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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Bulletbelt - Rise of the Banshee

Album Review: Bulletbelt - Rise of the Banshee (Headless Horseman)
by Mark Brooks

Author Disclaimer: I don’t normally write reviews on a regular basis, mostly due to the fact that I don’t have enough spare time to sit down and write them out. However, as soon as I heard the new BulletBelt album in its entirety, I knew that I had to review it. I hope that through my writing you can understand why.

The sound of a storm fast approaching, ominous hooves gallop in the distance - a rider fast approaches, bringing good news or ill omens? Before one can find out, their head is chopped off in a flurry of tight bass chops, caustic guitar licks, and pounding drums. Before the body does its last convulsion within death's grip, sepulchral acidic voices are heard announcing humanity's final doom.

This is the opening image that BulletBelt's second full-length album Rise of the Black Banshee invokes. A rip-roaring ride of first wave black thrash punk rock that should have plenty of cross-over appeal and is a strong contender for album of the year. 

For those who are unfamiliar with BulletBelt, they are a 5-piece "black-thrash" metal band from Wellington, New Zealand. The band features a slew of talented NZMetal musicians from other legendary NZMetal bands such as Backyard Burial, Demoniac, Karnage and Pervertor. The line-up is as follows: Steve Francis (drums), Ross Mallon (guitars), Tim Mekalick (bass), Ryan O’Leary (guitars) and newest addition Jolene Tempest (vocals).

I put “black-thrash” in quotation marks earlier because this album is not strictly “black-thrash.” BulletBelt have incorporated far more musical influences on this album than their last album Down in the Cold of the Grave, which sounded like a perfect hybrid of 80’s punk and thrash with early-mid 90’s Scandinavian black metal. They went in favour of a more first wave black metal sound like Venom or look to ‘modern’ bands like Midnight for example. The more rock or heavy metal influences come to the fore with tracks like ‘Deathgasm’ and ‘Murderer’s Collar.’ If the No Tag (NZ hardcore punk) ‘Mistaken Identity’ cover was an ode to the band’s punk roots on the last album, then The Nod (NZ heavy/thrash metal) cover of ‘Sniper’ fits in perfectly here to represent the band’s approach on the current album. Although the punk and strictly black metal roots of the band have been dialled down in favour of a wider heavy metal sound, these haven’t completely eroded away. Tracks like ‘Death Tinted Red’ and ‘Numbered Tomb’ feature a heavy dose of icy, blood-curdling Scandinavian black metal and the aforementioned ‘Deathgasm’ also features a healthy dose of punk-rock stomp. These influences, although reduced, turn up in other places, like the artwork.


In terms of the actual music itself, BulletBelt have shown a marked and more cohesive song-writing effort on this album in comparison to their previous work. It’s not as if the band has completely changed their sound, but rather has tinkered with it to get the songs to be at their tightest. Razor-sharp guitar riffs from Ross and Ryan not only bring the icy cold wrath accustomed to black metal’s overall sound but also add catchy hooks that get stuck in your head for days. This accompanied by Steve’s well timed cymbal work and chop blasts really add more punch to the already catchy guitar licks. Songs like ‘Tarawera (Burnt Spear)’ and the aforementioned ‘Numbered Tomb’ feature these techniques heavily. For me the real star of the album is Tim on bass; he really shows that just because you’re playing bass, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to just follow what the guitars are doing. Tracks like ‘Minnie Dean´, ‘Murderer’s Collar,’ and 'Death Tinted Red' really showcase Tim’s prominent bass work, adding that something extra. That extra layer really makes the songs great pieces of music to listen to.

If I had any criticisms about the music side of things, it would be the lack of guitar solos. Don't get me wrong, The Nod cover features a mind-blowing guitar solo from the original guitarist (of The Nod) and ‘Deathgasm’ also features a great solo but I feel that this type of music calls for more solos. In saying that however, these songs do have extremely catchy leads in place of solos like in 'Tarawera (Burnt Spear)' so it is an altogether minor quibble. Perhaps on their next album, at the song-writing stage they could find parts where a solo (or three) could be slotted in. 

Regarding the vocals, I was saddened to hear that Fergus (vocalist on Writhe and Ascend EP through to Down in the Cold of the Grave) had left and was curious to hear his replacement. Those that are familiar with Fergus' ear-splitting vocals will know it would be a hard task to match that impenetrable scream. Has Jolene effectively replaced Fergus? For me, the answer is yes and no. I have been a fan of Fergus’ ironclad vocals from the minute I heard them. However, there was not much dynamism or range to them – the only quality it lacked. Jolene’s vocals make up for this deficiency by adding flair, going into low snarls, attacking mid-range and screeching highs. The only issue is that they’re not quite as powerful as Fergus’. Then again, Fergus was a freak of nature.

