DEXTER WARD: Days of epic metal

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“III” is the title of the brand new album by the Greek/Italian constellation Dexter Ward, an album that sees the band venturing into music as well as lyrics that are even more epic than before. As Metal Squadron did back when the band released their second album, “Rendezvous With Destiny”  in 2016, we once more hooked up with singer Mark Dexter for a chat about the what’s happened in the camp since then.

“III” is out since a couple of weeks. What excites you most thinking about the release of the album?                                                                                   

– I guess it’s the fact I know we released our best album so far and it’s such a huge step forward compared to the previous one that I can’t help feeling excited and anxious about the feedback from the metal world. The master is ready since last November so all those long months we’ve been like a boiling cauldron, you got to take off the lid eventually or it’s going to explode.

Dexter Ward were supposed to perform at Up The Hammers in Greece at the day of the album release, an event the whole band was looking forward to, but as we all know, the whole festival was cancelled.  Mark still gives us some details of what the band was planning to do at this special occasion.                                                 

– We were going to play only a couple songs from the new album, the first single called “Return of the Blades” that we released at the end of 2019 and most people should be already familiar with, and “Conan the Barbarian” which is pretty straightforward and should work fine live. It was a balanced setlist with songs from our three records and some surprises. We were bringing back “Double Dragon” from “Neon Lights” and we wanted to play an old Battleroar song I wrote called “Egyptian Doom” from 2002, with Gus Makrikostas from the classic Battleroar lineup as special guest on bass. It’s our guitar player Akis favourite song from that album, that we incidentally recorded in his own studio (Versus Studio) back then. That’s when I met Akis for the first time.

It’s been almost four years since the last album came out, while there was also about the same time between «Neon Lights» and «Rendezvous With Destiny». Is this simply the time needed for you to write songs, rehearse them and record them?       

– No, not really! Most of the new album has been written between March and early June 2019, we did pre-production in the summer, started recording around September and finished mixing and mastering in November, a ten month period overall. After we released  “Rendezvous with Destiny” and played a few shows, we kind of lost the momentum and just got drowned in our everyday’s routines, jobs, families, commitments. What happens, at least with me, is that we go out and play and I’m all pumped up and in a great mood, the king of the world in denim and spikes and power chords, and then after the shows I go back home and I’m again Mr. Anonymous asshole! This is a titanic blow that kills the morale and slowly you get sucked into the gears of civil life and you’re fucked big time! This happens when you just play a few shows throughout the year, like one weekend now, another weekend four months later and so on, you can’t keep a steady focus and then months pass, seasons change and BAM! it’s four years!  So there I was around Winter 2018, in a kind of middle age crisis where I had lost the will to play and sing for the reason i just described, and we “froze” the band to see what happens, as R.J. MacReady would say, and a few months later, like magic I had never experienced before, I took the guitar and all the songs started to flow one after the other, the first being “The Eyes of Merlin” and the last “Return of the Blades” and we all felt re-energised and ready to kick ass again, the “hunger” came back stronger than ever.

Last time we spoke together, I remember Mark saying he was a bit concerned that people might had forgotten about the band between the release of «Neon Lights» and «Rendezvous With Destiny». Did he happen to have the same concerns this time, or does he feel that «Rendezvous With Destiny» established Dexter Ward more as a band with a loyal fanbase than «Neon Lights» did?                                           

– Yes sure I did, and to a certain extend it might have happened, because in the fast-moving and crowded scene of today, with lots of traditional metal releases each month, it’s very easy to be forgotten or to get overlooked when you finally come out again with something new. Unexpectedly, though, I also experienced more of the contrary effect: in fact, many young fans are getting in touch with us, new fans we didn’t have before, and the older ones that were following us in our Battleroar days seem to like this new album of ours even better than “Rendezvous With Destiny”.

Looking back at «Rendezvous With Destiny», what do you view as that album’s main strenghts and weaknesses? Did you approach the new album differently based on something you learnt while working on «Rendezvous With Destiny?»    

