Like Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, Belfast seems to be a hotbed for up and coming rock and Metal bands, particularly in the last couple of years.
One such band that's relatively recently come to my attention is the Belfast based four piece Baleful Creed and I caught up with John Allen and Fin Finlay to find out a bit more about the band, what makes them tick and what plans they have for the future.
The first question I asked is an easy one – how long has the band been together?
Fin Findlay: "(We) formed in 2009 but only managed a few gigs before we lost our old drummer and it wasn't until Mark (Stewart, the bands current drummer) joined in late 2010 that this unit has been together."
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So what made them want to be in a band and how did the band actually start?
John Allen: "I was in my first band, Memento Mori, when I was in my early 20s and it was probably more of a 'let's get in a band as it's a cool thing to do' and my musical goal was the same back then – playing down-tuned groovy riff-age. When that band broke up, Fin came along to try out as a singer with the idea being that we would rename the band and become Baleful Creed, but it didn't quite work out as planned! I hope he won't mind me saying this, but his higher pitched voice didn't really suit the riffs we were knocking out back then.
"With no internet in those days, we couldn't just get a new band together and the whole thing just seemed to fizzle out. After that, I hung up my guitar for about eleven years and didn't play a single note. Then in about 2005, Fin decided it was time to get playing again, probably some mid-life crisis (laughs), and the guitars and amps were dragged out of storage and we began playing some basic rock covers."
Fin: "It was great just to get in a practice room and really crank the amps, because neither of us had done any of that for years. The only hindrance was that we couldn't keep hold of a bass player, then I got tired of playing covers and decided to drop out of the band for a while. It was thanks to that break, though, that I decided to focus on writing my own songs for the first time. I knew I wanted John as my guitar player, so anything I wrote had to be stuff I hoped he would like – which he did, luckily! (laughs)."
John: "(laughs) Aye, when Fin gave me that first demo CD, I was thinking this will be a pile of crap, but I was totally wrong! Baleful Creed was formed immediately after that, and we started working on that first batch of tunes to knock them into shape and define our sound and carry on with that first batch of songs."
Those songs became the band's first releases were a series of EPs which were subsequently complied into the bands self-titled debut album which was released in September 2013.
Fin: "Yeah! Y'see, our recording budget could only stretch to five songs at a time, so we ended up with three EP, but only the first two of them made it over to become (home-produced) CD-Rs with proper artwork which we could sell at gigs."
John: "I was never happy selling a CD-R version of the EP's but we just couldn't afford to run three separate sets of professional replication/printing costs to get all three EP's out. We didn't even got the last EP out (provisionally titled called 'III') because my printer packed in. That's when I knew it was time to consolidate the two EP's and make them our debut album."
Fin: "We were very proud of the last two EP's especially, and as they were both recorded in the same studio, Manor Park, so we put in a call to the engineer at the studios, Neal Calderwood, and asked him to remix and remaster both the recording sessions into one debut album. To us it meant that we finally had a CD that we could tour with and promote properly."
Asked if there was any new material on the 'Baleful Creed' album, John explains: "Technically no, y'see, it was really just our greatest hits if you like, and all the tracks we included were the backbone of our live set from the previous year. It was different sounding though, because of the remix work that was done on the tracks and we'd never had CD quality material out there before! (laughs)."
So how did it feel to actually have a properly produced album out there?
Fin smiles: "Just amazing! It had always been my goal to do an album of our own songs, and while it took some time for us to piece it all together, the feeling of pride I had, that we all had, when we first got our hands on the physical hard copy was just incredible."
John: "Even now, I'm stunned! The journey that started a few years ago – I never imagined having an album released as part of all that. To put it on, crank it up and think 'Bloody hell – that's' us!' It's actually too tough to put into words!"
With the debut album now released, does the band have any plans for a follow up?
Fin: "We are just getting into the guts of writing the second album now and it's pretty exciting working on new material!"
John: "We have two songs more or less complete, and the bones of another couple ready to get knocked into shape, but we have no idea how long it will take. Whatever happens, though, I'm really looking forward to Chapter II."
Does the band know where it will be recorded or by whom?
Fin: "If the writing process is smooth, then we may be ready to record at the tail end of 2014, otherwise it will be 2015. But we'll only be ready when we have between ten and twelve songs we feel are right for the next album."
John: "I think it would be hard not to go back to Manor Park – we got an amazing sound captured there and I would be afraid to lose that going elsewhere, plus if it is Manor Park, then Neal nails our sound in there. If we can go in prepared with song structures as we like them, I guess we are our own producers in that sense but we can't give Neal enough credit for the recording he does though."
So who actually writes what when it comes to songs?
John: "Well Fin started the whole ball rolling, when he came back to me with those fist four or five songs a few years ago. He had put together a set of tunes that ticked all my boxes from a playing point of view. So from that, it fired up my interest in trying to write songs. I write a basic tune from a riff that comes to me and then hand it over to Fin to add the vocal melodies and lyrics."
Fin: "Sometimes we do it the other way round and have a vocal melody and then write the music underneath, but both ways seem to work for us. On rare occasions, a song will develop purely in the practice room. 'Illuminati' started out as Mark's drum pattern and then John came up with the main riff. When Stevie (Fleming on Bass Guitar) added in the breakdown, that's when the vocal idea hit me!
"With lyrical themes, I try to take ideas from my real life experiences or what we are being fed on the news – it isn't always the real story, because I like to bite back at that."
So where does the band get their inspiration from, then?
John: "Musically, I start with Black Sabbath and the whole stoner rock movement – if I can get a groove or riff that fits that style then I'm more than happy!"
