Interview with Ritualizer
Released this past August, your new single “Speed of Sound” takes a different approach from your three-song 2018 EP “Blood Oaths.” Explain the differences between both your releases and why the new single is worth checking out?
Judson Belmont (guitar): A lot of the difference between the two releases has to do with the way they were written and where we were as a band. Most of the tracks on “Blood Oaths” were written piecemeal over the course of many sessions: we’d come in with a few ideas each practice, splice them together with what we had already, and build the song gradually. Each writing session would end with a cliffhanger, where we’d talk about what direction the song might take next and then go home and work it out. And naturally enough, what came out of that were longer, narrative song structures where the lyrics are weaving a story that unfolds as the song progresses.
In contrast, “Speed of Sound” was written after we’d been together maybe eight months, and came together almost literally at the speed of sound. By then we had a lot more chemistry as a band and a lot more experience playing off the cuff together. We came into the practice space that day with just a verse and a chorus riff, and in the course of a single improv jam, the groundwork for the song was laid. I think the character of the song itself; fast, all-guns-blazing, and to the point; reflects the fact that it came from a burst of creative lightning instead of a long deliberate process. So both the releases capture a different aspect of the band, but I think “Speed of Sound” gets at some of the live energy that happens when the four of us are together.
How long did it take the band to complete the EP with your older method of songwriting?
PJ Berlinghof (vocals): Even though, as Judson said, the tracks on the EP were written over longer periods of time (or more sessions) and they explore longer narratives, they still didn’t take all that long to come together. 90% of the title track “Blood Oaths” came out of the very first rehearsal and the core elements of “Haunted” and “Night Terrors” solidified pretty rapidly. We started playing together in February of 2018; by the start of summer we had selected which of the finished songs would be on the EP and by August we were in the studio recording. It seems like both approaches are effective for us, but more complex tracks often require a bit more time to ensure that all of the elements are organic and to allow for exploration.
Do you intend to continue writing and composing songs in a single creative burst when you begin working on your next release?
Devin Lavery (bass): It looks like it’s going to be a little bit of both. I think this also depends on the type of song we’re working on. We have some songs which are somewhat similar to the material on the EP in terms of structure, and those have come together in the more traditional way. Generally there will be improv jams or a riff idea brought into rehearsal, we’ll do some writing based on that idea, then a cliffhanger and discussion as Judson mentioned. On the other hand we have a brand new song written maybe a week or two ago that came together in three takes. It’s really exciting to capitalize on that energy when it’s happening.
Did you release “Speed of Sound” as a single to make a statement about the band’s new direction?
PJB: If there’s any sort of statement being made by “Speed of Sound” it’s simply a declaration of die-hard devotion to old school and underground Metal. We released it as a single because we were all excited about the track and we wanted to continue to give listeners fresh material. As far as the direction of the band is concerned, it hasn’t changed at all. We’re just pushing the boundaries and exploring how our collective creativity, styles, influences, and tastes combine. It has always been our goal to work in a variety of styles and to create different atmospheres while retaining an underlying “signature sound”.
How far back does your dedication to old school underground metal go? How much have you seen extreme metal grow on its own terms since you discovered it?
PJB: Some of us first discovered metal through newer bands and worked back towards the older, more traditional groups, while some of us just grew up listening to what’s now considered old school or classic metal. It’s really just the result of age differences (I started out listening to KISS records in the 70s and went down the rabbit hole from there). Ultimately, while our individual musical tastes and ages differ, we all got into metal early in life and find common ground in the classic, underground and retro acts (there’s a lot of love for the NWOBHM). Without any quantifiers for the term “extreme” I’ll just say that the multitude of directions that metal music has taken since the 1980s and the range of subgenres is just staggering to me, but again, some of that is age (yes, I come from the days of rotary telephones and Atari).
Do you think the amount of subgenres in underground music has increased too much since you discovered metal in general?
JB: It’s good to see there’s continued experimentation in metal. Some great bands have come out of that evolution, and if the way we describe existing subgenres needs to change to accommodate that, so be it. Where a lot of new subgenres miss the mark, at least for me, is that they lose the thread of the traditions and eras that made metal so great in the first place, whether that’s old-school British metal, first wave black metal, etc. If you can strike that perfect balance between respecting the old guard and forging ahead with something new, then you’re on to something.
PJ Berlinghof was a member of Midnite Hellion and a couple other bands before joining Ritualizer. Does she still keep in touch with those bands? Which bands were the other members of Ritualizer in previously?
PJB: I do keep in touch with former bandmates and there are some with whom I remain very close friends. I’ve been very lucky to be in bands with individuals who are not only great musicians, but great people.
Luigi Gennaro (drums): Before Ritualizer, I played drums in the bands S.A. Adams and Shadow Of Demise.
