I’ll prefer to start this feature by putting the cards on the table. It was Tim of Shadow Kingdom who suggested an article covering the whole career of the band and it was also he that established the contact with bass player, song writer, lyricist and founder John Gaffney which allowed me to do something different than just the usual feature focused on the latest release. That being said, the bigger labels also work like this, often offering selected media to do special features about their artists. The feature consists of three different interviews pieced together. The first part, covering the debut album, was originally done for Scream magazine when the album was released, while the bit focusing on “The Crystal Eye” was conducted some months ago. Last but not least, I called John a short time ago to talk about the killer new album “World Of Evil”. How the whole thing turned out? Well, judge for yourself, but hopefully it’s one of the more interesting and in depth interviews with the band out there. All feedback is welcome!
Part I: “Sinister Realm”
Before John formed SINISTER REALM, he was a member of Pale Divine for about two years. During his time as a member, he recorded the band’s third album “Cemetery Earth”, which was made available to the public during the spring of 2007. Did he already then think of one day forming his own band?
– Yeah, I think so. Even though I enjoyed my time in Pale Divine, I was working on my own material that I wanted to record. During the last few rehearsals with the band, I introduced ideas for four new songs.
Shortly after Gaffney left Pale Divine, he had the drummer, Darren McCloskey, on the phone telling him how much he enjoyed his material and that he would love to work on these songs together with Gaffney in a new project.
– Two of the songs, “The Circle Is Broken” and “March Of The Damned” ended up on our demo and later on the self titled full length.
Gaffney says that the intention was to record some tracks with him taking care of both guitar- and vocal duties, but as the songs grew in quality, the thought of finding a proper singer entered his mind.
– Alex (Kristof) is from Allentown in Pennsylvania, just like me. He had moderate success in some local bands performing both covers and original material. He used to sing in a metal tribute band, and our current guitar player, Jon Risko, also played in the same band. I had seen and heard Alex in different local acts, and knew he was perfect to this kind of music, so I sent him an email and asked him to join in. He accepted and when we heard him sing our songs for the first time, we immediately knew that we should do a demo just to check if there was any interest from labels.
The guitars on the demo recording, as well as the bass of course, are done by Gaffney, since the guys couldn’t find a useful guitarist in time. Some time after the recording was finished, Gaffney put an advertisement in a local paper and John Kantner and Keith Patrick showed up for an audition. The former is from Pennsylvania too, and learnt his trade in some local projects and is still a part of Sinister Realm today. As John explains things went really fast:
– It just took a few months from I left Pale Divine until I had recorded a demo and completed the lineup of the band.
Gaffney says that the band made some copies of the demo on CD which were given away to friends and acquaintances.
– Soon people were mailing me asking where they could buy a copy, but I had no intention of asking money for this recording. Therefore we decided to make it available as a free download.
All four songs from the demo ended up Sinister Realm’s self titled debut, released in the autumn of 2009.
– The recordings are brand new, but the arrangements are pretty much the same. The ending of both “Machine God” and ”(The Oracle) Into the Depths of Hell” are different compared to the demo, and some solos are changed a little, but apart from that, we’re only talking minor adjustments.
The band had offers from different labels wanting to release this record, but ended up collaborating with Shadow Kingdom Records out of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
– The label suited us very well. It’s important for us to work with someone who really backs and promotes old fashioned heavy metal and doom.
Still talking about the debut, Gaffney says that he wanted to create something similar to the classics he listened to in his youth, albums like “Blizzard Of Ozz”, “Piece Of Mind” and ”British Steel”, to name a few.
– Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we have managed something that is remotely close to these masterpieces, but it was in this direction I wanted to go. All the aforementioned albums have fantastic riffs, but at the same time really catchy melodies. They are also very cleanly produced and sport outstanding vocal performances. I have set out to make music with a good balance between killer, dark riffs and catchy vocal melodies. I have boxes and boxes of tapes packed with riffs at home, but they’ll never end up as songs until I have created a catchy chorus or a strong melody.
