Interview: Sacro Sanctus
Perhaps, today’s bands might be more skilled, and have better equipment, better-sounding demos and recordings, better-designed fliers and all the works – but I think that somehow they lack, though one cannot generalize, the gusto to do things their own way.
The Mediterranean island of Malta is a peculiar place. The two (inhabited) islands of Malta and Gozo are a haven for many and the land has a rich history. It’s also a great soil for heavy metal apparently, which it proudly has been displaying for years.
In fact, it inspired the making of a documentary ‘Brotherhood: A Story of Metal in Malta‘, which will be coming to you soon (keep an eye on their page). If there’s one man in Malta that can tell everything about metal on the island, it must be Albert Bell. Bell has been playing in bands and organising gigs for ages and I found him willing to answer some questions.
Albert plays in Forsaken, Nomad Son, and Albert Bell’s Sacro Sanctus at the moment, while organising Malta Doom Metal Festival as well. The festival is a growing feature in the agenda’s of doom-aficionados all over, so put it on your agenda! Due to that, it took some time to get this together, but now you can learn everything about metal music on the small island.
E&D: What bands are you currently playing in and for those not familiar, what sort of bands are they?
Albert: I am the bassist for both Forsaken (established in 1991) and Nomad Son. Both are doom metal bands, but while Forsaken tends to thread to epic doom path drawing inspiration from the likes of Candlemass and Solitude Aeternus (while incorporating other influences and obviously our own approach to the genre), I formed Nomad Son in 2006 to realise my passion for 70s heavy rock/metal. I think Nomad Son may be best described as a cross between doom metal and 70s heavy rock with some touches of NWOBHM.
In 2011 I started by own project – Albert Bell’s Sacro Sanctus, which combines various influences (creating a sound that I call blackened, primeval, epic doom heavy metal). The latter celebrates my passion for all things old school and also underscores my passion for the likes of Venom, Motörhead, Candlemass and so forth.
E&D: How did you get into metal music in the first place? What bands were the first to capture your attention and what was the charm of the music to you?
Albert: I started taking music seriously in early in my teens and possibly the first band that fascinated me was Kiss. I guess it was the band’s energy and somewhat dark imagery which attracted me to them. The contrast with other chart hitting bands at the time was quite evident. Black Sabbath had an even more profound effect on me in this sense. I still remember hearing tracks like ‘Am I going Insane’, ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Changes’ on National Radio and their mystical, obscure aura was quite gripping.
Through my older brother’s collection, I discovered other important 70s bands and artists – from Peter Frampton, to Rush, Bowie, T-Rex and so on. After that like my brother, and our close English friend Roger I was swept away by the whole punk thing and we used to spend hours on end listening to the most important punk bands at the time, from the Pistols, to the Clash, The Stranglers, Sham 69 and the like. Our image was also heavy influenced by the punk fad that was quite popular even in Malta in the period in question and I even sported a very short, skinhead style hairstyle for some time! Haha!
We were fans of a local punk-ska band called the Rifffs who were quite big in Malta at the beginning of the 80s, and the first shows I attended were local punk gigs. However, one day while we were hanging out at home – our English friend told us that he has this single called ‘Ace of Spades’ by this killer band Motörhead and he made it a point that we to listen to it! Once it started spinning on our turntable, I was totally blown away!! And that was my first real musical epiphany really. I started getting into more and more Motörhead stuff and by 1981 I was totally dedicated to all things metal, getting more and more into the 70s heavy rock/metal bands that I had already enjoyed like Purple, Sabbath, Priest, Lizzy. Rainbow and so on and then really delving in NWOBHM, worshipping the early stuff from Maiden, Saxon, and even Def Leppard.
However, when I turned 15 in ’82 I crossed paths with Venom and that was another important epiphany for me! The sheer energy of that unholy trio totally blew me away and it was very easy for me to embrace the early thrash explosion to the extent that I formed my first band in 1984 (first called Exorcist and then Kremation after I found out that a US band with the same name was in circulation – love that album by the way haha!) with the scope of introducing thrash/speed metal to the local scene. Thrash/speed metal remained my staple diet (without however foregoing the other bands I was always into) until the end of the 80s, but by then also perhaps due to Celtic Frost’s influence on me I started searching for different stuff – which was more based on heaviness and dark atmosphere vs high speed riffage. And this is where doom came in – a genre that I also love with a passion – without ever, however, losing sight of my formative influences.
