By Ray Shasho
Al Atkins is best known for originating Birmingham, England’s heavy metal band Judas Priest in 1969. Atkins was lead singer of Priest until 1973. It was Atkins who named the band after the Bob Dylan tune, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.”
Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi managed the early Judas Priest, landing the band higher profile gigs, even playing with Black Sabbath. But the group struggled financially and still hadn’t landed a record deal. Al Atkins had a young daughter to support, so in 1973 he relinquished his duties as Priest’s frontman and landed a regular 9 to 5 job. Rob Halford replaced Atkins.
In 1974, Judas Priest released their debut album, Rocka Rolla. The album was produced by Black Sabbath’s Rodger Bain and Halford sang many of the tunes originally penned by Al Atkins.
Judas Priest has sold over 50-million albums and continues to sellout stadiums and arenas worldwide. Priest’s notoriety has since earned them the nickname “Metal Gods.”
Al Atkins has recently joined forces with internationally acclaimed guitar virtuoso, songwriter, and producer Paul May to form the Atkins May Project. Paul May has appeared on over 50 albums.
The Atkins May Project recently released a preeminent prog-metal proclamation called, Serpents Kiss. One of the most surprising tracks on the CD is an incredible metal version of “Cold Gin” by Kiss.
The CD is an awesome amalgam of exceptional songwriting, predominate vocalization, and mind-blowing guitar licks, the dynamic metal duo of Atkins and May scores huge on Serpents Kiss.
I had the opportunity last week to chat with Al Atkins and Paul May about their recent collaboration.
Ray Shasho: Thank you both for chatting with me today about the Atkins/May Project. Would you say, ‘Serpents Kiss’ is classified as a prog metal album?
Al Atkins:“I think the opening track, “The Shallowing” and the last one, “Theatre of Fools” are very much like prog metal but the album twists and turns from hard hitting rock like the, “Fight” track to more modern sounding metal with each song.”
Ray Shasho: When would you say prog metal music first originated?
Al Atkins: “It's been around for a while but came to life in the 90's with bands like Dream Theatre and Queensryche, some people may argue with me but even some Metallica songs are very prog metal.”
Ray Shasho: Who were the pioneers of the genre?
Al Atkins: “Probably 'Cream' who fused jazz, blues and rock together and took the road away from short pop songs to 15 minute adlib solo epics. Even Judas Priest were classed as a prog rock or hard rock band in the early 70's with my style of writing with songs like, “Caviar and Meths” which was a very long track and sadly only a very short piece of it made their first album, 'Rocka Rolla'.”
Ray Shasho: Unfortunately, dance, hip-hop, and country music are the nucleus of American music nowadays. Many experts are considering rock and roll a subgenre, much like jazz was in the 60’s. Would you say the Atkins/May Project is sort of a statement suggesting that prog metal is alive and well?
Al Atkins: “I think the trouble with metal music is that it has taken a lot of different avenues over the years with being such a progressive animal that it is, like how fast can I play it, how high can I sing it, Black Metal , Death Metal,Grunge, Goth, Power, Prog, call it what you want and all the kids like their own styles. It's never happened with Melodic Rock, Country, Jazz or Blues music so it all gets split up and eventually it will maybe become a subgenre. The main core of metal to me is still old school like Sabbath, Maiden,Motorhead, AC/DC and Priest style bands which is a path Paul and myself follow down and try to keep the flag flying sort to speak.”
Ray Shasho: ‘Serpents Kiss’ has an awesome album cover, what does the serpent represent?
Al Atkins: “The serpent represents the English pound sign and was created by the artist Rodney Matthews. Paul commissioned him to do it with the word 'Betrayal ' in mind. (This is what Rodney has to say about it) ......“Money has become the God of the city of London and the shining towers, cathedrals of Mammon,'Serpents Kiss' is my own take on the essence of betrayal, selfishness and lies.” Rodney has done artwork for many bands going back years and you can check out more of this talented artist by visiting www.rodneymatthews.com."
Ray Shasho: Al, you’ve got the perfect voice for singing, “Cold Gin.” Awesome cover tune and you guys nailed it! Has Gene Simmons heard your version yet?
Al Atkins: “Not to my Knowledge??”
Ray Shasho: Have you received feedback from the KISS Army yet?
Al Atkins: “Yes we had a great response from them.”
Ray Shasho: Who selected the song for the album? I think your version is great!
