Chastain – The History and Making of Ruler of the Wasteland
Written by Kevin Tanza on November 19, 2021
Fighting to Stay Alive live in Detroit in 1987.
“Making music with (David) Chastain is just second nature to me. He found me when I was young and had no clue what I was doing but had an idea of where I wanted my vocals to go! He cultivated that spirit within me and allowed me to fly. Our working relationship is unique. My sense of being comfortable, which drives him crazy by the way, allows us to continue no matter the time frame (…) They have both found a way to get it out of me no matter the cost (laughs).”
There are very few bands that can claim to have the level of historical significance in Metal that Chastain has and at the same time such a degree of quality and consistency that is borderline insulting that they are not known on a higher level. And when you consider their output throughout the years, more and more questions are raised.
Starting in the mid-80s as a project of Shrapnel Records promoting the talents of guitar virtuoso David T. Chastain through the lenses of a “traditional” Heavy Metal band (he had been doing more instrumental and experimental stuff at the time), musicians such as bassist Mike Skimmerhorn, drummer Fred Coury and female vocalist Leather Leone joined forces for Chastain’s debut in 1985, Mystery of Illusion, which was a powerful, raw and classic eighties Metal record, thus showcasing David’s guitar heroics and phenomenal songwriting and Leather’s soaring vocals as the big selling points.
But it’s the second album, 1986’s Ruler of the Wasteland, where Chastain really reaches a creative and musical peak, doing a record that should have been a lot bigger and that I personally consider the finest of the band’s catalog and the best Metal album with a female vocalist. Out is Fred Coury and in comes one of the most underrated drummers of his generation, Ken Mary, who was doing another legendary album with Fifth Angel at the time.
Widely regarded as Chastain’s finest hour, this record is a powerful mix of technical guitar histrionics, heavy grooves that simply pummel you and a singer that could stop a hurricane with voice. And to celebrate in MusikHolics the 35 years of the album’s release, we have invited David T. Chastain, Leather Leone, Mike Skimmerhorn and Ken Mary to provide their insights about the history and making of Ruler of the Wasteland.
The title track live in Detroit in 1987.
“We were very excited. The album was delayed about 6 months so we were well-rehearsed and ready to record. We had three days of full band rehearsals, then we started laying tracks.”
– Mike Skimmerhorn about Ruler of the Wasteland.
Chastain was a project that started around 1984 when Mike Varney, president of Shrapnel Records, wanted to form a band that could expose the talents of guitarist David T. Chastain, who at the time was playing with his other group, CJSS, but Varney wanted a more traditional Metal outfit that could get the most out of David. He also wanted to explode Leather Leone’s vocal talents, as she had a stint in San Francisco band Rude Girl that ended abruptly due to personality clashes. Along with Mike Skimmerhorn on bass and Fred Coury on drums, this is how the first Chastain line-up came to be.
“I was always attracted to the sound of lead guitars when I was young and I decided I had to learn how to do that,” David said in 2002. “Once I started I became a fanatic about it. I played in numerous bands. The first band to make any real noise was SPIKE. That band dissolved into CJSS. When sending out tapes of CJSS, Shrapnel Records offered me a solo deal and that was how CHASTAIN was born. I also began putting out instrumental CDs in the later 80s. I had the three projects going for a while.”
The Black Knight of Chastain’s debut, 1985’s Mystery of Illusion.
So in 1985, the band’s debut, Mystery of Illusion, was released. While still quite raw and unpolished, it plays to the group’s strengths, which are David’s guitar virtuosity and Leather’s shrieking and belting vocals, which were a rarity at the time. While female singers were starting to leave their mark in Rock and Metal with examples such as Doro Pesch, Lita Ford and even Lee Aaron on a much more mainstream lane, Leather’s vocals and attitude had nothing to envy the most aggressive male singers of the 1980s and she was no act in that regard, to the point that a lot of people during the recordings of Mystery of Illusion were scared and intimidated by her.
“Chastain has been my career,” she told me. “It’s the only reason I am still here. It was my first big step into music, and continues to be the biggest. It has allowed me to keep writing and performing my own music. Chastain is always my home.”
