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The twin spurs of a recent album release and the impending Malta Doom Metal 2016 inspired Comrade Aleks to catch up with Albert Bell, the man behind both of those projects, as well as being a veteran member of both Forsaken and Nomad Son.

Interview with Albert Bell's Sacro Sanctus.
"What unites Epic Doom bands Forsaken and Nomad Son with one of the most important annual Doom events: the Malta Doom Festival? It is Albert Bell, musician, vocalist, and organiser. Some may wonder about those qualifications, as Albert doesn't sing in either of these bands. They're correct, though – while Leo Stivala and Jordan Cutajar do their jobs excellently, five years ago seignior Bell started his own solo project, Sacro Sanctus, where he combines a traditional doom metal sound with black metal and thrash influences. The first album, 'Deus Volt' (obviously inspired by stories of the Crusades), was released in 2014 and the second one was released this year. With the latest, eighth, Malta Doom Fest to manage, and work on new albums by all the bands he's involved with, you can see Albert is a busy man - but somehow he found time to answer my questions. And this interview is epic, just like the bands in which he plays!"

Albert Bell.

Hello Albert! Thanks for your time. I believe that you’re busy now with final preparations for the next edition of the Malta Doom Festival. What’s your progress? What do you need to finish before the dates?

Right now we are trying to sort out the running order for the two nights after we received the flight arrangements of the bands we have lined up for this year – there’s 14 international bands, just one Maltese band…so there’s really lots of stuff to co-ordinate. However, everything is moving smoothly, and I am sure we can expect another great edition of MDM.

So what approximate running order do you already have?

Place of Skulls will be headlining on Friday and Master on Saturday. We’ve scheduled the rest of the bands to fit their flight plan as much as possible and also to ensure that there is a diversity of styles throughout the billing. We also allocate each slot on the billing according to the band’s stature and discography, so the earlier slots on the billing are normally allocated to those bands which are started out and with just one release or two. This said, the MDM crowd takes an interest and supports each band, so all the bands on our billing can expect support for their show.

Malta Doom Festival is one of those phenomenal events that demonstrates the family-like support inside the Doom scene. What are your personal achievements concerning the Festival? What makes you proud of it?

Well, the festival has grown considerably since we first started it in 2009. The absolute highlight for me was hosting Venom (inc.) last year…hanging out and seeing the band live on stage here in Malta and at MDM was something really, really special. I cannot really explain it in words. The fact that Mantas, Abaddon and Demolition Man are such friendly and amiable people made the event all the more special. We’ve hosted lots of other great bands here who have delivered impeccable shows including The Black, Dawn of Winter, Officium Triste, Mirror of Deception, Temple of Pain, Pagan Altar, Manilla Road, Desolation Angels, Outrage and many, many more and they’ve all had great words to say about our festival. This is a huge compliment for us and makes all the effort worth it. The fans love it too, and lots of people from across Europe travel to MDM each year now – underlying the strength of the festival. This makes us all really proud, and though the festival has grown somewhat since we first started, the formula remains the same – a festival for true doom and metalheads from true doom metalheads!

Malta Doom Metal 2016 flyer.

Have any bands cancelled their shows this time? I remember that a few years ago you had one or two unexpected changes in the Festival's line-up...

Yeah, we’ve had some cancellations in the past, but not that much really when you consider the huge amount of bands that have featured at MDM over the years. Moreover, we have always managed to find very good replacements when difficulties arose. Thankfully, we haven’t had any problems with this year’s line-up, and we’ll all be keeping our fingers crossed that the situation remains the same till the festival is over!

Does the number of Festival guests - both bands and fans - change from year to year?

