by Steve Pilkington
For a lot of bands, particularly those of a more metallic persuasion, the temptation is of course to be able to talk idly of being formed on 'the mean streets' of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London, or wherever such hostile thoroughfares are to be found. For UK prog-metallers HeKz, however, such a claim would be impossible to sustain, as the band's genesis actually lies in the 'quite pleasant thank you very much' streets of leafy Bedfordshire – because this was the youthful stamping ground of Matt Young. For those unaware of the band, its inception and evolution is inextricably intertwined with Matt who, as bassist / vocalist / frontman, chief writer and de facto bandleader since Day One, is 'the face' of HeKz, should such a thing be called for. In effect, he is essentially equivalent to Phil Lynott (without the drugs or the money), or even Lemmy (without the drugs, booze, facial warts and more-drugs-if-you-have-them-please). He is also so well-spoken that rumour has it that he has supplemented his income by giving elocution lessons to Viscount Linley. So again, not The Bronx or Downtown LA.
There wouldn't be a HeKz without Matt Young – this we have established – yet like other band-leading bassmen such as the above pair of miscreants, or indeed Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, there could not be a HeKz as we have come to know them without the other musicians who have passed – for longer or shorter periods – through the HeKz ranks. The first roots of the band came in 2003, at a time when all of the members were still at school together, though the eager Young had already immersed himself in a heady diet of classic music recorded before he was born. The initial incarnation were actually known as The Dropouts, a somewhat incongruous name given that they first got together on the school bus en route to Arnold Middle School in the village of Barton-Le-Clay! Where one would drop out to in those environs is unclear. Nevertheless, The Dropouts they briefly were, and consisted of drummer Chris Hederick, Adam Billington and James Wilson on guitars, and Matt himself on, as he puts it 'the two jobs that nobody else wanted', bass and vocals. For one rehearsal they were supplemented by another vocalist with the unlikely name of Div Hiskett, but as he mysteriously failed to show up ever again, his foothold in the HeKz annals remains a tenuous one. Rehearsals led to the inescapable conclusion that none of them were actually able to play remotely well enough to get through a song, never mind write anything, so they took a very early sabbatical from their route to stardom while they went away and learnt to play a bit better. A few months later, they re-emerged with newly acquired competence, and were by now able to blast out a few songs in an acceptable manner.
In those early days the band used to rehearse in the back room of Chris Hederick's parents' house – who were presumably either out a lot, very long suffering or profoundly deaf, given the raw state of the embryonic band's material at the time. In fact, they recorded their very first demo tapes onto cassette tape via Chris's hi-fi, via the sophisticated method of dangling a cheap microphone from the ceiling over the light fitting, and recording the whole band through it. The resulting recordings were, as Matt himself says, 'more Misfits than Maiden', and there was clearly more work still to be done!
The name The Dropouts was never going to stick, and the band were already starting to think beyond their initial idea of adopting a Green Day sort of style, since that was being done to death at the time. A better, and more suitable name was in order, and the one they settled on was Hex – only to find out, unsurprisingly, that this somewhat simple name was already in use by small bands around the globe. They could have abandoned the Hex idea altogether, but instead they came up with a triumph of imaginatively suicidal marketing when – at the very dawn of the Internet Age when people could type your name into a search engine and find out all about you – they elected to name themselves HeKz, in a way that ensured eager fans hearing of them by word of mouth would be completely unable to spell the name. It may have been the equivalent of printing up hundreds of posters and sticking them all on the underside of a bridge, but if nothing it was an unusual name. And so HeKz, though not quite as we know them, was truly born.
The next development was another line-up change as James Wilson became the second band member to simply not turn up for rehearsals. In the dog-eat-dog world of the embryonic HeKz, he was summarily told not to bother coming back, and Bedfordshire was combed for a replacement guitarist. As it happened it didn't have to be combed too far, as the replacement lived in Matt Young's house. His younger brother Danny was, according to Matt himself, the real talent in the Young family, and already somewhat of an impressive shredder in 2004, at the unfeasibly young age of twelve. While the obvious course of action in cases of sibling rivalry might have been for Matt to announce that he had no brother, and disown him in a fit of jealous rage, he instead decided to utilise this home-grown talent, and the impossibly youthful Danny Young became a new HeKz guitarist in 2004.
