Latest release: Metal Commando (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.primalfear.de
German power metal veterans Primal Fear continue to create consistently good heavy metal albums. Their latest studio release, Metal Commando, is an apt title which could be seen as a mission statement, representing a growing musical maturity with concise choruses, melodic harmonies, fist pumping tracks, rousing power ballads plus an atmospheric, sprawling closing album track titled Infinity, which clocks in at over thirteen minutes.
It is possibly coincidental but Metal Commando is also is their thirteenth studio album to date and sees them returning to Nuclear Blast, having released their previous six, very well received albums on Italy’s Frontiers label. To mark their return to Nuclear Blast, Primal Fear made sure their latest album set a next level benchmark for themselves having already attained some pretty solid global acclaim thus far.
Something no one could plan for was the global pandemic that has taken the wind out of the sails of a lot of bands, including Primal Fear, who would have already been out on the road touring this powering beast of a new album. Taking a philosophical approach might be enforced on all but the reality is that Metal Commando is one of their best albums to date and once this huge global virus disruption subsides, they plan on touring widely, potentially with a return to Australia, if the stars align properly. To discuss the album and all things Primal Fear, Loud Online spoke to both original co-founding and long serving members, bassist Mat Sinner and guitarist Tom Naumann.
Metal Commando is a very strong album yet, due to the pandemic, it is unknown when you’ll be able to tour in support of it.
Tom Naumann: Unfortunately we have to skip all of our touring plans for this year. We tried to postpone the dates and as we cannot go on tour soon, instead, Mat and I decided to write new songs for an upcoming Sinner album. We are really bored so we are trying to be productive. It is good to be around family, as next year, I probably will be away for four to five months which is a really long time for family to get on with their lives without their Dad.
The songs are well arranged for this latest release.
Mat Sinner: We knew we were changing record companies. We started with Nuclear Blast and the time was right to go back. For us it was definitely a big challenge, wanting to release a really strong album and not lose our trademarks. There are fans all over the world waiting for us to release new music and they don’t want a jazz album. One year ago, we sat down and started – for me it was a very cool moment; everybody was motivated and into it. We had a really great vibe and time in the band, already starting with some super cool riffs and melodies. There was not the pressure you have from the feeling that something isn’t working in the song because then you can go crazy. It was really nice with great ideas already in the beginning. That continued and we were all very into it.
Chorus writing is very tight too. Do you get ideas and present them to Ralph [Scheepers – vocals] to interpret or is it strictly mapped out?
Mat Sinner: Mostly the music was written by me and Magnus Karlsson [guitars] and a lot of songs were written this time by me and Tom. So, we put it all together and if I have the ideas already for the vocal, I write the vocal parts and the lyrics. For other songs, Ralph is writing the vocal parts of the lyrics then we put it together. For example, with Along Came the Devil, Ralph wrote the verses and I wrote the chorus. So from song to song, this is a kind of different approach. Everything has to fit together but as a producer on the album, I have to be very careful that it is going in the right direction. I don’t want to have a super-fast, brutal metal song with a lyric which is not fitting like about broken love or something. Also, the choruses, the Japanese media said, ‘We love the choruses on the album, it is so German, everybody can sing the chorus’. I said, ‘Oh fuck, mostly I wrote them with a Swedish guy [Karlsson].’ It is crazy for me but I said, ‘Okay, if you love it, I am happy with that.’
For touring, Primal Fear is a twin guitar line up. For studio though, it is geared for three guitarists in the band.
Tom Naumann: When recording we have Magnus who has his own studio and he is recording most of the rhythm parts. He cannot tour with us for private reasons so when it is time to play live, it is always Alex [Beyrodt – guitars] and me playing. For recording, Magnus is doing most of the rhythm parts and then we split the lead parts for three people. We are all doing lead parts but when it comes to playing live and if there is a lead part by Magnus, we decide who will play. We are an easy going band when it comes to these things.
