West of Hell – Hold the Hammer Down

Tuesday, 11th June 2019

Establishing yourselves in the metal scene is never easy. In the case of heavy metal band West of Hell, they’ve moved from New Zealand to Vancouver, Canada during their career- losing members in the process, rebuilding and refining their attack. Their sound includes a mixture of progressive, power, death, thrash, and groove influences – ensuring maximum heaviness and versatility. Their second and latest album Blood of the Infidel brings everything from Iced Earth and Megadeth to Pantera and Coroner to mind – the riffing, melodies, hooks, and songwriting sure to capture a wide array of followers.

Fresh from finishing their month-long Canadian tour to support the new record, we sought out guitarist Sean Parkinson who let us know about the growing pains and decisions behind moving to another country, the keys to establishing their own sound, the use of videos to spread the word about the band, and special memories surrounding Tool.

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the origins of West of Hell in New Zealand during the mid-2000’s- did you know of each other through other local bands and did you know straight away the style of heavy metal you wanted to write and perform, or was there a feeling out process to get to this?

Sean Parkinson: The band took some time to come together. Former guitar player Ivan Vrdoljak and I were getting lessons from two guys in a band called 8 Foot Sativa in the early 2000’s. They saw the potential in both of us and suggested we meet. Ivan was already jamming with original drummer Andrew Hulme at this point and so the three of us met up. The chemistry was instant. We were into the same bands and wanted to play the same style of music. Bands like Death, Megadeth, Metallica, Pantera, Cannibal Corpse, At the Gates, and The Haunted were our early influences. We immediately began looking for a bass player, but it took a while to eventually find Jordan Kemp. We knew immediately he was the guy though. After jamming with a few different dudes Jordan came in and blew them away.

Dead Rhetoric: You moved from New Zealand to Vancouver, BC Canada in 2009 – discuss the big challenges in moving to a new continent and the reasons behind the move, as I understand you were struggling to find a suitable singer in New Zealand?

Parkinson: That’s right. Once Jordan had settled in, we began looking for the right vocalist and it was proving difficult. We had put together an album’s worth of original material so we were booking shows and playing the songs instrumentally, hoping to attract a killer frontman that could sing. It wasn’t happening and we were getting restless. We sat down and decided to make a move to help the process. Canada was an easy decision. We were able to move there and work for at least a couple of years. Jordan has some family living here as his parents are Canadian. It required the typical paperwork process which can be tedious, but otherwise it was a pretty simple transition. We were all motivated to get the band moving forward so it didn’t bother us.

Dead Rhetoric: Finally gaining Chris Valagao (Zimmers Hole frontman) as a singer, you set about recording your debut full-length Spiral Empire. How do you feel the songwriting and recording sessions went for this effort, and what do you think about the final product? Any specific special memories to the good or bad regarding these times?

Parkinson: By the time Val came along we had the songs written. He did a great job of coming in and working with the material we had and really brought it to life. We were surprised how little we had to change to suit having vocals, which is a testament to Val’s skill but also shows how hard we worked those riffs to make them into good song structures. The recording sessions went well, it’s tough these days when everyone goes in separately to do their parts. It’s just you and the producer hammering out your parts and then you’re done. I’ve experienced doing a couple of records the old school way where everyone is in the studio hanging around tracking parts. It’s fun and gives it more of an experience, but who has the time and money for that these days! I’m stoked with how that album turned out, Rob Shallcross did a great job. He made us wear capes while we tracked which is something I’ll never forget.

Dead Rhetoric: You lost a couple of members who returned home to New Zealand between 2011-2014. Did this stall momentum for West of Hell, and how did you end up securing Kris Schulz and Paul Drummond for the band?