We have a consistent flow of guests from abroad for MDM over these past years, and the bulk of our audience is foreign, however, we can also rely on the strong support from Maltese metalheads, especially those who are into old school metal and doom. As for the band situation – we try to ensure an exciting line-up each year, and this implies that we cannot keep on getting the same bands year in year out. There are not that many active doom metal and old school metal bands on the Island and therefore we cannot keep having them (including my own live bands Forsaken and Nomad Son) at the festival each year. I know there are many local bands who wish to play at MDM. But we have to stick to our vision for the festival – it is primarily dedicated to celebrate old school metal and doom (in all its hues) and therefore we simply cannot take every band that applies to the festival on board (this applies to both local and foreign bands). Perhaps some might accuse us of being closeted and not open minded enough…but this is who we are and we’ve declared that from day 1 and have remained very consistent. When in the case of some local bands we departed on a handful of occasions from our vision (yes, I know that there have been some isolated instances) it was to give space, exposure and support to bands that support the festival, even if they not necessarily fall within our scope! We are also always also on the lookout for new, exciting (old school metal and doom) bands to push forward. This is also an important part of our vision. And you can expect more of such bands to be added to our line-up in future…both Maltese and from abroad.

There’re such great name as Place of Skulls, Northwinds, Mythological Cold Towers and Barabbas amidst the Festival’s guests, but I don’t see Arkham Witch in the line-up. Is it because of their latest album 'I Am Providence'?

Haha! Not at all! We have hosted Arkham Witch already three times at MDM (including last year with a special The Lamp of Thoth show)…such is their popularity here and at MDM. We (Forsaken) have invited them for our 25th Anniversary show this November, together with our friends X-Vandals (a long-standing Maltese thrash band for which I also played the bass between 1988 and 1991), so the Maltese doomheads will still have another opportunity to catch the band live in Malta this year….we really cannot get enough of Arkham Witch!

Forsaken: Albert Bell (Bass), Sean Vukovic (Guitars), Simeon Gatt (Drums) and Leo Stivala (Vocals).

That's a twist! What are you planning for that show? Any special set, or some special guests?

We are planning a few surprises for the Forsaken show, but all will be revealed on the night! It should be a killer show and a must for all the Forsaken die-hards out there and those who are new to the scene and who wish to experience a great night of molten metal from three awesome bands with the best metal pedigree possible!

What about your creative life? Do I understand correctly that Sacro Sanctus is your most active project?

I am still strongly active in both Forsaken and Nomad Son too…but yes, Sacro Sanctus is now also very important for my creativity and song-writing. It is a hugely inspiring and important creative outlet for me and provides me with the possibility of doing stuff I do not normally do in both my bands. I am working on the third Sacro Sanctus album as we speak, getting all the material together before I start pre-production.

Sacro Sanctus - 'The Siege of Ascalon':

How was Sacro Sanctus born? Why did you decide to run it as a solo project?

I have been playing in bands since my teens. My first band dates back to 1984! So it was high time that I start doing something completely on my own, with my own personal vision from start to end. And Sacro Sanctus is precisely this – my own take on heavy doom metal. Sacro Sanctus is a cauldron of all my influences which are not necessarily doom, from Motorhead to Venom to Bathory, Celtic Frost and more to Black Sabbath, St.Vitus, Candlemass, Pentagram and all the usual classic doom metal suspects. I had been mulling over the idea for quite some time really, but I first took the plunge in 2010 when I started working on two tracks – “The Tears of Ishtar” and “Ordo Templaris”. Both these songs went through various various until I was finally happy with them. I sent both songs to some friends of mine for some feedback and the reactions were great. These included Jowita and Simone from Metal on Metal Records (Italy) and they were quick to offer me a record deal, which I had no hesitation in accepting given my strong esteem for their work with their label.

Debut full-length 'Deus Volt' is a concept album about crusader incursions, spearheaded by the rise of the Knights Templar and other Christian military orders, including the Knights of Outremer and the Knights Hospitalier. How do you observe these historical events in your songs?

Lyrically, Sacro Sanctus combines both fact and fiction in an attempt to provide insights on some important milestones in Templar and Crusader history. The emphasis so far (and on the third upcoming album too) has been to unravel to document the rise and fall of the Knights Templar (looking at their conquests in the holy land in the first album titled “Deus Volt”) and their subsequent clashes with the French monarchy and the Vatican in the recent follow up – “Ad Aeternum” with a good measure of fiction drawn from Templar myth to spice up the proceeds so to speak. Templar history is also rich with myth, which makes it fascinating subject matter to draw upon. For the next album, I will be looking at what potentially happened to the Templars following their persecution and disbanding in the beginning of the 1300s.

