Onslaught – Feel the ForceSunday, 26th July 2020
One of the early purveyors in the UK thrash scene, Onslaught have received solid support for their steady discography and current offerings that keep the aggression, energy, and spirit of their roots at hand. They’ve toured over 70 countries to date and appear to have no signs of slowing down – as their latest album Generation Antichrist obliterates with a focus, even as there are three member changes in the group since their last studio record VI.
We reached out to guitarist Nige Rockett for this Skype chat, and he was more than happy to bring us up to speed on the changes within the band including the loss of Sy Keeler, thoughts on how The Force record helped shape the direction of the new record – plus talk about the current music industry and his work within construction and the influence of helping the disabled through his work.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s been seven years since the last studio album VI, and there have been many things that have happened in the Onslaught camp, including numerous band member changes especially with the loss of long-time vocalist Sy Keeler. Can you tell us how these last few years have been and how you personally handled these ups and down to reach this point now with Generation Antichrist – and was there ever a point where you almost threw in the towel and wanted to disband Onslaught?
Nige Rockett: No, never even crossed my mind at any point. It’s been a long time, seven years. We didn’t even realize how much time it had been until the record company was on our case a little bit saying it was time maybe for a new record. We had a couple of lineup changes back two or three years ago. We had been touring for four years after the VI album, a 2 ½ year stint with a couple of world tours on that one and then the 30th anniversary of The Force album came up, and we got so many offers to tour that as well. That went on for a year longer than it should have, the demand was stupid. We just kept taking the shows.
The guys got really burnt out, it took a bit of a toll on Sy as well. We lost Michael Hourihan and Iain Davies our guitarist as well. We decided that was when we were due to go into writing mode anyway. We got two great guys in, James Perry our drummer who has actually done some touring with us before so we knew we got along with him and knew how good he was and Wayne Dorman. We forged on with the writing – and the discussions of what was going to happen after the album was going to be released, we had a heavy touring schedule planned and I don’t really think Sy was looking forward to that. He has a new job and he’s put his heart and soul into that. It was going to be a bit of decision to write and record an album and risk not being able to tour it – so we split with Sy and it was a mutual decision.
It’s been in the wings for a long time. We’ve been friends with David Garnett for a long time, the new vocalist. He was right up into setting into Sy’s shoes – he saw it coming as well. We did a show that Sy couldn’t make in early February, a festival in Sweden, and he was incredible. Once we overcame that hurdle, he recorded a few tracks live to see how it was going to be, as it was a gamble. I think it’s paid off, the reviews on the first track we’ve released have been incredible. There was no drama, but with three changes it is a handful. It’s all been done very smoothly.
Dead Rhetoric: The new record Generation Antichrist is another explosive thrash record seething with power and aggression on all fronts lyrically and musically. What can you tell us about the recording and songwriting process for this effort – where do you see it slotting in the catalog of Onslaught records and were there any surprises, obstacles, or memorable moments during the process you can share?
Rockett: It wasn’t the most straightforward of albums to make because of the situation we found ourselves in the end, you know? I think we started recording on the 18th of January. Obviously we were aware of the virus at the time, and any kind of inclination of how serious it was going to be in Europe and the UK. We forged ahead, got the drums and guitars recorded. We had the thing with Sy where Dave had to come in and do the new tracks. And when it came to record those tracks, that’s when the virus had fully kicked in, so we had to do a bit of it when we should have been in lockdown, but we had no choice. We managed to get the vocals recorded by bending a few rules, but when it came to the mix it was being done in Sweden by Daniel Bergstrand. Which in normal terms, I would have gone over to Sweden to sort of go through the mix, getting everything in the right place. But we couldn’t do that, there were no flights to Sweden, so we had to do everything via email. Which was an absolute nightmare. Even the slightest change- Daniel can we have a little more high eq on the guitars, or a little bit more of this and that on the snare drum – it would take him two hours each little tweak. He would send it back by email, I’d listen to it, and if it wasn’t the way we wanted, we would send it back with changes. I have to thank Daniel for his patience on that one, because the mix took a long time.
I think we got the results we wanted, but I think it was just a very long process. For me, as a journalist you hear all the time that this is our best album of all-time. I mean it about this one – we’ve looked backwards to move forwards. VI was probably our most technical album to date. And we wanted to strip things back a little with this one. I have a writing partner with Andy Rosser-Davies on the last two albums, where the music was 50/50. This time the majority of the songwriting was down to myself. We had discussion between Jeff (Williams) and myself before writing, deciding in what direction we want to take this. We wanted to be more raw, early Discharge and Motörhead feelings into these songs. We had a good look at The Force album in depth as opposed to a listener, and I was more influenced by that album. Less intricacy on the arrangements, and it allows for more of a raw power on this one that we didn’t have on the last one. I think this is Onslaught’s best and most aggressive album to date.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe the younger members now involved in Onslaught infuse the band with a renewed sense of energy and confidence this deep in the band’s career – and open up options for Steve and yourself with where you want to take the songwriting?
