by Mark Kadzielawa
Onslaught exploded onto an underground metal scene back in 1985, with "Power from Hell." Soon, Sy Keeler, was added on vocals, and the band released their sophomore album, "The Force." If "Power from Hell" had been a surprise hit, "The Force" elevated Onslaught onto the major leagues of thrash. Soon, the major labels were knocking on the door, and the band singed to London Records. It seemed like a dream come true for this British crew, but they paid a severe price. Executives from London Records started to interfere with band's new recordings. As a result, Sy Keeler, was ousted from the band in favor of Grim Reaper's Steve Grimmett. Onslaught released, "In Search of Sanity" in 1989. It was a very polished and commercialized version of Onslaught, it didn't fare well with their hardcore fan base. Soon, Grimmett jumped the ship, the band was dropped and by 1991 split up.
In 2004, Onslaught reformed with Sy Keeler once again behind the microphone. Three years later, "Killing Peace" officially re-introduced the band as a recording artist. Onslaught took the show on the road, playing their native Britain, and Europe. In 2007, a DVD titled "live Polish Assault" was released, and in 2009, a live CD "Live Damnation." Finally, in 2011, Onslaught released, "Sounds of Violence," possibly their finest album. The album generated great reviews, and reestablished Onslaught as a force to be reckoned with.
Over the years, Onslaught experienced many lineup changes. Some more significant than others. Currently the band is made up of its founder, Nigel Rockett on guitar, and Sy Keeler on vocals. Joining the two core members are Andy Rosser-Davies on guitar, Jeff Williams on bass, and Mike Hourihan on drums.
Onslaught's chief writer, Nigel Rockett, discusses band's past and present days. Rockett has a good laugh, and talks about the frustrations and successes related to the music business.
You first album, "Power from Hell," had everything going for it back in 1985. It was a perfect release, that took the underground metal scene by storm, but very little was heard from the band back then, how come?
Nigel Rockett: We were a relatively small band at the time. The album came out on a small independent label. the guy who did it, was actually working on a government scheme to start a new label. I think we were the first or second album to be released on that label. It was released over here in the U.S. in the amount of 5 or 10 thousand only.
What kind of a government scheme was that? I hope you didn’t have Margaret Thatcher coming after you.
(Laughter) I guess she would’ve been in power at that time. They come out with all kinds of schemes, but I think they paid him a certain amount of money a week just to start up a record label. It was great for him, and he did quite well with the Children of the Revolution Records. At the time, we were obviously not gonna come over, and tour the states. This is our first run after nearly 30 years.
There was a big change between the first and second record. The addition of Sy Keeler on vocals was crucial. How did you find him?
Sy obviously brought more metallic edge to the band. We were just basically a bunch of young kids on “Power From Hell.” It was a hardcore/crossover metal type a thing. We were still learning to play. When the band formed, we couldn’t play instruments at all. Which is why I bought a guitar, and decided to learn to play as the band grew. You can hear the musical progression from “Power From Hell” to “The Force.” I mean we didn’t even play out for two years, so we put a lot of work into the band and our playing. And obviously Sy coming in, took it to a whole new level, and gave the band another identity for “The Force” as compared to the “Power From Hell” album. It was a pure metal album, thrash metal album, as opposed to the first one being kind of crossover.
“The Force” was a great success on both sides of Atlantic, and really worldwide it’s a recognized album. Yet, the band didn’t tour U.S. where the album had a great momentum.
I really don’t know why. I really can’t answer that. Why we never came at the time? Things were, as you said, great on both sides of the Atlantic. I really never knew why it never came to us to come to the U.S. I mean, all the American bands were coming to Europe, and we never went the other way. We were playing a lot in Europe at the time, but we never made it to America unfortunately.
The next album, saw Sy Keeler being replaced by Steve Grimmett, you got a major deal, but the album turned out to be a complete disaster. What happened?
