Albania has started to emerge in the metal world in the middle of the nineties. The country had been in isolation for a long time and for me all I knew about it was the insane amount of bunkers that were built in this peculiar country on the Adriatic shores.
Though the country opened up in 1992 to an extent, it took till the turn of the millennium (including the Albanian Civil War in 1997) for the country to get the flow of information it has now. So metal music came to Albania and with vigour and fascination many people embraced the new music. The Albanian metal heads faced very different problems though, like a lack of instruments. This is where Crossbones emerges.
Crossbones has been around since 1996. Their album ‘Days of Rage’ was released in the troubled year of 1997 and maybe embraces something of the time and troubles the country was going through. I got founder Olsi Ballta to answer some question about metal in Albania and the history of the band, who have finally released a new record 20 years after ‘Days of Rage’. This one is called ‘WWIII’.
Crossbones from Albania
Hi, who are you guys and how did you get together as a band?
Our current line-up is:
Olsi Ballta – founder/vocals
The Napoloni – drums
Ben Turku – guitars
Klejd Guza – bass
We had a lot of line-up changes over the years. We came to a point where it was just just Klod (former and long-time guitarist of the band) and me. So we needed to revitalize the band. I got a call in 2010 from Theo (drums). We both studied visual arts at the Fine Arts Academy here in Tirana. So we met and started to rehearse. It seemed pretty good, the chemistry was right so he became the band’s drummer. His first official gig with Crossbones was in December 2010.
Ben (guitars) joined the band officially in 2014. We previously invited him a couple of times as a guest guitarist for a few gigs. We also had a gig with his prog/metal band Inverse Horizon from Italy here in Tirana in 2011. So in April 2014, Ben took over guitar duties whereas Klod would play the bass because we had no permanent bass player. We continued like this until beginning of 2016 when Klod moved to Australia. So again no bass player. This is how Klejd joined the band and became our current bass player. He learned our songs pretty fast and gave the rhythm section a boost.
So this is how we got together in brief.
Tell us a bit about the history of Crossbones please.
Original official line-up:
Olsi Ballta – vocals
Arbi Xhelo – guitars
Klod Shehu – guitars
Alban Male – drums/keyboards
Redi Hasa – bass
It started as just a group of friends jamming together and learning to play some covers from bands we’d listen to. It was early 1996. Very soon we started to compose our own songs. That’s the idea of having a band. Writing your own music.
From there on the band prefers to refer to their bio. Due to the changes in the line-up it feels more fitting.
Crossbones is the most recognized metal act in Albania and the only band from the early days in the mid-nineties that kept going. Among countless gigs and performances, Crossbones have played aside Rock and Metal giants such as Ian Paice, legendary drummer of Deep Purple and as a direct support act for Greek Black Metal Legends of Rotting Christ.
How would you describe your sound as a band?
The sound has definitely evolved technically also due to technology and good equipment. We pay close attention to it and yet the DNA of it hasn’t changed. We care about it and of course the guys in their respective section is doing great on making the sound tight and genuine and also enriching it.
I understand that the Albanian metal scene developed quite late and that the period ‘85 – ‘90 was a period that was particularly hard in Albanian history when it comes to the conditions and poverty in the country. In what way did that affect and influence the way you guys started out? Was it hard to get your hands on stuff like instruments?
It is true that Albania was isolated for a long time. But as soon as the system changed, a whole bunch of rock/metal bands emerged almost instantly. It was like everybody was waiting for the iron curtain to fall. Rock was the means of expressing oneself. We were totally isolated and it was the time to scream and shout freely. And rock was the answer.
There was a lack of instruments and mostly everybody who was in a band would borrow an instrument from some other guy. And they were going around hand to hand. It was really difficult. Not to mention rehearsal places. We rehearsed in our friend’s basement in our early days. Everything was missing infrastructure wise… But not the will and passion to make music. They were really tough but great times.
What artists inspired you guys to start making metal music as, in a way, the first band in Albania ever to do so? Where there any other bands venturing towards metal in your country that inspired you?
We all have our favorite band and artists like Beatles, Stones, Doors, Hendrix, Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Dream Theater, Sepultura, Pantera, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Korn, RATM, RHCP, the list goes on.
We had quite a few names that started and belong to the first wave of Albanian rock/metal bands like Centaur, Thunderway, Megaherc, Shok, Akullthyesit and Djemtë e Detit just to name a few. So seeing bands like these emerging and writing rock songs, influenced us mostly like “why don’t we start a band?”
Your first album ‘Days of Rage’ is about to celebrate its 20th birthday. Even though you didn’t release any records since (as in albums), I understood that Crossbones remains an active band and looking to still grow and play outside of Albania. Why did you never release a follow-up?
Yes it’s true. “Days Of Rage” 20th anniversary is just around the corner. It is the very first rock/metal CD album released in Albania. We didn’t release any other official album mostly due to financial but also industry infrastructure. Still at this day, the rock scene in Albania is small. There is not too much attention to it. Anyway, there are festivals or events that dedicate time to rock music and even brought international names.
We are active. In fact we’ve always been active and present in the local metal scene as well as abroad. We are trying to play as much as we can in other countries where the rock/metal scene is bigger and the industry is present.
Here the band likes to refer to a bit of their bio:
Crossbones is the only metal band as well to ‘sell’ outside the Albanian borders and tour around and gaining international recognition. The band have played and headlined in many concerts and festivals in the local scene, as well as Italy, Greece, FYROM, Montenegro, Kosovo and recently toured in Baltics (Estonia and Latvia) 1-3 June 2017, organized by THP Production.
Looking back to that time, can you say a bit how ‘Days of Rage’ happened? How did you write the album and record it and how did that go?