Al Atkins: “Well thanks Ray. I suggested to Paul that we should feature a cover song and he came up with, “Cold Gin.” Paul having been a massive fan of theirs over the years I half expected it.....he did a great job on the arrangement and a cool middle eight solo section. It gets more air play than any other song on the album so it was a good move.”
Ray Shasho: Birmingham, England is such an important hub for musicians, especially rock music. Why do so many important artists hail from Birmingham?
Al Atkins: “Black Sabbath started the metal scene off in Birmingham and bands like Judas Priest followed, Robert Plant teamed up with Jimmy Page to form Led Zep and the floodgates opened......Birmingham and the Black Country were Industrial areas in the UK and a lot of families struggled to make a living and this heavy, loud music was a way of letting out your demons and feelings.(You will never see an old photo of Black Country bands sitting under palm trees playing acoustic guitars with flowery shirts) It was also a way to make money ....it was like....playing music or working the foundries or down the mines.”
Ray Shasho: Do you regret leaving Judas Priest?
Al Atkins: “I was the only one in the band that was married with a kid to feed and without a record deal and the backing we needed I just couldn't survive anymore so I decided to get a haircut and a 9 to 5 job. Yes I did regret it but was happy for them to eventually get that deal and climb the ladder to succeed and they much deserved it.”
Ray Shasho: What would have been different with Judas Priest if you were still in the band?
Al Atkins: “Well when Rob came in he took them to another level with his style of high range vocals and then stepped in Glenn to add that harmony impact on guitars, both were writers too so they made their own mark and a great job too....if I would have stayed with them we may have taken a different road? Maybe more like AC/DC but that's not a bad thing is it? (A lot of your readers will disagree? LOL)”
Ray Shasho: Do you still keep in touch with your fellow band mates?
Al Atkins: “Yes especially with Ian who I met just last month after being invited to his Birthday Bash.”
Ray Shasho: When did your friendship with Robert Plant first begin?
Al Atkins: “Robert and myself are both more or less the same age and was both born in West Bromwich, a town just outside Birmingham. We drank in the same pubs and would always talk about music...we once played on the same bill, he was with 'The Band of Joy' and I was in the 'Bitta Sweet' it was around 67'. A year later teamed up with Jimmy Page and formed 'Led Zep' and I formed 'Judas Priest' in 69' ....returning from a successful first tour of USA he came to watch me and Priest at a local venue and it was great to see him later hit the big time.”
Ray Shasho: I haven’t interviewed Robert yet but I’ve heard from other artists that he’s a great guy?
Al Atkins: “I don't see him anymore and thought he would have forgotten me after all these years but when I wrote to him for a photo of his old band for a book I was writing (Dawn of the Metal Gods) he willingly obliged and wished me all the best with it (top bloke).”
Ray Shasho: Are you friends with Tony Iommi? Do you know how he’s doing? …We all wish him the best!
Al Atkins: “Tony managed the early 'Judas Priest' around 73' getting us some higher profile gigs, even with us playing with Black Sabbath but alas I don't see him anymore. Sad news on his cancer scare and I wish him all the best with a hopefully speedy recovery too.”
Ray Shasho: Who were your favorite artists growing up?
Al Atkins: “'Cream', Pink Floyd’,'Quatermass' Black Sabbath', 'Deep Purple' Led Zep'...so many.”
Ray Shasho: What inspired you to sing metal?
Al Atkins: “Watching 'Deep Purple' at a 'Marshall Amplification Exhibition' in 68'… Ian Gillan’s vocals totally blew me away.”
Ray Shasho: Do you think rock and metal can regain the popularity it once had in America?
Al Atkins: “Hopefully, they say what goes round comes round?”
Ray Shasho: A metal voice has to be difficult to sustain. How do you keep your voice so strong?
Al Atkins: “Well I stopped smoking 20 years ago and I think that helped, but your voice changes over the years and now mine is like a screaming growl.”
Ray Shasho: What other projects are in the works? Other collaborations,concert dates?
Al Atkins: “I am currently working with USA guitarist Andy Degiselmina on a metal opera called 'Lyraka 2' which will be released at the end of this year. Other vocalists on board this project are Liz Vandal (Uli John Roth), Rob Diaz, Mark Boals (Ywangi Malmsteen), Graham Bonnet and Veronica Freeman (Benedictum). So I’m very privileged indeed to be named in the same breath has these top artists....Also Paul and myself are putting together a live band for some shows this year, so really looking forward to a great 2012.”
