Albert Bell is one of metal’s great characters, well known in his native Malta and beyond. Not content with his sterling work with Nomad Son and Forsaken, in recent years he has produced two outstanding albums with his most recent band Sacro Sanctus. Albert kindly took the time to give me a most illuminating and entertaining, and indeed, educational, interview.
Albert you are already one of the hardest working men in metal, what possessed you to begin a third project?
“Well, Steve, I had long been considering starting to work on some solo stuff, however, my commitments with both Forsaken and Nomad Son had impinged on the possibility of getting things off the ground. After the recording session and logistics for Nomad Son’s ‘The Eternal Return’ and Forsaken’s ‘Tales of Doom and Woe’ (a split release with Finland’s Fall of the Idols) were rounded off, I started to take the first concrete steps to get the project up and running late in 2010.
“Sacro Sanctus is principally intended as another outlet for my songwriting and to express my passion for the diverse hues of old school metal, and thus also pay homage to those bands that have shaped and defined me as a musician and provided me with boundless joy as a fan ever since I first came across them (in some cases very early in my teens towards the end of the 70s and early 80s). So Sacro Sanctus comes replete with strong nods to Venom, Motorhead, Hell Hammer/ Celtic Frost, Sabbath, Priest, Candlemass, Trouble, Saint Vitus, Death SS, The Black and so forth. Such influences are unavoidable in my case really as these bands have been the soundtrack of my life really from my teenage years till today.
“Lyrically from the outset, I thought that the project would be the perfect foreground for me to realise my fascination for Templar history and myth – as may be attested in the lyrical content of both the debut ‘Deus Volt’ (2014) and the sophomore album released in 2016, titled ‘Ad Aeternum’.
“Moreover, Sacro Sanctus has provided me with the opportunity to realise a project from start-to-end without any input from anyone else really in the song-writing process and its execution. I really wished and aspired for total control on everything in Sacro Sanctus.
“I had been plying my trade as a bassist and songwriter in bands since 1984. After all these years, I felt the time was ripe to take the proverbial plunge and just [follow] my own path and vision. I feel blessed to have two very strong bands… Forsaken and Nomad Son. They have provided me with a lot of satisfaction over the years, but (at least for now), my main impetus is to test my abilities as a songwriter and to create and execute songs as I conceive them without any compromises, which is often the case when one contributes to songs in a band environment, where one normally has to ensure that the ideas that are put forward gel well with the respective band’s sound and collective vision.
“With Sacro Sanctus, I do not have any such restrictions really, apart from those that I decide upon myself. I just argue with myself most of the time! Ha! Ha! It’s also been very challenging in so far as handling other instruments than I normally do. I never played guitar before in any of my bands, or ever handled any vocals really (apart from some backing parts here and there).
“In Sacro Sanctus I handle all the instrumentation (everything apart from the drums and keyboards) and all the vocals. Obviously, there has been a progression over the two albums and I feel that I now have more confidence on the guitars and vocals than could be noted on the first album… but I don’t regret treading this path as I think that my own style of playing guitar and singing has helped to give Sacro Sanctus a particular and rather unique timbre, which is quite unlike much of the stuff doing the rounds in the scene right now.
“In so far as the drums go, I also map the main drum patterns out on midi before recruiting a real drummer to handle everything in the studio. For the first two Sacro Sanctus albums, I have had the services of the very talented Robert Spiteri behind the drum kit (one of the island’s foremost drumming protégés). The keyboard parts and all the embellishments (atmospheric and so forth) are also done in the studio and handled by my producer David Vella. Though I oversee all these quite religiously too!”
How did you come to get involved with the Metal on Metal record label?
“Metal on Metal is the brainchild of Simone Peruzzi and his wife Jowita Kaminska-Peruzzi – a couple totally devoted to the various hues of traditional heavy metal. So basically, two very like-minded souls with whom I have developed a strong friendship that truly goes beyond a business relationship.
