on SoCal Fans, Writing APEX & the Upcoming Sequel

Oct 10, 2018
By Mark Berman

Concept albums are a tricky beast, and a bit of a gamble. If written and performed sharply enough, they can pull you into a distinct new world, with the kind of setting- and character-building normally reserved for a good screenplay (and in about half the runtime). If not: congrats, you’ve gone so far up your own butt you can inspect your pancreas for glucose issues. And now the world knows it.

Fortunately, with 2017’s Apex, Unleash the Archers falls firmly into the former. After fine-tuning their approach to power metal for over a decade, the Vancouver-based quintet came through with the immersive 61-minute story of a mountain-bound Immortal freed to act as a sort of familial bounty hunter. The fantastical imagery you would expect of the genre is there, but it comes with just the right amount of substance to balance out the style with some real weight. Couple that with phenomenal musicianship, as well as versatile vocal chops from lead singer/songwriter Brittney Slayes (with some extra flavor from a couple bandmates we delve into later), and you have the kind of smart, frequently catchy power metal record even a filthy casual to the genre like me can love.

With the band now winding down their North American Apex tour, I talked with Slayes to reflect on their latest album cycle. A couple weeks after killing it at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, CA (pics below), she gives insights on how these songs translate live, those little storytelling intricacies that went into crafting the record, what’s next, and her understandable fascination with Cardinal Copia.

If I recall correctly, I heard you mention between songs that you ended up in Costa Mesa after not being able to book in LA. How’d OC treat you guys?

Oh, it was great. And it wasn’t that we went into Costa Mesa because we couldn’t get an LA show. We happily would’ve played both places. It was just that the Orange County Music League happened to be the guys that jumped on the opportunity to bring us out. We tried to get a show in LA as well, cause we know it’s not easy traffic over there [laughs]. So if you can have a show in town at night…

But no man, the show was rad, and we were stoked to be there. We’ll play anywhere. If our fans are there waiting for us, we’ll come out for sure.

I talked with John [Safari, OCML president] leading up to the show and he was incredibly stoked about the turnout. Part of it’s probably a result of everything being concentrated to there, you know?

We definitely had more than a few people that told us they drove a little ways to get there from kinda all over the place. So that was great, and we were stoked that they were willing to do that for us. It worked out for everyone involved. There was tons of people there, it was a good venue, we had a really good time and that’s really what it’s all about.

Right now, we’re a bit over a year since Apex came out. Has anything changed about how you see that record in the time since you started touring it?

I guess you change the way you perform it a little bit, because we never got to play any of the songs live before we recorded them. So playing them live, it gives it a whole different dimension and you realize things like “oh, I would’ve held that note longer” or “I would’ve done this or that.” You know, “I would’ve roughed this part up a little bit.”

But other than that, the reception for the record has been awesome. We had a lot of people that have really come forward and said how much they just love the album. So it’s just kinda been a better connection through our fans more than anything.

For sure, it can be tough not to be a perfectionist about this kind of thing.

Yeah, you get in the studio, you get a time crunch and it’s like, “Well, that’s how we’re doing it, so…” [laughs]

With Apex being this very cohesive, narrative-driven concept album, is there any more of a challenge making the setlist and breaking it up to mix with older songs?

To be honest, not really. We had a couple people that were like, “Are you gonna play Apex in full?” And it’s like, yeah that’d be really cool, but there’s also other tracks that people have been waiting to hear for a really long time live, you know what I mean? Like you couldn’t just play a show without “Tonight We Ride.” That kinda ruins the whole chance of playing Apex all the way through live.

I mean these songs are all a part of a bigger story, but also, they can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I had some people that say, “Yeah I know there’s a story behind this or whatever, but this song really speaks to me like this. Is it possible you meant that when you were writing it?” And I was like, “Hell yeah!”

I’m not a super literal person when it comes to my music. I try not to use words that are solid, concrete descriptors that couldn’t be taken any other way. Just so anyone can interpret it the way that they’re feeling at the moment or it can help them through a tough time or it could be like their party song, you know what I mean? So it can kinda be anything to anybody.

