Most thrash bands of a similar age have trodden a very similar path. They all started out in the '80s trying to out-heavy, out-pace, and generally out-muscle each other, tried to adapt amidst waning interest in old-style metal music in the '90s, and returned to their classic sound in the new millennium.
Kreator were the same, although the creative direction they took in the '90s was perhaps different to most, and all told it was probably a very healthy thing for the genre to have gone through. To have ploughed on regardless during that time, making music that most would have considered horribly dated, would likely have spelled the death of the genre. Or at least, the disbanding of many of its front-runners and pioneers.
What came out of that period was, in some cases, arguably the most creative music many of those bands ever produced. That was certainly the case for Kreator, whose albums Cause For Conflict (1995), Renewal (1992), Endorama (1999) and the excellent Outcast (1997) dabbled with influences from industrial metal, gothic rock, and the oddly mis-named "groove metal", before they returned whole-heartedly to thrash metal in 2001 with Violent Revolution. The only man present through it all was founder, vocalist and guitarist Miland "Mille" Petrozza (drummer Jürgen "Ventor" Reil only missed the 1995 outing), and he can explain the whole situation better than anyone: "The band was falling apart in the ‘90s. We had a different drummer, we had a different guitar player. Then we had this guy Tommy Vetterli from Coroner, and these people brought influences to the band. I was all of a sudden left by myself not knowing what to do because I had nobody supporting me. The band wasn't really a band, it was almost like a solo project and I was just like I'll do whatever I want. I wanted to try different things and I'm not only a big metal fan, but I'm a fan of ‘80s darkwave bands from England, and I always wanted to write an album like that, so for that matter I wrote Endorama. I really enjoyed doing that album, and I still like it, I still think it's a great album. But then there came a point where we went out on tour with this album and we didn't have a keyboard player in the band, and there's a lot of strings and keyboards and sound effects on this album, and in order to reproduce this album live we had to play to a tape, and all of a sudden I felt like what am I doing here? This is not Kreator. The reaction was fuck this, let's go back to being a four-piece band that plays guitars! Let's put our egos aside and just try to be Kreator again. It was a personal thing. I don't regret those albums, I think those albums are really good, but maybe I understand why some fans would criticise the band for releasing them under the name Kreator."
“ The band was falling apart in the ‘90s ”
- Mille Petrozza
"From 2000 onwards when we did Violent Revolution, it was almost like a resurrection of the whole band. Now I can write an album like Phantom Antichrist with all these influences, the ‘80s new wave influences in some songs, traditional metal influences, the thrash thing, you have everything, it's like I'm free to do whatever I want. That wasn't always the case and it was necessary for me to take these steps and go in different directions. There's very, very few bands who can release the same album 20 times; AC/DC and Motörhead, that's it. And it's great, but if Kreator had done that I don't think it would be the same. There are just certain bands who can do it, and I think Kreator are not one of those bands. A lot of people tell me [the ‘90s albums are their favourites]. The way Kreator works right now, the combination of people and the band chemistry is so good that I don't want to mess with it. If I wanted to write an album like Endorama, I know at least two people in the band wouldn't want that. It's a great situation to be in, to have a band who really enjoy playing."
And although that period was probably a healthy transition time for thrash metal, setting up the opportunity for all those bands to triumphantly return to their roots a decade later, Mille is quick to recall that it wasn't only thrash bands going through that experimentation phase amidst declining record sales and the need to indulge music television and radio stations' whims; "Remember an album called Skunkworks by Bruce Dickinson, that was different! The whole scene in the ‘90s was falling into deep crisis. Nowadays we have the internet, we're totally independent of everything, we're sitting here and we don't have to care about MTV, all these, in my opinion, fascist structures of "you have to listen to this now, I'm gonna force it on you until you like it." And that's what the whole of the ‘90s was all about. All of a sudden metal was being ignored all over, in all the major media, there was no more metal on TV, no more metal on the radio, except for some independent radio stations who would still play it. Nowadays the internet gives us the freedom to say "fuck off, MTV!" This is our scene and we can do what we like. The identity crisis has gone and the whole scene is a lot more self-confident."