With this line-up in place, the band of enthusiastic schoolkids got their first gig. Guitarist Adam Billington's father coached a football team called Barton Rovers (who at time of writing are still in business, and competing in the magnificently named Evo Stick Southern Central League), and was able to get HeKz a spot on the bill of a show being held there. They appeared along with a number of other school bands together with one adult group playing covers (also friends of Mr Billington, apparently), which reportedly led to the odd sight of the youthful audience going enthusiastically wild for all of the groups of kids, before promptly sitting down and ignoring the far more competent grown-up band, which must have done their confidence no end of good, one can imagine. Interestingly, one of the musicians on that bill was the now-acclaimed blues-rock guitarist and singer Ben Poole, with his own schoolboy band, a world away from the venues such as the Royal Albert Hall where he now plays.
By the time 2006 came along, HeKz had acquired a new drummer, by the name of Nick Bryant, and also had begun honing their talents significantly. Their sound had started to become a little more 'Maiden-esque', with longer songs creeping in, and more imaginative songwriting, and reaching the final of a Bedford Battle Of The Bands hadn't hurt either. It was time to get some recordings out there, and in 2006 they duly delivered with the self-released four-song Exodus EP. Still somewhat rawer than the band's later output, to say Matt Young's vocals here are influenced by Bruce Dickinson would be akin to saying that the Battle Of The Somme was a bit of a petulant skirmish, but to be fair he does have the voice to do it, which is impressive in itself. Opener When Darkness Falls is the sound which might result if Iron Maiden 1985 were locked in a room for a month with only Judas Priest albums and raw meat for company, while Dead Of Night continues ploughing the Maiden furrow with impressively anthemic choruses joining the jolly anvil-heavy riffery in true Run To The Hills style. Flight Of The Harpies sees the mythological lyrical seam being mined for all it's worth, while the twin guitars soar (and occasionally squeal wildly) over a rampaging attack which crushes all before it, but the piece de resistance of the EP is the ambitious eight-minute Exodus. The keyword is still Maiden, but this time we're deep into Powerslave territory, featuring the most interesting songwriting and also the most impressive vocals on the record. For a band of this age, who would have still had to do their homework in the dressing room if they had a gig on a school night, it's a remarkably promising recording, putting quite a few other trad-metal bands firmly in the corner in the process.
This line-up of the band continued for a while, rehearsing in the local football club pavilion and playing gigs locally whenever they could. Continuing the sporting theme which seems to have been unknowingly enveloping the band at this time, regular shows would take place at Bedford Athletic And Rugby Club, where they would share shows with such minor luminaries as some future members of metal band Tesseract – often written as TesseracT, indicating along with the HeKz name that some Bedfordshire printers may have been paid double for capitals at the time. Also involved in one or more of these shows was an unidentified man (presumably to protect the guilty) who went on to produce a record by a member of One Direction. HeKz did not opt to pursue this career path, which is just as well, since the thought of choreographed stage moves and matching sharp clothes married to ten-minute progressive metal epics might have been a strange pill for anyone to swallow.
In 2007 another EP followed, this time on the heroically named Latent Lemon Recordings, a label so successful that their impressive dynasty appears to have been responsible for precisely two EPs before they slumped exhausted over their mixing desks and called it a day. Nevertheless, the HeKz Another Time EP made its way onto the streets under the Latent Lemon banner, and sought to build on the foundations laid by Exodus, this time across five songs. The opening title track, a high speed, high energy effort, lays bare the Maiden connection again, with a double take required to check Bruce Dickinson hasn't dropped in to add vocals, and there is more adventurous and sophisticated material showing itself with lengthier track Where The Brave Dare Not Go (complete with fretboard heroics and a crowd of chanting monks appearing from nowhere). Overall, however, there is an excess of speed over subtlety, with the closing Terminator in particular not likely to 'be back' in a HeKz setlist any time soon! Young Danny Young – which is an odd thing to be writing – is the star on this release, but the songwriting is a little wanting overall.
