Check out the song: “The Trepidation Within”
Hellghast is probably one of the only real underground bands left in Singapore these days. Singapore herself may be an underground metal country since the most famous acts ever to come from this tiny dot to date are Impiety and Wormrot; but being geographically isolated from the main hubs of a particular genre of music is no longer enough to justify being underground in our modern era. Most underground Singaporean metal acts already have and continue to strive for wide media exposure on the Internet through countless Facebook ‘Like’s and such, but not Hellghast. They are so underground that this is the first major piece anyone has ever written for them on the Internet. In fact, try googling their name and rest assured, you won’t be able to find anything on them easily.
The band might be adamant about remaining true to the underground spirit, but they sure make an effort to eschew from becoming too elitist. Speaking casually between plumes of cigarette smoke, frontman Rashidi seethes about the overuse of the term “old school”, why he avoids social medium promotion methods as much as he can, the band’s music, and a little of the band’s history as well.
Hello Rashidi, Hellghast is a virtually unknown band even within Singapore. Why is that so?
Rashidi: First of all, Hellghast isn’t a band that locals think about, partly because we do not fall under a specific type of death metal from their generic favorites, and I got to be honest with you—we hardly bitch for a gig if we don’t have anything to offer. We are proud of our professionalism in that if we go out on the stage, we have something to offer, instead of just fame-hunting and so on.
Afterall, we don’t get the satisfaction from performing cover songs, be known by many on Facebook, and be happy with it like hundreds of soulless people out there. As far as I am concerned, we covered all the fundamentals of promotion and marketing our releases.
However, in Singapore, you need to fit into certain communities to get yourself supported. We didn’t buy that. Our beliefs in getting rewards based solely on merits caused us to be seen as an underrated band. But, we’d rather let our work make us better known than anything else.
You guys were formerly known as Uvulablender. What prompted the name change?
Rashidi: Hellghast wishes to be treated seriously and we learnt some basic things along the way. One of it is to have a band name that outstands but yet can be easily remembered. Uvulablender is one funny name that I don’t see will make us deserving of being treated like a professional band.
Yeah, it sounds like a grindcore band name.
Rashidi: [Laughs] Yeah.
How would you describe Hellghast’s playing style?
Rashidi: I’m afraid I do not have the exact answer to this. It wasn’t as if we had it on paper or in an agreement that we were gonna play such and such. It’s not something that kids do nowadays; like they google [on a genre or band] and say “Okay, this is what we’re going to be,” or “This is how we’re going to be.” We didn’t have such luxury during our time. When we started out, we just started honestly. We gave our best and were honest about our music, and after some regular rehearsals and songwriting sessions, Hellghast discovered its music by itself.
It’s just primitive death metal, close to those bands we listened to and grew up with. [It’s] Something that came out of a collaboration between friends that can never be googled.
Even though you guys say you play old school death metal, I can’t help but notice old Dissection influences in the guitar work. Did you consciously try to incorporate such melodic black metal elements into Hellghast’s music, or did it just come through in your music without you even noticing?
Rashidi: Let me just be honest with you that “old school” is a dirty term to label ourselves with. It is an overused term nowadays. It is a plastering term for people who try hard to be when they’re not! It is a type of music we digest and wished would have lasted forever, but it came to a close more than twenty over years ago.
Dissection? Honestly, I didn’t get that. Dissection is among my favorite bands, but Hellghast had never leaned towards their musical style. Perhaps I would agree if you mentioned more of the unusual old death metal bands like Necrophobic, Desultory, and even some punk bands like Vice Squad etc. There is inspiration from such bands in some parts somewhere, but I have the habit of not listening so much to other music during my songwriting process. It is definitely what we have at the back of our minds without coming close to imitating any of our influences.
So I guess it’s pretty subjective? Because, honestly, when I first heard your music, the first thing that came to my mind was old Dissection influences.
Rashidi: Actually, many people think so too. The majority of our favorites are Swedish metal bands, so maybe the only band that they [the listeners] can figure out is Dissection, because they are a big Swedish metal band that sells. But if you dig into the more obscure Swedish metal bands, you will find that Hellghast lean towards those bands more than Dissection.
What about your lyrics, what kind of subjects do they deal with?
Rashidi Saniman: [Sighs] You won’t find any apparent subjects or messages by just reading my lyrics. They were all written as if they were part of some sort of plot—like a detached scene from a drama. It contains my personal opinion of things I see around me. Some of it are taken from my real life experience.
I hate a one-way discussion about my lyrics, because if you had taken the effort to find out a little bit more (regardless of whether the interpretation is right or wrong) and incorporated it into your question, it would probably have helped me to elaborate more on it. Literally, if you were to just read it like that, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just like some sort of witch-burning, some kind of drama, some small part of a scene that is taken out from maybe storybooks or novels, and other things like that. The meaning behind the songs… you have to discuss it with me. I’d prefer if you found out more about it, and I guess it’s probably more fun if you can read my mind.