Plus an hour-long record like that would take up, what, like 80% of your set time? I imagine that wouldn’t be very practical…

Yeah, exactly. I know a lot of bands that have played, like, special festivals. Like ProgPower and stuff, they do like [announcer voice] “THIS ENTIRE ALBUM IN FULL, SPECIAL SET.” So maybe one day we would do it like that.

But otherwise, you know, we understand that we have fans that have known us for 10 years and wanna hear our old stuff, and fans that just discovered us last month and all they know is Apex. So we’re gonna play a little bit of everything.

One little thing I appreciate about the writing on Apex is how you sometimes switch POV’s from track to track, in a way where you can clearly follow along, but you’re not just spoon-feeding the story to the listener. Does anything about your writing or singing approach change when you do that?

Well it was more the storytelling aspect and the emotion of the song, really. So a track like “Cleanse the Bloodlines” from the point of view of The Matriarch, who is the antagonist and kind of like the evil badass woman character, I wanted that track to feel like her, you know? To be that powerful, intimidating, heavy kind of track. It was like they had to be one and the same. If it was gonna be from The Matriarch’s point of view, it had to be that kind of song.

It did change the writing style for sure. And in something like “The Matriarch,” which is more of like an omniscient narrator point of view, that one’s a little bit more airy, a bit more of a fun, kinda lighter track. You know, “let me tell you this story” kind of thing.

For the most part the whole album’s from the point of view of The Immortal, just because he’s our lead character. But yeah, it’s important to the feeling of the song as well, to know from whose point of view you’re seeing things.

On that subject, one part that really jumps out on first listen is when Andrew [Kingsley, guitarist] comes in with some clean vocals as one of The Matriarch’s sons on Earth and Ashes.” How’d that come about?

It was a last-minute thing in the studio. I knew I wanted to have one little snippet from the point of view of one of the sons. Originally it was written as a screaming part, but then I was using screaming so intermittently in the same point of view as the rest of the song. So I didn’t want it to be like, kind of confusing.

So I said, “Oh hey Andrew, I got this one part of the song from the point of view of the son. Do you wanna sing it, like can you just get in there and do this?” And then he absolutely killed it. So I think it was the right decision, despite it being very last-minute and him kinda being like, “What? Okay…” [laughs]

Has that opened the door for you guys to play off each other more in the future?

Yes, absolutely.

What song on Apex was the biggest challenge to finish?

I think “False Walls” was one that I really… I wouldn’t say “struggled with.” But because it was about the son that was kind of a religious figurehead - also a little bit of a wizard himself and kind of a wordsmith, and the whole song was about how he would draw people in and keep them there, mesmerize them - I wanted it to be very much reflected in the wording as well. So I had to be very choosy with the lyrics that I used and I wanted it to be poetic. Singing about what he’s doing but it’s also doing it at the same time.

So that one, I really had to think about every word in that song, more so than anything else, where it’s just kinda like, “I know exactly what I’m trying to say here, and I just gotta make sure it fits and sounds right.”

Shifting gears a bit, do you have any favorite albums of this year so far?

I’ve been listening to the new Skeletonwitch quite a bit, Devouring Radiant Light. It’s really good. And the new Ghost record I’m really enjoying… one of my favorite bands for sure. I would just love to meet that guy and get a feel for his creative process. Just talk to him, you know?

I know it came out last year, but I’ve also been listening to Trivium’s The Sin and the Sentence a lot too.

Funny you mention Ghost, we’re talking concept albums and that’s basically a concept discography.

Oh yeah, for sure.

At this point, have talks started on the next record?

We’re definitely spitballing. I mean I’ve got the story already written because it is a sequel to Apex.

Cool, my last question was actually “is it gonna be as big in scope as Apex?”

Yes, it is. It was written actually at the same time. I had the first Apex and the second part very much fleshed out at the same time. I keep changing the second one just a little bit just as I come upon new things and new concepts and stuff that I’d like to incorporate. So it is changing a little bit.

But for the most part, it’s ready to rock and we are starting to slowly write some melodies, pick out the riffs we think will work and that kind of thing. Next year, I think, we’re gonna sit down and really do it.

Catch Unleash the Archers now on the last few dates of their North American Apex tour:

October 10 – Winnipeg, MB @ The Windor Hotel

October 12 – Calgary, AB @ Dickens Pub

October 13 – Edmonton, AB @ The Starlite Room

October 14 – Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theatre

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