“I first met Jowita way back in 2004 with Forsaken at the Headbangers Open Air Festival. She introduced herself as a freelance photographer and cover artist. After that we commissioned her to do the cover art for both our ‘Dominaeon’ and ‘After the Fall’ albums – both splendid artworks that captured our vision perfectly. After that she informed me that she was setting up a new label with Simone, and they were the first and only label I approached with both Nomad Son and Sacro Sanctus. I never regretted both decisions, as the passion they put into their releases is second to none! We are in perfect sync when it comes to the essentials of a heavy metal album – and that is crucial for any artist-label relationship to flourish and grow.
“In the case of Sacro Sanctus… After I finished demoing two tracks – ‘The Tears of Ishtar’ and ‘Ordo Templaris’ (which were both later to feature on the debut ‘Deus Volt’, after some refinements), I sent them to Simone and Jowita. They were immediately captivated by the material and offered a record deal, so that was it, really. I had no hesitation to sign up Sacro Sanctus with Metal on Metal records as the label has the requisite dedication and passion for old school metal that complements Sacro Sanctus perfectly. All this may be attested to the sterling work they have put into both releases to date. I cannot recommend Metal on Metal enough! The whole package of ‘Ad Aeturnum’, for example, really makes for a complete aural and visual experience. We left no stone unturned to make sure that everything works well together – the music, the cover art, the lyrics, the liner notes, etc. One requires the physical CD to undergo the Sacro Sanctus experience in its entirety, so to speak.”
Could you explain your fascination with the Templars, Albert? Is your geographical location, living as you do in a place as historic as Malta, a part of it?
“Oh, most certainly, Steve! Malta is so imbued and rich in history (from pre-history to the classic Greek and Roman periods, to medieval history and the more recent British colonial period) that you cannot escape it (unless of course you are a totally uneducated and self-interested idiot, as some Maltese are most unfortunately, with no insight on how archetypical the island has been in key moments of European history).
“Obviously, Malta is synonymous with the Knights of St John (or the Knights of Malta) and their indelible imprint on the islands (including Malta’s sister island Gozo) is still very conspicuous, from the majestic bastions that surround our capital and Cottonera to St John’s Cathedral in Valletta and myriad fortifications across Malta and Gozo.
“Moreover, the great siege of 1565 is still firmly imprinted in our national psyche. A tale of utmost chivalry, where the Knights with the help of the Maltese made Christendom’s last stand in the Mediterranean against the invading Ottomans. If Malta had fallen, the course of European history would have changed.
“So, yes, Steve, all this has long fascinated me; ever since I was a kid and a good part of my recreational reading deals with medieval military history, including Knights Templar history, who, although they do not have a direct connection with Malta as the Knights of St John do – remains pivotal for anyone interested in Crusader history.
“Moreover, there is so much myth associated with the Templars that one’s imagination can really go wild and in various directions as to what the real scope was for the setting up of the Order, for example.
“And this is the case with the lyrical themes I have explored on the first two Sacro Sanctus albums – I have concocted a story drawing from both fact and fiction, charting the Templars’ rise to power in the Middle East and fall from grace with both the Church and the French monarchy coming together (for different reasons) and securing their dissolution after a bloody persecution. The story will now proceed (for a third upcoming album at least) with the emphasis now turned on what happened to the Order after their dissolution. My reading is focussed on all this for the moment in an effort to create a central storyline for the third album.”
Speaking of Malta, do you think that living in Malta, particularly in the pre-Internet age, gave Maltese musicians in general, and you in particular, their own unique sound?
“Before the Internet and social media age, Malta and the Maltese metal scene were quite isolated from the rest of the Continent and it was very difficult for bands to make it out of here on tour and get some attention from abroad. Although we did have some record shops here who stocked the major metal bands at the time and occasionally, some rarer metal (mostly on order), most of us depended on a tightly knit tape-trading circuit to get the more underground stuff and to keep tabs on what was going on abroad, especially in England, Germany and the U.S. Gigs in Malta by foreign bands were virtually unheard of, and few of us could afford flights to go and watch bands abroad.”
I see on the booklet for ‘Ad Aeternum’ that you are wearing a rather splendid Venom t-shirt, Albert! What is your opinion on this most influential and often criminally underrated band?
