Valkyrie Rising

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Her laugh is infectious, her spirit is addictive, and her stage presence is second to none. The person to whom I refer is Veronica Freeman, a heavy metal icon and an incredibly powerful singer that deserves far wider recognition than she’s gotten, as does her band, U.S. traditional metallers Benedictum. Witnessing Benedictum bring the house down at the 2007 edition of Chicago PowerFest in support of debut album Uncreation was by far the most pleasant surprise of that weekend and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sophomore release Seasons of Tragedy was a keeper as well, not to mention a musical progression, but new album Dominion on new label Frontiers (after the demise of Locomotive) may be the best, most complete album this band has ever recorded. Better production and, on balance, a more aggressive approach meet even bigger hooks and a level jump in songwriting dynamics. Between those elements, co-founder Pete Well’s ace guitar work, and a mighty roar from Freeman that you’ll never forget, Dominion is the album that may finally get Benedictum a higher level of exposure in North America. I truly hope that’s not just wishful thinking on my part either. Freeman was a joy the last time we spoke for a Metal Maniacs (R.I.P.) article a few years back and that didn’t change one iota with this conversation.

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Big Valentine’s Day plans?

I have no Valentine’s Day plans, but someone better have some Valentine’s Day plans or there is going to be a Valentine’s Day massacre! [laughs]

I was jamming Dominion yesterday and what really struck me about this one compared to  Seasons of Tragedy in particular is the high degree of asskickery involved. It’s so in your face!

[Laughs] Asskickery! I have to remember that one. Yeah, you know what? I agree with you as far there being a little more aggression in there. We’ve been through hell and I was really pissed off [laughs]. But you do like it? I’ve been asking everybody.

Oh hell yes! There isn’t anything on here that I don’t like. I think it’s a more consistent album than Seasons of Tragedy and I like that one too; it’s not a question of good or bad, just a preference for the new one. The whole thing just works really well in the sense of flow and cohesion.

Thank you. You know what’s the weirdest thing about this album is that… And this is a good thing. I think that the reaction you’re getting is the same one that we’re getting a lot more from the U.S. this time. I was a little nervous about this one because of a different producer and everything. To me it sounds different too, but then after you hear it enough times it still sounds like Benedictum.

Well, Ryan Greene’s [Megadeth, 5, NOFX] production gives this one a lot of low end beef and the drums sound more powerful.

Cool. I just talked to Ryan last night and I want to definitely mention his contribution to this thing. It was very different working with him on this one, Scott, but it was very cool. We took a little while to get the ball rolling, but it was really a joy to work with him. We used the song “Dominion” as kind of a trial run because we wanted to make sure everything was going to go smoothly and it did and we were really excited because it sounded so different. When we first heard the way “Dominion” came out, and we hadn’t even gotten to the mastering point, we knew that we were going to go down this road with Ryan. It was even more different than it is now. We had a different mix initially that had even a little bit of an industrial thing going on, so we kind of dialed that back a little bit. It’s very interesting. His approach was a lot different and, you’re right, he wanted to get more of that bottom end in there.

When jamming it in my car stereo I had to actually lower the bass level a notch because it was battering my woofers.

[Laughs] Yeah, and that was dialed back because we realized that and it was like “whoa!” We sat down and talked about a general direction. I know he had his vision and he’s very strong about his vision, and I didn’t want to go too far one way so people would still know it’s Benedictum. And his take on it to me was “If you’re in it, then it’s Benedictum.” But my take on it is that we could end up with something that was way different. So we kind of went back and forth, but in a very creative way and a lot of stuff was done on the way there, creating melody lines and stuff. It was quite the journey. I remember one of the first mixes we got back and we gave it the stereo test – you know home, car, and that sort of thing – and it was like “Damn! We need to dial this down just a little bit!” [Laughs].

The song that really exemplifies the aggression and the beef and is just an outstanding Benedictum anthem is “Bang.”

Thank you! I can’t wait to take that one to the gym!

That line in the opening verse, “If I’m going down it’s with my fist in the air” is just enormous and inspiring!

That means a lot to me because I had that in my head for two years. I’ll write melodies and lyrics, but I usually don’t really do any of the music. But this one I heard in my head so finally at rehearsal I was trying to explain what I wanted to do and I hummed out the bass line and stuff and they picked it up from there. So it was kind of fun to have a little more input on that song as well. I wanted to give this one a shot and I’m really glad that a lot of people really seem to be resonating with it; that was the whole point.

Who are you speaking about in the lyrics to “Bang?”

I call it the non-prom song [laughs]. It is for all those that didn’t get to go to the prom, for all of those that weren’t the most popular ones, for all of those that maybe were a little overweight or underweight or weren’t the top picks. You know what I mean? Like people thought you were weird or didn’t quite fit. It is for all of those and for all the people that just struggle accepting themselves and being in a society where you’re either supposed to look like this or look like that or be a certain way, so if I’m going down it’s with my fist in the air. I can’t make everybody happy and there have been a lot of times where I’ve struggled with things like weight or people telling me I should sound a certain way or that sort of thing and just in life where people can be deceptive or misleading, especially in this business. Anybody that’s ever picked up an instrument or sang a song in any professional manner will know that it’s a business and it has a shady reputation for a reason. There are a lot of people out there that aren’t in it for the love of the music. Sure everybody wants to make money and I don’t begrudge anyone that; it’s just the overt lying and behavior that you never get used to. It’s hard! And sometimes I just get mad! [laughs]

That misfit, against the world mentality really sums up a lot of the lifelong metalheads in this community, those that forge ahead no matter the trends or lack of acceptance by the masses.

