Four parts Bristol, one part Manchester, progressive metal band Valis Ablaze was born in 2012 with guitarist Ash Cook and drummer Rich New. Six years and some lineup changes later, the final incarnation, in addition to Ash and Rich, is Tom Moore and George Demner on guitar and bass, with Manchester-based vocalist Phil Owen joining in 2015.
The arrival of Phil brought around a big change in sound direction for Valis Ablaze, whose Insularity EP released at the beginning of last year was a big surprise for many – paring down the the heavier, predominantly technical sounds and scream vocals they had previously been known for and giving more reign to the grooves that have always driven their sound from within.
paring down the the heavier, predominantly technical sounds and scream vocals they had previously been known for and giving more reign to the grooves that have always driven their sound from within
The six-track EP was very well received by most, and more importantly, Valis Ablaze are much happier with the music they are making now. Where they had previously been restricted to scream vocals and the style of metal appropriate for that, Phil’s singing capabilities presented a new opportunity that fit with the rest of the group’s waning interest in the relentlessly heavy metal they had been making in their earlier days.
Within the year, Valis Ablaze signed to Long Branch Records and SikTh ex-frontman Justin Hill had agreed to produce their debut album
Within the year, Valis Ablaze signed to Long Branch Records and SikTh ex-frontman Justin Hill had agreed to produce their debut album. Released last April, Boundless charted in the top 10 metal albums on iTunes on day one, where it remained for a week.
Both singles they’ve released from the album, Frequency and Paradox, have charted over 13k and 16k views respectively on YouTube, and they’ve just topped 200,000 album streams on Spotify. It’s clear the band have hit their stride, with 13 shows booked this summer, including a co-headline UK tour, a major soon-to-be-announced support slot in London, and a main stage appearance at UK Tech Fest 2018.
We had a chat with guitarist and founding member Ash Cook about the new album and the band’s new direction. With all five members actively writing their songs, Ash explains that the resulting sound is the middle ground between the group’s sometimes conflicting influences and tastes.
Musically, half of the band get on quite well and the other half don’t
‘Musically, half of the band get on quite well and the other half don’t, then there’s Phil the vocalist who doesn’t really mind either way. Tom and George come from the same hometown and grew up listening to the same bands together, so they share a lot of the same tastes and preferences in terms of writing and what we play. Whereas Rich and I are a bit older and prefer more traditional proggy stuff. We really like Dream Theatre and the other two guys detest that band, they’re more into Killswitch Engage and Trivium.
‘It took us about five months to write the album and the majority of the songs were written in the first three months – the remaining two months were basically tweaking and agreeing.’
While some core elements of the original Valis Ablaze sound remain intact, it’s rare to see a band make such a drastic change to their sound between releases. The Insularity EP (and the preceding single release Inertia) presented a complete overhaul of anything they’d put out previously.
With the lineup change, we realised that we could just do so much more with someone who could sing
‘With the lineup change, we realised that we could just do so much more with someone who could sing. If someone has a limit in terms of what they can do, as a band you are bound to the limits of your members. And when Phil joined and said, “actually I don’t want to be in a heavy band anymore”, we were so impressed with his voice that we scrapped the entire album we had written and wrote the Insularity EP. It was actually a really difficult thing to write, trying to find the balance of the heaviness we’d all grown to love and enjoy playing with melody for Phil to enjoy.
It got me out of my rut as a guitarist in terms of what my default notes to play would be
‘It took a while, but it was good for us. It got me out of my rut as a guitarist in terms of what my default notes to play would be, and I know the same happened for the other guys as well. So it was a welcome challenge and it was well received by most. You do get the odd person saying we should have changed our name and that kind of thing, but the core elements of when we started the band are still there – it’s heavy-based groove music and that’s still present in that EP and in the album.’
Having broken out of their previous mould, Valis Ablaze are ready to take their sound to wider audience, beyond heavy metal communities
Having broken out of their previous mould, Valis Ablaze are ready to take their sound to wider audience, beyond heavy metal communities who, whilst being incredibly supportive fans, can also be a little rigid in terms of what they like and don’t like.
That’s not to say you can expect a formulaic, pop metal ballad any time soon from the band, who are all incredibly skilled and challenge-driven musicians. Valis Ablaze are simply hoping to offer a more palatable alternative, if you’re not necessarily into heavy metal.
‘There has been a few songs I’ve heard on the radio recently and knowing some music theory I’ve thought “Wow, that’s actually really clever what’s going on in the background there, that must be really fun and challenging to play”, yet it has mainstream appeal for whatever reason. And I guess this album was the first step towards us having fun playing challenging material, but also stepping away from the heaviness.
‘Before, we’d be on all sorts of bills and playing with much heavier bands than we’re wanting to play with now. Now it’s a case of focusing on playing with alt-rock bands and being the sore thumb, but in a different way than we usually are.’
As with any band that defaults from their usual sound, the public reaction was a little bittersweet for Valis Ablaze – earning them lots of new fans, but also attracting criticism from a few keyboard warriors second-guessing their motives.