Mat Sinner: We split it up. After the drums were done, Magnus was playing the rhythm guitars at his studio in Sweden. He added some lead guitars and most of the lead guitar parts were done by Alex and Tom. We were then together in the recording studio [Backyard Studios] of our tour manager – a very nice facility in the south of Germany [Kempten]. We were hanging there for some days, pushing each other to our limits. Alex and Tom did some great work on this album and at that point, I got the ten percent out of everybody that they are a little bit improving against the last album which was already great. I think it was a great strategy to this together.
The song Halo has harmony or twin guitar parts whilst The Lost & the Forgotten has traded solos. Do you have a preference?
Tom Naumann: Sometimes it is cool to have a lead break and then finish up with a nice melody. When I was young, I loved the double harmony stuff and was influenced by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy. So it was always a part of Primal Fear to do twin guitar stuff but we also like to play our own leads. I love both, to be honest.
Speaking of Judas Priest, there have been comparisons with Primal Fear over the years. Is that simply due to vocals? There’s that aspect of Primal Fear being Judas Priest with a modern sound.
Tom Naumann: Ah, when we started and came onto the radar, it was always like, ‘This is the album that Judas Priest should have brought out for Painkiller,’ or something like that. We were always the Judas Priest clones from Germany or whatever and we never really thought that we were because the only thing you can compare is the voices of Ralph and Rob Halford. When it comes to music, I think that we are different to Judas Priest. When we started writing songs, I never wanted to copy or to have the approach to sound like Judas Priest. When we are starting writing songs, it should sound like a Primal Fear album because that is what we stand for – we love what we do and why should we try copy another band? After 22 years of being in the business, I think we have made or brought out our own style and that is fine for us.
Mat Sinner: It has followed us for too long. There are a lot of bands that do that kind of music but what is haunting us is always that Ralph’s voice is naturally very close to Rob’s but that’s it.
Then of course, as soon as you have three guitars in metal, you’re like Maiden.
Mat Sinner: Yes, well, I love both bands so I don’t really have a problem. It is better to be compared to those two bands that are that cool.
Still, I can hear a bit of Priest in intro to Raise Your Fists. Would you agree?
Tom Naumann: Not really, when it comes to those comparisons, I would say it is unfair because when we write songs we never think about copying or being close to Judas Priest, we just sit down and start writing songs. I listened to the last Judas Priest album [Firepower] once, it was a good album but you see, I hardly listen to Priest anymore, just to be safe when it comes to writing, that there is no comparison to the other guys from England. It was never our idea to be Judas Priest clones. We always try to bring up own ideas and our own style. I think that we did a great job in the last couple of years.
Afterlife has a nice tapping solo. Does Mat ever rein in guitar solos when he’s the producer?
Tom Naumann: No, when it comes to playing lead parts, Alex, Magnus and I have different styles. We just look at whose style is better for a certain song and then we decide on who plays what. You may have an idea and sometimes Mat might say, ‘Perhaps play it a little faster or differently’ but normally he is always fine with the lead parts that we come up with and we all have our own styles. When we get in the studio, it is just about making it close to perfect. He might suggest changes to starting and end notes but he is not really interested in what is in between, as long as it sounds good and we all have fun. If I am happy with what I am playing, Mat won’t say anything about it.
Howl of the Banshee builds to the chorus swiftly, also utilising the pre-chorus and bridge well. Do you think about song structure a lot?
Mat Sinner: Of course, sometimes a song doesn’t need a bridge, sometimes it does. That song was written by me and Tom. It covers the old spirit of the earlier albums of Primal Fear, which I really love. So we refreshed it and brought it into 2020; it has everything. My favourites of all our tracks have that aspect, so the spirit is really cool to me.
Mat, your backing vocals are most prominent in Primal Fear.
Mat Sinner: It is a trademark of Primal Fear and if you see us live, Ralph and I sing perfectly together and it is a match. All over the years, we have improved and made it better. It is a nice addition to everything that we can have this great combination together and I think it also adds something to the music.
Tom, has being a left handed guitarist presented any problems?