Jolene's voice however, adds a venomous, acidic bite to the songs on the album rather than a skull-crushing tone like Fergus’ voice would. Instead of having your skull smashed apart with a sledgehammer you have the (more painful) acid flung in your face, slowly corroding through your skin, melting the bone until nothing remains but a smouldering pus-sack of flesh. It is hard to imagine how the album would have sounded if Fergus had remained. In any case, Jolene does a damn fine job of stamping her own mark onto BulletBelt’s carefully crafted and honed sound.

Another nice addition was the inclusion of guest vocalist Rigel Walshe, of Dawn of Azazel fame, on the track 'Numbered Tomb'. At first I wasn't sure if his vocals worked here as I'm not a fan of Shining (SWE) or Silencer and the guest vocal lines were definitely in this vein (they are interesting to hear at the very least if you're familiar with Dawn of Azazel’s usual vocal style). It has since grown on me and has become one of my favourite parts on the album. Furthermore, the inclusion of more backing vocals/gang vocals on the album, especially on the track 'Deathgasm,' was a welcome addition and one that was lacking in previous albums. I hope that these trends continue in their future material.

On the lyrical side of things, Rise of the Banshee could almost be considered a concept album of sorts. The album features a lot of lyrics focused on the dark, seedy underbelly in New Zealand’s culture/history. For those who don’t know, ‘Minnie Dean’ is about the child-killing woman of the same name who was the only woman to be given the death penalty in this country. ‘Tarawera (Burnt Spear)’ is about the volcanic eruption which claimed many lives and destroyed a cultural landmark, ‘The Pink and White Terraces,’ in 1886. ‘Deathgasm’ is the title song for an upcoming NZ horror/comedy film and so, I assume, the lyrics are based around the movie and its concepts. The other lyrics are more subtle in their meaning but still convey the inner dark nature of mankind. 

BulletBelt have decided not to use Nick Keller’s highly stylised art like in Down in the Cold of the Grave but instead have used the almost cartoonish art style from Scarecrowoven, who also did Steve’s heavy/power metal’s band Red Dawn’s latest EP ‘Ironhead.’ The result is a mixture of classic Mercyful Fate/King Diamond mixed with early AFI (back when if you were into hardcore, it was cool to like AFI) art. The result is analogous to their roots from punk through to heavy metal/first wave black metal and perfectly encompasses the album’s musical outlook and approach. 

The band recorded at STL where they have previously before, but this time they recorded and mixed on a vintage SSL 4000G board - the board itself coming from Peter Gabriel's 'Real World Studios' and has been used for bands like: King Crimson, The Cars, Robert Plant, etc. The result was then mastered overseas at 'The Boiler Room', Chicago. That alone should speak for itself. If not, this album has an excellent clarity to it where everything sounds perfectly balanced. My only comment would be if the guitars were a bit rougher sounding in tone. But what do I know, I’m just a filthy vocalist. 

In summary, this is an excellent album and the band should be proud of the amount of hard work and effort that has been put into making a great album filled with excellent musicianship. They’ve made an album that from the artwork through to the lyrics captured the intended approach and outlook of the band. They have once again set the bar high for themselves and for the NZMetal community and I am eager to see how they will overcome it with their future work.

For fans of the band already, you will love to hear the development and cohesiveness that the band has honed in on for this album. If you're new to the band, then it is a hell of an introduction that you're in for! Don't let Rise of the Black Banshee pass you by this year and get the album immediately. You will not be disappointed.

For fans of: Venom, Midnight, Nifelheim and first wave black metal/thrash metal.

Favourite track(s): Sniper (The Nod cover), Deathgasm

Rating: 9.8/10

To listen to and purchase 'Rise of the Banshee' explore the panel below

Friday, October 10, 2014

BulletBelt Interview

BulletBelt, from Wellington NZ, have been kicking about in different forms since 2009, playing their own unique brand of Black Heavy Metal.  They have just released their second album 'Rise of the Banshee'. Let drummer Steve Francis tell the rest...

1) Could you please give a rundown of why you started BulletBelt and what the driving force behind it is? Why should people check you out?

