I may never understand the excitement that sports fans feel in watching a team they follow advance to the playoffs, the big game—be it the Stanley Cup, the Superbowl, or whatever the hell you sports fans care about. The pleasure of rooting for your hometown team is lost on me; I’m even, if you can’t tell, a bit of a snob about it. On the other hand, rooting for a band you like can be a joyous experience—especially if you “saw them when.” It may be as close as I’ll come to fathoming Canucks Fever, or what-have-you.
Case in point: when I first saw Unleash the Archers, 10 or more years ago, they had one self-released CD, and were playing an evangelical church hall in Maple Ridge that briefly, perhaps misguidedly, was home to evening all-ages metal shows. (I give Metal Mike Lister, then of Theocide, credit for ending that scene, but, like, book a band called Theocide to play a church, and whose fault is it if they offend someone?) The audience was about 20 kids from Maple Ridge who couldn’t get into a bar if they tried: and then there was me. I lived a block away, and, you know, there weren’t any other metal shows going on in Maple Ridge that weekend. After the show, I chatted briefly with vocalist Brittney Slayes about the scene in Victoria, from which they’d recently relocated, and about gigs at Funkys (I remember asking her if she knew Mr. Chi Pig of SNFU hung out there; he did at the time—and she was well aware). She was charming and friendly and I decided then that this was a band I could root for; they sure seemed a lot cooler than the venue they were in that night, but then, that was true of pretty much every band that played there.
Flash forward 10 years, and Unleash the Archers has toured all over Europe and Asia, had their last couple of albums distro’d through Napalm Records, and were my pick, at the very least, for the Wacken Metal Battle I saw them contend in. They’ve been the subject of a past Straight feature, put out some super cool rock videos, and recorded their second, stunning LP, Apex, for Napalm. It combines elements of classic and speed metal with their previous power-metal stylings, and—as a concept album—boasts a more developed narrative than the band usually offers. For people who like songs that tell stories—and especially stories that touch on archetypal elements, with a flair for the operatic and grandiose —there’s lots to be found on the LP. With a show on Sunday (October 14) at the Rickshaw, it seemed an opportune time to check in with Ms. Slayes (born Hayes) about the band’s most recent release.
Brittney did her best to answer my at times painfully geeky questions via email; the following is the text of our Q&A, trimmed a little bit for coherence, but with every smiley included.
The Straight: Very cool cover art; what’s happening there? It looks like some statue to a Viking god…?
Slayes: It is actually a play on the story from the album. In the story, the main character (The Immortal) sleeps for thousands of years at a time inside a mountain and waits to be awakened by his next master. He is forced to serve whoever awakens him; that is his curse. The cover artwork is basically just a literal translation of that; him literally made of the same stone that his mountain is made of, to the point that he has become the mountain. I touch a bit on it in the title track "Apex" at the end of the album.
Does the band have Nordic heritage? With talk about bloodlines on the album—do you guys have a particular interest in your heritage? How far can you trace it back? Have you ever drawn on your own heritage(s) to write songs?
No Nordic heritage as far as I know… Lots of Scottish and Irish, though! The song “Cleanse The Bloodlines" is about our antagonist (The Matriarch) telling The Immortal that he must find her sons and bring them to her so she can kill them in a ritual to achieve immortality. The Matriarch is a power-hungry sorceress looking to do whatever it takes to enslave the world.
The title of a song like “Cleanse the Bloodlines”—knowing that there’s a fascist streak in metal, it makes me wonder if it’s a risky title to put out there? (I’m reminded of the sunwheel on the back of my Arkona shirt—I love the shirt and I gather the sunwheel has a long and complex history, in no way JUST as a symbol admired by the Nazis, but—having been told by Amon Amarth that they got in some trouble for using it, because of its association with fascism—I’m afraid when I wear it out that someone is going to see it and take it the wrong way, either from the right or left. If I knew more about rodnovery I would maybe relax more, but even there, we gather it has a fascist streak…
I think that maybe Arkona and Amon Amarth are just trying to take back something that has been stolen from their culture and perverted. In North America the Nazi interpretation is the only one we know, but imagine being from the Slavic and Nordic cultures where it means so much more than fascism and yet not being able to celebrate it… I think it’s time we take that power away from Hitler and the Nazi memory. Wear the shirt, ignore the opinions of the ignorant, and if someone approaches you about it then take that chance to educate them.
There is no fascism whatsoever in the song “Cleanse The Bloodlines”, our antagonist is killing every one of her sons, effectively erasing the bloodlines, not cleansing them, I suppose, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it… If people don’t bother to look deeper and see why the song is titled that then their opinion on it doesn’t matter anyways, so I am not too worried about it.
Okay, so—I know you’re a history geek, but are you also big into myth? Do you spend a lot of time on myths, folktales and such? The reference to a “Shadow Guide” refers to Jung, and Jungian archetypes, right? Are you interested in songwriting that taps mythic or archetypal levels?