We already had a couple of songs. So we decided to write more in order to have an album. And we did. We would go to the studio, rehearse, and record.1997 was a bad year for Albania and also international press was talking a lot about that. I took the title from a CNN TV report with the headline “Days of rage in Albania”.
It was a good title and the situation inspired a lot of the songs and not only those in the album. This record was a self-released album, but it was the first and a lot of friends and fans remember it. It was a really big deal to release that kind of product back in the day. I personally hand-painted the cover and the logotype and the whole production was handled by GEMA in Switzerland.
When we look back at this album, we go back in time and we can’t help but recall all that period of time, difficulties, laughs, and endless hours in the studio recording stuff for up to 3 songs in a day. It was like we had to do it fast otherwise we wouldn’t do it at all. It was this feeling of impatience to finish the record and send it to production. Every day we would ask about when it is going to come out and so on. It was a self-released record, a full album. And I would like to thank Arbi (former band member and co-founder) and his family for making this record possible. We released the first Albanian rock/metal CD album in Albania. This is really important because that album is a piece of Albanian rock history and this how we got recognition here but as well as outside Albania.
There are thrash songs, heavy metal, grunge, hardcore and alternative. It’s a mix but it was us (the original line up I mean). And we want and we definitely going to continue that. We are alive and kicking.
I understand most Albanian bands that wanted to record had to do so in Pristina or Skopje. How did that work out?
We were very lucky at that time because my friend and co-founder Arbi, had this home studio so we could do anything, rehearsing and recording. Other bands recorded there as well. The equipment used was really great for that period of time. But this was not so important to us. We were the first metal band to release a CD album in Albania. And this was big.
You’ve got a new album out. What are the plans for that and what can people expect?
We released our new album “WWIII” on January 13 2017 via Nadir Music Genova. It is a worldwide release, in stores and online, ITunes, Amazon etc. It is again, the first metal album from Albania released internationally and with a label. We are really proud of that. We want to present it in as many countries as possible. We’ve played it Greece and Italy beginning of this year and just had our first Baltics Tour with THP Productions from Latvia. We played in Tallinn, Narva and Riga.
It was great. International festivals are important as well so we are dealing with it. We are featured on Ultraje Magazine Portugal(hard copy) March-April edition CD compilation with “Gates Of Hell” and another compilation through Against PR Portugal which comes out on July 31 2017. We already have shot two music videos, one of them coming out shortly. Our new album “WWIII” is making quite a buzz since its launch in January 13, 2017. The news has spread throughout 3 continents, Europe, USA and Australia in about 50 webzines and portals with great reviews.
For this record we worked with the well-known producer and sound engineer Tommy Talamanca at his Nadir Music Studios who has mixed and mastered the album. The new record combines American thrash metal influences with a dark sound and typical East European sonorities. The result is an album created with the intention of hitting the ears hard without losing melodic passages and “catchy” riffs. An album where the recurring use of both English and Albanian languages marks a new way in the European post-thrash genre.
So how was the lead-up to releasing this album?
We were already writing new stuff in 2015 and we actually self-released a new EP titled ‘Alive’ on April 25, 2015. It had 3 songs and one of them was ‘Gjallë’ which means “alive”. The song is in Albanian language, so we decided to keep up and continue to write other new stuff. The new album “WWIII” was highly influenced by the recent events and conflicts. So the title and artwork clearly convey the intense violence and conflict of the recent times.
We sent a few demos from the new stuff at Nadir Music Genova in Italy and the guys decided to produce the whole album and also deal with its worldwide release. Our good friend Tommy Talamanca is the man behind the whole production of it. It came out really great. And this was pretty awesome because once again, Crossbones would be the first Albanian metal band from Albania releasing an album that anyone around the world could buy or listen to. It was a wider and broader representation of Albanian metal to the world. And we are really proud of it. Right now we are trying to expose it as much as we can through gigs or tours and of course reviews/interviews and also music videos.
Your country has been isolated for a long time, but after it opened up more it seems that you were in the middle of a high-tension zone with the wars in former Yugoslavia. How is the relation now with the metal scene in bordering countries?
In general mostly with Kosovo. But we have played in Skopje (FYROM) and Montenegro as well. I would love to play in all ex-Yugoslavia countries. We have no problem with that.
I read somewhere that there is very little physical music available due to a lack of means and the turbulent recent history of Albania. How do you feel about that?
It is the industry that is missing for rock/metal bands. This is important. And people don’t seem to care a lot about this. Maybe we are a very small market in terms of rock music. I hope it changes and improves.
Did you face censorship in the early days and how is that today? If someone would visit your country and was hoping to find some places that metal heads hang out, are there any bars, venues or record stores that are important to the scene?
We have played in many concerts and festivals, even those not related directly with music. No one ever told us “don’t do this or that”. Maybe censor is the part where we are not invited sometimes. Regarding places, we have a few good ones. You can either just have a beer or even listen a live band. Unfortunately mostly cover bands.
What is the secret to keeping a band together in such hard circumstances where bands usually seem to have come up in Albania only to fold after a couple of years. You guys have been together forever. How did you do it?
As I said before we had several line-up changes and this makes things difficult.
Actually I am the only original member of the band. But i think if there is a will, there is a way. I believe the best has yet to come and we are going to accomplish that together.
What future plans does Crossbones have?
To write a new album, tour around and gain more international recognition.
If you had to describe Crossbones as a type of food, what would it be?
Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this one but i can say it is east meets west, a mix of blends and flavours, musically speaking. I like to think that everybody who listens to our music can find one self. It’s all about connecting people and sharing your thoughts and emotions and be open.