When two members of marching bands got together with a heavy metal drummer and a guitarist in a recording studio, no one knew what to expect
They say that variety is the spice of life, but I doubt even those of you blessed with a Heston Blumenthal-like mindset would’ve thought of creating the tasty musical feast that is Marching Metal. The brainchild of NI charity organisation Beyond Skin and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, this unusual collaboration saw two members from Protestant marching bands team up with a pair of metal musicians to perform a high octane version of Star of the County Down to mark the recent Make Music Day NI.
The video for the track, which was filmed in front of various Belfast landmarks and is available to view on You Tube, has now gone viral and regardless of whether you’re a fan of King Billy or King Diamond, music lovers from all walks of life have been enjoying this unlikely union.
Featuring former drummer for seminal ‘80s rockers Sweet Savage, Davy Bates, Poland-born, Belfast-based, metal-loving guitarist/sonic wizard, Kacper Lewandowski, flute and side drum player, Glenn Millar, and flute player Gordon Ramsey in their ranks, Marching Metal have bucked conventions and broken down barriers with their track.
However, while the main aim for their collaboration is to entertain rather than offend, the worlds of heavy metal and marching bands are not without their controversies and misconceptions. When I met up with the guys, I had to wonder — were they worried there might be a backlash from some of the more conservative members in both scenes and indeed, those outside them?
“The reaction I have received has been a very positive one,” offers Davy, whose first band Sweet Savage famously inspired Metallica’s garage days.
“I realise that not everyone will like it, but that is totally understandable. I have been genuinely surprised by the positive comments that have been made. ‘Tasteful and sensitively done’, was one that I am particularly fond of.”
“There were a few raised eyebrows when I mentioned it to members of my band and some friends weren’t sure if it could work,” reflects Glenn, (below), who plays in the east Belfast-based Pride of The Raven.
“There were also thoughts expressed that were somewhat sceptical and worried that this would diminish the cultural aspect of our music, but they were very impressed with the outcome.
I was never worried about a backlash, if you don’t like it, then you don’t like it. That’s the joy of music, there is something for everyone. I have friends who really don’t like metal, but said they could listen to tracks like this all day.”
Gordon adds: “The band I’m in (Shankill Road Defenders) have engaged in other musical collaborations in the past. We’ve played with African and Afghan musicians at Belfast Culture Night 2015 and later worked with a Colombian flute player to play a popular Colombian song, so metal was comparatively familiar.”
Kacper also relished the challenge of trying something new and was unconcerned with differences of faith or tradition.
“As a Polish guy who was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but moved here with his family at the age of 13, I had some passing thoughts, but in the end, they didn’t bother me at all.
“I don’t practise any religious beliefs, but I am extremely respectful toward other cultures and laws and I know that there are lots of delicate subjects in Nothern Ireland, especially in Belfast, but I asked myself… ‘Why am I even being slightly nervous about all of this?’
“I am absolutely against the stigma of connecting art with politics and religion and I didn’t want to lock myself in that box as I truly believe that art exists to express yourself emotionally, especially if this expression involves something that you have been loving for years, something that is deeply rooted inside you. In my case it was metal music.”
Once everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet, Marching Metal wasted little time figuring out what track to tackle for their video. Glenn came up with the idea of interpreting Star of the County Down. Music anoraks will quite rightly point to a similarly minded, punk informed version of the song-renamed The Fighting 69th — performed by the Dropkick Murphys on their 1999 album, The Gang’s All Here, but the boys say that it wasn’t an inspiration for them.
“When I started to come up with ideas, I was trying to think of a style that would work,” says Glenn. “One of the first ideas that popped into my head was taking a similar approach to Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath. I was aware of the Dropkick Murphys’ track, but it wasn’t an inspiration here, it was most definitely Dio-era Black Sabbath.”
“I was unaware that the Dropkick Murphys had recorded a version,” adds Davy. “I had heard a version by Van Morrison and the Chieftains, no way was ours going to sound like that!”
“Star of the County Down is a popular ‘blood and thunder’ tune that a lot of bands play,” explains Gordon.
Once the song was decided, the four-piece headed to Belfast’s Start Together Studios to record it. While the ongoing pandemic meant familiar rock star trappings like big bowls of brown M&Ms were abandoned, troupers that they are, the band made the best of the situation.
“A lot of human interactions were greatly disturbed due to the pandemic and it is extremely tough for musicians not to physically collaborate with other people,” says Kacper. “But it was tremendously refreshing and wholesome to be surrounded by very dedicated and inspirational musicians who are all amazing at their craft.
“We were all very respectful during the restrictions, greeted each other with the new high fives (AKA elbow bumps) and we wore masks,” he added.
“The rest was normal, just musicians in their natural habitat, being creative and equally messing around, because a good atmosphere is the key to success and the end result wouldn’t be as genuine if it was the other way around.”
While it’s only been available to watch for a few weeks, their video, which debuted on June 21, has already earned acclaim for helping break down barriers and the players are proud to be involved with the project.
“For me, the one thing that unites us is the fact that we are all musicians first and foremost,” says Glenn. “Everything else is perception and personal preference.
“I always say that understanding is deeper than knowledge; you may feel you have some knowledge about marching bands or metal bands, but do you understand what the individuals who make up the membership of these bands’ motivation is for being part of one?
“Or how they came to be involved in one, or what circumstances shaped that? The video has opened up the two musical genres to a wide range of people, but it’s the music that has really drawn them in.
“Hopefully it challenges listeners’ perceptions and leads to better understanding rather than blind rejection because of a particular world view.”
“Glenn and Gordon were extremely friendly and equally funny,” adds Kacper. “It was a pleasure to work with them and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. Their playing was fantastic.
“Yes, we are different. Our first languages and traditions are different, just like the musical styles that we all combined. However, I truly believe that music itself is a collection of languages and this video captures it perfectly.
“Marching music wouldn’t be something I would listen to in my spare time, but being involved in something like this gave me nothing but joy and appreciation.”
For Glenn in particular, Marching Metal has given him the chance to indulge two passions and he hopes an encore from the newly minted four-piece is in their future and perhaps even a tour once the world gets back to normal too.
“I am very much a metal fan,” he grins. “I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Taste in my pre-teen years, then became a massive Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Metallica fan. However, my favourite band is WASP.
“The first album I heard by them was The Last Command and then I picked up a VHS tape of their Live at the Lyceum, London show and that was me hooked. When I started learning the guitar I played along to their album Live... in the Raw in my bedroom all the time.
“I had all the spoken parts down to a tee as well, but needless to say sometimes my ma wasn’t too impressed with my impressions of (WASP singer) Blackie Lawless.
“I’ve worn plenty of Iron Maiden shirts under my uniform on parades too, but we have band branded T-shirts now that are part of our uniform, so those days are gone, sadly.
“I’d love us to do more tracks together and do some live gigs with this,” he concludes. “I think that would be amazing. Here’s hoping we can. I think people would love to watch this live. Marching Metal could create a very unique live experience and visual!”
Marching Metal’s video for Star of the County Down is supported by Make Music Day UK, Belfast Music and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. For more information: www.beyondskin.net