Beginning life as a side project of Quebecois black metal superhero J.F. Bertrand (Forteresse, Déliquescence, Nordmen, Brume D’Automne, Ur Falc’h), Starlight Ritual has made a drastic transformation over the course of its short history. Starting as a slow n’ low doom metal band, the group’s present incarnation is that of a hard-rocking metal outfit with ties to the golden age of Canadian and British ’70s rock and metal with bits and bobs of the ’80s Sunset Strip scene stuffing their shorts for a little extra oomph.
The band recently issued their debut full-length, Sealed in Starlight, a boots-on-the-ground, lunch-box carrying, a meaty fist to the chops display of ripping guitars, four-on-the-floor drumming and air raid siren vocals designed as background tunes for equal amounts of fighting and fucking. We caught up with vocalist Damian Ritual who explained how drunken karaoke, a pair of multi-million selling April Wine albums, and a mythical warrior spirit got Starlight Ritual to where they are today.
Let’s start off, as usual, with the usual band history question. Can you give a brief history of the band? Is there anything notable or uniquely interesting about the band’s formation we should know about?
Damian Ritual: “Certainly! Starlight Ritual was formed late in 2013 as the brainchild of guitarist J.F. Bertrand, whom many know as the vocalist of Quebec black metal act Forteresse. Recruiting fellow guitarist (and principal songwriter) Dan Toupin, Mat Forge (bass), and Lou Lecomte (drums), they wrote essentially a full album of long, doomy/proggy instrumental tracks. A handful of them ended up on our debut, self-titled 2015 EP. At the same time, I was working in construction and had nothing to do with music in well over a decade!
One eventful evening at a bar here in Montreal, Annick Giroux (frontwoman of Cauchemar and co-owner of Temple of Mystery Records) picked up on me singing over some Judas Priest tracks and suggested I try out for this new band that J.F. was putting together. So, we were put in touch via email and he asked me for some vocal samples. Not owning a microphone (or being a singer whatsoever), all I had really were a few a cappella cellphone recordings of myself, mostly performed while driving my old Jeep around, phone in one hand, steering wheel in the other. Oddly enough, the combination of my voice and the roaring of that straight six engine did it. As they say, the rest is history!”
Is it true that you had no previous band experience and that your first EP was recorded/produced by a dude from April Wine? What was it like having someone super-inexperienced being coached through a recording by someone that’s super-experienced?
What sorts of lessons did you learn from that session that you still think about and apply these days?
“Indeed, all that is true. I had no prior singing experience whatsoever before I joined the band. I’ve always been a guitarist and eventually I earned a degree in Studio Recording and Live Sound from Montreal’s Trebas Institute, so when we first recorded at Dreambuilder Studios under the guide of April Wine’s Roy Nichol, I ended up mixing and mastering the album with him. It probably saved us a few bucks! Roy is a great guy, real straight up. He didn’t really give me much feedback or tips, aside from, ‘Back up a few inches from the mic’ and ‘Damn you sing loud!’ Up to that point, it was all home recordings, so we were floored to see all the gear he had.
The guys got to play through April Wine’s guitar cabs and I personally got to use the same microphone that Myles Goodwyn used to record Harder Faster and Nature of the Beast. It truly was one hell of an experience that none of us will ever forget.”
I noticed there are a number of acts that members of the band have been and are involved with outside of Starlight Ritual. Was this band designed to scratch a certain itch and sound a certain way from the start? Do you find yourselves having to get into a particular mindset when writing or performing under the Starlight Ritual name?
“J.F.’s presence in Forteresse definitely helped propel our name to a bigger audience, no doubt. He’s basically a household name in black metal over here, so SLR owes a lot to him for that. I also sing in Spiral Wheel, a Canadian/Japanese collaboration featuring Satoshi Ishida (Sabbat, Abigail, Metalucifer) and Rik Charron (Exciter, Necronomicon), so that doesn’t hurt either! Black metal has always been a big part of J.F.’s music career, but like Dan and I, he grew up on ‘70s hard rock and ‘80s heavy metal. He always wanted to do something in that vein and he definitely found the right guys to light that fuse with.
With the ball rolling, Dan became the true brains behind the SLR sound. Without Dan, there’s no Starlight Ritual. He writes most of the tracks, J.F. adds his input and works his leads, and I arrange everything at the end and come up with some vocal melodies and lyrics. So far, so good.”
What precipitated the move from the band’s original doomier sound to what you’re doing these days? Is jumping from genre to genre something Starlight Ritual is going to be doing more of, or are you locked into the traditional heavy metal/hard rock style of Sealed in Starlight?
