While we tend to bathe in our own homeland’s glory, let’s not forget that the United States had a great history of heavy metal too. During the 1980s, legends were forged in every state, city, neighbourhood, and OMEN is one of the best bands of that era with three landmark albums (‘Battle Cry’ from 1984, ‘Warning Of Danger’ 1985 and ‘The Curse’ 1986).
Formed when Kenny Powell left Savage Grace in 1984, the band were featured that year on Metal Massacre IV and catapulted themselves into the heavy metal pantheon. The band have sporadically attempted to recapture that initial spark, playing live as much as they can in front of rabid fans who worship their early heavy metal, proto power metal mastery, but now in 2016 they’re back again with a new album ‘Hammer Damage’.
Getting a not so favourable review from our own website, Kenny got in touch to put the record straight and get a re-appraisal. We sent Andreas Andreou to beg our pardon…
Omen founder, guitarist and main songwriter, Kenny Powell, has a lot to tell us about the controversial new album
Andreas, thank you for giving me a chance to maybe clear the air on the making of ‘Hammer Damage’. I am not offended by honest criticism, nor do I think the record is perfect. I would give it 7.5 to 8 out of 10 if I were reviewing it myself, precisely because of the production, but I honestly feel like these are some of the best songs I have ever written, and by that I mean I have ever written; no J.D. [Kimball, first Omen singer] writing lyrics, no Jody [Henry, 1983-88] adding killer bass parts. I had written all of the lyrics and melodies, except for one song before Kevin [Goocher, vocals 1998-2009] rejoined the band.”
The band’s story is more or less known, so let’s go straight to the new album ‘Hammer Damage’. The album was announced years before but released just a few months ago. Why did it take you so long? Also, there is a lot of criticism on the production and mix of the new album, everything is done by you, right? Give me the complete details on the matter.
Let me attempt to answer this as honestly as possible, from what I remember, and especially from my point of view. I got the riff for the title track at sound check in Larissa, Greece on the final tour with Kevin in the band somewhere around 2004, not sure of the exact date, but Kevin’s other band, Phantom X were opening the shows.
Around that same time I had opened a business, with the goal of making it worth enough money that I could spend the rest of my life only playing music. The business began to eat up all of my time and Kevin was having some success with his other projects and we kind of drifted apart. It took awhile for me to start writing more songs, and we then got the offer to play Keep It True festival again, which I will always take, but there was not really a line-up left, so I got Matt Story lined up for vocals, a bass player and Steve Wittig [drummer of the classic ’80s line-up] to come back on drums. About eight or ten days before KIT, Matt bowed out, leaving me with little time to replace him. I remembered this guy George [Call, singer/guitarist of Aska], who always drove me crazy about singing for Omen, so I plugged him in for the tour dates only. He did a good job, had some stage presence, so I asked him to take a shot at doing the record. I gave him the opportunity to write his own lyrics and melodies.
Steve had to leave the line up around that time because his wife had terminal cancer and he needed to help take care of her. George suggested we bring in Danny [White, drummer of Aska], and I had already played with him before, so okay, it should work.
Didn’t you have a South American line-up for a while?
We started getting a lot of tour offers around that time, so we worked on writing in between shows. I spent about eight months working on a South American tour, which was approved by all, at the time; followed by ten or twelve shows in Europe. We started recording basic tracks to several of the songs, but after two years no vocal ideas or really even interest in working on the new record from Mr. Call. Then, right before the South American tour, George and Danny backed out and would not go. That was the beginning of the end for both of them. To keep from getting sued by the promoter, who had invested everything in bringing Omen to South America, I recruited Erico from Dantesco and his drummer Wampa, who had filled in for Steve on a couple of shows. Our first rehearsal was our first show in Brazil, what Erico did not have down he improvised in Spanish or a little Portuguese, and saved my life and reputation or I would never be able to go to South America again. I am eternally grateful to him for that.
I made the mistake of letting George and Danny back in for the European dates and pressured George to come and work on vocal ideas for the new record, and he finally showed up with nothing and proclaimed to me and my wife that he did not want to do a new Omen record in fear of not being liked as well as J.D and said ‘lets just keep touring on the old songs’.