Tom Naumann: I was always left handed, I play football with left feet, write with left hand, so when picking up first guitar, I picked it up like a left handed guitarist. When started back in 1981 or 1982 it was pretty tough to get the left handed guitars. Nowadays it is easier to get them, especially some good guitars. I’ve got over twenty guitars and am getting a new one soon. I am really happy about the opportunity to play left hand guitars, when I was younger I not so lucky in finding good left handed guitars. The strings are the same set up as a right hand guitar so no problems in learning chords or melodies because when I am sitting next to Alex, it is like looking into a mirror.
Infinity is an epic closing album track with atmospherics. Did that happen naturally or did it take some pushing to get to the final version of the song?
Tom Naumann: When you start writing a song, you’re not trying to write a 13 minute song, you’re just writing a song and then you come up with parts and ideas. You may add in things you came up with recently too that then all fit so the song develops and by the end, it might become a 13 minute, epic track. Infinity is my favourite track on the new album. I am looking forward to see if we are going to be playing this one live.
One gathers that there was a lot of work involved.
Mat Sinner: There was and I was happy about the arrangement finally, as I think we had ten different arrangements starting at a four minute song and I was not really happy about the flow of it. Then we added and added until we said, ‘Okay, this is something special, we just have to find the right arrangement.’ Then we added this orchestra part and decided that this song could end the album in a very dramatic and different way. All of these little parts made it super interesting. For me, it is a big challenge with this song for example, to keep people listening to it. At over 13 minutes, who is not nervous enough to listen to that these days? You have to make it interesting enough for people, to keep it having a good flow and have interesting parts. It was a very nice challenge; on one side, it is great to write a four minute song, on the other side, it is great to try to keep a 13 and a half minute song interesting.
Does a song like Infinity pose more production issues with added atmospherics, operatic aspects and chants?
Tom Naumann: Yes, that’s pretty tough but it is also a challenge to make it perfect by bringing in atmosphere and tension. It is always a challenge when you write a new song to bring it to a great level. So, when you’re start writing you’re just sitting on your couch, terrace or studio with guitar in hand and then you start, all of sudden you’ve got this small idea or riff, you record on phone, listen to it again later, then start working off this little small idea you got then you’ve got this metal monster so you play it to the other guys and they’ll say, ‘Yeah it is a fucking great song, we need to finish it with great vocals and everything.’ It then winds up on the album and people say, ‘Hey, great song’, but it all started from this small, little idea that I got sitting on the couch which ended up being a great metal track on an album so that everybody in the world can listen to it. That’s the funny part of it.
The ballads are also very good. What was your approach for the track I Will Be Gone?
Mat Sinner: I Will Be Gone was really special. For ballads, you’ll usually start with low vocals then going into the song after one and a half minutes, the drums come in with the big guitars and you have that typical metal ballad that has the same structure as one million other songs. But, this time, I tried to keep it simple and it is more difficult to do that then to add other stuff into the song to make it interesting. So, if drums come in, you have a big moment, so we tried to be different. The whole albums is full of loud guitars and stuff like that so we said, ‘Let’s try to keep this song as simple as possible with just the two acoustic guitars, a cello and Ralph’s shining vocals over it.’ I think the outcome is amazing. It is such a quiet moment on this album and gives a different atmosphere; I really thought it was worth it to work a lot on this song and the arrangement because it is so different.
The overall sonics on the album are great, with nuances between guitarists such as pick slides and harmonics choices crisp and clear.
Mat Sinner: Yeah, we already had that starting with Apocalypse, our most successful album chart-wise, worldwide. To have the next album be as successful as the one before, you have to come up with little strategies than you had before to want to match it. Or even get an extra ten percent out of everybody starting with the drums, the rhythm guitars, lead guitars, vocals, bass and then putting it all together in the mix. It is like painting a picture and this time is an incredible picture – I love it. Yeah, for me it was important that the band sounded fresh, had a nice approach between aggressive and good melodies and the most important thing for me, good songs. If we record these songs in the right way then we can come up with a great sound in the end. The best part is that I can say for my taste, it has absolutely the best sound of all the Primal Fear albums. The production is the best and the sound is the best. That means, on the other side, that we did a lot of other things right with the recordings. If I put on the album and really like what I hear then this is cool.
