Canadian melodic power metal outfit Unleash the Archers are back again with the follow-up to the well-received Apex (2017) with its sequel, Abyss. We had a chance to talk with band front Brittney Slayes on August 20th, 2020, about the new album and its hard-hitting story.
First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this interview! Canada isn’t exactly known for great metal, so it’s cool to see more bands coming out of my homeland.
[laughs] Yeah, there’s a lot of us hiding out here.
We have such a bad reputation to make up for, thanks to Justin Bieber and Nickleback.
Hey, we’ve got Celine [Dion] though. She redeems us all [laughter].
Coming from Canada then, how is it that you guys discovered the metal genre? Before the days of YouTube, you really had to know someone who knew someone who introduced you to metal.
I’ve been listening to heavy music since I was little. I had an older brother who loved Pantera and Tool and all those killer bands, so when I first heard Megadeth when I was 8, I was sold. So I’ve kind of been a metalhead my whole life. When I met Scott [Buchanan, drums], he was playing in a band in university when we were 19 and I was like, ooh, I could totally do that. I had been classically trained my whole life and never really heard a band that I thought was something that I could do, because it was constantly screaming or that kind of thing. Then he introduced me to Judas Priest and Queensrÿche and Iron Maiden and all those, and I was just like, oh! This sounds like something that I could do, so when his band broke up, we started Unleash the Archers together.
That’s really cool! I personally didn’t know you guys by more than name until my neck doctor in Calgary recommended you and while he’s new to metal, he’s got pretty good taste.
I love Calgary, we do really well there. We consider Edmonton and Calgary our home-away-from-home because those are the two cities that have supported us the most ever since our first record came out in 2009, so we love it over there. There’s such a great and supportive scene in both cities and we have so many friends over there and we always love being able to play shows there and it’s really sad that we don’t get to do our album release shows over there like we always do. Every time we release a new record, we always do the same thing. We do one weekend in British Columbia, so we’ll do Victoria – our hometown where we started – on the Friday and Vancouver on the Saturday, and then we’ll hop in the van and head on over the mountains and do Calgary and Edmonton the next weekend, normally. It really sucks that we don’t get to do that this year and see all of our friends over there.
Oh, that sounds like a great time! The Calgary-Edmonton gig road trip is always a lot of fun. I’m originally from Red Deer, which is right in between.
We used to play at The Vat in Red Deer as well. Then there was a different venue that was good for a while in Red Deer. I can’t remember the name, it was really long, but it was a really great time. You get everybody that’s in between that lovely stretch of highway and it was always a rad time. But we haven’t played Red Deer in a long time, unfortunately.
Well, going back to the basics since this is our first time talking, based on the name, is it safe to assume there’s a fair bit of fantasy nerdery in your band?
[laughter] Just a bit.
Are you guys also lovers of sci-fi, considering this new album is set in space?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve been a reader my whole life and very rarely did I ever go anywhere without a book in my bag or my pocket, so I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy for years. We first experimented with science fiction… actually it was like a sci-fi/fantasy mash-up on our 2011 record, Demons of the Astral Waste. It was very much set out in space but there were terrestrial battles and there was an enchanted sword and an evil general of the dark army kind of thing. Lots of elements of both. But this go around, when I wrote Apex and Abyss, I wanted Apex to be a fantasy record and Abyss to be very much a science fiction record. They’re still combined, because there’s one story throughout both records, so there’s a bit of each, but I really wanted the records to focus solely on each genre, just to keep it nice and cohesive and so that we could really build the sound around the genre as well. But I don’t think I’ll ever go back. I’ll probably never write a record about real life or anything ever again [laughs]. I’ve got about ten books started on my computer right now that I never have time to finish.
I’m a huge fan of concept albums as a big fantasy nerd myself, so the combination of stories and music is the best thing. You’ve just touched on this, but when you came up with the concept of The Immortal and the stories, did you write both albums at the same time, or was Apex done first?
