Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags': How Scottish Folklore Shook Up Hellripper's Black-Thrash
James McBain, the sole member behind Scotland's Hellripper, is the reigning king of blackened speed metal at least in the UK as a parallel to the likes of Midnight and Toxic Holocaust stateside, the kind of music tailor-made for smashing a beer can on your head screaming about goats, war and Satan in one of the most frenzied and maniacal displays of metal aggression there is. It's not traditionally a corner of metal receptive to much experimentation.
That's what makes Hellripper's third full-length record Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags such a stand-out; it'd be wrong to call it futuristic, especially seeing as a relocation to the remote wilds of the Scottish Highlands inspired McBain to dial deeper into the ancient folklore and mythology rich in the region to fill his new album, but it is not one-dimensional or simplistic. Black metal melodicism, elaborate epic songs, bagpipes, even ideas stemming from bluegrass and The Beatles stealth-placed into music still identifiable as speed metal: meet one of heavy metal's most exciting new songwriters.
The most noticeable thing about Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is how much more ambitious it is as a Hellripper record. You've done two records prior to this one of really balls to the wall black-speed metal and that's still the core of the sound here but why was now the right time to expand that?
McBain - When I first started the writing process for the album it was around the time the last album came out because there was a wait of about ten months or something because of COVID for the album to come out after I’d finished it. I recorded a couple of songs and they sounded similar but they sounded forced and uninspired, and so I deleted them, took a step back and decided I needed to go in a different direction. It was just needed in order to keep things fresh and keep myself interested. It was about imposing less limitations on myself.
I’m a big fan of music from all styles of metal and loads of genres outside, so stuff like The Beatles, The Doors, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, Alice In Chains, and then stuff like Agalloch, Type O Negative, Opeth are things I’ve always loved but have never tried to incorporate within the Hellripper sound. After writing so many songs I grew more confident as a songwriter and thought it was maybe the right time to try and expand the focus a little bit and see what I could do.
The whole thing was really fun, the most fun I’ve had during a recording process, and it was challenging as well to take for example something I like in a Beatles song and thinking how I could make that work in a black metal context.
It's still uber metal though so with mentioning some of those non-metal influences to this record, where are some of the places where that comes into play?
McBain - A lot of the structures, a lot of the guitar playing. For example the track Goat Vomit Nightmare musically it sounds like a fast metal-punk-rock n roll thing, but it was influenced by a lot of blues and bluegrass type stuff I was listening to.
The guitar work especially was influenced by players like Billy Strings, Joe Bonamassa, there are some parts in the verse that are influenced by Dire Straits and the Stray Cats. The chorus uses the Hendrix chord. The one rule that I do impose on myself is that Hellripper will be a black-speed band always, but I wanted to bring in other things to compliment it.
There are bits of maybe the first and last tracks of previous album The Affair of the Poisons where there are hints of more dynamic melody. When you were writing and performing those songs, was there a sense then of wanting to do more of this?
McBain - Yeah those two tracks that you mentioned are probably two of my favourite ones from that album, which makes sense looking back on it. Initially I actually thought the opposite, I wanted to go in a more simplified punk direction to see if I could do that, but like I said it sounded uninspired and like Hellripper but not as good as what I had done before. The opposite is obviously to expand the sound instead of simplifying it.
Something like the title track or Mester Stoor Worm is particularly striking for people who may have associated Hellripper with short sharp little speed metal tunes to get these massive seven-eight minute metal epics with so many different riff and tempo changes. Have you got much history putting songs like that together and was it a challenge pushing those kind of structures?
McBain - Yeah it was a big challenge, and I don’t really have a history of writing that sort of stuff, but I am a fan of bands who do that. A few of my favourites are like I mentioned Type O Negative, Agalloch, Opeth, of course Metallica.
