HELLWITCH: a legendary band from Florida that released a bunch of killer demos and a masterpiece of technical Death / Thrash Metal brutality during the late ‘80s – early ‘90s. Then a long hiatus at the turn of the 21st century and an impressive comeback in 2009. Now, in 2018, the band headed by Pat Ranieri, is working on its next album (the third one in more than 30 years). It is a privilege to be speaking to a great Metal innovator as Pat: a true legend in the American underground scene and a very talented guitarist.
Let’s start with the most recent news: you just got back from an Asian tour. How was the fans’ reaction? In which cities did you play? I’ve watched on YouTube a couple of excerpts from a Malaysian gig: a killer performance indeed. Was it your first tour outside the US?
"It was a very successful tour for us. Actually, the MOST successful HELLWITCH has EVER done! Thank you for the positive words regarding the YouTube clips. The fan’s reactions were definitely noteworthy! In Singapore there was a portable Metal barricade a few feet in front of the stage. During all the opening bands the fans seemed to just lean on the barricade for support. Not to talk a big game, but when we played they were shaking the barricade viciously while exhibiting headbang mania! I was quite impressed! I actually commented in between songs that I was glad the barricade was there to protect us from the sick Metal freaks! In Penang, Malaysia we played the Deathober Fest. There was a 7 (8?) year old boy donning studded arm bands standing ON the front / center of the stage shaking his head the entire night! A great example of the Metal youth of Malaysia! Great crowd of at least 500 at that festival! Bangkok also had a rather unique group of attendees. Not a big crowd, but they slammed and surfed a bit! I found this unusual photo of 2 fellows colliding in the pit. One had his glasses on, the other wore a bullet belt! I’ll tell you, we do NOT see that in Florida! We played Singapore, the cities of J.B. and Penang in Malaysia, and Bangkok. We were set to perform in the Philippines as well, but it didn’t pan out in the end. This was our first tour outside the continental U.S. besides Puerto Rico. It was a brutal journey of epic proportions! Can’t wait to do it again!"
I’ve read on your website that your second full length album “Omnipotent Convocation” will be re-released soon, right? Which HELLWITCH releases are actually available and are you working on new material?
"Yes, the reissue of “Omnipotent Convocation” will be released by early 2019 on Vic Records. It will have completely new artwork / layout / photos and contain several unreleased bonus tracks that are exclusive to this pressing. We have at least have a dozen releases available right now. Please visit www.hellwitch.com to see them all as well as shirts, DVDs, patches, stickers, comic books and more. We are absolutely working on songs for our third full length! We have 4-5 new songs written and a couple more in progress as well as some classics that have never been properly recorded."
Can you tell us something more about your current line-up?
"The current line-up has been together for about 3,5 years now. JP Brown has been the rhythm guitarist in the band since ’94. The newest additions have been "Brutal" Brian Wilson on drums (since April ’15) and live bassist Julian Guillen (since early ’16). This line-up is highly proficient and has played many shows in a relatively short time! We’re keeping it brutal."
Please, explain to our readers, how is the typical HELLWITCH agenda. Do you rehearse on a regular basis or only when you have to prepare a show?
"Since JP lives in another state, typically Brian and I rehearse 1-2 times per week focusing on new songs. When we prepare for local shows, Julian joins us. When we prepare to tour, we venture up to JP’s home where we refresh the songs that he has not played with us for months, usually. We work on the tour set for a few days and off we go to KILL KILL KILL!!"
HELLWITCH was born in 1984 and without any doubt it’s one of the oldest Death / Thrash Metal bands from the US. In 34 years you released a good amount of demos and EPs, but only two full length albums (one in 1990 and one in 2009). Many line-up changes and a pretty long hiatus in the late 90s – early 2000s have surely slowed down the band’s work, I guess. How do you compose new songs? How long does it actually take to get a perfect HELLWITCH song? Your band has some very intricated structures; can you explain us your process of songwriting?
