If you’re looking for a name that’s synonymous with heavy metal in its purest, boldest and most untrammelled form, you could do a lot worse than Jag Panzer. Having taken their name from a mis-spelling of a German World War II tank, this titanic troupe’s landmark 1984 album ‘Ample Destruction’ LP stands proud to this day as a deathless pinnacle of heroic sturm-und-drang, bombastic glory and razor-sharp attack, and whilst the Colorado Springs-birthed bezerkers’ history has been filled with more than its fair share of ups and downs in the 30 plus years since, their admirable strike-rate clearly makes them far from one-album-wonders. This is a band who’ve quietly carried one of the greatest singers in the whole genre, Harry Conklin, in their ranks – how many of us wanted to see him replace Bruce Dickinson following his departure from Maiden in 1993? Not to mention Shrapnel shred-legend Joey Tafolla and Megadeth axeman, Chris Broderick. What’s more, despite some recent bad news, there is thankfully no breakup on the horizon. Mark Briody, Jag Panzer’s guitarist and founding member was kind enough to tell us more about both their history and their current plans, while we also caught up with the legendary Conklin to find out about the legacy of the band he made his name in.
The long hard path to glory started in 1981 for the band under the name Tyrant. Would it be natural to assume that this was the source of Harry Conklin’s nickname? Mark picks up the story; “The first lineup was the same as the [self-titled] EP [which came out on Azra Records in 1983] – me, Harry, John [Tetley, bass] and Rick Hilyard [drums]. We had been playing with that lineup since we were 15. We used to play bars at night and attend school during the day. The band back then was called Tyrant and Harry had that on his jacket. Harry wore the same jacket live when we became Jag Panzer so people thought that was his nickname.
“The whole American heavy metal scene was so new back then,” he reflects on those early days. “Mike Varney with Shrapnel was the only label that had a couple of releases out. Metal Blade was brand new, as was Azra. We had offers from a few labels, but Azra offered a colour album cover and a picture disc release. That was very rare for back then, that was a big investment for a label to make.”
Although it may seem surprising that the band decided to kick things off with only a five-song taster, now often known as the ‘Tyrants EP’ (“We had nothing to do with that name, people just kept calling it that,” notes Mark), such were the ways of things in what we now consider a golden era for classic heavy metal. “Back then an EP was considered a popular way to introduce a band. I think really it was just everyone copying what Iron Maiden did with the ‘Soundhouse Tapes’. Also back then it was very expensive to record.”
Only a year later one of the most important records in American heavy metal manifested itself in the shape of ‘Ample Destruction’. Needless to say however, the band had no idea of its significance when they made it. “Not at the time we wrote the material,” concurs Harry. “We were just going by our gut feeling and the influences around us at the time. We were young and crazy back then.”
Nonetheless, Harry makes no secret of an uncompromising approach, which gave rise to the legend surrounding the band, and indeed his nickname. “I was, and always have been, a little over the top when it comes to vocal melodies. I was trying to blend all my influences into a style. My style! Be the best out of everyone out there. Crazy to think this but that’s what I set out to do whether I could or not.”
“The recording sessions were a lot fun,” notes Mark. “We were all the best of friends, so even when someone wasn’t recording their parts, they were still at the studio just hanging out. I remember it being very cold and the studio had a large wood burning stove, so we would all go outside and collect firewood before every recording session.”
Moreover, it was something of a learning curve for the youthful ingenues, as Harry testifies. “We had known these songs for a while and had been playing them for a few months before recording. It was strange going into a real recording environment compared to the rush job at the demo studio. Having to go over the song a few times to get it right was taxing on all of us but it was the beginning of the ‘rock star’ life for us and we were excited beyond belief.”
It’d be fair to say it’s taken a long time for ‘Ample Destruction’s magnificence to be widely appreciated, and furthermore this album has had to suffer more than its fair share of indignities along the way, including no fewer than five different sleeves – among these have been a confusing sci-fi concept with lamentable typography for the Banzai Canadian edition, a bizarre image of what appears to be Lita Ford having a drink in the bar from Iron Maiden’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ on a German edition for the Barricade label in 1989, a substandard ‘pile of skulls’ 2000AD-esque comicbook image for the UK release on the Metalcore label in 1990, and a surprisingly understated collection of shields for a Metal Blade reissue in 1991. The general consensus appears to be however that the ‘correct’ sleeve is the original Azra/Ironworks issue, depicting the four horsemen of the apocalypse in suitably bravura style. Yet once again it seems that matters were taken rather out of the hands of the band themselves. “We always preferred that the original album cover be used, but it was never our decision,” Mark reflects. “I think that the record labels thought that the reissue would only sell with a new album cover. Usually we had no idea what the new cover was going to look like until we got the album in the mail!”
All in all, indeed, Mark maintains a circumspect approach to this metallic classic: “To this day, I have no clue how many copies ‘Ample…’ has sold. No clue at all. I think it’s a good album and I’m very proud of it, however I think many of the later Jag Panzer albums are better.”
As a recent issue of Iron Fist will attest, 1984 was a resounding high for heavy metal and when we debated and argued for our essential 20 albums of that year it was in fact ‘Ample Destruction’ that just beat out Warlock’s ‘Burning The Witches’ for a place in our chart. Mark agrees that it was a benchmark year. “1984 was amazing for metal,” he gushes. “For us, as a whole band the biggest influence was Iron Maiden. ‘Piece Of Mind’ had just come out and we were huge fans of ‘Number Of The Beast’ and ‘Killers’ too. For me personally, the NWOBHM movement was a huge influence. Bands like Angel Witch and Witchfynde blew me away. Great bands, great music and one of the most important eras for heavy metal.”
