|In the beginning...
Onslaught was formed in 1983 in Bristol influenced heavily by the second generation of punk bands such as Discharge, The Exploited and GBH. Hardcore in nature, the music was simple and nihilistic, picking up on the disaffected zeitgeist. The band's earliest live performances hail from around this time and are the subject of some conjecture, although perceived wisdom records the band's first official gig at the Summit club in Kingswood, Bristol in late 1983. The original line up recorded only a single demo at Sam studios in Bristol and featured tracks such as Rape, Overthrow the System, and the very first rendition of Thermonuclear Devastation.
Personal issues saw the band employ a new vocalist and bassist with Roge Davies and Paul "Dickie" Davies taking on the respective roles. A series of support slots thereafter saw them opening for acts such as The Exploited, The Varukers and One Way System in Bristol. In addition the band performed a series of gigs around the rest of the UK. The second line up recorded a cassette-only release, What Lies Ahead, which included tracks such as Black Horse of Famine and Stone Divider.
Power From Hell
The band's new material began to take on a more metal edge, with the first wave of thrash releases proving influential to their songwriting style. The lineup shifted in 1984, with Paul "Mo" Mahoney joining the band on vocals and Jase Stallard taking over from Dick on bass. A deal was secured with underground label Children of the Revolution, and the band released its first album, Power From Hell, in 1985.
The album was well-received by the nascent thrash underground. Its muddy, buzzsaw guitars and Mo's proto-death metal vocals fitted the bill perfectly and the band began to attract attention from a wider audience. Power From Hell's material gave a more metallic edge to the band's early sound; the album contained a number of tracks that were to grow to become considered as thrash anthems, including the eponymous Onslaught (Power From Hell), Angels of Death and Death Metal (itself the subject of some conjecture - was this tune the first usage of this term anywhere? The jury is still out on that one…).
The Keeler Years
More gigs throughout the UK followed. In late 1985 the band was introduced to charismatic vocalist Sy Keeler, who quickly became the singer. Keeler's vocal style was much more metal than that of Mo, his trademark screams adding a new dimension to the group's old and new material. Mo assumed Jase's position on the bass; Jase moved to rhythm guitar.
The new songs were captured on vinyl on The Force. Recorded at Matrix studios in London by the band and Dave "Death" Pine, the album was released on Music For Nations' subsidiary label Under One Flag to an expectant public in the spring of 1986. It quickly gathered rave reviews throughout the underground and, increasingly, the mainstream metal press. From the first expectant chords of Let There Be Death, which give way to an all-out aural assault, through the unexpectedly catchy Metal Forces and to the initially brooding, later white-hot Flame of the Antichrist, the album elevated Onslaught to a new level. On the album's success the band were invited to play a number of prestigious support slots with Girlschool, Exciter and Anthrax; the Exciter gig warrants a mention as the band's late soundcheck provided an ideal opportunity for the ravenous crowd to warm up their stagediving skills!
All Hail The All-Dwarf Rhythm Section
Continental gigs followed, the band generating strong interest throughout the low countries in particular. Invited to play at 1986's Dynamo festival in Eindhoven, the band stole the show with a frantic performance in front of over 8000 thrashers.
Mo decided to leave the band in 1986 for personal reasons; bassist Jim Hinder was drafted in and joined in November. The band continued preparations for the third album and, in the intervening period, continued to play a number of shows, including The Granary in Bristol and a short tour of the Netherlands in early 1987.
In March of that year they were invited to join Motorhead as special guests on the European leg of their Orgasmatron world tour. Kicking off at the Volkshaus in Zurich, the band played with Motorhead throughout Europe; the tour included some standout performances in places such as Naples and Copenhagen before ending up at the Rockefeller in Oslo. Both bands gelled well on a personal level, the Onslaught boys learning about life on the road from the masters of the craft themselves.
