Good day to you Mr Rockett – thanks for taking the time to talk to us about one of British thrash metal’s greatest albums. This interview is part of our classics track-by-track series, so we’ll come to The Force very shortly, but first I wanted to ask you what was the feeling within the band as you went in to the recording of the album? “There was so much happening at that time. We’d only been together about three years but obviously we’d already released the Power From Hell album, and six months after that we signed to Music for Nations! MFN was always a label we wanted to be involved with, because they were releasing all the classic bands – Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, et cetera – and we aspired to that sort of level. So to sign to them was great. So yes, the feeling going into the studio was really positive. We were very excited”.
On the face of it there’s quite a stylistic change between Power From Hell and The Force isn’t there? Was that as you say the result of three years together leading to an organic change in the songwriting process, or was it very much a band decision to write to a more straight ahead thrash template? “No, it was simply the fact that we’d learned to play better, you know? (laughs). We’d only been playing a few months when the band formed, so obviously as we became better musicians we were able to write better songs. So it wasn’t a conscious thought of ‘let’s change style’ it was more ‘well, we can play this now, so let’s move on to something a bit more intricate’”.
Now we’ve set the scene a little, let’s get into the album. Track one side one was Let There Be Death. “I think that was one of the later tracks I’d written, maybe the last actually. It’s probably one of my favourite tracks on the album. I really don’t remember too much about the writing of it. The only song we really talked about a lot while writing was the next track, Metal Forces, which was very tuneful compared to our normal style. We weren’t sure whether to go with it or maybe keep it aside for the third album. But everyone got their heads around it and it turned out to be one of the most popular tracks on the album. We’re still playing it today and the fans are still loving it so it must have been alright!”
At the time Metal Forces stood out as a sort of ‘potential single’ didn’t it? Just that refrain ’metal forces’ made it stand out. “Yeah, definitely, and it had that single note, hooky riff which worked well. We were apprehensive but when the album came out everyone seemed to love it”.
Some of our readers may not be aware of the British magazine Metal Forces that was around at the time The Force came out. Did it’s editor Bernard Doe like the fact you’d named a song after his mag? “I think he was happy. It’s a great name for a magazine, and a great name for a song… he was pleased we gave him a nod after all that he’d done for us since the beginning”
It was very different in those days, wasn’t it – kids today have all the music they could ever need at the touch of a button. Magazines like Metal Forces were worth their weight in gold for bands like Onslaught weren’t they? “Oh yeah, definitely. We were very lucky in the early days in that we had a lot of support from the British Press… Like you say there was no internet and it was very hard to spread the word across to America, Japan… it was reliant on tape trading and snail mail basically!”
How did we ever survive? Track three on the album was Fight With the Beast. “Another one of my favourites. It’s one of the most energetic tracks, and a bit different because it’s not in the key we usually play in. That made it stand out alongside Metal Forces. I think on the vinyl release the three tracks on side one were definitely the strongest. I think we were inclined to load up side one with all the best tracks to get hold of everybody’s attention!”
I think you do yourself a bit of a disservice, but really you won’t find many better sides of music than side one of The Force. “Thanks. Obviously I agree! It worked for us. Although there were maybe a couple of weaker tracks on the other side I think it works as a whole. The second side is a little bit darker, so it suited everyone’s tastes I guess”.
What do you do these days? Do you still put a couple of the more memorable tracks up front on a CD? How do you select the running order for a CD as opposed to a vinyl record? “It takes a lot more thinking out really. The way I try to work it is to put a couple of strong tracks at the front and another strong one at the very end. Maybe something with a different tempo at number three and then mix it up from there. But it really is quite a hard job planning out the track listing on a CD these days. We’ll probably change the order six or seven times trying to see which tracks sound better following one another”
Well, that’s side one dealt with… Side Two opened up with Demoniac. “We still play it live. It’s got a bouncy kind of feel to it. Always gets the circle pit going! It’s still great to play! We played the album in its entirety for a couple of years around the thirtieth anniversary. We played pretty much everywhere apart from Australia! Demoniac is one of those songs that gets people moving. The lyrics are very dark. One of our roadies at the time was very much into Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey. He introduced me to them. And the lyrics were heavily influenced by their teaching. All of the tracks on this side of the album are darker lyrically than on side one”.
Certainly from it’s title you’d expect next track Flame of the Antichrist to be quite dark. “Yes! (more laughter). That’s got my favourite intro of any of our songs. It’s so heavy and sludgy but turns into something quite manic! Again it goes down very well live… when we were mixing it we had lots of issues in the studio. There were some strange events going on! Everyone in the band will back me up on this – we weren’t just making stuff up… the guy who did the engineering on the mix was freaking out. Wherever he set the delays on the outboard equipment, they just kept reverting to 666 milliseconds! He’d set it to 445 and by the time he’d walked back to the desk it was back at 666! It was insane! At one point when we were mixing this song we decided to wrap things up for the day. As we left the mix room I noticed a speaker moving. I said to the engineer ‘mate have you not switched the speakers off?’ and he said ‘it’s not even plugged in!’ but it was pulsing! The studio got burgled as well while we were there… it was kind of spooky”.
How much of the album was written by the time you signed for MFN? “I think a lot of it was written. We released Power from Hell in February 1985, and then signed to Music for Nations in October of that year. Then The Force came out in early ’86. We were working really hard on everything; working hard on our ability to play, which translated to our songwriting. We were rehearsing a lot. Obviously as we became more proficient as musicians we wanted to write better songs, so everything was geared for writing quickly. I think we had all but two songs written when we signed. I don’t think they even asked to hear any of them when they signed us though! Everything was based on Power From Hell and the reputation we were getting for ourselves live”.
I saw you at the Hammersmith Palais supporting Anthrax, as well as a couple of other places. You certainly were getting the miles in. “We played all over the country. We’d done a London show at The Royal Standard in Walthamstow, a lot of shows up north and a lot of shows in and around our hometown of Bristol. The name was definitely out there and it was certainly that reputation that got us signed to Music for Nations”.
Back to the album – the penultimate track was Contract in Blood. “For me probably the weakest track on the album. It’s a slower tempo, and it just lacks a bit of the energy of the other material. I still like the riffs but it isn’t as strong as the other tracks on the album. The fans still liked it when we played it live but I didn’t get the same buzz from the song as Metal Forces or Fight With the Beast”.
Then we’ll dwell no more upon’t. The closing track was Thrash Til the Death. “Another little fast one there! When we played it on The Force anniversary tour it was the first time we’d played it in ages. And I don’t think we played it much when the album came out either. It went down incredibly well so it’s something we’ll look at keeping in the set in the future because it has so much energy. It’s a real stormer”.
Looking back now, with thirty two years of hindsight, where would you place the album in the overall Onslaught canon? It was a very important album, wasn’t it? “I think it was the most important one. It’s the album that elevated the band to be able to get a major record deal, which kinda went a little bit wrong (laughs)… we went out and played in support of The Force with Motörhead which were great shows. It was the album that really broke us, took us to another level, gave us a footing which established us for the rest of our career, really. And even now, it’s a major part of what we do. I don’t think we’d be allowed to do shows without playing material from that album! Every show we ever do we play at least three tracks from The Force”.