August 5th, 666
SINISTER - SAVAGE OR GRACE - NUCLEAR BLAST
SINISTER - AFTERBURNER - CANDLELIGHT
SINISTER - PROPHECIES DENIED (DVD) - METAL MIND
Ali “The Metallian” expected the worst when, in January, Nuclear Blast Records announced that the third album of Dutch heroes SINISTER would be entitled Hate. The title reeked of trendy 'in-yer-face' type outfits. Fortunately, the band would have none of that. For, SINISTER is death metal. For, SINISTER is pure and SINISTER is real. Descriptions, which were affirmed again and again during the conversation with Mike, the band’s spokesperson. - 1995
It is clear from the energy emitted by the band’s consecutive accomplishments of pure death metal, Cross The Styx, Diabolical Summoning and now Hate, that Sinister is what death metal dreams are made from. So, my first question revolves around the title Hate. Why Hate? “The songs are totally aggressive and mean, with a lot of 'hate' in them. That’s why the title fits so well. We get pissed off by all kinds of people taking bullshit about the death metal scene; they say death metal is dead. There are bands too which talk shit saying death metal is dead because they wimped out and changed their style. The title is also for them - we hate them!”
As for any fans who might have been mislead by the title, “The fans know Sinister and they will be reassured when they see the album cover,” confirms Mike. “Also on the back cover we used a little make-up, it’s blue and we look like zombies. So people know we are still straightforward death metal.”
The music is consistent in its no-compromise delivery, even though the band’s line-up has undergone a slight shuffle. Mike explains, “that is something that should have happened earlier. Our former guitarist, Andre, remained in the band only to tour in support of Diabolical Summoning. He left after our North American tour with Cannibal Corpse. He was getting sloppy and didn’t like death metal either. That was almost the most annoying thing. He was in Sinister, yet when he was talking to death metallers he didn’t know much. He just liked a few bands. You can’t make death metal if you don’t like other death metal bands!
“We recorded Hate as a three-piece with Bart, who was formerly on Bass, playing both bass and guitars in the studio . We could’ve replaced Andre with another guitarist, and we tried, but at the end, it didn’t make sense because our bassist was a better guitarist than any of the other candidates. Now on bass we have Michel who was in Tormentor and was a member of our crew.”
As Mike and I chat about the early days of the band and how the scene is developing one interesting fact that comes to light is that in addition to vocals Mike was also in charge of bass in a very young Sinister. The conversation, nevertheless, turns back to the third record and I wonder if Mike can elaborate on the record. He gets into detail on a few songs. “To Mega Therion, I am not a fan of Celtic Frost. I am probably one of the few who isn’t. I came up with the title and just before I told drummer Aad about it I noticed it’s a Celtic Frost title. We were going to skip it, but Aad said 'let’s keep it anyway.' Actually, they never had a song with that title, just the album. I was reading books where soothsayers have predicted that Lucifer will come and destroy the earth. He will only save a part of humanity. Then we will start all over again. 18th Century Hellfire is about the hellfire clubs, which were concerned with the occult, and sex. Everyone thought they were Satanic; few of them were. Many businessmen and politicians were having orgies in private because they couldn’t in public. That’s why I used the demon Astaroth who stands for lust and freedom. The Bloodfeast is about Manson, neither pro nor con.
Many bands write lyrics about topics they clearly believe in; many more pen lines they clearly know are fictional. Sinister stands somewhere in-between. “I take our lyrics pretty seriously. Everybody should make up their own minds, but I have what I strongly believe in. The song Necronomicon, for example, is only based on the Sumerian religion. I’ll probably do something based on the Egyptian religion on the next album.”
The above-discussed lyrics and music came together at the German T&T Studio. Why not record in The Netherlands?” T&T is really a good studio which has everything we need and want,” Mike dismisses the idea of recording nearer to home. “Nuclear Blast (Sinister’s label) have good contacts with the studio which makes it cheaper and easier to book. If we had to spend the same amount of money in The Netherlands, we would have been able to book a small studio. It’s very expensive here. Unlike last time, we didn’t use producer Colin Richardson because he is more expensive now. We didn’t want to use that big a budget because we already knew the studio.”