Obviously, like you’ve said “The Force” had become massively popular. Thrash metal was becoming huge. All the major labels in the country wanted to sing the premier thrash metal band in the U.K. which was us. We had four major labels trying to sign us. We chose the wrong label, basically. We signed to London Records which was part of Polygram. They released Faith No More album, and had licensed “Reign In Blood” from Slayer, I believe. It was easy to sell these bands at the time. They weren’t trying to break them, they were just releasing a product of an established band. And what they tried to do with Onslaught, once we’ve signed with them, they wanted to mold us into their vision of where we should be, and what we should do. Which was not a good thing. They’ve signed us on the strength of demos which we’ve done with Sy on vocals. So, if they signed us with those demos, why didn’t they let us go our own route? They wanted us to become hugely successful in America, which was obviously their goal. And it kind of backfired on all fronts. Even though the album got some great reviews, it was really not an Onslaught album.
It was a good record, but in comparison to “The Force,” it lacked in energy and heaviness.
I couldn’t agree with you more.
How did Sy end up leaving the band, and how was Steve Grimmett brought in?
We’ve basically recorded a whole album, and we were in mixing stages. And this was the first time the whole label came down to listen to it. And basically, they didn’t like what they were hearing, or they were expecting something completely different, I really don’t know. You could tell, I was watching their faces when they were listening, and you could tell something wasn’t right. At the end, they said, “this isn’t what we want. We were expecting to hear something else.” They said, “we want to look at the vocal situation.” They didn’t say anything to me, but the next day the management tells me that Steve Grimmett’s name was thrown into the bag. We said, “no, Sy is our singer.” It went around, and they were like, “you do what we say, or we should put the band on ice for the length of your contract. You’ll release no albums in that time. Basically, you got to play ball with what we want.” So that’s what happened.
What there any chemistry with Steve Grimmett? I mean, as good as a singer as he is, he walked into a new band that already had a style and a history.
No, not at all. There was never a chemistry with him in the band. There certainly wasn’t a chemistry with the fans, that’s for sure. I mean, he came in, he was force upon us. He is a nice guy, Steve, but not an Onslaught singer. And it just always that feeling of a mercenary I guess, that’s how I look back at it. The guy left the band within a year of joining. There was no commitment there. I think Grim Reaper had been long gone and buried, and I think Steve was looking for a way back into the music industry, you know.
Looking back at that time, what should you have done?
Singed with a different label. In the end it came down to two labels. It was A&M Records, and London/Polygram. The two guys from A&M were absolutely fanatical about the band. But what swayed it to Polygram was that they were a much bigger company, and they had a lot of big metal bands in the U.S. And obviously what they just did with Slayer and Faith No More, so I guess that sort of swung us in that direction. A&M didn’t have much metal on their roster at the time. I guess we were kind of looking at it that way, but obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Even after Steve left, you tried to keep the band going. What was happening at the time?
There was some political stuff that went down at the label. The A & I guy who signed us to Polygram was fired, and obviously all the bands that he brought into the label were gone as well. One of those bands was us. That left us kind of on a limb, and that was in 1990. When Steve left the band, we were still signed to Polygram. We got a new singer, guy named Tony O'Hora. He was kind of a good singer. He didn’t have the power there, but he was a great front man. We were doing some new demos and stuff. And all of a sudden, we were told they were gonna release all of the band from Polygram. And the next thing that came along was the grunge scene. As we were looking for a new label, we were told that thrash was in the back seat, and nobody wanted to sign us. And that was virtually the end of it.
During the time when Onslaught was not a band, did you do anything musically?
Yeah, I did a couple of projects after. One which was really quite good. We were so close to sign with the Sanctuary Management, which was Iron Maiden's management. They were that close to taking us on board, then something happened and it never happened again. I was just getting so disappointed in the music industry at that time. We were again so near, and then so far, and it seems to take away the fire. It was a band called The Power Junkies. It was sort of Sex Pistols meets Metallica type thing, very raw, earthy, kind of punk with a metal edge. It was kind of interesting, and there was a lot of interest from Sony in Japan. And Rod Smallwood was looking at it with our old A & R guy from Polygram. They were working together at the time. And it all was looking very positive, and in the last minute, it all got turned up on its head and it never happened. And that was like a second kick in the teeth for me within a couple of years. I couldn't take these nut backs anymore, so I just decided to knock it on the edge.