The Lost & the Forgotten is very much a power metal monster of a track with hammering drumming. Were there any adjustments to make for your new drummer [Michael Ehré]?
Mat Sinner: We recorded the drums in Jacob Hansen’s studio [Hansen Studios] in Denmark. That was in the studio for the first time with Michael even though we’ve known him for ten years and he has been playing live shows with us for one year. In the studio, it is the real thing, what you hear and a deciding moment as to whether you fitting to each other or not. Michael can play other instruments such as guitar and keyboards. He can sing and is a musician so he knows the song in a different way when working on it, than a drummer who is only playing drums. Forgive me, drummers, but it is like that. It was a really nice experience to work with him and you can discuss everything with him such as playing a part for the twentieth time. It was a really creative time recording the drums so we had the best foundation that a guitarist can dream of – so the drums were really cool, we added guitars and my idea, as always, is after the drums, to add the rhythm guitars and some melody guitars. Then, I find out, for the bass parts, which are the best positions for the bass parts. It is better for the whole production that I don’t play bass after the drums but I play it after the guitars and the drums. I find, for my way, a little more space where it is and isn’t needed. I’ve been doing this for twenty years or more so a double bass drum groove is nothing new to me.
Tom, given Mat is the band leader and in the rhythm section, do you focus on Mat or the drums to stay in time, when playing live?
Tom Naumann: I started as a drummer so am more listening to the drummer when we play live. First of all, we love to play live because I think we are really a live band and we enjoy being on stage. When it comes to playing, I hardly am listening to Mat, I mainly focus on the bass drum and the snare drum. That is the most important thing for me when I am on stage, to keep the time.
Have you always played Les Paul guitars?
Tom Naumann: When it comes to playing with Primal Fear, I normally play Les Pauls but I also play some different stuff. Sometimes it could be a Telecaster or a Stratocaster when it comes to recording some special stuff. Also, I recorded a song called In Memory on the Seven Seals album with a Gretsch guitar which has nothing to do with metal. But if a song needs a special sound I am open to play any guitars that are available to make the sounds happen. But playing live, Alex and I are playing Les Pauls. For me it is a perfect guitar because it has a lot of edge and a nice sweet sound. I’m really in love with a Les Paul. My first guitar was a Les Paul and I think probably that I will never change. I have six or seven and I have another one being delivered. I’ve got some Teles, Strats and Schecters so I am open when it comes to buying good guitars.
For Primal Fear, two Les Pauls in the live mix do not seem to present a sound clarity issue.
Tom Naumann: Alex is playing Marshall and I use Kemper and own ENGL amp profile so I think it is pretty cool to have two Les Pauls onstage but they sound different. That makes a good sound wall and Alex and I are pretty happy when we play together. It fits together well and brings the right push to the band.
Thinking back to 1981, I gather that touring with a USB stick and Kemper or Axe FX profiling amplifier was completely unimaginable.
Tom Naumann: In 1981, I was happy to play guitar at all. I never expected to be on a tour in Europe or playing North or South America or to play Australia or Japan. It started as a hobby and then I started my hobby into a living. That is really impressive and I am really glad and blessed that I can do this. When I started playing, my first amplifier was a Musicman and then I got a Marshall – those ones from 1977, then I switched to ENGL and am a real fan. I am also doing another thing called Rock Meets Classic which is a rock band Alex, Mat and I with a forty or sixty piece orchestra. Each year we bring in people such as this year where we got in Alice Cooper and Robin Zander [Cheap Trick], last year we had Ian Gillan headlining and we had guys from REO Speedwagon and Supertramp, so that is why I decide to make it sound as good as it could be for those people. I had to buy a Kemper because there are a lot of sound possibilities and am really happy with it. It is about five kilos and an ENGL is 25 kilos. Nowadays, when you play a festival you only have your USB stick and you put it in your Kemper on stage and then your sound will be loaded. You don’t need to travel with huge amplifiers anymore. It is really easy and simple and I love the sound of the Kemper and there are so many guitar players out there that only use a Kemper and nothing else.
