Renowned Dutch death metal brigade, Hail Of Bullets, recently completed their third Metal Blade full-length, ‘III The Rommel Chronicles’. According to drummer Ed Warby, “After a half-year period of slightly worrying metal fatigue I finally started writing in June 2012. I had to recover from several years of doing one album after the other: Gorefest, Hail Of Bullets, Demiurg, Star One, 11th Hour, etc, without time to breathe. I needed to recharge the batteries so to speak. But once I had the basis for what would become ‘Farewell To Africa’, the floodgates of inspiration opened wide and with contributions from Stephan [Gebédi – guitars, also of Thanatos] and Paul [Baayens –guitars, also of Thanatos and Asphyx] we soon had a full album.”
Ed explains further, “In the months before I had no desire to even pick up a guitar or play metal, so when that [‘Farewell To Africa’] riff finally came to me it felt like such a relief. It was one of those moments where the song almost writes itself, one riff leading to another until you have a fully-formed song. That gave me such a confidence boost, and even more importantly it put me back in ‘metal’ mode. At that point I wasn’t writing to the story yet, this was just a song for the album and Martin [van Drunen, also of Asphyx, ex-Bolt Thrower – the line-up is completed by Theo van Eekelen of Grand Supreme Blood Court] assigned a subject to it later. ‘Swoop Of The Falcon’ was the second song written and that did end up at the beginning of the album because it really felt like a grand opening track.”
Unlike their previous two salvos, ‘…Of Frost And War’  and ‘On Divine Winds’ , ‘III The Rommel Chronicles’ details not a war theatre (the Eastern Front and the Pacific theatre, respectively), but the military life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), who became one of the most celebrated and lauded military commanders during World War II even though he fought for the Axis powers. Nicknamed “The Desert Fox” for his mastery of mechanised warfare tactics used in the deserts of North Africa, Rommel’s consummate professional conduct in the art of war earned the begrudging respect of his Allied adversaries be it American General George S. Patton, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery or England’s legendary Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
“Rommel was the only WWII figure we could have done a concept album about. He was definitely the first and only choice, based upon his long military career and the dramatic aspects of his life story. Martin mentioned wanting to do an album on Rommel before we started writing,” continues Ed. “The theme was there first, and it did influence the musical direction somewhat. This one is definitely more ‘sand and dirt’ than ‘sea and sky’. We decided on ten tracks and Martin picked the themes he wanted each song to deal with, but the actual lyrics were only added at the very last moment because Martin prefers to work on them alone.”
For an avid history buff, Martin’s magnificent lyrics display ample depth even if he employs a slightly deceptive “less is more” style. Two of the best examples, for an album rife with them, can be found in ‘DG-7’ and ‘The Desert Fox’, respectively. From ‘DG-7’: “Sections blazing, at breakneck speed/Shock to confound, mauling metal steeds/Concealed thoroughfare, elusive ghosts/Route DG-7, to the Channel coast” . And from ‘The Desert Fox’: “Blinding sandstorms, scorpion bites/Scorching days, chilling nights/Natural player, this great game/The Desert Fox, obtaining his fame”.
“Usually once Martin is done with his final draft of the lyrics, me and him sit down together and go over them, fitting the words to music, changing things around for rhythmic reasons, or sometimes to clarify its meaning. We both have a strong sense of rhythm, and since a grunt has no melodic diversity you can get a lot of mileage out of placing words differently to create more variation. But all credit for compiling and putting the lyrics together goes to Martin and I agree he does a marvelous job.”
That they base their material upon historical fact – not myth, not fantasy – makes Hail Of Bullets quite unique. The two previous albums were excellent in their own right, and yet, ‘…Chronicles’ resonates even more strongly because of the personal, almost intimate, angle.
“Yes, absolutely,” he replies. “I think it was a good decision to focus on one person as opposed to describing a certain part of the war as it really gives the album a different feel from the previous two. More intimate and personal like you say, while still large in scope. We weren’t sure if we should do another full concept album, but now I’m glad Martin stuck to his guns.”
Although this is not the first nor the last time a death metal band has or will use World War II’s cataclysmic events for inspiration that Rommel – a “soldier’s general” – fought for the Nazis, not only brilliantly, but valiantly, might prove a choke point for some considering the predominate worldview that all Nazis were the definition of evil incarnate.
“Sure, people not willing to look past the title and artwork could easily take it the wrong way, but no more than the previous albums. If they take a few minutes to read the lyrics I’m sure any doubts about our intentions will vanish. It’s obvious we’re not a Nazi band and we are well able to defend any misgivings people might have, should the lyrics leave anything open for debate.”
And yet that era – 1939 to 1945 – holds such an allure and still continues to fascinate to this day. That Hail Of Bullets handles this subject matter with such sincerity strikes a resounding (and in some cases an emotional) chord with many fans.
“Yes, lots in fact. Wherever we go we get cool stories about history lessons in school using ‘…Of Frost And War’ as starting point, or from fans whose grandparents actually lived through what we write about. I think it really sets us apart from most other old school death metal bands and the fact that Martin does such extensive research really pays off. People can tell he’s not just flirting with a ‘cool’ subject. It’s very true to history and rich in accurate details. Of course, we get the strongest reactions in Germany, especially when we released ‘…Of Frost And War’. I wasn’t sure how people would react, but when I saw grown men in the audience cry during a song like ‘Berlin’ I knew we touched a nerve.”
‘…Chronicles’ was written entirely before entering the studio with Ed, once again, handling the production responsibilities.
“Yes, I like to make fully ‘produced’ demos of each song to avoid surprises during recording. Every band member has a say in the material and I keep working on the songs until we’re all 100 per cent satisfied. Only then do we start planning the actual recordings, also because the drum tracks can’t really be changed anymore once they’re done.
