“I came very close to jacking it all in,” says Justin Greaves, “but at the back of my mind I never wanted to give up. It was still burning inside me. I believe that the music comes first and the strength is in the music. Everything else is secondary.”
Some things are definitely worth fighting for. In Greaves’ case it’s Crippled Black Phoenix, the band he founded in 2004. Presiding over a nebulous mix of space metal, endgame rock and cinematic prog, Greaves has seen it develop into one of the most revered names on the underground scene, both here and in Europe. A handful of EPs and five studio albums – from debut A Love Of Shared Disasters through to 2014’s sprawling White Light Generator – stand as testament to CBP’s shuddering power.
That made it all the more alarming when the band broke into warring factions at the end of 2014. The whole thing escalated into a very ugly and very public crisis. The band’s official Twitter account posted a series of attacks on guitarist Karl Demata, calling him a “coward scumbag thief” and accusing him of trying to steal the group’s name. Demata countered with a lengthy and indignant reply via Facebook. Greaves was finally compelled to issue his own Facebook statement, saying: “I don’t know what the future will hold, but at this point I don’t need or want to be part of this, and I officially retire CBP. Anyone laying claim to it are doing it as thieves.”
A year on, Greaves admits: “I reacted pretty badly to it. But when you put 11 years of your life into something, it means so much. And then you get idiotic musicians coming along and saying: ‘I’m not getting what I want from this so I’m just going to take it from you.’ It really, really hurts. I found out that this certain ex-band member had registered the CBP trademark in their name and tried to sabotage the band, which is why I decided to go public. I just didn’t want him to do anything under that name.
“He also happens to be a PR agent, so he put a spin on it with his people in the press. There was a lot of negative propaganda that I had to deal with. The other thing is that it causes a lot of confusion as well, which can be quite damaging. I’m not interested in drama but I am interested in getting the facts out there. There’s only ever been one band. Mine is the only Crippled Black Phoenix.”
Thankfully, Greaves opted to press on with CBP rather than retire, though the emotions brought about by recent events are still clearly very raw. “I invited the guy to join the band four years after I started it,” he continues. “This is a guy who was playing country blues cover versions in pubs with me and wasn’t interested in rock or prog rock. I’m not sure if he was even that keen on the band, but I think he saw it as an opportunity to go on tour. Then he tried to take over. So he’s on stage playing with me, shaking my hand and looking me in the eye, and all this time he’d already registered the name behind my back. Then he tries to sabotage it. It’s unbelievable really.”
Greaves began as a drummer in various doom metal bands prior to CBP, including cult heroes Iron Monkey and Electric Wizard. He co-founded the former with vocalist Johnny Morrow in the 90s. Tragically, Morrow died of a heart attack, aged just 28, in June 2002. “Even the name Crippled Black Phoenix means a lot to me. It comes from the lyrics to an Iron Monkey song [1996’s Big Loader] that I wrote with Johnny. And I did it out of respect to him and out of respect to my past.
“The reason I did Crippled Black Phoenix in the first place was because it was a promise to my best friend, who also passed away. He told me I should record the songs I was playing on my acoustic guitar. And when I saw him die in a car crash, it got me going again. So Crippled Black Phoenix means everything – it’s a part of me.”
The CBP saga, according to Greaves, has now hit an impasse. Demata may have the trademark, he says, “but it’s not stopped us from signing new contracts or releasing anything. In a way I’m hoping that he’ll take me to court. I’ll be happy to turn up because he’s going to be laughed out of there. Firstly the actual trademark claim is invalid because by law he has to inform any other interested parties, and if no one has replied within two months, you get the trademark. But the thing is, it’s on him to notify us. And, of course, he didn’t notify me, so by law that makes it invalid. So it’s a bogus claim straight away.”
For his part, Demata has been keeping his distance of late. He’s currently involved in international prog collective VLY (who were featured in Prog 61), alongside another former CBP man, bassist Chris Heilmann. In the interests of balance, it’s also worth noting that Demata has said the whole dispute didn’t play much of a role in his decision to form VLY.
“The only thing I can say is that it doesn’t make sense for me to form a band or release music that is somehow a continuation of that [CBP],” he told this writer, adding: “I think I got over it very quickly… Emotions do run high when it comes to the end. It’s the case with everything in life.”
Greaves is also ready to leave his “annus horribilis” firmly behind him. Crippled Black Phoenix are now back in emphatic style, playing dates all over the continent in celebration of the just-released New Dark Age Tour EP 2015 AD. It’s a fresh start all round. Not only have the band signed to French noise-rock label Season Of Mist, but they’ve also welcomed two newcomers in the shape of Swedish guitarist Jonas Stålhammar (Bombs Of Hades) and bassist Niall Hone (Hawkwind).