Ray Shasho: Paul, how did you know collaborating with Al Atkins was a good idea?
Paul May: “I’ve had the privilege working with Al over the past twenty years or more. I played guitar, wrote and produced alongside him on all five of his solo albums: namely “Judgment Day,” “Dreams of Avalon,” “Heavy Thoughts,” “Victim of Changes,” and guested on “Demon Deceiver.” So, we both kind of know how each other “tick” so to speak, and are aware of each other’s skills and abilities. I personally think that Al’s voice has actually got stronger and more powerful as the years have gone by which proved perfect for the new, “Serpents Kiss” album.”
Ray Shasho: When did you both first meet and start working together?
Paul May: “I was first introduced to Al at a local gig that I was playing at in West Bromwich, (Black Country). We hit it off pretty much immediately, and he asked me to play on some demo tracks he had written at that time. Those songs eventually evolved into the tracks that would be used for his first solo album. And onwards it went from there really.”
Ray Shasho: Talk about the origin behind writing, “Dream Maker,” and “Signz.” Great tunes!
Paul May: “Cheers, thanks for that! “Dream Maker” was the original contender for the opening track on the “Serpents Kiss”album. One of my personal favorites. I think lyrically it’s fairly blatant in its content, in as much as, it’s a modern day Psalm and Prayer that’s calling on God for a plan and purpose, the guts to see it through and for deliverance from the darkest trials that we may face. As far as the feel of the song goes, I wanted it to have that kind of “Classic” Hard Rock sound like old school metal. I think I got that.”
“Funnily enough, “Signz” was originally meant to be the second track on the album, and was originally a track intended for my band A.N.D co-written with another good pal of mine Dave Rowley who now fronts that band! You picked up on a song with a more serious edge to it! It’s actually a warning to test and weigh what we hear and see nowadays and not get ‘suckered’ in by every wave of false doctrine that we constantly get bombarded with on TV! Classic Hard Rock style in its delivery with some Chunky guitars and class vocals from Al.”
Ray Shasho: Paul, talk about the origin behind writing, “Judge,” and “Betta Than Twisted.”
Paul May: “I wrote, “Judge” in the very interesting time signature of 7/8, which gives it that sense of urgency. Classic NWOBHM style with a twist! It’s an obvious Christian Track! However, “Betta than Twisted” is a much darker and sinister affair. It’s about the betrayal of trust, the malice that is inflicted from that bitterness and the legend that is created when that story is embellished and retold over and over until the lies become ‘truth’ in a twisted mind! Ha, not for the faint hearted! But apart from that it’s a commercial rocker with a good riff! Lol.”
Ray Shasho: “Theatre of Fools” is such a great song! I could easily hear the song being played as a soundtrack for a movie. (Long track) Awesome guitars … What inspired the song? It’s my favorite track of the album!
Paul May: “Yes, “Theatre of Fools” is my favorite track too for several different reasons. It is a big track no doubt, clocking in just under 9 minutes!! It’s a very passionate song, in many ways, and covers a very emotive and controversial subject! Musically, there’s loads of light and dark elements, building continually as the song progresses. When all of the elements of the song were put together in my studio, even the rough mix made the hairs stand up on my arm! Al’s vocals were fabulous and exactly as they should be and the whole atmosphere of the track left us in no doubt that this had to be the finishing track on the album! It does retain all the qualities of an “epic” soundtrack, which is in keeping with the huge subject matter it tries to communicate. Which, in retrospect, was quite “prophetic” in its nature.”
“It’s a song about dictators, tyrants and the fall of their regimes! It was written with the Iraq situation and conclusion still fresh in the public’s heart and the media’s eye, but I just felt that there was much more to come. And sure enough this proved to be true! Even over the past twelve months or so we’ve seen the further demise of several tyrants and world dictatorships! The song tells about the role of madness that causes devastation, by men who try to act like they are "gods", with their only eventuality being their own destruction! Sadly, it’s still happening as we talk! I pose the question in the middle of the song “Have all the heroes been honored now?” ..... Let’s not forget!!! So, basically this track had to be huge to cover such a subject. It’s my vote for best track on the album. Mine too! Cheers Ray!”
Ray Shasho: Paul, you are a genuine guitar virtuoso. What artists inspired you into playing the guitar?