Parkinson: It was difficult for Ivan to continue living in Canada past the two year mark. He had a wife and they moved back to New Zealand to pursue careers and start a family. Andrew remained for longer but eventually the lack of permanent residency meant he had to move back home. Finding guitar players to fill in for Ivan and Andrew was relatively easy as the Vancouver scene has an abundance of talented players. Finding guys to join the band and commit is a different story. The process definitely stalled our momentum working on new material, but we were still able to stay active and play shows. Kris Schulz was someone we knew from when we first moved to Canada and he was actually the guy that first put us in touch with Val. We asked him if he was interested one day and he said yes. Simple as that. Paul was also someone we knew although he was committed to his band Harvest the Infection for a long time. Eventually things came to an end for that band and his name came up as an option. He came out to jam and we had that same old feeling, we knew right away he was a good fit.

Dead Rhetoric: Blood of the Infidel is the band’s latest album – can you discuss the long wait between records (what exactly happened to cause this delay) and where do you see the major differences between your debut and this record?

Parkinson: We had the songs written and were working on pre-production right around the time Andrew was on the verge of leaving Canada. We thought he’d be able to track before he left but it didn’t happen. We had to find someone to play the drums and it took time. We asked Ash Pearson and he was into helping us out. We gave him the songs and he came in with a lot of his own ideas which was great, but then it had us thinking about changing parts and re-working things with this new angle on the material. So we spent some time jamming with Ash and we were all having a lot of fun with that. Eventually we tracked everything, and then the process of mixing and mastering and figuring out artwork and so many little details to get the final product together took time. Working out the right time to release the record comes in to play once you have everything done and that added further delays. It was a difficult period for the band but we have Blood of the Infidel out now and we’re stoked.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you believe are the key ingredients necessary to make West of Hell unique or special in your eyes? It seems like your songwriting and execution contain a high degree of professionalism and integrity/diversity, still keeping things very metal but incorporating progressive, thrash, power, and groove/modern elements all the same…

Parkinson: We don’t really focus on being unique which I think helps us. We’ve never really tried to be anything specific either. A lot of bands can be easily identified by a particular genre and that’s great, I love that. But we just take ideas and run with them, we won’t necessarily throw a riff away if it isn’t metal enough or whatever. We’ll develop the idea and work at it until it evolves into something we like hearing. We’ve had entire songs get all the way into the live set and then ended up canning the whole thing because we weren’t all feeling it.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve done a number of videos for both albums – discuss the importance of this platform in promoting the band, especially given the opportunities through social media to gain interest in the band?

Parkinson: Video clips are a great way to promote your band. The popularity of YouTube is massive and to have content up that can give a glimpse into the personalities of the band and what you can expect from us at a live show is definitely helpful. We have fun making our clips and with our connection to the film industry in Vancouver via Val we get to work with some great professionals. These days people will find your band online not by stumbling across a cool looking album cover in the music store. If you have a sweet video as opposed to just a static image of your album then I feel like people will find it easier to connect. Or maybe they’ll be like ‘who are these dorks!’ and click away immediately. Either way, we’re having a good ass time and that’s all that matters.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe a West of Hell experience in terms of a live performance? What have been some of your favorite shows to date?

Parkinson: We like to play loud. We are a stand and deliver type of band, there’s no choreographed moves or anything. Each guy has the freedom to do what he wants on stage and that gives it a loose vibe. Our singer Val, brings his own collection of special effects toys to every show. So you can expect to see sparks flying courtesy of an angle grinder and the audience may be cooled off mid-set with a CO2 cannon. We’ve had some crazy moments with pyrotechnics over the years too.