Sacro Sanctus: discography.

Malta is the home of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order: are you a part of that? Sacro Sanctus, Forsaken, Nomad Son conceptually connected with Christian beliefs, so I wonder how strong the influence of your environment is on your music?

Malta is so entrenched in Christian military history and religious belief that is hard to escape it. Both subjects fascinate me really, so it is quite obvious that they are bound to influence my lyrics as all my work with Forsaken, Nomad Son and now perhaps even more so with Sacro Sanctus attests. In the case of the latter, however, I have allowed myself more artistic freedom and I take a more secular approach in my writing really and in Sacro Sanctus I also delve into more occult themes that are also associated with the Knights Templar, including their possible connection with arcane philosophy, beliefs and practices and various secret societies.

The second album, 'Ad Aeternum' was released in April 2016. How do you see your progress compared to 'Deus Volt'?

Perhaps it sounds clichéd, but I think that “Ad Aeternum” is a definite progression over the first album. Don’t get me wrong. I love and am really proud of my work on “Deus Volt”. It has an overarching rawness which I think really captured what I wished to convey on the debut, and there is a very dark and somber atmosphere to it which is quite invigorating. However, “Ad Aeternum” is richer in texture on various fronts, including the production, arrangements and song-writing and I also think that my performances on the album (the vocals in particular) are more convincing than the debut. Obviously, there’s been quite a learning curve since the debut and this is bound to be reflected in the material as time goes by…hopefully, further progression will also be reflected in the third Sacro Sanctus album, which as I said is already work-in-progress. I am also really proud and happy with the artwork and lay-out of the album. I feel that we (that is as in Metal on Metal Records and myself) left no stone unturned to ensure that all the end product makes for an ensnaring visual and aural experience!

Sacro Sanctus - 'Hex and Heresy':

Does 'Ad Aeternum' have a common idea which connects all the songs, too?

Yes, most certainly. There is an overall concept with flows from the start to the end of the album, that as I said, documents the rise and fall of the Knights Templar, with specific emphasis on their tribulations with the French Monarchy and the Vatican. Each song tells a particular story with this over-arching concept. The liner notes accompanying each song explains everything in detail (hence the importance of getting your hands on the physical cd versus mp3s!)

This album has some Black Metal influences - it seems more ominous and dark. Was it a conscious decision to record the songs in this way?

I don’t wish that Sacro Sanctus is simply just another doom band. I am already involved in two great doom bands (Forsaken and Nomad Son), so what would be the point in that! As I have already said, Sacro Sanctus is my vehicle to express my love for 80s metal in all its diverse hues, including early black thrash and more obscure stuff. So yes, I made sure of allowing these influences to come more directly to the fore on the second album, and you can be rest assured that the next album will also retain this direction.

Do you plan to make the third Sacro Sanctus album different, or have you already found the right sound for the project?

The third album will continue to build on the template that I have charted and defined for Sacro Sanctus over the first two albums. So fans should not expect any radical, strong departures. I will not be going all prog, stoner or goth on you…that’s for sure haha! But, I intend to heighten some aspects that make up the cauldron of Sacro Sanctus’ blackened, epic, heavy doom metal on the third opus. You can all be rest assured that it will be seeped in the old school tradition…that’s who I am, and there’s no changing it!

How many studios do you have in Malta? Were the albums by Forsaken, Nomad Son and Sacro Sanctus all recorded in the same place?

Forsaken goes back to 1991. So we did record some stuff in diverse studios before we started our association with David Vella and Temple Studios for our 1997 debut “Evermore”. I also had the opportunity to work in other studios and with other sound engineers with my 80s bands – Kremation (initially called Exorcist) and Vandals way, way back, and with some other bands I have been involved in over time. However, ever since the first time I set foot at Temple Studios for the debut Forsaken album, I have never looked at another studio. There are quite a few studios and good sound engineers working with metal bands in Malta now. But for me, working with David Vella at Temple Studios is like second nature. We have a long-standing professional relationship and he knows what my expectations are. Moreover, he is simply a pleasure to work with and immerses himself in my work totally. Why change a proven formula? And David has never let me down so far!

