Kill Ritual’s Catchy Power-Thrash Invocation: “Kill Star Black Mark Dead Hand Pierced Heart” (Interview)
San Jose’s power/thrash metal band Kill Ritual has been churning out their brand of molten metal for more than a decade. Kill Ritual was formed in 2010 by guitarist Steven Rice after his US power metal band Imagika took a hiatus. The band has released six full-length albums to date, including its latest release Kill Star Black Mark Dead Hand Pierced Heart.
On its nine blazing tracks, the band cranks out killer vocal harmonies, chugging metallic riffs, and a slamming rhythm section with prominent basslines. Although Kill Ritual may not be a household name, the band knows how to craft catchy and memorable power metal tunes. Speaking with founder/guitarist Steven Rice during a recent phone interview, he explained the formation of the band, its new album, getting King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque to mix it, and what lies ahead for Kill Ritual.
With Imagika, you had some decent success and put out eight full-length albums. What led to the hiatus in 2010 and then the reformation in 2018?
It was just the fact that by the time 2010 came around, the band was on its last legs as far as a lot of personnel turnover. At the time, we were very much a local entity and we utilized a lot of local guys and it just got to be very slim pickens about who we were going to be and what was going to work for us. A lot of the guys just got a little bit disillusioned and we just ran out of gas and we thought we should dissolve this thing, which we did. Then in 2018, it was us getting back in touch with each other again after a long time. That was probably almost eight years. I had some material hanging around that didn't really fit in with what Kill Ritual was doing at the time, and just had enough stuff for an album. It just came together really quick and it was a pretty easy thing to just get back on the horse and do it. (We) modernized the sound a little bit I think with the last release. But I just felt like it needed to be done and right now we don't have any plans to do another record because everybody's busy doing other things. Maybe it might be another eight years before we do another record.
You formed Kill Ritual immediately after Imagika. What was the impetus to form it; what musical elements were you looking for compared to Imagika?
Imagika was very much a collaborative thing. I always wrote a majority of the music, but working with the last singer Norman (Skinner), he wrote all the lyrics and he basically wrote all the melodies. I kind of wanted to have a little bit more control of the total sound of the band. I wanted things to be like stuff I was influenced by; a little bit more rocking, a little bit more traditional heavy metal mixed with more of a melodic feel than what Imagika was doing at the time. Plus, I just didn’t want to sit around doing nothing. I’m the kind of guy when it comes to playing music I write a lot; I play a lot. So I'm not going to just waste time doing that just for my own enjoyment. It takes a while to become pretty proficient, to become a songwriter and get to a certain level. So why waste all that effort you put in there and not do something productive?
Your sixth full-length album, Kill Star Black Mark Dead Hand Pierced Heart, is a heck of a title. What’s the meaning behind it and how did you come up with it?
We just wanted to come up with a title that people actually had to pay attention to. One person that did a review that I talked to wanted to know why I couldn't just pick one of those to be the name of the record and why I had to use all four of them. I said, “Why not?” The song was written before the title, obviously. It just became the chorus of the tune and I just liked the flow of it and that it might be a unique idea to make it the title of the record. I ran it past the guys if that was a good idea. Plus, the imagery that the song had with that title, and when we got the final art and everything, it all tied together. So it seemed like the obvious choice to use that.
Apparently, most of the material was written before the release of the Thy Will Be Done EP, which utilized some material left over from the The Opaque and Divine sessions and has a lot of tie-ins with the writing style?
With The Opaque and Divine record, we had some material left over, and we decided let’s not waste these tunes. Obviously we spent a lot of time working on them and money recording them and everything. So we said we’d just use it for a future release. I had already written the majority of the music for the new record and I decided that I'll just write a couple extra tunes to kind of fit in with the EP, and we'll do a little stopgap. Because at the time, Covid-19 was going down and we just came off a big US tour going into the Opaque… record, we were going to continue for that record and tour again. But then the whole Covid-19 thing happened and everything turned to shit so we didn’t want to waste time.
It's always about factors of just keeping the guys involved and keeping them productive and working in the sense of being creative so they feel like they're doing something. That’s always been our mindset, just keep recording, keep playing, keep writing and putting material out. So by the time we put the EP together, we were just utilizing some of the ideas we had from the Opaque… record, and then just came up with “Angels In Black” and that “Thy Will Be Done” tune. And we just decided to put those together and use that as a kind of cross into what we're doing now with the new record. But I think the new record sounds very different from the EP, and the EP has a little bit closer ties to the last record. But we wanted to just keep moving forward, that was the whole concept behind that.
Since this is your sixth release, how has the band progressed from album to album to this point? What did you want to convey with this release?
Obviously, the biggest change in the band has been the vocalist. We’re on our third vocalist now and every time I get a new guy, I’m involved with the singing of who I’m going to be working with very closely. Because we spend a lot of time together when we’re doing the recording, coming up with the lyrics together and the concepts and the melodies and everything, I just want to make sure I'm writing material that fits a guy's voice. The reason why when we did the Opaque… record, a lot of the material was written for the other singer, David Watson, and when he heard the material, he said it sounds a lot darker than the last couple of releases; it’s a lot heavier. And he didn’t know if he was going to feel comfortable doing this kind of material because I had started taking on more of a lyrical concept to writing stuff. And his style was always a little bit different writing wise than mine.
I’m always going to write stuff a little bit heavier, a little darker in nature, and a little more reflective of what's going on; kind of in the world politically and stuff. So he didn’t know if it was going to work, so that's when we got Brian Chalice into the band, and his voice just fit the music way better. By the time we finished with the record and going into the EP, I had already started writing with his voice in mind. I knew that when I was going to be working on the last record that it could go in that direction and have stuff that was going to be a little bit more in that style. It’s been a pretty easy transition. But that's always the biggest thing involved, the singer really dictates to me what type of music I'm going to write; what kind of style we’re going to play to fit that guy’s voice and make him sound as good as you possibly can without asking a guy to challenge themselves to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with.