It was at this point that the line-up of the band took a couple of hits – though in classic 'silver lining' tradition, the changes only served to strengthen things, as a couple of faces entered the picture who were destined to stay around for the long haul. The first change was forced upon the band when drummer Nick Bryant had a substantial altercation with Adam Billington, which led to the former taking his sticks and departing, and consequently leaving HeKz without a permanent drummer for around nine months. A couple of guys filled in for shows in this time, including James Bell who loaned himself from his full-time band, but they were getting rather anxious by the time they met the intimidating figure of the shaven-headed, tattoo-sporting Kirk Brandham at a festival in Luton, at which HeKz were appearing, complete with borrowed drummer. They decided to offer Kirk the job, so Matt phoned him to ask him to discuss it, discovering that at the time of taking the call he was wandering around Stonehenge. Deciding for some unfathomable reason that this was 'a sign', rather than the more prosaic 'a tourist', Kirk was in, and the band gained their best drummer to that date. The finger of HeKz fate was not yet dome, however, as Adam Billington decided to go off to university, which put him at a substantial geographical remove from the rest of the band. It was decided that this long-distance affair would not work if the band were to be serious, so he was out, and a new guitarist was required. Enter Al Beveridge, a man known to Matt, but not known by him, and he was brought in to complete three quarters of the HeKz line-up which would record their first album.
This line-up was the one which entered the studio again in 2009 to record the band's third EP, entitled Orfeo. Latent Lemon was out this time as the label, with the release appearing on the similarly bizarrely named Wind Up Tiger imprint, which this time existed solely for this EP before winding down again for good. A 'Christmas single' was also released separately, entitled Footsteps On The Roof, but this made its entrance on the similarly absurdly named Dead Cowboy. Whether or not the Wind-Up Tiger was responsible for the cowboy's demise is unclear.
The Orfeo EP revisited both When Darkness Falls and Dead Of Night from the Another Life release, and gave them both a more powerful makeover, showcasing a tighter and heavier unit. More importantly, it included the ten-minute 'epic' Don't Turn Back, the only song from these early EPs which made it onto a future album. Understandably, as the sophistication and depth of the songwriting and performance shows the band growing in confidence and professionalism. For the first time, HeKz could truly be described a 'progressive metal' band. Footsteps On The Roof, on the other hand, is definitely not to be taken seriously, with Matt warbling about reindeer and 'Santa's footsteps on your roof' over what appears to be The Glitter Band playing Uriah Heep's Easy Livin'. By the time a chorus of Ho-Ho-Hos enters the fray, the listener may be declaring that all they want for Christmas is the end of the song. Still, it's fun after a few drinks, one would imagine...
The line-up would remain stable for another couple of years following this, although the old HeKz curse (or should that be HeKz hex?) struck again and, having just joined the band, drummer Kirk was almost immediately sidelined for the better part of nine months with a prolapsed disc. Around this time the band had also acquired the services of a 'rickety old post van', as Matt describes it – an LDV Pilot van which used to belong to Royal Mail. Largely held together by rust and paint, it was nevertheless optimistically christened 'Big Red' by its uncomfortable passengers, as they were now able to traverse the motorways of the country, if not in style, then at least in a reasonable standard of squalor.
One of the places they managed to reach before Big Red broke down again was the Bloodstock Festival in 2010, where they played on the New Blood stage – on the same day as the decidedly less new Twisted Sister. For Matt, this was something of a landmark moment as, having been a regular at the festival over the years, had spent quite some time badgering the organisers in the hopes of getting on the bill, so when it finally came to fruition it felt as if a real milestone had been reached. By this point it was becoming clear that a full-length album was very much due, and that album would eventually appear in 2012 under the name Tabula Rasa.
In actual fact, the album recording was slated to begin at the end of 2010, but the intended studio turned out not to be available, so it got pushed back into 2011. By this time, the band were looking seriously at going a little more in the progressive direction – with the exception of Danny Young, who was very much in favour of remaining more traditionally metal. There were a few gigs around that time which Matt remembers as being somewhat tense, and things came to a head one night after a lengthy rehearsal session. They were using a studio located in a Luton office block, to which they would routinely get the keys and play from around 7pm to two or three in the morning before locking up, and one such night things came to a head between the brothers, resulting in an extremely heated disagreement. The writing was on the wall, and soon afterward Danny departed HeKz. By this time much of the intended album was already written and worked out, but any fears of further delay were alleviated when Adam got Tom Smith into the fold in April of 2011, and thus the core of the line-up which went on to record the first three HeKz albums was in place. Thinking about a producer/engineer for the album, Matt had what he describes as something of an 'epiphany' when, listening to the Tall Ships album by It Bites in the car, he resolved that guitarist John Mitchell would be the ideal man for the job, and as it happened he agreed to do it.
