Steve Mills comes across as affable and enthusiastic: like a best friend you haven’t seen for ages. The occasional expectation of otherwise is something that narks him: “People diss doom as a bunch of Neanderthal cavemen who can’t play properly and don’t have two brain cells to rub together. They would be wrong. There’s a big thought process in doom music, and a lot of creativity and effort in there.”
There’s certainly nothing dull about aptly-named The Wounded Kings, the Devon quintet Steve created in a very different guise ten years ago, and currently basking in the glory of across-the-board acclaim for their fourth and most recent album Consolamentum (Candlelight Records). After earning his spurs with future luminaries from Ramesses and Ishmael, and garnering interest as a drummer in Jus Oborn’s pre-Electric Wizard incarnation Lord of Putrefaction, Steve felt it was time to branch out with his own ideas. “In 2004, I couldn’t find many like-minded musicians in my area so bought an old 16-track, and recorded the vast majority of the music of the first two albums myself. I then hooked up with George (Birch, original vocalist), who at the time was a singer-songwriter with a quite unusual voice which is something I like. We had no aspirations initially other than to get a record deal and get the stuff out there – that was our sole aim, as it is with most young bands.”
Amazingly, that first deal took three years to appear. “No one would touch us with a barge pole for a while. Back then nobody wanted that occult feel, and you had to really put the shifts in and believe in what you were doing. Then Duncan Dinsdale – who was brilliant – saw something in us, and put our debut album out. Unfortunately his label folded but, by then, we’d been heard and were picked up fairly quickly by IHate.”
As well as lamenting the slow demise of MySpace, which helped the band form a base through its formative years, Steve talks fondly with regard to An Introduction to the Black Arts, the split release with US doom monsters Cough which followed hot on the heels of second album The Shadow over Atlantis in late 2010. “None of the band’s output has ever come about by design. Even the fact that each of the albums deals with one of the four natural elements wasn’t conscious: it was only when my partner said one day ‘D’you realise what you’re doing here?’ that it actually dawned on me what was happening. The weird thing is, we’d recorded our contribution to the split (the fifteen-minute Curse of Chains) almost a year before it actually came out. I’ve been asked since if I’d ever do another split and, whereas I’d never say never, it would be hard to top it as for where we were at the time that was pretty much perfect: a work of art.”
It was then, however, when things began to unravel. “We got our ground-breaking Roadburn gig off the back of our debut album – back then we were a pimple on the arse of doom, and it would’ve really given us a boost had we not hit the floor soon after that gig. We already knew our drummer Nick was going to emigrate, but soon after Roadburn George announced his desire to leave, as it wasn’t really suiting his style. This really pulled the rug from under my feet, but thankfully everyone agreed to stay on until after we’d done a UK tour. Just before it Nick broke his arm…it was a hell of a time. Happily we’re all still good mates and I’ve got nothing but the fondest memories of that time. But then I was back on my own again.”
Steve’s focus never shifted, however, and after a nervy few months he was back on his feet with some new bandmates: “All of our albums were a product of where we were at the time, and the sound is what’s going through my head right then. Embrace of the Narrow House (the debut album) sounds really low-key due to the lack of equipment and expertise I had at the time. By …Shadow, I’d gained a bit more experience so the sound was a little better; then of course, by the time In the Chapel of the Black Hand (the third album) came around, we’d got a little bigger and labels were interested in putting a bit of money to the recording element. Though in a strange way, even if we had the same tools in our early days the sound wouldn’t change too much as I have a style of writing which shows through in all the albums. In the early days I just had to drench everything in reverb!”
To complete the four elements cycle, Steve wasn’t really sure how to reflect the remaining ingredient of air within new album Consolamentum. “As we all know, air is light. But we’re a bloody doom band! So I really wasn’t sure how we were going to portray that property through the music”. The result is an almost lazy, laconic groove filtering through this quite mesmerising release, sliding seductively alongside the trademark colossal riffs and powerful, leaden rhythms. Electrifying lead work dances and writhes in an achingly beautiful fashion, lifting the soul from the dark, incanting torch voice of Sharie Neyland. The occasionally ethereal nature takes you on a weirdly uplifting journey and is exactly what Steve desired, as he explains in a typically self-deprecating way:
“I like the low-end: simple as that! I classed …Chapel as a dense, layered, wall of sound effect, which is just what I was after as it reflected the nine circles of hell – the fire element – but I probably don’t do it enough justice by saying it’s a little one-dimensional. What I wanted for Consolamentum was space. Two rhythm guitars, myself and Alex (Kearney) left and right, leaving others to work their magic, such as Mike (Heath, drummer) to ease in with his own beats and fills.” So does Steve invite ideas from the rest of the band, or is he the time-worn studio despot? “I’m more of a guide as I have the initial idea how I want it to sound. But at the end of the day someone like Mike is in the band because he’s a fucking great drummer, and you don’t stifle somebody’s creativity as that’s why you want them there in the first place. Sharie, for example, believes every word she’s singing, and really makes you sit up and listen. She’s the only woman I know who can sing in B, and to deliver it as strikingly as she does is amazing. I bring the idea to the table, then let everyone do their thing. I’m just really happy and proud they trust and have faith in me. We’ve been going three years in this incarnation now, together with Al (Eliadis) on bass, and I tell you this line-up’s a keeper.”
This shines out of the performance; the overall sound of Consolamentum showcasing five musicians right at the top of their game, all sharing in the spotlight and utilising it to amazing effect. Steve puts this down to the way they fit together: “The nice thing is, I don’t feel this is a new band anymore. We just work so well together: we’ve been out on the road, doing loads of shows, and we’ve reached the point where we can second-guess each other. There’s a real conviction on this album, and this is borne out in the fact that we recorded the basic tracks for the album live, and in one evening.” Given the accomplished sound and frightening majesty of the album, this is a staggering achievement.
So will we see this album toured around the UK and abroad? Sadly but understandably, this seems a forlorn hope. “The last UK tour we did nearly destroyed the band, and left me saddled with a heavy debt which, thankfully, the Cough split helped me out with. When on tour we’ve got five members’ kit plus drivers, vans, fuel costs to pay out. We’re not after Download-style fees, and don’t want to be treated like royalty, but we have been treated more like human beings in Europe than in our own country, and tend to get what we’ve been promised. There are one or two exceptions to the rule – those promoters know who they are – so there will be a couple of shows on our shores. We’d really love to do more but we just can’t afford to return in the state I did on the last occasion. We also need a fairly big stage – the last thing you want is Sharie’s hair in your monitor!! ”
This is becoming a depressingly familiar tale, especially from bands trying to spread the good news from the extremities of our sceptered isle. Hopefully more home promoters will see fit to make it affordable for The Wounded Kings to play everywhere because, as their latest fantastic effort testifies, they’re too bloody good to be kept a secret.