Chalice Blood (Brian Betterton) has some amazing pipes. Although he wasn’t your original vocalist, he really brings a lot to the table. Talk about him please and how he fits in with the overall sound?
He can do a lot. He's very much in the same style and vein of Norman from Imagika; an amazing singer, has a huge range, he can scream, he can growl. He can get really heavy, really melodic, and Brian fits in that mold exactly the same. He has a cool, sinister voice, which I really like. It kind of reminds of David Wayne from Metal Church, a little bit of Udo (Dirkschneider) in there with a little Bobby Blitz. But he can also scream with some really great high notes like Crimson Glory’s old stuff. And then he can get pretty guttural and pretty heavy for the kind of music we play. Having all that to work with, I know that I can basically write stuff that he's going to be able to cover with no problem. That's the kind of guy I like working with because I don't have to worry about whether he's going to be able to achieve it, but that’s the nice thing about working with a vocalist of his caliber.
I also think the whole band sounds really tight. What's the band camaraderie and musical chemistry like between you all?
It’s good. The band is all over the states. The singer lives in Florida. The bass player lives in Connecticut and he works in New York City and he travels into New York every day to go work. Our drummer lives in Idaho and I'm in San Jose. So, everything we do is just email, all trading files and whatnot. The only time we rehearse is when we do tours or shows and then we get together and everybody knows all the material. We get together and we work it off for a couple days and it's done. It's very different from what I used to do in the past with a lot of local musicians in terms of rehearsals and in terms of working together on that level. Which is cool, too. You have a different vibe with that.
The people who work together the closest would be me and the drummer, Seamus (Gleason). We go back and forth a lot, and we play together a lot. So we have a very tight foundation there, which I think is really important for a guitar player and a drummer, especially with this kind of music. There's a lot of guitar forward stuff, there's a lot of drum interplay with that, and then the bass. I love the bass and I actually play a lot of bass, but it fits into the music different from your traditional, rock or a funk project, where it's the bass and drums. That's where you get the tightest from the relationship that he and I have.
The album was mixed by Andy LaRocque, did you have a connection with him through Matt Thompson when you were both in Imagika and who played for King Diamond? Did you give Andy any kind of instruction on what you wanted it to sound like?
The relationship with Andy goes way back to Imagika. What happened is that Imagika had finished tracking some new material for a record and we were looking for somebody to mix it. Because the studio that we tracked it in, I wasn't really comfortable with the guy doing the mixing. So I said, let's try to look outside of the box and see who we can find and for some reason I had read an article about King Diamond and I read something about Andy having a studio. So I just sent him an email and it just went from there. And at the time we were doing it, our drummer was working for the company that produces all the Pro Tools stuff and recording gear stuff, and he was able to get amazing deals on gear software. So we just worked out this really great deal with Andy to help him get some new gear if he helped us mix this record. We just did a whole barter type thing and that's how it came together. It was just that easy.
We went to Sweden and the first time we worked with him I think it was maybe a week mixing the record. We just got along really well; super nice guy, down to earth. And we just continued the relationship. I just kept working with him because he just understood what I was trying to say to him. He's a metal guy, I’m a metal guy. He plays in a band I really like. I respect his musical style, his playing. He heard the stuff and understood exactly what we wanted, and we just progressed from there. Then after that, I got to know him a little bit better; when he would come to town, me and my wife would go see him play. And my wife came over there and met his wife and we found out that Andy and my wife have the same birthday; they're almost the same age. It’s just very interesting how things always turn out. It's just one of those things where you meet somebody and have a relationship that's cool and it's easy to deal with.
Kill Ritual seems to have flown under the radar, especially in the US, do you feel with this new album it’s a positive step forward for the band and what they are trying to achieve with the trajectory of the band?
If we just keep putting together good stuff; we keep moving forward, we put good records and the records get better and we get better business partners. If we’re able to go out and play and get better tours and have more exposure — exactly like what we're doing right now — doing interviews and getting press, it’s just a very natural thing that can happen. We're not looking like some jackass band popping a YouTube video up and paying for 150,000 likes, or just making things really superficial. I just think it's a natural progression to do this. I think people in the long run will give me a little bit more credibility. And it legitimately comes through in your music. We're not jumping on bandwagons, we're not jumping on trends.
We do pay attention to what's going on, but I'm going to play what I want to play. I think that's the way we always approach things. I think that's how we want to approach the band and how we're going to be received and looked at. We play the music we play, and that means we're going to have a core audience. It’s smaller, but it’s fine, I’m playing stuff I want to play. I'm not playing anything to try to be something I'm not. Because I don't need to do that. I'm at the age now where I really don't want to do that, or I don't need to do that. So I just do it for my satisfaction first, which is very selfish. But that's the way I look at, I just do it for me. If people like it, that's cool. And we appreciate that when people do.
What's next for Kill Ritual? Will you be touring for this album and what will you be focusing on for the rest of the year?
We’re going to promote this record, but we probably won't (tour) until next year. Plus, it's a little uncertain, especially for Europe, if we can do anything because of the cost. A lot of crap is going on over there with the cost of fuel and the economy and stuff. So by the time we get over there we will be broke just by the cost of the air fares and everything else. If we do anything, it's probably going to be in the States first and then try to get to Europe later on. But we'll definitely be going out and playing. We’re looking at the few things right now. We’re looking for a package we want to get involved with, but it’ll happen soon.
Kill Star Black Mark Dead Hand Pierced Heart was released on October 28th, 2022 through Massacre Records.