E&D: Malta is a small country, but with a lot of international influences. How did metal music get started there? I think you were in one of the first bands from Malta, but did foreign bands play Malta first or how did the metal scene develop?
Albert: You have to keep in mind that though somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the continent, Malta was under British colonial rule till 1964 with a strong presence of the British forces remaining on the Island till 1979. So basically Malta at the time was imbued with Anglophile influences in various respects. Much of what was played on the local radio at the time reflected chart trends in England and the US and we also had music mags here from abroad like Sounds and Melody Maker and later even Kerrang and Metal Forces (still miss that one), so those of us who were bothered to delve deeper into things were really quite well informed and I already had a cool collection of vinyl at the time.
I used to order stuff from local record stores in cases where the stuff I wanted was out of stock and I also used to get stuff directly from England through my family connections. Moreover, the metal scene at the time was really tightly knit and we used to tape-trade like mad! Discovering obscure bands was our main mission in life really! Haha! There were also several of us active in metal bands in the 80s. However, the genre has even earlier roots. For example, there was a band called Evil Grave in the early 70s that was gaining popularity here at the time strongly inspired by Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Purple. Marc Storace (who later emigrated to Switzerland and after a band called Tea was to join the seminal Swiss rockers Krokus) was already active in local bands like the Boys. You also had great prog bands like Over and Mirage very active in the early 80s and some great ballsy hard rock/metal bands like B3 (two members of which went to Germany to join High n Dry), Acid, Centaur, Overdose, Stratkast and Unexplained. Sphinx was another important band at the time – a sort of fusion between Rush and Rainbow.
Other metal/hard rock important bands in the 80s included Ivory Cross, Passion Blade, Coven, Brainstorm. Entract, Epicure, Kremlin, Kraken, Hellequin and the Tarxien based Vandals. The latter was instrumental in introducing thrash/speed metal to Malta. By 1985 speed metal really started to take root here and apart from Vandals (still going on in the form of X-Vandals) my bands Exorcist/Kremation helped to gravitate the scene towards more extreme stuff.
By the 90s then you had a strong wave of death metal bands coming to the fore (with local legends Beheaded being a great case in point, and others like Amentia, Sceptocrpyt etc), doom of course with Forsaken and later Oblique Visions, Victims of Creation, Weeping Silence and so forth, some black metal etc. We did not have that many foreign bands visiting the Island (unlike nowadays), so there was something intrinsically Maltese in all those metal bands that pioneered the scene. Even though perhaps small when compared to other countries, Maltese metal has a rich and quite eventful history. The above is just a snippet of its progression.
E&D: Which bands really pioneered the scene?
Albert: I sincerely think that all the above bands and several more that I haven’t mentioned were all pivotal for the genre’s propagation and entrenchment on the Island. However, I think that it was the 90s wave that helped to internationalise Maltese metal really. It was Forsaken and Beheaded that first started exporting local metal with record deals and tours abroad and then many others followed and also left their indelible mark in this regard to the extent that today you have quite a good number of Maltese metal bands touring abroad, releasing albums regularly, hosting festivals on the Island and networking well within the global metal scene. Bands like Loathe, Abysmal Torment, Weeping Silence, Martyrium, Thy Legion, Weeping Silence, Victims of Creation, Nomad Son are now all active in the international circuit and really pushing Maltese metal forward in their own niche scenes.
E&D: You played in two bands, which as far as I can tell are the earliest ones in Malta, namely Vandals (later X-Vandals) and Kremation. When you started out this music, was everything available (like instruments, recording studios, other people playing, places to play shows?