"The break-up definitely took its toll on HELLWITCH. I rarely even picked up the guitar from ’99-’03! But, the line-up was actually VERY stable for 20 years (1995 – 2015, minus the hiatus)! Only the drummer changed in that period. During 2004, it took Joe and I many months to even decide that we would reform. Obviously, over the course of our history the songwriting process has changed. I’ve always written all the lyrics and titles. Originally, from ’84-’94 I wrote 90% of the music. During the period from ’95-’15 Craig Shattuck (ex-bass), JP and I composed most of the music together and Joe "Witch" contributed ideas here and there. I think this is evident in the more "flowing", less erratic style the songs on "Omnipotent Convocation" have. During the past 2 years I’ve composed 3 new songs myself. Depending on witch era you refer to, the time taken to compose songs varies wildly. At some points we wrote 5-6 new songs in 5 years. Now, I’ve written 3 in 2 years. When the 3 of us used to write we would each contribute "riffs" and then we would vote them in or out depending on their quality. We would then arrange them and decide which would be best for solos / verses / choruses, etc. I sort of lead the troops during these marches, but we all pulled our weight on the battlefield. Now, I’ve been writing everything myself with Brian collaborating on a few parts. So, the procedure is like the days of "Syzygial Miscreancy" again. It’s pretty challenging ramping up the material to compete with today’s sound. But again, we’re doing it mainly for our own satisfaction. I still adhere to the philosophy of, "DO NOT SOUND LIKE OTHER BANDS!" I find myself rejecting most of the ideas I come up with. Very few are good enough to be used. The composition process now consists of coming up with "riffs" that are exceptional and then delegating witch will be used for what purpose in the song. I then write lyrics to fit the vocal patterns that I’ve loosely established during rehearsals."
Are you currently signed to any record label?
"We are now signed with Vic Records for re-releases and will possibly be signing with Listenable Records within the next few weeks for a new full length."
To me you are one of the fastest and more technical guitarists that came out from the golden age of American Death Metal. What equipment did you use to play in those years and has your gear changed over time? What about your playing techniques, are they still the same after a third of a century or do you think that the passing of time and new technologies have helped to improve them?
"Thank you very much for the kind compliment! As with most of the early ’80s Metal guitarists, I considered Marshall guitar amps the standard. I was a staunch believer in them from the late 70s to the early 2000s! However, as a teenager I could not afford an imported Marshall amp, so I started with a Peavey Classic 50 watt combo amp and a Rat distortion pedal. These I used on the ’86 and ’87 demos. In ’89 I used a Crate 100 watt combo amp and purchased a Boss ME-5 multi effects pedal and Cry Baby wah-wah. I switched to a JCM 900 amp and Boss ME-6 pedal from 1990-2005 (I still use the ME-6 today). However, I used a Marshall Mosfet 100 watt amp on the "Syzygial Miscreancy" recording as I heard that’s what Scott Ian had used on the S.O.D. recording and I was impressed with that guitar sound! While recording the 2005 promo CD I was introduced to Engl amps. That was a game changer!!! Again, it took me a bit to switch over. I finally purchased an Engl Blackmore in 2013. I think it’s the best sounding amp around! As for wood and strings, I’ve always been a Gibson man. Since my first Les Paul in ’77, I’ve ONLY played Gibson on every recording I’ve ever done. The ’77 Les Paul was used for all the rhythm tracks on "Syzygial Miscreancy" and "Terraasymmetry". I used my ’84 Explorer for all the solos on those recordings. I used an Aria 12-string on "Syzygial Miscreancy" as well. I’ve always used EMG 81+85 pick ups in all my guitars, except in the ’77 Les Paul. That still has the stock, chrome plated humbuckers. As far as technique, my picking style changed starting in about ’88. From ’83 – ’87 I would generally move my entire arm to pick fast. I realized over time this would hinder my technical development so I broke myself of that habit and began to pick more in the vein of accomplished soloists like Yngwie and Al Di Meola. This style involves just moving 2 fingers and sometimes the hand. I actually still focus today on refining my picking to increase my speed further."
“Syzygial Miscreancy” is largely considered a true masterpiece of American Death / Thrash Metal. I’ve always considered it as the East Coast answer to what SADUS did on the West one with “Illusions” and “Swallowed In Black”. Which were your main influences in those years and which ones nowadays?
