Canadian metallers Unleash The Archers are gearing up for the release of their fifth full-length album, Abyss. Thematically, Abyss is the direct sequel to the band’s 2017 album Apex, a fantasy concept telling the tale of The Immortal, who was cursed at birth to serve whoever awakens him from his thousand-year slumber. After he was awoken on Apex by the villain of the piece, The Matriarch, the story picks up fifty years later on Abyss, and The Immortal is out for revenge. Vocalist Brittney Slayes talks us through the writing process, recording in Denmark with Jacob Hansen, and the trials of rehearsing for an album launch which won’t have any fans present.
Before we talk about the new album ‘Abyss’, I thought that I’d share with you the fact that people up here in Scotland still talk about the time you got up to sing a karaoke version of ‘Queen Of The Reich’ in Edinburgh after the last gig on the European tour a few years ago!
Oh really? That’s awesome! That was a good time!
It was a great night for sure! But no-one dared to go up and sing after your performance!
(Laughs) Oh, I don’t know about that, I could have done better! I was a little off my game! We had a really great time just drinking with everybody, we had done an interview earlier with a friend who suggested hanging out afterward, having some beers, then the karaoke bar was suggested because it was still open and we were like “yep, let’s go!”. So a big crew of us walked down there, of course, we had to do a couple of songs, so it was a great way to end the tour that’s for sure. That one will go down in history for us!”.
Fantastic! Now, we’re here to talk about the new album ‘Abyss’ due August 21st, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword releasing an album at the moment; on one hand, you can’t tour it like you normally would, but on the other, music fans are desperate for new music…
Yes, it was a difficult decision to go ahead with the release, but I completely agree with you, it was like, are people even going to have the money to buy this, to buy the record? Or, are people going to be so hungry for new music that they’ll support in any way that they can? And, so far it’s been the latter.
Thankfully it does seem to be indeed the latter. One quick look at the Napalm Records website and a few versions are already sold-out, that must be a great feeling for the band?
It is, it’s really cool. We had no idea how this record was going to be received, or if people were even going to be interested enough to pre-order, and it’s been going really well so we are excited. We couldn’t be happier, and we are taking it day-by-day.
Did you manage to get some copies of the stunning red and yellow swirl vinyl before they were all snapped up?!
Yes! We said to Napalm “you’ve got to get us some of those, send us five please!”, they haven’t arrived yet, but they assured us that they have!
It does look stunning, one of those where you kick yourself for not pre-ordering straight away. Looking at the vinyl version, and also the earbook version, it seems that having a top-quality physical product is important to the band?
Absolutely, yes. The earbook was Naplam’s idea, they suggested a version with the artwork, lyrics, and some photos, things like that, to make a cool collector’s item for everyone with this record. We were definitely on board. Being someone who is a streamer, I don’t own any CDs anymore, that idea was really cool to me because it’s definitely something worth collecting, and when Iced Earth put one out for their last record, I jumped on that! I definitely thought that it was a great idea, but then I took it one step further and made it really special by putting the story from the album in there, in short-form, a novella. So anyone who orders the earbook is going to be able to read the story in full, so it’s a special piece of merch for sure. I’m excited to see what everyone thinks!
Several albums into your career, do you still get nervous in the run-up to a new album release?
(Laughs) Absolutely! We’ve already had a review that was like what I thought people were going to think, which is “it’s great but it’s no ‘Apex’..”, we have a lot of people that love our previous album ‘Apex’, and I mean really love it, and that’s totally cool and we love that. You always want your new stuff to surpass your old stuff, so we are just waiting to see what people say.
Personally, I feel that this is a better record, that it’s more mature, I think that our songwriting has really progressed, we’re experimenting more with new and cool things. I just think that it’s a great bit of change for us, so we’re really excited and we hope that everyone feels the same way. There’s nothing wrong with ‘Apex’, and we still love that record, but we’re in the ‘Abyss’ headspace now, and hopefully, everyone else can do what we did, which was put ‘Apex’ aside and really look at ‘Abyss’ as a different entity, something brand new. Don’t compare them, we didn’t write ‘Abyss’ to be a new version of ‘Apex’, nothing like that whatsoever, we wanted them to be two completely different records and we hope that the fans can see that, and they are able to look at it like that as well.
