We caught up with Malta’s own Dr Doom – Albert Bell, ahead his next two appearances in the coming weeks, namely with X-Vandals which will also feature a DVD launch on the 22nd of November and just two weeks later with Forsaken on the eve of a public holiday for a night of pure doom.
You’ve been involved for more than 3 decades in the local (and international) metal scene. What was the crucial point in your life that got you into metal music? Where and when did it all begin?
Music had always been a feature at home, from very early on in my childhood. Dad was a very good harmonica player (he also played professionally in various pubs at some point playing mostly 50s and country classics at some point), and my parents had a vinyl collection with stuff the Stones, the Beatles, the Animals and so forth. Mum had a Dansette record player which included a 45 rpm single stacker. So my older brother David (three years older than I am) and I used to create our own play lists from my parents’ collection and we used to listen to these songs on end. Eventually, as we grew older our own music preferences started to crystallise. This was the time of the punk and NWOBHM explosions so eventually both genres (metal and punk) became a huge reference point for both of us (my brother and I), co-existing quite amicably in our music trajectory for quite some years. But, the band that first really attracted my attention was KISS, who were of course, an institution at the time. The band’s imagery, mystery and energy had huge appeal, and the first two singles that I purchased from my measly pocket money were both KISS 45’s – “I was made for Loving You” and “Sure Know Something”. Both songs had strong radio play and sometimes you could come across the band’s videos or excerpts from their live shows on specialist music shows popular with kids in those days on Italian or national TV. Eventually Radio started to have a strong impact on my listening tastes and I would ardently follow the Top 20 US and UK shows on Maltese radio to get to grips with the bands and artists hitting the charts at the time. I would also tune into Italian radio for specialised rock shows (this is how I eventually discovered bands like Exciter, Metallica, Riot, Scanners, Gravedigger and many more eventually). The Top 20 shows on Radio Malta regularly featured some hard rock/metal and punk bands as both genres became the voice of the young generation toward the late 70s, particularly for those of us who were simply not content with most pop drivel also dominating the charts. A very close and dear English friend of ours, Roger Firth Bernard (a friendship that still remains after all these years) was also very instrumental in my music trajectory. In between hours of Subutteo matches (table football – we had our own leagues for several years), we would spin his single collection (with stuff like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers, Siouxie and the Banshees) at home and we were really engrossed by the whole punk thing. Eventually, as the 80s loomed on the horizon, albums also started to make our way into our collection (obviously since they were more expensive, we didn’t have the money to buy as many as we’d have liked). I remember getting the Stranglers’ “Men in Black” album, and really falling in love with that band. I still enjoy them till today. Eventually, we also started going to shows by the Rifffs, who were huge here in the early 80s, mesmerising audiences with their unbridled punk/ska and two tone grooves. But I guess my first real metal epiphany came with Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”. I was just blown away when MOTORHEAD hit our turn table. That was it for me. There was no turning back and I started to get more and more immersed into the genre, building a LP strong collection and burrowing deep into the classics from Sabbath to Deep Purple, Priest, Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult, MSG, Scorpions, Thin Lizzy, Uriah Heep etc. I started by buy music and metal magazines and hunting down stuff by newer bands and with the rise of NWOBHM, bands like Demon, Saxon, Maiden, Def Leppard, Angel Witch Witchfynde, Witchfinder General and many more, soon became part of my staple musical diet. This then led me to my second overwhelming metal epiphany – VENOM. After coming across the band through a school friend (must have been 4th or 5th form) – together with Mercyful Fate – I started to get into more and more obscure stuff hitting the metal underground at the time. By 1984, I was totally engrossed in thrash/Speed metal, and formed my first band Exorcist (later renamed as Kremation). I was 16 years old. My first instrument was the guitar, as my brother had a Spanish guitar had home and we would take turns to churn out some riffs on it. However, when it came to form my first band I opted for the bass and loaned some funds off mum to get my first bass- a Bluesman black precision copy, and a make shift amp with just one speaker. That’s what I could afford! I still regret selling the Bluesman to get my Rickenbacker some years later, as it was my first instrument, and my first love haha! I was totally self thought really, picking things up from different musicians I knew and perhaps a band VHS we could get our hands on. There were no instructional videos, no Internet or You-Tube, so most of the Maltese metal musicians during those formative years, built their musical dexterity on their own really and through exchanges with like-minded metalheads.
Would you have assumed that metal would have played such an important part of your life 35+ years later? In what way have your inspirations and songwriting changed during these years?