JB: I’ve played guitar in a few now-defunct projects. Most recently, an experimental metal outfit called Orsus and a rock and roll band, Horned Majesty.
How closely does “Speed of Sound” compare to your live performances? Do your listeners perceive this as much as the band does?
LG: Compared to the EP, I think “Speed of Sound” comes even closer to capturing the energy of our live performances. This was the first recording we did after having played some of our first gigs and that excitement has certainly filtered into the writing process. I think listeners will hear more of that energy on future recordings as the band’s chemistry continues to strengthen and develop.
How many gigs have you performed after releasing your debut EP? Did getting a feel of performing have any bearing on writing and composing “Speed of Sound”?
LG: We started playing live a couple of months after the release of the "Blood Oaths" EP with the goal being to get out and gig every few weeks. That live experience has certainly spilled over into the overall vibe in writing "Speed of Sound". It's one of those songs that simply appeared while tuning up! Jud started playing the opening riff and we all fell in and improvised a structure containing many of the elements that would be kept and refined in the final version.
Has the band found their “signature sound” yet or is it still developing? How close would you say you have arrived to it? How important is improvisation to the band?
JB: I’d say it’s still actively developing, but the core components are already in place: aggressive yet melodic vocals, stylistic nods to NWOBHM and speed metal, and a darker tone both lyrically and musically. There’s room for refinement and always will be, but it’s safe to say those elements will always be the bedrock of our sound. If Ritualizer ever releases a rap-metal album, you can come to our houses and break our guitars over our heads.
Improvisation is definitely a useful tool for elaborating on ideas, as a way of putting out feelers to see what directions a song might take. For a band like this that’s trying to capture some of the live-band authenticity of the analog era, there’s no substitute for crowding into a practice space and playing off each other in the moment. At minimum you build musical chemistry that way, and at best you channel something as a collective that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
How do you account for NWOBHM and speed metal still having an impact more than three decades later?
DL: I think in a lot of ways NWOBHM and speed metal are the foundations for a lot of people, it’s where they started listening and playing. They’re also huge influences for a ton of bands. I don’t think that style is ever going to go away.
PJB: Wow. Where to start? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, they’re part of the bedrock of the genre as a whole and they’re perfect distillations - they feature timeless themes and archetypal imagery, capture the energy of particular times/scenes and places, have unforgettable melodies and riffs, champion Metal “for the sake of Metal”, and exalt the symbiosis between musician and listener.
Some may consider it elitist for bands to keep their own sound and “branching out” is a better idea. Is it better to branch out on your own terms or because you’re expected to?
PJB: Bands go through changes and evolve stylistically and that can happen for a host of different reasons: simple exploration, getting comfortable as bandmates, personal events, finding new sources of inspiration, new technology, etc. I do think, however, that those changes should be organic and that they should never lead you to a place where you are no longer playing music that you love. Some bands have stepped into new territory with great success because it was just a natural progression of their writing while others never “reinvented the wheel” and you wouldn’t want them to. I don’t think it’s elitist to stick to your guns if that’s your passion. When we start talking about what’s “expected” that seems to lead us to a discussion about the relationship between commercialism and creativity which is a pretty complex topic and probably too much for the space that we have.
Most of the bands who continued doing what they wanted have cult followings while bands that caved in and tried to please a wider audience ended up dying. Have you seen examples of this?
JB: It seems that more often they either plow ahead with their new ‘improved’ sound or try to pivot back to what they were doing previously. Either way they lose the respect of the diehard following that got them there in the first place, and as a fan, it’s disappointing to see. Once you lose that integrity, it’s hard to reclaim it.
Some bands managed to turn back from their more commercial direction and became well respected in the underground, and more bands than ever are breaking aboveground on their own terms. Are more doors opening for bands to do so?
DL: I think the Internet is definitely giving bands more opportunities to break through on their own - you can promote your album and get people to shows via social media. It also doesn’t matter as much where you are geographically anymore (although the location is important with respect to gigs and building a local following). At a certain point, it may be necessary to have professionals working on stuff like promotion, but for bands that want to go it alone, that’s not “make or break” anymore.
PJB: I would say that there are more ways for bands to break through on their own nowadays. A lot of different factors come into play, but now so many promotional, business, and commerce mechanisms are easily accessible to musicians. Metal fans around the globe can network online and reach bands they like with a few clicks of the mouse. In the end, though, you’re not going to be successful as a band (or in any other sense) if you’re not hard-working, completely dedicated and passionate about what you’re doing.
Does social media provide more opportunities for original bands to be heard, or spawning more bands who copy other musicians? Also, is it generally getting more people to attend shows?