Rockett: Yes. James is an incredible drummer – and that’s nothing to take away any of the other guys who have played in the band before. James is just phenomenal, we can throw anything at him and he can play it, twice as fast if he wants to. It gives us options for where we want to take things. Wayne our guitarist, he’s just… his solo playing is another level. Some real dark and nasty stuff, he has so many hooks and melodies at the same time. They’ve both brought something different to this from what was on the previous albums. And Dave, Sy’s shoes are big to fill. He’s not a million miles away from Sy, we didn’t want to significantly change the sound of the band in any way, so Dave puts his own take on things but still honors the old school sound in a way. It’s a little more aggressive, a thick, low end voice. Overall, the guys have stepped up the energy levels I’d like to think.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s no shortage of thoughts on religion, politics, and general hatred/upheaval that you cover with this new album. What do you hope to get across to the listeners with the subject matter – as thrash as a style has always seemed like a perfect vehicle to encourage healthy debate and using more critical insights to move people to action?
Rockett: Yeah, this album is probably more politically tinged than other albums previously. I think that’s purely because of what’s going on in the world, particularly in the UK and Europe at the moment. Obviously topics on the last four albums previous to this one are inspired by world events, but more so on this one European things fired me up a lot. I’m always on the case of religion, it’s a personal enemy of mine from some things that happened in the past, that’s always going to be there. We’ve been getting quite a bit of flack from people about this first single “Religousuicide”. Especially on our Facebook and YouTube pages, but it’s good to be getting a bit of a reaction. Any response is a good response as far as I’m concerned. I’m not writing this for publicity reasons, there are some things that are personal to me, and most of the lyrics are that way.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe your personal approach to playing and songwriting has changed from the early years of Onslaught to your current outlook? What area(s) (if any) have you played a great emphasis on?
Rockett: I think the only thing that has changed is my writing partner on the last two albums, I still write all the lyrics and the vocal lines. That’s not really changed, and that’s what gives the band its original identity even through the different singers, the basic structures still remain the same through all these albums. Except for the time when Steve Grimmett came in, that was a different kind of vocal style completely for In Search of Sanity. The structures stay pretty much the same. I just look at things before I start writing the album and the direction that I want to go in, and we try from there. We discuss it and then write the songs.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us about the cover concept this time?
Rockett: That was Jeff, he did all the artwork for the sleeve. It’s basically the all-seeing eye, if you look in the middle of the triangle there’s the eye, which is meant to be the eye of a camera looking over the world. What’s going on the world, there’s death and conspiracy theories about all of the virus and what’s happening behind the scenes. There’s a track called “All Seeing Eye” which is about the government watching over us, and all that kind of thing. It gets a little bit deeper in places. (Jeff) would be the better guy to ask about the overall artwork.
Dead Rhetoric: Was it an easy decision to release “Religousuicide” as the first single, or were you bantering about other songs to introduce the album?
Rockett: Yes and no. It ultimately came down to the label’s decision in the end. We had a few heavy discussions about it to be honest. Because, you never want to put out your strongest track first. You don’t want to give everything away on the first showing. It’s not the strongest track on the album by a long way, although I do love it. It’s a full on, aggressive, nasty thrash track. Our only concern was of course the lyrical content, some airplay, and YouTube which has caused a problem. We left that ultimately to the label, it was their choice in the end. Whether I was right or wrong, I don’t know.
It’s flying at the moment, it’s a great amount of streams, in that decision it was a good decision to be made. But Facebook wouldn’t allow us to promote the artwork, and YouTube won’t allow us to promote the video. So they are all saying it’s containing shocking images of violence, which I don’t see. I didn’t think it would be a problem. I can understand some of the radio edits. It’s getting people to talk about the album and thousands of comments. One of the strongest tracks is coming out next, we’ve been shooting a video for it, it’s been a mad couple of days. We’ll be releasing “Bow Down to the Clowns” around mid-July. It’s very different through a thrash video, people will be surprised.
Dead Rhetoric: How have you handled the changing music industry / record label landscape – as it feels like the audience is still clamoring for heavy metal and still many diehards prefer physical mediums like vinyl and CD’s – but the digital/streaming services have cut into the revenue streams bands need to survive outside of making money through touring/merchandising avenues?
