Few death metal bands anywhere in the world will ever command the respect and admiration owed to long-running Coventry war machine Bolt Thrower. But when that venerable institution announced its permanent disbandment in September 2016 – one year after the tragic, unexpected death of drummer Martin Kearns – the band hadn’t recorded anything since 2005’s Those Once Loyal set such high standards for their distinctive craftsmanship. Vocalist Karl Willetts had only rejoined the band in 2004, after a decade away from the music scene.
“That was the last time I was in the creative throes of making music, and I missed it,” Karl emphasises. “I enjoyed playing classic songs with Bolt Thrower, but I missed that creative element of what we were doing. Those Once Loyal achieved such a response and status for us that we never really got together to build on it. We got a few riffs but nothing emerged from it, so in a way the creative spark had been extinguished. The decision to stop was, I think, a brave one; we could have carried on and put something out, but in our eyes that was the pinnacle of what we wanted to achieve, we’re pleased that we’ve left a proud legacy behind us. So now it’s great to get a chance to be creative again, to get into that crazy songwriting drive.”
Karl turned 50 shortly after Bolt Thrower folded, but his conversation radiates the sort of garrulous excitement and exuberance you’d expect from a teenager who’d just formed his first band. The reason for this, of course, is Memoriam, the hard-hitting four-piece he formed with original Bolt Thrower drummer Andy Whale, guitarist Scott Fairfax (ex-Cerebral Fix) and Benediction/Sacrilege bassist Frank Healy, who release their debut LP, For The Fallen, via Nuclear Blast. It’s the first time Karl has been involved in forming a band from scratch – joining Bolt Thrower after three demos and a John Peel session – and after so long away from the creative process, Memoriam’s momentum thus far has displayed that paradoxical quality of youthful energy and vigour.
“It draws in references from our past and builds on it with its own unique identity,” assesses Karl. “Being back in the studio at this point was an amazing experience; it all came together at a very quick pace, the spark was ignited and it spread like wildfire. It continues to do so; at this moment we’re writing a second album. It’s been an empowering experience. At this time of our lives – we’re all pushing 50 – we’re very privileged to be able to grasp this opportunity, and ride the rollercoaster that is Memoriam!”
Although it took them a long time to settle on their name (“We were overthinking it,” reckons Karl), the Latin word for ‘remembrance’ is wholly appropriate given the human tragedy that acted as the band’s call to arms. “The whole essence of doing Memoriam is that it’s a cathartic experience,” affirms the frontman. “Following Martin’s death, that’s really what the catalyst was. The lyrics were a way to convey my feelings. So it comes from a place of mourning, but through that we’ve created some joy. It took months to get over losing Martin, and it got to that point where I thought: I could sit around waiting for things to happen with Bolt Thrower, or get off my backside and do something new. Being in a band is how I form my identity, and without that I was quite lost, so it was essential for me to pick myself up, stop staring into the pit of despair” – he laughs self-consciously at his melodramatic phraseology – “and create something positive.”
Initially, that positive urge simply extended to getting some mates together and having a laugh. “We didn’t have large intentions, we just wanted to get in a rehearsal room, have some fun, blast out covers of songs that inspired us when we started out: Sacrilege, Discharge, Antisect, Axegrinder, Amebix, all those old anarcho bands. That was our sole purpose, but we didn’t even get to that bloody point! It was the introduction of Scott into the band that pushed us down the avenue of writing new material, with his plethora of riffs that he’s stockpiled. When we started doing that I thought: can I still write lyrics?! I hadn’t done it in so long. But it’s still there, and I really enjoyed the process.”
Aside from the therapeutic task of “writing down the grief” that followed Martin’s death, inevitably one subject continues to dominate Karl’s writing: “War is a constant, but it’s our take on it, the psychological impact that war has on individuals, which we maintain.” Nevertheless, in raging volleys like Reduced To Zero and Corrupted System, Karl nails his colours to the mast politically for the first time. “In the past I might have camouflaged it so they weren’t so overt,” he acknowledges. “Maybe it’s because I’m older, but at this time of life I’m quite happy to stand on a hill and wave my red flag wildly! I wanted to have my say about things that are frightening and not right about the world we live in; issues of Brexit, the rise of Trump and Le Pen, sponsored by the right- wing media. I feel strongly against these issues, and I’m taking the opportunity to say something about them. At this point it’s important to use my platform to say something relevant about the world. We’ve actively been depoliticised over the past 20 years, so maybe this rise of hatred and fear might have a positive impact on the younger generation, maybe they’ll stand up and do something about it. We can hope. But honestly, it’s mostly about us wanting to inject some joy into our lives. Life’s too short to sit back and wait – you’ve got to get out and do it. Enjoy yourself while you can, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
FOR THE FALLEN IS OUT NOW VIA NUCLEAR BLAST