While David is the main songwriter and his guitar playing, technical, aggressive and melodic, is essential to understand the band as a whole, Leather’s vocals gave Chastain a different dimension, not only because she was a female, but also because of the sheer intensity of her singing. A longtime fan of Ronnie James Dio and also influenced by the likes of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Queensrÿche’s Geoff Tate, she could slide some melodies without losing the aggressiveness of her vocal style, which is a sentiment echoed by bassist Mike Skimmerhorn.
“Her vocal abilities make her special,” Mike told me. “She is also a fun person to hang out with. We were roomies on the road. Always a blast! I have great memories of touring.”
First promotional picture of Mystery of Illusion, featuring Leather Leone and David T. Chastain.
Despite the fact that the album wasn’t a major seller, it did manage to get people’s attention and the band started to build a following due to the quality of Mystery of Illusion and also because they were a very solid live act with high quality musicians. The album was released worldwide through Shrapnel Records, which also helped in the mouth-to-mouth kind of promotion that was so typical in the eighties.
“We were all very excited about having a ‘real’ album out and the response being very positive,” David told me about Mystery of Illusion. “We played numerous concerts. Major labels showed interest and came to some of the shows. Once a label rented out a big venue for us to play just to the head guy! That was extremely awkward to say the least. Bad vibes! As far as promotion goes, there wasn’t much back in those days, mainly word of mouth, underground press, touring, college radio and a few major press outlets… especially in Europe. No retail promotion that I am aware of. Needless to say we were excited on the prospect of recording another album.”
Unfortunately, not everybody from the original Chastain lineup was going to be involved in the making of the sophomore effort: drummer Fred Coury would leave in order to join Hard Rock band Cinderella, which wasn’t so surprising to David, according to what he told me.
“Fred joined the band Cinderella,” David said. “He told me the first autograph he ever signed was for the guitarist in that band, Jeff LaBar. Jeff was a big fan of ‘Mystery of Illusion’ and brought in the LP for Fred to sign when they met up for the first time. Fred never played any live Chastain gigs. Les Sharp from CJSS played the Chastain touring dates back in those early days. Although Fred did sit in once with the band for a song or two in Phoenix, Arizona. Fred was brought in to record Mystery solely on the recommendation of Mike Varney. He brought a lot of ‘younger’ energy to Mystery. I think he was only around 18 at that time.”
The replacement would be a young Ken Mary, who was already working at the time in the making of another cult classic of the underground Metal scene, Fifth Angel’s self-titled debut. And since Fifth Angel and Chastain were both on Shrapnel Records, Mike Varney saw an opportunity there for Ken when Fred Coury left the band.
“Yes, I had been talking with Mike Varney during the Fifth Angel album, and we became friends,” Ken told me. “He suggested to David that he use me to play on the Ruler album. David asked me to play on the record. We had a great time making the album, and he asked me back for a few more albums after that. As long as my scheduled allowed, I was happy to play on his records. The music was always a blast, the songs were strong, and the players were fierce. I think we made some music that stood the test of time certainly!”
“Mike Varney knew him from his band Fifth Angel and suggested him,” David told me. “I trusted Mike’s opinion on such things and we were lucky to get him into the studio band. He played on at least five of my albums but we never played live together other than in rehearsals. Once Chastain played with Alice Cooper and Ken was playing drums for Alice so we played on the same stage the same night but in different bands. That was as close as we ever came to playing live together. Ken showed up at the studio prepared to record Ruler and as far as I remember he fit right in and was ready to go. No complaints on my part about Ken.”
While it’s a shame that Ken never played live with Chastain as his mix of technicality and showmanship is always much appreciated, his input on the albums he did with the band was certainly notorious and you can’t imagine Ruler of the Wasteland being played by another drummer.
It’s also worth taking the time to point out the importance of Mike Varney in this entire situation. While he isn’t a big name in the music industry as a whole, his input and the work he did as the president of Shrapnel Records played a big role in kick starting the careers of multiple artists in the Metal genre that have become established names, such as the aforementioned Chastain and Fifth Angel, but also the likes of Tony MacAlpine, Racer X (featuring future Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis), Steeler (featuring a young Yngwie Malmsteen), Exciter, Hawaii (featuring a young Marty Friedman), Cacophony (featuring the aforementioned Friedman and Jason Becker), Vinnie Moore, Vicious Rumours, Richie Kotzen, among many others.