– Our second album still sounds great to my ears, in terms of production and progression from the debut, but in my opinion doesn’t possess the unity and character that “III” has. The reason is, the songs were composed through an arc of three-four years in different periods where we went through important personal changes in our private lives, and this affected the mood of the music and also the fact that, lyrically, it’s more like a collection of tunes about different topics, apart from the two songs about the Crusades. The new album is much more focused, music and lyrics, because except for “In the Days of Epic Metal” and “The Dragon of the Mist” that I wrote in the Summer of 2017, the other six came out all together so fast and on the wings of an excitement I hadn’t felt since I first joined Battleroar 20 years ago.

Dexter Ward has managed something that is more of an exception than a rule in today’s scene. The band has had a stable lineup for about ten years now. Is the secret behind the stable lineup that the members don’t see each other too often»?  

I think if we lived closer to each other and possessed the luxury of rehearsal as a full band, we could do much more in terms of quantity and perhaps quality of releases and live shows. In the present conditions, I think we’re doing pretty good, if you consider that since we started the band in 2009, we have done no more than 15 rehearsals all together. What happens is we’re all very good friends and can’t wait to see each other. I won’t deny distance keeps things fresh in a way, but it’s not the reason why we’re still together today. And afterall I’m the only member living abroad, the guys meet quite often in Athens, although their instrumental rehearsals are not extremely frequent.

dexterward_logoYou have a brand new logo supporting the new album. It looks extremely old school and is in stark contrast to the previous logo which was more modern looking. Did you simply have to change the logo to fit with the artwork of the cover, or did you want to make a mark and maybe underline some musical changes, with the music in my opinion being more epic, with a new logo and a different looking artwork?                 

– The main reason is I never liked our old logo, and only last year i discovered Manolis (Karazeris, guitar) never really liked it either. When we formed the band, that was the last of our priorities. We just wanted to go back on stage with our new music, and we settled on a functional logo that through the years I started considering devoid of soul and character. So, much before we had completed the songwriting for the new album, I sketched a very raw version of the new logo on a small piece of paper, that was the guideline from which Alexandros Vasilopoulos realized the logo that you can see today. The same thing happened later with the cover art, also done by Alexandros, who had painted the cover for the first Battleroar album. We wanted an old school, hand painted cover, and that’s exactly what he delivered. The new logo, and the cover art, they tell a story even before you play the record. I have never been more satisfied about any of our previous artworks as I am with new one. Although the new logo fits great with the epic style of “III” I don’t think it’s a “one trick pony”. We’re going to keep this one for a long time, even in albums with more “varied” and perhaps more contemporary lyrical themes, “More contemporary” for me means the Vietnam War or the middle eighties!

The title of the upcoming album is «III». Sounds like something you settle for when you can’t really find a good, fitting title right?                                                                         

– It was a planned and deliberate choice that carried a meaning. We didn’t want a fancier or more catchy title to take the listener’s attention away from the music itself. The roman numerals convey a sense of ancestral solemnity, and the number III is highly symbolic, for example the three swords depicted on the cover art represent the three crosses on the Golgotha. We talked about perhaps using “Return of the Blades” as a title, but whereas the word “Return” implies some sort of comeback, I wanted to keep this album as “out of time” as I could, because I think this concept of being “vague” in a chronological sense is often the trademark of great heavy metal songs and albums.

«Return Of The Blades» is both the opener of the album, and was also released as the first taster from «III». Why do Mark feel it fits both purposes?                     

– Because it represents a re-energised, fresh, up tempo version of the band that pushes the pedal to the epic and wipes out of the way the idea that we are a static “mid-tempo” kind of heavy metal band cause we’re not. “Rendezvous With Destiny” was a relatively more slower paced album, just because of the song selection, but we do like to write faster songs and this new album is much more compact and powerful than the previous. Lyrically, “Return Of The Blades”  is the ideal “continuation” of another song me and Manolis had written for Battleroar called “Hyrkanian Blades”, which in turn was the name of my personal project way back in 2000. I think it’s good to have a galloping opener that makes things clear about what’s going to come next!

Last time we spoke you went into details about how surprised you are by how a song you have written turns out and how the arrangements almost feel new to you. Where there songs on this new album that turned out very different from how you thought when you composed them?                                                    

– No, this time we really focused on keeping the flavour, the attitude and the details that were present in the original demos I had recorded. This was important because what makes this album strong, is the spirit, the energy that permeates it, and through which the songs came to life. There were no big changes of sort, except for the fact that the songs sound 100 times better than they did in the demos! For example, I like to improvise vocal harmonies and to use choirs whenever I can, I don’t like to record the same line many times the same way but it’s often required when you do bridges and choruses et cetera, so I find relief in being creative during the recording process and adding extra layers that weren’t in the demos, this way I manage to keep myself interested and to surprise the band with little new, positive things.