Albert: Everything was much more an effort then things are today really. Equipment was much more expensive and band shows were concerts really versus the club shows that you have in most cases today. We used to rent out huge halls and basically build stages, with drum risers, doing all the promotion ourselves (designing, printing and running around putting up posters on bus stages at strong personal risk because it was illegal to do so!) and so forth.
Professional studios were few and far between and everything was totally DIY. The younger bands today really cannot fathom the immense effort we used to put into things. I know this sounds patronising but it is true really. We used to leave no stone unturned to ensure that our shows were a success. And the thing can be said on our efforts to reach out abroad in the early days… the amount of time and money spent on physically writing to people and spreading the word on Forsaken’s first demo was incredible for example. If I had to use one word to describe the scene at the time it would be passion.
Perhaps, today’s bands might be more skilled, and have better equipment, better-sounding demos and recordings, better-designed fliers and all the works – but I think that somehow they lack (obviously one cannot generalise) the gusto to do things their own way, without expecting some higher power to drop manna from the skies. Things just do not happen that way.
E&D: How was the response to the music in those early days of Malta metal?
Albert:Totally incomparable to what it is today really. 350-500 punters attending shows in the 80s was a regular and realistic expectation really. In many instances even more than that. By the mid-90s this was not the case anymore. The fragmentation of the scene didn’t help really plus the big concert hall shows had ended, and all the bands gravitated towards club shows – and with some exceptions, a 200 plus crowd at a local gig since then is somewhat of a rarity these days. Moreover, merchandise sales have also dwindled with less and fewer fans keen on getting physical albums and so forth. This said I have to say that in my bands’ case we are blessed by a very loyal and committed core of fans and supporters and we have ventured on despite the difficulties. It is also encouraging to see younger fans and bands also taking up the call to arms to take metal forward in the years to come, with some exciting prospects looming on the horizon.
E&D: What sort of interest does metal music generate in Malta nowadays? Is there anything typical about bands from Malta and their music, especially since there is a relative isolation of the island?
Albert:The virtual, digital world has made this isolation less evident over the years and today one can reach out beyond our shores at the click of a button. Perhaps the scene has lost some of its charm and specificity as a result, but in my opinion, there is still something particular about Maltese bands in whatever style. Our social context does leave an indelible mark on who we are and what we do (of course as a sociologist I cannot say otherwise, but it is true). If anything, quite often, vs. Foreign, especially Nordic bands, Maltese bands (and fans) are still very passionate about what they do and this oozes out in their stage performances. It is never simply about going through the motions. Perhaps, this is a reflection of our national (rather) exorbitant and Latin character….but it’s there.
E&D: You’ve later started with bands like Forsaken and Nomad Son. Both in the artwork and lyrics, the theme of Christianity seems to be a returning factor. It seems to be an element of Sacro Sanctus as well. Why is this theme so significant; is it the historical context or something personal?
Albert: I guess what I have just said above answers your question. Christianity in Malta (especially in my personal trajectory; it may not necessarily be so for the younger kids with Malta shifting towards a much more secular and multi-cultural society) has strong and profound roots. It is omnipresent really and a strong feature of one’s socialisation and personal moral development. Of course, I also rebelled against the over-bearing and often suffocating presence of the institutionalised forces of Christendom on the Island. However, I never really let go of those formative values that were passed on to me by my parents and elders. I am talking about the universal values of respect, community, tolerance, responsibility for one’s actions, solidarity and personal sacrifice (fundamentally rooted in Christ’s teachings in my opinion). Moreover, various personal experiences helped me to rediscover my spirituality over the years. And Christianity/Catholicism offers profound insights in this regard and these often surface (proudly I might add) in my song-texts. Though I often use lots of metaphor, symbolism, and allegory in this respect, to entice the reader/listener to build his/her own opinions on the subject matter at stake. It is certainly not the boring pulpit preaching of some of the more fervent Christian bands out there! And I am open to listening to anything. Exposing yourself to different worldviews often makes you more convinced of yours!
E&D: Sacro Sanctus, often presented as Albert Bell’s Sacro Sanctus, seems to really be the project closest to you. You seem to be quite a busy man, why did you start this project and what story are you telling with it. Do you work with other people for this project?
