I came across Derek Neibarger’s work one evening by accident. I was just looking at random Metal stuff on Bandcamp. Atomic Zombie Records is one of those names you just have no choice but to check out. Derek is involved in no less than eight solo projects, which all showcase his love of Slayer, as well as his appreciation for Heavy Metal as an art form. Derek’s Death Metal has an almost festive disposition, emitting a rabble of happy hostility. Now, I don’t say this because it is happy music, I say it because the music makes me happy! It is honest, and modest, and heavy as fuck.
Derek and I had a really great chat about some of his influences, and the state of current main stream Metal. Great shit, all around, and thanks so much to Derek for hanging out.
Have a read, listen to some tunes, and then go check out Atomic Zombie Records. You will not be sorry.
VUK: Alright, Derek. Let’s do this, brother!
The day I approached you to do this was the 8th anniversary of Jeff Hanneman’s death. I know you’re a huge Slayer fan, so I’m not surprised that you picked a Slayer record to chat about first. Tell me about how “Hell Awaits” came into your life.
Derek Neibarger (DN): I was introduced to Slayer by a friend, Timothy, when I was fifteen. At that age, we were deep into the discovery phase of Metal. We’d been lured in by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and we were always looking for the next heaviest thing.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything heavier than Metallica or Anthrax, but I was about to be enlightened. Timothy had bought “Hell Awaits” on vinyl, and he was dying to play it for me. I’m pretty sure I gave him exactly the reaction he was hoping for, since my jaw was on the floor.
I’d never heard anything that fast, aggressive, raw, and unapologetically evil. I drove straight from Timothy’s house to the record store, bought my own copy of “Hell Awaits,” and spent the rest of the weekend listening to it over and over while I read the lyrics and wondered what my parents’ reaction would be if they saw that album cover.
My Dad was an ex-Marine drill sergeant, fairly conservative but tolerant to a point. My Mom was liberal, agnostic, a kind and gentle soul, but I had yet to test her open mindedness with something as shocking as some guy screaming about necrophilia over music that sounded like it could be echoes from the pits of hell. I didn’t hide the album from them, but I didn’t announce it either. My Mom eventually came across it while dusting in my room. She picked it up, read the title and studied the artwork for a moment, then looked at me (pretending to be reading comic books and definitely not nervously watching her every move) and said my name in that tone reserved for teenagers who fart at the dinner table. Then my Mom wiped her dust cloth over the depiction of souls being tortured in hell, sat the album back where she found it and went about her day. I was relieved, but not really surprised. My Mom was simply awesome.
VUK: I was a couple years younger than you in ’85. In fact, it wasn’t until ’86 that I started listening to anything remotely extreme. “Master of Puppets” and “Peace Sells…” did me in, but anything heavier than that terrified the shit out of me! Haha! Your Mom was much cooler than I was about Slayer. I didn’t warm up to them until “God Hates Us All” came out. By then… Slayer’s image wasn’t as off-putting to me. Did “Hell Awaits” completely change your approach to making music?
DN: Hearing Slayer for the first time changed everything about music for me, from how I heard it to how I created it. It made me realize that I’d only scratched the surface of what the Metal genre had to offer. “Hell Awaits” showed me how going against the obvious progression of melody, like coloring outside the lines, could completely change the feel of a riff or song. I could create a tension in the music that was darker and more ominous. “Hell Awaits” just sounded evil as fuck, and that really appealed to me as listener and as a songwriter. If you were to listen to everything I’ve written over the past 36 years, you could find countless examples of that album’s influence in the way I construct riffs and song structures, regardless of the genre I’m working within.
VUK: The first album of yours that I listened to was Godless Angel’s “Harvester Of Shadows,” and I remember thinking almost right away “this guy has to be a Slayer fan!” It was most evident to me at the time in your lead guitar work, but having heard more of your material since (particularly the Wretched Spawn albums), that influence is more obvious on the rhythm guitar and drum parts. Vocally, I’d say especially on your last two releases (F29, and The 8th Window), is more wide-ranging. Everything from Death Metal, to Black Metal, to more traditional Heavy Metal. Mixing Araya with Rutan, perhaps? Maybe a little Dickinson and Halford?
DN: Like most metalheads, I’m a fan of several subgenres. One of the great benefits of having a home studio is that I can do a wide variety of recording projects, with no pressure from deadlines or budget constraints. I spent nearly two years making The 8th Window EP, but just four months making the F29 album. I’m always writing/recording, and I currently have three EPs that are nearing completion: Gore Stained, Morbid Zombie, and a new Slayer inspired project called Nuclear Abyss.
I didn’t begin using screamed/growled vocals until 2012, when I launched Godless Angel. I drew inspiration from vocalists like Araya, George Fisher, Randy Blythe, and Joe Duplantier. I’m drawn to screamed vocals with good annunciation and varied pitch. Prior to 2012, I only did clean singing and I was heavily influenced by the 80s metal vocalists that I idolized as a teenager. One of my earliest influences, and one that still inspires me nearly four decades later, was Rob Halford. For me, he was the quintessential Heavy Metal vocalist, and Judas Priest’s “Defenders of the Faith” was the musical blueprint that, as a young songwriter, I would refer to again and again.
