Astral Riders over Greece!
Cloven Hoof with Russ North on vocals are back and already arrange live shows in 2012. Three of them will be in Greece including Up The Hammers festival. Crystal Logic took the opportunity to talk with the Dominator himself, about the past, the present and the future! Lee Payne speaks...
by Andreas Andreou
- How were things for a young musician and a young metalhead in the West Midlands of England, in the early 80s?
Metal really did rule the streets in those days. Denim and leather armies were everywhere. All the metal kids were united back then and they supported metal bands to the hilt. It was like a religion. Even the cynical British music press had to embrace, there was a powerful new metal movement sweeping the country and new bands were springing up everywhere in the mould of classic bands such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It was given a name the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, and It was a period of time when it became possible for occultism and full blooded metal to fuse in dark perfection. It gave rise to exciting, innovative powerful metal music, played with passion and total conviction. Looking back it was a magical period and there were some incredible bands that came out of it.
The West Midlands is a grim industrial place where you have to be tough to survive. It is no surprise there is a certain type of aggression and darkness that is inherent in the music of all the bands that originated in that part of the world. Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Cloven Hoof certainly could not have come from any place else. We even started out at Holy Joe’s a rehearsal room at a local church once used by Priest, Robert Plant and Slade. I am told all the band logos are still on the main rehearsal room walls and it has been preserved by the local council for music history. That is a nice honour for all the groups concerned.
- How did you felt when the first Cloven Hoof vinyl of The Opening Ritual reached your hands?
The Opening Ritual was recorded at Metro sound studios in the heart of the west industrial midlands. The guy who owned it heard the band and then wanted to manage us. Raymond Frogget was his name and he really helped start our career. Black Sabbath used to support his band when they were first called Earth. He saw our potential early on.
It was a dream come true really to finally have a piece of vinyl, containing work we had laboured over and created. It made us all feel really proud. Seeing all those boxes of a few thousand records delivered though was really daunting because there looked so many. Steve, Kevin, Dave and I wondered how on Earth are we going to sell all those? We were a new band without too many live shows behind us back then. We need not have worried because they sold out in two weeks and had to order three times as many over the passing months. In fact The Opening Ritual sold so well Cloven Hoof got in the Kerrang heavy metal charts at number 18, so it was a stunningly successful debut, thank goodness.
- In 1984 you released the Cloven Hoof album through Neat Records. Tell us a few things for this legendary label, the other bands, how did they contacted you and the reaction of the fans and press about your first full-length album.
Neat signed us after hearing our session recorded for the Tommy Vance radio show on BBC Radio One. We had recorded a demo at a studio in the West Midlands England, and Rob Halford and Robert Plant had both taken it into the BBC for us to try and get a session. It worked and then Dave Woods from Neat records asked if we would like to sign a record deal with them. They were a perfect label for Cloven Hoof because they specialized in pure metal not like the big corporate giants that signed rubbish pop fashion acts.
Neat had great bands like Venom, Raven, Satan and the like so we were proud to be with such cool stable mates. The manager from Venom even visited us when we were making the album and complimented us on the epic song structures we were playing. He said a lot of big bands will not want Cloven Hoof to support them because they would see us as a threat... He was right lol!
The debut album got brilliant reviews everywhere across the world and many people now say we were a very influential band. I suppose that is true because many groups cover our songs and that is a great honour.
We didn’t set out to create a new metal genre it just sort of happened. I wanted to play challenging multi time changes because I would get bored with easy verse chorus song structures. Cloven Hoof played fast because we were young and nervous in the studio so the adrenalin made you speed up. As a metal fan I always liked the big epic songs too, like “Stargazer” from Rainbow or “2112” by Rush, so I guess the epic feel to our music was influenced by them.
In any case the metal fans went crazy for the debut album and I never forget seeing it in the shops for the first time, it felt such an honour our album being along side my heroes in the rock and metal section.
- After that you gave many live shows and you recorded a live album with new songs. That was a strange idea... How did this happen and which are your strongest memories from the live shows during the 80s?
It was crazy really and very risky releasing Fighting Back in hindsight but I’m glad we did. We had the naive notion of using electronic drums because the drummer was convinced they would record better in a live situation (he was very wrong lol). He got this electronic kit one of the first ones available, thinking the new technology would be cutting edge but the problems with it were unbelievable. It kept cutting out for one thing and the sounds left a lot to be desired. They are better now of course but you can’t beat REAL drums pounding away. I suppose that is why I don’t like computer based recording it is too sterile and processed. You can’t beat a real band playing without click tracks and stupid cut and paste cheating.
The reason we wanted to do a live album was because we had some live shows booked and we wanted to play some new songs. No band had gigged with new songs comprising most of the set so we thought what the hell lets do it!