Bigger Things On The Horizon
Returning to the UK, the band was asked to perform at the prestigious Colston Hall in Bristol, raising money for the local Bristol Community Festival. Despite prior warning from the band, the council refused to remove the front seats from the auditorium and considerable damage was done to the hall by the frenzied crowd, with a number of minor injuries resultant.
Shortly thereafter the band joined headliners Agent Steel, Nuclear Assault and Atomkraft at the Hammersmith Odeon in London for the midsummer Longest Day festival. Again, Onslaught put in a sterling performance, captured for posterity on the late Tommy Vance's Radio One Friday Rock Show. The gig featured the first outing of the AC/DC cover Let There Be Rock; Sy's teasing the crowd with a series of "Let There Be…"s, followed by a frenetic run-through of the AC/DC classic brought the Odeon to fever pitch.
Concerns had arisen around this time regarding Jase's guitar parts, and a decision was made in mid-1987 that he should no longer be in the band. A precedent of band members' dismissal for the sake of musical quality was established - one that would have an impact in the band's fortunes later.
Jase's replacement was Rob Trotman, whose fluid and eclectic guitar abilities had an immediate and extensive impact upon the band's direction. Rob's first outing on vinyl was a recording of the AC/DC cover unveiled at Hammersmith, released as a 12" single on Under One Flag.
Throughout the rest of 1987 the band continued to move forward with writing album three, titled provisionally Blood Upon The Ice. Bathory's usage of the same title saw the album's name change to In Search Of Sanity.
Sporadic gigs took place through 1987 and early 1988 - a late, steamy, packed show at the Venue in Glasgow, another outing at the Granary in Bristol whilst the October 1987 hurricane raged outside; perhaps the band's finest performances of this era came when they played three Irish shows - two in Dublin and one in Belfast - which redefined the nature of the crazy crowd!
It was also around this time that the band had been gathering the attention of a number of major labels - thrash was firmly in the ascendant at this time and Onslaught were the genre's leading exponents in the UK. It was not surprising when the band signed to London records in 1988.
The band began pre-production for In Search of Sanity in the summer of 1988 with producer Stephan Galfas (Stryper, Meatloaf), who set about facilitating the deconstruction and rebuilding of the band's material; whilst the members' individual performances improved dramatically as a result, there was no doubting that the spontaneity and energy of the earlier releases was being eroded by the process.
Recording took place in 1988 at West Side, Smokehouse and Eden studios in London - major label monies facilitating top-drawer studios at top-drawer rates…the album's budget overran. Mixed at Atlantic studios in New York, the result was a first-class power metal album that diverged considerably from the band's core roots.
It was now that the record label elected to intervene; on hearing the album, they declared that Keeler's vocals were not what they had been expecting. Sy's strengths were wholly under-utilised on the album - the material's early demos had been ferocious affairs, but Galfas' vision had diluted Keeler's innate aggression. London were insistent - in order to break into the league required to recoup the label's investment, a new singer would have to be found. For the second time, the band's lineup changed in less than pleasurable circumstances.
Step into the fold one Steve Grimmett, erstwhile vocalist with UK metallers Grim Reaper, who had been particularly successful in the USA. Sanity's vocals were reworked with Steve and the album remixed.
The new lineup released a single, Shellshock, in late 1988 to ubiquitously positive feedback from the press. Shortly thereafter a well-received brief UK tour saw the band joined by New York hardcore stars the Crumbsuckers and rising UK thrashers Slammer.
In Search Of Sanity
In Search of Sanity finally saw the light of day in the spring of 1989. The album's feel was much more polished, far more musically proficient, and it was received to universal acclaim from the metal press. It entered the UK national charts at 36 and peaked at number 1 in the specialist metal equivalent. The second single, a perhaps ill-conceived reworking of Let There Be Rock, charted in a similar manner at the same time and gained significant airplay.
However, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in some quarters. The improvement in sound quality has been achieved at the loss of the very rawness that gave the band its early success; despite Steve's undoubted talents (one of the very finest vocalists in any genre the UK ever having produced), was Onslaught without Sy really Onslaught?