How did Kevin come back into the game?
At that point I started to write lyrics and melodies for the songs, brought George back over and he gave no effort to try and sing what I had written. I called Matt to come over and sing my ideas, so George could get a better idea of what I was doing. More cancelled shows and people starting to tell me about bad things that were being said about me. George and Danny were fired right after the last European date. Enter Matt offering to sing on the record, he has a great voice, but he’d let me down twice before. I was assured he was committed this time! We worked three years with him on the record, it was virtually finished. We went to Germany for Metal Assault festival, and he completely destroyed our performance and announced he was quitting the band. At this point I was not about to release this record with anyone on it that was not going to tour and be a full time member of the band. I completely re-recorded all of the songs by myself because there was no money to fly Steve out, Andy’s [Haas, bass player] wife had just passed away leaving him to suddenly take care of three young boys. I spoke with Kevin about returning to the band and we both agreed it was a mistake to stop working together to start with.
Unfortunately after five years of the other guys working on vocals, Kevin just had two weeks to get the vocals down, completely write lyrics for one song and mold what I had written into something that was more suitable for his vocal style.
That sounds like a real triumphant result after such turmoil then, do you agree?
In my opinion he did a hell of a job under some pretty trying circumstances. I spent three or four weeks refining the mixes, changing some of the music to more fit Kevin’s style and generally making things more consistent. I turned in the mixes and in a couple of months was asked to remix everything to a lower level for mastering.The original plan was to have Bill Metoyer do the final mixes, but I ran out of time and money it really sucked that I could not make that happen. At some point while working on this, I walked into the studio and hit the computer to fire up the ProTools and the screen was black, nothing, just black! I took it in for repairs and they eventually got it going again, everything seemed fine until I realised that the tracks I was using for the final mixes, with about three to four thousand tracks I had recorded over several years, were gone from my mixes. In an all out effort to get the record out in time to be released for this year’s Keep It True festival, I worked almost around the clock for several weeks, finding and restoring the right tracks to the songs. I started on the remixes but by then was starting to feel pretty bad. I ignored my wife’s pleas to go to a doctor and kept going until most of the way through the initial remixes.
This was when you got sick, right?
I collapsed on the floor about four o’clock in the morning, suffering from pneumonia, congestive heart failure, and extreme high blood pressure. It took five or six visits to the doctor, several days where I could not lie down or go to sleep or I would stop breathing, and finally ending up in the E.R. to get the right medication before I could do anything. At that point I decided to send the mixes the way they were. I had called my son to come in and try to help, but as he said there were thousands of tracks and I am probably the only one that knew which ones to use and how to mix them in. I knew if things had gotten worse for me health wise, the record might not have been released at all. Looking back now, that may have been a mistake, but I truly feel these songs are good enough to overcome the flaws of the production. I know that is maybe more information than you asked for, but you did ask and I left out my studio getting destroyed twice by storms and having to finish record the record without my mixing board that I could not afford to replace after it was filled with water in the second storm.
George has a continued presence on social media mentioning negative reviews of ‘Hammer Damage’. Do you feel like you need to take a final position on all these matters?
I will address this for the last time, and I am not going to waste my time or my breath on it again. Matt quit, I do not think he has malice towards me; maybe he got in over his head or did not realise the effort it was going to take to be in Omen. I was really hurt by his leaving and had worked my ass off to make him sound like a God on the record. George Call was trying to take me down to his level almost from day one; he lied to me, and did many things that could have destroyed Omen’s reputation. He cancelled shows that he had agreed to play, made no effort to sing on the record after I gave him the opportunity to have free reign over writing lyrics and melodies as long as it sounded like Omen. He, Danny and Scott are the only people that I have just flat out fired in a fit of rage. Mostly with everyone else, it has been a parting of ways or them leaving because of personal reasons. Andy and Steve have left and came back many times due to family commitments, and are always welcomed back whenever it is possible for them to return.
If you are outright fired from Omen there is a 100 percent chance it was for more than one good reason. What I don’t get is someone spending all of their time trying to destroy what I have worked for, for over 30 years. If they put that kind of effort into their own band, maybe they could do something besides play cover tunes at local bars every weekend. They need to quit spending every waking hour worrying about what I am doing.