The trouble is most bands won’t do that for a very good reason, the crowd won’t react as well to songs they don’t know!!! Despite that, the album sounds ok and there are some very good tracks on Fighting Back that would be great re-worked in the studio some day. Particularly “Heavy Metal Men Of Steel”, that is a kick ass song. If we covered it again with great production, I am sure it would rip your face off.
Rob Kendrick (ex-Budgie and Trapeeze) was enlisted to fill in for Dave Potter because he was having private life trouble. Rob sang well but he was never intended to be a full time member of the group.
- Then, Russ North joined the band. How did you come up together?
Andy Wood auditioned first and became the Hoof guitarist, then when we found out the singer we had at the time couldn’t cut it in the studio he suggested Russ North. Russ and Andy joined us from Tredegar, the other two guys used to be in heavy metal pioneers Budgie. I was a big fan of Budgie and thought Ray Phillips was a terrific drummer and Tony Borge a brilliant guitar player. Burke Shelly had a wonderfully distinctive voice and played solid bass, Never Turn Your Back On A Friend and Bandolier were classic albums.
Andy knew Russ was a big fan of Cloven Hoof and used to play the debut album all the time on the tour coach. I said well ring him up and get him to audition, and Russ turned up and in 30 seconds we knew we had our man. The rest they say is history!
- Dominator and A Sultan's Ransom are two amazing albums that came out in 1988 - 1989. These albums, even if they still sound British, they stray from the classic N.W.O.B.H.M. sound. Songs like "Reach For The Sky" and "Forgotten Heroes" are among my all-time fave ones! Tell us everything about that time, the compositions, your ideas, ambitions and why after these unique albums you split?
Injecting new blood is sometimes the only way of infusing new life into the band. Fresh vitality and enthusiasm is a positive force, our work ethic is ever onward. Stagnation is not an option in Cloven Hoof and we are always trying to re-invent ourselves to stay vital and break new ground. Russ and I will always be the two stable factors in this band because his voice and my writing is the key to our identity. We both know that and so do all the fans!
As a musician all you can wish for, is that your songs connect with people on an emotional level. When fans tell me that Cloven Hoof songs provide a sound track for there lives then that is a humbling and rewarding experience. If people get off on our music, like I got off on Deep Purple and Black Sabbath... Then that is the ultimate reward, and we have touched the sun!
I always write from the heart and imagination, I never listen to what other bands are doing; I just let my mind compose mini film type scenarios and put them to music. All the Cloven hoof material start of this way as stories that is placed into lyrics and they imply a melody and structure to me. The subject storyline matter dictates the atmosphere and I chip away at it like putting a jigsaw together, I suppose that is why the band has its own unique identity, the material is created in a certain way.
I have always been inspired by a steady diet of Greek, and Norse mythology, old horror and sci-fi films and Marvel comic books. I suppose this amalgamation of things that fill my imagination is mixed up and synthesised into our songs. I have pretty vivid nightmares too, and many of our riffs are playing as a background track to these. I keep a tape recorder by the bed and I hum song ideas into it sometimes in the middle of the night. This drives my girlfriend nuts!
Dominator fused prog rock with pure metal in a concept album that was a metaphor about the dangers inherent in genetic engineering. All the tracks are really good and many are all time hoof classics like “Nova Battlestar” and as you say “Reach For The Sky.” I love it when the crowd sing along to them live and we all go crazy!
A Sultan's Ransom was an eclectic mixture of songs celebrating our fusing of metal and varied musical styles, from Arabian influenced time signatures to hard hitting thrash. It is very pleasing indeed to see some critics naming it in the top ten best ever power metal albums.
Personally, I think Cloven Hoof is an important group because just as 70’s era Rush are the link between prog rock like Yes and Genesis and traditional metal. Cloven Hoof are a 2006 link between Rush, thrash and metal. We act as a role model for power metal bands to have epic and imaginative song structures with thrash power and melody.
Every album had to count, that is why the material is so strong. We had no financial security net like other groups who churn out one good song per album, with the rest filler dross. Hoof has had to fight tooth and nail for acceptance and the battle rages on today stronger than ever! In retrospect I can see a very definite shift in style and approach within each album. I hate safe albums and stagnation is not an option with Hoof, progression can only be a good thing.
Throughout the 90’s, Russ and I were always keeping an eye on the metal scene, I think we both knew it was only a matter of time before we were free of legal ties. With the introduction of the internet and reports of Cloven Hoof being very influential to the new breed of metal bands, we saw our great worldwide following had not diminished. Our following had got even bigger in fact. We are bigger now than we have ever been. So after the contractual problems had been sorted out we decided lets get out there and start playing.
- Recently you re-released on your own the Dominator album. A CD-r edition was released and some fans were displeased. After a while another official release of the same album came out. What happened? Is the album still available and did you make any remaster or something or we're just talking about simple transfer from the vinyl to CD?
I am sorry to hear some fans are disappointed with the re-release of Dominator. That is a shame as I have made it a personal crusade to make the release possible and cut through legal ties that prevented it. Funny as it seems I had no problem with bootleg versions appearing as they helped fans get into the band. Many bootleggers are genuine fans of the band so I forgive them!