“Mike was extremely important and influential,” Ken told me. “You may not remember, but he also discovered Yngwie, who arguably had more influence on Metal guitar than nearly anyone with the exception of maybe Eddie Van Halen. He’s a great guy, and we were both very young at this time. We got along very well and had many very long conversations on the phone about music, contracts, and the music business. We still keep in touch and talk every once in a while.”
Now that they had a whole year worth experience, a solid debut album under the belt and a new lineup with a soon-to-be world class drummer, Chastain were ready to leave their mark in the Metal world with what is widely viewed as the finest album in their catalog and a legend of the underground Metal scene.
Album cover of Ruler of the Wasteland
“I probably learned how to work successfully with Leather in the studio. On Mystery everyone was pretty scared of Leather and afraid to make suggestions to her. However by the time Ruler came around we were like brother and sister and we didn’t have to bite our tongues and we could say what we really felt. It was a much more productive environment. Ken Mary was also more agreeable in the way the album was recorded. Mystery was more of a free-for-all while Ruler was much more structured in the recording process.”
– David T. Chastain about the lessons learned during the days of Mystery of Illusion.
Recorded in Prairie Sun Recording Studios in Cotati, California, in 1986, Ruler of the Wasteland not only sounds like a natural progression to what we heard a mere year before in Mystery of Illusion, but also a massive improvement on pretty much every single department. From the belting and lion-like vocals, the guitar mastery, an even more powerful rhythm base to a much better production, this record feels like Chastain’s fourth rather than second one, which goes to show the sheer quality of the songwriting and the maturity of the professionals involved.
“During those years I was writing and recording material constantly as I had a home studio,” David explained to me when I asked if he had a preconceived idea of what the album was going to sound like. “CJSS would record a demo of everything there and then afterwards Mike Varney and I would decide which songs would work best for Leather and Chastain. Actually some of the songs that ended up on Ruler of the Wasteland were songs that were written before Mystery of Illusion. Not that they were inferior but they didn’t fit with the other songs as well as the ones that made Mystery. So there were lots of songs to choose from for all of the albums. There are some that never made any album that I think were quite good… they just didn’t fit with the other songs at a certain point in time. So I guess the answer is ‘Yes’, I was pretty sure what the end result would be and I was not disappointed. Needless to say you can’t control everything and things sometimes come out different than anticipated. But there was nothing that was totally opposite of what I thought it would be.”
One of the key elements that stood out from the making of this album and that would go on to play a monumental role in Chastain’s sound was the development of the musical relationship between David himself and Leather. Guitarists and vocalists have historically been the pillars of Rock music and it was no different in Chastain, with the two of them developing a songwriting chemistry that defined the band for the coming years and albums.
“He was and is extremely prepared and all business,” Leather told me. “The studio is not my favorite place, so he also has the patience of a saint. But that being said, he appreciates and encourages my vocal creativity. As I have said, we are polar opposites, so my hyper activity can at times drive him crazy. The music speaks for itself, we get the Metal done!”
“Mutual respect and in general liking the same kind of Metal music,” David said when I asked him what makes his relationship with Leather work so well. “Back in those days I was one of the few guys that actually wanted a female vocalist fronting their band. Once I heard a demo of her singing some of my songs, I knew she was the voice that was needed to complete my vision of the band. I don’t recall a single ‘fight or disagreement’ we have ever had about anything. The reason we parted ways in ’90 (after the release of the For Those Who Dare album) was that we were both burnt out repeating the same cycle of writing new songs, recording and then touring. We both needed a break. We never officially broke up. We just didn’t think it would be over 20 years before we recorded again. Once we got back together to record ‘Surrender To No One’ (their reunion album in 2013) it was like we had only been apart a few months not a few decades.”
