Here in the US, we don't often get to hear much music from Australia, but the extreme metal world will soon be talking about the powerful band Be'lakor, whose latest album Stone's Reach is a stellar follow-up to their impressive debut The Frail Tide from 2007. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with keyboard player Steven Merry recently to talk about the history of the band, the new CD, and the future of this progressive death metal force known as Be'lakor
SoT: How is the heavy metal scene in Australia these days?
Steven: That's a very tough question to answer. International bands which tour Australia are extremely well supported. For example, Opeth and Amon Amarth are about to return to Australia (on separate tours) for the second time in a year or so! The crowds at these shows are always very big and enthusiastic. However, Australia's metal fans aren't as active in supporting Australia's own bands. We have noticed that European listeners seem to actively seek out little-known bands, whereas many Australian and American metal fans tend to wait until the bands find them (by virtue of being signed to large labels or being played a lot of television and radio). Having said this, though, the Aussie fans that do follow our scene are awesome! Our local metal gigs are intimate and friendly, with great relationships developing between bands and fans.
SoT: Be'lakor are probably pretty new to many metal listeners - can you give us a bit of history on the band?
Steven: Sure – we formed in 2004, but didn't really start writing music and playing gigs properly until 2005. In 2007 we released The Frail Tide, which we recorded ourselves and released entirely independently. We followed that up in 2009 with Stone's Reach. This album was released in Australia by Prime Cuts Music, and is going to be licensed in Europe by two smaller European labels (more news on that in late 2009)! We have played a number of live shows around Australia but we're yet to tour outside of our own country.
SoT: What were some early influences for yourself and the rest of the band members, as far as genres, other acts, or musicians go?
Steven: We draw our influences from many sources and it differs for each member of the band. It's true that many of the "classic" melodic/doom/progressive death metal bands have influenced us, but we also listen quite widely. I think the sort of qualities that attract listeners to this genre of music – dramatic, powerful, melancholy melodies – can easily be found throughout other sorts of music. On this basis, that is how I would describe our music. We've always been driven to make music that has those qualities rather than aiming for "x or y metal" in particular. In terms of where we are going, we don't really have a grand scheme – we take the comments of our listeners on board – but I think with creative projects like song writing it is best to let the course develop naturally.
SoT: The music of Be'lakor is very epic in scope, and combines elements from death metal, progressive rock, and even a bit of pagan/folk metal. How would you describe Be'lakor to a new listener?
Steven: I'd describe it as interesting and primarily very melodic music! I'd say it's underpinned by moods such as sadness, regret, reflection and a kind of controlled aggression. I would also suggest giving one song a few listens so that the many riffs and ideas can be properly absorbed, because I think it does take a few listens.
SoT: The debut album, The Frail Tide, was a pretty mature release for a debut – how do you feel that Stone's Reach has taken the band to the next level?
Steven: Whilst we're really happy with our debut, we do feel that there were some riffs on that album that weren't as well developed as they could have been. Stone's Reach feels to us like a more complete album which involved more careful thought, and a lot more time to write. We feel that on our second album we have moved closer towards having the right balance between memorable, moving, 'catchy' music and technically interesting music. This is an ideal for which we'll continue to strive.
SoT: How has feedback been so far to Stone's Reach?
Steven: Overall we are very happy with how the album has been received. The greatest pleasure, of course, comes from hearing that our fans are enjoying the new album (especially those who have supported us since the very early days, even before The Frail Tide was released). In terms of the reviews, most have been very positive. Obviously being a fairly new band that is trying to expand to reach a more global audience, our music has been compared to other works, especially those by bands such as Insomnium and Dark Tranquillity. We can see some similarities, but we do feel that overall we offer something quite different to those bands.
SoT: Do you guys play live there in Australia? Any plans to take the new album on the road to perhaps Europe or the US?
Steven: We play in Australia roughly once a month. Any more than that would probably be overkill. We recently toured around and visited many of Australia's biggest cities to promote Stone's Reach, and that was a great experience. We certainly have an eye on Europe and the US for future tours, but really, we need to be careful about ensuring that when we do head across to play in those places, we've planned everything thoroughly. A financially viable overseas tour is a difficult thing to arrange, but we're keen to do it.
SoT: You can hear bits of Opeth, Amorphis, Amon Amarth, and Dark Tranquillity in the music of Be'lakor. Were any of these bands important in the formation of your sound or musical direction?
Steven: Of those bands, only Opeth and Dark Tranquillity were being listened to by the members of Be'lakor when we formed. At that stage (back in 2004) we had never heard of Amon Amarth, Amorphis, or Insomnium. Some of the early music by In Flames was another influence. But for me, it was bands such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and even the Beach Boys, when I was growing up, that I listened to a lot and probably drew influence from. George listens to a huge range of metal bands, including Cannibal Corpse, Emperor, Nile and Nevermore. Shaun listens very widely as well, with Metallica having been a factor in his development as a lead guitarist. On top of these elements, we have Greek and Celtic folk influences. So it really is a very large pool from which we draw inspiration.
SoT: Many of the tunes on the new CD are pretty lengthy, and the band seems quite adept at creating epic styled songs. Who does most of the song writing, and how hard is it to create lengthy pieces that are able to keep the interest of the listener intact?
Steven: Song writing is my favourite part of what we do as a band. Most of the band members write riffs and ideas in their own time, and then these are brought along and shared as a group. The riffs or pieces that everyone in the band likes are selected for use. We then sit down and arrange the riffs, and discuss ways in which they can be changed, adapted, extended, and so on. Often we look for riffs with similar feels or themes so that they connect more naturally. We believe that our songs potentially hold more interest for the listener than a three or four minute song containing only 4-5 riffs, because an eight minute song with 11-12 riffs will have a longer lifespan, and take longer to "get to know." Once the listener really knows the longer song, it is hopefully a more rewarding experience, and more like a journey when listening to it. Of course, not everyone agrees with us on this – we have been criticised for writing songs that are too long, or which seem to be unstructured. All we can do is politely disagree, and continue to make the music that we like, I suppose!
SoT: The band manages to inject plenty of keyboards into their sound, which play off nice against all the complex guitar riffs. Are you hoping to reach out to the many progressive metal fans out there by using these types of arrangements?
Steven: No, this is not our aim at all. As the keyboardist, my aim is simply to complement what is happening in the music, because 80-90% of what we write is guitar-based. This does not mean that riffs written by me must be played on keyboard, of course – we always discuss with any riff whether it is best played on guitar or keyboard. On Stone's Reach I think there are about 6 keyboard/piano leads on the whole album, and the rest of the time I am simply adding to the mood and feel of the music.
SoT: What are some of the current bands on the scene that you listen to and admire?
Steven: On the world metal scene, my personal favourites right now are Enslaved (their last 3 albums in particular are extremely creative), Agalloch, and Opeth (but mainly for their first 5 albums). In Australia, I think Voyager are fantastic, along with Ne Obliviscaris, The Ocularis Infernum, Ruins and Psycroptic.
SoT: What does the next 2-3 years look like for Be'lakor?
Steven:We haven't discussed as a group exactly how to handle the next 2 years. However, we have already started writing new material – that seems to be part of us that cannot be quelled. Obviously another one of our main aims over the next year or two is to keep reaching out into Europe and other parts of the world to find new listeners, with the possibility of some overseas touring at some point during that period.
(Click here to read our review of Stone's Reach