It has been a decade since bay area thrashers heathen released their last album the evolution of chaos. guitarist kragen lum talks to velvet thunder about the band’s reformation in the new milennium and brings us right up to date with the story of the astonishing new album empire of the blind.
It cannot be denied that when talking about the thrash metal scene, San Francisco’s Bay Area is its beating heart. No disrespect is intended towards the East Coast or any of the other pivotal US bands and there is no forgetting the European contingent either – all had a hand in the thrash scene but the Bay Area? It was the ignition point, it lit the fire. And while the Metallica has earned their headline status of the Bay Area there is a considerable list of acts that have pumped blood into that beating heart and making it one of metal’s defining genres. It has to be said that while some bands enjoyed plenty of attention, there were others that played an important role but did not always receive the recognition they deserved and one such band is Heathen.
Heathen was formed by the one consistent member guitarist Lee Altus along with drummer Carl Sacco in 1984, later recruiting vocalist Sam Kress and second guitarist Jim Sanguinetti. It was in 1985 and shortly after their first gig that Kress and Sanguinetti left the band to be replaced by David White (formerly Godfrey) on vocals and Doug Piercy on guitar. It was this line up that earned themselves a formidable reputation around the Bay Area leading to the recording of the legendary Pray For Death demo which in turn led to Heathen signing to Combat Records. Heathen’s critically acclaimed debut album Breaking The Silence was released in May 1987 attained some commercial success, not hindered by airplay of Set Me Free – a song originally recorded by Glam rock band, Sweet. There were more line up changes with both Sacco and White leaving the band – in 1988 and 1989 respectively – with White briefly replaced by both Metal Church’s David Wayne and original Exodus vocalist Paul Baloff. David White returned to Heathen in 1990 and in 1991, the band’s second album Victims Of Deception was released on Roadrunner Records. There were more personnel changes and eventually, Heathen went on hiatus in 1993.
It was another nine years before the members of Heathen get together again. “It’s a weird and interesting story, it’s sort of backwards from how you would imagine it, “says guitarist Kragen Lum. “In 2001, I went with some friends to the Bay Area to go to the Thrash Of The Titans concert, the benefit for [Testament front man] Chuck Billy and [late Death mastermind] Chuck Schuldiner. Heathen had reformed for that show along with a bunch of other Bay Area thrash bands that weren’t together at that point. After the show, I was talking with a friend who was working with one of the bigger record companies and I asked him if he knew of any singers that would be a good fit for my band Prototype as we were considering getting a separate singer. This guy recommended David White, I got in touch with David and he came down to Los Angeles to audition for my band. It didn’t work out but he stayed in touch with the other guitar player Vince over the next few years and when Heathen was looking for a guitar player, they called and asked if either one of us would want to go up and audition. I said yes and I learned four songs – if I remember right – Hypnotised, Opiate Of The Masses, Dying Season and Arrows Of Agony. We played through the songs a couple of times and then they asked me if I wanted to join the band. It was an interesting path, not the one that you would expect with David originally coming down to audition for my band.”
The 2001 Thrash Of The Titans benefit gig that Kragen attended is a major moment in thrash history and is considered to be a catalyst for the resurgence of thrash. Kragen readily agrees. “Yeah, I would say that for the majority of those bands, that is what got Death Angel going again and Exodus to a certain extent – as well as Heathen. There were so many that activated after that and stayed active, there were some that didn’t but it was certainly a cool thing that started the fire for the Bay Area bands to begin working again.” The celebrations do seem to be continuing though, in 2020, Testament, Exodus and Death Angel took to the road across Europe under the banner of the The Bay Strikes Back which was a Bay Area fan’s dream line up. “It’s been cool to see all of those bands come back and be so consistent with their output,” says Kragen. “Some of those guys never let up, I have to admire those bands such as Testament who kept going no matter what. I think that it is the thing that sort of makes these Bay Area thrash bands, their persistence and dedication to playing this type of music and doing it at a high level.” It was missed in the 1990s, it was such a strange time for metal but was it just a lack of acceptance of change?. “The ‘90s was a dark time for our kind of music,” replies Kragen. “Pantera was king and bands like Sepultura with [1993 album] Chaos A.D., metal went more rhythmic and when I say that, I mean less melodic.” Naturally, this did impact on bands like Heathen that had such a strong start, there were changing times, attitudes were changing with the record buying public and this did have an effect on Heathen’s follow up album Victims Of Deception. “Victims is a highly regarded album by fans,” explains Kragen, “it just didn’t do well when it came out. Unfortunately, Heathen never had good timing or the credit it deserved and I say that from a fan perspective. Had Victims Of Deception been released in 1989 then it would have taken off.” Kragen makes a good point, two years earlier and Heathen would have been a freight train. Victims Of Deception was hardly a carbon copy of its predecessor either, a diverse follow up, the band had ramped up the technicality and was wildly progressive with it, at the right time and with the proper push it could have been a massive album for Heathen. “Life happens and we can’t block the course of everything, ” Kragen says without a hint of negativity.