As you said, I felt that there was a massive jump in terms of maturity and songwriting on ‘Abyss’, it’s interesting that people are saying that ‘Apex’ is the stronger of the two…
I know that there will be people out there that will be like “no, I can’t listen to anything but ‘Apex’..” and I can understand that, sometimes I’m like that with bands as well!
At least it’s not as bad as when Ronnie James Dio was replaced by Graham Bonnett in Rainbow, I’m certain that I went through a phase of “nope, not listening to them, the singer has short hair”!
(Laughs) Exactly! When Matt Barlow cut his hair it was like “nope, can’t listen to Iced Earth ever again”!…that’s not true by the way! But yeah, I feel you!
What was the feeling like when you heard the completed album back for the first time?
Aw man it was surreal! It was pretty crazy because I wrote most of my lyrics in the two or three weeks leading up to my week in the studio. So I wrote a lot of them in Denmark because I wanted to wait until everything else was done, I wanted everything to be perfectly cohesive. I didn’t want them to run over anything that was important or contradict any drum parts, or bass or guitar. So I waited until the last minute, so when the boys finally got to hear what I wrote lyrically, they were all kind of “oh man that’s perfect!” or “so that’s what it sounds like, what a cool idea!”.
I cried when Jacob (Jacob Hansen of Hansen Studios in Denmark) sent back the first mix, I listened to ‘Abyss’ and I absolutely just bawled my eyes out! It was exactly what I had been working the last five years for, and we were all like.. ”okay, we’ve got something a little different here, I hope everyone is okay with that!”.
One of my favourite parts on the album is the way that the opening track ‘Waking Dream’ fades out and goes straight into the title-track, it works really well in setting the scene…
We knew that ‘Waking Dream’ was going to be more of an intro track, but I like to think of it more like an interlude because it’s that piece that connects ‘Apex’ with ‘Abyss’. It gives you the same feeling of the last track on ‘Apex’ and introduces you to the new feeling of ‘Abyss’, it was really important that it flowed seamlessly.
Also, it’s about a dream, the Immortal being stuck in this weird dreamscape that he can’t seem to get out of and he’s reaching for the light and it keeps on getting further and further away. And then, BAAAM, he’s awake. I wanted to mimic that feeling of pulling yourself out of a nightmare almost.
The addition of the synth on ‘Abyss’ works really well…
Yes, we wanted to add another layer to the album. We wanted this record to feel different, so we thought that by putting the synth in there we would be taking the listener to a new plain, a new setting. ‘Apex’ was very much a different setting, it was very dark, very heavy, and ‘Abyss’ is all about freedom, and the light, it has a more ethereal quality. So we felt that the synth would help the listener make that transition.
Are there any songs on ‘Abyss’ which were written during the sessions for ‘Apex’ that didn’t fit that album, but made it onto ‘Abyss’?
Yes, we were originally going to write them both at the same time, and then we decided that we didn’t have the time and we wanted to focus on each individual song and make them the best that they could be. We put ‘Abyss’ aside, but when we were writing ‘Apex’ there were definitely a few riffs where I was like “oh no, no, no, that’s an ‘Abyss’ riff for sure, let’s put that one aside”, and actually one of them was the tapping intro for ‘Abyss’ itself, the tapping that comes out of ‘Waking Dream’. There were a few others, the riff on ‘Faster Than Light’ was put aside. There’s definitely an emotional motivation behind each record, so we had to make sure that we chose our riffs wisely.
How does it work when you have a composer come onboard for orchestrations? In this case, ‘Afterlife’, which is stunning, did you give Francesco Ferrini specific instructions to what you were looking for, or did he go away with the storyline and then come back and surprise you?
Actually Andrew (Andrew Kingsley – guitar, unclean vocals, synth) wrote everything. He did the whole shebang, and then we sent it to Francesco to make it sound less like a computer! Andrew wrote it on his computer, using mini plug-ins on Pro-tools, so he wrote all the different parts and then we sent it to Francesco and he’s the one that added in the flutes, the trumpets, and all that sort of stuff. He added in the swelling and that real feel of an orchestra symphonic sound that he does so well. Andrew did such an incredible job, he is insanely talented.