I pull from a lot of different sources for inspiration for my lyrics/stories, and mythology does play a small role, but mostly I stick to science fiction and fantasy and whatever my brain can come up with at any given time. I am an escapist and not sorry for it, I try to help my listeners escape as well. Real life has no bearing on my music.
“Shadow Guide” is actually about the messenger that The Matriarch sends to retrieve The Immortal and bring him to her. The Immortal never sees much of the messenger, just his shadow, and yet impulsively follows him despite knowing that he is being led to a very dark place both physically and emotionally.
Does the band have any sort of political leaning of relevance?
We stay away from politics, and not just because you can alienate people by choosing one thing or another, but because that is not what we are about. We like to play music, we hope people like listening to said music, and we are not here to push our opinions on you or judge you for your beliefs or tell you how to live your life. What I think doesn’t matter to anyone else but me, and if the rest of the world could just figure that out and stop clogging my Facebook feed with useless arguments I’d really appreciate it ;)
Have you ever encountered odd or troubling politics on the metal scene? Have you seen any ideological disputes in the crowd turn ugly? Have you encountered any blatant sexism?
Of course there are odd or troubling politics in the metal scene, but that’s because they are everywhere, not just because they are associated with heavy metal. Blatant sexism has been a problem for a while but I personally have never encountered any major roadblocks because of it, besides a few ignorant interview questions (ie. What’s it like to be a girl in a metal band?... Um, no different than being a boy in a metal band? I really don’t understand that question…)
Does the band listen to stuff like Wagner? It seems to me that Wagnerian opera is huge as a cultural precedent for metal, but I don’t know shit about opera, myself. You?
For sure, dude, we listen to classical here and there, and yes I believe classical music and heavy metal have similar beginnings, in that both are striving to achieve musical excellence and to engulf the listener in an overly emotional response (as opposed to just writing simple music for the sake of charting or getting radio play). Classical music, especially from composers like Wagner and Puccini, has that streak of the epic, which I feel heavy metal can have at times as well. Personally I love opera, and am an avid member of the Vancouver Opera Society.
Ever shared a bill with Amon Amarth? (I'd love to see you on a bill with them in Vancouver someday). The whole “Viking merch” thing that Hegg and company are into, with Grimfrost and so forth, seems like a really interesting way of subsidizing the band. Why just sell T-shirts when you can sell drinking horns and chainmail?
I would love to play with Amon Amarth, those guys are rad, their music is so powerful and heavy, great to work out to ;) T-shirts and merch are definitely way bigger sellers than music (unfortunately) so capitalizing on your brand and selling things like drinking horns and chainmail is just straight up a really smart business decision. We put a lot of thought into our T-shirt artwork for that very same reason; it is what pays the bills and put gas in the tank on the road. The shirts we will have with us on tour this time around were all done by Bo Bradshaw, there is a one-colour print with a female archer on it (one of my faves!) and two shirts based on the Apex album; one of The Immortal and one of The Matriarch, both are very large, bright, in-your-face prints!
Who designed your logo?
That would be JP Fournier, he has done quite a few logos including Dragonforce and others.
If I recall correctly, you said that Apex was written in an unusual way for the band—that you began with an overriding narrative that you wanted to set to music. But I haven’t seen a libretto—what IS that narrative, exactly? Was the story discussed collaboratively? What were its inspirations? Were you interested in it as a way of getting at a particular theme, or did the story come first?
The story definitely came first. I wrote a “track-by-track” that was laid out in chapters, so each chapter became a song. It was a really fun way to write the album because we always knew what direction we were heading in. We had a guideline to follow and to keep us on track. Each chapter would describe what was happening in the story, but also what the song should sound like and how it should make the listener feel. Every riff was deliberate and if something didn’t quite fit we didn’t push it, it would get tossed or re-written.
It started with our main character, The Immortal, waking up in his mountain after having been summoned by someone, he did not know yet who. Then a messenger arrives, his “Shadow Guide” who leads him to his new master. In Track 3, “The Matriarch,” we are introduced to that master by an omniscient narrator (up until that point we were listening from The Immortal’s POV). Then in Track 4we switch to The Matriarch’s POV while she explains to The Immortal the reason why she has awakened him (as I mentioned above). felt that the song should be sung in her voice because it just made it so much more powerful that way; to experience the emotion rather than passively observing through The Immortal. The next four songs deal with The Immortal finding each of her four sons, and each song embodies the strengths of the son that The Immortal has to go up against: the first is a wily manipulator, the second a serpent-tongued trickster, the third a cowardly general hiding behind his thousands of soldiers, and the fourth a kind-hearted soul that gives himself up willingly.