However, as the year drew to a close Jag Panzer, who should have riding high on the success of ‘Ample…’, found themselves on the wrong side of a losing battle. What went wrong?
“[We played a] show at the Pueblo Event Center [home of the Colorado state fair and rodeo],” Harry remembers. “We had almost packed the place. We had put together a cool military look for the band and it was a huge production that night. People were screaming and we were all in top form.”
“We had many big players in the music industry looking at us,” Mark interjects. “John Carter [producer for Tina Turner] came out to watch us play. The management from KISS used to call. Island Records sent out a rep to see us. We had several indie labels offers on the table, but the big record deal always seemed like it was around the corner. All we wanted to do was play music for a living, and tour. We just wanted to play and the big labels were the only ones offering tour support. We always seemed to miss out on a deal though and eventually Joey [Tafolla, guitarist] left for his solo career, and Harry left for Riot.”
“Yeah,” Harry confirms, almost as an apology. “You make decisions on the way and you have to live with them. Sometimes there are sacrifices too great to commit to and opportunities pass by.”
Although Jag Panzer continued without their formidable singer, they did record ‘Ample Destruction’s natural follow-up in 1987 with singer Bob Parduba, but it was not released – unless you got lucky on the bootleg market – until 2004. Ten years on from their debut, the band put out ‘Dissident Alliance’ in 1994 with Daniel J. Conca, frontman for the horrifically named East Coast thrash band Gothic Slam. More in tune with the groove metal that was popular at the time, and with little remaining of the bombastic power metal that made their name, Mark is quick to defend what some see as a grave sidestep from the trajectory they would have like the band to follow.
“To me it’s always important to have an honest sound of the real band. It’s not Mark Briody’s Jag Panzer’, it’s a five-piece band with everyone having equal opinions. Like it or not, that is what the band sounded like on ‘Dissident Alliance’. We had new members [Daniel on vocals with Chris Kostka on guitars and Rikard Stjernquist on drums] and they brought their influences to the band.”
In the meantime Harry had been active with Titan Force, which was much more in keeping with Jag Panzer’s legacy, as well as performing live with Riot. Did Mark keep abreast of his former comrade’s whereabouts?
“Sure, Harry still lived up the street from me back then and we’ve always been friends. Being a huge Riot fan, I was hoping it would work out with Harry and them. The Titan Force guys are friends as well, so I used to go see them play live.”
In 1996 a demo tape, aptly called ‘The Return’ surfaced. It was a return both in musical style and personnel as both the Tyrant and guitarist Joey Tafolla were once again called to the front.
“We just recorded it for fun,” Mark says of the tape. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested in that style of metal, but I had written some songs I liked and I thought Harry would sound good on them. Surprisingly people seemed to really like it.”
This demo secured an album deal with Century Media, and ‘The Fourth Judgement’ appeared a year later. However, 1997 was not a great time for heavy metal and Jag Panzer were feeling the pinch.
“We had a great time on tour for ‘The Fourth Judgement’ with Hammerfall and Gamma Ray,” recalls Mark. “Gamma Ray headlined and we were swapping the second slot each night with Hammerfall, but after the second gig there were too many fans who were upset that they missed the Hammerfall show. They were huge and we were underground, so fans assumed that the bill was Jag Panzer, Hammerfall, Gamma Ray. For the rest of the tour we opened up. The bands were totally great guys, but many of their fans seemed uninterested in our style of metal.”
Unbroken by a tour that saw relative newcomers to the power metal throne playing above the panzer division, a surprisingly steady lineup of Mark, Harry, John, Rikard and future Megadeth guitarist Chris Broderick provided Century Media with a steady stream of releases as the new millennium dawned, but after a single 7” in 2005 (“We recorded the song ‘The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald’ for fun one weekend. Sometimes I just like to record new things and I always liked that song. It started getting popular as a download, so Century Media asked if we wanted to release it as a 7” single with the song ‘The Mission’ on the flipside. We said ‘Sure!’.”) the band once again went quiet. “We spent years trying to record a live album,” Mark now admits, “but things always got in the way. We wanted to record in Europe, but it was hard finding a mobile truck that was inexpensive. We finally had plans to record it in Montreal, but the budget was so tight that when gas prices spiked in the US, we could no longer afford it. We looked into recording in the US but the promoters weren’t interested. I still hope to do a live album one day.”
The band are playing live often enough to do so and last year celebrated ‘Ample Destruction’s 30th anniversary at the Keep It True Festival in Germany, which even coaxed Joey Tafolla back for another battle. “Joey was wanting to play in the band again and the lead guitar slot was open,” says Harry of this momentous occasion. “We knew he was serious about it and booked the shows himself to prove it. Our chemistry has always been good. We welcomed him back in the fold with open arms.”
However, last year Harry announced that he was leaving Jag Panzer for good. Where does this leave the future of the band? As ever, Mark is resolutely positive. “We’re in the process of finding a new [full time] vocalist right now. I don’t want a Harry clone, but someone who is a good singer who can sing the old material live and sing on the new album. We just did Bang Your Head festival and we’ll do some other gigs. Then it’s back home to record a new album.”
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