With the revival of the NWoBHM scene in the last few years we're seeing more and more albums being released by bands that have been on hiatus since the early '80s. One of the acts that have recently woken up from the coma are the North-Eastern outfit Mythra, who are considered one of the originators of the whole movement. Last year saw them release their debut album, 40+ years after founding the band, and fans could catch them live at various gigs and events the world over. Here's what Mythra's axeman John Roach told me about "Still Burning".
"Still Burning" has been out for quite a while now. Are you happy with the feedback you have received so far?
Yes, we're very happy, the reviews have been great, very positive and encouraging. The individual feedback from fans has been fantastic. We were nervous about the new material but Bart Gabriel gave us the confidence and encouragement we needed to see it through. Once it was released the response was great so Bart was right.
How does it feel to finally release the debut album, 40+ years after the band's founding?
It's a relief, ha-ha! It has been brilliant to show people that we are still relevant, even though we spent such a long time out of the game. In my wildest dreams, all I wanted was for Mythra to be appreciated as one of the first bands to be labelled as NWoBHM, everything else is a fantastic bonus.
A lot of old-school bands try to record retro-sounding albums these days. It looks like you went the opposite way as the new album sounds more modern than the latest outputs from the NWoBHM-era bands?
We recorded "Still Burning" in 2016 in Czestochowa, Poland and it was produced by Bart Gabriel. We went into the studio with the intention of recording the best album that we could in the time available. It was recorded in the traditional way - no samples, no digital modelling amps, minimal overdubs, in fact only the guitar solos. So, you hear the drums as played with no click track, two guitars, one bass and one vocal. Speaking for myself, I think trying to sound like an old recording is a mistake. There are loads of old recordings, some are great and some should have remained as demos and not been released. You can't ignore the changes in technology and if you use advances in technology to try to sound "old" or "analogue" then that is just fake. On the other hand, if you go into an old analogue studio and try to make the very best product that you can, then you will sound authentic. I think there is a very clear difference. We approached the recording of "Still Burning" in an old school way but using modern (digital) recording instead of tape.
I suppose some or all of you were still doing music over the Mythra hiatus. Are some of the songs on the new album old ideas or is all the material brand new?
Maurice, Peter Melsom (original bass player) and I have remained friends and in contact since we met in school when we were 14 or 15. We all got back for a brief re-union when we discovered that Cherry Red had released "The Death and Destiny LP" album on CD. None of us played in bands together though... There are two songs on "Still Burning" which Vince and I wrote quite a few years ago (in 2000/01) and we revised them for the new recording sessions. They existed in demo format under the working title of "The Darkener". The older tracks are "Fundamental Extreme" - completely rewritten music with original lyrics and "Dreaming the Dream" (bonus track on the CD) - revised with rewritten lyrics. All of the remaining tracks were written in a short space of time over the summer of 2016 specifically for this release. The lyrics to "Fundamental Extreme" were still very relevant 15 years after they were written and for that reason we decided to dust it off and put it out there. The lyrics to "Dreaming the Dream" are changed but the message isn't, the impact of the song remains true to the original demo...
If you had to pick three songs off "Still Burning" that best represent Mythra's sound and style, which ones would you choose?
That's a very tough question... All of the tracks represent Mythra's sound and style as they are all original compositions. We took the collective decision to credit all members of the band equally in the song-writing, although that is not how it actually happens, so I would choose the ones that I wrote ha-ha! Honestly, there is no filler on the album. I think that each of the songs are strong, each of them shows a facet of Mythra's personality and potential. So, if I had to pick three songs I would do it blindfold as I like them all... OK my favourites... here we go... "We Belong", changing dynamics, melodic and heavy as hell this will be a killer live song, "Silence in the Sirens" - great riffing, already a great live song and finally "Still Burning" - it has everything a great heavy metal track should have.
The band is named after a Greco-Roman god Mithras. Were any of the band members interested in mythology or was it just a cool sounding word for you?
It was both, I was interested in religions and how they have been cynically used by a few organised individuals to try to control large populations. I was reading the "Dune" series of books by Frank Herbert, a vast, epic science fiction story over several volumes, with religious control and exploitation as a thread running throughout. I was also interested in the history of Rome and I was aware that a lot of the early, basic Christian faith was based on modifications and adaptations of older faiths. Simultaneously, I had a lot of Iranian friends at college (this was pre-revolution Iran) who exposed me to a lot of pre-Islamic Persian history. Before we were called Mythra we were called Zarathustra, a real mouthful and we needed a shorter, more punchy name. I read somewhere that in Zoroastrianism, Mithras held balance between darkness and light or good and evil, this seemed a very cool concept to me so I swapped the "I" for a "Y" and proposed the name Mythra to the rest of the guys in 1977/78. We were a four piece at the time with Maurice on vocal and guitar.
Why did you actually disband in the early '80s? You had a dedicated following, you were gigging with the likes of Saxon or Motörhead, there was huge interest in the music you were playing so, what happened?