The production and the intensity of the songs is certainly one of the most notorious differences in the album when compared to the debut, but one key factor was the inclusion of drummer Ken Mary as he added an element of technicality and speed to the music. And according to David himself, this was something that he had to get out of Ken during the recording process.
Ken Mary during the recording of Ruler of the Wasteland.
“Love Ken as a person and as a drummer,” David said. “Always was prepared and did a great job on all the albums. Like with most of my drummers I had to get him to play ‘more’ instead of less. I like ‘busy drums’ on my albums so I usually tell them to ‘Play as much stuff as you want to and if it becomes too much I will let you know.’ I don’t recall any songs on Ruler that gave him any problem. A total pro!”
“Great people, great players, and some killer music,” Ken adds. “It was a great time to be in Metal, a great time to be on Shrapnel Records, who was getting tremendous attention worldwide and was the birthplace of some pretty heavy hitters in the music business. Mike (Varney) was involved in discovering many, many artists that went on to major label success. David was the mastermind and paid attention to every detail of the record. Leather was this ridiculously talented and unique vocalist, and remember: she was singing killer Metal vocals before any other female vocalist that I know of. (Correct me if I am wrong on that.) Mike was solid as a rock and a great guy to hang with. It was a great experience working with this team.”
“Ken Mary was like the rest of us,” Leather said. “We were there to be creative and get the job done to the best of our ability. Seriously, we were all business with the utmost respect for each other. Of course, we had fun, but we (the band with Ken) never actually played live together.”
“At that point in time I took my playing and ability very seriously,” Mike adds to Leather’s comment. “Four to six hours a day practicing and rehearsing. I’m very proud of my playing on those records. I worked hard and appreciated the opportunity.”
Mike Varney and David would share responsibilities as producers of the album, but they would also add Steve Fontano, who perhaps biggest credit before Ruler of the Wasteland would be engineering W.A.S.P.’s self-titled debut in 1984 and would go on to work with several Shrapnel bands and artists as a producer or engineer, such as Vicious Rumors, Cacophony, Jason Becker, Racer X, among others.
“The process of being in the studio with Chastain and Fontano has never left me,” Leather about the experience of working with David and Steve in the studio. “Such perfectionists. It drove me crazy. But it was my second time, so I knew my voice a bit better. I’m sure my drama continued (laughs). I threw many tantrums back then!”
“Steve was the engineer on Mystery of Illusion and we worked well together,” David explains about choosing Fontano as the producer for the album. “I don’t think Varney trusted me to produce by myself. With that said, I always enjoyed and respected working with Steve. He worked on most of those early Shrapnel albums and was more responsible for the ‘Shrapnel Sound’ than anyone.”
“He added a lot of cool vocal ideas on some of the songs… especially Angel of Mercy. We had a good working system, especially during the mixing stage. He would mix it to where he thought it sounded good and then I would come in and make a few final suggestions. I always enjoyed and respected Steve’s work.”
The Prairie Sun Recording Studios was also a very good choice for the band as it was a quality recording space that had been the home of several notorious artists and would continue to do so in the following years, with some of the most known being the likes of Primus, Racer X, UFO, Carlos Santana, Journey, Michael Schenker, Nine Inch Nails, among many others.
“Funny, I seem to be anticipating your questions (laughs),” Ken when I asked about any memories of recording in Prairie Sun. “As I mentioned before, we were spending 24 hours a day together, hanging out in the same house, rehearsing, and recording. It was a great environment, and as you probably know many great albums were made at that studio. We all felt very much at home.”
“I enjoyed recording there,” David adds. “However, it was a big hassle for me to get there. The owner, Mooka, was always cool and fun to be around. The studio was close to where Varney lived so that is why it was the ‘Shrapnel Records’ home studio. They had housing on site plus at least two different recording rooms. Back then, we were all so happy to be there that all in all it was a very positive experience. We would get up, have breakfast. I would practice guitar and maybe play a little basketball at an outside court at the studio. We would start recording very early afternoon and go until late at night. Leather lived in the area, so she was not living at the studio compound like the three musicians. She would just show up on her days to record.”
The title track.