We were originally planning to do a 2-disc record as one release, something you could listen to from beginning-to-end and get the whole story over two albums. Then deadlines were looming and we didn’t want to rush anything, we wanted to take our time with every track and make sure it was the best it could be, so we put Abyss aside and just solely focused on Apex in 2016. The story, the underlying foundation of the whole thing, was already written. Abyss wasn’t super fleshed out like Apex ended up being. It was really just a general outline that I had going in my head. Through the writing process for Apex, it really cleared things up and was like, “Ah, so this is definitely what’s going to happen in Abyss now because of what we had happen in Apex,” and that kind of thing. So for the most part, yeah, I knew from the beginning that they were going to be called Apex and Abyss, I knew that Apex was going to be grounded, that The Immortal was going to do battle on earth and in Abyss he was going to take off into the stars and do battle in the stars, and that The Matriarch was going to be his nemesis and they were going to have a push and pull of power between them. So right from the get-go I knew that Abyss was going to be the sequel to Apex.
How did you come up with the general concept of The Immortal? What were some of your inspirations?
I knew I wanted to have a tragic hero character and I knew I wanted him to be male, as my protagonist. The main inspiration for him came from a comic book that I’m reading called East of West. There’s a character in there called Wolf and he’s actually… through the series, he’s started to become more of a main character but back when I was reading he was a side character, but I thought he was really cool. I loved the imagery that they used to depict this character and he was this… exactly that. A lone wolf, very solitary, stoic, quiet kind of guy in the shadows, and I was like, that’s totally a cool hero, this unassuming, calm, emotionally stable, just goes-with-the-flow kind of a guy. I thought that would be a really neat character for a protagonist, so that’s where I got that from.
Then I knew that I wanted my antagonist to be female and a power hungry sorceress -type villain, you know, the typical trope: I want to rule the universe -type. I think there’s nothing scarier than a woman hungry for power [laughter]. You don’t want to get in their way. So that was where that came from. Then I really just looked at both of these characters that I had and figured out through character development how they would interact with one another, what decisions they would make based on the abilities of the other, and what would motivate them, and it came from that.
Both of the albums feel very parallel to one another. Was it done intentionally, that the first tracks would reflect each other with The Immortal waking up, though something different is actively happening in the story?
Yes, so that is the curse of The Immortal. He sleeps for thousands of years at a time and he is awakened by whoever is going to control him. He must always serve whoever awakens him. So in Apex he is awakened by The Matriarch and he has been asleep for a really long time and the whole world has changed around him and he’s really excited to be awake, but he’s also like, “Okay, here we go again, who’s my new master and what are they going to make me do? Who am I going to have to kill now?” He’s really okay with his whole situation and he’s resigned himself to be this servant of those who have power. It’s always been that way for him. So “Awakening” is very much a song that has excitement to it but there’s also this underlying sense of foreboding.
Then on Abyss, he wakes up and he is nowhere near the planet that he knows, the mountain that he’s slept in for thousands of years, anything familiar whatsoever. So he’s straight-up scared, but it’s also suddenly an opportunity that he’s seeing: where am I, what is this, but wait, could this be something different? Could this be where I finally find my freedom and I can determine my own path? So it’s got this feeling of fear but a much more anticipatory fear. He’s excited to be maybe looking at a new horizon.
I love that. Out of curiosity, do we know from the story so far how he became cursed?
[laughs] That’s a mystery. That’s an origin story prequel or something. I’m not too sure yet.
Fair enough! Now like I said, it feels like he’s not the same person that he was at the beginning of Apex. After everything he went through, maybe he’s questioning himself a bit more. How do you imagine that he’s changed after the first album?