One thing that really struck me regarding the debut, was the fact that all songs had the word quality written all over them. Did John have a lot of material to choose from, or did he simply invest time into making the songs as strong as possible?
– I work on songs all the time, when I had a handful ready for the first album, I started thinking about what kind of songs I needed to get a good flow in the album. There were some songs I held back, not because they weren’t up to the standard, but rather because I wanted to use them on the follow up.
One thing I find a little strange about the debut, is the fact the opener “(The Oracle) Into The Depths Of Hell” probably is the song that made the least impression on me.
– I think it’s a brilliant opener. I like the way the intro sets the mood for the rest of the song. It also made sense to open the album with an up-tempo song.
Could you fill us in on the background of John Risko and Chris Metzger who entered the frame before the recording of the second album “The Crystal Eye”?
– John and Chris are both local guys who have played in many popular bands from our area. John used to play in a local metal tribute cover band that I went to see all the time, he has a great sound and feel, and I always wanted to work with him. Chris used to play with a very popular local modern rock band, called Type 14. When we needed a new drummer he was the first guy that we asked.
John says that old members, Darin and Keith had different reasons for quitting the band.
– Darin simply moved and the distance for him to travel to practice was too much, we’re still good friends and I talk to him and text him all the time. Keith left to pursue some other projects he was working on.
What are your thought on your debut today? Most musicians never want to change something about an album, but is “Sinister Realm” a record you still can listen to and enjoy?
– I like the first album and still enjoy listening to it, like anything in life as you do it more you get better at it so yeah there are some things I look back on with that record and wish that I had done differently, that’s part of the growing process though. It was the best we could do at the time so I’m proud of it. The only thing I would change is that I would have mastered it differently and I hope to make that correction when it is pressed to vinyl. The original was rather loud and some of the dynamics were lost, I plan on remastering it for the possible vinyl pressing and restoring some of the dynamic range. I don’t want to go into great detail here, but if people google “The Loudness War” you see what I’m referring to.
When we did the interview after the release of the debut, you told me you had two songs written that you intended to use on the second album. However, songs with the titles ”Upon The Burning Seas”, described by you as a very long and epic song and “The Black Heart Of The Sun” ( a slow, mid tempo one) did never end up on “The Crystal Eye”. Were the titles changed, or were the songs simply dropped?
– Typical of me, I tend to write a bunch of songs and as I get closer to putting an album together I start to pick the ones that flow and work the best together. Those were two songs I had going in the early stages of writing that for one reason or another I decided not to use. It’s important to me that an album has songs that all fit together nicely. Also.sometimes I start working on something that I think is good and then realize later that it is crap Haha! “The Black Heart Of The Sun” will probably rise again at some point but “Burning Seas” has probably been laid to rest.
When you started planning your second album, “The Crystal Eye”, where there something specific regarding the songwriting that you set out to change?
– Maybe not necessarily change, but I wanted to just get better if you will. The thing you have to know is that for the first record we had never played any of those songs live, so when the time came to write “The Crystal Eye”, I was thinking more about the live stage and songs that would work in that setting. I felt like we needed some up- tempo things for our shows so I think that influenced some of my thought process. When I wrote the first album it was just me, I didn’t even have a band at that point, but when it came time for record number two, I had a band and was writing with the strengths of the other guys in mind. I knew how Alex sang and what would work best for him for instance.
You used the same studio as on the debut, so I guess you were pretty much satisfied with the facilities and the work you did with Brian Anthony there?
– Definitely, Brian is the man! He is very easy to work with and we both have the same musical tastes and understanding of classic metal which is very important to me. The more we work together, the more he knows what I want. We have a good relationship where I sort of wear the producer hat and he captures the sounds. If I need an opinion on something I can trust his. We recorded our latest album “World of Evil” there also.
Do you feel that “The Crystal Eye” represented a step forward for the band, both in terms of sales and reviews? What are your thoughts on this album, a few years after it was released?