Mike had earlier expressed the desire to work with producer Scott Burns. “It would have cost too much money,” he explains. “We had visited him at Morrisound Studio and talked to him about it, but the budget would have been twice as expensive - if not three or four times!”
That visit was during Sinister’s North American tour with Cannibal Corpse and the now-defunct Cynic. Mike recalls, “Cannibal Corpse helped us out a lot because they took us on tour with them. No one else did it for us, not Nuclear Blast America; not the tour agencies. It was Cannibal Corpse who told everybody that they want us on the bill. We’ve toured twice with Deicide too. But our first tour was when we had a demo out. We organized two weeks of shows in Holland with Entombed and Disharmonic Orchestra. Right now, we will tour Europe and hope to tour North America at the end of the year. We especially want to go back to Canada because the crowd is amazing there.”
Despite being a busy period for the band, they have still found the time to participate on a Slayer tribute album. “Black Sun Records is releasing that,” confirms Mike. “We will be on part two. The one featuring us also contains Immolation, Suffocation, Marduk et cetra. We did a cover of Praise Of Death with a blast beat.”
Even if the idea sounds interesting, the whole concept of tribute albums is now beaten to death. The list of 'tribute' albums is endless: Metallica, Black Sabbath, Rush, Bathory, Celtic Frost, who’s next The Doors?? So, let us move on. How is your relationship with Nuclear Blast these days?” Things went wrong when Diabolical Summoning came out,” remembers the Dutch man. “They got us like four interviews for that album. That is no way to promote an album. They know it’s their mistake. This time they are doing a good job. NBA (Nuclear Blast America) has promised a good job too.”
That is heartening to hear, for it seems from the outside, as if Sinister is the underdog band of the label. The band always releases good albums, works hard, tours and so on yet it seems it is not accorded the attention it deserves. Mike concurs, “It looks like that from the inside too. We sell well, work hard for ourselves, have albums that look and sound good and now it’s up to them to support us as well.”
I am curious to hear what the vocalist thinks of the metal scene at the moment. His description is not exactly rosy. “Most bands here in The Netherlands are following trends. Most are soft, with keyboards, violin and a female singer. The scene is really open for us, but I would like it more if there were more strong bands. Except for us and Altar the rest are softies. The press in Europe is lame. They put death metal down. The bands in North America are better and more extreme. I wish we had more of those bands here.”
This interview initially appeared in Pit Magazine No. 15.
It is not often that the knights at Metallian Towers gather to praise an album unanimously, but such an occasion came recently when the royal courier delivered the latest Sinister album to the inner sanctum. Savage Or Grace is one of those uncommon albums though. It is one of those rare moments when the time is right and the vocals, theme and music have all come together to brandish a potent weapon most would recognize as top-notch death metal. The Dutch heroes - singer Rachel Heyzer, guitarists Ron and Pascal, bassist Alex and long-time drummer Aad - have forged a hell of an album. To applaud the occasion, Ali "The Metallian" received a call from bassist Alex and the two tackled the album, a change of line-up and labels, as well as the band's perseverance in a lengthy discussion. Read on! - 15.06.2003
METALLIAN: Alex, it is gratifying to be speaking with you. Not only is Sinister's latest album, Savage Or Grace, a current favourite here with the knights of Metallian Towers, but also the fact is that Sinister's profile has not been...
ALEX: We are a bit forgotten! I think that's the right answer!
METALLIAN: It is! Can we firstly rewind a few years before discussing the current album? Many fans are still wondering whatever happened to Sinister's long-time front man Mike, whom many saw as the main man within the fold. Many were surprised when noticing his absence from 1998's Aggressive Measures.
ALEX: It's funny that you ask because I saw him yesterday playing with his new band (Death Squad). Mike left the band in '97. It was basically because... not because we didn't get along, but because he didn't have a real devotion to the band anymore. He wouldn't practice or go one-hundred percent for it. He just wanted the nice things of being in band and not the bad things like rehearsing and taking the shit for granted. At that time we were a little fed up by his work within the band. So we decided to kick him out at the time.