Bulletbelt started as a 'bedroom' project between Ross and I. Initially there were never any thoughts of even playing live. Just keeping it as a 2 person project and work on it with no stress at our own pace. The first first few months were very much like this. The early material being 2nd wave BM influenced. But over time this beast we created gradually took on a life of it's own and is now very much it's own entity. We've had members come and go but Ross and I are the constants. Hopefully with the line up we have in 2014, Jolene, Ryan, Tim, Ross and I we have the 5 people to keep moving the band forward. We feel that we are blazing our own path and not being swayed by scene or "kvlt". 

2) Before we start talking about BulletBelt as such, Lets talk a bit more your own history in New Zealand Metal? Give us a rundown of where you came from. Ross, Ryan and Jolene also have interesting and different back grounds in the same scene. Tell us about those. I Remember Ross writing to me back in the early 90s when I was in my first band ‘Convulsion’.

Like most people I became 'infected' with metal through having older brothers who had a decent record collection of punk and early metal/rock. Once I heard Eddie Van Halen play eruption on Van Halen 1 it was game over on my pop tape collection. So you get heavier Van Halen - Twisted Sister - WASP - Megadeth - Slayer - Napalm Death. So in college it was time to start a band.. None of us could really play. Karnage was born. We played about a dozen gigs between 90-93 ending with supporting Carcass in Wellington. Incidentally they came up to our flat before and after drinking and their touring Guitarist Mike Hickey (who played on Venom calm before the storm) ending up 'scoring' Totmans girlfriend that night. Around the end of Karnage Sam and myself met up with Lindsay Dawson and formed Demoniac. Hidee Beast came a little later. I played on the 93 Rehersal demo. I left after that and didn't really play a lot again until 2009! Must have been a mid life Crisis. Although I didn't play in bands during that period I still was every much a metal fanatic consuming as many albums as I could get my hands on.

Ryan is obviously a scene stalwart having played in Backyard Burial for many years plus he played in Monsterworks and Bile Suction. Jolene played in Zirconium, Pariah and Majera. Ross also plays drums in local perverts Pervertor and Tim plays in Intergracia

So yeh, too old too cold!

Demoniac - early line up. Steve is on the right holding the up side down sheep
3) You’re in the process of recording a new album. Tell us everything!

The recording is in the bag. Rise of the Banshee is released October 1st, the same day we open for Sepultura! We feel that we've spread our wings a lot on this one. There's some different things going on for sure. The battle cry from day one had been NZBM, but this time around probably NZHM would be a better description. Influences from BM to Motörhead to DM to Thrash. So more diverse, but certainly feels like Bulletbelt. Another big difference this time around is the tunes haven't been road tested. So it's been interesting hearing them really come to life in the studio. Jolene has fucking nailed it too. Obviously practicing the tunes in the rehearsal room at volume it's hard to really pick up on the vocals, so we were going into the studio a bit blind. We know she sounds great but didn't know how it would equate to the studio. Her vocals are going to blow people away. We have made a really strong album, a big step forward for us and I can't wait for people to hear it! The concept of the album was to base it around NZ's dark past. We like to promote ourselves to the rest of the world as this safe, clean green paradise but some evil shit has happened in Aeoteroa. I don't want to give too much away yet but some of the subject matter is Minnie Dean who was only woman hung in NZ. One tune is about the gallows that used to be on the Terrace in Wellington and there's a song about Mount Tarawera erupting and fucking everything up. And like the first album we cover an old NZ song Bulletbelt style. We've revved up 'Sniper' from New Plymouth's The NOD

4) Speaking of Jolene, not so long ago she joined the band after Fergus exited. What happened there with Fergus, and how did you come to pick Jolene to replace him? 

As you know yourself Chris from being in bands for a long time sometimes people just decide their time is up. There was no bad dealings or drama at all, Ferg just let us know he was opting out. We respected his decision and although we were bummed to see him go it was exciting to launch a new

chapter for Bulletbelt. Ferg was never really a 'metal guy'. He would be the first to tell you that. He's now in a 'noise' band and still creating and still a great friend of ours.

Jolene actually did some backing vocals on the first album and told me at the time that if Ferg ever leaves to hit her up which i did! She came and tried out and within a couple of practices we knew she was it. It was a baptism of fire for her as we had a whole bunch of gigs lined up. Ferg had actually offered to do them before he left but we figured once you're gone your'e gone. So we threw her in head first. She played our vinyl release gig after about 3 practices then played with Primate the next week, She did a great job, mainly trying to remember the lyrics! I think it's a relief for her now that we are moving onto new material and it's her lyrics.