I left Mythra in 1980, after recording and releasing "Death and Destiny", to be replaced by Mick Rundle. It was Mick who played guitar when Mythra supported Saxon and Motörhead. I've been told that Mick was never really confident on stage and he was eventually replaced by Alex just before Mythra called it a day in 1982. According to Maurice (the guy who has been in every incarnation of Mythra), Guardian Records or Street Beat Records wouldn't release any of the material that had been recorded in either EP or single format, and gigs were drying up as there were no more new releases. It became more and more frustrating playing smaller and smaller gigs. So, they stopped, strangled by miss-management.
What's the most memorable gig you remember from the early '80s era?
For me, that isn't a Mythra gig, it was playing with Fist at the Rock On The Tyne festival on 30th August 1981 at Gateshead Stadium with Rory Gallagher, Doctor Feelgood, Ginger Baker, Diamond Head and local guys Lindisfarne. It's still the biggest stage I've ever played on.
As far as I'm concerned, the "Death & Destiny" CD compilation that was out some 20 years ago was issued without your knowledge or approval. Were you surprised back then seeing your material out on a bootleg?
Surprised and pleased... I was aware of the two other demos with Mick Rundle, I also knew that the song "W.A.S.A." with Alex had been recorded but to put them all together and release them collectively was great... If they had contacted us at least they would have got the song titles correct. I remember having a discussion with the guys at Cherry Red later when they said that they couldn't get in touch with any of us. PRS had my contact details so it couldn't have been that hard. I don't think it's fair to call it a bootleg as the Cherry Red guys released it in good faith and eventually they licenced it from us anyway. In fact, it was only after the CD release that we realised that anyone actually knew about Mythra. We were unaware of the collectors or that original copies of the "Death and Destiny" EP were trading at such high values. It was because of this release that I was able to make contact with friends such as Mario Corbella, Ron Levine and Malc MacMillan.
You've mentioned that you recorded a demo called "The Darkener" in the early 2000s. Why didn't you follow through?
Vince and I recorded "The Darkener" in 2000/01 as a complete package to generate interest and try to get Mythra restarted, but there was no interest... I guess we were a few years too early for the resurgence in popularity with the genre. We put a lot of effort into making the demo as good as it could be so that our potential could be seen... It actually took a lot out of me when there was no interest. I felt personally hurt. I had nurtured the concept of "The Darkener" since University. A close friend Piotr Janick and I used the nickname of "Dr Ciemniejszy" for any professor who would make simple concepts complicated, and I extended this to a very loose concept which dictated the flavour of "The Darkener" "album". I wrote and recorded all of the material and Vince added the lyrics and vocals, we were very proud of it...
Do you think Mythra would have come back if the guys behind Brofest hadn't invited you to play the one-off re-union gig?
Maurice had been approached a year earlier by Stuart Bartlett who asked if we would be interested in playing Brofest and three days after Vince, Maurice and I met at my house to discuss it, I was involved in an accident which resulted in me being hospitalised and needing surgery to my left shoulder. I still have the plates and screws inside and it has meant that I can no longer play my beloved Les Paul Standard as it is too heavy. So, we were unable to follow up. We were approached again the following year so we started planning. Maurice did all of the organising and invited Phil to get involved when Barry Hopper was not available. When we discussed doing it, it was on the very strict proviso that if it was good we would go ahead but if it was crap we would not do it. It ended up being better than any of us hoped, so that's why we're still here and we plan to continue.
I've seen you live twice since you re-united and it looks like you guys are still having fun on stage. Are you still getting the same buzz playing in front of the metal maniacs you were getting back in the day?
Simply, yes! I love playing live, that is what it is all about. The excitement, the energy and the greatest thing about playing live is the audience! We add all of our energy and project it out from the stage and that is reflected back by the audience - it is truly magical. When we were younger, in the '80s there was a pressure that we put ourselves under to be better than everyone else, to compete - whether it was for gigs, press or record company attention or fans. Now the pressure is different, there is a lot of camaraderie between bands, a lot of support for each other. I think the pressure now is to be as good as you can be. I personally like to be entertained by a band, I like to see commitment to the songs and the audience and that is what we try to do in our shows that is the pressure we put ourselves under.
You've recently played some gigs with Night Demon. Do you follow the young traditional metal scene?
I wouldn't go so far as to say I follow the scene, what has happened, in my case, is that I have discovered bands by playing the same festivals. It's been great to reacquaint myself with some of the bands from the old days, to see what they are up to now, but it has also been great to discover and meet younger bands. Night Demon are fantastic, we love those guys. I've also been listening to Crystal Viper, Savage Master, Screamer, Substratum, Toledo Steel, Tentation, there are loads of great bands out there. It is a great time for metal.
Thank you for this short talk John. What are your plans for the 2018?
We're working on dates for 2018, some one-off shows, festivals etc. Things yet to be confirmed, but watch this space. We're also writing and developing new material. We have a lot of time to make up for. Thanks for taking the time to ask the questions. Metal on!