The band decamped to a Travelodge in Reading for three weeks during the recording sessions (let no-one tell you they didn't suffer for their art), and in fact things were delayed unexpectedly as, during the first few days, there was an enormous storm during which an apple tree in John Mitchell's garden fell over. Thus our heroes found themselves in a situation perhaps even less glamorous than a Reading Travelodge, as they banded together to re-erect this fallen tree using what brute force they possessed and, when required, a winch powered by a car engine. Somehow, the album got recorded, and the improvement in the band's sound was immediately apparent, not least in Kirk's drumming, which was by now providing a new dimension to the material. Much of the album was still very much more 'metal' than 'prog', though there were two ten-minute epics in the shape of the re-recorded Don't Turn Back and – arguably the album's centrepiece and finest moment – the evocatively titled City Of Lost Children. This was a big step forward from the first EPs only four years previously, of that there could be no mistake. The shorter material also showed progress, as the overt Maiden influence, while still present, was tempered very much by a greater variety, with the tempos varying from the typical Maiden 'gallop' to slower, heavier riffing in some places, and even the use of almost speed-metal templates elsewhere. There was a more detectable 'groove' to the playing in some tracks, which again largely came from Brandham. Housed in a somewhat monochromatic brown-tinged yet nonetheless impressive cover design by Paul Thompson, the album's title was Latin for 'blank slate', and had already made its impression on popular youth culture by forming the name of not only an online role-playing game but also a particularly memorable episode of the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Possibly interestingly, and entirely coincidentally, a later show highly indebted to Buffy was entitled Hex. So there.
The band gigged for the next couple of years after the album's release (self-released on Metal Dwarf Music, if you please) before the time came to record the follow-up. One thing which happened as a matter of necessity during this time, however, was that the band recruited a keyboard player, to go with the increasingly complex and layered nature of the music – Tabula Rasa had featured some keyboards, but they were just played by the band members themselves in a functional way. Soon after the album was released they asked James Messenger, who they knew as a fine musician, if he would like to join the band, and after demurring for a while, unsure of having the time for the full commitment, he eventually elected to give it a try, and his presence made a big difference to the follow-up album Caerus, which appeared in November 2014 and represented a significant advance on the debut.
The album featured nine tracks, but it was a long record, roughly the equivalent of a double vinyl album in the 'old money', and the songs were stretching out in terms of length and also complexity. In fact, though it is a far stronger album than Tabula Rasa, it could be said to have been a little undisciplined in the songwriting department, as several seemingly unconnected sections would be bolted together to give an occasionally disjointed appearance. This was a charge often levelled against highly technical progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater of course, and as that side of the music was embraced, the two steps forward in terms of ambition and sheer quality of the material brought an accompanying step backward in terms of writing focus. Nonetheless, the songs on the album quickly made their way to form the backbone of the live set, with The Black Hand standing out as the regular show-stopping closing number. On the album, this classic track came up midway through the running order, but the reason for this was that along with the opening and closing tracks Progress & Failure and Journey's End, it formed a sort of conceptual trilogy anchoring the album around it.
In another triumph of marketing obstinacy, the band who had sought to defeat the power of the internet search engine by adopting a name which was impossible to know how to spell, now managed to conjure up an album title which achieved the notable trifecta of being impossible to spell, impossible to pronounce and also making no sense to a vast majority of people. Surely the only way forward from this, one would think, would be releasing albums under cover of darkness and distributed by shady raincoat-clad men from spy novels demanding a password.
In actual fact, Caerus is the Greek god of opportunity and good fortune, giving rise to the Greek word kairos, meaning 'the opportune moment', and indeed the easier to pronounce and also spell 'kairos' was slated as the title, until it became known that Sepultura had released an album of that very title themselves. Thus the enigmatic Caerus was born. The album cover this time out – courtesy of Michael Inns, who has worked with Uriah Heep among others – was brilliantly eyecatching, featuring an old-fashioned sailing ship sinking into a blood-red sea surrounded by lightning, mysterious black birds, and the band logo right in the middle.
Around this time, the band began playing Deep Purple's Burn as a regular encore song, and this actually arose because of the album as well. Because of the cost of spending a long time in the recording studio, and having John Mitchell along for the whole production ride again, the band elected to compromise by recording as much as they could themselves in a more basic studio (in which they used to rehearse), and having Mitchell mix and master it at the end. The song they chose to test out their capabilities was Burn, chosen for having all of the parts for guitar, keyboards, vocal harmonies etc to test their skills. It came out exceptionally well, suiting the twin guitar arrangement, and thus ended up as a live fixture for quite some time.
