Leave it to a band like Primal Fear to make a heavy-metal themed political statement, right? Well, um, right — actually. On its fifth album Devil's Ground, the German band heretofore known as pretenders to the Judas Priest crown declare hell is war – and anything else its members deem reprehensible. "Hell is a symbol for the bad stuff," guitarist Tom Naumann, happy to be back in the band he co-founded after taking a two-album leave of absence, told Sea of Tranquility's Michael Popke, "The lyrics on Devil's Ground are not about hell, literally. They are about the war in Iraq, personal demons and what's going on beneath the surface."
You didn't think a band that plays songs with titles like "Living For Metal" and "Metal Is Forever" could write songs of such lyrical depth without sacrificing musical muscle, did you? Well, give a listen to "Suicide and Mania," a dark, fast and heavy corker of a tune that's actually based on a true story. "Ralf knew a guy who thought he was being stalked and so he crashed his car and killed himself," Naumann explains. "When I read the lyrics, I thought, 'These are strange.' To wit: "This must be real, no fantasy/They're watching and destroying me/I'll crash my car against a wall/A silent scream, a final call/A funeral march."
That said, don't give Primal Fear too much credit for provoking deep thoughts. All the members of Primal Fear ever wanted to do since Naumann, ex-Gamma Ray singer Ralf Scheepers and Sinner bassist Mat Sinner hooked up in 1998 to form Primal Fear is bang their heads. "We got together in my living room and recorded a demo," Naumann recalls. "After that, we drank some beers and smoked some cigarettes, and that's how it all started."
With Scheepers' pipes cast in the same mold as Rob Halford's, Sinner's savvy shaping of melody and rhythm into memorable heavy-metal hymns and Naumann's riffing – he describes himself as a "Zakk Wylde rock 'n' roll guy with my Les Paul hanging down to my knees" – Primal Fear proceeded to make metal music that has weathered a storm of criticism, particularly accusations that the band sounds too much like Pain Killer-era Judas Priest.
"We never thought about sounding like Judas Priest," Naumann, 38, says, getting a tad defensive. "Ralf's voice is similar to Halford's – but the guitar riffs aren't similar to Priest, the drums aren't similar to Priest. We don't give a shit about that. We write songs. That's it. We don't try to sound like anyone. I hope we have left those comparisons behind. In the beginning, it was OK, because it was a cool comparison. But, hey, that's how Ralf's voice sounds. You can't change it."
That said, the sound of the band as a whole has changed over the course of five albums, beginning with 1998's self-titled debut, 1999's Jaws of Death, 2001's Nuclear Fire and 2002's Black Sun. After the relentless, one-dimensional assault of Black Sun, the band realized that they don't need to pulverize listeners with faster-than-thou songs. There wasn't a lot of variety on that album, which is why Devil's Ground sounds so refreshing.
"When we sat down and talked about what we wanted to do on this album, my view was that we had to combine the strength of the first album with what we learned from the ones that followed it," Sinner told Canada's Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine in April. "I felt that we had to pay closer attention to the melodies, the riffs and the hooks, and spend more time on the vocals."
In the magazine, Sinner credits the return of Naumann – who was replaced by former Thunderhead guitarist Henny Wolder on Nuclear Fire and Black Sun – with helping craft tighter songs and bigger riffs.
Packed with plenty of anthems ("Metal Is Forever," "In Metal" and "Colony 13"), a couple of slow-burning hymns ("The Healer" and "Wings of Desire") and just enough traditional metal ("Sea of Flames," "Sacred Illusion," "Suicide and Mania"), Devil's Ground swells with more class than any previous Primal Fear record since the debut.
Granted, the Priest influences are still there (but not as much) and Primal Fear's brand of screeching melodic power metal is really nothing new. But Scheepers, Sinner, Naumann, second guitarist Stefan Leibing (added to the lineup for Jaws of Death) and new drummer Randy Black (formerly of Annihilator, replacing Klaus Sperling) forge their own collective identity here more than on any other Primal Fear disc, making Devil's Ground the group's best album — discounting, that is, the spoken-word title track about going to hell and being stuck there forever. If you're new to the band, this is the perfect place to start. If you're a longtime fan, this is the record you've been waiting for.
More good news for U.S.-based fans is that the quintet makes its only North American stop in Cleveland this year at the BW&BK 6-Pack Weekend on June 5. "I don't think the fans should expect anything from us, because when we arrive in Cleveland, we will be totally jet-lagged," Naumann laughs, before reciting a potential set list that will consist of "pure heavy metal power and aggression" with such songs as "Chainbreaker," "Nuclear Fire," "Final Embrace" and "Angel in Black." The band is also rehearsing practically the entire Devil's Ground album, but focusing on "Metal Is Forever, "Suicide and Mania," "Visions of Fate," "The Healer," "Colony 13" and "Heart of a Brave."
The last time Primal Fear invaded the States was on the aborted 2003 Gods of Metal Tour with Halford, Testament and other, lesser bands. Less than halfway into that four-and-a-half-week jaunt across America, the promoter pulled the plug because of contractual trouble – which Naumann says translated to not enough money. Those couple weeks, however, went much better for Primal Fear than Naumann expected, helping to expand the band's U.S. fan base and garnering the players some new pals. "I thought, 'Woe is me,' when we joined the tour," he says. "But it turned out great. I made a lot of new friends on that tour."
Primal Fear plan to continue touring throughout the rest of 2004 – including gigs with Freedom Call and Metallium in Europe. But Naumann doesn't rule out more U.S. dates. The band is expected to enter the studio in March 2005 to begin work on the follow-up to Devil's Ground.
"People ask me, 'Do you really think metal is forever?' " Naumann says, referring to the opening track on Devil's Ground. "Hell, yeah. Definitely. Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park aren't bad bands. They're trendy and fashionable. But I'm not sure you will listen to their kind of music in five or six years. And how many grunge bands are still around? Pearl Jam. And they really didn't even make grunge music. There is a strong and increasing fan base for heavy metal music. And it makes me feel young again."