METALLIAN: How was the relationship thereafter? Did the band stay friendly with Mike?
ALEX: Well we did not stay real friends. I think, well I saw him yesterday, but I hadn't seen him prior to that for four years! There were no hard feelings. He understood that we don't want to go on with him anymore. Of course, it was not his decision. Were it his he would still be in Sinister. He was a little disappointed.
METALLIAN: Do you understand how many fans saw him as the main person in Sinister?
ALEX: Yeah, I know. It was always about Mike. That was really strange because he had no influence, at all, you know? Of course, he was a great performer on stage. Many people liked that a lot because he was a very good front man and a very good singer. I can understand that many thought Mike was an important factor in the band.
METALLIAN: He was then replaced by Eric.
ALEX: Eric did a very good job on 1998's Aggressive Measures album. We couldn't get along with him. After only a year we knew that we can't work with him. He definitely was not our kind of a guy. I think he also proved it later on by joining other bands who then kicked him out. He had come to Sinister from Severe Torture which was not a known band at the time. Later on, he played drums in Destroyer 666 and joined a couple of local bands here in The Netherlands.
METALLIAN: He, in turn, was replaced by Rachel who concurrently sang in Occult at the time. How much of a risk were you taking by recruiting a female vocalist?
ALEX: Yes, it was really a big risk. We talked about it for a long time. It is simpler for a band that is starting out to have a girl on vocals, but for a band like Sinister it was difficult for we had had a known singer like Mike and then were fronted by Eric. We talked about it a lot. Vocal-wise though, Rachel was the right girl for the position. We had already tried out some guys for the position and they hadn't worked out. We eventually took the decision. It was a risk, but we came through it very well.
METALLIAN: At which point did you enter the band?
ALEX: I joined Sinister in '97 - a year before Aggressive Measures.
METALLIAN: You are also in Houwitser which is signed to Osmose Productions. The band also featured Mike.
ALEX: We just recorded a new album which will be released in November. When I joined Houwitser Mike was already out of that band. I can see how it can get confusing with the comings and goings between the two bands. At the very beginning I was in Houwitser and in another band. Then when I joined Sinister I thought that two bands should suffice for me. So I left Houwitser. I later returned to Houwitser. So, in the beginning, I was in Houwitser with Mike. We must have only played together twice or something in the rehearsal room.
METALLIAN: Let us examine Savage Or Grace. The album has a definite 1991-93 feeling. Was this deliberate or was it unintentional? For only drummer Aad is still in Sinister from those sessions.
ALEX: No, not really. We used a studio guitar player on this album. The guy listed on the CD, Pascal, did not actually play the guitar on the album! He will be playing for us live and from here on. One can hear on the album. He is Ron our former guitar player who also wrote (most of) the Cross The Styx album! He is a studio session guitar player for us now.
METALLIAN: Was Ron originally asked to leave the band following the release of Cross The Styx?
ALEX: He was not kicked out. He is a family man and at the time of Cross The Styx decided to quit the band because of time constraints. He always kept in touch though. When, after the release of Creative Killings, guitarist Bart left the band we asked Ron to come back to rehearse and write songs. This is why I think Savage Or Grace is as you said in your review a "back to the future album." It is because Ron is back in the band!
METALLIAN: Has Ron been keeping up with the scene or has he emerged from retirement?
ALEX: He has not done anything for ten years. He has always remained interested in playing, but he has not been interested in live shows or touring - just playing guitar and writing songs. Yeah, he hasn't been doing a lot - maybe just playing a little bit in his own room, you know? That's why he was really eager to put something on a record again.
METALLIAN: Since Ron will be replaced by Pascal on the road, can you compare the two guitarists' playing styles?
ALEX: Well, Pascal actually played the solos on this album, so he influenced this release. You know, we never had so many solos on a record. So that should tell you what his playing is like.
METALLIAN: Speaking of going back to Sinister's original sound, the bass work on the song Conception Of Sin is strongly reminiscent of the first two albums.
ALEX: The bass stuff was actually something that Ron created. The sound on the bass is a little distorted, but not too much. That is the sound I always have - it's really my own sound be it live or on record.