Back to the album and if I am not mistaken, ‘Era Of Crisis’ and (maybe) ‘Eulogy For A Warrior’ are dated from back in the late ’80s? I think you were playing ‘Era Of Crisis’ at some live shows during or after ‘The Curse’ album, withJ.D. Kimball on vocals. Do you have other unreleased songs from that era and why didn’t these songs end up on a previous album?
Only ‘Era Of Crisis’ was from the ’80s. It was actually written when Coburn [Pharr, vocals 1987-88] was in the band. ‘Eulogy…’ was written for ‘Hammer Damage’, but it was originally titled ‘Epitaph’, after a little research, and finding about ten songs with that title, we changed it when Kevin came on board again.
If you recorded more takes with other members, more songs, more time in the studio over the years but nothing from those ended on ‘Hammer Damage’ that means that your budget was stretched, do you believe you would have needed more time or money to complete the album, or was the timing right and the result is what you wanted?
There was never a big budget for this record, it was about half of what we spent on just the drum tracks of ‘The Curse’. It was long gone well before the current tracks were recorded. Everything on the record ended up being recorded and mixed in my little backroom home studio. I played all of the tracks myself, and there is no fucking drum machine, but the drums were not done in a traditional manner.
Ah, the dreaded drum machine rumour, what’s the truth there?
I can only use my Roland V Drums in my studio, because I have very close neighbours that would not tolerate the noise of a big drum set being pounded on every night and I don’t have the right type of room or necessary mics to record that way. The V-drums are real drums you hit with sticks, play with a double kick pedal! But I can plug them directly into the ProTools and play with headphones. One thing I did do was record live cymbals and snare hits and mix them in with the V-drums. It took me about three months each song to get the drums down. It was the hardest I have ever worked on anything in my life. If there would have been a drum machine that could play all of the complicated – at least for me – patterns, maybe I would have thought about using it. I constantly ran what I was playing by Steve for advice on what he would play and not play. Someone said a thousand different drummers would have killed to play on the record. Maybe so, but Steve is the only drummer that I wanted to play on the record and I did not have the money to fly him back and forth from California to Texas several times, so I did the best that I could. I guess I could have laid off of the ’80s reverse gate reverb on the snare and toms, which tends to make things a bit mechanical sounding but I always loved that sound. Maybe I am stupid or biased, I thought I did a pretty good job for a first time drummer. I don’t want to do it again anytime soon, too much stress on my 61-year-old ass.
The album title is a strong tribute to the late great J.D. Kimball [RIP 2003] right?
Yes, a final tribute to J.D. and his band Hammer Damage that he had when I met him. It is very sad to me that all of this controversy is surrounding the record that was to be something very positive. The fucked up thing is that it was started by people that were not around for a single note, and certainly don’t have a clue how it was recorded, just putting out pure lies!
In one sentence, what kind of man was J.D?
I don’t think I can do him justice in one sentence! He had one of the most unique voices I have ever heard, the kind of thing you are looking for to build your sound on. He was an excellent lyricist and a genius at putting fluid melodies over my manic guitar playing. He could become a little rattled over playing live, and frequently would throw up before a show, but was extremely confident in the studio. A great guy to be around most of the time, but there was a dark side and there was no dealing with that. I found it best to walk away and let it pass. We all have our dark sides.
Do you have any upcoming live shows scheduled?
Yes, we are doing a lot of shows in the U.S. for the first time in a long time. Still adding at this time. We plan on staying in the U.S. until next spring and then hit Europe after that, starting with KIT.
Looking forward seeing you again. Last words are yours.
I just hope that people will give this record a shot based on the songs. The production was never going to be perfect, there was not a budget for that, but it would have helped to not waste what I did have on sessions that were never used. It would have been nice not to get so sick at the end that I could not work on it anymore too, but those are excuses, and I hate excuses. I feel I gave it every thing I had, and I am very proud of it, no matter what! Most people would have given up after half of what I went through on this record.
The new Omen album ‘Hammer Damage’ is out now by Pure Steel Records.
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