By David E. Gehlke
Newcastle's RAVEN will be the next venerable British metal band to hit the 50-year milestone in 2024. RAVEN has faithfully remained underground, with a reputation forged via their highly entertaining live performances and consistent studio output, save for 1986's "The Pack Is Back", the band's lone, ill-fated attempt at trying to reach a broader audience. A 20-foot wall fell on guitarist Mark Gallagher in 2001 and knocked him out of commission for five years, prompting an eventual re-evaluation of how the band writes and records albums. From their 2010 return album "Walk Through Fire" to the recent head-banging glory of 2020's "Metal City" and their latest, "All Hell's Breaking Loose", RAVEN has enjoyed a mini-renaissance of heaviness and quality. Bolstered by drummer Mike Heller (also of FEAR FACTORY),this is still your mother's RAVEN, but with more savagery and energy.
Vocalist/bassist John Gallagher rang BLABBERMOUTH.NET to talk about "All Hell's Breaking Loose", including Heller's impact on the band's sound. Gallagher, also touched upon the recent passing of Megaforce Records founders Jon and Marsha Zazula, both of whom were responsible for helping introduce the band to American audiences. RAVEN was even tapped by old friends METALLICA to open a November 2022 benefit gig for the Zazulas, bringing everything full circle.
Blabbermouth: You had Joe (Hasselvander) on drums for decades, but he stepped aside due to health issues. Mike, from a technical standpoint, appears to be an upgrade. Can you speak to his impact on RAVEN?
John: "It's a blank slate with Mike. Technically, he's frightening. 'How fast do you want to play?' We'll often do that. Some songs are faster than the speed of light. He and Mark, compete to see who finishes first. They start fast. Then they go, 'Oh really? Fine.' Then they push it further. Musically, it's been a breath of fresh air because he's a younger guy. He's got some different influences, which shakes things up. He grew up listening to METALLICA, ANTHRAX and all that, then gradually to heavier stuff. When I stayed at his place, he had a room with walls of CDs with everything you've ever heard. That's great. A little of that always goes in, especially on the new album. We were all in on the ground floor. Everyone was putting ideas in rather than him putting his spin on the drums. That took things to another level, which is awesome."
Blabbermouth: How did you react to his playing on a song like "Go For The Gold", which may be one of the fastest RAVEN has done and has blast beats?
John: "If it fits, it fits. Sometimes, it doesn't. It's like, 'Do your thing. Let's see what happens. Let's check it out.' Quite often in other bands, when they do blast beats, the other guys are playing like that too. There's a wall of frickin noise. If we're playing [mimics slower riffs] and he's blasting on top of it, you can discern one from the other. One complements the other. He did that for the first time on 'Human Race' [on 'Metal City']. It's different. It's not just a noise machine. It's another color to put in the mix. Again, it's something we hadn't done. We tried it out and it was cool. It ups the energy level."
Blabbermouth: Your last three albums, "ExtermiNation", "Metal City" and now "All Hell's Breaking Loose" are among the heaviest RAVEN has done. What can you attribute that to?
John: "Absolutely. When Mark came back from his accident, we did 'Walk Through Fire', which was a 'Plant the flag, this is where we are, move forward from here' album. It's a good record. 'ExtermiNation' was a better record. 'Metal City' was a better record than that. I think 'All Hell's Breaking Loose' is better than that. That's what we want. We want to be moving forward and trying different stuff. Not to cast aspersions on the ones before, from 'ExtermiNation', Mark and I said, 'If we want to make things better, we got to put the work in.' We didn't want to say, 'This is a cool song. Let's go.' Now, 'This is a cool song, but for what reason?' What parts are cool? What parts don't work? Take the okay stuff out and put new stuff in. Then we'll change it, re-write, go backward and forward, let everyone put their ten cents until we polish that piece of coal and turn it into a diamond."
Blabbermouth: So you're saying RAVEN never had such rigor over songwriting before? Not even during the '80s?
John: "No. To a degree, on 'Walk Through Fire' to a lot more on 'ExtermiNation', because we took the time to do pre-production. A lot of pre-production to the point where we did the usual passing demos backward and forwards, then we went into a studio for a week and went over them. That paid dividends. 'Metal City' was a different animal. We said, 'Okay. We're going to book a studio.' Mike said, 'Nah. I like doing the drums in my studio.' We said, 'Uh. This means click tracks?' He said, 'I don't just go, 'Click, click, click.' I listen to your songs and go, 'It starts at this speed and it pulls back on the verse and wraps it up a little at the end of the verse, then comes back around. Which is what we do live. Like, this is the exciting part and you lean into it and make it breathe.' I said, 'Convince me.' He said, 'Send me a song.' I sent him scratch tracks against a click track of a couple of songs. I said, 'I don't care if you're standing in a bucket of porridge pouring marmalade over your head with your mother's panties on. It's brilliant. Do that!' That's how that came to be. Me and Mark came up to his studio in L.A. for the new album, then the three of us went through everything, pushing each other to get it right. It was really good because it was a little chaotic on 'Metal City'. We had a false start in recording. Then we ended up going with Michael Wagener. Then we had problems with the mix. Two or three guys were doing that. We did the new album all ourselves. Mike engineered it."
Blabbermouth: What's your take on producers, then? Would you even take one again?
