"We have a dark image and spooky vibes...but then we also have anthemic choruses." South Of Salem count Avenged and W.A.S.P. as influences and are major horror nerds. They might just be your new favourite metal band

South Of Salem
(Image credit: Scott Chalmers)

It's a wet and miserable Thursday night in Manchester, but inside the venue, Rebellion, South Of Salem are turning up the heat in front of 520 sweat-slicked fans. Like all the shows on this run, it’s sold out – an impressive feat for any emerging
act in these straitened times, but even more so considering this is South Of Salem’s first-ever headlining tour.

There’s a palpable sense of excitement before they even come on, as the iconic theme from seminal slasher flick Halloween sets the tone. They explode into The Purge-themed Let Us Prey in a welter of volume and energy, the frontline a blur of motion and frontman Joey Draper cajoling and directing the audience like they’re already filling arenas. Just a few songs in, they pause before playing Made To Be Mine – a singalong, riff-fuelled beast of a number cleverly conflating shades of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the classic rock themes of broken and mended hearts. Joey directs the security to help one particular fan onto the stage. She looks simultaneously mortified and delighted as her boyfriend follows, drops to one knee and asks her to marry him. Luckily she says yes, to thunderous applause.

“It was beautiful, wasn’t it?” grins vocalist Joey Draper after the show. “We had a message beforehand and this couple have supported our musical endeavours over the years in previous bands and this one especially. We wanted to help make it special. Everyone was so supportive and there were so many people going up to them afterwards congratulating them. It was really lovely to see, and it’s testament to how great our fans are.”

Every band has a tendency to wax lyrical about the bond with their fans, but for South Of Salem it certainly seems like something special is already starting to coalesce, even at this early stage in their careers. Formed in Bournemouth in 2018, the band had already lined up studio time before they’d even settled on what kind of noise they wanted to make. It was producer Scott Atkins (Cradle Of Filth, Sylosis, Amon Amarth) who helped them to dig into their musical DNA and thus shape the band they would become.

“We went in there with an idea of being crazy-heavy,” admits guitarist Kodi Kasper. “It levelled itself out into, ‘What are your actual influences?’ Scott helped us more than a producer probably should.”

Those influences are wide-ranging but include, Kodi says, bands such as Guns N’ Roses and W.A.S.P., with Avenged Sevenfold being “the one band everyone agrees on”. “We released the first song and first music video and announced the band’s existence all on the same day,” Kodi recalls. “Then a couple of weeks later the world went into lockdown.”

Even without being able to back it up with live shows, South Of Salem’s debut album, The Sinner Takes It All, started to pick up traction online, due in part to its archetypal rock thrills.

When pressed to describe their sound, the guitarist settles on “classic good-time rock and metal with modern production and sensibilities”. That is perhaps a little reductionist, but they do offer elements that will be recognisable to fans of a host of classic metal acts: sharp riffs, pounding rhythms, anthemic hooks and nicely shredding guitar-work. Then there are the lyrics, which are at times informed by Joey’s horror obsession – as well as having a vast collection of movies and memorabilia, the singer has written a series of spooky books for children – and real-world issues. Demons Are Forever might sound like a Powerwolf title but is actually a poignant and haunting treatise on mental health, released to link with World Suicide Prevention Day.

“We had a friend from Bournemouth who took his life and it’s a way to honour his memory a little bit and help people,” says bassist Dee Vower.

“That happened in lockdown as our album was coming out, and the whole scene was affected by it,” Joey says. “Horror can be a cool way of dealing with stuff because there is that enjoyment in being scared. I do feed that into the lyrics, but there’s also a very personal element that taps into feelings and emotions.

“A lot of fans have connected with the lyrics because they’re tongue-in- cheek here and there, but there are some serious messages behind them as well.”

The result of all this was a growing interest, even through the vacuum of lockdown. “We put out a few acoustic versions [of songs from the debut] and people got behind it,” says Joey. “By the time we were allowed to go out and play again, it had blown up to the point where our first gig was Bloodstock, which is nuts!”

The opportunities kept arriving, including back-to-back support tours with W.A.S.P. and Wednesday 13, culminating in a sold-out first headline tour of the UK. New second album Death Of The Party builds on the chills, thrills and pure electrified fun of South Of Salem’s debut, but the way the band see it, it’s all natural progression, and there’s no mystery to explaining why they’ve captured metalheads’ imaginations.

“We have this dichotomy of quite a dark image and spooky vibes with our show and lyrics,” Joey says. “But then we also have anthemic choruses that people can sing along to and have fun with.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #383

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer