[23 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Successfully replacing a lead singer is one of, if not the most difficult challenges a band can pull off, but in a genre with such devoted audiences as metal, the odds of reinventing a band’s sound while at the same time retaining credibility in the minds of fans are steep. When you’re replacing a very popular vocalist who has brought a style so idiosyncratic and inimitable that it becomes as crucial a part of the music as the riffs and the hooks, though, then the chances of succeeding are utterly astronomical.
As we all know, a few established metal and hard rock bands have taken that huge gamble in the past and equaled – and even surpassed – their previous commercial success (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, AC/DC, and Van Halen, to name a few), but what many metal fans remember the most are the failures. Iron Maiden replaced Bruce Dickinson with Blaze Bayley, and their global success plummeted. Judas Priest hired Tim “Ripper” Owens after Rob Halford left, and most people stopped caring. Since 2007 Anthrax has replaced Joey Belladonna with unknown singer Dan Nelson, fired him, re-hired former frontman John Bush, and replaced him with Belladonna again, reducing a once great band to a laughingstock.
Then there’s Accept. By the mid-‘80s the German band was a top tier metal act thanks to such classic albums as 1981’s Breaker, 1982’s groundbreaking Restless and Wild, and the subsequent commercial smashes Balls to the Wall and Metal Heart. They were the quintessential Teutonic metal band, delivering sharp, clean, clinically precise riffs offset by the distinct snarl of army fatigues-clad Udo Dirkschneider.
By 1986’s disappointing Russian Routlette, however, the chemistry in the band was eroding, and after a hiatus during which Dirkschneider enjoyed modest success with his solo project U.D.O. (sporting an album that was ironically written for him by his Accept bandmates), the rest of the band decided to continue moving forward with a new singer, a flamboyant American screamer named David Reece. The end result was a complete flop. Eat the Heat (1988) was an attempt at reinvention that missed the mark completely, while Reece’s live interpretations of past Accept classics just didn’t go over well at all with longtime fans.
“We were looking for a new sound and a new direction,” admits guitarist Wolf Hoffman, calling from his home near Nashville, reminiscing about his band’s disastrous turn 22 years ago. “We had changed lead singers, there was other people involved, the producer, we were all together fishing for something where to take Accept next. It was a big experiment that failed miserably. One of the reasons is of course was we never really got the right chemistry in the band with David Reece. Hard to handle. I wouldn’t really say there’s any big lesson to be learned from it, other than we now know exactly what Accept stands for and what our core audience wants, so there’s really no need to change it.”
If you’d asked any Accept fan prior to this year what they most want from the band, the answer would be practically unanimous: Bring back Udo. If we metal fans are one thing, it’s sentimental; we romanticize the past to an often ridiculous degree. But looking at it from a practical perspective, would bringing back Udo recapture the magic they once had a quarter century ago? Their early-‘90s reunion with Dirkschneider felt good enough, but never felt like a creative rebirth.
The brief 2005 reunion tour was nice to see, but Dirkschneider had no desire to make any new music, and besides, he and former Accept drummer Steffan Kaufmann were perfectly happy playing Accept covers with the U.D.O. band. If Accept’s core songwriters, Hoffmann and bassist Peter Baltes, wanted to make new music under the Accept brand, which they own the rights to, they’d have to make a similar gamble as the one they attempted in 1988, and get it right.
“People have said, ‘Here’s the proof, it can’t be done without Udo because you tried it before and it didn’t work,’” says Hoffmann. “That to me is always like saying, ‘Listen son, I married once and it didn’t work, so marriage doesn’t work at all, never for nobody.’ You can’t say just because it didn’t work once it can’t ever work.”
That said, reforming Accept with a new lead singer was the farthest thing from Hoffmann’s mind when he made the trip to his longtime buddy Baltes’s Philadelphia area home in May of 2009. But those damned serendipitous moments always happen when you least expect them to. “We’re all good buddies, we like to hang, and during those occasions sometimes we do an impromptu jam session,” he explains. “We did, just Peter and me and a local drummer. Then someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you give Mark Tornillo a call? He lives around the corner, basically, he’s a great singer he knows some of your old songs, and he could just sit in for the day. That would be more fun than just playing playbacks or shredding away.’ So we did. He came over even though he had some sort of bronchitis, but he said, ‘I’m not a hundred percent but I’m coming over anyhow.’ When he started singing, we were blown away, and then and there decided, ‘What if we ask Mark whether he wanted to be in, to reincarnate Accept?’ That’s how the idea was born, and the same day we called [guitarist Herman Frank] in Germany, [drummer Steffan Schwarzmann] in Switzerland, Gaby [Hoffman, manager], and everybody was right on board.”
Not long after that initial meeting with Tornillo the band announced in rather modest fashion on their official website that Accept would be returning with a new lead singer, and with hindsight being what it is, the reaction was not very positive, to put it politely. 15 months later, though, the buzz surrounding the band has done a 180 degree shift. After recording a new album with reputable producer Andy Sneap, Accept landed a worldwide record deal with metal giant Nuclear Blast. What started as a rather cautious late spring promotional tour exploded into a highly successful summer run of festival performances in Europe, as well as some plum opening slots at massive AC/DC shows in Germany. And much to many people’s surprise, the long-awaited Blood of the Nations has turned out to be a highly enjoyable album that actually feels like a proper Accept record.