Magnus is also active with side projects. A recent album with vocalists Russell Allen and Anette Olzon [Allen/Olzon] was very good. Mat, you also worked with Russell for the project Level 10.
Mat Sinner: It was an idea from Frontiers to bring Russell and me together because they wanted us to do an album together. We got along very well, and it was a super nice experience to do this album. Chapter One is a great album; good guys on it, great musicians, and good songs. Russell is singing phenomenally and is one of the best singers. We would have recently been on tour together too but that is clearly now not happening. We had our 28 shows lined up in Canada and the United States with Primal Fear and Symphony X, postponed to next year. I hope that it will happen and that the United States still exists.
Tom also mentioned working on a new Sinner album.
Mat Sinner: We did that last album Santa Muerte which was nice and successful, especially in Europe. We charted very high in Germany and did some great shows plus it is a cool band. It is a super brotherhood and we always appreciate to play together. Of course, internationally, Primal Fear is my number one band but if Primal Fear has a little break and if there is a little time, we will always come back to write and produce new music for Sinner and do shows.
Are song writing approaches different between Sinner and Primal Fear?
Tom Naumann: Primal Fear is more of a metal band and Sinner developed more into a rock and blues based bands. My influence is Thin Lizzy so we always try to write songs in the style of Thin Lizzy because they are no more. When you start writing, it is totally clear that if you find a nice melody, you always use it for Primal Fear and if you’ve got a heavy riff, you will use it for Sinner. There are no big deals in those decisions and it is always cool to write for both bands. It keeps us busy and it is fun.
The album cover artwork for Metal Commando is quite striking.
Mat Sinner: We gave our artist, Stephan Lohrmann, who did the first albums and the Rulebreaker album [artwork], so we gave him the album title and he came up with that idea. I think it is perfect and something different. It is totally fitting to the album title and to the album’s musical approach and I think it’ll be a great t-shirt for metal fans.
Given it is such a powerful album, what is the direction or Primal Fear career trajectory over say the next five years?
Mat Sinner: For us a new start with Nuclear Blast after a successful run with Frontiers, we really hope that in these crazy times, it will not be a bad time to release an album. We think it is a good time to release an album because it is great for the people that they can have some new music. Overall, we are very into our own music and we hope that we can get back onto the stage again. We hope that 2021, the whole circus is gone and that we get regular rock concerts again. This is to be the time of Primal Fear with a super busy year planned in 2021 for bringing our new music to the fans and that is our target. I am super happy with the album and the feedback has been fantastic. Hopefully the fans will be enthusiastic about the album as well so we did something cool.
Mixing another album with Jacob Hansen seems second nature. What is most notable change you’ve both seen develop over the years and is it more beneficial?
Mat Sinner: I don’t know that is it beneficial but on hard disk, you can record a lot faster than on tape. Music is still music and a song is still a song. If it is on a hard disk or on tape, it doesn’t matter, it is still the same song. In the studio, for me, the most important thing is that you understand and respect each other. If you have the same kind of view on the same kind of song, something great will come out at the end. If you are working against each other, you will never get a good result. So, with me and Jacob, working together over the years, we have become very, very good friends. We respect each other and the result is always on the higher level of quality which is very important for me. I can trust him 100%, he loves our music and it is always a pleasure to come back to him.
Looking at Primal Fear’s huge discography, do you have a favourite album or song?
Tom Naumann: My favourite is the Seven Seals because I think that was the album where we achieved a musical change. Production wise, it is a great album and we started to write long songs like Diabolus. Personally, it was one of the best albums that we did. Now we have Metal Commando and it is a really strong album. It is a powerful metal album and so it could be really close between those two albums.
Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us down here in Australia.
Tom Naumann: Take care and stay healthy in Australia. We hope to visit your country again next year because it is always fun to play in Australia. I love it there.