Rockett: Yeah, with AFM Records based in Germany, the last time we had a long chat with the managing director of our company. I’m really not aware of label politics but he really assured me they’ve got a handle on stuff and have been able to move forward. They have ahold of things, vinyl is making a massive comeback, particularly in Europe. That’s a very good thing. And they have gotten over the problems with the downloading, as much as I can tell. Hopefully sales will increase, they will never be back to the glory days of the 80’s where we can all afford to be hundred percent professional musicians all the time – but things are turning around slowly. I’ve got a lot of high hopes for this.
The streaming thing – I’ve looked at the streaming figures for the single and it’s just incredible. We have gotten recent royalty statements, and you are talking millions of streams over a six month period – if you put that back to the 80’s when they were paid for, the figures would be astronomical. But out of a million streams, you are getting not something close to a pound or a dollar per stream – and that’s not fair. I had to pay a subscription for Spotify for like ten pounds to register our album, I’d hate to think how many streams that is to pay them to register my album (laughs). It seems very wrong.
Dead Rhetoric: What memories do you have of that 2014 North American tour run you did with Artillery – you were obviously put in a tough situation at the last moment securing Neil Turbin as a full-in live vocalist, but do you believe that tour helped reestablish the band on these shores?
Rockett: Um… yeah, that’s a difficult one. I don’t think it really reestablished, the tour previous to that was really good. The tour with Neil Turbin almost killed the band in the states. It was very tough, indeed. I don’t want to go into it too much, I’ve got a lot of old wounds. I think the only thing that saved us from an absolute disaster is we fired Neil two shows before the end of the tour. The last night of the tour was a sold out show at the Whisky in Los Angeles. We had to get our stuff together for that show- if that show had gone belly up, that would have been the end for us in America.
I had to step and do vocals that night. Which is with one day of practice, sitting on the bus from four hours practicing to sing and play at the same time. We had some help with the vocalist of Artillery backing me up as well. We went on stage, absolutely ramped. I explained the situation, and we just said this is the last show, let’s have a party. Which we did, and they went absolutely insane. To this day I don’t know how we managed it. We pulled it off, and it was one of the best shows we’ve ever done. All these security guys praised us, telling us it was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen at the Whisky.
Dead Rhetoric: You also own your own construction company that renovates old buildings, bringing them up to code for the disabled. Discuss how this type of work makes you feel and what accommodations many building owners don’t take into consideration for the disabled that you think about and develop to make it easier for them to get around?
Rockett: Yes. Our family has been builders all their lives. I started doing this when I was nine or ten years old, I’d go to work with my dad. I went straight into construction for a couple of years and then the band stuff kicked off. I went away from that until the mid-90’s I got back into it. My mom became disabled, and once you see the kind of struggles she was going through, I learned what disabled people need to get in and out of their houses and make their day to day lives much easier. In terms of their kitchens, bathrooms, the tiniest little things can make a huge difference to a person with limited mobility. I throw myself into this over recent years, and it’s a very fulfilling job to do. We are refitting a modular building soon for this disabled lad, he’s got a bedroom and a one room shower – so he can get in and around without now going up any sort of stairs. You can’t believe their faces when you see how happy they look, and that’s really nice work to do outside of the band.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the thrash movement in 2020 – do you believe it’s very healthy and vital considering the number of bands and releases not just from the old veteran guard like yourselves but the second and almost third generation of bands producing new releases and touring globally?
Rockett: The level that Slayer took it too, it’s changed the audiences out there. For Onslaught, I feel this is our best album, and I think Testament delivered an amazing new album also, and the previous one too. It seems to be a lot of the older bands are really putting out their strongest material for some reason. Maybe the fire is back in the bellies. The older bands are really flying the flag. It’s going to be interesting to see if anybody can step up to that Slayer level again.
The younger bands… I don’t know. There are some talented bands out there, but a lot of it is going over what came out before. Newer bands need to find more of their own direction and put a bit of a different slant on it. It will be interesting to see where (thrash) goes over the next couple of years, hopefully we can forge on and climb some ladders.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s the game plan over the next twelve to eighteen months to support the new album? How are you personally handling this pandemic situation, and what do you see the live circuit looking like as a result of this?
Rockett: That’s really tough. We just have to hope that not too many venues or too many promoters go by the wayside. That’s a serious concern in the UK, that not a lot of venues are going to get through this. That’s the first and foremost problem. Ourselves, we’ve got two shows lined up in Germany in September and the UK in November, but I don’t know if they will happen. Not quite yet. Maybe the spring of 2021 is when things will really open up. Hopefully all the festivals will open up for the summer. The best thing we can do is start writing another album you know? It’s weird when we haven’t even toured this one, but I think we have to get ahead of the game, when we’ve got the chance. If we can write new material while we are in this situation for the next six months, and then tour as much as we can in 2021, maybe we can deliver the next album quicker. At the moment, we can’t rehearse as a band as the rehearsal rooms are all still closed. Keep on top of things and keep ahead of the game with it.