PJB: Social media allows people who have shared interests to network, so you’re bound to make new discoveries (I sure do!) As far as “original bands being heard” goes, the term “genre” means a category of literature, art, or music that’s characterized by particular style, content, or form. Anything within a given genre has shared traits with other works in that genre. If people are learning about metal through social media and going off and starting metal bands we should all rejoice! Those bands will (or won’t) find their own voice and social media has nothing to do with that process. I couldn’t speak to what kind of impact social media is having on show attendance across various metal scenes.
DL: Social media provides more opportunities for sure, but also just the internet in general. Anybody can put their stuff online and people around the world can have a chance to listen. You can get picked up by radio stations in other countries, and bands from those countries can get picked up in the US which gives us a chance to hear them as well. And it is great for spreading the word about shows to a larger amount of people. Flyers can only go so far - social media lets you promote to a ton of people with just a few clicks.
How much of the analog era is represented in your songwriting? Does the band record with analog equipment to get a sound similar to 80s bands?
DL: We haven’t used any analog equipment, but we would be willing to in the future. We work with a great engineer, Len Carmichael, at Landmine Studios in New Jersey. Len is a master at dialing in a classic sounding tone and the amp options at the studio are great for our specific needs. Our equipment preferences are modeled after some of the bands and musicians we’re influenced by and run more towards a timeless feel - I personally tend to keep things very simple. There’s also an emphasis when we record on not using a lot of “studio magic” and keeping the human element in the feel of the songs.
How did the band hear about Len Carmichael and Landmine Studios while searching for recording studios? What equipment does he have and what is his recording method?
DL: PJ had worked with Len before and knew he would be a great fit for us all around. Again, the amp collection at Len’s is large and covers pretty much all the bases - no pun intended. He also has a selection of guitars including a Spector I almost wanted to leave with (although I played my Fender on all of our releases.) The setup we settled on was an Ampeg 4x10 and an Earth Sound Research Super Bass B-1000 which gave me this killer tone with plenty of growl. Len’s approach is to take as much time as necessary to work with you and find the exact sound you are looking for, and the same goes for the recording process. His main goal is to make sure you’re completely happy with your performance and the overall product. He’s extremely knowledgeable in the studio and also very patient - we’re all a little “OCD” when it comes to recording. He will also go out of his way to make sure we have the equipment we need. During one session, we thought we might need an acoustic guitar. While he didn’t have one in the studio at the time, he made a phone call and had one brought over within fifteen minutes.
What bands and musicians do you model your equipment preferences after, and what analog equipment would you work with on future recordings?
DL: Analog wise it would be cool to try some things with tape given the chance, although digital recording has been working out great for us. Some of my equipment choices are modeled after Geddy Lee - I picked up my Fender Jazz Bass because of him. I also use Rotosound 66’s which are the strings he uses - those roundwounds also create a tone similar to Steve Harris’ which is a huge plus. Ian Hill from Priest was also a Fender J Bass guy.
LG: I’ve always gravitated towards drummers who prioritized power over speed, though the latter is still important. Bill Ward, Ian Paice, Cozy Powell and Nicko McBrain to name a few. For the moment, I use a simple 4-piece configuration: rack tom-floor tom-snare-kick. The Ludwig Supraphonic 402 as John Bonham famously used has always been my #1. Fat sounding with a loud crack! The toms and bass drum all have coated Remo heads for that extra growl, though I do use wood beaters on my Tama Iron Cobra double-bass pedals for that extra attack. Cymbals are all on the larger side: 15” hi-hats, 22” ride, 18”-20” crashes. All Sabian. I would love to expand my kit in the future, but not until I have a dedicated stage tech!
Do you think the equipment you work with goes a long way toward the band’s classic metal sound, considering the musicians your preferences are modeled after?
LG: The gear certainly helps, but only if you know what to do with it. A bigger part of the equation is the individual musical styles, techniques and then knowing how to put those sounds together with the other musicians in the band to make it sound like one singular sonic beast!
DL: Yes the gear is great, but it’s more our influences that inspire us to write the way we do.
How much do your individual influences help you stand out from other retro metal bands?
PJB: I’m not sure if this will make sense, but I think that differences in listening tastes and influences are important because it means that band members may not come back with the “expected” response to an idea. There has to be shared, common ground or you run the risk of having no underlying stylistic bedrock, but, if everyone were to listen to the same handful of bands only then I think you’re less likely to create something that feels fresh. There’s a whole lot mixed into the cauldron in Ritualizer songs (try to find the surf rock drumming disguised as metal), but it’s all getting filtered through the “metal prism”, so, while individual influences are important, how band members channel those influences and interpret them is crucial. If you can take everything you love and draw from it while putting your own stamp on it then I think you’re on the right path to creating something that’s recognizable and unique all at once. Hopefully, we’re accomplishing that.
What bands do you know of besides Ritualizer who are channeling individual influences into something more original?