Victims Of Deception is not an easy album to track down and beyond its original release in 1991 it was re-issued on CD in 2006 on Metal Mind. Hunting down a vinyl copy is no easy feat though. “Next year is the 30th anniversary and Heathen’s manager – which is me – [laughs] is working on a reissue to celebrate. We’re hoping to have a new version of Victims out next year which will be the same mix but proper remastering and not the digital remaster that was done for Metal Mind. Hopefully, there will be new vinyl and the cover art restored to its original dark colours which is not what everyone has seen. So, we’re working on it, there has been a lot of back and forth because the band doesn’t own the rights to the album and Roadrunner was sold to Warner Music. It’s been a complicated process but we’re going to make it happen for next year.” What is the deal with the original artwork and the original colours that have not been seen by everyone? “Roadrunner changed the colours of the artwork to be brighter,” explains Kragen. “It was dark and ominous; David actually has the original painting on his wall. They [Roadrunner] sort of made the art look ‘happier’ [laughs] which is a weird thing to do with a metal album. I think that what they were trying to do was make it ‘pop’ is what they call it, something to get your attention rather than the dark that it was. We’re going to put it the way that it should have been. It will be a cool release, we’re still trying to figure out what to do as to bonus content but we’re going to do what we can to make it a special release.”
Despite the Thrash Of The Titans benefit show re-energising Heathen, it was another eight years – and eighteen years since Victims Of Deception that the band released another album – which was to be The Evolution Of Chaos in 2009. Was there any one reason for the huge gap between those albums? “It was a number of things,” says Kragen. “The guys made what they thought was a great album in Victims, it came out but unfortunately it didn’t do well. Metal was on the decline and the band struggled for the next couple of years to find its footing and to keep things going. In 1995 Lee [Altus, guitar] was asked to join German industrial band Die Krupps and he was playing guitar for them for a few years. It wasn’t until 2001 when the band got back together and at the time, they thought that the Thrash Of The Titans was a one off, get back together, do the one show and that was it. Then there were offers to do [German metal festival] Wacken and some other festivals which is when the band decided to give it a go again. In true Heathen style, it took them a long while to get things up and running again.” Kragen pauses briefly. “I don’t think that the band ever lost desire to continue but you know, life takes different twists, and turns and they were along for the ride on some of those.”
The Evolution Of Chaos was released by Mascot Records in 2009 and it was an album that catapulted Heathen right into the 21st century. Modern sounding and jam packed with solid material, it was the record that Heathen needed to make and especially after such a long gap since their last album. At the question as to whether The Evolution Of Chaos was successful, Kragen does not answer directly. “It was highly regarded,” he says. “People thought that it was a great comeback record if you want to call it that. In some ways, the band sold itself short going with the label that released it. Mascot were not a metal focused label, they are more of a rock label with some metal releases. Nuclear Blast actually offered the band a deal and in hindsight it would have been better to have gone with them, more people would have definitely known about the album. As we’re marketing the new record, there were a lot of people that loved the first two Heathen records that didn’t even know The Evolution of Chaos had come out. We are all very proud of it and we released a 10th anniversary edition where we got to remaster it and the vinyl actually sounds good this time [laughs]. From my perspective, I wanted to see it come out again with bonus material and the extra song that we didn’t include the first time [Seasons In Purgatory], the DVD and a better mastering job. We are proud of that record and we wanted to put it into people’s hand and minds before the new album came out.”