That being said, the album boasted some killer tunes with the title track, the first single Shellshock and the epic Welcome to Dying standout moments.
The band's subsequent headline tour through Europe, with Annihilator on all and Horse (London) on the UK leg, was a patchy affair. There were some major highlights though, in particular the band's first sell-out headline London show at the Astoria and a headline at Bristol's Hippodrome theatre (the subject of an MTV Headbanger's Ball special). To this day, Onslaught remains the only act from Bristol to headline both the city's major auditoria (a feat which the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead have not yet emulated).
There was a certain sense of anticlimax at the tour's completion; despite all the hard work and expectation the band had failed to make the leap into the big time. Not even the belated release of Welcome…as the album's third single could prevent what happened shortly thereafter.
In the early part of 1990, Grimmett made the decision to leave the band, primarily for reasons personal. The band's search for a replacement led them to Tony O'Hora, whose energy and powerful voice injected the band with a new sense of purpose.
Writing for album four, provisionally entitled When Reason Sleeps, quickened; new tracks were demoed for London. However, the response by the label was underwhelming; shortly thereafter, they exercised their right not to renew the band's contract - the expenditure that it took to make the third album had made their financial position precarious and the winds of change throughout the world of metal (thrash was by now past its peak) made a future breakthrough album less likely.
The search for a new label took the band back out onto the road toward the end of 1990 with Dead On from the USA and Sy Keeler's band Mirror Mirror. The tour was well-received in some towns, less so in others; reviews were universally excellent. However, after the culminatory Bristol Bierkeller and London Marquee gigs, Hinder and Trotman both decided to leave Onslaught.
And so the band ceased to be in January 1991. Grice and Rockett went on to form Frankenstein, touring the UK with Saxon. Following that band's demise, Rockett played in a number of projects, including the Power Junkies. Grimmett enjoyed considerable success with Lionsheart, especially in Japan. Sy Keeler's Mirror Mirror continued for a while before folding. Tony O'Hora went on to front NWOBHM veterans Praying Mantis and, more recently, glam uber-veterans The Sweet!
Onslaught, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise from local punks to the edge of something big, faded gently into the collective unconsciousness…
A New Beginning
Until Grice and Rockett, who had remained friends, were enjoying a pint in their local in October 2004. Steve complained to Nige that Power From Hell had been re-released without the band's knowledge or permission; this information gave the pair an inkling that there might still be some interest in the band's fortunes…
…and so Grice, who had also remained good pals with Hinder, called his diminutive mate and asked him if, by any wild possibility, he might consider picking up the bass again. A surprise visit to Sy Keeler's place of work by Steve and a fervent "yes" from the singer saw the four original members sitting around a pub table together for the first time in over fifteen years.
First rehearsal came. The kit was borrowed and not good. Striking the first chord, it was apparent just how much effort this was going to take! Limping through Metal Forces and Shellshock, Onslaught played together again. And everyone was smiling…
It was apparent as the weeks rolled on that a guitar wiz was required to fill Rob's considerable shoes…step forward former Mirror Mirror man Alan Jordan, Welsh wizard and thoroughly likeable guy. The formula was complete - all that was needed was time and effort.
Lots and lots and lots of work later we're here at the end of 2005. A new album's almost there. The songs are, in everyone's opinions, the equivalent in quality, if not better than, the first two albums. No hint of compromise in these tunes - dark, brutal, ferocious, uncompromising metal. The web forum has seen a gratifyingly brisk exchange of messages, for which the band are sincerely grateful. And gigs are in the pipeline - the first Onslaught headline show since 1990 will be at the Fleece in Bristol on Friday 25th November 2005; Saturday 17th December sees the band support Exodus at the X-Mass festival in Tilburg at the 013 club; the following night the band appear on the same bill at Antwerp Hof Ter Loo.
And where do we go from here? The new album should be with us in 2nd quarter 2006. No doubt it will be accompanied by gigs…Onslaught are back in business and there's no guessing as to where things might end up. Stick around…you might just enjoy it.