JB: There have been a handful of active extreme metal bands in the last few years that have blown me away. Off the top of my head, bands like Bolzer, Urfaust, and Portal come to mind. Each has their own completely inimitable sound, yet there’s a commonality in the way they’ve arrived at that sound starting from the standard black/death/doom milieu and filtering those influences through their own uniquely distorted lenses of nontraditional harmony, occult aesthetics, dark ambient influences, etc.
What do you mean by sustaining the human element in your songwriting? How much importance do you place on keeping this element a part of heavy metal in general?
DL: We would prefer to have things happen as organically as possible. It’s amazing when something comes together completely on the spot. When everybody is in the same place mentally and musically is when good things happen.
LG: As technology has evolved over the years, it’s become easier for musicians to cheat, whether it’s using auto-tune on vocals, the “cut-and-paste” method on digital recording to create whole tracks, or miming to backing tracks during live performances. For this music, part of the energy comes from the musicians playing together and taking chances beyond what’s laid down on the studio recordings. Sometimes new discoveries appear through mistakes or miscues in a rehearsal and they end up pushing the intensity of the songs to another level. Live shows are about participation and interaction.
PJB: Metal was made to be listened to live and up close. It should be frenzied, fanatical, relatable, and utterly infectious. It should be drenched in sweat and spilling beer on the floor. Metal is a patch proudly and lovingly hand-sewn onto a vest; it’s NOT a tailored suit. Metal isn’t meant to be cold and clinical and technical perfection should never be worshipped above emotion.
How much does the overuse of digital technology take organic elements from metal?
PJB: With respect to recording, I’ll say that recording in any format is a bizarre attempt to capture energy and technicality at the same time, so right out of the gate you’re walking a fine line; you’re always in danger of losing the original vibe. The song also has to be able to hold up live, so digital tech can be dangerous in that respect. Production pieces are amazing, but songs always have to be able to hold up when they’re completely stripped down to their most basic, raw elements.
How much new material is the band working on at present? How much will you be expanding on the sound of your previous releases?
JB: We’re not really ones to rest on our laurels. Since the inception of the band we’ve always had multiple irons in the fire at any given time, whether they’re songs actively developing in the practice space or just some riffs we’re trying out at home. At this point we’ve got a good amount of material banked to draw from, and among that material there are lengthier tracks with extended story arcs as well as some short ragers in the vein of ‘Speed’. But the core of our sound and our roots in heavy metal tradition haven’t changed, even as we explore different aspects of that sound and those influences.
What story arcs are the new songs exploring, and how does the musicianship reflect on them?
PJB: I’ve always treated songs as short stories and tried to give the listener imagery that brings them into the narrative, but everything starts with the music. As soon as I hear the riff, I know what the song is going to be about. The story arc develops in detail as the musical direction develops and the precise lyrics always pivot off of the very first line. Generally, the vocal phrasing and meter is based on or written to complement what’s happening musically (I think we’re only had one instance so far where the music was changed to match the vocal phrasing).
New songs you ask? We’re going to try and maintain just a little bit of mystery about the upcoming tracks, but, if you come out to a show, you just might hear a new tale or two.
How many songs are you planning to include on your next release? Who will you be working with for recording, mixing and mastering?
PJB: We’re hoping to get a full-length release out, but it’s going to come down to timing and logistical constraints. If it’s another EP and single then, so be it. We just want to keep giving people new material on a steady basis. Again, at this point, there are no formal plans to work anywhere other than Landmine Studios.
When recording your next release, how do you plan to ensure what you do in the studio will be reproduced onstage?
DL: If we play it a certain way in rehearsal, we’ll play it in the same way in the studio, and likewise onstage. I think that’s always been our philosophy - we try to keep things as authentic and as reliable on musicianship as possible. Minus some minor studio effects, everything that you hear on our records, you’ll hear in our live shows.
PJB: As Devin said, we really don’t add a lot of “bells and whistles” to tracks. The real trick is just to capture the energy.
JB: There will always be some difference between the live presentation and the recordings for us, since we can pretend we’re a 2-guitar band in the studio. But having that space in our live sound gives us all some freedom to go “off-record” now and then and makes the live experience something unique.
Will you seek label distribution to promote the next release to a wider audience in the US and other countries?
JB: It’s something we’ve discussed and are actively interested in. The key would be to find a label that shares the same enthusiasm for championing true heavy metal in the face of what’s more popular and commercially palatable nowadays. But nowadays you see a lot of labels looking to do just that, so we’ll see what happens.
What goals do you see the band setting as far as becoming well known on your own terms and maintaining a steady series of releases in the days of streaming and social media?
JB: The goals are to achieve exactly what you just described. If we can continue to find and build a cult following while putting out releases that we can stand behind with total conviction, we’d consider that a success. And if, in the process, we can play some small part in helping carry the torch for a style of music we love, so much the better.