Primal Fear – Commando in ChargeSunday, 12th July 2020
After twenty-three years together as a band, Primal Fear really don’t have much more to prove for their status in the traditional/power metal realms. They’ve performed all across the globe, releasing a plethora of memorable albums for those who love straight-ahead anthems, rocking material, and the occasional foray into epic terrain. Judas Priest lovers especially have gravitated towards their sound – and they are back with their 13th studio album in Metal Commando. Reuniting with Nuclear Blast, it’s the perfect album for those who love the versatility and variety offered within the genre.
We reached out to vocalist Ralf Scheepers in the midst of a busy press day (‘I have ten interviews today’ he quips at the start). Prepare to learn more about the efficiency of the five songwriters within the band, thoughts on their latest drummer Michael Ehré and what he brings to the table, Ralf’s maintenance regiment as a vocalist, band chemistry, and a few insights into the growth of the band from a time when melodic/traditional metal wasn’t in favor until now.
Dead Rhetoric: Metal Commando is the latest Primal Fear album – and appears to be one of the most versatile efforts to date. What was the thought process going into the writing and recording of this effort, and how do you feel this record slots in with the rest of your discography?
Ralf Scheepers: Coming from Apocalypse, of course that was a strong album. We are (at) the advantage to have five writing members, and we didn’t have any fear somehow that it wasn’t going to be good again. We were happy about all the input that everybody gave into the album. The versatility and variety, we have groove songs, we have up-tempo songs, we have the ballad, an epic track. We are happy for the outcome and happy about the reaction of the press, that’s just great.
Dead Rhetoric: There seems to be a bit more extensive use of acoustic guitars in spots, especially with the song “I Will Be Gone” plus the 13 minute plus closer “Infinity”. Do you believe at this point dynamics and going for different textures is necessary for Primal Fear on a longevity and creativity scale?
Scheepers: Yes, I think so. It’s making music interesting if you have different things going on, different atmospheres going on. The acoustics as well as the strings within “Infinity” make it a lot more interesting, and it’s exactly what we wanted. Of course we have the hard guitars as well as the acoustics. The fans get everything we wanted to deliver to them to make things interesting and make it as good as we can and as interesting for the listener.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about doing a ballad like “I Will Be Gone” because it’s definitely something the band hasn’t really done before, playing that stripped down in an acoustic format?
Scheepers: It was quite interesting, especially for me as a vocalist to deliver the atmosphere. I sat in my studio and rehearsed it for hours, it’s quite a different approach versus a metal track. You have to adapt to the atmosphere, you have to deliver the atmosphere, and what the lyrics are saying while putting your emotions into it. I rehearsed it, and it was really great to do it with just the acoustic guitars in the background. It was something different and worked well.
Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel to have Michael Ehré in the band as the new drummer? You’ve had a number of great drummers over the years, what do you think Michael brings that may be a little bit different for Primal Fear?
Scheepers: He’s just amazing. The very first song he recorded with Mat in the studio, he got great feedback. He said it was the best decision we ever made to get Michael. As you said we’ve always had well-respected drummers in the band, but Michael has a quality that’s amazing. He’s also a great person, and that was also very important for us.
Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel to be back on Nuclear Blast after finishing your contract with Frontiers? Do you feel secure relying on a strong staff and label who understand what the band is all about?
Scheepers: Absolutely. You’ve already said it. That’s exactly what we feel because Nuclear Blast already is living for heavy metal, just like we are doing. We’ve known them for many, many years now. They’ve also changed teams, and that’s why we went back to them because they’ve already wanted us again. It’s almost the same feeling like the first time that we were there, it’s a great team working for us. They are the number one label in metal in my opinion.
Dead Rhetoric: Now “I Am Alive” will be the next video clip. Is it a difficult decision when you have a lot of strong songs to decide what will be featured first and second as kind of a preview into the full album?
Scheepers: It is. I think we made great choices. Mat as the producer, he has the final call in the end, he also made great decisions in terms of the flow of the setlist for the album. That’s why we had a good feeling to release “Along Came the Devil” first, we had no chance to shoot a video because of the pandemic so that came out as a lyric video. And then everything opened up, and we had the chance to do something for “I Am Alive”. It’s a good choice, we are really happy about the single picks.
Dead Rhetoric: Given the prolific nature of the musicians in Primal Fear as far as songwriters, how challenging of a process does it become to whittle down the numerous demos into finalizing what will make the full-length, as there are numerous bonus tracks on the special limited edition format of the record? Is there a friendly sense of competition and ability to step back to discuss and come to terms with the strongest material for the records?
Scheepers: Absolutely. And that’s a very healthy discussion. It’s really productive if you are having more songs than there should be on the album, it’s an advantage. And if you have five writing members, it’s better than having two less songs. These are democratic decisions, and as you said there will be bonus songs but they are not leftover tracks quality-wise, it’s just sometimes they may not fit into the redline of an album. And then it would be released as a special EP or a special edition, that will come.
Dead Rhetoric: Possessing a three-guitar lineup in the studio, how would you describe the versatility between the three players, what would you say are their strengths that they each bring to the table to make Primal Fear that much stronger as a unit?