“ the internet gives us the freedom to say "fuck off, MTV!" ”
- Mille Petrozza
For many bands, Kreator included, the liberation of the scene as a whole has presented them with more freedom when it comes to writing and recording new material. That's not to say another decade of experimentation is around the corner ("I think if I wanted to release something different now I'd maybe start a side-project"), but that the band are free to incorporate other elements into a core thrash sound. So when it came to recording new album Phantom Antichrist, they relished the new challenge; "We just wanted to push ourselves as hard as possible. I told the guys when we were doing rehearsals they need to come up with the best performance they've ever come up with, and be creative, let's try to set new standards for ourselves. Which I think wasn't so hard, it just happened. We were just like let's not think about it, let's just follow our instincts and our hearts and see where we go. It's like a musical journey almost. I don't like to use that term because it's been used so often before, but that's really what it is. You put on the album and it takes you somewhere. When I grew up, I grew up in the ‘80s, and when I bought a metal record to me it was a good record when you put it on and the whole room changes; it just grabs you. And I wanted an album in the year 2012 that does the same thing. I'm playing with this band, but I can separate, I can see myself from the audience point of view, so I try to also remain a fan of the band. That made me really analyse and work hard on the record."
It's fair to say the band took more care and attention with this record than any other for a long time. Not only in some of the different ideas they had, but working closely with producer Jens Bogren on getting the recording right, on track order, and album flow, but allowing the songs to in a sense form themselves. "There's parts of the album that are really, really aggressive, and other songs where it didn't demand that certain aggression, it's more melodic. So I did everything that the song was asking for. We didn't set any rules, we were just trying to be Kreator in the year 2012, without knowing any boundaries in creativity. What we really tried to do was create an album that's still relevant and exciting, for us, since we've already recorded 12 albums before Phantom Antichrist. So as not to bore ourselves or our audience, our fans, we came up with different vibes on the album. So there are songs that are not so aggressive, but there are some like Civilization Collapse which is one of the most aggressive songs we've written. So whatever it took, whatever was best for the song.
"When you write a song like From Flood Into Fire, it's more of a very personal feel. I don't even know what the song is exactly about, it's more about if you really believe in something you can get there, that's the message of the song if there is one. So that song demanded a more melodic, a more traditional metal feeling. And a song like Phantom Antichrist, which is really, really aggressive and talks about somebody who fucks everything up, you need an aggressive riff and heavy playing. For us this was a challenge. Not only because we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could come up with something really exciting and fresh, even though our band has been around since '85, but the hardest part is to realise what you have achieved as a band and realise that you have a huge fanbase nowadays, so we know that there's a lot of people that are listening when we come up with something new, and we're aware of that; we don't want to disappoint ourselves or our audience."
Having an environment in which the band can come up with fresh ideas each time they set about recording a new album is very important to Mille and Kreator, which is why they've barely ever used the same producer more than twice. "We used Andy Sneap for two albums, and last album was Moses Schneider, a Germany guy, and mixed by Colin Richardson. This time we used Jens because we needed his input. We always need to change producers because then it's always a new situation and different people coming together to try to create something, and I think that's important to keep it fresh. We love working with Andy, he's among the five best metal producers in the world. And so is Moses Schneider, although he's not a metal producer he's definitely one of the best producers I know. And Colin Richardson is of course the man. We want to work with the best people out there and I think the next best producer in the world will be Jens Bogren. He's definitely up there, he did so many great albums, and everything he does he comes up with a signature sound for every band, which I like."