I was always into metal for the long haul. I have never, ever, for one second, considered giving it up or “moving on”. I simply just love it too much and it defines who I am. As for my song-writing, well lyrically, I am inspired by manifold sources, from deep introspection and profound experiences, my nightmares and personal demons, to history, socio-political commentary and my own spiritual trajectory. As for the music, well this is harder to explain really. It is the impulse to release something residing deep within which is the main catalyst for building the songs I create. The ideas often flow into each other without too much forethought and control at the initial juncture, though I might often have a particular soundscape and general tempo in mind for a song. Over time, writing music has become an obsession for me really. Hence, my need to involve myself in different bands and Sacro Sanctus – my solo project. They are all important outlets for me. I’d like to think that my song-writing has evolved and improved with time – but I do not discount some of the earlier stuff I wrote way back – such as, for example, most of the riffs for “Anthems of Death” (X-Vandals) or “Where Angels Have Fallen” for Forsaken. Both, in my opinion remain very potent songs, so I guess something was right from the outset, haha! With experience and the passing of time, however, one is somewhat more aware of how riffs can gel better together, the crucial link between song texts and the music, chord modulation and so forth. But for the main, my songs stem from the gut so to speak. It is mostly all about emotion vs rationalisation. I hate songs that become over-rationalised, as it destroys their soul, metaphorically speaking. As for some important points of reference in terms of my playing style – Sabbath, Motorhead, Priest, Venom and Celtic Frost/Hellhammer and increasingly of late, early Exodus, I think are the main reference points really. And from the Doom template, there, I need look no further than Candlemass, Vitus, Pentagram and Trouble. These however are all but reference points. I do not seek to emulate anyone.
Speaking of X-Vandals, you were a member of Vandals before (between 1989 and 1991), and re joined the band again under the name X-Vandals earlier this year. What motivated you to take in the challenge again?
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse haha! I had such a ball re-uniting with the guys for the 35th Anniversary show in November, 2018! It was like time had stood still during our rehearsals and that show! Just incredible and beyond explanation!
So when the offer came while we were having a few drinks at our favourite haunt in Tarxien, I had no qualms at all to take it up. And we are really enjoying ourselves. There’s a connection between us which cannot be easily described in words. An unshakeable bond that creates a near telepathic musical nexus. Plus there was the added challenge of taking over as second guitarist now versus the bass, which as you know is in the very capable hands of James “Nemlu” Spiteri.
Can you tell us more about X-Vandals’ upcoming DVD launch on November 22nd?
It’s going to be a hell of a night that’s for sure. We have prepared an extensive set featuring choice cuts from X-Vandals’ repertoire with of course a focus on tracks from the band’s last album “Exhume the Truth”, plus also more new material. We’ve already launched one of our new songs “The Other Side of the Sun” at Beerfest. Now fans can expect more new stuff. Plus the billing on the night is second to none with grandees Lord Adder making a much anticipated return, one of the most exciting new metal bands – Dead Impaled also joining the proceeds and punk heroes R.A.S. pulverising the audience with some true, unbridled punk. So what more can an old schooler like me want! Haha!
Your solo project Sacro sanctus’ latest release, LIBER III: Codex Templarum has received many positive reviews as with all previous solo releases. What are the main challenges of writing music as a solo artist as opposed to having ideas inputted by all band members? Should we expect a live performance any time soon?
There are both advantages and disadvantages to that formula. The biggest advantage is artistic freedom and not having to compromise and juggle with your band mates when it comes to ideas on how to take the project forward and the song writing itself. Though I have to say that thankfully I really have not experienced that much of the latter in Nomad Son, Forsaken or X-Vandals. But ultimately, a band is a group of individuals. A collective. It is crucial that the band functions as a unit and where everyone feels comfortable and valued. And like any relationship, it requires hard work and dedication to function – and self-sacrifice too. On the other hand, a solo project like Sacro Sanctus is easier to manage and project forward as it all depends on you. You set the agenda, the way forward and how best to execute it. This has its strengths but at times it can develop into a disadvantage too – as there are no shoulders to lean on so to speak and it can be quite trying indeed. But after so many years in bands, I wanted to challenge myself and push and test my abilities to the limit. Thankfully, it has worked really well. At its inception, Sacro Sanctus was principally a studio project and an outlet for my song writing. I never really envisaged it as a live band. My main objective now is to unleash the fourth Sacro Sanctus album. It’s already written (lyrics and music) – and I hope to start pre-production soon. That was postponed for various reasons, including my Dad’s passing last September. When I really wasn’t in the mood for the studio. But now I am feeling the hunger again, and long to return. After the new album is recorded, then, we’ll see what else could be in store for Sacro Sanctus. But at this stage, the new album is the priority.
Following Nomad Son’s great comeback earlier this year with A Broken Design’s Chris Galea taking the lead as the new drummer, you seem to have connected immediately and have already performed in a number of gigs both abroad and locally. Are we to expect any new releases next year?