VUK: Halford has always been amazing. The one and only time I saw Priest was in ‘91. The Painkiller tour with Megadeth and Testament opening. Those were tough acts to follow, I thought at the time. But the moment Halford came rolling out on a Harley from behind a wall of Marshall’s… holy shit! Life changing! That was probably the first time I ever heard “The Sentinel.” Haha!
DN: “The Sentinel” is my favorite Priest song, and it’s a perfect example of what makes “Defenders” such a fantastic metal album. Priest was firing on all cylinders as a band and as songwriters, finding that perfect balance of heavy and melodic. I had been playing bass and writing (awful) songs for only a few months when this album was released (I was thirteen), and it became my blueprint for how to construct a song. I had plenty of (mostly awful) ideas for riffs, but “Defenders” taught me how to rearrange those riffs into intros, verses, pre-choruses, choruses, bridges, and how to create dynamic vocal melodies. Having that template was a big turning point for me as a young songwriter, and I’ve been expanding on that foundation ever since.
VUK: One album that has stuck with me in a similar way, one which I refer back to time and time again. Alice In Chains first record, “Facelift.” I saw them tour for that album, back in 1990, playing at a tiny club in Toledo. Mind Blowing! An interesting contrast, as I saw Priest around the same time.
DN: The first I saw Alice In Chains was with Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. That was a killer show!
VUK: All bands that seem to have transcended typical genre cliches and will still stick out ten/twenty years from now. What bands nowadays, do you think, rank up there with Alice In Chains, Priest, and Slayer?
DN: I’m 51 now, and I have to admit that I don’t keep up with new bands like I used to. Sometimes it seems like you blink and ten new subgenres have been created. I’ve heard for years that Gojira is the next big metal band, and with “Fortitude” I have to agree to that. There’s something special about them. I also love Nervosa, Crypta, and Plague Years, but I’m not sure that they’re transcending their respective genres so much as breathing new life into them. Todd La Torre (Queensryche) released a fantastic solo album this year which I think really bridges the gap from Progressive Metal of the 80s to now. I think we could be in for some truly excellent and timeless music from him if he continues down that path. Jinjer is another band that’s creating really exciting music right now.
But will we have another Slayer? A band that blends genres in a way that forges a new sound and influences generations of metal musicians? That’s a pretty big ask, especially at a time when there seems to be no shortage of insanely talented bands who are pushing the boundaries of the genre. It’s an exciting time to be a metal fan, but a challenging time to be a metal musician looking to stand out in the crowd.
VUK: I agree with you on Jinjer and Gojira, for sure. We’re always on the lookout for the “next big thing,” I suppose. I think it works in cycles. Every ten years or so, a band just resonates with the world. I think Lamb of God holds the torch pretty well. Amon Amarth as well. But there is SO much in the underground that’s just brilliant. Metal is an ever-revolving door of excellence. Never a shortage.
DN: I think it’s awesome that bands like Gojira and Lamb of God can achieve the level of success that they have. You could argue that they’ve done so by incorporating things like clean singing, but at their core, both of those bands are still pretty damn heavy. And they’re great entry points for people to get into metal. Speaking of Jinjer, their new single, “Vortex,” is seriously good!
VUK: Agreed! So, tell me what’s coming up for you the rest of the year, man. Any plans to get a full band together maybe? Do some shows?
DN: I don’t have any plans to perform live, yet, but I do have a lot of new music in the works. I just finished a new Morbid Zombie EP, and I’m close to completing a second Gore Stained EP. I also have a new side project called Nuclear Abyss, which was directly inspired by 80’s era Slayer, and I’m hoping to release that EP this year as well.
Last November, I released an instrumental Godless Angel track called “Intermission.” Those ten minutes of music were actually just part of a bigger Godless song called “Wolves,” and there’s another eighteen minutes of music that I didn’t share. I shelved the original EP because I had too many ongoing projects and I didn’t feel like I could give it the attention it needed. But it’s simply too cool of a song to just let gather dust, so I’ve resumed work on “Wolves” as the next Godless Angel release. Unfortunately, I don’t have a time frame for that one, because it’s a pretty ambitious concept, and I’m going to take my time and make sure I do it justice.
And lastly, I’m working on a batch of new songs that will most likely be a second F29 album. It’s funny, F29 was never intended to be more than one song, which I hadn’t even planned on releasing, but I ended up writing/recording a full album. It was really well received, and I was content to leave it at that and move on. But it’s pretty obvious that these new songs are coming from that mental and emotional place as the first batch of F29 songs. They have that dark, Doom/Groove vibe. The first F29 album only took about four months to record and release, which is really fast for me, and I’m hoping for a similar time frame with the second release.
I finally reorganized my home studio earlier this year, and it’s what I’ve dreamed of since I was a teenager. I have everything I need; electric and bass guitars, acoustics, keyboards, a fully mic’d drum kit, even a mandolin, banjo, and lap steel. Now it’s just a matter of finding the time to work on my growing list of musical endeavors.