Nomad Son - 'The Darkening':

Albert, Nomad Son released the latest full-length, 'The Darkening', three years ago: what is the band's current status?

We are currently focusing on the writing of new material. Some of the new stuff – like “Dance of the Mandrake” has already been showcased in our recently live shows this year, but there’s more new stuff in the pipeline. For this year our focus has also been trying to get the band back on a strong footing on the live front with memorable shows here in Malta (including supporting Uriah Heep last July) and a killer show at Rock Hard Ride Free festival in Poland together with Saxon, Raven, Primal Fear, Behemoth, Forsaken etc last June. We are not rushing with the songwriting as we wish that the album will be a very strong and worthy successor to “The Darkening”.

How did you work on 'The Darkening'? How would you compare it with 'The Eternal Return'?

I think that “The Darkening” is Nomad Son’s most intense and aggressive album with an unrelenting approach from start to finish. Perhaps it is also our most diverse in terms of the influences that left their mark on the album. This said, both “The Eternal Return” and the debut “First Light” both have their strengths and merits, and I love them both too!

Nomad Son: Chris Grech (Guitars), Albert Bell (Bass), Edward Magri (Drums), Julian Grech (Keyboards) and Jordan Cutajar (Vocals).

Yes, 'First Light'… How did you arrive at that sound? What were your goals when you'd just started Nomad Son's voyage?

We didn’t really make any effort to get that sound really – it reflected the band’s rehearsal and live sound perfectly. Basically, what we did in the studio was to capture how the band and those songs sounded during rehearsal and on stage. No frills, and no add ons! Obviously, David Vella’s mastery at Temple Studios played a huge part in replicating that sound to perfection.

Forsaken have remained silent since 2010, when I Hate released your split with Fall of the Idols. How soon do you plan to return with the new album?

Yeah, the fifth Forsaken full-length has been quite a saga to say the least! I can however reveal that the album is now close to completion – we are presently at mastering stage and it should be released next year.

What details can you reveal to our readers now? Does the band still hold tightly to the Epic Doom direction you set many years ago?

The next Forsaken album will be titled “Pentateuch”, lyrically based on the first five books of the Old Testament – and believe me it will be an epic doom metal album to end all epic doom metal albums! Haha! Seriously, Forsaken fans can expect some high quality epic doom on the next album. You will all not be disappointed for sure.

Do you have a Forsaken album which is the most special for you? Something like a milestone, or your personal masterpiece?

My personal favourite Forsaken album remains “Dominaeon” – our third album. I do not think we have managed to surpass that milestone in our discography in various ways – lyrically, musically and production wise. It sounds so organic and so damned heavy and convincing. All our albums obviously have their strong merits – but Dominaeon just stands out so emphatically in my opinion. This said, we will have to see our “Pentateuch” will compare against this benchmark and all our previous albums. I was recently going through the lyrics for “Pentateuch” recently, and without blowing any trumpets too much – I think that on the lyrical level – this next album surpasses everything I have written for Forsaken before. I am really pleased with them and Leo’s delivery is excellent – he managed to internalize and convey the lyrical thrust of each song so well. Musically, I think that the album is very strong too…we’ve mixed up the song-writing style a bit on this one and I personally think that it worked well and helped the band chart some new territory so to speak but again once more firmly rooted within the epic doom metal idiom. Fans will be able to judge for themselves when the album is out…hopefully sooner rather than later!

Forsaken - 'Aidenn Falls':

Forsaken is the one of the oldest Doom metal bands: you've been in business since 1991. How do you value your input to the Doom scene?

In so far as the Maltese metal scene is concerned, we have certainly left our mark here and we are surely an important and respected reference point. One can certainly argue that without Forsaken, it would have been difficult for the Maltese doom scene in particular to flourish as much as it has had today. Of course, other bands have also provided a strong and undisputed contribution to this effect – including Victims of Creation, Oblique Visions, Weeping Silence, Orbus Vitae (RIP) and of course Nomad Son too. But Forsaken is a pioneering band in Malta – and despite all the odds and difficulties we ventured and continue to venture on. I think that our contribution to the genre on an international front has also been quite important especially in so far as epic doom metal is concerned. In our own little way, we have kept that sub-genre alive and I’d also like to think that we have added more value to it with our own take on the genre.

