Frank Hetzel (guitar, songwriter)
Jeff Loomis (lead guitar)
Kragen Lum (lead guitar)
Tim Aymar (vocals)
Steve Tucker (vocals)
J.D. DeServio (bass)
Jason Viebrooks (bass)
Dagna Silesia (bass)
Bryan Newberry (drums)
For more than 20 years, Frank Hetzel has been a staple of the Seattle metal scene. He first established himself in the music business by booking national and international touring bands. On the side – at least at first – he was the guitarist and main songwriter for Beltfed Weapon, a Pacific Northwest band influenced by speed, thrash, and death metal.
Over the years, the group released three critically-acclaimed EPs, and along the way, Beltfed Weapon played shows with metal luminaries including Testament, Over-Kill. Death Angel, Nevermore, Mushroomhead, Nile, God Forbid, Nuclear Assault, Cryptopsy, and Agnostic Front. More recently, Hetzel teamed with ex- Metal Church vocalist Ronny Munroe to release the single and video “P.O.W.” Proceeds helped cover medical expenses for Munroe’s wife and manager, who was battling cancer.
Reviews for the Beltfed Weapon’s 2015 EP Raining Plague were glowing, and included the accolades, “fast and brutal as well as melodic and harmonic,” “an avalanche of powerful riffs, non-stop shredding, pummeling drums, and impressive bass lines,” and “the type of EP which can surely inflict unbearable physical and mental torture.”
Onstage, the band was equally memorable. “Someone recently told me, ‘Yeah, Frank, you are a part of Seattle metal history,’ says Hetzel. “I went, ‘Well, that’s cool to know.’ I never really thought about it too much, but I did have some cool stuff going on back in the day with the band. And, Beltfed Weapon never died. It just went on hiatus a little bit.”
Now, following five difficult years of interpersonal turmoil, external obstacles, and pandemic-induced complications, Beltfed Weapon have returned with their best, most ambitious, and most creative offering. Instead of writing, recording, and releasing a new batch of songs with the same musicians, Hetzel spent years writing five new songs and tracking them with an all-star lineup that includes members of Morbid Angel, Control Denied, Arch Enemy, Black Label Society, Testament, Into Eternity, and Heathen. And now that the new Beltfed Weapon songs are done, Hetzel plans to gradually release them – one every six to eight weeks – along with a series of explosive lyric videos.
”I could have put out everything at once and sold a bunch of CDs, but people have such short attention spans these days that they tend to be into something for a little while and then they move on,” explains Hetzel. “I want to keep people interested over a 10-month period of time. I think that’s the best approach to take because the guys playing on the songs are established and well-known from their other bands and the songs we’ve come up with are really good.”
Hetzel was inspired to recruit an all-star lineup after years of disappointment trying to form a dedicated team of talented musicians. Time and again, players he originally thought would mesh with Beltfed Machine didn’t get along with other members, weren’t reliable, and/or developed substance problems that impaired their productivity and reliability. The process became like an endless trip to the laundromat: wash, rinse, drain, repeat.
“From the beginning, I’ve always had to regroup ‘cause it’s been roadblock after roadblock,” Hetzel says. “But I’ve never given up. I’ve always wanted to grow and enhance Beltfed Weapon and each time I’ve come back it’s been a little better.”
Hetzel first brought in special guests to help finish Raining Plague and found it an effective way to work. The album included Florida death metal veteran and Testament member Steve Di Giorgio on bass, Dean Sternberg on vocals, ex-Marduk drummer Fredrik Widigs, and Loomis and Matt Wicklund performing guest solos. Working with musicians that weren’t official band members enabled Hetzel to find players that didn’t need to commit to lengthy tours and who viewed the project as a refreshing change of pace from their main gig. The record was a precursor to the five new Beltfed songs, for which Hetzel used his industry connections to concoct a dream lineup for every track. “With the guys I’ve been able to work with, I’ve definitely been able to create the best thing I’ve ever done.”
The first Beltfed Weapon song in four years, “Headfirst Into Hell,” is a multidimensional assault that features clean vocals by Tim Aymar of Control Denied (the last band to include Death founder Chuck Schuldiner). The song is both rousing and roiling, rife with thrash riffs, double-bass drumming, and prog/power metal rhythms. Hetzel started working on the song with his friend, bassist Dagna Silesia for a different project. But when he heard how well it was turning out, he decided to turn it into a Beltfed Weapon song.
“It’s a little out of the normal range for Beltfed because it was a collaboration with Dagna,” he explains. “There are some different elements in there from what I usually do, but all the parts fit together really well and I think it’s a great reintroduction to the band.”
While many of Beltfed Weapon’s songs are about war, “Headfirst Into Hell” confronts a different kind of battle. “It’s about drug addiction,” Hetzel says. “I had a really close family member who went down that road. It’s a painful process for the addict, but also for the family. It’s so hard to see someone going through that and not be able to do anything.”
Hetzel first dabbled with semi-melodic vocals on Raining Plague. So when Aymar agreed to sing for Beltfed Weapon, a new range of possibilities opened up that combine melodic hooks, aggressive howls and raw dissonance. Surprisingly, when Aymar first ran the vocals by Hetzel, they weren’t actually sung.
“It was funny because he didn’t even sing on scratch tracks,” Hetzel says. “The first thing he did was send me the vocal melodies played on keyboard. And after I told him they were great, he recorded his parts. He said he learned to do that from [Death and Control Denied frontman] Chuck Schuldiner.”