There was a mess up at the pressing plant and some fans got the wrong CDs. There were promotional copies and silver disc real versions of the album and we apologize for mix up. But I am told by collectors in time, the promotional copy will be the most valuable particularly with the free patch! So the copies will be worth holding onto.
The Dominator CD is still available of course and was made from the quarter inch master tapes that are now in America being turned into a vinyl version by the record company Buried by Time And Dust. It will be available on vinyl sometime next year.
The songs on Dominator are really great and some of them will always feature in our live set. However we have always had a problem with the scratchy production of Guy Bidmead. The two inch master tapes have been lost which is a shame because we could have had it re-mixed. All that is left is the quarter inch pre mixed version that we had re-mastered at the Old Smithy Studio’s Judas Priest made the last two albums. I hope the fans now understand we only wanted to let them have the album in good faith and that we could not improve or change the mix. The fans mean everything to me and they are the only reason why Cloven Hoof carries on a war for metal acceptance for over 30 years.
That is why we intend to re-record them on a new The Definitive Part Two album to be recorded next year. The fans can then have the unchanged original version and have the new better quality recorded version of the Dominator songs.
- What about A Sultan's Ransom? Are there any plans on re-releasing this one also?
High Roller Records will be re-releasing A Sultan's Ransom next year probably in March 2012. So that is good news for the fans and not before time.
- So, it's time for a vinyl re-release of these albums…
Yes, and it is now in progress as I have said above. I wanted the fans to get theses albums so much that I brought back all the rights from FM Revolver records out of my personal money. It cost a fortune but a whole new generation fans deserved to hear Dominator and A Sultan's Ransom.
- You are England-based and Russ left the band at first place because he lives in Spain, so you can't work together because of the distance, right? That means that this kind of reunion is temporary? You know... there are hopes for a new album with Russ...
Russ left Spain and he now lives in England so he can work full time with Cloven Hoof I am glad to say. We have promised each other to spend 10 years making music in Cloven Hoof on a permanent basis. To celebrate it we are each getting a tattoo of the band logo on our arm... How permanent is that?!
Currently Russ is putting down vocals for the new album and the rest of the band are rehearsing the live back catalogue. The new album will be our most heavy album yet but will be a return to our roots in many ways. Expect epic songs and screaming powerful vocals all the way!
- Are you gonna see the Black Sabbath reunion with Ozzy?!
You bet! Russ and I will be the first to get a ticket! We love that period of the band. Ronnie Dio, god rest his soul, was one of the greatest metal singers of all time, without question, but no one could fill the role of Ozzy in Black Sabbath. It is a unique line up and the songs are doom like and magical.
- What makes so unique the British Heavy Metal sound and why for many years (almost decades...) Heavy Metal is dead in England?
British metal is usually more aggressive and doomy than good time rock from other countries in general I think it is true to say. This is because Britain is grey, rainy and miserable most of the time… lol.
But seriously Heavy Metal is in a truly dire state in the UK I'm afraid. This is because of our useless media will not support home grown talent anymore. Many bands are forced to become third rate tribute bands because most clubs don't want to put on acts no one has heard of. They think only bands that have a press profile are good enough to pull in crowds. This is bollocks because everyone has to start somewhere, bands need experience in refining there material and stage act.
How can new bands break through without the chance to grow in front of a live audience? Nothing can live in a vacuum and the press has created this appalling situation with there pathetic stance. It is very hard for new bands to get anywhere these days in Britain. We would like to pioneer a new, new wave of British metal if we can. If enough people buy our new album then maybe we will make a difference. Cloven Hoof will always try to get new bands that need a break on our support slot.
Kerrang has to be the biggest disappointment in the history of music! The writers lost the plot completely and abandoned the music that had made the paper famous. Kerrang started off as a magazine exclusively for heavy metal and in the end tried to destroy the whole mood and movement. That magazine now totally sucks and people should wipe there ass on it!
- So, you are confirmed for Up The Hammers Festival on 3rd March 2012 and there are two more dates TBA for Greece on June? Do you have any details for these shows and how did you came up with three shows in Greece?
As ever Cloven Hoof are approached by cool promoters and we have to decide if the band will enjoy playing the proposed shows. If we get the offer to play in Greece then it is a no brainer... we will always agree to play there without question because our most loyal and fanatical fans are there!
See you all in Athens at the Up The Hammers Festival on the 3rd March and on June the 1st. On the 2nd of June we are in Thessaloniki also. Why? Because Cloven Hoof loves Greece and the metal heads in Greece love Cloven Hoof! We promise you all the best ever shows, but see us at all of them because we will change the set and put in many different songs each time. There will be a surprise track from the new album at each one also played just for our Greek fans! We can’t wait!
Keep it true and may the Elemental Forces be with you!