METALLIAN: Bart Van Wallenberg had been with Sinister for ten years. Why has he now departed?
ALEX: He joined the band for Diabolical Summoning. He too had a family life. He got married and did not want to play that much anymore. He decided to quit the band for the same reason (as Ron had).
METALLIAN: You are making it obvious to ask, are you married?
ALEX: (laughs) yeah, I am now! I married two months ago! No, I am not leaving. I will still have the time for Sinister. I know, I can hardly keep track of the comings and goings within the band myself (laughs)!
METALLIAN: Let us talk about the label situation. After releasing one album on Hammerheart Records, Sinister is back on Nuclear Blast Records. Is this in keeping with your 'back to the future' theme?
ALEX: No, the problem was that Hammerheart's distribution in the US and Canada is not good. In Europe it's OK, but in North America, Japan, Australia and those sorts of countries there was not a release of the Creative Killings album. Also, they made many promises to us (which they didn't keep). We didn't have to leave Nuclear Blast at the time. We could have signed with them again, but chose Hammerheart because they showed much ambition. They were very confident about it, but when we joined their roster it was clear that the label was too small and they were not good enough. Also they kept the payments of royalties very vague. They don't give statements and tell you how many we sold. We were fed up with it and decided to remain there for one album.
There was also a problem with touring. I think they arranged three tours in Europe and they were cancelled each time. So people were saying 'Sinister has again cancelled!' We, later on, took things under control and organized our own tour, but that took up too much time.
METALLIAN: Was Nuclear Blast Records receptive to Sinister's return?
ALEX: Yes. I wrote them a letter and said we would like to come back if you want us because we don't like Hammerheart anymore. I got an email back saying they would consider it. The deal was done in three days! It was really simple. They wanted to release a new album by us. We have signed for five albums, but every album is an option. Both band and label can cancel the deal at any time. We had a similar arrangement with Hammerheart, so we weren't that stupid at the time we signed with them either! It would be really shitty if we were stuck with Hammerheart for three albums or something.
METALLIAN: Given Nuclear Blast's size, how much attention can they give you? They obviously invest heavily in bands like Manowar and Hammerfall.
ALEX: Well, of course, they are a company and they have to make money. Manowar sells more albums than Sinister. That was one of the reasons why we thought it would be more suitable for us to go to a smaller label. We have to say now that the change was a bad decision. It is better to be number 26 on Nuclear Blast's priority list than number two or one for Hammerheart. It is really simple. Promotion and distribution-wise things are much better now. We also have seen them do a lot already for this album with advertising and even a listening session. I think we have no cause for complaints at the moment.
METALLIAN: Incidentally, the band entered the studio as recently as in January and we already have a release.
ALEX: Nuclear Blast wanted the finished recording, along with the cover and artwork, by February tenth. They had planned a May release. They work very fast.
I know what you mean though. Look at Osmose Productions. We have recorded a Houwitser album in March and they are planning a November release. I hate that. When the album gets released it is already an old one for us. I think that's bad.
METALLIAN: What is not bad is Sinister's speed, heaviness and steady course. Many bands say that playing fast and heavy all the time is boring. One often reads how bands feel the need to move on and try different, usually slower, tempos. This pattern is termed 'progression' by the commercial media. That arrangement obviously does not pertain to Sinister.
ALEX: Well, I think bands that talk like that are always talking bullshit. You know, when they wimp out they then call it 'development.' It is so stupid. It is also strange because the reaction from magazine, when bands go slower and incorporate more melody, is that these bands are 'developing.' Everyone says that to the bands. Of course, you already know, that we think that's totally bullshit. We think you can develop in your own style. You don't have to play another style. For us it's really simple. This is a style we like to play and we want to play. If we have the intention to make more melodic metal or something else we will not do it under the name Sinister. I think Sinister stands for what we are playing at the moment. When you get a Sinister album you get death metal. I think it is totally bullshit when bands do that.
METALLIAN: Are you affirming your intention to always remain a fast band?
