By Carl Begai
Udo Dirkschneider will tell you - and a host of press people and fans will agree - that his U.D.O. metal machine has been on cruise control for the past few years. Not that anyone was expecting the 62 year-old vocalist to abandon the sound he created with ACCEPT a lifetime ago and kept alive with U.D.O. while Wolf Hoffmann and Co. explored their options before getting back into the game with a new singer, yet there was something painfully tired and all too predictable about U.D.O.'s last couple albums. As a result all but the diehard fans kept expectations low leading up to the new slab, Steelhammer, only to discover a vibrant in-your-face yesteryear U.D.O. pounding at the door. Gone are guitarist Igor Gianola and guitarist/producer Stefan Kaufmann, and along with the latter the compressed punch-card production and nigh-on-industrial tweakings have also disappeared. In exchange, Dirkschneider and his new bandmates have turned out an album worthy of the classic U.D.O debut Animal House (‘87) and over-the-top Timebomb record(‘91), proving there band has plenty of ammo left.
“I wasn’t really happy about the sound of the last two U.D.O. albums,” says Dirkschneider, singling out Dominator (2009) and Rev-Raptor (2011) as the guilty culprits in the band’s catalogue. “They were very cold. There are some great songs on those albums but there’s no feeling in there, no atmosphere. I think it was good that things happened the way they did. Steelhammer is a new start for U.D.O.”
Kaufmann’s departure was a surprise to folks outside the band, given that he and Dirkschneider came up together with Accept and have worked together pretty much non-stop since 1980. The decision to part ways was health-related, however, and not a typical music industry “creative differences” divorce.
“When we did the recordings for the Rev-Raptor album we had to stop for three months because he couldn’t move anymore,” Dirkschneider explains. “Then, on the tour he had to take painkillers, so he wasn’t in a good mood and the whole atmosphere in the band was bad. I’ve known Stefan for nearly 40 years or something, and after the last show in Kiev I told him we needed to talk about this, and I said that I thought it would be best if he stopped touring. I don’t think he was surprised. I told him he was always welcome to do some composing and producing for U.D.O. because it wasn't the end of our friendship or anything like that.”
In the end, Kaufmann opted to cut all creative ties with U.D.O., leaving Dirkschneider with the task of finding a new songwriting partner. Enter long-time U.D.O. bassist Fitty Wienhold (on board since 1997), who revealed himself to be a very capable songwriting partner
“In the beginning I was worried,” Dirkschneider admits of working with Wienhold in a new context, “but that’s the way things were in that moment so we just had to see how things would turn out. I’d never worked together with Fitty doing composing and production, but all the songs on Steelhammer are written by Fitty and me. I discovered that we work really well together.”
“The recording of the new album isn’t like what we’ve done before with Stefan Kaufmann. Everything is hand made on this album. We didn't want to have computers doing all the work, we wanted to go back and do things ourselves. Doing the production ourselves was like being thrown in cold water, but it was like when you learn how to ride a bicycle; you never forget how to do it. I had a production company with Michael Wagener (Accept, DOKKEN, ALICE COOPER, METALLICA, SKID ROW) for a long time many years ago, so I was able to do this album because of that. Honestly, I was surprised by the way the album sounded the first time I heard it.”
Steelhammer introduces U.D.O. fans to new guitarists Andrey Smirnov out of Russia and Norwegian axe-slinger Kasperi Heikkinen. The album was well on its way to being written by the time Smirnov was called on to audition, Heikkinen came on board after the album was recorded but has since cemented his position in the band thanks to a successful North American tour this past April.
“Kasperi wasn’t involved in playing on the album. He joined the band something like three weeks before we did a show in Ecuador. Igor was still in the band and he was telling us how much he was looking forward to going back to America, and two hours after we set up this show in Ecuador he sent us a mail saying he couldn’t do this anymore, that he was too busy with his private life, that it was too much for him and he had to leave the band. So, he didn’t play on the album.”
“We had 300 demo tapes for new guitar players,” Dirkschneider reveals, “and in the end we had a guy from Germany, a guy from Norway, and a guy from Russia to choose from. We almost picked the German guy – he was a 21 year-old kid – but he wasn’t sure because of his girlfriend, so I said ‘No, we can’t use you, I know how this is going to go…’ (laughs). When I heard Andrey it took three minutes for me to decide. I called Fitty to come over and check this Russian guy out, and that was it. Fitty and I were sitting there saying ‘That’s it; that's what we want on the new album.’ We were already pretty far into the whole process for the new album when he came to audition; he ended up staying for three weeks and doing all the guitars for it. I’m sad that Kasperi didn’t play on the album because he’s a really brilliant guitar player, and ready for anything.”
“I found the right people at the right time. It was really a surprise on stage with these two new guitar players for the first time because it felt like we had been playing together for 10 years. Of course there were some little things we had to work on, but the first show we did together as band in Ecuador was amazing.”
Looking back on the trials, frustrations, time and effort that went into making Steelhammer, Dirkschneider has a good feeling about the future. At no point did he consider putting U.D.O. to bed, but the end result is better than what he or anyone else expected.
“What I like about the new album is that it’s got everything on it; fast songs, a real ballad, some up-tempo songs. The good thing is that after 14 albums with U.D.O. and 10 albums with Accept - and don't get me wrong - I don't think ‘Oh, I have to be really heavy metal on this new album.’ We’re not writing any blues or boogie stuff; we're still doing metal music but we’re open to everything. It doesn’t matter to me. If the song needs a triangle or a flute, it’ll get one (laughs).”