Oh yeah, I know what you mean. There was a point where even some of my closest friends – and they were always down with it and everything though – were like “oh you sing that kind of thing.” Or I’d say in different places where I’ve worked over the years that I was in a band and everybody kind of perks up like “Oh, you’re a musician? You’re in a band?” And the question that follows is what kind of music.  Then when you say “metal,” the look on the faces of let’s say 75 percent of the people would be that “Oh” look. It just kind of cracks me up, but it’s all good and there is room at the table for everything.

Rudy Sarzo [Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne] guests on the song too.

Yeah, he does. What a sweetheart that man is. He was really busy, but he was so cool about doing it. It was awesome.

What song does Craig Goldy [Dio, Rough Cutt, Giuffria] play on?

He plays on “Epsilon,” that big long song [laughs]. The song where you can go do the dishes, come back, and it’ll still be going [laughs]. He plays the second guitar solo on that one.

And Jeff Pilson [Dokken, Dio, Foreigner, etc]?

He played on a bonus acoustic track called “Sanctuary.” I think of all of the songs that one was the most difficult. For me it’s easier just to belt out that guttural, grinding stuff than it is to sing softer [laughs]. So I get more nervous about sitting down and doing that kind of thing, but it was cool having him sit down and sing with me on that one. It was a special time.

There are many great songs on here, including a title track that is quintessential Benedictum and comes with a great hook, but I keep coming back to the in-your-face material, like “Grind It.” You’ve got to tell me about that one.

More than anything that’s one of those “I’ve been screwed over and I don’t like you anymore” songs [laughs].

Imagine that.

[Laughs] You said what to me?! “Stabbed in the back by the knife you will, you will never know just how this feels.” Maybe we should just call it the bitter bitch album [laughs]. What a great vehicle to express some of your angst; it’s just amazing.

Just prior to listening to Dominion I had just found an old vinyl copy of Rush’s 2112 and then see that you recorded a bonus track cover of “Overture/Temples of Syrinx” and was blown away with your interpretation. It’s another tough cookie of a song on an album full of them. Was it intimidating to think that’d you’d be singing something that Geddy Lee sung when he was at the top of his range? How did you arrive at the choice?

I was talking to Ryan Greene about this the other day. He’s also a drummer.  We were talking about our tradition of including cover songs. I had wanted to do something by Rush, but it was almost a joke. And he said “Hell yeah!” and he got this idea to do “Temples of Syrinx” and I’m like “Uh, yeah? Really?” [Laughs]. But then when it came down to actually doing it, it was like so much fun! I think that everybody was a little freaked out by it, but they really, really stepped up the game. We didn’t want to throw it out there and have it be half-assed, especially a Rush song. We walked into that knowing that Rush fans – and I’m one of them – are their own breed. I always wanted to do that and to be able to do it was kind of a little personal, fun thing for me and I was glad it came out so well.

It’s a 63-minute album with the bonus tracks! But you don’t realize it until you actually check the running time because at no point does it get boring.

I appreciate that. I think that’s because the way it developed there wasn’t quite the continuum that we had expected, like with the other albums where we came in with a block of stuff, worked at it, came back to the drawing board, polished it, and that sort of thing. This one was a lo more stuff going back to the drawing board. That’s how “Bang” came in and that’s how “Prodigal Son” came in instead of some other ones that I just felt needed some more work because something wasn’t quite developed where I felt comfortable with it.

You talked about going through hell. So how have things gone for the band since Seasons of Tragedy? I know Locomotive folded.

Yeah, the first two albums were on Locomotive. We were pretty livid over that simply because it was like all of a sudden we weren’t hearing anything. After Seasons of Tragedy was released – and not to say anything that I shouldn’t say at this point – it was very disappointing in not knowing who to believe and what was really going on, and then all of a sudden just dropping off the map, yet we’d hear that other people were in contact with them. So it was a very strange time. We didn’t know where we were going from there, other than that we weren’t going to quit. We still had some more music to make. So Pete [Wells] and I kept going at it and got some new members and stuff like that along the way. And let’s be real, it’s the music business and it’s about money and the lack thereof. I think some people have a misconception that if you have a CD out you’re making money, although I think more people realize it in this day and age. To not have seen anything from those two past efforts, which got really good reviews, was rather frustrating, especially when you’re right at the point where you should start reaping something from it. Then to hear about what happened…. I mean you’re chance is your chance and you’ve got to keep creating new opportunities for yourself, but I sometimes look back and say “Man, what if we had better promotion” or something like that. It was more of an emotional thing for me because I have so much invested in a lot of different levels in this band, and so does everybody else. But this is my baby and to see that… And for Pete too, who is the other founding member. I was really disappointed for him and I think now he’s finally starting to get the recognition that he deserves because he’s just a phenomenal guitarist. It’s really nice to have people wanting to interview him as well. It’s just very satisfying to see that for other members of your band because you can’t do it without them. It’s not Veronica and Benedictum; it’s Benedictum!

On the upside then, it sounds like Frontiers is treating you well and things are again looking up for Benedictum.

Yeah, it’s like night and day. In all fairness to the people that I had worked with at Locomotive there were a lot of things that were going really cool; at least that’s what I thought. There was a lot of hard work put behind it back in the day and I don’t know all the details about what happened, but what’s past is past and we’re looking forward to everything and we’re really happy, just over the moon, with everything that’s transpired with Frontiers. It’s been great.


  1. Commented by: faust666

    I find that woman to be extremely annoying, verbose and ugly. Heard a few songs off the new album and the vocals are the weakest link. That and the somewhat asinine lyrics.

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