If one chooses not to think any deeper, Acrimony‘s lyrics are just a continuation of The Epoch Of Subjugation. Both are written in a way close to that of being a concept album.
Well, actually, the reason why I didn’t go in-depth about your lyrics is ‘cos if anyone is to try googling about it, they are probably not going to find anything at all.
Rashidi: Ah, it’s okay. It’s okay.
Who did the eerily King Diamond-ish artwork for Acrimony? Was the overall cover design concept thought up by you?
Rashidi: I don’t believe in getting the most brutal or catchy album artwork if they remain meaningless. What you see on movie posters is what I’m trying to do here. I want a listener to build on an idea, and hence gain some interest to find out what the album has to offer.
I cannot do a coloured artwork, so I saved up some money and commissioned the artwork to Michael Schindler, a professional artist who once did artwork for Dispatched and Mystic Circle.
Have you all grown closer as a band and more proficient as individual musicians from the recording of The Epoch Of Subjugation to Acrimony?
Rashidi Saniman: Well, I’m not sure what the rest of the members would say, but speaking for myself alone, I don’t really aim to be a better-than-before musician. Actually, I don’t like the word “musician”. You can always sit and self-shoot a video for YouTube with your music skills and be judged by all those comments. That’s what kids derive satisfaction from nowadays. You don’t need to waste time writing music in a band to be those clowns.
We just happen to like the joy of watching the fruits of our efforts grow and keep growing. It is that final product (songs and releases) that matters, not how well we can handle our instruments! And yes, to witness two albums coming out so far makes us work even harder as a band.
So two new members have been added to Hellghast’s lineup for the recording of Acrimony. Who are they and how have they contributed to the second full-length album in terms of throwing ideas around or writing the music?
Rashidi: Correction. It is only one new member and it is Faisal Al Karim.
Weird, I saw from the band’s bio in the promo package that you guys obtained two new members.
Rashidi: Two? For Acrimony?
Rashidi: Maybe the other one is a female guest violinist we had on the album.
Rashidi: Okay, going back to your question. I’ve always been a very liberal person, but everyone keeps the mindset that we didn’t get together to show the world what we are capable of individually. We believe that we are actually doing our best for a boss whose name is Hellghast. We definitely need a complete structure in our songs, and Faisal Al Karim dedicates himself to close those gaps.
Hellghast is made up of anti-heroes, because we hold onto the pristine intention [of staying true to ourselves] and not let ourselves turn into the fame-hunting people we see in bands nowadays. We don’t play music to impress anyone with our skills. We just love song-writing, and that’s all there is to it.
After a favorable review of The Epoch Of Subjugation by Metal Manics in 2008, did y’all gain more exposure? How did you all feel about this positive acknowledgement from a foreign land?
Rashidi: One must be very naïve to use that as a platform to feel like an achievement was just made for himself. I do get more mails and orders from half the globe away, while the reaction from locals nudges to no difference at all. Am I feeling satisfied about it? Hell, no! I’m not the kind of person who likes to celebrate over small little things. Perhaps this is just the beginning, but I keep emphasizing that Hellghast needs to work even harder. The day may or may not come, but before we even realize it, I wish Hellghast worked so hard to truly deserve it.
A band can always shoot straight to the top with minimal effort. However, how can you stay up there forever when you didn’t even learn about getting up? By then, your band is as good as winning a lucky draw. One has to remember that a man moves a mountain by first picking up a stone.
Who are your greatest sources of inspiration and influence?
Rashidi: There are too many to mention in terms of music and musicianship. I took my inspiration from books and bibliographies, learning how the people before me survived the music industry. This is so that I can apply their passed-down knowledge and follow it as closely as possible.
If becoming a superb band is the prime intention, then I would not have led Hellghast in its 13-year long stint so far, because there is no way Hellghast can be that good.
Many have forgotten that music is a beautiful getaway in which you project yourself honestly. How you do it depends on how much you are willing to face the challenges. Music is not about imitating, but more about being yourself.
So you aren’t going to name any bands at all?
Rashidi: There are too many to mention. For example, if we lean towards Dissection so much, then Dissection we will forever be. We can be like them, but if people have only 10 bucks left, they will buy Dissection [albums], not Hellghast [albums]. Get what I mean?
Yeah, I get what you mean. So you guys are trying to be more original.
Rashidi: Yes, we’re just trying to be ourselves.
Any ambitious plans for Hellghast in the near future?
Rashidi: Right now, if I strike lottery this afternoon, Hellghast will be touring all around the world. [Laughs]
Okay, I’m kidding. That’s not how it is supposed to be. We are currently rehearsing hard and will be releasing the third album maybe two years from now. Our only hope is that our songs will reach more listeners and result in me never having to keep unsold copies [of the album] under my bed. Right now, all I can ask for is for you [people out there] to buy my albums. That’s my ambition.