– Yeah, I think it was a step forward. I think the songwriting is a bit more focused and the performances and production is better. I think the big difference from the first album to the second was that with all the songs on “The Crystal Eye” we had the chance to play them out live and grow into them a bit as a band. I think this helped give it a different feel. The reviews and sales seemed to be positive also. There are of course going to be people who liked the first one better and that’s cool because there are some people who liked the second one better too. Looking back on the album now I’m very satisfied with it.
One thing I remember about listening to the album, is that it needed a bit more time than the debut to
sink in. Is this a reaction that you got from other people as well?
– For some people yes, there were some songs on “The Crystal Eye” that were maybe a bit more involved like “The Tower is Burning” and “Shroud of Misery” that maybe took a few listens to get into. That’s ok with me though because many of my favorite albums took a while before I really got into them. On the flip side, some people latched onto “The Crystal Eye” quickly though and I think that was because that album had a bit more of a traditional metal sound to it so people more into this type of metal found it maybe more appealing then the first one, which was a bit more doomy or NWOBHM- like.
How did the addition of new members Chris Metzger and John Risko influence the album?
– Well, whenever anybody new comes into the picture they bring their own unique talents into the band. For instance, our old drummer Darin has more of swing feel to his playing, like say Bill Ward, where as Chris is a bit more hard hitting and straight forward like a Scott Travis style player. There’s nothing wrong with either, they are just different. So Chris’ style of drumming influenced me a bit with the more straight ahead more upbeat metal numbers that were on the second album. Risko has a great sound and technique and he influenced me to branch out and incorporate more modal things into the solo sections.
Early in 2012 you got the chance to perform in Europe for the first time. Tell us a little about the experience of playing at Metal Assault in Germany.
– It was amazing! Simply the gig of a lifetime. The fans were fantastic and the festival was running great. I hope we can go back for the next album and maybe even do a proper tour of Europe. European metal fans are the greatest!! My only regret with Metal Assault was that I didn’t buy more vinyl. Haha! As a metal vinyl collector when I saw all those vendors I was in heaven.
You recently participated one song to the upcoming tribute album to Anvil. Good choice of song I must say, as “Forged In Fire” is probably my favorite Anvil-tune. Did you consider other tracks?
– The whole thing is put together by a guy in Poland called Bart Gabriel who is a manager and runs a label called Skol Records. He contacted me about it and suggested the song “Forged In Fire”. I really wanted to do “Old School” (from “Absolutely No Alternative” released in 1997), but he told me nobody was doing “Forged In Fire” and asked if we could be interested. It was cool by me, because “Metal On Metal” and “Forged In Fire” are my two favorite Anvil-records. I’ve always liked the song, it’s kind of heavy but still with a strong groove. It was one I really could picture us doing.
Part III: “World Of Evil”
It seems you made a demo of some of the material on the new album that you shopped to different labels. Was this because you were not fully satisfied with Shadow Kingdom and wanted to find a new partner to work with?
– No, we were satisfied, but we wanted to see what happened if we put something out there. You know, to see if someone were interested. We spoke to some people, but the with the direction Shadow Kingdom has gone in recently, with the owner of the label Tim, doing a lot of positive changes, I am happy to still have a relationship with the label.
Were you disappointed by the lack of interest from other parties?
– We had people contacting us, and I guess it would have been nice if people starting throwing lots of money at us. Haha! No, I’m realistic. We recorded the demo with no specific intentions in mind, we just wanted to record some songs and see what would happen.
-I try not to overthink too much when I am writing, says John when I ask if there was something about “The Crystal Eye” that he wanted to change for “World Of Evil”. He continues:
– I wanted to have a longer, more epic song on the record, which resulted in “Four Black Witches”. Otherwise I let it flow, but I always want to get better at what I am doing. I want the songs to better, and the playing to be better.
The new album is called “World Of Evil”. Do you feel that the title of the album is representative for the lyrics as a whole, or are there perhaps other reasons why you went for this title? I guess it’s not that hard to find inspiration for the lyrics to an album with that title today?