Albert: Sacro Sanctus is entirely my vision. I have been in bands since I was a teen. I was 16 when I started my first band. Band democracies may be very enriching on various levels. They are also quite often sources of frustration, as in any situation where decisions are not entirely your own and where you need to pace yourself and adjust to other people’s expectations, situations and ways of doing things. I would best describe it as the best laboratory for developing the art of compromise which after all is very important in various aspects of life. But with Sacro Sanctus, I wanted a different approach. It provides an opportunity where I can realize things (both from a management and musical perspective) my way. And that is how it has been so far and will remain.
I handle all the compositions, the song texts, the vocals and most of the instrumentation, bar for the drums. I have had different approaches to the drums in the project. On the first two albums, I built the drums on midi with the help of Chris from Nomad Son (who pre-produced those first two albums) and then brought in a professional drummer (Robert Spiteri, one of the finest and busiest on the Island) to bring them to life in the studio. On the next album LIBER III: Codex Templarium I am working differently and totally forgoing the midi process, which was very time-consuming really. So now I have a new drummer called Steve Lombardo (who has also helped me with the album’s preproduction at his cool studio) who basically recorded the drums from scratch after I finalised the guitar and vocal guides and proper bass takes.
The end result sounds really encouraging so far and it has been awesome working with Steve who has a real old school approach to things. I have also roped in a guitar wizard – Owen Grech – for some solo shredding on the album but still did all the rhythm guitars and melodies and arrangements on guitar. So yes, I am ready to get the right people in the project if I am uber-convinced that they share my vision and are excited to participate in Sacro Sanctus. As was also the case with Alexia Baldacchino who guested on the first two albums on a couple of tracks and Luciano Schembri who laid down some awesome organ work on a Death SS cover I did for an upcoming tribute to the Italian horror metal masters on Black Widow records. And this is the great thing about Sacro Sanctus not being a typical band as I can rope in people as requisite without difficulty while keeping total control on things.
Obviously, there are difficulties in respect of threading this path. The financial burden is one them. But I have to say that the end result is really gratifying and I am excited at the prospect of releasing more Sacro Sanctus stuff in future, as long as God gives me the strength and the inspiration continues. As far as the lyrical dimension goes, all these first three album chart important episodes in the history of the Knights Templar combining both fact and myth and imagination in the process. I just love it! Haha!
E&D: Do you have anything in the works right now for any of your bands or projects that you can tell us about? I read that Forsaken signed an album deal with Mighty Music?
Albert: Yes after a seven-year wait, we (Forsaken) released our new (fifth) full-length album on Mighty Music records last October. It is called Pentateuch and basically is inspired and centres on the first five books of Moses. We are also hoping to be touring soon to support the album apart from some local shows. As far as Nomad Son go, we are taking a bit of a breather right now which will possibly extend until the end of 2018. The plan is that we start working on a new album and start gigging again.
E&D: Apart from a very busy musician, you also have an Academic career. It seems to me from your research fields, that you’ve found a way to at least partly bring the music and the academic side together in your research field. Can you say something about that?
Albert: Correct again. One of my main research interests is music subcultures. My PhD and various Academic articles culled from it in fact focused on a sociological appraisal of Maltese metal subculture and I am also planning further research to this effect, which will hopefully be realisced next year. Basically, my research area marries my love for metal/music and sociology. I enjoy researching and teaching the subject at University – something that I have done for well over 25 years now.
E&D: How did you start out organising the Malta Doom Days as well? Another avenue you’re active in, which I can imagine takes a lot of time, effort, money and love. Also, which shows where the absolute highlights for you personally?
