far. A distinct product of the landscape in which its creator calls home, its kinetic craft and metal-as-fuck subject matter are also immensely-approachable and will likely open up Hellripper to an even wider audience of acolytes.
We spoke with McBain about his latest album, touring and one of the Highlands' most macabre myths.
So a quick catch up to start–what has Hellripper been up to since your previous album The Affair of the Poisons?
So of course there’s been the pandemic. Lots of stuff was off-limit, mainly live shows. But since then we've been on a couple of tours, one in Europe with Spectral Wound and one in the UK with Gama Bomb. We've played a few festivals, such as Damnation and Incineration, both in the UK. But since then I've mainly just been writing the new album. That’s what the down time, or whatever you want to call it, was used for.
I feel like Spectral Wound and Gama Bomb are your sound split straight down the middle.
That’s the cool thing about the Hellripper sound. We can play shows with these two complete opposites. I’m a big fan of both bands so it was really cool meeting both and playing with them.
Your new album is so much fun. It also feels like a big step forward, particularly in terms of its scope and scale. Was this a conscious shift or a natural progression?
Thank you. I think both. At the beginning I started writing a few songs that sounded like Hellripper songs but not as good. I deleted those and decided to go in a different direction, this time with an aim to do black/speed but also incorporate influences from outside of what Hellripper’s usually associated with. So as well as the usual bands like Bathory, Metallica, Darkthrone, I went further afield to Agalloch, Opeth, Type O Negative and Edge Of Sanity, stuff like that.
I also wanted to explore some of my favorite stuff from a non-metal background such as The Beatles, The Doors and Dire Straits as well as nineties stuff like Oasis, Nirvana, Alice In Chains and Manic Street Preachers. You might not hear it, but there’s a ton of song structure and production ideas to take from these bands. It was a fun challenge to try to incorporate these without diluting the music.
You’ve referred to this album as being your most "personal" album to date, could you elaborate on that?
Yeah, so the personal thing relates to those musical influences. There’s the overall central thematics about Scotland, which makes it personal in that sense. But it’s more a musical thing. So instead of Hellripper taking from one part of me, now I’ve gone to all the different parts of my musical influences. I can now put every aspect of what I like, instead of putting limits on myself. It resulted in what I call personal, compared to what’s come before.
That’s a good interpretation of what makes music personal. People often use personal to refer to the intellectual themes of their work, but it can equally mean musical expansion.
The lyrics can be interpreted as personal. But I feel it more, as you say, in terms of the music. Being able to express yourself from anywhere, rather than limiting yourself.
Can you tell us about the part of the world that you live in?
So I live in the Scottish Highlands, in Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. I grew up in Aberdeen, which is on the north east. Moving to the Highlands a few years ago made me want to look more into Scottish history and folklore, particularly the darker side - stuff that would fit the Hellripper aesthetic. I’m not interested, for example, in William Wallace and things like that.
I was going to ask about this. Is the mythological content of this album something you’ve recently become more interested in?
I knew most of these myths, or elements of them. But yeah since moving to the Highlands I wanted to research them more. I realized there’s so much to talk about and so much that would fit the Hellripper aesthetic. Originally, I started looking into it just to get a couple of songs, but there was so much that I found. I think it also creates some sort of cohesion in the lyrics, they’re connected, but it’s not a literal story.
Of the stories, I’m especially intrigued by the Nuckelavee (subject of the first single released from Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags). Can you tell us more about this creature?
So the Nuckelavee is a horse-like demon from Orcadian (from the Orkney Islands - an archipelago on the north coast of Scotland) folklore. It looks like a horse, but with a malformed torso of a rider attached to its back. It’s primarily confined to the sea, by another mythical creature called the mither, but occasionally it comes onto land and has a poisonous breath that can wilt crops and kill livestock. Anyone that has encountered the Nuckelavee hasn’t lived to tell the tale, bar one, whose account that the song is based on.
That’s so metal [laughs].
On a slightly more serious note–because of some of black metal’s at-best sketchy and at-worst appalling past attempts to explore cultural identity, is this something that you’re conscious of when you’re exploring your own culture’s history?
I mean, none of my songs are nationalist. It’s about exploring things like horse-like demons. Of course the genre has some sketchy characters, to put it mildly, but I’ve made my views clear in the past and have no problem telling people that I don’t support any facism, racism, homophobia or whatever. Hellripper itself isn’t a political band, but I make it clear and don’t sit on the fence or try to be ambiguous.
Can you tell us about the metal scene in Scotland and are there any bands you want to shout out?
I’m not aware of anything happening here in Fort William. It’s pretty remote. There’s scenes in Aberdeen and Inverness, but most things happen in Glasgow and Edinburgh–that’s where most touring bands head too. In terms of bands, yeah there’s Coffin Mulch, Brain Bath, one of my favorites from Aberdeen is Thrashist Regime–really cool band. There’s also Ashenspire, Tyrannus and Desert Heretic–that’s the solo project of Joseph who plays in my live band.
What do you like about living up in Fort William?
I moved here initially because my girlfriend got a job up here. But since I do everything with Hellripper on my own anyway, in my office here, all the recording, business and merch sending, I don’t need to rehearse often with other people. I really like it here though. It’s quiet and I’m left on my own to do things, which I really like. There’s no distractions, I’m just able to do my music whenever I want.
Finally, what further ambitions do you have with Hellripper?
The main goal is just to keep writing good music. If I can do that, that’s me accomplished. Other than that, I’d like to reach new places. I’d like to get over to America, Australia, more places in Europe. Just keep growing the band. Hopefully next year we’ll have more material. After this album I’m starting work on a couple of EP’s and the next album. Just keep writing good songs and take things as they come.
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags releases February 17th via Peaceville Records