CELEBRATING 25 YEARS OF DOOM METAL
Emerging towards the start of the second wave of Maltese heavy metal well over two decades ago, Forsaken are by far one of the most important bands the local music scene has ever produced and certainly one of the most successful Maltese musical exports ever. Michael Bugeja catches up with bassist Albert Bell, vocalist Leo Stivala, drummer Simeon Gatt and guitarist Sean Vukovic for a chat about the journey so far, ahead of the band's 25th Anniversary concert at Chateau Buskett on Saturday, November 12.
What are your earliest recollections about Forsaken's initial rehearsals and first gigs?
Albert: We had more time at our disposal then we do today, so our rehearsals in St. Julian's were always marathon affairs. We'd normally convene at Tony’s Bar around midday for a few beers and laughs, rehearse, go back for more beer and then make our way to our favourite Paceville haunts , namely Harlequin Rock club and later, Rock Cafe' - fun times! We'd have guests coming to our rehearsals with whom we'd often end up listening to metal albums. I recall hunting down all of Hellhound Records’ back catalogue; records by Iron Man, Count Raven and Revelation who became our firm favourites alongside usual suspects like Sabbath, Witchfinder General, Candlemass, St. Vitus and Trouble of course. As for the gigs, well I could go on and on about those. Lots of memorable shows, lots of blood, sweat and tears! Forsaken is the soundtrack of all the ups and downs in our personal lives really – a bond that has withstood the test of time and which we are most likely to take to our graves.
What attracted the band towards Doom Metal over other metal styles?
Leo: When we started out as Blind Alley back in 1989-90 we played a fusion of Progressive, Heavy and Doom Metal. The Doom element was there without us even knowing it, mainly because of our strong Black Sabbath influence. This was particularly prominent in this song we had called Labyrinth of Destiny, which was possibly our first ever Doom Metal track. When Albert joined as bassist, we got deeper into Doom Metal. The fact that the genre wasn't so popular locally then gave us the impetus to bring something new to the local scene, and we agreed to start writing songs in that vein. That’s when longtime live favourites like Where Angels have fallen and All is Accomplished were written.
How did Epic Doom then get to be more definitive of the band's sound?
Leo: Once we'd decided to pursue a Doom Metal direction, we fully immersed ourselves in the genre, listening to bands such as Candlemass, who are regarded as the true inventors of Epic Doom Metal. This style appealed to us a lot as it is versatile, varying from slow to fast riffing and still retaining dramatic, dark and heavy atmospherics while still embracing traditional Heavy Metal elements. Vocally it appealed a lot to me, being such a staunch fan of Ronnie James Dio fan, who I regard as the ultimate epic vocalist. We also listened to bands like Solitude Aeturnus, Sorcerer, Serenity, Solstice and great epic metal bands like Manilla Road and early Manowar. That’s how we got into playing Epic Doom, which we later also mixed with traditional Doom Metal elements.
Did you think Forsaken would still be around 25 years on, a beacon of the local scene and so highly esteemed internationally?
Albert: A cursory glance at the band’s discography provides the answer to this question. By 1993 we had already released the Virtues of Sanctity EP on France’s Arkham Productions (the first international release by a local metal band), and by March 1994, we'd toured France and Spain to support the EP. We'd even pushed our 1991 demo debut internationally, so basically this was always our vision for the band; we knew that playing only local gigs would get us nowhere. Through our concerted efforts, Forsaken had already become somewhat established internationally by 1995, obviously within the underground doom scene. Following Daniel Magri's passing, we went through a rough patch, later regrouping and pushing on with the 2002 Iconoclast EP. After that, things flowed naturally and the band grew from strength to strength, obviously with much personal sacrifice, some compromise, but most importantly by maintaining our friendship, loyalty and esteem for each other and allowing space for each of us to explore different projects and without being too possessive. We also keep our feet firmly on the ground, and despite having had our fair share of successes, we're fully aware respect is something one earns through sheer hard work, humility and commitment. Any band must keep this in mind to grow and develop – otherwise they're doomed to fail (no pun intended)!
To what do you primarily attribute the longevity of the band's existence and, perhaps more importantly, the consistency you have shown in producing quality metal music on all of your releases?
Leo: We’ve lasted all this time because we're true friends and respect each other as brothers. Honestly, if it wasn’t for this strong bond we have, Forsaken could have been over a long time ago. Our story has been a rollercoaster of emotions. We’ve been through a lot personally and as a band, but the four of us stuck together and have always been there for each other through thick and thin. Even when we split up for about six months after Evermore we still kept in touch. I appreciate your encouraging comment about our musical consistency. I believe we could've been more consistent with releases but to compensate, we've kept the band alive by gigging regularly locally and abroad, which keeps us hungry for more.
Is there anything in Forsaken's history to date that you feel you could have done differently?
Simeon: Well, recording-wise there's the first full album we were recording with Tony Scott around 1995 which we abandoned for musical differences. That probably lost us the opportunity to get signed to one of several good record labels who were interested in us after the France and Spain tours. That's a missed opportunity that would have boosted the band within the international Doom metal scene. On the live front, we've had to turn down several offers that involved paying a fee to participate in tours with more popular bands. Being an underground band, we had no large sums of money to spare and had to reject tour offers, while other tours were simply rejected as we had no more vacation leave left. A pity really, as some tours could have opened new frontiers with better band management, distribution and sales, and popularity.
How do you feel that your performances abroad have impacted the band's musical evolution, sound and growth in popularity?
Simeon: Since we live on a small island we can only play few concerts a year here, so we invest our time and money, other than recording material, in concerts abroad. This is crucial for the survival of the band as we always try to play in quality festivals where we think our music will leave that desired impact with the fans in general. These concerts also serve to reconnect with old friends, make new ones and explore more opportunities. The overall foreign experience has taught us much on many levels but we also get to enjoy ourselves, giving our best doing what we love to do most!
Putting the concert aside for a moment, where are you at with the new album?
Sean: The new album is in its final stages, and the recording should be ready by the end of this year. This release will be our first to feature songs recorded in different tunings on the same album. There's a mixture of different energies throughout - from NWOBHM leanings to epic choruses and heavy, pounding riffs - all with a predominantly epic doom feel as their common factor. I think listeners will probably relate to the different eras of Forsaken when it comes to styles albeit getting something new. In terms of production, the major hurdle was to get a sound that reconciles all the above while infusing a slightly 'dirtier' uncompressed sound to allow for more instrument separation, bringing out all the work put into the songs in a more distinct manner.
Despite being experienced at performing live, I'm sure the anniversary concert will be quite emotional for you all...
Sean: Yes, it will definitely be emotional for us, especially because we'll be playing songs from all our albums and having a few guest appearances from past band members. Getting back together with them for this occasion was great, with some interesting results in the offing that should present some surprises on the night. That's all I'm saying at the moment about surprises. We are of course looking forward to the performances from our two guest bands, the legendary X-Vandals and Arkham Witch, one of the most exciting British Doom metal bands. It will be a metal bash to remember for sure!
For more information, look up Forsaken on Facebook.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times' ESCAPE magazine (06 November 2016)