In the ninth track The Immortal is betrayed by The Matriarch, as she promised to free him from his curse once she achieved her goal but does not, and then the final track is him returning to his mountain, his ‘Apex’, and returning to sleep to hopefully find some peace until he is once again awakened and put to work.
This story is a bit of a hero’s journey, except that he never really succeeds in overcoming his adversary… But I do have a sequel in mind so perhaps we are still in the middle of things ;)
I also did some track-by-track Youtube videos that explain the storyline, you can see the first one here:
It’s interesting to me that it seems to offer a male-friendly story of a horrible female tyrant, in a band fronted by a woman. Because from the lyrics, she isn’t a very feminist-friendly Matriarch—she’s a tyrant, a ballcrusher, a fearsome figure. Is there a historical referent?
I’ve always felt that a woman in power is one of the most terrifying things, and a woman on the quest for power even more so. I knew my protagonist was going to be male so I thought I’d mix it up and have my antagonist be female. I was also partially inspired by Queen Bavmorda from the 1988 film Willow by Ron Howard ;)
Saw that there is a Japanese edition with a bonus Queensryche cover! Did they just ask for an extra cut and you had that on hand, or...?
In order to release in Japan you always have to have a special track just for the Japanese edition of the album, and most of the time it will be a cover. We decided to do “Queen of the Reich” because Geoff Tate is a huge influence for me vocally, not to mention the whole band is a fan of Queensryche, and also we thought it fit well with the album because The Matriarch is a very similar character to the Queen of the Reich ;)
You seem very unassuming and quiet in person. What’s your relationship with the person you become when performing? Which one of you do you most want to identify with? (Is it a Superman/ Clark Kent thing, where the Superman (so to speak) is the real you, and Clark Kent is the disguise…?
Hahaha yes, I often call my quieter self my ‘Clark Kent self’ ;) I am not really sure where the person I become on stage comes from… There is a darkness inside me that only finds fulfillment in the "Brittney Slayes" persona that I have created, but it seems that she only exists on stage. I am actually quite introverted and enjoy being alone more than I do being surrounded by people. Perhaps Ms. Slayes manifested in order to help me deal with the rigors of the music industry, with the constant pushing and pulling of the duties required to keep the band running. Not to mention that energy required to put on a killer show; it is absolutely draining and yet somehow at the end of the night I still have the strength to put on a smile and face the world so maybe she helps with that too ;)
Each of the last three albums Unleash the Archers has made has been better and more ambitious than the last, and it seems like the band is getting good notice, but is the “outward response” keeping pace with your ambitious and desires? Like, are things happening fast enough? Is it staying sustainable?
Nothing ever happens fast enough hahaha but yes, things do seem to growing and picking up the pace so we are happy with how things are progressing. We have more fans than ever reaching out to us to tell us how much they loved the last album, and this tour has been insanely successful so far. I am a firm believer in just taking it one day at a time though, so if there are no expectations then there are no disappointments ;) We’ll just keep doing what we do and hope that the world slowly starts to take notice.
In touring Europe or China or anywhere, have you made time to visit any particular historical places? Are there any historical sites that you are hoping to fit into a day off, someday on tour?
We do always try to make time to see the sights, and have actually started booking days off based around particular things we’d like to see. In the UK we got to see Stonehenge, and that was really cool and totally worth it. On this last North American run we got to tour NASA in Houston, which was probably one of the raddest things I have ever done in my whole life. By far the most amazing experience and opportunity we’ve ever had. When we get the chance to see something like that we always take it, and do whatever we have to do to make it work!
What are the other bigger accomplishments of the band? Stages you have played, bands you have gotten to open for or interact with...? (Have you made it to Wacken yet?).
We played ProgPower USA back in 2015, that was super rad. It’s a very intimate festival that only certain bands will ever get the chance to play, so that was a huge honour for us. We also got to play Rock Fest in Spain last summer, which again was super amazing. Our fans in Spain are insanely enthusiastic so the crowd was huge and loud and we had a killer time. We have also been given the opportunity to play 70000 Tons Of Metal next January, which is the world’s biggest heavy metal cruise, so we are extremely excited about that! A lot of people have been telling us it’s a pretty wild time so hopefully we can keep our wits about us and out on a rad show for everyone ;) Never played Wacken, unfortunately, but maybe one day!
Any special plans for the Vancouver gig? Anything I should tell people about? A new EP? Any lineup changes? Any details about opening bands?
Nothing special planned at the moment! A good friend of mine from choir days will actually be opening with her band Ophelia Falling, and they are super talented so everyone needs to make sure they are there in time to see them! Also, our long-time friends the Order of Chaos and Striker are playing as well, and you certainly don’t want to miss them, they both put on very entertaining shows.
We are working on an EP for next year but are not yet sure exactly when it will be released. We are going to film a music video for it this winter and then go from there!
See you all at the Rickshaw on October 14th!