Albert: There have been several personal highlights like hosting Leif Edling this year with his new project The Doomsday Kingdom and in previous years, Pagan Altar, Manilla Road and The Black – all legends that I have long worshipped. But hosting Venom Inc. in 2015 surpassed all and hearing classics like ‘Black Metal’, ‘Countess Bathory’, ‘Witching Hour’, ‘Prime Evil’ etc. on our stage was a very proud, emotional and moving moment. Plus meeting and hosting Mantas, Abaddon and Tony Dolan on the Island were awesome as they are really great people and so easy to work with. So basically, despite the huge mammoth effort behind Malta Doom Metal (MDM) – dedicated to all things doom and old school; instances such as this make the whole thing worth it plus of course seeing all those smiling happy faces of the MDM regulars (now from all over Europe) which is ultimately the main reason why I started the festival – to create a quality, international festival where doom and old school metal fans can come and enjoy a great weekend of killer music and like-minded company – a little heaven in the Mediterranean of the doom and old school elite!
E&D: If someone was to visit Malta, which they should do during the Malta Doom Days obviously, but outside of the event, what places are go-to ones for metal/rock fans in Malta?
Albert: Metal clubs and oriented venues are few and far between right now. However, there’s a great new club called The Garage in Zebbug which hosts metal gigs on a weekly basis. Plus we also have other cool metal festivals throughout the year here including Metal Over Malta which is also another great festival, now running in its fourth year. There’s practically a metal festival occurring every month here next year, so there are quite a few things to do for metalheads on the Island now!
E&D: During the Doom Days, I noticed that it’s generally a very passionate scene. I saw as well and heard that there’s a lot of divides in Malta. Between the two islands, between the English and Maltese speaking parts. Are those also visible in the metal scene? For example, apart from Saħħar I haven’t come across bands with Maltese lyrics.
Albert: Vandals also had some songs in Maltese way back. And Norm Rejection (featuring Sean from Forsaken) was perhaps the first standard bearers for that in the local metal scene, but you are right Saħħar is certainly the most prolific at present in this respect, and for me personally one of the most exciting bands in the scene along with our label mates Chaotic Remains. I wouldn’t say that our scene here is that representative of the sources of class and status distinction that you find on the Island. I think that the main source of distinction/fragmentation in Maltese metal is music preference and perhaps age and peer groups too as is also the case world-over.
E&D: Which bands from Malta should people really be checking out, and why so?
Albert: As I mentioned before, there’s loads and loads of bands mirroring different styles and preferences – and most offer high-end quality and passionate stuff. I do not wish to single anybody out, but I cannot end this interview without mentioning X-Vandals (my former band between 89-91 and I have to admit still my absolute faves when it comes to local metal) who are still going strong and released a new killer album just last month called Exhume the Truth. Killer stuff. 12th Ode is certainly also one of my favourite local bands – very well done old school heavy metal with all the right ingredients and I will be on the lookout for Wolven Hour’s (featuring Leo from Forsaken) to see the light of day for some more old school metal worship. Those looking for something more vintage may check out Frenzy Mono (featuring members of Nomad Son) and prog masters Mirage – who have recently reformed and also rank among my favourite local bands. I am sticking to my personal tastes here, but as I said before the sheer volume of quality bands in diverse styles is quite bewildering really. Hats of to all!
E&D: What future plans do you have in music currently?
Albert: There’s the new Sacro Sanctus album which as I said above is currently and quite vehemently work-in-progress and should be out on Metal on Metal Records next year – so that is keeping me really and happily busy, plus I have several other songs already written for the project which I will be short-listing and be organising for future reference soon. We can also expect the Death SS tribute album featuring Sacro Sanctus to be released soon.
I am also expecting 2018 to be quite busy for Forsaken with both local and foreign shows and perhaps some more song-writing too. These will be the main priorities music-wise for me in 2018 and MDM X of course which is an ongoing and pivotal concern right now too.
E&D: If you could have your dream line-up for Malta Doom Days, who would be playing?
Albert: Haha…this is a trick question! Slowly but surely we are attracting bands that I have always wished to see in Malta. I won’t be revealing any names but if things go to plan then we should be realising another dream in 2018…enough said though!
E&D: If you had to compare the music of your bands to a dish, what dishes would they be and why?
Albert: A plate of pasta arrabiata – not too overdone, basic ingredients yet still quite angry, potent with lots of gusto and a dash of chilli hellfire!!! Hahaha!