There’s been a lot of great shows over the years, I have so many favorites! One that comes to mind was back in 2012. We were on a run of shows opening for Agnostic Front and Death by Stereo in Canada. We were on a long drive to Calgary and running late for the show when we hit a patch of ice on the highway. The entire van and trailer spun around a couple of times and ended up in a field. It was scary to say the least. We all jumped out and quickly took stock. The next thing we see is a semi-truck coming along the same route and we’re thinking if that thing skids out too we’re done right now. Fortunately it didn’t, even more fortunately we managed to get the van back on the road with everything in tact. We made it to that show with not a second to spare. We called ahead and the guys in Death by Stereo had their gear set up ready to go on stage. We literally parked the van and ran inside with guitars and drumsticks in hand, straight on to the stage, plugged in and played our set. It was such a crazy experience to go from fearing for your life in a freezing cold van to suddenly being on stage and playing music to people. While I’m not too keen on reliving that experience at all, the fact that we came through it and still made the show and killed it made me proud of our band.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see West of Hell in terms of your musical career – are there upsides to being an independent, DIY band at this point, and what do you see as the biggest obstacles and challenges that you need to conquer or overcome?

Parkinson: I think in this day and age almost every band in metal is a DIY band to some extent. Being independent has its ups and downs though. We like the freedom it offers. We all have things going on in our lives outside of the band and being able to choose what we want to do and when helps us all balance things out. Biggest challenge is getting our music out to a wider audience and that’s where the old saying ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ comes in to play. The game has changed a lot over the years, but the bigger labels still have a hand in what goes on.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the state of the metal scene in western Canada – do you believe there is a healthy, thriving marketplace for not only the international tours, but also the local band circuit? Are there specific styles that seem to go over much better than others?

Parkinson: The scene in Western Canada is awesome. There are so many great local bands around here. It’s definitely thriving, we’re seeing festivals like Loud as Hell becoming more and more successful. It’s a tough place for local bands to get out and play shows because the distance you have to cover just to get to your next big city is so great. But it means the ones that do it are committed and determined and hungry to show you what they have. Every year there’s a new group of kids coming up that are killing it. It’s great to see.

Dead Rhetoric: What are some favorite hobbies, interests, or activities that the band members like to engage in outside of music to recharge themselves when they have the free time to do so?

Parkinson: We’re all really busy guys so I know it’s tough for any of us to find time for hobbies. We all find time to exercise at least a little to keep somewhat healthy, more so to offset the beer that gets consumed on tour. I try to get games of soccer in when I can or otherwise I’ll be watching it in my spare time. One of our favorite past times on tour would be watching Val cook everyone a meal. He goes to great lengths to put together a top-quality meal on the side of the road. It’s quite an experience.

Dead Rhetoric: What are three albums that you believe shaped your outlook on heavy metal, and what have been some of your favorite concert memories of bands you’ve witnessed purely from a fan perspective?

Parkinson: I would have to say Megadeth’s Rust in Peace. That album made me want to play guitar so much. Lateralus by Tool made me want to form a band. And Individual Thought Patterns by Death opened me up to the heavier side of metal. I love going to shows and I have so many awesome memories from big bands in big venues to local bands in dive bars. One of my favorites would have to be the first big concert I attended. I was in high school at the time and I went to see Tool play in Auckland. They were touring to promote Lateralus and I just remember being mesmerized by the whole experience. The venue was packed with thousands of people and the heavier parts of some songs were wild, I felt like I was in an ocean as the entire crowd were jumping out of sync. They put on a great show and it really made me want to play and start a band of my own.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for West of Hell over the next twelve months to support the record? Has songwriting begun on the follow-up – and if so, what can the fans expect stylistically in comparison to the first two albums?

Parkinson: We have a show coming up in Vancouver on June 22nd opening for Hocico, a harsh industrial act from Mexico. We might play one more local show before the end of the year. Another tour in the fall is currently being discussed. Our main focus over the summer will be continuing work on the next album. We already have a few new songs and we were playing one of them on the most recent tour. “Black Soul” has some new elements for us and the song comes across a lot darker than anything we’ve done before. Who knows if the next album will be like that overall or not. It is exciting for us right now to get to work on this as it’ll be the first record where the current line-up is there to create from the ground up. I expect this to provide a much more refined album, as the first record had the music written before we knew Val. And the second record had the drummer change and some songs done before Kris Schulz joined.

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