The Band: Gatekeeper
Answers by: Jeff Black (guitar)
Originally formed in 2009 as a solo project by guitarist Geoff Blackwell, their new album “East Of Sun” boasts a mixture of older, unreleased material written by Blackwell which are complemented by live staples that have recently been updated. A band to follow by every epic heavy metal maniac. All the details in this cool conversation with boss Geoff.
Hi Geff! after some splits and eps this first full-length album "East Of Sun" takes us totally by surprise with its magic, kind of an unexpected appearance, do you have that same feeling?
Thank you! I'm glad to hear that people are enjoying the album. This lineup of the band is relatively fresh but we spent about 6 months working on this album so it felt like it has been in the oven for a long time. However, the positive reaction we've been getting to the album has been very exciting and helped bring some more immediacy to how we want the band to run.
Cruz Del Sur Music, that has a special eye to reveal new bands, were quick to sign you?
Yeah, it was pretty quick process I think. We only emailed a handful of labels, some were ones that we'd worked with before. Cruz Del Sur gave us immediate interest and requested some demo songs right away. After some discussion we settled on a deal that we were both satisfied with and we've been working with their team to come up with the strongest album release possible with our music. It goes without saying that we're very pleased to be a part of Cruz Del Sur Music as they have released a ton of music that we enjoy from bands who we consider our influences and others we consider our contemporaries.
As far as I know this "East Of Sun" is a collection of old compositions never released before and some songs you just played live, right?
There is a mixture of stuff on the record. Some of the songs I wrote years ago that I pitched to the current lineup. Some are older songs from previous releases that we were still playing live, and a couple are brand new songs written by the whole group. Most of the songs have my writing stamp on them in some way but the rest of the band brings their own style and attention to detail into the songs which makes them more interesting I think. Our singer JP wrote all the lyrics in the newer songs and also re-wrote all the vocals in “North Wolves”, which is from the first EP from 2013.
That nature can be percieved in the variety of styles, from the speed metal of Blade Of Cimmeria to some more heavy songs as Warrior Without Fear or the doom of tracks as Oncoming Ice, what do you think, Jeff?
I think you're correct. The song “Blade of Cimmeria” definitely caught some people off-guard, which is what we wanted. We did our best to write an album where each song stands on its own and says something different from the others while still making sense in the context of the band and the people playing in it. I really don't want to fall into the trap of playing every song in the same tempo, the same key, the same themes. I want to see how far we can stretch the “Epic Heavy Metal” tag that we've been associated with.
That array of sounds takes us to the next question, what can we expect for your next work? Do you have any trend already clear in terms of style?
We're already working on new material and there is definitely a lot of the Epic Metal stuff in there. I would say that there's more of a US Heavy Metal sound happening too. I've been listening to a lot of non-metal stuff lately too—British folk rock, jazz fusion, Indian classical music and prog rock for example. I don't plan on releasing a smooth jazz album anytime soon but I think it's healthy to listen to stuff outside to metal spectrum to keep your perspective fresh and down to earth.
I agree with you and your words just arises high expectations for your next work. The songs on "East Of Sun" were re-recorded altogether or it was more a process of picking up material from different stages?
The drums and rhythm tracks were all recorded in the span of 4 days and the rest of the record was tracked across 6 months. We had to spread out the recording due to the studio schedule as it was also a recording school, so we had to work around the student schedules. Also, our singer JP lived in Portland until earlier this year so we had to work with the long distance. I did almost all the guitars in the summer of 2017 and I would usually get into the studio at 9pm, record until 6am, then work from 8am-5pm, then take a nap at home and do it all over again. It was tough but I don't mind making sacrifices and pushing myself for the art. So everything you hear is taken from the same studio from the same sessions, it's just that the sessions had lots of time between them.
In terms of lyrics, “East Of Sun” is inspireed by a book of Scandinavian folk tales, right?
The title was inspired by this book, yes. However the lyrics come from a variety of places. JP wrote most of them, but in general they are songs about things going on in his life but with fantasy imagery and metaphors used to represent them. JP would tell you that Dio is his biggest influence there. I wrote a song about Beowulf (“Swan Road Saga”) and another based on the Robert E. Howard story “The Hours of the Dragon (“Bell of Tarantia”). Of course, some of the songs are just about fun, cool things like swords, snake cults and overcoming adversity.
