Famous Bristol Musicians – Onslaught

Pretty much anybody in Bristol who likes thrash will have heard of Onslaught. Formed in 1983 they were signed 1984, by 1988 they had three albums some line-up changes behind them and in 1991 it looked like the end of Onslaught for good. Almost 15 years later, they find out one of the albums was re-released without their knowledge and decide it’s time for a come-back…in 2005 this happened and they’re still going strong with a new album and lots of gigs in the pipeline!

Despite setbacks like Sy Keeler the vocalist, having an eye problem that saw him in surgery to reattach his retina and gigs being cancelled the band are back in the swing of things and hoping for a more successful second time around the block.

I spoke with Nige Rockett, who was one of the founding members of the band and is still there in the thick of it! He was brutally honest about the highs and lows of the bands 24 year history!

Claire: Onslaught has been on the go for almost 25 years, what are some of the key things you’ve all gone through since forming and now?

Nige: We have been lucky enough to have many highlights in our career and a few low ones I must add. Obviously the release of each of our four albums has been a key moment for the band, none more so than our latest album “Killing Peace” because it is the album we always wanted to make and it also marks our return after a 14 year lay-off.

Being a metal band, live shows are very important in the scheme of things, we toured with Motorhead in 1987 which was awesome and appeared at the very first ‘Dynamo Festival’ in Holland in front of 8,000 people. We were also the first metal/rock band from anywhere in the world to play in Belfast and Dublin for many years, all these stick firmly in our minds.

Our local claim to fame comes in the fact that, I believe, we are the only Bristol band to ever headline both the ‘Colston Hall’ and the ‘Hippodrome’, not without controversy, but it was a great experience to play both of the City’s major venues…

More recently, last year we were invited to play two major festivals in Japan, all the band members agree this was probably our most memorable event so far.

Claire: You say that “Killing Peace” is the album you always wanted to make, why do you think you never managed to produce this earlier in your careers?

Nige: Well if you listen to each of our albums you will see a marked progression in our ability to play our instruments and to write songs. Basically on our first two albums “Power From Hell” and “The Force” we were still very much learning to play and it really does show. “In Search Of Sanity” was meant to be our most accomplished album, we had learned our craft, had major backing and built a large fan base, but the record company decided they knew what was best for Onslaught and wanted things done their way…a recipe for disaster.

They fired our singer Sy Keeler in favour of a more mainstream vocalist Steve Grimmett, awesome voice but not really someone who could replace Sy, and then they decided that we sounded too heavy and aggressive and they wanted a more commercial sounding onslaught. So as good as the songs on that album were, they were stripped of all the original anger and energy.

This is why we believe “Killing Peace” to be our best album to date, we got all the ingredients right at the right time: right band members, right songs, right production and with 18 years of anger and energy thrown in for good measure.

Claire: It seems you’ve been a victim of the record company influence that is well-publicised these days. Do you think you could have done anything to have had more control over what you wanted as a band as opposed to what the record company wanted?

Nige: It was very difficult for us at the time, we had signed to London Records (a subsidiary of Polygram) who were basically a pop label that had licensed two metal albums from the U.S. and had great success with both bands. Now they wanted to break their own act into the big time, especially in America. In retrospect I think it was an ego thing for the label, not something that they really cared about. We were the hottest UK band around and they wanted us on the roster so that they could look hip and focused as to what was going on in the street.

We had been in the studio for about eight weeks before anyone from London Records looked by and I don’t think they liked what they heard, it wasn’t glossy or mainstream enough for what they wanted (they were totally oblivious to the fact that thrash metal was the biggest thing around in music at the time, even though they signed us under this premise).

One thing in particular that held a problem for them was the vocals, it just wasn’t what they thought was right for the market they wanted to target. Next thing we knew they were demanding that Sy Keeler was fired and that we should hold auditions for a new singer immediately. Unknown to us they already had a replacement in Steve Grimmett lined up. Steve had had considerable success previously in the states with the band “Grim Reaper” and they saw him as the answer to onslaught breaking America.

We were given no real consultation in this decision and we were told if you don’t like it, “we’ll put you on ice for six years” basically meaning do what we say or we will keep you under contract but you will not release any product in that period, full stop.

What do you do..? You’re young and all you want to do is make music and play live. We were puppets to the corporate machine.

It was the biggest mistake of our career signing to London Records.

Claire: It sounds like a real nightmare, is there advice you can offer, in hindsight, for bands that are on the verge of signing a contract? Or is it a case of hit or miss?

Nige: I don’t think it’s a case of hit or miss. Yes, it was a total nightmare for us; I guess you can say we learnt the hard way. We certainly made sure it didn’t happen with our recent record contract, although I have to say, we didn’t really have to be too careful with the guys at Candlelight Records, they know what we’re all about and know that we’re switched on enough to deliver the right package, so things are working really well.

Advice wise, I’ve got to say:

  1. Don’t get too excited and jump hastily at the first opportunity that comes along, weigh up your options and look carefully at what that company can offer you in terms of marketing and distribution.
  2. See what other bands are signed to the label and maybe talk to them about their experiences.
  3. Don’t let yourselves get walked all over just to get signed, because in the long term it will just defeat you.
  4. Always seek legal advice on any contract, it can be expensive but believe me it’ll be worthwhile in the long run.
  5. Especially make sure you look at the points relating to artistic control, artwork, recordings etc. If the points you want aren’t in there, push to get them added, you need to get as much going in your favour as possible.. If they say no, don’t just give up on the argument, if you can’t get 100% of what you demand at least come to a compromise that makes you happy.

And one final point I would like to make, is be sure you have a Manager, a band doesn’t want to be arguing with a record company before they’re even signed. The band always has to be the good guys in relation to the label. The Manager is there to do the dirty work.

Claire: Finally, what is on the cards for onslaught in the coming months/years? Any big Bristol gigs in the pipeline?

Nige: We just want to get out there and play as many shows as possible to support the new album. We’ve had a few setbacks what with Sy’s eye problem and some booking agent problems, but everything has been sorted now and we’ve got lots of offers coming in from all over the world, it’s a pretty exciting time for us.

We’ve also started writing songs for the next album while Sy has been out of action and that’s coming along nicely or nastily I should say, we want to take things up to a whole new level with our next release, it’s going to be a crucial album for us to make.

As far as Bristol gigs go we were so disappointed to have to cancel our last date here, it was going to be our first ‘real’ Bristol gig in about 16 years, so we’re going to look at the possibilities of doing something special, maybe at the Academy as it’s the only venue we haven’t played here. We’re only in the planning stages but it would be cool if we could make it happen.

So things are certainly looking good for Onslaught and with Sy doing much better the band have just announced a UK tour in November (details available on their website http://www.onslaughtfromhell.com/, no Bristol dates yet but we can hope!

Published: Bristol Rocks

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