I think he’s fed up, really, is what it comes down to. He felt, at the beginning of Apex, that something was going to be different. The Matriarch had promised him that she would break his curse, it’s the first time he’s ever had a master that seemed like maybe they could actually have the power to do that. Although he was never very hopeful for it, it was always there in the back of his mind. Then of course she betrays him and sends him back to the mountain to sleep and he’s just done with it all. So when he wakes up and realizes that he’s got a new master, he finally dares to actually hope and say, “I’m not going to do this anymore. I have the power. I am the one that can change things for myself. No one else can do it but me. It’s time for me to take the reins on this thing. I’m not going to stand for it anymore.” He really just wakes up and after doing all of these horrible things and then being alone in this huge spaceship with all this time to reflect on it, he realizes that he’s been letting it happen all this time and he’s not going to do that anymore.
That’s really interesting. I don’t think I know of any/many stories where the genie rebels against the master, so to speak. Now on Apex, most of the songs were from the perspective of The Immortal. On this album it feels like there are songs like “Legacy” that have a few new perspectives. Who are the other characters in this story?
There is one new character. On Apex I had one song sung from the POV of The Matriarch, “Cleanse the Bloodlines,” and on Abyss, I wanted to have another song sung in her voice and that was “Return to Me.” Then I also had a big story to tell for the grandson, who is The Immortal’s new master and the son of one of the brothers that The Immortal was tasked to bring back to The Matriarch in Apex, so the grandson of The Matriarch. I really wanted to tell his story a little bit, so I wrote “Legacy” from his point of view. It’s the moment they meet on the bridge of the ship and the grandson says to The Immortal, “I blamed you for a really long time for the death of my father, but then I realized that The Matriarch was the one that I needed to seek revenge upon, so you and I are going to defeat her together and we’re going to be a team on this.” It was much easier to tell that story in the grandson’s voice, so there are two songs strictly from another character’s PoV. Then in “Carry the Flame” the grandson comes back and does a duet with The Immortal. Andrew [Kingsley, guitar] voiced the grandson on that track to make it easier for that call-and-return musical side of things.
I really like that track, it has such a powerful chorus. How did you choose that one to separate the vocals on that track, as opposed to the others?
I really wanted the grandson to be a different voice on “Carry the Flame” so that you tell that it was a conversation, whereas that wasn’t really necessary on “Legacy” because the whole song is from his point of view. Andrew voiced the brother on Apex that was the one that became The Immortal’s friend and goes willingly and doesn’t fight back and says, “I’m fine with this, I understand this isn’t your fault and I’m going to come with you so you don’t have to stress about it.” So I thought it would be cool to have him come back as that character’s son and do that duet with me on Abyss.
Now “The Wind that Shapes the Land” feels like the big climactic fight between The Immortal and The Matriarch, so [spoiler warnings] what happens at the end of this track? How do they defeat The Matriarch?
She’s a narcissist, she thinks she’s all-powerful and that no one can touch her, but she forgets that The Immortal has that power as well. So she is creating a hurricane around them and throwing the entire planet, everything she’s got, at The Immortal, but The Immortal is strong enough to push past it all and he really just takes her in his hands, physically, and crushes the life out of her. He doesn’t have wizarding magic like she does, but he’s got everything else, a Superman-type. So he physically pushes past all of her power in a way that she doesn’t expect, so that’s how he’s able to surprise her and crush the spark and he wins. The storm ends, the clouds disappear, and he’s celebrating on the battlefield… and then he realizes that the grandson was a casualty of the whole thing and that he’s laying there, broken, probably had a few boulders crush him or something along those lines [laughs] and he’s like, “Oh, of course. I can’t have a victory without sacrifice.”
He can never have a full win.
Yeah. So the whole thing ends on a super high note and then, BAM, this guy that I’ve become really close to and whose almost like a father figure to me is dying in my arms.
That’s wonderfully brutal. Now in the final track, I love the use of orchestration and the whole thing feels really epic and final. Was it any harder to put this song together than the others, particularly working with Francesco Ferrini?