Every producer, like every band, has a different attitude, way of working, and a different set of opinions about what an album should or shouldn't sound like, and whereas some producers keep those views to themselves and provide merely technical advice, Bogren became fully involved in the creative process for Phantom Antichrist. "He would be very critical with our demo tapes that we sent him – files of course. He would tear our songs apart, he would be like you should do this, this song's too long, this song's too short, whatever. We would communicate by email and you could get the feel, like if he didn't write much he either didn't care about the song, or he was very critical, which I thought was very helpful. Andy was more he would come up and help us with whatever we had. He listened to some demo tapes, and he would make some suggestions, but not in the song arrangements. He would rather try to get the best out of what was there. Which is a different way, but it also worked. Jens would participate in the arrangements. Not the songwriting, but he would make suggestions like do you really need this part? Do you really need another bridge there? Or can the song live without it? These little things were very important, also for the flow of the record. "
"We even kicked two songs off the record because they didn't fit the album. Those songs are not bad, they just didn't fit. The reason why they're not on the album is because it didn't fit the flow. I had arguments with Jens on the order of the songs. He had different views, I had different views, so we came up with something that made us both happy, and the main thing was that we left these two songs out because they didn't fit. They're not bad, they're just not for this record." Those two songs are Iron Destiny and Wolfchild. The former was used as the bonus track in Japan, the latter was contributed to a compilation album celebrating the popular German horror/detective series of books about a London detective called John Sinclair by Helmut Rellergerd.
Kreator are a band who look forward at all times. There's no anniversary nostalgia tour on the horizon (Pleasure To Kill saw its 25th anniversary pass by in 2011), for instance: "I think it's because it's a different era. I mean, back then we were still sharing vocals, Jürgen [Reil, drums] and I, and for that reason it wouldn't now work. But there's a reason we don't play some of those songs live anymore, because they're not as strong. Maybe one day, I never say never, but I don't see a reason why we should do it; we have so many good new songs. But then again, I do understand it. If we were a band like, let's say Iron Maiden, it's a whole different thing. They could go out and play the whole of Somewhere In Time, but they already had it down back then. They had this huge production, so bring back those stage elements is a whole different thing. For a thrash metal band that was playing clubs back then, what's the big deal? We still play a lot of songs from Pleasure To Kill, and we'll definitely play different songs on the next tour, so everybody should be happy."
“ it's because it's a different era ”
- Mille Petrozza
Indeed the only thing Mille really looks back on, and regrets, is the lack of touring in some areas, particularly the UK; "We did two tours for Enemy of God, but only one for Hordes of Chaos. I also wanted to go to Ireland and Scotland because they have a big metal scene. We have a better booking agent nowadays who know what they're doing, but it's also always about money. It's expensive, but fuck it. I want to play, and we've played a lot of tours where we only broke even, because we play for the fans. I'm not just saying that, the last US tour we did five weeks and we only broke even because we had this big production, and we can do that in England as well. We want to bring the music to the people, so whatever it takes. It's kind of sad because every time we do a tour here it's great and I say "we need to tour here more often", and then it's five or six years later."
But Phantom Antichrist has already been their most successful album for years, and co-headlining tours in 2012 with Accept in North America and Morbid Angel in Europe have raised their profile significantly. They'll be hitting Summer festivals again in 2013, and they hope to tour the UK at some stage, but the much-requested "Big Three" tour with Destruction and Sodom will only ever happen if it can be done in several short stints; "basically me and Schmier want to do it, but Tom [Angelripper] only wants to do it for three weeks. I say we should do seven weeks all over Europe, including one week in the UK, but it's not possible with the way Tom works because he only wants to be away from home for three weeks."
Nevertheless, Kreator are wanted on tour in most places, so they'll always find a way to play and keep moving forward as a band. As the 1980s drew to a close it's unlikely anyone thought that 20+ years later it would be the old thrash bands growing in popularity and being the ones to push their creative boundaries, but Kreator, Testament, Overkill and several others have decided quite rightly that resting on two-decade-old laurels isn't going to do anyone any favours. And they're all now producing some of their best albums of their careers. Coincidence?
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