"Again, thank you for the supportive opinion! I’m not sure I would consider us comparable to SADUS. But, I do love their first 2 albums (and demos!)! "Illusions" is one of my favorite albums… in life! As I said, the main idea I had for HELLWITCH was to be unlike others. And also to have strong song by song diversity. The model for this diversity was LED ZEPPELIN. Each of ZEPPELIN’s songs have their own identity. I think that diversity is very evident on "Syzygial Miscreancy"! No 2 songs start or end with the same idea. I’m not sure these are influences, but in the ’87 – ’89 period I was often listening to MORBID ANGEL, SLAYER (first 2 LPs and EP), DEATH (1st LP and demos!!!), DEVASTATION (IL), INSANITY (CA), SLAUGHTER LORD, POSSESSED, DARK ANGEL, DESTRUCTION (EP and first 2 LPs), C.O.C. ("Animosity"), ADRENALIN O.D., S.O.D., D.R.I. ("Dealing With It"), WEHRMACHT, PESTILENCE, EXODUS (1st LP), SADUS (demo and 1st LP), ENGLISH DOGS ("Forward Into Battle" LP), THE ACCUSED, DEICIDE, TERRORIZER, HUMAN REMAINS and many more! I was heavily into tape trading and concert video trading (I still trade / sell concert videos!) so I know there are many demo bands I’m forgetting about at the moment! Nowadays, the emergence of new bands that are worth a shit is pretty limited. I’m often listening to DEMILICH (my faves!), DIMENSION ZERO, CORPORATION 187, DEFLESHED, ATHEIST (first 2 LPs, demos + R.A.V.A.G.E. demos), MORBID ANGEL (first 5 LPs), DEATH (early demos), ED (Italy), ABBATH, SATAN ("Atom By Atom"), ANGELCORPSE, IMMORTAL ("Blizzard Beasts"), TAD, SINISTER ("Afterburner"), TERRORIZER (1st LP and demos), and some of the above. It’s much harder today to be unlike others as it’s all pretty much been done, but I think we still have a pretty unique, memorable and vicious sound! Check out ‘Megalopalyptic Confine’ and see what I mean."
“Szygyal Miscreancy” was recorded in March 1990 at the legendary Morrisound Studios and it was engineered by Scott Burns. The same month, the same year and the same studio in which DEICIDE recorded its debut album. I think that the two albums sound very similar with the typical Morrisound touch from those years. Can you tell us something more in-depth about that session? Do you agree that there are similiraties with the early DEICIDE sound?
"Funny story! When we were arriving for our sessions during those few days, we would pass Glen Benton at the front door leaving the studio after doing his vocals! I would say, "Hey, what’s up?" He would walk past and reply with something like, "Keep it evil". LOL! Yes, I do agree the production of those two releases share some common traits. Similar drum sound for sure! The use of the harmonizer during the chorus of ‘Mordirivial Dissemination’ is exactly the same as much of the DEICIDE album. And, finally, you can’t hear the bass too well on either recording. So, what do I remember from that session??? It was a “blip” in time! The whole thing was 25 hours total. We spent 3 days there. But, we were supposed to record in the smaller of the 2 "rooms" Morrisound had for 40-50 hours. Due to the studio’s error, we were forced to record in the bigger, more expensive room, and, in half the time! BRUTAL! A few highlights were when Scotty gave us a list of nuts and bolts we had to go to the hardware store and buy for Joe’s rickety Pearl Export drum set! I set my amp sound as I wanted it and Scott interjected that the mid level knob on the amp should be boosted. I allowed him to set the amp at that point! I’m glad he did so. Also, the mixing of the GODZILLA soundtrack into the ‘M.D.’ intro was curious as it was done in one take with minimal fanfare. In the days of analog recording, doing such a mix in one take was a miracle! It was incredible to hear back in the studio for the first time! And, Scott’s opinion not to use “wind” sounds during ‘The Ascent’. I had planned some wind FX mixed with the 12 string guitars, but Scotty said, “Every band uses wind with acoustic guitar these days, I think just the guitars alone would be more original / effective”. He was right, I think! Finally, I remember being soooo tired during the mix at the end of our sessions, that we basically just set it up quickly and went for it. No long involved debates or fine tunings. We just set it up and let it rip! Frank Watkins (R.I.P. ex – bass) spent most of the time with us in the studio as well. That was fun! He also hung out in our hotel room. Frank kept farting over and over until I was afraid to light a joint in the room! This is actually more or less mentioned in the HELLWITCH comic book."