He came in at the of everything. Andrew was the one who wrote this whole song and we basically said that it’s got to be really triumphant and happy and [have an] end-of-the-story feeling; we want to bring everything to a tight little close here and wrap it all up in a nice little package. He said okay and wrote that and sent it back to us. We were like, “Oh my God, yes! Hello Lord of the Rings!” He did a really great job on it and we felt like it gave it that triumphant finish that we were looking for.
When we were in the studio with Jacob [Hansen, producer] in January, he was like, “Oh, okay, this is cool, but it definitely sounds like a computer wrote it,” which is how Andrew wrote it because he doesn’t have a symphony in his apartment [laughter]. He said he had a guy who could make it sound real, so he sent it off to Francesco and he basically replaced all the instrumentation with real flutes and cellos and violins, etc., because he’s got a really, really expensive ProTools [laughter]. So he basically has a whole orchestra at his fingertips so he did all of that for us, except the ocarina, which is the original that Andrew wrote, because… I don’t know, I love the sound and innocence of an ocarina. I just think it’s great. Francesco added a lot of flare and trills and whatnot, and that was it.
Awesome, it definitely works really well. Now as I said, I’m a huge fan of concept albums, but it is hard to find one that’s really well balanced. Some bands have maybe not shared enough of the story for it to make sense to the listeners, or maybe they need extra media, or maybe they had trouble making dialogue sound melodic, so they end up sing-talking and it loses a bit of the magic. I really enjoyed this album because it is so well done on this front. Do you find it hard to balance the music with the story with the lyrics, making it sound poetic, etc.?
It’s definitely a fine line that you have to walk. I don’t like to have that whole singing a dialogue thing happen. It’s too literal for me, I’m not a huge fan of that, so I try to avoid that as much as possible. I also like to write the songs in such a way that the listener can interpret it in their own way and apply their own meaning to it. So I try to keep it broad enough to the point that it can be something else. If this is a song that you listen to when you’ve lost someone that you love or it’s reminding you of an amazing day that you’ve had with someone or that kind of thing, that it’s not just about the story but it’s also about how the song makes you feel and what kind of memories you can attribute to it. So it’s really important to me that I don’t write super literally and that I tell the story in such a way that if you listen, you can hear it and you can figure out what’s going on. If it’s something that you just let play in the background, you can still sing along and apply your own meaning to the lyrics however you choose.
That’s really well put. For example, some of the songs have a very empowering feel, like “The Wind that Shapes the Land,” pushing on and overtaking The Matriarch, but it also works as a metaphor for overcoming pretty much anything, like the terrible American government or things like that.
[laughter] Yeah, it’s whatever you want it to be. I’m fine with that.
Everyone’s always talking about how messed up the world seems these days, so it’s good to have these strong, empowering songs that remind people not to give up.
Yeah, it’s all about finding the strength within, that’s really what it comes down to at the end of the day. If these songs can help you do that, can help you get through a tough time or whatever is going on in your life, I just want to do my best at writing it so that it can make you feel that way.
Awesome, I love it. Now I am located in Finland – have you guys ever been here before?
No, we had a festival booked there but of course we were unable to make it. I think it went forward anyways but we’re going to hop on over there next year hopefully, next summer, if everything is safe and sound. But no, we’ve never actually been able to play anywhere in the Nordics except for maybe one show in Denmark once a long time ago, so hopefully we can fix that.
Well that’s about it for my questions, lest I just ask you to tell me the whole story, so any last words or any relevant stories about the album you want to share before we wrap this up?
I would say to go pick up the earbook because I did a short novella in there, explaining the whole story behind Abyss, but it’s sold out now. I was thinking I might do a read-through on Twitch one day, so if anyone’s interested in that, come hang out on Twitch with me. I also just play video games, if anybody’s interested in that, that’s a great place to hang out and chat about whatever. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, all of the usual haunts, and we tend to reply to people when they have questions, so if anyone has questions about the story, I’m more than happy to fill in the blanks.
Thank you so much for your time. Have a good afternoon!
Thanks, you too! Be safe.