Fin: I've always been a rocker since I was a kid, so it's just thirty odd years of sucking up those influences and trying to put our own spin on it - we all love heavy classic rock and we try to add as much of a chunk as we can from our stoner rock tastes."
So are there any upcoming releases planned for 2014?
John: "I think we have moved away from the EP format now – it was certainly harder to draw attention to separate EP's whereas we have noticed more interest in us having a proper full length album out, so that should be followed with another album in my view."
Have the band any confirmed gigs to look forward to?
John: "It's been a busy year and we're hoping to hit a few new towns and cities around Northern Ireland as well as getting back to play in Dublin. We have played some big shows already at Belfast's Empire Music Hall and in the Mandela Hall, which was the biggest stage we have performed on so far.
"New places we're looking forward to playing for the first time includes the Diamond Rock Club in Ahoghill as guests to The Brew in May. We're also booked to supporting a Led Zeppelin tribute The Rubber Plants. Our first festival appearance of this year is at Sunflowerfest held in Hillsborough at the end of August.
Fin: "We have some offers to get over to the UK mainland as well, so just looking into getting some funding into place to make that a reality. Our first ever gig outside of Northern Ireland was gig in Glasgow last year as part of Highway To Hell which was incredible – the crowd response was amazing, so we'd love to get back to Glasgow as soon as possible as well."
So what can someone coming to a Baleful Creed show expect to see?
John: "Good question (pauses). It's hard to answer really, but we'd like to view it from the audience ourselves just to see what it's like too! There are no gimmicks – just four lads enjoying playing some heavy chunky/groovy riffage and some good wee songs that some folk might sing along to some day or at least get the head nodding or the foot tapping."
Are there any venues that they enjoy playing?
Fin: "Playing at the Mandela Hall (in Belfast) has been the pinnacle of our gigging experiences to date. It's a superb stage to play on and the sound was just perfect for us on stage, which isn't always the case, and the feedback we got afterwards was that it was our best gig to date was the icing on the cake for us!"
John: "I love playing in Comrades Rock Club near Ballyclare that's run by Phil and Kym Horner. They always look after us really well and Phil has built up a really good PA, plus the audience is always great there. Another of my favourites is James Loveday's RocKD shows which are held at The Limelight in Belfast which is just a great stage to play on.
"It was great when we played the Classic Grand in Glasgow too, as part of the Highway To Hell competition. Y'see, because it's a competition, no-one gets a sound-check and you only have twenty minutes to play - wow, that was really nerve wrecking! The response we got from the crowd was just incredible, though – the memory of hearing our name chanted after the set with that Scots accent will live with me for a very long time."
Are there any places that the band want to play but haven't had the opportunity to yet?
John: "I would loved to have played in the old Rosetta Bar in Belfast but sadly it's now closed. It used to be the biggest rock and Metal club in the city for absolutely years. If you're asking about a venue that's still open, though, I'd say the Ulster Hall in Belfast too – there have been some pretty classic gigs there in the past."
Fin: "Two years ago we played a small bar room joined to the Mandela Hall in Belfast and to get there, you had to walk through the main hall, and we used to look at the huge stage and said 'we love to play here – maybe someday!' and that dream came true as I mentioned earlier. I think I would agree with John, though, that if we got to play the Ulster Hall, then that would be us taking it to the next level of performance."
How has social media (ie. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) helped the band?
John: "Another good question! (pauses) Well, when Memento Mori was up and running, the only way to promote the band was via old fashioned word of mouth, flyers and bill posters, if you could get them stuck up before the council had a chance to remove them! Now twenty years later, the focus for bands and promoters has moved to things like Facebook, music forums and email newsletters to get their news and updates out there.
"There is still a place for posters and flyers, I think, but it doesn't seem to be very common place now. The good thing is that social media applications have enabled us to reach places we never dreamed we could. We've sold CD's to people as far away as Australia and parts of the USA."
John: "Thanks to some US internet rock shows we have some great hard-core fans in America and UK and European radio stations play our music regularly and that way we're reaching out to a of potential fans in the UK and Europe. The number of Facebook 'Likes' we have is just marching onwards and upwards as a result of these internet radio stations as well as live gigs.
"Bandcamp too, allows us to stream our music free of charge, and that's where everyone can purchase the album or EP if they like what they hear. We have an online web store too, hosted by Big Cartel, or Amazon where we can sell CDs and t-shirts, so it just opens it all up globally instead of only being able to sell merchandise at our gigs, so for us it's been a very positive interaction with social media."
Bringing our chat to an end, I ask John and Fin, realistically, what they want the band to achieve?
John: "The band was just set up with the aim of just us enjoying playing music, so every step along the journey have been achievements we never imagined. There was never a set of goals – we just wanted to keep playing and importantly, enjoy playing."
Fin: "I always wanted to be signed to a record label, and I guess that would still be a great achievement but John's shown me that it's not as much a requirement in this day and age. He's fiercely independent and really strives to take us as far as we can go under our own steam with no demands or unrealistic commitments tying us down."
John has the final word telling me: "I think the only thing we agreed on was if someone ever looks back in a few years time and says 'remember Baleful Creed, they were a good band', I'd be very happy with that legacy". Wise words indeed.
You can see Baleful Creed live here:
Friday 13th June - Voodoo Bar, Belfast (with Stormtree and Sentinel as a charity gig for Belfast Rape Crisis Centre)
Friday 22nd - Sunday 24th August – Sunflowerfest, Tubby's Farm, Hillsborough
Baleful Creed are:
Fin Finlay – Vocals /Guitar
John Allen – Guitar
Stephen Fleming – Bass
Mark Stewart – Drums/Vocals