What differs for you between Forsaken and Nomad Son? Do you put the same efforts and energies into both?

Forsaken and Nomad Son have a totally different dynamic, vision and ethos – both on and off stage. I love both bands and both are important outlets for my creative expression, and yes, I am fully dedicated to both bands – it is mostly a question of juggling with one time and availability, and prioritizing accordingly.

Who are the main authors of lyrics and music for both bands? How does the formula for collaboration differ in Forsaken and Nomad Son?

I write the lyrics for both bands. In Forsaken, in the past however, Leo also wrote some stuff (for example “Carpe Diem” off “Anima Mundi” is Leo’s work) and there were instances especially earlier on in the history of the band where we also both collaborated on the lyric writing. However, my band mates entrust me with the lyric writing in both bands. I guess they are all very pleased with my output in this respect! Haha!

As for the music, well the formula varies for both bands and across albums. In Nomad Son, the process is pretty straightforward and normally takes three routes – we just either simply jam a song until it takes shape and sounds convincing for all of us (this is often the longer route as in the case of “The Vigil” on “The Eternal Return”) or else Chris and I present the band with a basic song structure and then all the other guys pitch in with their own ideas. Alternatively, Chris and I (and sometimes our keyboardist Julian too) would meet up either at his studio or at the rehearsal room and build up songs together – for example, “The Orphaned Crown” (off the last album “The Darkening” was built in this way – with one riff flowing from Chris and I nearly spontaneously…this makes for quite an rewarding and exhilarating experience really, as I have rarely collaborated with another musician where the ideas just flow nearly seamlessly. “Caligula” (also off “The Darkening”) was also built in this way, with Chris, Julian and I just spontaneously bouncing off riffs with each other. Jordan and Edward would of course then also come up with their own ideas until each song matures with each band member’s contribution. With Forsaken the song-writing process is somewhat more laborious really…it takes time for all band members to be convinced with an idea…however, as for the machinations of the song writing process – it normally follows the first two routes identified above – either the song or at least parts of it develop during jams or alternatively as in the case of the new album for example, Sean or I would come up with the complete structure for a song, with each member then pooling in his own ideas. Leo for example also has strong ideas for riffs and song structure and also contributes to this effect and Simeon our drummer too.

The situation for Sacro Sanctus is then totally different. There everything is just up to me from scratch to finish! I just argue with myself! Haha!

Albert, you usually work with Metal on Metal Records. What is the story of your relationship?

I just love working with Simone and Jowita. Both are dedicated and passionate old school metalheads and we always seem to be on the same wavelength in so many ways. Our paths first crossed when we (Forsaken) met Jowita some years back now (at Headbangers Open Air 2004). Jowita introduced herself as a freelance photographer and cover artist and we really loved her work on both fronts. In fact, she painted both the Forsaken “Dominaeon” and “After the Fall” cover arts and all the Nomad Son artwork too. Once I got to know that she was starting a label with her husband, I had no hesitation to approach MoMR with the first Nomad Son demo way back in 2006. And the rest is history now – a history of a very fruitful and rewarding collaboration. I cannot recommend MoMR enough really!

Thanks for your patience, Albert! This interview turned out to be huge, and I hope that our readers will like it as much as I do! I hope you'll have a great time at the Festival, and get enough inspiration to finish all the albums you're working on at the moment! How would you like to finish this long conversation?

First of all I would like to thank you Aleksey for this enjoyable interview and the insightful questions. Many thanks for all! As for your readers, I would like to encourage them to check all my bands out and to support those bands that are dedicated to and still capture the magic of true metal (whatever style) in their music…and by support I mean that you buy the bands’ physical releases and merch if you are into them as this is the lifeline for such bands to venture forward and keep the music that we love so much alive! Hails and ales!

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Visit the Albert Bell's Sacro Sanctus bandpage.

Interviewed on 2016-10-06 by Comrade Aleks Evdokimov.
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