Great songwriting has to be there in a vacuum, but one can’t help but listen to the opening that is the title track and not think that those good vibes in the studio were playing a big role in making things work from the get-go. From the opening guitar licks by David T. Chastain to the anger-filled roars of Leather, this track could very well be a perfect description of what the band Chastain stands for and it signals the massive growth they went from in merely a year from the days of Mystery of Illusion.
“We were more comfortable working with each other and as previously mentioned, on this album we were more likely to speak up instead of ‘living in fear’ of one another,” David explains about the band’s growth. “Mike Varney helped arrange some of the songs before we actually recorded them. He didn’t have a problem telling me a part of a song was ‘sucky’ and we needed to cut that part out. Varney was always in fear that I was trying to insert some sort of “devil” messages in the lyrics. Pretty funny actually. I don’t believe in any of that nonsense. I had been playing with Mike Skimmerhorn for quite some time in CJSS and before that in Spike, so I had a good relationship with him. Leather and I had played quite a few live shows by then so we were well aware of each other’s personalities by that point. It was pretty smooth sailing from what I remember.”
“I wrote, and we demoed all of the songs back in Cincinnati, Oh. I then sent the demos to Leather, Mike and Ken for them to acquaint themselves with the material. We then met up at Prairie Sun studios for a few days of rehearsal before recording the album. We would then lay down the drum tracks with scratch bass and guitar tracks. After we had the drums parts recorded I would record the rhythm guitar tracks. Then Mike would record the bass tracks. Then Leather would start laying down all of the vocal tracks. When she needed a day or two off, I would then lay down the lead guitar solos. We would trade off until everything was recorded. Then Steve would mix the material and I would come in afterwards and ‘fine tune’ the mix and then it was sent off to get mastered. Back in those days we had a budget of 100 hours in the studio. That was really not nearly enough time, but we managed to do it.”
The fact that the band didn’t have enough time to work on the songs by what David stated and still managed to produce such a top quality product is certainly notorious. The rhythm base is on point and Ken Mary (who told me this is one of his two favorite tracks in the album, along with Angel of Mercy) added a level of histrionics to the band’s sound that certainly fit quite well, especially when compared to the previous album. And Leather’s vocals, while already good in Mystery of Illusion, also did a leap in quality, which is shown in the final vocal lines of the title track with those powerful high notes as the song gets closer to the end.
“I had more confidence and knew my voice better,” Leather told me. “I was ready to tackle the new music. To be as Metal as possible. I knew we were on a roll. Chastain and I had clicked for a second time. I was excited after Mystery had such great buzz. I was stoked to be part of the game At this point I knew I could sing. I knew I could hang with the big boys. I was ready.”
One Day to Live.
One Day to Live shows the band ramping up the intensity even more and you can hear the phenomenal drumming by Ken Mary in this track in particular if you pay attention to his playing throughout the song.
“I don’t remember what kit, although I think it was my Ludwig which was a chrome on wood kit that I also used on the first Fifth Angel album,” Ken told me when I asked him about which equipment he used to record this album. “It’s too bad we didn’t have cell phones so we’d have photos of the recording. Back then we really didn’t think about recording images because we were too busy making an album.”
Of course, having been invited to our website to cover the history and making of Fifth Angel’s debut, I was interested in knowing if there was any major differences in playing for the aforementioned group and for Chastain and if there was any necessary changes in his playing style to adjust to the demands of both records.
“Fifth Angel was a band of friends that went back to our days in school,” Ken explained. “I met Ted and Ed when I was in junior high and they were in high school, so that was a band that started at the very beginning of my career. Fifth Angel was the first major label album I appeared on, and we developed songs as a band and rehearsed as a band. Chastain was more the brainchild of David, and he really assembled the music and the team along with Mike (Varney). It was a bit more of I was coming in to work on something that was almost in complete form, whereas Fifth Angel was more a band that we all worked on the music together.”
“I did (adjust) a little bit. Fifth Angel at the time of the first album was pretty basic drumming. The idea was to lay a super solid foundation, with power and authority. Chastain was more fluid, and more challenging from a musical standpoint drum wise. I was having to come up with more challenging and creative parts, so that was one of the things that made recording those albums so much fun.”