Paul May: “Wow, I loved so many ... Believe it or not the artists that inspired me to get up and do it weren’t really guitar heroes!! Elvis, Bolan, Slade!! But as I was learning guitar the likes of Clapton and Hendrix were obviously essential listening and inspiration! Boston & Thin Lizzy for their harmony lead work, Black Sabbath for their amazing riffs and Motorhead for their raw edge! Kiss for their commercial rock ’n’ roll, Eagles .... the list is just way too long!!!”
Ray Shasho: What artists do you like to listen to today?
Paul May: “Massively varied, as I love to play all types of music, and produce many different styles! I’m actually enjoying listening to everything from Biffy Clyro to Alison Krauss ... from Adele to AC/DC at the moment. I recently caught live Jools Holland (Fab pianist) and the legendary Deep Purple! Old school but very cool!”
Ray Shasho: I noticed you play Warrior guitars, are they your favorite guitars to play and why?
Paul May: “For many years I used Gibson, Steinberger and Fender ... which are all great tried and tested guitars! Particularly the Steinberger’s, But I was looking for something a little different and special. I was actually at the NAMM show in Anaheim LA and I’d been looking around at literally thousands of guitars and couldn’t find what I was looking for. I stumbled across the Warrior stall. I checked out their guitars on show and instantly fell in love with the prototype they had on display. I spoke with JD the maker to see if we could cut an endorsement deal and he was very kind to me and allowed me to buy his prototype. I found out that he himself was a Christian and he had the desire to make the best guitars the world had to offer! He not only made these superb guitars but he actually put his faith in action too, which at the time was very important to me. The guitars are all unique and custom made and I would recommend them to all! And some of the people at warrior have become good friends Bobby and JD both sound guys!!”
Ray Shasho: I believe Rick Derringer plays Warrior too, he lives down the road from me here in Bradenton, Florida.
Paul May: “Yes, Ricks got his own Warrior Model guitar, another fab guitarist I used to listen to in my early years!! Be great to catch up with him and have a Jam at the NAMM for Warrior! Now that would be cool!!”
Ray Shasho: How was Christian Metal first received?
Paul May: “I’ve actually had the privilege of meeting many of the ground breaking Christian Metal artists the likes of Glen Kaiser, Michael Sweet, Oz Fox, Michael Bloodgood, Ted Kirkpatrick etc via a ministry weekend that I Pastored on behalf of Meltdown Ministry here in the UK for several years, and they are all great musicians and vocalists! Really! However they are the cream of the crop! and other Christian Metal artists, particularly here in the UK were possibly not as accomplished as they were the majority of the time, even though they were sincere! So, for the out and out rockers that appreciated good metal they accepted the Christian genre regardless, but for others that were used to hearing pretty much dark lyrics about dark things it was a bit of a shock and they even found it offensive!! Lol!”
Ray Shasho: Paul, what other projects are in the works? Collaborations, Producing, concert tours?
Paul May: “Well, I’m already currently writing and recording for the next ATKINS MAY PROJECT album which is lot heavier than the last CD, and hopefully going to be collaborating with Al on some of the tracks too! Both of my other bands Temple Dogs and A.N.D are intending to release new albums this year, Temple dogs being a rock n roll affair, no guitar hero stuff on that, and A.N.D is a more metal encounter! I have a couple of things I need to produce and record too and Al and myself are in the process of putting a band together for some live dates ... looking forward to that one.”
Ray Shasho: Al and Paul thank you so much for spending time with me today. ‘Serpents Kiss’ is a great metal album; I look forward to many more Atkins/May collaborations in the near future.
Al Atkins: “Big thanks Ray!”
Paul May: “Cheers Ray, take care man!”
Atkins May Project official website www.atkinsmayproject.com
Order the Atkins May Project’s latest CD ‘Serpents Kiss’ at www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8611575
Al Atkins official website www.alatkins.com
Paul May official website www.paulmay.biz
Many thanks to the great Billy James of Glass Onyon Publicity for arranging this interview.
Official website www.glassonyonpublicity.wordpress.com
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Pacific Book Review says… I found Check the Gs to be pure entertainment, fantastic fun and a catalyst to igniting so many memories of my own life, as I too am within a few years of Ray. So to all, I say if you have a bit of grey hair (or no hair), buy this book! It’s a great gift for your “over-the-hill” friends, or for their kids, if they are the history buffs of younger generations trying to figure out why we are the way we are. ~~Pacific Book Review
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