“Omnipotent Convocation” was produced by another very well known name in the Death Metal underground: Jeremy Staska. How can you define his work, if compared to what did Scott Burns in 1990?
"Jeremy is a legend having worked with such bands as POISON THE WELL, DIVINE EMPIRE, MALEVOLENT CREATION, KULT OV AZAZEL, DEADSTAR ASSEMBLY and over 100 others! I think we came up with music that flowed a bit better on that as opposed to the off-the-wall type stuff I was writing in the ‘80s. I like it in a different way than "Syzygial Miscreancy". With the advent of ProToolsHD, recording is much more efficient than anytime before. I really love recording with digital programs. All the mistakes magically go away! LOL! We spent 9 months (+/- 400 hours!) recording / mixing / producing “Omnipotent Convocation”! My fave song is probably ‘Mysteria’. As compared to Scott, recording with Jeremy was more technically involved. Scott would adjust mics, equalize sounds and do manual recording "punch in" and "punch outs" to correct mistakes. With Jeremy, some recorded drum performances were partially replaced with single, individual drum hits Joe did. It sounds perfect when you hear it and it is true Joe Witch drum hits, no electronic shit samples. With sound / guitar / vocal, etc. FX that I wanted on certain songs, Jeremy would bring up BANKS of FX to pick from!!! These were not widely available in 1990! I think Jeremy and Scott are close in age. Overall, they are both creative and collaborative in their recording. I would think that in 2008 Scott would have been doing just what Jeremy did! They both are top notch engineers / producers!!!"
HELLWITCH is a pretty active band in terms of live shows with many dates and festivals through the US. Do you already have any planned gigs for the next months? When will we see HELLWITCH live in Europe?
"We just completed a tour of Asia last month where we performed in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. We play locally with CANNIBAL CORPSE in 3 weeks (12/6/18) and then with NASTY SAVAGE in Tampa in June ’19. As I’ve joked recently, we toured Asia when I was 50+ years old. At this pace we should tour Europe by the time I’m 70+!"
You have a very distinctive voice, an extreme screaming style that is immediately recognizable among a million singers. Do you think that this factor, as well as the fact that you recorded only two albums have penalised HELLWITCH throughout the years? I mean, that’s why you have never been signed by a major label? Was it a problem for you or are you satisfied by your career? Is better being a cult name in the underground than a slave of the music industry, right?
"Yes, my voice is pretty "unique". haha! I’ve never been impressed with it. It’s just a necessary evil. I think the vocal performance on "Syzygial Miscreancy" is pretty… fair. Again, having limited time in the studio was a setback for the recording. If we had had the scheduled time / room at Morrisound, the recording would have been better, I’m sure. I think having a limited number of releases has hindered us a bit. But, I don’t think we would ever have been signed to a major label no matter what we did! We are not a major label band. We were never really avid composers. We love to play, but didn’t devote much time to writing. Only in recent times has the writing become more frequent. I’m somewhat satisfied. I think we’ve been treated fairly by the "Metal gods"! It’s like anything in life, the more time you invest, the more you get in return. We’ve not invested a lot of time in writing songs. But, as I mentioned, this has changed in the last 2 years. Hopefully we’ll stay on this track. I’m not sure what it would be like to be a slave of the music industry, so I can’t answer that accurately. Don’t slaves get whipped? That ain’t cool! LOL!"
Unfortunately in the last few years the American Death Metal underground scene has lost many of its sons. In 2018 Frank "Killjoy" Pucci, Ralph Santolla and Brett Hoffmann passed away; 2015 was the year of the late Jim Konya and Frank Watkins, who also played in HELLWITCH for a short period in the late 80s. Then nobody can forget the genius of Chuck Shuldiner. Do you have any good memories about some of them to share with our readers?