Definitely that more challenging side of his playing in One Day to Live, where the band goes full speed ahead until they reach a memorable chorus that highlights Leather (and the whole band)’s capacity of maintaining melodic hooks while playing in a very intense manner. This is one of the heaviest songs in the band’s entire catalogue and certainly one of the finest.
“I don’t really recall anything out of the ordinary other than me asking Ken to go crazy on the ending part,” David said about this song. “Leather was pretty much always ‘on’ for that album and she was especially intense on that song. Steve added some cool vocal ideas on this one also.”
The King has the Power.
As we open with that bassline in The King has the Power, we can give bassist Mike Skimmerhorn the spotlight that perhaps he rarely gets during the vast majority of the album, but one can’t forget about his rock solid playing and how he managed to develop a strong partnership with Ken Mary as a rhythm base, especially when we consider that, to some degree, they were maybe playing second fiddle to the duo of David and Leather.
“Ken is a total pro,” Mike told me. “Probably one of the best I’ve ever recorded with. David wrote the song (The King has the Power). Of course when I listen to it I think I can now do it better… but I also think the songs speak for themselves.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Ken told me about his time playing with Mike. “I remember the studio at Prairie Sun Recording in Novato California, and we all stayed in a house at the studio together. We basically worked for a couple days rehearsing and then started recording. It was a little isolated, as Novato is pretty far away from San Francisco, but we all had a great time hanging out, working up the tunes, and tracking the record. Mike is a great guy and great player.”
The song has two distinct sections, with the first one being a slow tempo song with a lot of groove and that relies heavily on the rhythm base while the second ups the pace of the track, holding a lot of similarities to what we have heard so far with the title track and One Day to Live. As per usual, Leather delivers a quality performance, but I personally think that the following song is a personal highlight of her career.
Fighting to Stay Alive.
Definitely one of the strongest tracks of the entire album, Fighting to Stay Alive is also one of the strongest and compelling vocal performances in Leather Leone’s career and a fine representation of her idiosyncrasies as a singer, having that rawness and aggressiveness while maintaining those vocal melodies and hooks that make this riff-filled hurricane of a song one of the biggest highlights in Chastain’s catalogue.
“That song is based in the key of A minor whereas most of the other songs on the album are in E minor,” David explains about Fighting to Stay Alive. “So it has a different vibe to it. Not quite as dark as the E minor songs. A little ‘happier’ sounding musically.”
“I connected with his music very easily,” Leather told me about singing David T. Chastain’s music and lyrics. “It was never a problem to feel where the lyrics came from. That was what attracted me to his talent in the first place. I understood musically where he came from. The interpretation was natural.”
Leather could be viewed as a natural as a vocalist and it’s a shame that her, much like the Chastain band as a whole, never got the recognition they deserved because they were a very consistent outfit and they had a ton of quality of songs. Of course, there was also the fact that there were a lot of claims that perhaps they never got an opportunity because, at the time, really heavy Metal bands with female singers were not getting a chance, but Leather has consistently rejected this notion.
“I never get sick of hearing of any impact I may have had on Metal,” she told me in our interview in 2018. “I seriously don’t feel I dealt with any type of sexism. If I didn’t get the gig I simply wasn’t good enough or what they were looking for, I don’t hold that sex idea over my head. I can sing and that is all that matters. If you chose to hold the sex idea of me (laughs). You will be in trouble, as I am so far away from that.”
Angel of Mercy.
Angel of Mercy is widely regarded as one of the best songs in the entirety of Chastain’s catalogue, not only by their fans and metalheads as a whole, but also by the very musicians that wrote it. And it’s understandable why they feel that way: it’s an epic that starts slowly but goes in crescendo until reaching a tremendous climax while also showcasing Leather’s vocal prowess and David’s phenomenal songwriting.
“Angel of Mercy took me immediately,” Leather told me. “I knew that song would change my life and stay with me forever. And of course Ruler was a killer. Chastain’s writing had taken an important shift to me. He was on fire. He knew my voice. It was a good time.”