“They’re both grass-roots, grounded kind of guys,” Greaves says, “so on a personal level it works straight away. Niall is a monster of a bass player and isn’t afraid to put his own spin on things. And, of course, what we do isn’t a million miles from Hawkwind anyway. I’ve known Jonas for a while and he’s into really crusty, brutal, underground death metal. I cut my teeth in that environment too, so he and I are on the level. And neither of them are rock stars. They’ve not come into this thinking they’re going to be playing arenas or buying their fifth ivory backscratcher.”
Crippled Black Phoenix are currently a multi-handed operation consisting of the two new boys, Greaves (guitar), keyboardists Mark Furnevall and Daisy Chapman, drummer Ben Wilsker, plus Swedish vocalists Daniel Änghede and Belinda Kordic. The latter, incidentally, also records with Greaves as duo Se Delan. Given their lack of proximity to one another (Scandinavian practicalities aside, Hone lives on the south coast, Furnevall and Chapman are in Bristol and Greaves is in Lincolnshire), band rehearsals are few and far between. But Greaves is convinced he finally has the line-up to take CBP to the next level.
He also has the singer he always wanted in Änghede, who made his debut on White Light Generator and is perhaps best known as one half of Gothenburg’s Hearts Of Black Science. “I knew Daniel right from the conception of Crippled Black Phoenix,” explains Greaves, “when he and I talked about him doing the vocals for the first album. So in a way he was supposed to be the original singer, but for one reason or another – he was in Sweden and the band wasn’t properly up and running – it never actually happened. We went through a few different singers over the years before I went back to Daniel and said, ‘Once and for all, are you going to do this?’ He had a really good think and decided to go for it. Hopefully we’re not going to look back now.”
The songs on the EP certainly suggest that Crippled Black Phoenix are reinvigorated. Of the two original compositions, New Dark Age is a lengthy prog suite addressing a recurring theme in their work: the devolution of humanity. “In the past few years, especially since 2011, there’ve been some really serious things happening in the world,” says Greaves. “It’s been going down a very dark path and right now [post-Paris terrorism attacks] we’re on the verge of something quite major. It’s actually like going back to the Middle Ages. Right from the first album there were things I was writing about that alluded to the fact that human nature dictates the downfall of humans. We’re the architects of our own demise because we never learn through history. And now it seems closer to reality. It’s not so subliminal or poetic. This really does feel like a new dark age.”
The other tune, Spider Island, is heavier from a musical standpoint, though lighter in tone. In keeping with CBP’s time-honoured habit of using samples from TV and film soundtracks, it starts with dialogue from the first Mad Max movie: “If you’re going to waste the bronze, you gotta do it big.” In Mad Max terms, ‘the bronze’ means the police, though Greaves uses it in the context of “authority or anybody opposing you in that way – the message being that if you’re going to do something, do it right. That’s the attitude on the EP: if we’re going to do it, let’s really go for it.”
Spider Island, he goes on to explain, is also more directly personal. The title refers to a fictional realm where Greaves likes “to send all the people that you can’t deal with, to get rid of them. And never hear from them ever again. Recently there’ve been a few people who need to go to Spider Island and live a life of torture, along with all the other scumbags who cling to power in the world.”
He’s not mentioning any names, though he does add, with a laugh, that their numbers are so great that “they’re probably falling off the edge of the cliffs at the moment”.
The EP’s crowning glory is a 37-minute version of Pink Floyd’s Echoes. Floyd have long been a key signifier of the CBP sound, though Greaves admits he was initially daunted by the idea of taking on the song.
“It happens to be one of my favourite things in the whole world, especially the Live At Pompeii version. Someone else suggested we do it and I told them I wasn’t even going to pretend that I could come close to the original. Ours is different because it’s 12 minutes longer and there are samples on it. The middle part bursts into Telstar by The Tornados, for Christ’s sake. At the same time, I tried to stay quite close, so I hope it feels like CBP sounding like Pink Floyd.”
In the meantime, Greaves is eager to get back into the studio to record a new Crippled Black Phoenix album. “All being well, we’ll record it in the early part of next year,” he reveals. “I want to get this band up and running again like it was, firing on all cylinders. Because, to be honest – and I know this sounds like a cliché – we really are stronger than we’ve ever been. It’s the best line-up and the best people involved. And I want to make a point with the music, rather than tell people on the internet.”
He’s also keen to dispel any lingering misconceptions about the validity of the band, especially given the recent issues regarding ownership. “I can’t stress enough that this really is the same old Crippled Black Phoenix,” he asserts. “And I’ll always be there to put people right, whether they like it or not.”
New Dark Age Tour EP 2015 AD is out now on Season Of Mist. For more information, see www.crippledblackphoenix.co.uk.