You’ve got Venom with At War With Satan that’s like a twenty-minute song. Usually what I wanna go for with Hellripper is two-three minute straight to the point black n roll, and there is that in the new album with Poison Womb or Goat Vomit Nightmare. I wanted to create some variety with the short three minute song right next to the seven minute song. The structure in Mester Stoor Worm is very linear as opposed to what I usually do, there’s not much repetition and there’s around twenty different parts to it.
It was a challenge but it was a really fun challenge, and I was trying to do something new there to what I usually do which is try and match the music to what was going on in the story and the lyrics. There’s like nineteen different versions of that track that I have saved all going off in different directions before I settled on what you hear on the album but it’s turned out to be one of my favourites.
With that balance the sequencing on the album gives you Goat Vomit Nightmare right after that sweeping epic pipes part at the end of the title track like a press of the reset button.
McBain - I’ll attribute that to Peaceville because originally it was Goat Vomit Nightmare followed by the title track. I gave it to the label and asked for any suggestions and they thought changing the order of those two tracks might work a little better, and I agree. It’s always nice to get that kind of input because I’m working on the album for two and a half years and get tunnel vision.
That’s one of the things with being a solo project, I like to get other people’s opinions because I don’t have other band members having their input. I ask people who I trust will give me honest feedback like the label, my partner, and the other members of the live band.
With the lyrical focus on folklore this time was there more of a desire to get a sense of storytelling and characters in the music and vocal delivery?
McBain - Yeah, the folklore I was researching just made for great stories and especially they fit the band well with these giant poisonous breath demons and all that. It goes with Hellripper’s aesthetic while also bringing something new to the table. I don’t think there are many bands in the black-thrash/black-speed genre speaking about Scottish folklore so it was something different first of all.
I moved up to the Highlands a few years ago and that inspired me to look into this stuff, being surrounded by the landscapes and all that gave me an interest to look into the history with more detail. I thought maybe I’d get a song or two out of it but there was so much and so many things that fit the Hellripper aesthetic that in the end I decided to give the album a bit of a theme. It’s not a concept album but every track is linked by the theme which I thought was cool and gives the album a bit of cohesion.
The musical storytelling aspect just came naturally I guess, a lot of the way the folklore is handed down is stories being told so it lent itself to those kind of lyrics.
What was it about being there that drew you to that, did you keep seeing traces of this hidden history beneath current day Scotland?
McBain - Kind of! I’ve lived in the city all my life and after moving to a quite remote place, the mountains just kind of surround me wherever I am and my partner and I often go walking to nearby castles and it just embedded itself within my mind. I wanted to explore the darker side as well, where when people think about Scottish history they think about William Wallace and all that, but that wouldn’t fit the Hellripper aesthetic like the devil in Scotland, witchcraft, demons.
I knew about quite a few of these things though not in any great detail, so I learned a lot while researching this album. After looking and reading there’s so many that I had no clue about, and I’ve got notes of so many song topic ideas for the future that I just didn’t have enough songs on this album to do. A lot of it is horse-based or water-based understandably but a lot of cool stuff.
For the people who are nerds for this stuff, some songs are pretty self-explanatory in what they're about like Cursed Carrion Crown being a Sawney Bean song or The Nuckalavee and Mester Stoor Worm being specific entities of their titles, but what are some of the deeper cuts? Is a Goat Vomit Nightmare as literal as it sounds?
McBain - Goat Vomit Nightmare is inspired by the ancient Scottish ritual of a taghairm, which is a method of divination. There are a few different methods of doing it but basically the link would be they usually involve animal sacrifice in order to have their questions or wishes fulfilled.
Sometimes people would roast cats until a group of black cats would appear and they’d get their answer from that, and the one that Goat Vomit Nightmare is based on is the person would wrap themselves in the hide of a freshly killed animal and then go somewhere like a waterfall and it’d be like a sensory deprivation thing that would make them hallucinate and see the outcome of the future or the answers that they seek.
Goat Vomit Nightmare is someone performing this ritual and hallucinating all these evil goats, and so that’s probably the most old school Hellripper lyrically just fun and over the top. I, The Deceiver is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth so there’s a bunch of references to that within the lyrics. The title track is based on the works of Robert Burns and the poem Address to the Devil primarily, but references a couple other ones.