Heathen did eventually sign with Nuclear Blast Records but as seems to be typical for the band, it was never a straight road. “That was a combination of events also,” explains Kragen. “We signed with Nuclear Blast in 2012 and we had been touring The Evolution Of Chaos for about three years and I started writing songs for the new record as soon as we signed. Between our touring schedule and the tour that I did with Exodus in 2013, I basically had the new album written by 2014 but at the time it was ‘when do we go? When do we record?’ Then at the beginning of 2015, I was asked again to fill in for Gary [Holt, Exodus and Slayer guitarist] in Exodus again and I ended up doing the touring for their [2014’s] Blood In, Blood Out album. Exodus’ tour schedule is very heavy so there was less time available to work on Heathen than any of us anticipated and there was a period of time of five years where I was writing at every chance I could get. It wasn’t until 2019 when I was more or less finished with my commitments to Exodus so that I could focus on Heathen. The band spent all of 2019 finishing up on writing, pre-production and recording the album. It wasn’t intended and we hoped to have had the record out in 2014 but things didn’t work out in the terms of timing for us, those twists and turns came up and we went for the ride again. I do actually have more music written and if covid-19 continues to hold us back from touring then there may be a new Heathen album more quickly this time.”
The mention of covid-19 is inevitable, the pandemic being in the way of so many aspects of people’s lives but a major thorn in the side of music and touring bands. Did covid-19 cause any problems for new album Empire Of The Blind? “No, the album was completely done, mixed, mastered and turned in to Nuclear Blast by January 2020,” says Kragen. “It was before all of this covid stuff happened and the only thing that caused us issues was the album release date itself. We were supposed to release Empire Of The Blind in June 2020 but we had no choice but to delay it by three months because retailers were not taking new music. The only choice we did have was whether we put out the album in September or hold for a whole year and wait until we can tour. We just felt that it was better to release the album, we’d made our fans wait ten years already and people need entertainment right now. We’re hoping that we can get people’s attention, get them to listen to the record and focus on it a little bit.
Having been lucky enough to live with Empire Of The Blind for several weeks, there is no way that fans will not be able to focus on the album because it is an absolute barn stormer of a record that Heathen and Bay Area fans are going to lap up. The sound, the songs, the instruments, everything about this album is what Bay Area thrash should sound like in 2020 and the anticipation for everyone to finally hear it is in Kragen Lum’s voice. “We’re really proud of the record and the way it came out,” says Kragen. “Everything about it from the songs to the sound, to the mix. We worked really hard to make that mixture of classic analogue and modern digital recording to have the songs sound crystal clear, with warmth and depth. We’re really happy how it came out, the band has always had diversity and variety in the music and lyrics. We just continued that and took everything to the next logical step.”
Thematically and lyrically, Empire Of The Blind is quite bleak which is fitting considering the state of the planet at the moment. “The lyrics to the song Empire Of The Blind and a lot of the political topics on the record focus on the use of propaganda in the media and on social media,” explains Kragen. There are a lot of people that are aware of what is happening and frankly just as many that are not aware, they don’t realise that they are being manipulated with what they read, see and hear on a daily basis. The album titled and the artwork is a warning of what could happen to our culture and society it we are not careful.” Thrash was never a genre to be backward in coming forward on its lyrical subject matter and one of the interesting aspects is the viewpoint on social issues, people and the world around us. Empire Of The Blind is not short of any of this. The first single The Blight is about human corruption and our desires for vanity; Sun In My Hand touches on dark times that we have to go through to reach our goals; In Black is the reality of facing death head on; Shrine Of Apathy reflects on the loss of a loved one and the overwhelming feeling of apathy while detailing with intense grief while The Gods Divine once again touches on politics, the media and corporations dividing the masses. These may not exactly be ‘hearts and flowers’ subject matter and are optimum for thrash territory but encapsulated with the music that is Empire Of The Blind, it is a thought provoking lyrical gauntlet worth running and one that many will be able to relate to.