"I hung out with Killjoy in Orlando, Florida in July 2016. He was very cool and nursing an ankle injury sustained onstage previously during the tour. We took photos and exchanged phone numbers and actually stayed in touch for a while after! He was very cool and supported HELLWITCH. Never met Ralph, only heard crazy stories about him. Brett Hoffman was a very cool guy. We hung out when we played in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2011 and 2014. We had pizza and wings one day! Good buffalo wings! My main memories are of Brett when he lived in South Florida. We used to play warehouse parties with MALEVOLENT CREATION every few weeks in ’88 – ’89. At some parties Phil used to say, "Hey Ranieri, I heard you’re joining my band!" (They were a 4 piece at that time.) Brett was always very fun to be around and would drink a bit more than I could, haha! We didn’t see a lot of each other after they signed to Roadrunner. I do recall Brett, Tom (NOKTURNEL) and I went to the opening of Godzilla in ’98! We all left agreeing that it fuckin’ SUCKED! I’ll never forget Brett’s comment, "…and he only blew fire ONE time!!?" LOL! I miss him. Jim Konya was a super cool guy and super funny! I "met" Jim when I used to get letters he wrote to HELLWITCH in the late 80’s. I remember he used to be into buying band demos, etc. back then (and always, for that matter!). He loved HELLWITCH! I was honored! He also dated a girl from Ohio in high school that ended up moving to Florida and having a relationship with from ’98 – ’05! She was tragically killed in a road rage incident on 1/1/05. He and I talked about her on the phone from time to time after that, among other topics. We hung out every time we played in Cleveland in the 2000’s! He even drove to Pittsburgh to see us in 2014. That was really a tough blow when he died. I still have his messages on my home phone answering machine!! What can I say about Frank? Good friend, good bass player! He was in HELLWITCH for less than a year. Didn’t really see him much after that except while recording the album. Saw him once in a great while in the mid ’00’s. Had some good times, for sure. I was heavily inspired by Evil Chuck from the time I heard the early demos in ’85. As you may know, we actually covered DEATH demo songs starting in ’85. He lived in Altamonte Springs (about 1.5 hour drive from where we lived in Gainesville) and came up to visit / stay with us for a few days in October ’86. By that time, I was a full on DEATH fanatic! During that visit he rehearsed with us and performed ‘Infernal Death’ with us live when we opened for C.O.C. on the "Technocracy" tour. My friend actually filmed that show and some footage of us hanging out at our house getting high. My friend that filmed drove Chuck back to his home after the visit and kept calling him "Evil Chuck" during the drive. Chuck said, "People don’t really use that name anymore." 2 minutes later my friend said, "So, Evil Chuck, when is the album coming out??" LOLOLOL! He continued to call him that for the remainder of the drive, hahahaha! And Chuck didn’t make an issue of it. Cool guy. During his visit we actually got the original "Scream Bloody Gore" rough recording from him that was done in Orlando! That version was scrapped and later re-recorded in California! Also, Chuck brought along his personal notebook with all of the original, handwritten "Scream Bloody Gore" lyrics to share with us. Being huge fanatics, we took the notebook and went to a copy place and xerox’d all the pages! I still have those copies! He was very kind and polite and laid back. Very mellow dude. In ’87 we drove to Orlando to watch DEATH rehearse at their warehouse with the "Leprosy" line-up. That was a very cool time! I audio taped that rehearsal with my Walkman and during the long deathly screams, I held the mic right up to his face!!! He screamed away from his mic into my recorder mic thus making my recording extra fucking brutal! hahahaha! The guy from Pull The Chain ‘zine (France?) was also at the rehearsal with us. Very cool guy! We played with DEATH / CARCASS in Miami 8/20/90 (I know these dates because of my concert video collection, haha!) and we hung out briefly then. After that we kind of lost touch. When I heard he was sick, it scared me! Soon after, I heard he died! I was fucking shocked!! FUCK! The timeline seemed very quick when that happened. Really bugged me for a while after. Obviously, when someone your own age dies, the first thing you think is, "That could happen to me!" Brutal! As DARK ANGEL says, "Death is Certain, Life is Not!"