Scheepers: In my opinion, it’s the perfect combination between the three players. The passion they put into their guitar playing. The riffing is pretty much Magnus recording, because you can’t record three people playing rhythm guitars. When it comes to the solos, everyone has his own style which is great that fits into Primal Fear. You can really tell the style of the players when you listen to the solos. I really love what they do.
Dead Rhetoric: Obviously with 22 years of Primal Fear, there have been amazing highs and also a few lows to handle in that long of a career. How do you believe the band handles all of the ups and downs and in-betweens that can happen with recording, touring, and balancing out the activities of family/personal lives? Has it gotten easy with maturity or is still a bit of a struggle to satisfy everyone?
Scheepers: That’s a good point. It got easier with maturity, most of the guys who have been with us know it’s way too important to just call it a day. For a single person or a single member if this was the case in the past, of course they made the decision to not be a team member anymore. Mat and I and Tom were pretty much the colonels, the founding members, and we always knew what we wanted even if there was healthy discussions that could be arguments as well – we all knew how important Primal Fear for each of us is. We don’t want to let the fans down, because we pretty much know we love what we do and how we do it. It’s way too important just to quit because of some personal issues, and like you said we have grown in terms of maturity.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you think the traditional metal movement has improved – because when you started the band in the late 90’s, that style wasn’t exactly very accepted and it seems like you guys and Hammerfall helped spearhead a new generation to appreciate this style?
Scheepers: Yes. We were happy that we started over again. It was the second step in our careers. As you know there was Sinner out there and I was in Gamma Ray, we have been doing this for pretty much 40 years now. We were pretty happy that there was another wave in 1997/98 that started – coincidental of course. We weren’t hopping on a train, we were just doing what we love to do, heavy metal at its purist. It’s what we love to do and what we love to play together. We were lucky to be so successful during that era.
Dead Rhetoric: What would you say have been some of your best fan interaction stories that you’ve had personally over the years?
Scheepers: It’s always great to do those big festivals like Wacken. It’s overwhelming to see all those people up to the horizon and back. It gives you shivers up and down your spine, a real push of adrenaline going on. It’s also good to have the small clubs where you have people straight in front of you. It’s why playing gigs in these cars in front of you is not something that Primal Fear will do, or the streaming concerts. We need the interaction of the fans, we need to see the faces of the people that come to the shows. All around the globe, people are a little bit different. In the northern countries, people are more cooler than the South American people, but that is just great. Every country has it’s own little spirit, which is really great.
Dead Rhetoric: Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on the entertainment industry, rendering live concerts to shutdown mode and slowly coming out of things. How do you believe this will play out long-term for bands, venues, promoters, and crew people – as it could conceivable take six months, a year, or more to get club/theater and festivals back to normal?
Scheepers: That’s true, and it’s a big bummer. We are all in the same boat and somehow we have to be patient. We all hope that many bands will survive this because we are all musicians and it’s not easy. We’ve overcome a lot of difficult years, and this is also very, very difficult, especially for clubs and venue owners like you say. We really hope that a lot of them will survive. I’m sure that everything will be getting back to normal in 2021 when everything opens up slightly for festivals and also concerts again. We were the first to close and we will be the last to be open again. It’s a long path and a long walk, musicians are very patient people anyway otherwise they couldn’t do what they do.
Dead Rhetoric: At 55, where do you assess the power, range, and abilities of your voice compared to say ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago? Do you believe you have been wiser and better about what works best and how to take care of your instrument?
Scheepers: Exactly. I do a little bit more maintenance and I’m a little bit smarter. I know it takes a little bit longer to make the engine warm. It’s like warming up a NASCAR or Formula One car, the engine is really good screaming when it’s warmed up. I have my maintenance tools when I am on tour live. Knock on wood I am still there.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to your vocal coaching, what do people need to work on the most that you help them with?
Scheepers: I’m also tailoring my stuff in terms of what my (students) want from me. Building up strength in works of the diaphragm and their breathing. Intonation techniques, and I show them a lot of maintenance and how they can survive with their voice over the years. That’s very important in the end.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you believe people of the world need to pay more attention to and take action on to make things happier, healthier, or safer for future generations?
Scheepers: That’s a tough one. I think there has to be a lot more tolerance. If somebody has a different opinion than I have, why should I bash them or make them somehow (think they are) totally crazy because they have their opinion? We can always discuss and accept each other’s opinions. That has a lot to do with tolerance, which is not the case anymore. It’s a pity. We can somehow still respect each other even if we have different opinions. Nowadays it’s a big problem at the moment.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for Primal Fear and you personally over the next year or so? Would you ever think about working on an autobiography about your musical journey, or possibly think about another solo album down the line?
Scheepers: Never say never, maybe. I have a lot of songs collected which I might release, but now the focus is 100% on Primal Fear and the new release. Since there are no live shows happening this year, we are thinking about some special things in the fall or close to Christmas. Maybe different releases of some different candy that we will drop out there in the market. We will see what will happens.