Kragen Lum is not just the guitar player in Heathen. A man who started his first band in High School called Psychosis, a band that also featured current Heathen bass player Jason Mirza. Kragen grew up loving the Bay Area thrash sound but being based in Los Angeles meant that he was a few hundred miles too far south to be part of the Bay Area scene so he tried to bring the Bay to LA and began playing live at the age of 17. Kragen formed another band called Prototype but states that everything began to happen for him when he joined Heathen. Mr Lum is also something as a multi-tasker and as well as playing, he is also the band’s manager and chief song writer on Empire Of The Blind writing all twelve songs that make up the album. “I have fully embraced the modern method of song writing,” states Kragen. “I do a lot of the work at home, I write everything and record demos at my home studio and then send it to the guys to see what they think. Sometimes they have a good suggestion, sometimes they won’t and then in the studio they might come up with something. Heathen is always an open collaboration even though I wrote all of the songs on this record, there is no one person that is not a writer for this band, it is very open who ever has an idea. It was a lot of work for me to write all of the material but I felt that I really understood what the sound was and the great thing about this band is that they don’t follow the rules, there is a lot of creative freedom. We are able to do things like write a ballad because David has a great voice for that and we are able to do fast songs, slow songs, instrumentals or whatever comes to mind. It’s very freeing. Everybody is great about the material and I think that fans see Heathen as Lee’s band but even he doesn’t see it like that, he is very gracious and very open towards everybody contributing. It was the same for The Evolution Of Chaos, they welcomed my song writing contributions to that record. It’s a great group of guys we have, especially the new line up, it’s really feeling like a band, there is a great camaraderie.”
This new line up also features the drum powerhouse that is Jim DeMaria and while Lee Altus has been the only consistent member in the Heathen’s history, Kragen makes a good point as to how Lee feels as to it being ‘his’ band and the contributions to the song writing. Kragen is both warm and excitable as to his band mates and the album that they have created together. “Everyone worked so hard,” Kragen exclaims. “David put his all into the record, he’s got such a great voice and he is able to do so much with it and creatively, it’s awesome. We can do something heavy and if we need more emotive vocals he can do that too, it’s fantastic. We really can’t wait for everyone to hear the whole thing!”
The worst question is left to last and back to covid-19 in relation to the fact that Heathen cannot immediately tour a first class album and it is too obvious to ask how that is affecting everybody in the industry. Even six months since the pandemic took a hold, life may seem like it is re-starting but it still remains anyone’s guess as to when tours will roll around again. “Everybody is talking about it, every band on the planet wants to go on tour,” says Kragen. “It’s going to be really difficult for bands in terms of logistics such as there being enough tour buses, crew, venues and open dates. I think that it is going to be difficult for fans as well, there are going to be two or three concerts on any given night and fans are going to have to pick and choose. It’s going to be tough but we’re being optimistic, we’re going to do our best to schedule or reschedule any tour dates from this year. In the meantime, we’re going to stay positive and do the best we can in terms of promoting Empire Of The Blind, we have a lot more promotion to do in the next couple of weeks and we’re going to find ways of keeping the album in the front of people’s minds during the coming months until we can tour. If covid-19 continues and we can’t do extensive touring then we will start working on the next record.”
2020 may have been a memorable year for all of the wrong reasons but we still have the positivity of new recorded music. With Testament bringing out their Titans Of Creation earlier in the year and Metallica releasing their second metal-meets-orchestra in S&M2 recently (it counts) and now with Heathen about to unleash their new album, 2020 has still brought the Bay Area to homes across the world. With Exodus busying themselves in the studio too it is likely to continue with thrash metal winning the day and kicking our asses for a good while yet . With Empire Of The Blind soon to be on the shelves, there is no better time to be digging into the Heathen discography in readiness for a record that is likely to become a classic now and to future generations.
Empire Of The Blind is out on September 18, 2020 on Nuclear Blast Records and is available for pre-order