It’s always satisfying when a band you tip for great things on the strength of a demo, quickly goes on to sign a record deal. Less than a year after being described on this very site as 'a breath of fresh air' in the world of Progressive Metal, Dutch five-piece "novAct" has already played both of Europe’s leading Prog’ festivals and is now about to release its debut album. Andy Read stops over in their hometown of Arnhem to hear the band pledge that they may be progressive, but they will never be widdley, widdley!
If you’ve ever watched the classic war epic "A Bridge Too Far" starring the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery, the Dutch city of Arnhem will need no introduction. Famous as the infamous setting for the military disaster that ended in the loss or capture of 7,500 soldiers in the attempt to capture the crucial bridge over the Rhine during World War II, the sprawling city of today is all hustle and bustle - characterised by an unbelievably high number of bars!
It is in one of these hostelries that I have arranged to meet up with three members of new Dutch band novAct before we join each other to watch Evergrey, who are playing the city later that night on the last date of a short Dutch tour. As a smiling waitress dishes out our beers, I reflect with the band on their quick rise through the ranks – from hopeful demo tape purveyors, to determined debut album act in less than two years. It was only 18 months ago that a small envelope came though my door, out of which dropped a CD with two eyes staring at me. "Misunderstood" was the title of the EP that contained four tracks crammed with melody, emotion, power and great skill. I didn't realise it had all been recorded on a home computer as it all sounded so professional.
The band was formed during 2001, with guitarist Wouter Wamelink having some songs already written but needing a band to play them. Initially under the name "Hollow Ground" and then "Morgana X", a live rehearsal demo attracted quick interest and having a good feeling about the way things were developing, talk started about recording a full-length album.
With most bands in this genre seemingly having to wait a generation before getting the recognition they deserve, the journey to the release of their debut album, "Tales From The Soul" is an incredibly quick one. The fact they've been snapped up by leading American progressive label, Sensory Records, is even more remarkable. I invite the band to tell me how they managed to move forward so quickly and Vocalist Eddy Borremans takes up, the story.
'We wanted something as a taster that we could send to labels and festivals to raise our profile and also for fans to take away from our gigs. We chose four tracks, as we wanted to do them properly and decided to call it "Misunderstood", within two days of its release the band had already made an important contact in the shape of former Sun Caged and Within Temptation drummer Dennis Leeflang.'
'At that time he was putting together a major festival near Amsterdam (the Headway Festival) but said it was too bad he got our CD so late, as he had selected all the bands. He instead put us in touch with another Dutch festival, JamRock, for which we were selected.'
'However a few weeks later we went to see Sun Caged play live and, speaking to Dennis, he revealed he was having trouble in negotiations with one of the bands. He would see what he could do, if it didn’t work out. Soon we were added to the Headway Festival, and so had suddenly gone from nothing, to playing two big events with name bands like of Pain of Salvation.'
This being one of their first interviews, refreshingly Eddy clearly retains a great pride in retelling the story. He enthusiastically continues:
'Anyway, at Headway we did our gig and it went really well. Then about an hour later I was walking through the lobby of the venue and this guy came up and said: "Hi, you did a tremendous gig out there. I’ve been asked to watch your performance by the owner of a record label in the States and if it was good I should tell him so".'
'I thought I couldn’t hear very well, so I asked him what was he exactly saying. He replied: ‘Well the guy’s got your promo and he likes it. saw your gig and I liked it. So I’m gonna call him tomorrow and tell him he should sign you.'
At that time, with a line-up completed by Michiel Reessink (keys) and Jeroen van Maanen (bass) and having had such good reactions to Misunderstood, the band was already planning to go into the studio and record a full-length album.
'If the deal didn’t come off, then we’d finance it ourselves,' said drummer Martijn Peters. 'We had to totally re-record the four songs from "Misunderstood" and the six new songs. We wanted to really take our time to try different things to see what works. So the band went off to spend five weeks in Germany at the Spacelab Studios run by renowned Everon supremo Oliver Philipps.'
‘We sent the finished master to Sensory owner Ken Golden and he was very enthusiastic,’ concludes Eddy. ‘There were just a few words in his e-mail: ‘You guys have come up with the works – I want it.’ And that’s how we came to release our first CD.'
With a stable line-up, the one thing that has changed from the demo is the band's name. I let graphic designer Martijn explain why.
'Well, the label didn't think we’d be taken seriously in the States as yet another band with 'X' at the end. This was the time to change it and 'novAct' is actually Latin for new band.'
But I wonder what happens when they're no longer a new band?
'Oh,' concedes the drummer. 'We'll have to find out what Latin is for old gits!'
The album features ten tracks that, to these ears, take a totally fresh approach to the idea of Progressive Metal. One of the main reasons for this is the contribution of Eddy's vocals. Packed with emotion and not an inconsiderable amount of soul, I don't think I've heard anything quite like it in such a band before. Now in his 30s, I find it strange that he hasn't appeared in a name band before.
'I started quite late, at the age of 30,' he admits. 'My musical career actually started with a guitar because, in the place I was living, the drums would have been too loud. At that time my girlfriend's brother was in a band that needed a drummer so I started with them, but did backing vocals until their singer left for Portugal. We decided to look for both a drummer and a singer – whichever we found first, I’d fill the other spot. We found a drummer and the rest is history! I spent two years in a melodic rock act, plus some time in a pop choir, before moving to Arnhem and immediately started looking for a new band to play with because I enjoyed it so much.'
In terms of writing the songs, the band's approach is to first let Wouter do all the writing from a musical point of view. Eddy then listens to get a feeling for it, before adding the lyrics.