If you pay attention to the cover design by Duncan Storr even before listening one single note, epic music is what comes to my mind
That's exactly what we wanted! We knew we needed top quality artwork for the album in order to catch people's attention. Duncan listened to some demo tracks, went into his vault and came back with the painting that you see on our cover. We fell in love with it instantly. Duncan was also kind enough to add in a few details for us, such as the sword and the tattoo on the character's shoulder. It was one of those lucky things—it was as if the painting had been sitting there waiting for us.
Your music can be compared to some classic bands such as Omen, early Manowar, Manilla Road… But if we think of more recent bands I guess Atlantean Kodex is the nearest point… Have the German guys got a strong competition from the other side of the ocean?
Haha, well it's no secret that I've had a musical relationship with the Kodex guys since the early days. Manuel was a supporter of the band at the beginning and their drummer Mario even played drums on a few demo tracks, which can be heard on the CD split we did with Eternal Champion on No Remorse records. I had started writing some songs before I discovered Atlantean Kodex so I didn't mean to sound like them, but when I heard them it was definitely an inspiration to hear a band doing something similar to what I wanted to do. We also got compared to Solstice a lot too, which is fair.
Now that I've had some time to develop my skills on guitar and now that the other guys in the band are contributing musical ideas, it's definitely blossomed into different areas. We've been getting lots of comparisons to Omen and Manowar and even 90's Bathory which makes a lot of sense to me.
Top names. Geoff Blackwell, that’s you, is the guy responsible for the creation of the band, that was born as a solo project. In what moment did you give the step to a full-members band?
Aye aye, that's me. I decided to bring other members into the picture when the demos I'd put online started getting some attention from people in the Epic Metal community. Manuel from Kodex and Pilgrim from Funeral Circle in particular urged me to put a band together and start playing gigs. I believe the first gigs happened in 2011. In late 2014 I moved to Vancouver, BC and after about a year I put together the new lineup that you hear on the album.
The display of riffs and solos in the "East Of Sun" is absolutely devastating!
Thanks a lot! Glad to hear you're enjoying it. I wrote and recorded the majority of the riffs you hear but only two of the guitar solos are mine. Our lead guitarist Kenny tore up his fretboard in the studio and came up with a lot of really badass leads and solos. He's got a fantastic ear and a razor-sharp sense of how heavy metal guitar should sound. I hoping that some of his own riffs will appear on the newer material.
However, I would like to remark also the overwhelming performance by Jean-Pierre Abboud, again, the parallelism with Atlantean Kodex and his great vocalist Markus Becker is unavoidable
JP brings a lot to the table for sure. He and I have been in touch for many years and his old band Borrowed Time started about the time as Gatekeeper did. He's always had a pretty unique, dynamic style and it's been great to watch him grow and develop over the years. To be honest I hear more parallels with David DeFeis (Virgin Steele), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian) and even John Arch (Fates Warning) than Becker, but that's just me.
You are right, Jeff. You have included two covers as a bonus tracks in the cd version, Omen’s “Death Rider” and Savatage’s “Hall Of The Mountain King”, any special reason for that?
Our drummer Tommy is a total animal behind the kit and finished his drum tracks in half the time we expected, so we decided to go ahead and use some of the spare time to record a couple cover songs that we'd played at our gigs. We did the rhythm tracks live off the floor with no click track and just had fun with them. Omen and Savatage are favourites of ours and we'd gotten some great feedback from playing them live so we figured they would make good choices. We thought it would be interesting to cover these songs than other more popular crowd-pleasers songs that we play.
A good move, I love both bands. After listening to "East Of Sun" the question that arise in my mind is clear: when will you seat and start composing new songs for what should be the confirmation of this great appetizer that is "East Of Sun"?
We're already working on it! We've got a couple new songs totally written and demo'd and we've got piles of new ideas that we're chipping away at between gigs and rehearsals. The stuff we're working on now is mostly written by the group as a whole but some of the other guys are spear-heading their own song ideas and a couple of them might come from my vault of older song ideas too. I'm hoping we can end up with maybe a dozen songs and them pick out the best to use on the next record.
Excellent. What are your immmediate plans?
Gigs, gigs, GIGS! Our album release party is April 27th at the Keep It True festival in Germany and we will do a local release in Vancouver on May 12th, plus a slew of other appearances across Western Canada. In 2019 we will return to Europe for the Hell Over Hammaburg festival and other dates surrounding that. There are so many things in the works that it's hard to remember everything sometimes.
Bigtime, ya! Thank you very much Jeff for the interestoing interviedw and congratulations for your great album, if you wish to add something…
Thanks so much to everyone out there listening, reading and watching our stuff. The support means the world to us.