Not only is the new record a spirited return to the classic Accept sound of 1981-1985, but Tornillo turns out to be a perfect fit. As the singer for the New Jersey band TT Quick going back to the early-‘80s, Tornillo has always sung in a raspy growl very similar to Dirkschneider, but has also displayed a melodic range that Udo never had. Consequently, Tornillo is able to step into Accept with the ability to sound somewhat familiar on standout rockers like “Beat the Bastards” and “The Abyss”, yet at the same time carve out a little niche of his own, as on the bluesy “Kill the Pain”. Of course there’s the clincher: he can sing on classic songs like “Fast as a Shark”, “Balls to the Wall”, and “Princess of the Dawn” and make the songs sound not only convincing, but sing them with authority, something his predecessor Reece could never do.
“What impressed us was not just the voice, he knows how to handle it,” says Hoffmann about his new bandmate. “He knows how to use his voice. He also has some other voices, he can do a clean voice really well, sing a ballad really well. He’ll hit the note, he’ll sing in time. He’s got singing chops on top of that voice. The voice alone was impressive, yeah, but the rest, how he handled his voice was really cool. It sounded like he wasn’t trying to imitate anybody. It’s just the way he sounds. Funny enough, he kind of reminds you of Udo at times.”
How important was it that Accept find a singer that could, if not imitate Dirkschneider’s vocals, then sing in a similar way? “We didn’t even think about any of that, honestly,” Hoffmann insists. “We just met him, loved it, he’s perfect. We didn’t evaluate all the ins and outs, and we didn’t really go through the process of looking at it from every angle. We just had the gut feeling he’s the right guy. Of course if you think about it, the main goal nowadays, why we do all of this is to go out and play live. We know we can never get away from our old songs, we will be the band who plays ‘Balls to the Wall’ and ‘Fast as a Shark’, so it’s very important we have a guy who can do the old repertoire really good and convincing. If our lead singer sounded totally different, he would have a hard time.”
One big reason Blood of the Nations is such a nice fit in the Accept discography is that Sneap, producer of Arch Enemy and Megadeth and a longtime fan of Accept, made it known from the outset that he wanted this new album to have all the qualities that made this band’s records so special back when he was first listening to them. Says Hoffmann, “He was a diehard Accept fan from early on, and he just wanted to be involved, but he also wanted to hear the new stuff, the direction and whatnot. We just played him the stuff we had. We weren’t really sure if it was good. He liked some of it, and some of it he didn’t.
“We were really impressed with what he had to say, he was really influential from the first day on. Together with him we made the decision to go back to the style of the ‘80s, really what Accept is best known for. Which is just what we needed, because looking from Andy’s perspective, he’s a fan. He’s not only a top-notch producer, he’s a fan, and he told us what he loved about Accept back when he was a kid. ‘The German-ness.’ I was like, ‘What is German-ness? What is that? I don’t know what that is. It’s just what I write.’ He kind of pointed out stuff on the old records, ‘This bit right there, this sounds so German.’ We were, ‘Okay, well we’ve got more of that if you want that. Boom, here it is.’ Once we kind of knew what direction to take, it was fairly easy for us to write all these songs.”
He adds, “When he heard our demos, he said, ‘Let’s go upstairs and listen to the old records here for a minute.’ We put on Balls to the Wall, Restless and Wild, and Breaker, and that opened our eyes a little bit. That’s something I never do, I never listen to my old stuff. But once that you do, especially in a group, it almost becomes this group therapy kind of thing, and you become aware of it all together, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did that,” he laughs.
Of course, since their last album came out the music industry has changed so much, with the internet playing such a big role in promoting, distributing, and allowing bands to interact with their fans, and Hoffmann fully admits it’s been a learning process for he and his bandmates as they get back into the swing of things after so much time away. “We made some scratch recordings the very first day, we played them to the other guys, they loved it,” he says. “We knew it was for us, this scratch stuff, without ever putting any work into it. Naïve as we are, we put it online thinking everybody else would love it too, but boy, that backfired, [laughs] It’s really no major deal now, but at the time everybody was, ‘Well, this is not as good as the record and this is not like Udo’…Well, we were thinking, ‘You idiots, it can’t be just as good, it’s just a scratch recording after an hour of meeting the guy.’ But it was one of the new rules we had to learn about the new world. You can’t take this stuff back. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. You can’t unpublish it after.”
With a new album that’s steadily building word of mouth (recently debuting at a shocking number four in metal-mad Germany) and longtime fans welcoming them back with open arms, Accept is thrilled with how their 2010 has gone so far, but Hoffmann is not so much surprised at the warm reaction as he is relieved. “Of course we were all hoping for that, having gone through this before with different singers and such. We know how critical people are about this, and how much the voice of a singer of a band, how important it is. Especially with the fans. Nobody really knows what Udo’s role was behind the scenes back in the day. Of course, we know, we’ve been there, we wrote all the songs. But a lot of people think it’s all about the singer. But it’s not always the case,” he laughs.
“We tried to capture that spirit again. I don’t know how we did it, but we seem to have done it. That’s something we’ve always tried to do, but maybe this time we tried more than ever or more deliberately. It’s always easy to say we’re going back to our roots, but man, it’s hard to do when you’re 30 years older and everybody’s with families, so much stuff is happening. When we did Restless and Wild, we were all just kids, man. Some of us still living at home, basically just neighborhood friends. Not a worry in the world. That is something that’s hard to go back to. Things have changed, but somehow we pulled it off.”