On the last album, guitarist Akis contributed a song in the form of «Knights Of Jerusalem», but on “III” all songs are written by Mark himself.                                       

– Yes, but Akis had a very heavy hand on this album since he’s responsible for all the pre-production arrangements, and also added some new parts such as the intro to “Soldiers of Light” or the orchestral arrangement to the intro of “In the Days of Epic Metal”, fixed and in many cases rewrote the drum parts together with Stelios (Darakis, drums) and came out with the most amazing leads and ideas. I understand it might sound like an unusual statement in this case, but this album featured a level of teamwork unsurpassed for our band, we all gave our best and beyond.

I remember you being very satisfied with the producer, Thimios Krikos and his Devasoundz studio which you used last time, still you haven’t gone for him this time…

– Our guitar player Akis is a very talented sound engineer and producer himself, and he finally managed to build his own home studio. He had worked together with Thimios for some time, and we’re all in very good relationship. The main reason was we wanted to find our own personal sound with “III” and we thought that we could accomplish that only by doing the engineering and the production on our own.  Which means Akis did a hell of a job and the result states that creativity and a good ear can make the difference much more than hugely expensive equipment. I recorded vocals here in Italy and all instruments were done in Athens. Another reason, not equally important but nevertheless substantial, was that we had to decide based on our budget, and this solution allowed us to contain the project costs.

In general, mostly judging from the song titles, it seems like the lyrics are more fantasy-based this time. In the past you had these type of lyrics as well, but not to such an extent.

– I grew tired of singing about modern war or the USA, not because I didn’t like those    subjects anymore, but mainly because I didn’t feel I had anything else to add on the matter. Almost everything I had to say had been explored on our first two albums. I have, however, other songs in demo form such as “Veterans”, “Flight of the Intruder”,“Airborne Rangers” or “American Ninja” that might, or might not, see the light on a future Dexter Ward release, but those songs were already old, written from 2012 to 2016, and instead I wanted an album made of new, fresh sounding songs, some kind of “reboot” for the band. After the little “crisis” I had in late 2018, I surrounded myself with the albums, the books and the movies that first prompted me to become a musician and most of them were epic in nature, heroic fantasy based, that’s why with the new album I went full circle and back to my beginnings. It was not a premeditate move, it just happened that way.

«In The Days Of Epic Metal» -that’s one song title for you. Canada’s Breaker called their EP and   one of their songs «In Days Of Heavy Metal» of course, but where did you get the idea for the lyrics to this track from? The phrase «Soldiers Of Light» is part of this song as well, so is «In The Days Of Epic Metal» and the song «Soldiers Of Light» linked together in any way?

– The title is in fact a tribute to the Breaker song that I really love, but there’s no further similarity. The lyrics of our song apparently speak of Norse mythology and a fallen warrior theme, but they are to be seen as a metaphor for something totally different. Of course every listener can relate to the song in a different personal way, but my “Days of Epic Metal” were the days when I first went to Greece in 2002 with a few demos recorded in a very primitive way on my own, and I had never sung with any band, and never imagined I would become part of one of the most flourishing european underground heavy metal scenes, it really was, at the time. The song speaks of the magic and the friendship, the dreams that came true, and the will and the passion that made us reach goals that, theoretically, we should have never even dreamed to pursue, but we did and succeeded and that’s what the song is about. Now for “Soldiers of Light”, the two songs are not connected, I just unconsciously used the same phrase. However, the concept of one that fights for the Light comes from our motto “Metal for the Light!” that was in the booklet of our debut album, and became the title of a song on “Rendezvous With Destiny”. It’s taken from the U.S. White Metal imagery and tradition of bands like Bloodgood, Emerald (U.S.), Zion, etc. from which Dexter Ward are strongly inspired, and in the past we did songs in that direction, such as “Youngblood”, “Evil Nightmares”, “Fighting for the Cross”, and  on the new one, the aforementioned “Soldiers of Light”.

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