With a new EP in his armoury – and new territories to conquer this spring – James McBain is opening the next chapter of his infernal creation, Hellripper. Rich Holmes got the lowdown from the Scot who’s tearing up the underground.
James McBain is a product of our age. A guy who uses social media to sell records and merch, build connections with his growing fanbase… and tease followers with tantalising glimpses of his latest riffs, beamed and streamed straight from his bedroom.
It’s a long way from the ‘glory’ days of the record industry – signing ceremonies, chasing the major deal et al. But it’s now a fully established route to market, a DIY approach that is reinforced by the Scot’s ability to write, play and record of all his music on his own, in the comfort of his home.
But while McBain is adept at using digital platforms to reach across the world (a Tweet shows Jiaqi from China wearing a pair of his band’s leggings), and disseminate his music to the masses, Hellripper – his primary project – is unashamedly old school. At least where its rabid sonic assault is concerned.
Check out new EP, Black Arts & Alchemy, if you want the proof.
Incendiary, proto-thrash riffing, razor-sharp speed metal, ferocious Scandi-style d-beat. McBain knows his shit. Tank, Exciter, Mötorhead, Artillery, Discharge… the raw energy of all those bands and more has been harnessed, re-engineered and weaponised across releases such as 2017’s debut, Coagulating Darkness and splits with the likes of Barbatos and Wasteland Riders.
New EP Black Arts & Alchemy raises Hellripper’s game even higher, according to McBain, who considers its four original tracks to be among his finest work. “Everyone says that their new stuff is their best stuff: it’s a cliché,” he says. “But there are a couple of songs that I think are really good and they are my favourites from those I have written so far.”
He continues: “It took a more punk route, a lot simpler. There are a couple of tracks that are more technical and complex but I think overall, it’s a bit more punk. The punk stuff came from what I was listening to – the sound of an album is influenced by what I am listening to during the process.
“With the first album I was really into speed metal: Razor, Exciter, Enforcer and Ranger. This time I was listening to a lot of the stuff I was listening to on the first EP (2015’s The Manifestation of Evil), so Swedish d-beat, Toxic Holocaust, Midnight… it ended up being a lot more punky.
“I do think the songs are a bit catchier, you can sing along to them more, they are easy to get into your head.”
The CD version also boasts a cover of Running Wild’s early 80s banger Iron Heads – something that may come as a surprise for some…
“I wasn’t into Running Wild for the longest time as I thought they were power metal,” McBain reveals. “But I came across their first couple of albums and they sounded exactly like Tank. I didn’t realise that before, but they became one of my recent favourite bands.
“(Iron Heads) is going to be a strange one for people because it hasn’t got ‘growled’ vocals, it has the kind of ‘Tank’ vocals. That was hard for me because I am not used to doing that kind of thing!”
Part of the new EP’s appeal, McBain says, is the influence of Toxic Holocaust’s Joel Grind. The Oregon native took on mastering duties for Black Arts & Alchemy – as he’s done for the likes of Brazil’s Whipstriker and US thrashers Power Trip.
It’s the first time Hellripper’s mainmain has worked with Grind. And he’s delighted with the results.
“I am a big fan of Toxic Holocaust and over the last couple of years, Joel Grind has become one of the go-to guys in metal for mixing and mastering,” explains McBain, who says he values a fresh pair of ears by the time he’s finished recording and mixing his music. “I’d wanted to work with him for a while. The first version that he sent over just sounded a bit heavier, a bit more bass heavy, that is his mastering style. In the albums that he has done, at least to me, I can hear a strong bass presence.
“I thought he would improve the EP and it worked out really well. And the production has improved the overall sound of the music. I think the drum sound is a lot fuller, it sounds bigger, more aggressive.
Hellripper’s new stateside links aren’t confined to Grind’s Portland HQ. Black Arts & Alchemy was released on US label Reaper Metal Productions – a burgeoning Ohio-based independent with links to Hell’s Headbangers and responsible for the popular Hellcast podcast.
Like Hellripper, Reaper Metal Productions is tapped straight into the extreme metal underground, via a plethora of digital channels.
It’s a definite step up, as far as McBain is concerned. “We have similar visions,” he asserts. “They have an an online base which is something I really like, that is how I interact with the fans. And they know the underground scene which is where I am right now. I am nowhere near mainstream metal.
“Reaper Metal Productions is in the US and I think most of their followers are US-based – I can’t get out there to tour. My only interaction with US people is Facebook and stuff. I have no way of getting my name out there in the US so it helps that they have that audience.”
Closer to home (for McBain, the Scottish town of Glenrothes), there are also hearts and minds to win. Hellripper now has an established live line-up, with drummer Max Southall, bassist Clark Core and six stringer Joseph Quinlan joining guitarist/vocalist McBain on stage.
But given the fact that Southall resides in Brighton – in the best case, a nine hour drive away from McBain’s pad – local gigs are a rarity, something that makes the band’s first proper European tour a landmark occasion. There’s a London date with Midnight, a trip to Lille, the Taunus Metal Festival, stints with Calgary’s Blackrat in Germany… plus a prestigious slot at Roadburn’s pre-show, Ignition. “I couldn’t ask for much more,” admits Hellripper’s founder.
McBain has plenty of outlets for his musical adventurism (Lord Rot – an old school death metal act and an embryonic doom project, to name but a few), but Hellripper is his first love.
And he seems genuinely humbled by its growing popularity.
“I have already got more than what I wanted with Hellripper,” he concludes. “Originally I thought it would be me releasing a song that maybe 10 people would like and we have come way further than that.
“Anything now is like a bonus to me. Any further recognition, any more fans, any time someone buys something… it is better than anything I had hoped for.”
Black Arts & Alchemy is out now via Reaper Metal Productions (North America) and Diabolic Might (Europe). Check out the review here.
Hellripper play The Quadrant, Brighton (April 8), Roadburn Ignition, Tilburg (April 10), The Dome, London (April 12), Taunus Metal Festival, Germany (April 13), Mørtelwerk, Leipzig (April 16), Zukunft Am Ostkreuz, Berlin (April 17), Goldgrube, Kassel (April 18) and Bobble Café, Lille (April 19).