PRIMAL FEAR – Feeling The Firepower
August 25, 2020, a month ago
For a band that has been kicking around for 22 years, and led by two members that have been in the business far longer, Primal Fear is clearly doing something right when their new album, Metal Commando, lays claim to the highest international chart entries of the band's career. This was exactly the case at press time. They are no strangers to chart success and (quite obviously) have a loyal fanbase, but for a bunch of power metal old schoolers that have had to adapt to the new ways of the music world, it's quite an achievement. Vocalist Ralf Scheepers, who fronted Gamma Ray from 1989 - 1994, is the first to admit to being surprised to find himself in the position he's in, chalking up Primal Fear's continued and current success to hard work and the camaraderie within the band, all of which came together while writing Metal Commando. Much like the power metal they play, the band's recipe for success is simple and straightforward, colouring outside the lines only when inspiration strikes rather than trying to scare the shit out of their fanbase for shock value. This time out, Primal Fear gave the full nine yards and emerged at the top of the heap.
Scheepers says that, while the songwriting for Metal Commando was a relaxed give-and-take between the band members, there were aspects of the album that were mapped out from the beginning.
"We're very satisfied with the way our albums have sounded over the last five or six years, since Delivering The Black (2014). In terms of sound we know absolutely what we want, and in terms of songwriting there is a red line that we've followed for five albums now. That's something we want to keep and, of course, improve. There comes a point where that's not possible anymore, but we want to at least keep the standard of the last few records."
Primal Fear has remained true to the power metal course plotted on their debut album, exploring new territory along the way, but with the addition of guitarist Magnus Karlsson to the line-up in 2008 - largely as a co-writer, occasionally in a live capacity - it's fair to say the quality of songwriting from 16.6 (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead) onward has improved.
"That is absolutely true," Scheepers agrees. "The whole team, we grow with each other, and since Magnus joined the co-writing process things have gone really smooth. He's a great composer together with Mat (Sinner / bass), and they give me their song ideas so I can come up with melodies for some of the songs. Some of their song ideas are fixed, sometimes they tell me to go and do whatever I want, and it's a great way to work. Tom (Naumann / guitars) and Alex (Beyrodt / guitars) are also included in the songwriting and that's how it has been for years now."
Metal Commando checks all the boxes diehard fans require for what can be considered a top tier Primal Fear album. In other words, the band knows better than to stray too far from a working formula as that would spell disaster. That said, they threw in a few curves like the vocal ballad "I Will Be Gone" and the 11 minute epic "Infinity" for their own satisfaction.
"First of all, that's not the way we approach things," Scheepers says of keeping in line with fan expectation. "It's important to please our fans, yes, but we have to be satisfied with what we're doing. There's always somebody bitching about something and you can't please everyone. When we released (first single) 'Along Came The Devil' there was a very small percentage of the fans complaining about it. We just do what we do best, which is making heavy metal. If they judge the whole album based on one track, whether it's 'Along Came The Devil' or 'I Will Be Gone' they're very narrow-minded."
"Mat wrote 'I Will Be Gone'," he adds, "and Magnus did a great job in auto-tuning the demo version (laughs), so I had to repeat that with a natural voice and I'm happy that I pulled it off. 'Infinity'... we did this on the last album, having an epic and bombastic track. That's also another red line that we wanted to keep, but as soon as you try to force something like that it's not going to work. We're very relaxed people, as you know (laughs), so we would never force two more minutes into a song because we want to hit that 11 minute mark."
Asked if he has a favourite song on the new record, Scheepers pegs "Hear Me Calling". No surprise there, as it's a track that allows him to show off his formidable vocal range.
"That's a hard question to answer, but 'Hear Me Calling' is definitely one of them. I wrote a lot of stuff based on my personal life, and all that came to mind when I was listening to Tom's guitar ideas. The (vocal) melody just turned up with the lyrics in the space of about 10 minutes."
Whether by accident or design, and taking nothing away from his bandmates, Metal Commando is a vocal-centric record that allows Scheepers to shine. The man that was in the running as the new singer for Judas Priest when Rob Halford jumped ship way back when has elevated himself to a level on par with legendary Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske.
"I'm 55 and I'm still learning about singing," says Scheepers, downplaying the fireworks he delivers on Metal Commando. "Over the years I've learned about recording vocals on my own and I've become a perfectionist. I'm not saying I didn't worry about or care about my vocals before, but when it came to making my own home studio it had to be something that I was completely happy with. Also, before we produced albums in something like three weeks, and now we can take up to six months because we prepare everything properly. It's quite different nowadays in terms of being able to work on things like intonation when I'm recording my vocals. I'm giving everything I've got as long as I can still do it. The good thing is I'm a vocal teacher, so I have the techniques to warm up and cool down. Singing a song like 'Halo', I couldn't do that right away. It takes me a good 30 minutes to get my voice going, but then it's going (laughs). Michael Kiske doesn't really belt it out; he's a loud singer but he doesn't get really aggressive with his voice. That's an advantage that he has, and he's a really great singer."
Looking at the accolades Metal Commando has garnered, one can argue that Primal Fear is as popular now as they were in their early days. Sadly, that doesn't translate into a major payday for everyone involved.
"That's very true, we are enjoying some new popularity I think, but at the same time it doesn't mean that we make a lot of money from it," says Scheepers. "Spotify, for example, is paying bullshit as we all know. But yes, we do have a really good presence out there and we're trying to keep that going. It's harder than people think, though, and we've had to adapt to social media and the streaming culture. You have to be a part of it because everybody does it in the end, but we're glad that we have a record company like Nuclear Blast. And I can only speak for myself, but I'm a vocal teacher and doing some work with other bands. I couldn't live only from Primal Fear, but it's still better now than when I was still working at a day job 10 years ago because it's hard to give 100% to two things at once. That's why I decided to focus on music, which sometimes I regret and sometimes I'm really happy about. And I'm very happy about it these days."
Even so, that Primal Fear's members are able to find the inspiration to put out a record like Metal Commando while getting shafted financially is impressive.
"Yes, but in this case we're also a team," Scheepers offers. "We rely on each other; without the other guys I couldn't release this music, and without me they couldn't release this music. We all belong to each other somehow, we need each other, and that's how this band works. If I had a time machine and I would be able to hop from the Gamma Ray days until now, I'd be really surprised to find myself here now. But, it's a process. You go through hard times and good times, so I'm happy that I am where I am, but I'll never forget where I came from."