“Venom are my all-times\ favourites, part of the (un)holy trinity of Bathory and Celtic Frost; they have a great significance for my heavy metal trajectory. I don’t know even from where to start, really. My relationship with the band goes back to the 80s while I was still at secondary school. ‘Welcome To Hell’ and ‘Black Metal’ were doing the rounds then (this was early ’83) and a friend of mine at the time loaned me a 90-minute TBK tape with both albums…
“It was very difficult to get LPs here (apart from the big names like Sabbath, Priest, etc.) at the time, so this tape trading circuit was crucial for us to get our hands on new stuff that was already erupting on the scene. I was already hooked on Motorhead by then but my listening tastes were mostly focused on Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Rainbow, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Rush, Scorpions, MSG…. all the classic bands… plus Saxon, Iron Maiden, and other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. Motorhead were the most extreme and heaviest band I had ever listened to and I never thought that any other band could challenge their throne… but then Venom came along and… boom! I was left startled and totally in shock after listening to the first side of that 90-minute cassette tape… ‘Welcome To Hell’ …totally!
“Eventually I got my hands on both albums on vinyl and also ‘At War With Satan’ on vinyl and my love for Venom flourished and remained unabated with time. If anything it has only increased, especially with having the privilege to host Venom Inc (Abaddon, Mantas, and The Demolition Man) in Malta and hanging out with the band here and briefly recently in Sheffield at Hard Rock Hell NWOBHM which they co-headlined. The intensity of the band is second-to-none; they single-handedly pushed metal beyond its limits and really upped the ante on all fronts.
“Moreover, I have rarely, if ever (perhaps Pagan Altar would be another case in point) come across a band (and I have met quite a few over the years!) that has such a great relationship with their fans and supporters. I still also, of course, love the early stuff with Cronos, and Conrad remains for me one of the genre’s most telling frontmen, and I also think that both ‘Fallen Angels’ and ‘From The Very Depths‘ are fine albums. Venom have kept me great company for more than 35 years… I do not see that changing at all… I guess I am hooked for life, like any true Venom Legionnaire, ha, ha!”
You are obviously a man of no small knowledge on the subjects that provide lyrical inspiration for Sacro Sanctus. What further reading what you recommend?
“I have amassed quite a decent library on Templar myth and fiction and religious military order history in general, with specific emphasis on the Crusades. In so far as the history of the Knights Templar is concerned, I would argue that Karen Ralls’ ‘Knights Templar Encyclopedia’ (2007) is a must for the uninitiated and is crucial to navigate through the keystone elements of the Order and its history. Written in a scholarly yet very accessible style, it provides insights on the Templars’ origins, leaders, symbolism, organisation, rituals, events and battles, and also includes a small but informative appendix delineating key Templar sites in Europe and the Middle East and the main charges against the Order, which eventually led to the Order’s dissolution.
“Ralls is also author of the volume ‘The Templars and the Holy Grail’, which is also an interesting read. However, these provide quite a rudimentary introduction to the Knights Templar. Those who wish to delve deeper on the subject should grab a copy of Malcolm Barber’s ‘The New Knighthood’ (1994), an essential account of the rise and consolidation of the Order and its downfall through a critical lens that distinguishes between lore and historical fact. Barber’s concluding chapter overviews how the fascination with the Templars continued to permeate in popular culture well after its dissolution and comes with very detailed annotations and bibliography. A must really!
“Michael Haag’s ‘The Templars: From Solomon’s Temple to the Freemasons‘ (2007) dwells more on Templar lore and myth and also goes into what he calls ‘Templarism’ in contemporary society, not a bad read, but mostly intended for a mass versus a more specialist audience – as is Grishin’s recent ‘Legends of the Knights Templar’, which I am, however, finding quite useful for my third upcoming Sacro Sanctus opus.”
Could you ever see Sacro Sanctus playing live?