The Hissing Marshes is based on things like the kelpies and the baobhan sith which are kinds of shapeshifting creatures that seduce people and drag them underwater. We’ve got a few of those around here.
In general it feels like music based in traditional heavy metal ideas is having a real good period right now, but your record even though it's literally based in folklore doesn't feel nostalgic in how it experiments with its sounds. Even though a lot of building blocks of your sound are classic metal bands, were you keen this time to do something that you wouldn't characterise as being revivalist or that people feel like they could put in a box of knowing what they expect from you?
McBain - I think this time with exploring different stuff to what you’d usually associate Hellripper with so Venom, Toxic Holocaust, Midnight, Metallica, it naturally makes it feel a bit different. I’m a big fan of loads of modern bands and it might help that I’m influenced by a lot of stuff that is not Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
I don’t really see a difference between old and modern metal, I like them equally and I got into metal through a lot of modern bands, so I’ve got no problem incorporating that kind of stuff as long as it sounds good. I wanna write good songs and I still wanna have it be black-thrash/black-speed like I mentioned but I’ve got no problem incorporating things that might not be the norm for that.
The increased scope of the record obviously makes the fact that you record all the music yourself more of a challenge, so what was the experience of putting this record together like in that area especially when it comes to achieving the additional touches like the pipes?
McBain - It was really the same as before to be honest. I still use almost all the same equipment as I did back when I recorded the first EP. I’ve just improved my skills at utilising the equipment and my recording and mixing abilities just by doing so many songs over the past ten years or so. It was definitely the most complex thing I’ve done recording-wise, I added a lot of guitar layering, mixing acoustic guitar really for the first time, as you say the pipes obviously I have never mixed before. That was a session musician I brought in, I wish I could play the pipes but I think I’d annoy my whole street.
There’s a couple of other people on there too, my partner does some guest vocals on The Cursed Carrion Crown like the Tom Araya-type scream. The live guitarist for Hellripper, Joseph, he does three solos I think it is on The Hissing Marshes, Poison Womb and again The Cursed Carrion Crown. I like to bring in other people like that cause it does help add a little extra or something else, Joseph for example is a very different guitar player to me so it’s cool to have some different sounds in the album.
In the last few years off the back of The Affair of the Poisons particularly you've cultivated a really quite devoted fanbase in a relatively short period of time. What's your relationship like with your fanbase?
McBain - I appreciate any type of support from anyone, regardless of whether they like the music or not I appreciate anyone taking the time to listen. The people that support Hellripper, the Goat Cult, I’m so grateful to them. It feels like a little community and I try and be active on social media as much as I can, I do regular livestreams and answer questions, we have a Discord and a Facebook group where I speak to people on those. I’m lucky to have people like that who support the band so much. When people come from elsewhere to a show and travel, it’s wild.
Is that what emboldened you to feel free to mix things up like this without fear of people not going with you?
McBain - Maybe subconsciously. The music is always to please myself first and foremost. There were a few demos for the first album that I showed a few people that they said would have been their favourite tracks on the album, but I wasn’t happy with them so I deleted them. This is my passion, this is my hobby, it’s what I love to do so as long as I’m happy with the music that’s what matters, but maybe subconsciously something there freed my mind up.
You're a pretty established live act now in the UK, so are there any moves to take Hellripper to the States?
McBain - We’ve been in talks for ages now but there is so much involved to make it happen. Cost and paperwork and everyone’s availability as well as fitting it around current live plans in the UK and Europe. I don’t have a desire for Hellripper to be a touring band for six months of the year, that’s never been my goal and I prefer playing less live shows giving me more time to write music which is what I enjoy more than anything. We will get there, it hasn’t been the right time yet but it will happen. We’ll hopefully get everywhere.
Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags is currently available via Peaceville Records - HERE