THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – Satan’s Empire’s Derek Lyon and Sandy McRitchie take time out from recording their second album to talk to Echoes

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK –  Satan’s Empire’s Derek Lyon and Sandy McRitchie take time out from recording their second album to talk to Echoes
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To most New Wave Of British Heavy Metal fans Satan’s Empire will probably forever be best known for their song ‘Soldiers Of War’, perhaps THE highlight of Neat Records’ ‘Lead Weight’ cassette, released back in 1981. The problem was, in those pre-internet days, few of us knew anything about the band aside from that one track, and it wasn’t until they reformed at the end of 2015 that they began to get the recognition they rightly deserve.

The end of June 2019 saw Satan’s Empire – vocalist Derek ‘Dek’ Lyon, guitarists Sandy McRitchie and Paul Lewis, bassist Wayne Hudson and drummer Garry ‘Magpie’ Bowler – in Dissonance’s Samurai Studios, putting the finishing touches to their second album under the watchful eye of producer Steve Grimmett. “We’ve just got the main vocals to do, the backing vocals, a little bit of bass and the lead breaks,” says Sandy. “And me and Dek are working on a short keyboard intro to one of the songs, a ballad.”

“And Steve’s brilliant,” offers Derek. “He’s a really good lad. He’s really on our wavelength and it’s not all ten-hour days solid music, we do have breaks in-between and so there’s a nice social aspect to the recordings too. He likes the stuff we’re playing, and he’s even volunteered himself to do some backing vocals which is great – the more the merrier in fact, in my opinion.”

Originally from Dundee, as mentioned above Satan’s Empire were one of the most elusive bands of the NWOBHM, with just that one track to their name back in the day. Although they relocated to London (“the press would never come up to Dundee to see us,” Sandy points out), they never managed to break through, and remained pretty much a mystery for the best part of thirty-five years. “It was towards the end of 2015 when we got back together,” Derek explains. “People had been asking about us, people who’d known about us years ago, asking if we would be reforming as a number of bands were getting back together. We thought about it but Sandy said he couldn’t play because he had carpal tunnel syndrome. But I arranged to meet him, he got in touch with Paul and Wayne and arranged to meet them, and once we’d got together it felt like we’d only seen each other a couple of days ago, never mind thirty-five years. So instead of having another meeting to talk about things, we decided just to go and have a rehearsal.”

“Wayne and Paul were lucky enough to be able to carry on playing in a covers band in-between times so they were able to maintain their own skills,” says Sandy. “I hadn’t played for quite a time; I’d done some session work but I never had a band, or any inkling to form a band.”

“Nor me,” chips in Derek. “I did some vocal work, but again didn’t have a band.”

“And I was worried,” adds Sandy, “about the carpal tunnel syndrome, obviously, and not being able to play, but that’s not really been a problem, thank God. In fact, I found that playing did actually help me. We asked around for a drummer who could help us out and we came across Garry Bowler, Magpie from Mournblade, and he offered to help. And he’s been in the band ever since.”

There’s no going back!, I suggest. “Well,” says Derek, “what happened was, we got an offer to do Brofest in [February] 2016, and Garry said that he’d help us just till we did that gig, but the way things went he liked what we were doing and we offered him the job and he accepted it straight away.” A few years down the line Magpie’s position in the band would be extremely valuable when they needed a deal for the forthcoming album. “We started looking around and Garry talked to Steve [Dissonance head honcho Steve Beatty] about the band. He’s known Steve for years, and worked with him back in his days with Mournblade, so he let Steve hear some of what we’d been doing. We’d recorded a three-track rehearsal demo, and when Steve heard it he wanted to sign us straight away.”

“Signing with Dissonance is a major breakthrough for us,” continues Sandy. “It’s great to be with a heavy metal orientated label with extensive experience in marketing and distribution. We know some of the bands already signed and, as Dek said, it’s been great to be working with Steve [Grimmett] as well.”

Article Image © John Tucker

Brofest was a huge success for the band, and they followed it with their debut album, ‘Rising’, in June 2018. “We were very pleased with the way that turned out,” says the vocalist. “It reflects the old stuff, the old Satan’s Empire, which is a bit different to the stuff we’re writing now. I’m glad we’ve got that down and out as an album.” 

“I think it needed to be out there just for people to enjoy those old songs,” Sandy adds. “What will happen with the new stuff, we don’t know yet!” he laughs. “When you’re writing music, it sounds great when you write it, but you don’t know how the audience is going to react.”

“But we’ve been getting good responses when we have played some of it live,” counters Derek. “We had a gig at the weekend, The Carlisle, in Hastings, and people came up to us afterwards commenting on the new stuff and how they thought it sounded like the next stage of Satan’s Empire.”

“It’s heavy, but, maybe, a bit more commercial,” suggests Sandy. “Not overtly, but it’s got catchier melodies in it, parts for people to sing along to, but it’s still got all the Empire time changes. There’s still that Empire sound to it.”

“Not that it’s commercial for the sake of it, it’s just the way some of the songs have come out,” continues Derek. “The songs are still very heavy, and some of them are actually a bit doomy…”

“…And some are a bit industrial,” adds the guitarist, tantalisingly. “When we’re writing now, everybody’s got the freedom to express themselves and we all really enjoy it. And we all really enjoy playing together as well.”

“And I think we’ve been really, really lucky in getting work,” says Derek. “We haven’t really had to go out there to get work, it’s come to us. Over the past couple of years we’ve done nearly seventy or eighty gigs. And we went down a storm in Europe also, and that was great.”  

The new album is tentatively titled ‘Hail The Empire’. You didn’t want to go with ‘The Empire Strikes Back’?, I suggest. Both laugh. “Well, we’ve got a song called ‘Hail The Empire’,” Sandy points out, “and thought that it would make a good title track.”

“We’ve played it live and it goes down well,” adds Derek.

Given that, in many people’s minds, the band will always be synonymous with ‘Soldiers Of war’, I wondered if there was a particular song that the band themselves would wish to be known for. “We’ve got a song on the new album called ‘Secrets’,” says Sandy. “I suppose it’s like Priest a bit but it’s more chuggy and everybody keeps going on about that one. It’s great to play live, and from the feedback we’ve had, everybody raves about it.”

And did they expect things to develop this way, back when they did Brofest? What were their expectations, when they took to the stage?

Sandy laughs. “I don’t think we really had any! But it was a lot of fun. The week before, we did a warm-up, and that was it. Brofest was quite a big experience for us, and a lot of the people we met there that day have stayed on board and come along for the ride with us.”

The band are already writing for their third album (“you’ve got to keep going, John, you know what I mean?” advises Derek) and are hoping to line up some European gigs in November. In the meantime, there’s just time for the Desert Island Challenge. If you were stranded on a desert island, and things got desperate, who would you eat first? Both laugh at the same time. “Well, it wouldn’t be Wayne,” Derek points out, “as there’s not much meat on him!”

“I’d probably eat Derek,” says Sandy.

“And I’d probably eat Sandy! Get a few meals out of each other!”

Satan’s Empire’s ‘Hail The Empire’ is due for release through on Dissonance on 11 October 2019