“As I have always said from the outset, Sacro Sanctus is principally intended as a studio project. It is essentially an important vehicle for me to express myself in an unrestrained and different way to my bands (Forsaken and Nomad Son) in my song-writing, etc. This said, I am not ruling anything out and might eventually consider developing Sacro Sanctus as a live band. There is certainly demand for it, so it may be well worth it! However, at this stage the priority is to finalise this
first trilogy of albums dealing with my Knights Templar concept.”
What do you think of the current sorry state of the music scene – the illegal downloading of music and so forth? Can bands make a living from their music, and as the older bands or artists retire or die, can anyone replace them in such an unfavourable climate? Are so-called music fans destroying their own future listening?
“I can accept that fans download an album to introduce themselves to a band (in doing so, I would hope that true music fans steer clear of obvious and thieving illegal download sites that charge people for low quality MP3s). But beyond that, if one truly wishes to support artists and their continued development, fans should make it their mission to buy the physical releases and band merchandise, as otherwise the possibility of taking things beyond simple, home-based, desk-top productions solely distributed online will be severely compromised. Nothing beats the complete aural and visual experience of a physical release. Thankfully, most true metalheads have realised this and both vinyl and CD releases have managed to survive somehow in the scene. However, from my experience, this respect is risking dying out and the likelihood of the death of quality releases from what we may call the D.I.Y, independent heavy metal industry may well be upon us.”
Right. Now a fun question, one I always like, Albert! If you were to do a covers album, what songs would you do?
“Ah, a difficult question! I would obviously have to pay homage to Motorhead, Venom and Celtic Frost – the (un) holy trinity on which the sound of Sacro Sanctus is founded. There are too many individual tracks from those bands that I would love to cover, so I won’t even dare to list single tracks from each band right now. Angel Witch, Pagan Altar and Bathory would be very suitable candidates for such an EP and some older bands too, including Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath, of course – two bands that had a resounding influence on my heavy metal trajectory.”
I cannot but compliment you on your good taste Albert, particularly Blue Oyster Cult, one of the greatest (and most occult and intelligent!) bands of all time, and the mighty Angel Witch (in some parallel universe the Witch are as big as Iron Maiden). If Metallica ever do another covers EP, I’d love to see them doing something like ‘Confused’ by Angel Witch!
Finally, Albert, what are your future plans?
“Speaking of covers, I have just finished covering ‘The Shrine in the Gloom’ by the Italian Horror Metal masters for a Death SS tribute which will be released by the cult Italian label Black Widow Records later this year. The album should also feature some other great bands like Northwinds (France) and Abysmal Griest (Italy) and should be a must for all Death SS fans.
“I worked in a different studio for this track (Hell Next Door Studio) and recruited new guests in the line-up to experiment a bit with the band’s sound. I have to say I am really pleased with the end result and my collaborators on the tracks (Steve Lombardo – Drums, Owen Grech – Guitars and Luciano Schembri – Keyboards) were a real pleasure to work with. I am, in fact, not excluding further collaborations with them, should they wish to be on board.
“I restricted myself to bass and vocals for the Death SS cover. It is, however, very likely that I will be taking over guitar duties as well for the next Sacro Sanctus full-length (apart from vocals, bass and all the song-writing), which is also a work-in-progress. I have a backlog of songs completed.
“Right now, I am trying those songs which I think will be worthy of a Sacro Sanctus album. Pre-production will start after that – hopefully over the next few months. I would say that a new Sacro Sanctus album should see the light of day in 2018. I will surely keep you posted on that.
“Meanwhile I cannot but thank you enough for your support over these months in so many various ways. Keep it heavy and true my friend! And thank you to your readers who have taken the time to read this interview. Feel free to contact me via Facebook or my email ([email protected]) should you require any more information on Sacro Sanctus or any of my bands or just wish to exchange views on metal (obviously by that I mean the old school path!) Hails and ales to all!”
Many thanks to you, Albert, for putting in the time to give such informative and entertaining answers to my questions.
I would like to dedicate this feature to Albert’s dad, Norman, a truly brave gentleman who has faced some severe surgery with great dignity and courage: a true hero, I wish him a continuing recovery.