– I think the title applies to more songs than just the title track. It kind of sums up how I feel when I look around the world. It certainly feels like a world of evil. The lyrics say: “I stand alone inside a world of evil”. When you see horrible things that go wrong, like the bomb that went off in Boston, it feels like we stand in a world of evil. You ask yourself – When will things change, when are people going to stop treating each other badly? Some of the other songs relates to the theme as well. The song “Bell Strikes Fear” it’s about the doomsday clock, a clock somewhere that is ticking down to what they believe is doomsday. When things are getting worse, they move the clock forward, and they have a theory that says when the clock hits midnight it’s the end of the world.
Those two songs, both the title track as well as “Bell Strikes Fear” have some really tasteful melodic choruses. Are the choruses something you worked specifically on for this album?
– The chorus is always a really important part of a song. When I write songs, I tend to work from the inside out, starting with the chorus. In my mind, if you don’t have a strong chorus, you don’t have a song. I like hooks that grab people. In fact, what I am saying right now might sound like a contradiction, but with “Bell Strikes Fear” the chorus didn’t come first. In my head I heard a kind of Accept-like chorus, something that could work really well live. We played the tune live a couple of times, and the audience picked it up really fast. The song “World Of Evil” might have started with the chorus though, I wrote a lot on the piano this time, and I think this one came from that.
The song “Cyber Villain” on the other hand has a pretty aggressive chorus. You seem to have one or two of those on each album.
– Yeah, that one…I try to do different things. “Cyber Villain” has a bit of chanting, that repeats the same phrase. When I am working on songs, I try to have different feels in the songs. I had a song that I was going to put on this record called “The Hammer Draws Near” but it was too similar to something I already had on the album. I decided to hold it back for the next record. I always look at what I have and what I like to have.
John says that the band has made a video for the title track of the new album.
– Yeah, we hired a local person who is a professional, doing photographs and films, she has worked with a lot of different bands. In fact, she is the same person that took the pictures for the cover of the first album, the ones with the skull on table. She is also a fan of the band. Then we turned it over to this director who came with the concept for the title track. I am pretty excited about it. First and foremost we want to have it out on YouTube and have it spread that way.
Do you feel that you write different lyrics now, in 2012-13 compared to back when you started? Have the topics changed, and have your way of writing changed?
– That’s a good question. I try to be more focused with my lyrics now, as time passes it seems to get harder to find topics to write about so that I’m not repeating myself. I try to keep myself open to various influences like movies or books. I’m always looking for something new to write about. Sometimes just everyday life has a way of providing you with inspiration. I don’t really think my topics have changed, I’m just writing about them in different ways.
Asked how it influences his song writing being a bass player, John has the following answer:
– I’ve been playing some guitar too. When I recorded the demos for instance, I had my guitar and had a drum machine. Being a bass player, I like to keep it simple. Sometimes when guitar players write songs, they write tunes that are interesting to play on the guitar, while I tend to write songs that have strong melody lines and catchy choruses. I love the bass lines to be interesting, but they should also work for the songs, like for instance in “Bell Strikes Fear”, where they might not be the most interesting in the world, but at least they work for the song. I like to keep it simple and concentrate on the melody lines and the hooks of the song.
I presume you have done all the music and all the lyrics on “World Of Evil” on your own. Do you see yourself as a band dictator?
– A band dictator? No, not at all. When I started Sinister Realm, I did pretty much all the songs. Then when we recorded the second album, it was a natural thing that the other guys said: You did a good job on the first records, so just go on…The way I make the demos, I make them very simple. Then I give them to everybody, who put their own personality into the songs. I am not a dictator in the sense that I tell the guys to play the songs exactly the way I played them. I encourage the drummers and the guitar players to add something. I allow everybody to have their opinion, but I feel the other guys are comfortable with me writing the stuff, also because our schedules are so busy.
So if someone else in the band brings along a song, is that okay with you, or will all material come from you in the future as well?
– I am okay with what other people bring to this band. I guess the way I work, I tend to do things very quickly. I already have four or five songs ready for the next record. Between the first album and “The Crystal Eye” we got a new lead guitar player. While he learned the old songs, I was learning everybody the new songs. As soon as I finished “The Crystal Eye”, we started working on “World Of Evil”. It went along quite quickly. The others might very well contribute some vocal ideas or riffs. I look forward to working with some of their ideas.