Yes, it’s been quite an eventful year for Nomad Son. Chris has really integrated well in the clan and we all get on like a house on fire really. Of course, I miss Edward as he was an integral part of the band from the outset, but Chris has settled in nicely and it’s awesome to have him on board. We’ve had some great gigs this year and are looking forward for more. However, right now our focus is on writing new material, and we’re progressing well. We’re not rushing the writing process, as each song has to be top notch. The direction of the new material is well within the NS template while venturing out into some new exciting directions as well.
Forsaken are perhaps the longest surviving doom metal band in Malta, and there doesn’t seem to be the slightest hint of slowing down. In fact, having in the past five years alone performed alongside mammoth bands the likes of Candlemass, Saxon and Behemoth to name a few, released your critically acclaimed album Pentateuch and having more recently performed in the Augsbangers metal meeting in Germany, one would say you are in your best form ever. To what do you attribute this consistency 28 years on?
One word really – friendship. We have been through lots of great experiences and shit together over all these years, and this is ultimately the band’s secret ingredient for its survival all these years. This bond allows us to be at each other’s throats occasionally during rehearsals but at the end of the day we are always there for each other. Forsaken is a very special band in that way. Just keep in mind one thing – were it not for Daniel Magri’s untimely passing in 2001 and Mario Ellul’s departure from the band in 2004 (after spending circa six years or so in the band), our present line up (Stivala, Bell, Gatt, Vukovic) has lasted since late 1993 – that’s 25 years and counting. Not a mean feat for sure!
Your next Forsaken performance is set to be on December the 12th, along your fellow doom brothers Victims of Creation, who you seem to have a lot of history with. In what way will this night be a special one? What should we expect from Forsaken’s set?
Yes, we’ve known Rex, Dino and co since time immemorial really. But it had recently dawned on us that we never co-organised a gig together. So this show has been a long time coming and shall help re-iterate and confirm that bonds that strongly gel the Maltese doom metal scene. As for Forsaken, much like X-Vandals and Nomad Son, we are also busy writing new material, and if things go as planned we should unleash a little new beast I recently penned called “The Harrowing Dread”, which will see the band charting new pastures musically speaking. No – we have not gone all goth, stoner, industrial, melo-death or nu-metal on you. It’ll still be real metal as f**k! Haha!
How has your academic career as a sociologist influenced your musical career?
I think the relationship between the two has been reciprocal really. Several of my professional research interests – including music subcultures – are intimately tied to my passion for metal and rock music in general. Conversely, my song writing benefited strongly from my immersion in the social sciences, particularly on the lyrical and conceptual front.
During the past two years there’s been a new emergence of younger bands with old school influences, however this wasn’t always the case, and there was a time where old school influenced music was met with slight skepticism and that it may soon become a thing of the past. Clearly this wasn’t the case, but what is your general perception about this?
My views are clear and unequivocal. Keep in mind that people my age (50 and counting) do not perceive our musical tastes as “old school” or whatever. That is the music that we know, we grew up with and enjoyed and still enjoy. And let’s be fair and factual and establish that it was that generation of bands that defined the metal idiom, with HEAVY METAL RIFFS setting off the music from other genres. For us – that music IS metal and what has defined the genre and crystallised it. Today we have so many variants – that sometimes I am introduced to bands labelled as metal and I am just shocked. No that is not metal! End of. Call your music something else, but it is NOT metal. Why jump on the bandwagon and call it metal? Be brave, take the plunge and call it something else. I still remember for example huge arguments (sometimes even coming to blows) with metalheads (we were called and referred to ourselves as “rockers”) at the time because they could not accept the whole Venom and the thrash/speed metal movement. Most proto metalheads during that period detested it! But we didn’t care. We stuck to our guns, and thrash/speed metal it was. We never presented ourselves as something different than it was. Now as for these modern “old school metal bands” – ultimately – it is very difficult for a new band to incorporate such historical influences in their music if they haven’t lived and been a crucial part of the movement. So sometimes my mates tell me – “Bert, listen to this or that band – they sound like Exciter or Destruction and you’ll love them”. My reaction normally is – “Ok they’re a strong band – but why should I listen to Destruction copyists, when the original were the original and often far better! Haha”. There are of course exceptions (e.g. Kryptos in one of them). And these exceptions are those that (in my view) contribute something to the original template without bastardising it to the extent that it becomes an unrecognisable pulp. It is do-able – but it is the exception verses the rule!
And finally the question everyone’s been wanting to ask you. You are the founder and main organiser of a main Maltese metal festival for ten years, taking the the whole local metal scene to a level we rarely saw before. Do you completely rule out the possibility of a Malta Doom Fest comeback?
No. When, where and how are still to be seen however.
That’s it for today, thank you Albert!
Till the next one.
X-Vandals DVD launch event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/523530001463014/
In Doom We Trust event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/645500212615408/