5) Lets talk about your current/previous album ‘Down In The Cold Of The Grave’. How do you view that now that you have new material recorded? In your view how was the album received? You self released both vinyl, cassette and CD versions through your own label. How did you find doing that in this post download pirate world? 

I'm really proud of it. We recorded it 2 years ago and some of those tunes are 3 years old. It's a perfect representation of where we were in 2012. The

album was received really well. The only thing I would change is how widely we promoted it. We certainly could've done a lot more. But that's how you learn. Everything we've learnt since our inception in 2009 will be used to push the new album hard. We have a
plan of attack in place to really get it out there. 

Yes we self released on Headless Horseman, Trading and selling to other labels/distros has been the key to getting it out there. The negative of doing it yourself is $ and the positive is total control over everything. In this day and age it's hard work doing tape/CD/Vinyl releases but WELL WORTH the hassle. Ross and I are old school collectors and know the feelings of holding an awesome metal album in your hands and looking at the art work, reading the credits, lyrics and being taking away to that special place that great metal albums can do to you. There is no better sound than the crackle of
vinyl. I know i'm in a minority these days but downloading just doesn't compare. We always have been in this for the long haul so we know that it takes time to sell a batch of CD's or vinyl. 

6) Continuing on with ‘Down In The Cold Of The Grave’. On that Album you had the cover art and logo done by the incredibly talented Nick Keller. What are you looking to do with the visual presentation of the new album?

I was really keen for this one to have a classic heavy metal feel like those great covers from the 80's.. The great old days of walking into a music store and buying a record unheard because of the cover art. Scarecrowoven is doing the art. I stumbled across him in Thrasher magazine and was blown away by his stuff. I contacted him to do my other band Red Dawn's cover art and he nailed it. This time around around I showed him King Diamond Abigail cover as a reference point. He's really captured the vibe and it represents the feel of the album perfectly.

Click the image to purchase and listen to 'Down in the cold of the grave' 

7) You were recently interviewed for Radio New Zealand’s 2 part ‘South of Heaven: A History of New Zealand Extreme Metal’ documentary. Tell us why you think that is important to the people reading this.

NZ metal has a great history and it's awesome that Craig Hayes has documented it. A lot of those bands broke up 20 years ago so it's important that they are remembered. I was a bit player back in the day, but attended many shows as a punter so was happy to be interviewed and give my perspective on what went down. Now
we just need someone to do an awesome vinyl compilation on THONZEM!

Click HERE listen to 'South of Heaven: A History of New Zealand Extreme Metal' as well as complete unedited interviews.

8) You’ve been pretty prolific in your touring around New Zealand. What benefits has this brought to BulletBelt? I understand you’re going to be playing off shore soon? 

Yes we are a busy band and like touring and getting our music out to as many people as possible. If anything it has made us a much better live band. We also like the idea of taking the music to the smaller towns around NZ. As a teenager getting into metal I can still recall the magic of the first gigs I attended. We hope to go to these places hopefully inspire someone to start there own band. 3 shows in Aussie this time around. Getting across the ditch is easy to do but also exciting to play new ground. Brisbane, Melbourne then playing the Bendigoat festival in Bendigo. We have plans to travel further abroad in the future.

9) What is ‘Headless Horseman’? What can we expect from it in the near future?

Headless Horseman is the label and distro that Ross and I formed to get our music out and help fund what we do. Ross handles the distro and I lead the touring side of things. We have brought Impiety/Goatwhore (with Chaos), Midnight, Primate and Krisiun next month to NZ. We both work together on the album releases which have so far been Bulletbelt, Red
Dawn and Pervertor. "The futures uncertain and the end is always near".

Check out the 'Headless Horseman' facebook page HERE

10) Who the fuck are 'The Skull'? Why? What the fuck are they doing?

Haha The Skull are 4 ugly fuckers who have made Chinese Democracy part 2, except it's a 12 minute gang beating rather than a wankfest. And it's hopefully coming your way soon!

11) Cheers for answering this interview Steve! Now is the bit where you get to wrap things up and plug any products or shows you would like readers to be aware of. 

Thanks for the interview Chris. Go and get our album Rise of the Banshee now. You can buy it off the Bulletbelt Bandcamp, at a record store near you or on iTunes. Cheers!

Click the image to purchase and listen to 'Rise of the Banshee'