Music trio Axis Of have beaten adversity with a rousing return
The band Axis Of came roaring out of the northwest 15 years ago. Fans said they were stormy like the Atlantic coast, that their songs were as jagged as the Giant’s Causeway.
Formed around the Portstewart area, their bristling style had purpose and politics. They toured endlessly and made a virtue out of their do-it-yourself attitude. No gig was too remote or too challenging. They were tireless over-achievers.
The guitars crunched and the engine oil overheated. But in early 2016, Axis Of announced a period of “hibernation”. Guitarist Niall Lawlor had decided that he wanted to see the world, away from the concert stage. Meantime, bassist Ewen Friers had solo ambitions while drummer Ethan Harman had his previous career in film and TV to return to.
Happily, they have come back with a third album. The title is Bella Pacifica. As ever, the songs rush past like exotic map references and the choruses resound from the heights. They sing about distant Scottish islands and the wilds of British Columbia. The adventure has resumed.
But the added melodic power does not hide the back story of the band. Bella Pacifica was created in spite of chronic illness and tragic loss. Every note was an achievement and all the self-assurance was painfully won.
On the recent single, Blackcomber, Ewen put out a kind of manifesto. “Hope for an epiphany,” he yelled, “Prepare for misfortune”. He thinks about the meaning when I ask him to explain. “I don’t know it that’s defeatist or being a realist, but that comes from those tougher years. Some of the tougher, harder sentiments are on the record, for sure.”
The band’s return was almost stalled when Niall became incapacitated with a mystery condition. There’s still a degree of speculation about what happened, but it seems that a painful fall in the snow in Canada resulted in a head injury.
“I think they call it post-concussion syndrome,” Ewen supposes. “A lot of sports people get it. You don’t hit your head, necessarily, but if you shake your head violently enough, it can bruise your brain on the inside.”
Niall received medication for the neurological issues but this treatment caused further complications. When he finally made it home, he was bed-ridden and much of his coordination was gone.
“It was a domino effect of things, and then being so far from home. That was really scary.” Ewen choses his words carefully. The shock is still apparent. “When I did see Niall, I was traumatised by it. How can you prepare yourself to see your friend go through something as extreme as that?
“My energy was directed into helping in any way that I could. You feel powerless whenever it’s at its most extreme. But then at the later part, when Niall could grasp onto the more hopeful things, that’s when I really felt like I was able to help and encourage him. That’s when I felt most useful to him.”
Eventually, they booked a recording studio. True to their old selves, they were heading back to the fringes, to a converted crab factory in the Outer Hebrides. They looked over the bay at Great Bernera and saw eagles in flight.
“There’s this kind of fanfare, this positive-sounding music,” says Ewen. “It has a sound. We’ve plucked out all of the elements of Axis Of – the previous band we were. And we’ve laid that onto something that’s solid. In comparison to a bunch of 18-year-olds screaming into microphones…
“People are saying that it’s triumphant sounding, and it’s very sincere. Axis Of has always been very loud, and it don’t think that’s changed. It’s still a full-on experience. I think it’s a bit more cleverly done. Before, it was a louder, punk thing.”
The band members are also paying their respects to a musician friend from the north-west Andrew Dunbar, who left them in December 2019. He had been on the bill of the band’s last show in 2016. He was part of their creative clan. Ewen believes that the community has become more supportive and empathetic since then.
“So much has happened in our scene over the last few years. I find myself sending and receiving messages. Like, ‘here, thinking of you, and hope you’re doing well’. I find people doing that a lot more. There are probably more conversations about mental health than there ever has been. There’s less stigma. I think that’s a really positive thing. I feel like our scene is more healthy for it.”
He also realises that Axis Of will work to a different pace now.
“We’ll never be the band that was going out and playing every corner of pub in of the UK
for 100 nights a year. We’ll probably never do that style of constant touring. Axis Of was always so based on what’s coming up next. We weren’t present in the moment. I don’t think that was especially healthy for us. So now we can put this record out to the people that are gonna enjoy it and then do some fun stuff.”
(Bella Pacifica by Axis Of is out now on No Dancing Records. The band will play the Atlantic Bar, Portrush on August 6.)