‘One of the reasons that I started writing late,’ adds the singer, ‘is that I was always a very happy, naive guy who didn’t think much about the problems in life. I thought that writing lyrics would be very easy – just make up a story and write it down.’
‘But once I started to do it, I found it very hard to just make up stories. So instead, I decided to write about things I’ve experienced - things that I think about. Also Wouter's music strikes me as melancholic. Not very dark, but definitely not happy – so I've ended up writing quite serious lyrics.’
‘I like to think that the story of the lyrics is in the eye of the beholder. I’d like it if people have an interpretation of their own. And also, I must be honest, I am too much of a coward to make statements. If you read the songs, there are a lot of questions in there. I ask a lot of questions about things I’m not sure about.’
It is certainly a very broadly-based album, mixing huge hooks with a mixture of driving, heavy guitars and more reflective moments. Musically, no two songs are the same and certainly for anyone who likes a heavy lyrical content with their music, there’s plenty to get your teeth into. With ten tracks on offer, I guess that means ten questions. I invite Eddy to outline a few possible answers. Again he shows great enthusiasm for the matter.
‘The opening track is called "Sharply Condemned". In Holland, all the time, you hear that the government has ‘sharply condemned’ this or that happening – most of the time involving Israel or Palestine. I have a feeling that it’s a lot of ‘sharply condemning’ and then life goes on. The first part is looking at that, but the second part then asks: ‘Who are you Eddy to criticise them and only write a song about it?’ The question is, who should really be ‘sharply condemned’?’
There are a couple of off-topic tracks where Eddy indulges his love of fantasy novels and motorbikes, but elsewhere you get the impression that he is being rather modest when he claims he is 'too much of a coward to make statements'.
"Flower" tackles the difficult issue of child abuse following an incident within his wider family and, as the title suggests, "Bad Religion"highlights the mischief carried on around the world behind the cloak of numerous beliefs. However, it’s when he gets political that Eddy seems most outspoken.
‘There’s a track called "Hope and Fear" which was written at a time when Pym Fortuyn (a controversial right-wing Dutch politician) was killed. I’m not a big fan of his, but it was just so gross to murder a politician in Holland and I felt I had to write something about it. It’s all about free speech and the fear that you don’t really have that anymore if you have to restrain yourself in case you get killed.’
‘As for "Nothing Worth Fighting For", that’s about politicians, high in their ivory towers asking me to go and kill people in their own country so that they can go and get more oil. The government here are great cowards. They’ve managed to strike this deal where they support the States but don't openly wage war against Iraq. The song was written before this stuff, but what it says, is that for me a cause like that is not worth fighting for.’
My personal favourite from the album is the slightly restrained soul contained in "Enchanted Life".
'That’s a lot of people’s favourite when we’ve played it live,' admits the vocalist. 'It’s a homage to Jeff Buckley. He’s such a special singer. He touched me greatly – it was such a tragedy that he died so young.'
A series of gigs around Holland are already planned to promote the album. But again, showing their characteristic of being quick movers, it appears the band has already written a fair chunk of its next album.
‘We’re in a bit of a dilemma,' admits Martijn, 'because although the CD has only just come out, we have played the songs many times before. So of course we want to try something new. But at the same time, obviously a lot of people haven’t even heard of us yet. When we play live, we will naturally focus on the new CD, but also try to give people a preview of what’s to come.'
Certainly the newer songs on the debut album seem heavier than those on "Misunderstood". I wonder whether, in the future, the band sees itself developing in a particular direction. I ask Martijn whether there is one aspect of their sound that they’d like to explore further.
'Not really. I don’t think we’re a band with a fixed sound. Our newer stuff is even more diverse – it’s got even heavier songs and some ballads as well.’
'I think we need an impression from a bigger, wider audience,' adds Eddy. 'We played at a party in a friend's backyard recently. His friends were not typical metal fans and they loved it. Things like that, make you think we should maybe target a wider audience.'
'But no way are we going to start writing for a particular audience,' confirms his drumming colleague. 'We’ve developed our own sound and write the sort of songs that we like.'
Although the band has been labelled under the progressive metal banner, I suggest that this is a way too limiting description. Personally I’d place them as more of a heavy rock band – with strong metal and progressive influences. Martijn agrees.
'It is really hard to categorise any band, as descriptions can mean such different things to different people, and especially in different countries. I’m sure 'prog rock' in Holland means a different thing to 'prog rock' in England.'
The band states its influences as including Nevermore, Spocks Beard and Pain of Salvation. A broad mixture indeed and one that encapsulates their potentially wide appeal across the metal and rock spectrum. Eddy is particularly interested in which other bands novAct will be compared too. 'I think heavy rock is a good term. A lot of people have compared us to Enchant. I'm fascinated as to how the crowds will see us. We are commercial enough to recognise that there are certain sounds that people like. Eternal Life always seems to be a crowd favourite at our shows. It sits just outside our normal songs – it’s not a million miles removed from the rest of our music, just a bit more open with a lot of emotion.'
Contrasting the band's sound with the more traditional progressive metal of complicated time changes and drawn-out instrumental sections, all three are keen to stress one thing. 'We don’t wanna be widdley. We won’t ever be widdley. We can’t be widdley.' As I said at the beginning, a breath of fresh air.
INTERVIEW FOR DPRP by ANDY READ
Promotional Images © 2004 Andy Read
Read our review of novAct - Tales From The Soul
Read our review of Morgana-X - Misunderstood
Read our Morgana-X Concert Review : Headway - April 2003
Read our Morgana-X Concert Review : ProgPower - October 2004
The Official novAct Website
Sensory Records /
Just For Kicks
Headway Festival /