John: "We haven't had a producer since Eddie Kramer [for 'The Pack Is Back']. It's always good whoever is engineering, even Michael, who was strictly engineering on 'Metal City'. We asked, 'What do you think?' He'd say, 'Try this.' It's good to throw the room open for suggestions, but for this one, it was just Mark, me and Mike. When it came to vocals, it was Mike and I fighting it out. Mark said it gets too argumentative, so he's not there. He comes back with fresh ears: 'I like that, but maybe you should try this.' Or, 'That's a good idea. That sucks.' You hash it out. There's always that 20, 30 percent of improvisation element."
Blabbermouth: That would explain why you don't need a producer nowadays without getting into 'The Pack Is Back".
John: "Without getting into the album, you got a guy like Eddie whose forte was something different. Then you had us, whose forte was different. You were asking for trouble from the start. 'Horses for courses'. Eddie had LED ZEPPELIN and all these bands who sounded awesome live. But for us, 'No, you're going to do a high-tech heavy metal album.' Hopefully, we've learned from our mistakes and moved forward. We've been around the block once or twice. We know what we like and how to get it."
Blabbermouth: "Life's A Bitch" and "Nothing Exceeds Like Excess" were nice bounce-back records.
John: "All the albums definitely have good stuff on them, without a doubt. One or two of them, we had 53 dollars to do an album. [Laughs] What hit home on the last few, especially 'ExtermiNation', was great, but it was a little long by two or three songs. That hit home for us. People complained about it, so we started thinking about it. You lose it when you listen to other albums and they're too long."
Blabbermouth: Sort of what people are saying about the new METALLICA.
John: "Oh yeah. I've seen many posts saying, 'Cut it to nine songs.' Or, 'Chop it down. These are the great songs. Cut the fat. Don't play the same damn thing 50 times.' That's never been a thing of ours. That was always old-school [BLACK] SABBATH, which we love. That was their thing, playing one riff until the end of time. No, we played them a few times and put in a left or right turn. That's their thing. To me, doing an album that is that long, 78, 79 minutes, it's like, 'Nah…' If you're a progressive band and it's a concept album, like 'Thick As a Brick' [JETHRO TULL], or the 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' [GENESIS], you need to tell the story. You need a certain length to do that. You can't do 'The Lord Of The Rings' in ten pages. It's not going to work. If we ever decided to come up with that kind of thing, I doubt it, but we'd need a bigger canvas. If you want to be a rock and roll band and get people to jump up and down, you don't need that big of a canvas. It makes you more creative within that parameters. With no limits and no parameters, you can waffle. There was an awful lot of waffling when the CD came out. 'Oh, you can put 83 minutes of music on it.' People were going, 'I can throw tennis balls at the bass guitar and we'll record it.' That's where a producer will come in and go, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa.'"
Blabbermouth: Do you have any thoughts or memories you'd like to share about Jon and Marsha Zazula now that they've passed? They played such a huge part early in your career.
John: "They're a testament to somebody saying, 'I want to do something.' Then moving heaven and earth and making it happen. Very inspirational. This is a guy who, in his personal life, he went through all kinds of crazy shit. Then his shop, Rock And Roll Heaven, he decided, 'I want to put a show on.' We got this call in England: 'I'm doing this show. I want you guys to come and play.' People freaked out. He made things happen. He was like a Hellfire Preacher: 'The cause is heavy metal and we're going to promote it to the nth degree.' He changed our lives. METALLICA and ANTHRAX's, too. Everyone in that orbit, whether TESTAMENT, OVERKILL, or KING's X. It was very sad. When Marsha went, we were all, 'I don't think Jonny is going to hang in much longer.' It was a body blow. To be asked by METALLICA to come down and play that [tribute] show [in November 2022] was awesome."
Blabbermouth: I was going to ask how the show went since METALLICA opened for you in 1983, and now you were opening for them last year.
John: "We did it before in 2014. We were setting up dates for South America. Our agent asked, 'Are you still in touch with Lars [Ulrich]?' I said, 'Yeah, kind of.' He did a piece for our DVD in 2013. He said, 'Ask him if you can open for them. They're playing in São Paulo.' I emailed [METALLICA's management], 'Please ask Lars if we can open for them.' Lars said yes. It was amazing — seventy-thousand people. We went down great. They treated us wonderfully. It was great to hang out with them for about 20 or 30 minutes before they went on. We were in California when we were recording 'All Hell's Breaking Loose'. The idea came up, 'Let's go and ask if we can chat with either James [Hetfield] or Lars about the 'Kill 'Em All For One' tour' for a video. We went up and it was brilliant. James was incredible. He sat for an hour, talking. In the end, I said, 'By the way, there's a little band from Newcastle if you need an opening band. We're available.' He said, 'We got something coming up in Florida. I'll let you know.' Boom. Good to his word. That's what happened."
Blabbermouth: RAVEN will hit 50 years in 2024. What's there left to do?
John: "Plenty. We want to do a proper opening slot in the States. We need to reach some more people. We love our fans. We love our core audience, but we've got to expand, which is fun playing festivals. Usually, a large proportion of people don't know who the hell we are. We love the challenge of, 'You don't know who the fuck we are, but here we are!' That METALLICA show is a great example. Probably three-quarters of the people had no idea who we were. We went down in a storm."