“The only noticeable genre jump I’d say would be between our first and second EP. As I mentioned above, the material on the first EP was written before I got there, I just added my vocal melodies and lyrics to the tracks. From our second EP, Age of the Universe, our track on 2019’s Trapped Under Ice compilation, to Sealed in Starlight we turned up the rock n’ roll dial and got straight to the point. What you hear is what you get from us and we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”
How long did it take to write Sealed in Starlight and what were you hoping to achieve? Was there a particular ‘a-ha!’ moment where it seemed like you were on a clear path to a cohesive full-length record?
“Most of these songs have been written for years really. ‘Lunar Rotation’ was actually on our set list for the very first show we played back in 2015. ‘Civilization Lost’ was the first track I ever wrote lyrics and melodies for, which was tweaked and re-recorded for SiS, and every time we jammed it back then, we all said to ourselves, ‘we should have more tracks like this!’ Since then, we focused on more of the hard-hitting, sincere rock n’ roll sound you hear today. It was then when we realized where we were going, and what we had to do.”
Was there anything that was done differently in terms of the way the album was written or recorded when compared to the past? How was the writing and recording of the album impacted by COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns?
“Definitely. Prior to 2020, anything we’ve ever recorded was at Roy’s studio, but for SiS, we took our time and alternated between the SLR HQ and Studio Tehom here in Montreal. The guitars and bass were recorded in our studio, while the drums, vocals, mixing, and mastering were done at Tehom under our man Xavier Berthiaume. He really helped us dial in the perfect balance for our sound, no doubt. Luckily for us, all the ‘big stuff’ was recorded pre-COVID, so while the lockdown was in effect, it was only vocals/mixing/mastering left. All that was done with Xav and I, so really not much of it affected the creative process.”
What is the significance or story behind the album’s title? And how does the cover art apply to the theme or story?
“That’s a great question. The album and song title came as a revelation to me twelve hours before the final day of vocals at Tehom, in which I had ‘Righteous Ones,’ ‘Burning Desire’ and ‘Power of Your Eyes’ left to record. I made the decision to re-name ‘Power of Your Eyes’ to ‘Sealed in Starlight,’ and re-worked the lyrics the night before I laid the vocals down. I thought it fit well as a testament to the years we put into working and re-working the songs into what they are today. It was only fitting we titled our first full-length album to reflect said testament. The stars aligned precisely the night before our music was sealed forever, and the noble warrior who stands brave and defiant to all odds on the album cover reflects a sentiment we all adhere to; never bow your head, and never compromise.”
How would you characterize Sealed in Starlight against your previous two EPs? What are you hoping the album achieves for you?
Are there specific goals the band has and how deep are you willing to jump into touring and making this band a priority?
“Being our first full-length, it definitely shows off a wider range of what we can do musically and where we draw our influences from. We’re just a bunch of working class guys that play heavy rock n’ roll, ain’t much more to it than that. Music for us has always been a passion, an out from the banality of the 6-2 or 9-5 world. We all do our own thing, and when we find time to jam and record, we take advantage of it. If people dig it and want to throw us a few bones for an album, then we must be doing something right.
If the demand for us to tour arises, we will step up to the plate. This pandemic won’t last forever, so if y’all wanna hear Starlight Ritual in your hometown, write to your local organizers and promoters. I quote a lyric from ‘One for the Road,’ ‘Rebel in a way that they can’t look away/if you’re born to shine then you will blind their eyes.’”
Obviously, Starlight Ritual draws your sound from a certain subgenre of heavy metal, one that’s been around for years and will be for years to come. What do you feel you offer to a saturated scene that’s different?
Basically, what do you feel it is that sets SR apart from the pack and do you feel there’s room for the band to appeal to people other than your fanbase of traditional metal “ritualists” and true metal gatekeepers/scene police types?
“We just play music, man. We don’t pay much attention to what’s new or what’s happening. All of us in SLR understand that melody and emotion are universal; not confined to any specific genre or style. That’s why we refer to our fans as ‘Ritualists’ since they willingly take part in the triumph of music and the power it holds. Whether it’s Elton John, Eloy, or Europe laying it down, if it resonates within you, then you’re tuned to the right frequency. Hopefully, the Rainbow-esque rollicking sound of ‘One for the Road’ or the subtle layered melodies of ‘Sealed in Starlight’ will open the ears of the rigid, and perhaps they will understand the unbounded potential of what we do; our burning desire.”