He certainly is for sure! Now, what was the song that took the most out of you in the studio?
‘The Wind That Shapes The Land’ for sure! It’s a big journey this one, a lot happens in it, he goes from this trepidatious guy to full potential, and it was important for me to portray that through the lyrics and the melodies, the dynamics of the song. That was a difficult one, and the fact that it’s also the longest one meant that it had the most words! There were moments where I was so frustrated that I was just pulling my hair out! The boys were like… ”you can do this, get back up there!”. We have other songs that are just as long, but they have huge vocal breaks, but this one, Andrew kind of gave me the song and it was vocals over everything! There was a lot to do, but it was important that the story was expressed as emotionally as possible. It took a lot out of me but I was so happy with it at the end. It was also the last one that I did, and the one that I’m most proud of.
You have the “virtual” album launch coming up, how have the rehearsals been going, especially in this climate, and have you tried ‘The Wind That Shapes The Land’ live?
It’s been pretty good, Grant, Scott and I all live in Vancouver, Andrew lives about four hours away so we do everything with him digitally. He practices on his own, but Grant, Scott, and I have been getting together every night over the last few weeks to practice, and it feels really good. We just have Andrew’s scratch tracks from his original demos, and we just pop those on, put a click on, and play along. It’s a lot of fun, those songs are a lot of fun to play, and it’s just breathing new life into the jam. It’s been a great time learning some new dance moves!
With regards to ‘The Wind That Shapes The Land’, yes we’ve tried that one in rehearsals. I really lose myself in that one and I feel the Immortal so closely in that song, I guess you could say that I almost become him. Every moment, I am him during this crazy battle that is occurring, so the song actually goes by super-fast, and the next thing I know is that I’m on my knees crying at the end! I don’t know how much fun it’s going to be “live”, as in rehearsals I have my eyes closed! I’ll have to remember that there is an audience watching and there actually are people behind the cameras watching. I need to make sure that I’m there in the moment for them and not totally wrapped up in the song. So it will be interesting!
As you said, you need to remember that although there is no-one actually physically there, people are watching you. That must be difficult?!
Yeah, we did it for the European Festival Metal Alliance event, and it was weird, I can tell you right now that it was not my favourite. I really, really like interacting with an audience, it’s one of my favourite parts, I like looking every single person in the eyes, I like pointing at them, I like holding the mic out to them, I like smiling at them, making them put their fists in the air, and the fact that I can’t do all this is really difficult.
It sucks, to be honest! Did you see the viral images of the outdoor gig in the UK where people were on individual platforms in neat little rows? Kind of looked like Pink Floyd’s ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ album sleeve? That was horrendous looking! No, just, no!
Yeah I saw it, my Mom said to me “maybe concerts will happen” and I just said… “No!” I don’t want people to be stuck in cages! I guess you’ve got to do what you can, got to figure out a way to try and make it work, but God, that is not ideal that’s for sure!
It certainly isn’t and it’s going to take someone thinking outside the box, a bit like Unleash The Archers when it comes to videos; your videos are insane, it seems that there is a fantastic sense of humour within the band?!
(Laughs) Well, we definitely don’t take ourselves very seriously that’s for sure!
The video for ‘Northwest Passage’ constantly cracks me up, the little subtleties here and there, especially when the tempo changes and the montage kicks in, your red rope liquorice wilting as you witness Andrew changing over and over, then the little look that Andrew gives you…
(Laughs) Yes! That one was great, it’s a serious video but we’re obviously playing around with the space-time continuum and I murder myself at the end, I mean it’s a serious video but it’s also not a serious video. That one was a doozy! Three full days of filming and we had a great time.
The boys did seem to have a penchant for wearing short shorts in this one! A few “breathe in” moments?!
Yes, they do enjoy wearing short shorts a lot more than you might think they would! They’re funny guys!
Obviously, I mean in the video for ‘Awakenings’, Scott is wearing an Al Bundy t-shirt, so that means he recognises true comedy genius!
Oh yes, Scott is definitely our class clown! That’s for sure, he keeps all of us rolling on the floor laughing!
‘Abyss’ is available August 21st on Napalm Records, more information here.
Purchase tickets for the album launch show here.
Interview – Dave
Header image – Shimon Karmel