ALEX: No, no, we will never do something that changes our music. I mean, we also play in Houwitser too and we could do something different there, but that band is also fast and brutal. So, it's obvious that we are big fans of this kind of music. We do it for people who want to listen to fast and heavy music. We make music for ourselves and people who like this kind of music. Others don't have to buy the album, you know?
METALLIAN: One thing for which Sinister gets criticized for is the vocals. Many believe that Rachel must be using effects to achieve her deep growls.
ALEX: If she were faking, she would have never made it into the band. It would be stupid for us to get somebody into the band who can't do it. Europeans are convinced now because we have toured here there times with her and they know it is not fake. I can't change people's opinions if they want to believe something.
METALLIAN: Does Rachel use effects?
ALEX: No, she does not use any effects. Perhaps if we come to Canada people can sing through the microphone and give it back to her to see for themselves. She has been singing for twelve years - she used to be in Occult - and if she were faking people would have noticed by now!
METALLIAN: Another point which is noticeable on the album is its shortness. The whole album barely hits the thirty-minute mark. Was this intentional as early as the song-writing process?
ALEX: We never watch the clock when we write a song. Having said that, the songs were originally slower than how they turned out on the album. It's usually like that. You concentrate more when you create a song, but when you record things speed up. We noticed when we were recording that the songs are going faster than what we originally had in mind. That's why a song that was originally four minutes is now three minutes and forty seconds. Apocalypse In Time, for example, is really faster. Only when we finished the recording did we notice that the songs is faster than it was!
METALLIAN: Given how the album borders the thirty-minute mark, did the band consider adding another song?
ALEX: There was no time; otherwise we would have done it. I have to agree that the album is short. Then again, many albums are short nowadays. It is not a problem. For example, when I buy an album I am not watching the clock to see how long it is. I lose track when an album is over an hour anyway. I can listen to one band for forty minutes and then I am finished with it, do you know what I mean?
Nuclear Blast said the album is a little too short. I don't know about the Canadian version, but the European version has a limited edition second CD featuring an old, promo tape from 1991. This is not material anybody has heard. It is also a different version than the old 7" EP on Witchhunt Records. So it is two CDs for a regular price.
METALLIAN: Let us talk about the title Savage Or Grace. Is there a theme to this album?
ALEX: The title was chosen by Aad. I think he might have been inspired by the US band Savage Grace. He gave the title to me because I usually write the lyrics. So I wrote lyrics about the theme. Then follows the cover which makes for a concept of sorts.
The lyrics are about having power. The lyrics are about morality and abuse or use of power which respectively relate to the words 'savage' and 'grace.'
METALLIAN: What is the correlation to the Catholic church? The cover depicts two nuns, right?
ALEX: Only one song is related to religion. That is Conception Of Sin. The album is not religious though. It is not always about God or Satan. It's more about relationships and people. It's about how there is always someone who is in control in a relationship. That person has power and can use it rightly or wrongly. One song is about war.
The cover shows this. One nun is good and the other has fangs and a dagger.
METALLIAN: Are you saying that there can be a good side to religion?
ALEX: I never took it that far, but if you look at it then there could be good things in a religion. Many people put their hopes into religions. I think that religion has to be a private matter. That's why you have a separation between church and state. Religion can be good if you use it in a private manner. It should not be entangled with politics like the Middle East.
Religion also has a lot of influence in politics in America. They do have a separation between church and state so the influence of religious groups, is perhaps, not that big. I could be wrong because I am not an American.
METALLIAN: Are there any plans to tour outside Europe in support of the current album?
ALEX: We last played in 1999 in North America with Rotting Christ. We would love to come back. It would be simpler if it were summer time because we can get time off. We just came back from Mexico and Colombia. It was great, unbelievable. Then again if we had played for another week it would have cost me ten weeks of my life. We had to play and then run to the airport to catch a plane every time! There will not be a tour until early next year. We don't want to tour again so soon because we have played so much. We are playing Wacken this year though. We all have jobs too and we can't get time off!
Death metal fanatics have every reason to storm the local metal outlet and grab a copy of Sinister's Savage Or Grace. Sinister has not slowed down and the music is everything the fans expect.