What caused Onslaught to eventually re-form?
We found out that a label in the U.K. had re-released our first two albums. It was unbeknown to us for a quite a while. We had not heard nothing about it, we had not received any royalties, anything. But, we got wind of it, tracked it down, and found out the albums had been selling phenomenally well. And then you start to do research on the Internet, which is now available, where you can see people talking about the band. There was a kind of metal resurgence going on. I guess it all came together because of that. We felt we've had a lot of stuff left unfinished, you know.
When you were putting together your first reunion album, "Killing Peace," you probably had a lot of prove, especially knowing how you'd parted away from the scene, right?
Definitely, yeah. We were kind of pissed off about what happened. It took a while for us to find our feet. The direction we were gonna go to get back into writing after all this time. Once we've written our first song, and we knew our direction, everything kind of fell in place. It all became very easy to write the rest of the material.
After the album came out, did you feel you were recapturing your fan base?
We knew it was gonna take a long time. We've been away for so long, you can't expect for people to come back straight away, and get back to the heights we were at before. So, it was gonna take a lot of hard work, which we've been putting in over the period of the last 6-7 years.
The next two released were live. It was a DVD (Live Polish Assault) and a live record (Live Damnation.) Was there any pressure on you to prove yourself live?
No, not really. Very good opportunities were coming along, and you grasp them I guess as soon as they come along. We've got the offer of doing the DVD, which we've never done before. I mean, it's very well made, and put together by Metal Mind Productions. Even though if you look at it now, it's totally non-representative of the band that is in 2012. But at the time, it did a very good job for us, and it sold really good numbers. It's given us a lot of exposure.
Last year, when you released "Sounds of Violence," it once again re-defined your status. It was an unbelievably strong album. In a way very reminiscent of how "The Force" was your second album that broke the ground for you. This is the second studio album since reforming, and it appears to be doing just the same job.
Yeah, exactly. That's how we feel. "Sounds of Violence" is again the important second album, for the second time. It's been fantastic. "Sounds of Violence" has probably been best received of any Onslaught albums ever. If we look across the board, the reviews, as you said, it's similar circumstances "The Force" was. But, I think this album is more representative of the band now. Obviously "The Force" was our landmark at the time, but we've at least matched that one, and took another step forward.
Considering how late it came out in your overall career, where did the inspiration come from?
We've had a new guitarist join, since we've done "Killing Peace," and admittedly, all the other albums had been written solely by myself. Andy (Rosser-Davies) came into the band with a lot of ideas, and wanted to be actively involved in the songwriting, and we've written an album together as a unit. Me and him, 50/50, every idea bouncing off each other. It really sort of gave us a lot of inspiration. It worked together, and we were really excited making that record. So many ideas kicking around, so many different feelings about it, and obviously again "Killing Peace" came back with good reviews, and we wanted take that to the next level. We've seen what's going on, and we wanted to be a band that appeals to a lot of young kids as well now. We wanted to move on, we didn't want to stay static, and just appeal to our old fans. If we wanted do that we'd go back and make another "Power from Hell," or another "The Force," but there is no point in that. We wanted to make a record that the old fans loved, but we wanted to embrace a new generation at the same time.
Are you currently working on new material?
Yeah, we're not allowed to wait four years. It was four years between "Killing Peace," and "Sounds of Violence." We've been told we got 2 years this time, so we're halfway through the writing. We've got 4-5 songs written so far. And it sounds very good!
You finally made it to U.S. this time around. How are you being received?
Fantastic, the response had been amazing all the way through. The attendance had been up and down, there is been a few slightly dodgy ones, nothing completely disastrous, but even on the lower attendance shows the fans had been amazing! I mean if put a thousand fans of that, it would be the craziest gig you'll ever see. For both band, us, and M-Pire of Evil, it's been fantastic.
I was recently thinking about all of the former members of Onslaught, and on the funny side, those guys could form at least three full versions of Onslaught.
(Laughter) Well, they could, but none of them has ever written a song. That was the trip (laughter,) so they can go fuck themselves (more laughter.) We still got less member changes than Testament for example. I think we stand around 15. But like I've said, those guys can't write any material.