One really cool thing about Sinister Realm, is that when I listen to your albums, all three of them, I am captured by the same feeling I got from listening to the great albums of the eighties, you know the bands that were capable of producing one great album after the other. Do you sometimes feel you were born 20 years too late?
– Yeah, sometimes I feel like that. You know, this is the music I grew up with. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Dio, Ozzy, Black Sabbbath, Accept and Mercyful Fate. I kind of discovered Candlemass a little bit later. When it comes to writing songs, it’s natural for me to turn to my influences. Look at how many great albums Iron Maiden or Judas Priest have put out. That’s what I set as my goal: I want all stuff to be as good as that. I try to write songs that I get the same feeling from as I got when I first heard “Piece Of Mind”, “British Steel” or “Screaming For Vengeance”. With Sinister Realm the aim is to write good songs, and if someone is reminded of these great bands, that is awesome.
It can’t be easy though, because it seems hard for many bands to string together two or three decent albums. Many new acts manage one good album, a few create two, but there are not a lot of bands that come up with three in a row like you just did.
– Yeah, I know what you mean. I sort of understand the problem a little bit. When you write your first album, you have your whole life to write it, then you have a short period of time to come up with the material for the second album. For the first album I used some riffs I had had kicking around in my head for a long time, the second album also had some stuff I also had been working on for a long time. By the time “World Of Evil” came around, I really had to be careful. I really wanted to make sure, that I didn’t put something on that wasn’t good enough. It’s hard to put something you have worked on for days in the trash can, because you’re not sure it’s up to the standard. I try to keep a real high standard, if I am not sure about something, I try to be patient and wait until I come up with something better. There is a song we’ve been working on, that was on the demo we shopped to the labels that we’re not sure that was good enough for the record. But that doesn’t mean we’re talking about a bad song. We’ll probably be releasing a five song-EP later on. It will have “Call Of the Night Wolf” from the demo, also an extra song that didn’t make “World Of Evil” called “Protectors Of The Realm”, together with a leftover song from the first album. The EP will also contain one or two others songs, probably the Anvil-cover we talked about and maybe also a cover of another band.
In the future, John really wants to do an album consisting of covers of obscure metal bands…
– Brocas Helm, Omen and stuff like that, more underground bands that many people don’t know about. Exciter is another one I would like to do, you know, a song like “Pounding Metal”.
If you compare “World Of Evil” to the first album, they’re of course different, but you can still quite easily hear that we’re dealing with the same band. How have you weighed taking care of the band’s identity towards your needs to develop the sound of the band?
– I think the first album had a little bit of doom in it although I never considered Sinister Realm to be a doom metal-band. We are more like a faster Ozzy or Black Sabbath. So how has the band evolved? “The Crystal Eye” was more traditional metal, and I think the new one combines elements from the first and the second record. On the new record there are some doomier moments like “Four Black Witches” and “The Ghosts Of Nevermore”
Having released three albums packed with great material, it must get harder and harder for you to choose which songs to perform live? Do you put as much work into the live set as you do with the order of the songs on an album?
– One cool thing is that when we do a show with a doom/stoner-band, when we know it’s going to be that kind of audience, we have enough songs now to do a doomier set with stuff like “The Circle Is Broken” from the first record, “Shroud Of Misery” and “The Tower Is Burning” from the second and “Four Black Witches” along with the title track from the new one. When we opened up for Ripper Owens some time ago, in front of a more traditional metal crowd, we played more upbeat material. And you’re definitely right, it does get harder as time goes on. When the new album comes out, we have to play some songs of that, but there is also some stuff from that past that needs to be performed. We play “The Demon Seed” almost every time and also “Machine God” a lot. We always end our shows with “The Crystal Eye” or “With Swords Held High” and we have opened with “Winds Of Vengeance”. With the new album out, we have started using “Dark Angel Of Fate” to kick things off.