To give “Head First Into Hell” extra punch, Hetzel asked two guitar veterans, Heathen’s Kragen Lum (ex-Exodus) and Arch Enemy’s Jeff Loomis (Ex-Nevermore) to play one solo each for the song. “Jeff Loomis is a very good friend of mine and I’ve known Kragen a long time, too. So I just got all the songs together and started approaching them,” Hetzel says. “They gave the music a listen and they were all like, “Yeah man, we’d love to be involved with this.”
Loomis also added a one-minute long lead to the Aymar-fronted “Accept Your Insanity,” the most epic, multidimensional song Hetzel has ever written, one which can only be described as Judas Priest crossed with Morbid Angel, with a touch of latter-day Carcass. Fully appreciating the deft songwriting and lyrics about toxic relationships, Loomis went into creative overdrive. “Man, his solo is just mindblowing,” Hetzel says. “He really put a lot of love into it and tells a story through his playing. When I first heard it, I thought, ‘My God, that’s incredible.’”
Joining Hetzel, Aymar and Loomis and Hetzel on “Accept Your Insanity” are Black Label Society bassist J.D. DeServio, and Into Eternity drummer Bryan Newberry, who stepped in after Hetzel and the original drummer for the project abruptly parted ways.
“I originally hired a drummer out of Sweden, and the guy basically threw the drum parts down and slapped everything together,” explains Hetzel. “I figured I could work with what he did because his timing was good. But as we started getting closer to doing the bass, my old friend Jason Viebrooks (Exhorder, Grip, Inc.) – who’s also on the EP — said, ‘Dude, The drums don’t make sense.’ And then I started listening back to it and realized Jason was right. This guy’s structure didn’t work for the songs.”
Determined not to let the setback delay the project, Hetzel searched for a last-minute replacement and found Newberry. Not only was he professional, performing fleet, fluid passages that perfectly fit the music, he was also prolific. “Bryan was a lifesaver,” Hetzel says. “He tracked the four demoed songs at his place with his engineer Justin Bender in no time. I was so inspired I put together another song, ‘Accept Your Insanity,’ which I pretty music pulled out of my ass out of nowhere. I thought, ‘This is too good not to include on the EP, so I added it and recorded it with Aaron Smith.”
Hetzel started working on the follow-up to Raining Plague in late 2019 and recorded his guitar parts for the album in the fall of 2020. He originally hoped to have some of the guest musicians in the studio with him to record their parts. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to work remotely from their home studios. Once they were finished, Juan Urtega from Trident Studios expertly mixed and mastered the songs to make the final collaborations sound seamless.
After the new Beltfed Weapon songs are released – either as single tracks or vivid lyric videos – all five will be issued as the EP Darkened Demise. Hetzel wrote the title track as an apocalyptic thrash-death number that features Morbid Angel’s growling vocalist Steve Tucker (who also handles vocals on the fierce “Killing Machine”). While Aymar is the dominant voice on the EP (singing on “Headfirst into Hell,” “Eternal Fire” and “Accept Your Insanity”), Tucker offers a stark, compelling contrast to Aymar’s more tuneful approach.
“I’ve always liked Morbid Angel and Steve’s voice,” Hetzel says. “He really lets loose and doesn’t hold anything back. Jason Viebrooks introduced me to him, and Steve liked the songs. It worked really well for me because I enjoy some power metal as well as death metal, thrash, and speed metal. And I’m trying to put everything I love into my music and my songs.”
Combining four or more styles of metal into a single batch of songs is no small accomplishment. And Darkened Demise is packed with abrupt tempo shifts, staggered rhythms, extended middle-eights, and other musical hairpin turns that keep the music exciting and unpredictable. Yet Hetzel doesn’t plan out the sudden twists and unexpected changes in advance. He relies on intuition.
“I’ll start with two riffs and blend them together. And then I’ll do a scratch track with some drum sounds,“ he says. “So I actually do stick with a formula of building each song from an intro to a verse, and then chorus/verse/chorus/verse/solo/verse/chorus/end. It’s very straightforward in the beginning. Then, I sit back and let my ears tell me what to do. That’s the part where I insert my odd time signature riffs and crazy tempos. I play entirely from feel, so it’s a weird process but in the end the songs pretty much write themselves. No one’s ever come to me and said, ‘Oh, that arrangement doesn’t make sense. Can we switch it?’”
Hetzel came up with the title Darkened Demise off the top of his head and decided that the name sounded as “metal” as the song. It was only after he Googled the title that he learned that a “darkened demise” is the death of a corrupt, powerful leader, a definition that fit the vibe of the EP and the tone of the times. Plus, it feeds right into his interest in history, especially the history of war.
“I’m infatuated with World War II,” he says. “I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about it and I’ve found that learning about the past is a great way to understand the present. With everything that’s going on in Ukraine with Russia and Putin, it’s like there’s another Hitler on the rise. It’s just fucked up, man, and it’s crazy. So when I saw what ‘darkened demise’ meant, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect.’”
Since Beltfed Weapon is currently a supergroup of musicians in vastly different locations, Hetzel has no plans to embark on a lengthy tour. At this point, he wants to schedule a record release show when the EP comes out and maybe assorted concerts with various players on the album. Hetzel hopes that word-of-mouth will provide the bulk of awareness for Darkened Demise, the same way metal bands spread the word back in the days before major labels realized the music was marketable. As much as anything, Darkened Demise is a labor of love – a project Hetzel pursued by himself with a bunch of friends and guests he invited along for the ride.
“It has been a long process, but it has been very therapeutic and rewarding,” he concludes. “I get a real sense of accomplishment when I see how positively people react to it. And to have all these people involved that I’ve been listening to for decades, and to know that they like my songs enough to want to be involved, that’s just incredible. If we sell records, great, but I feel great just knowing how it all came together and how well it came out.”