The third album, Invicta, while originally scheduled for release in 2017, along with a launch show arranged in Holland, ended up suffering from delays which held it up until April 2018, and the unfortunate circumstance of a launch gig with nothing to launch. However, the wait proved worth it, as the resulting album addresses the 'jigsaw puzzle' song construction which occasionally plagued Caerus, and gives the songs a focus and tightness of construction which is immediately apparent. Not to say that things were simplified or shortened – on the contrary, grand epics such as the ten-minute Line In The Sand (arguably the highlight) and the even longer The Devil's Coin were still very much a part of the mix. The difference was, however , that these compositions developed seamlessly and organically along their length, and the result was a triumph of an album.
Sadly, it would prove to be the final recording of this defining HeKz line-up, as 2020 saw Matt Young take the difficult decision to break up the band and recruit an entirely new set of musicians. Getting together to rehearse and record had been growing ever more difficult given the individual members' circumstances, and this was exacerbated still further by the Covid pandemic. The decision was taken, when recruiting the new musicians, that given the increased availability (and currently, necessity) of remote recording, to cast the net further afield, and so the 'new' HeKz was completed by Dutch keyboard player Pieter Beemsterboer (previously with death/thrash metal band Black Rabbit), fellow Dutchman Mark Bogert on guitar, and the magnificently named drummer Moyano el Buffalo, originally from Spain, with Ukrainian violinist Irina Markevitch the last to arrive.
This means that the HeKz line-up now, from its beginnings with Matt finding his guitarist living in his own house, has evolved into a true global entity, covering Holland, Spain and a diversion to Eastern Europe by way of the Ukraine, in a sort of reverse-Brexit Prog-metal European accord! The credentials of the new members are impressive to say the least...
Pieter Beemsterboer, being a gifted keyboard player who began his musical life on the guitar, took to learning to play the piano by ear at the age of 13, before discovering it was easier to use his hands. He followed the traditional expect-the-unexpected HeKz route by joining the keyboard-free Black Rabbit as lead vocalist, before later switching to bass, which makes it almost surprising that he has not joined HeKz as drummer, since that remains the only instrumental position not yet on his ambitious career resume. To be fair, the world of thrash metal is not renowned for its sumptuous banks of keyboards, so the Black Rabbit crew (which sounds like a rather hopeless street gang) had to hire him in another position...
Guitarist Mark Bogert needs no introduction to a number of contemporary prog fans, having been a part of celebrated Dutch band Knight Area. A highly accomplished player, he is also a composer of note and gives guitar clinics and workshops across Europe. He is another man with an unusual musical genesis, however, as he began as a child by learning the trumpet before the guitar snatched him away. So, if the fertile imaginings of Matt Young call for a mariachi arrangement here and there, or perhaps a Chicago cover or two, that particular base is covered. But the world hopes not.
Moyano el Buffalo is, if nothing else, an imposing name to conjure with, and one could easily imagine that HeKz had hired the leader of a Mexican cartel to fill the drum stool. In fact, Moyano, hailing originally from Spain, took up the drums as a young teenager under the encouragement of his father and grandfather, both of whom were professional drummers. For some reason, this influence led him first to learn piano as a younger child, but that was never going to stick for someone born into a Drum Dynasty such as his. In fact, he relocated to London, rather impressively, to study at the renowned Institute Of Contemporary Music Performance, and he is endorsed by an extensive array of drum manufacturers.
Violinist Irina Markevitch is perhaps the most surprising new addition, as few would have foreseen the arrival of violin into the HeKz musical mix, but it surely is another sign of the ever expanding musical palette the band now have to play with. She is quite the acquisition, coming with a Master's Degree from the prestigious Ukrainian establishment The Kharkiv University Of The Arts. Electric violin can be a very impressive tool as a lead instrument, as evidenced by Simon House with Hawkwind, David LaFlamme with It's A Beautiful Day or the late Robbie Steinhardt with Kansas, to name just three, so the possibilities are exciting to say the least.
The band are already working on the next HeKz album, which is set to be a fully conceptual work entitled Terra Nova. So once again, fans clamouring for an album title in English will have to wait! Meaning New Earth, or New World, it again reflects the fresh start offered by the line-up, just as Tabula Rasa ('blank slate') did almost a decade ago.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.