‘We’re seeing way more growth and by default, by not having screams and not being relentlessly heavy, we are a welcome alternative for people that want something different. They want to listen to guitar-based music, but they don’t want it to be too much of a chore to listen to.
we are a welcome alternative for people that want something different. They want to listen to guitar-based music, but they don’t want it to be too much of a chore to listen to
‘We’ve all taken a step back from the heavy metal bands we used listen to when we were younger and that’s obviously reflected in the playing. The downside of that is that we get compared to a couple of key bands that are also in the same sub genre.
‘Some people can see that we’ve taken influence from them and some people are convinced that we’ve ripped them off. The guitarist of the band in question – TesseracT, who we get compared to quite a bit – he’s listened to the album and he hasn’t drawn any comparisons between their work and our work.’
Aside from the largely positive public reaction, one of the biggest indicators that Valis Ablaze’s new sound direction is working in their favour is their triumphant return to UK Tech Fest in July – this time on the main stage.
‘Last year we played to an almost full room at UK Tech Fest on the second stage and it was definitely one of my favourite shows we’ve ever played – to finally have that new music out and have people singing along. When we played there in 2014, we were a lot heavier and a lot more polarising and there were definitely people who could have taken or left it. Whereas at the end of our set last year, we definitely had a better reception. And I can only imagine what this year is going to be like after the success of the album.
a lot of other sub genres of metal (…) can be quite narrow minded and say “I only listen to deathcore” or “I only listen to this thing”. Whereas UK Tech Metal is a bit more open minded
‘There’s a small online community called UK Tech Metal. There are 5,000 members in the group and I know that a lot of other sub genres of metal – and I only know this from personal experience and also from being that guy – can be quite narrow minded and say “I only listen to deathcore” or “I only listen to this thing”. Whereas UK Tech Metal is a bit more open minded because it’s predominantly musicians more than anyone else, so they’re understanding of theory and they’re understanding of the more technical elements of music. It makes them appreciate all kinds of music and that community has really helped us get to where we are in terms of playing around the country and that festival.’
Although despite this support within the tech community, Valis Ablaze would now very much describe themselves as a progressive metal band. Valis Ablaze embrace all the challenging and complex elements of tech, but without feeling tied to traditional expectations, allowing themselves to explore those more melodic sounds.
Valis Ablaze embrace all the challenging and complex elements of tech, but without feeling tied to traditional expectations, allowing themselves to explore those more melodic sounds
‘Progressive is such a broad term. There are a lot of bands I would say are progressive just because they’re doing something slightly different from the norm. I don’t want to go to a local show and watch five sets of the same types of music. I want to see different things, I want to hear different elements of different genres and people’s own experiences and cultural backgrounds being brought into the music.
‘There are definitely quite a few new bands coming through who are doing that now. Especially in Bristol, despite there only really being two or three venues that local bands can affordably get involved with in terms of playing heavy music. The scene here has been very kind to us and is definitely continuing to grow.
In terms of how they see themselves as a progressive band, Ash explains: ‘This is where I’m a bit worried about blowing my own trumpet! There are two or three songs on the album that don’t particularly have a structure. They start off quieter and as the song goes on, things build up or get heavier – there’s no intro, verse, chorus, verse, middle eight, outro.
‘So one thing to start with is song structures. We didn’t sit down and think “Let’s write a song like this”. It just kind of came to us and we thought it sounded good. Another thing would be the mixture of sounds – the contrast of heavy distorted guitar with clean melodic guitar over the top. Time signature changes, key changes…
There are note passages and things that, even now, are quite difficult to play and have pushed me as a musician
‘There are note passages and things that, even now, are quite difficult to play and have pushed me as a musician. I think anyone who is sitting down to learn our music, because we’ve transcribed it all, would agree that there are definitely some unconventional note choices in there that you just wouldn’t hear from a normal metal or metal core band.’
The penultimate show in their co-headline UK tour is at Bristol’s Exchange this July. It will be the first time they’ve played their new material to a home crowd and the show they’re most apprehensive about, Ash explains.
‘We’re all pretty nervous. We purposely held off playing Bristol for a while once we realised that the album was going to come out, to hopefully get as many people down as possible. This material is a bit harder, this show is in front of a lot of friends, family and peers, and genuine fans as well, so it needs to be the tightest one – the best show.
This material is a bit harder, this show is in front of a lot of friends, family and peers, and genuine fans as well, so it needs to be the tightest one – the best show
‘Since we’ve been going, we’ve had really supportive family members, friends, employees… I’ve personally missed big events just for gigs, and a couple of years ago that was quite awkward to justify. But now, visibly seeing how well we’re doing and waking up every morning to 10 new subscribers on Spotify, I know it’s kind of sad to think about those numbers, but it’s a justifiable figure that shows we’re growing and everything we’re doing is working and we’re achieving what we set out to achieve when we started the band.’
Words by Rachel Morris
Photos by Zain Zia