Dropping the Gama Bomb

With the thrash metal renaissance in full swing, Philly Byrne and co release of their fourth album, writes Chris Jones

What does the term 'thrash metal' mean to you? Aside from the obvious – hyperspeed riffage and aggressive hollerin' – the chances are that it conjures images of tight blue jeans, hi-top sneakers, big hair and, crucially, the 1980s.

All of this is undeniably accurate, but what is also true is that in recent years the genre has made an unlikely, and remarkable comeback. In 2010, the Big Four – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax – put away their differences and toured together, while a new generation of thrash bands leads the genre well into the 21st century.

Newry-raised and Dublin-based, Gama Bomb are at the very centre of this new breed in Northern Ireland and further afield. Led by their affable frontman Philly Byrne, the band recently released their fourth album The Terror Tapes, and they return to Belfast to play at the Empire Music Hall on Saturday, August 17.

Last time the band played here, in summer 2012, it was to celebrate their 10th anniversary. 'It was fantastic to come back to a city where you used to play to nobody and to find a huge audience of young people who are wearing your t-shirts,' says Byrne. 'Belfast is always one of our favourite places to play. It's so class to know that there genuinely are dudes there who are really supportive.'

These days, a homecoming show really is just that. Quite apart from the fact that Gama Bomb are now based in Dublin, they have ridden the resurgence of thrash all around the world, and following their last album, Tales From The Grave In Space, they got to see countries that many others can only dream of.

'I can't even begin to tell you how shocking it is that thrash has revived itself,' Byrne adds. 'We went to Mexico and there were kids waiting for us at the airport. It's a worldwide revival and it's not just about old fogeys, it's teenagers of 13 and 14. Little girls, little guys in America, South America, Europe, Australia – everywhere.'

Although thrash was in a 1990s slump when Byrne got interested, he can relate to those kids. He grew up in a family interested in classic rock and 'a little bit' of metal, and at the age of 15 he and his mates started jamming and playing Metallica covers.

'The crystallising moment was when Luke [Graham, founding guitarist] went to Newry library and found a copy of the album Survive, by Nuclear Assault, on cassette during one of their legendary library sales. It made us realise that there was this huge subculture of thrash, and it was pretty revolutionary for us. It was a thing that nobody listened to, nobody ever talked about, it was never on TV. We wanted to be Nuclear Assault, so we started a band.'

Gama Bomb officially formed a little later, and last summer's 10th anniversary shows in Belfast and Dublin were something of a victory lap. But between the 2009 release of Tales From The Grave In Space and those gigs, the band went through a period of turmoil. It was something of a perfect storm involving legal and financial wrangles with their former label Earache, the departure of guitarist Graham and some serious health problems on the part of Byrne.

During a gig in Germany, Byrne badly damaged his voice – 'I was doing all these falsettos and something came out that just sounded crazy' – and after getting it checked out, he discovered that he had a polyp on his vocal cords that needed to be surgically removed.

'It was pretty scary at the time, to be honest,' Byrne admits. 'It doesn't matter who you are, no-one wants to hear a doctor tell them that they have a lump inside their body. After the surgery, the doctor said, "We've done the biopsy and the good news is that it's not cancerous". I was like, "Who said it was?!".

'The other thing was that it was a real knock to my identity as a singer. For a long time I was very scared, right up until we went in to record the fourth album. It had really shaken my belief in myself as somebody who could sing.'

And that's not all – it also affected Byrne's speaking voice, to the extent that he had to have speech therapy from a nurse who specialises in working with stroke victims. 'I couldn't speak properly. My voice was very rough, very low, very broken, very weak. I spent from July 2011 until July 2012 like that – not really being able to speak properly, at times not able to speak at all. It was very difficult and it was a lot to deal with.'

Now, however, things are largely back to normal. Byrne's voice is a little gruff, but not unusually so, and his vocals on The Terror Tapes are impeccable – smoother and more powerful than ever before. In a sense, his injury and the subsequent speech therapy and singing lessons have given his voice an added dimension.

'It actually unlocked a lot of other areas in my voice that I didn't have before. I realised I was able to sing a bit like David Lee Roth if I wanted to, and all these other things,' he laughs. 'It actually became a lot more fun to play with my voice.'

Nevertheless, 2010 to 2012 was a tough time, and although Byrne's vocal travails never seriously jeopardised the band, the legal problems and Graham's departure did. Understandably, to lose a founding member and a lifelong friend was tough. 'It posed a massive personal question to us: Is it worth keeping going when one of your best mates doesn't think it is? He was in the band for 10 years, and there were tears. It was difficult.

'I felt a couple of times that we were going to disappear, and nobody would ever wonder who we were again until it became fashionable to be retro about it in about 10 years. That was a bit of a rage against the dying of the light. We had to rally round and get the fourth album done. Whether it tanked or not, the point was that we were proving to ourselves that we could do this again and persist through anything and make it happen. Miraculously, I think we've really done that.'

The storm has now passed, and Gama Bomb can look forward to picking up where they left off. Byrne is giddy excitement when he talks about their experiences, from narrowly avoiding a catastrophic bus crash in Lithuania due to an 'enormous' deer, to living up to a few Irish stereotypes by drinking the bar dry at the Rainbow in LA following 'the best gig we ever did' at Whisky A-Go-Go.

'We've met everyone from Nazi bikers to porn stars, accountants who listen to thrash at the weekends. You meet every kind of person possible, which is one of my favourite things about it. And one in 100 people who you meet is proper best mate material, so you end up having all these great friends in different countries. It sounds like I'm bragging, but I'm in awe of the things that happen to us in the band.'

The challenge now is to capitalise on the hard graft that Gama Bomb have put in during the unlikely thrash renaissance. 'If I could describe it in one phrase,' Byrne explains, 'it's G-force. We spent a long time getting off the launch pad, and now the album is out there we have lots of new people to talk to, new opportunities opening up. We've done the best work, we've put in the most graft, we've suffered and we've partied and we're at that point where we're saying, "Right, let's see what's going to happen next".'