“The recording process was basically the same as for ‘On Divine Winds’, the drums were recorded at a professional studio, guitars and bass in my home studio and back to another studio for the vocals. The approach was slightly different in that we went for a more spontaneous and less polished feel this time, I wanted the album to live a little more than the previous one.”
To achieve a “more spontaneous and less polished” sound Ed explains, “As engineer/producer it’s my job to recognise if a take is good or not, and make decisions such as breaking a riff up into parts for greater ease of playing or to make it sound cleaner. Or I’ll just say ‘Wrong, do it again!’
“But this time, I used more whole takes as opposed to small parts, which resulted in a looser and more spontaneous feel overall. I’m a huge perfectionist and very hard on both myself and the rest of the band, but sometimes it’s good to let go a little.”
Several early reviews of ‘…Chronicles’ refer to it as a “throwback” to their debut with regards to the grittier sound.
“Personally, I think that it’s a mix between our first two albums, combining the massive wall of the first one with the more refined sound of the second. In some ways, ‘On Divine Winds’ was a little too sophisticated maybe, so we wanted to get some of the primitive feel of the first one back, which meant toning down the melody a little and cranking up the brutality. But it’s still very much a ‘third album’ in that you can’t repeat the way a debut sounds and feels.”
With regards to the “sophistication” of ‘On Divine Winds’ and the differences found on ‘…Chronicles’ Ed explains, “I still love ‘On Divine Winds’, but if you put it next to ‘…Of Frost And War’ it sounds a bit like we skipped album number two and went straight into the third one; there’s some rather intricate harmonies and some riffs and song structures are maybe a little far-fetched and studied. It suited the album fine and there’s nothing I would change, but this time we wanted things to be a little rougher around the edges again.”
One of the “rougher” aspects of Hail Of Bullets’ sound that has certainly not changed is Martin Van Drunen’s unique, cordite-scorched-throat vocals, which give the compositions ample gravity. At times, in line with the subject, he sounds like an exhausted, over-adrenalised tank commander during the heat of battle shouting targeting orders to his gunner over a barely functioning communication system. Not only is his performance impressive, but his vocal contributions act as another weapon in Hail Of Bullets’ considerable arsenal.
“Absolutely, I feel we wouldn’t be nearly as successful with a different, ‘normal’ singer. He doesn’t sound like anyone else, which can’t be said for a lot of other death metal vocalists out there. Love him or hate him, his voice is a unique instrument and especially given the lyrical themes the best we could wish for.”
Once again, Hail Of Bullets used Dan Swanö for mixing and mastering. In essence, he could be considered a full-time band member, and their artistic relationship bears much deadly fruit. The entire band could not be happier with this continued collaboration.
“The longer we work together the easier it becomes. I read interviews with him sometimes, in which he mentions how proud he is to be part of the Hail Of Bullets story and that feeling is completely mutual. He knows instinctively what sound we need and he really digs the music we make, and of course he has the right pedigree for it. Nowadays he lives in Germany so he was even able to visit the studio when we recorded the drums, enabling him to set up the microphones exactly the way he wanted, which made mixing easier.”
Ed finds it tough to pick a favorite track on ‘…Chronicles’.
“Tough choice,” he says. “‘The Desert Fox’ is a good one, I especially like the way it kicks into overdrive halfway, but ‘Pour Le Mérite’ is maybe the most ‘complete’ song, and I also like the little beast that is ‘Farewell To Africa’.”
As for what makes ‘Pour Le Mérite’ the album’s most “complete” song, Ed explains, “There’s a few songs in the Hail Of Bullets repertoire that I regard as ‘complete’, meaning it has everything I feel a good song needs. ‘General Winter’ is one; been trying to better that ever since. ‘Liberators’ [Second track on 2009’s ‘Warsaw Rising’ EP] is another one. And ‘Pour Le Mérite’ is one. I really like the way the riffs move into one another, then the part in the middle with the epic theme/melody, and a cool bridge leading back into the intro riff. It just has a perfect structure, or at least it does to me.” [Note: The Pour Le Mérite was a military order of merit awarded by the King of Prussia – also known colloquially as “The Blue Max”. Rommel earned this decoration in 1917 for his actions in the “Mountain War” in Italy.]
Obviously, Hail Of Bullets is proud of this effort considering the effort expended to create ‘…Chronicles’.
“Oh hell yes!” exclaims Ed. “We do this as fans of a certain style of music that we all have a lifelong dedication to, and to be part of that history and tradition is something to be very proud of indeed.”
As of right now there are no major tour plans beyond performing at select festivals. And do not expect to see ‘…Chronicles’, or any other Hail Of Bullets full-length for that matter, performed in its “entirety” any time soon.
To the former: “Not likely to be honest, we will do club shows of course.”
To the latter: “We’ll always play a cross-section of all three albums. Besides, some songs don’t translate that well to a live-setting, and I myself find it quite boring when a band plays only new material.
“Maybe we could do our own festival one day and play every album chronologically, with actors depicting the battles on stage…or maybe not!”
Admittedly, it is ridiculous to think, but ‘…Chronicles’ stands as such an absolute triumph. Where does Hail Of Bullets go from here? Do they produce another “biographical” effort or another “campaign-themed” effort? And shall they stick with World War II as their main source of inspiration?
“Honestly, I have no idea,” admits Ed. “I’m sure when the time comes Martin will have subjects to write about, maybe a slightly different angle again, but we’ll see when we get there. This one took a full year to complete and we’ll just enjoy the ride for now!
Originally printed in Iron Fist #7
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