“It was a song CJSS demoed up so everyone in Chastain knew what was happening before we arrived at the studio,” David explained to me about the writing of Angel of Mercy. “This is the song that I felt Steve Fontano added a lot of cool vocal ideas that I wouldn’t have thought to include. It is obviously perfect for Leather. She gets to sing somewhat softly in the quiet parts but then really belts out the loud parts. I had to go back and read the lyrics, but I think it is about a mysterious woman who I knew who was thinking about committing suicide and I was summoning the ‘Angel of Mercy’ to help her figure out her situation. This is one of the Chastain tracks that is still pretty popular today. I also enjoyed Hammerfall’s version of the song and it helped more people find the Chastain version after they released it.”
HammerFall’s cover of Angel of Mercy.
It’s a fascinating song that highlights some elements of Chastain that perhaps are not as celebrated as their more traditional Heavy Metal tracks, but it’s definitely brilliant and plays to the strengths of all the band members, especially Leather.
“I do soft vocals when the song requires it,” Leather told me. “The music that I write or what is written for me doesn’t call for it very often. And I do love to express myself through aggression, so it just works out that way. But I still dig a metal ballad. Listen to Annabelle on my latest record.”
There will be Justice
When it comes to David T. Chastain’s guitar playing in this album, we can say that he is at his best and songs like There will be Justice highlight how commanding his riffs can be. Most of Chastain’s body of work revolves around the use of strong riffs and this song is an archetypal example of that.
“It was so long ago and so many songs later I just imagine it was things I was feeling, observing or dreaming,” David told about the album’s lyrics. “A song like ‘Children of Eden’ is about how children are born pure and eventually their parents instill in them the parent’s prejudices. A child is not born a racist! The song ‘The King Has The Power’ was influenced by an original Star Trek episode. ‘There Will Be Justice’ is sort of a pro-vigilante vibe. As I mentioned I usually look at the song titles I have saved and see if one fits and then work with that. Then again there are times that the words and melodies come to me when I am putting the music together. Especially the choruses.”
David’s guitar wizardly is definitely one of the most consistent traits of the Chastain sound throughout the years and it is very difficult to appreciate the band as a whole without understanding the input of his guitar work.
“I was playing Kramer Pacer guitars through a Lab Amp and a Marshall cabinet,” David told me when I asked about the equipment he used for the album. “I also played acoustic guitar on that album but I have no remembrance of where that came from. Varney must have borrowed it from someone.”
The Battle of Nevermore.
The Battle of Nevermore could be viewed as an anthem of sorts in the album, with a slower pace but with a lot of groove and Leather Leone in one her more commanding vocal performances. The song slowly progresses and gets faster and more intense as time goes by, but it never loses its epic nature and the chorus is certainly memorable.
As an interesting, the anniversary edition of the album that was released in 2006 has a demo version of this song and I personally think is even better than the one that ended up in the record. It’s a bit longer, Leather’s vocals are a bit clearer and there are a few sections that were omitted in the official release, so I had to ask David about it.
Demo version of The Battle of Nevermore.
“A lot of the extra musical parts were lifted from another song we had demoed up. Varney and I wanted to make Nevermore a little more musically interesting,” David explained. “At the time he was promoting the ‘Guitar Hero’ brand, so he wanted me to put in as much guitar stuff as possible. There is actually a live video of Chastain playing that stripped down version of Nevermore on one of the Mystery of Illusion concerts. I think lyrically the song is about the Battle of Just Surviving Life.”
The Battle of Nevermore live on the Mystery of Illusion tour.
It’s one of the strongest songs on the album, whether it’s the official version or the demo version and another testament of the band’s quality at the time, highlighted by the combination of David’s guitar work and Leather’s vocals, especially when you listen to this particular live version of The Battle of Nevermore.
“Some people just connect musically,” Leather said about his musical chemistry with David. “I knew as soon as I heard his songs that it was part of me. We somehow come from the same musical sphere. It actually is quite hysterical because we are two different people in every other way. But also he found me when I was very young and green. He allowed me to grow and find my voice… while keeping me in key (laughs).”
The back of the album, showing the four band members.
Living in a Dreamworld.
Ken Mary pummels it with a phenomenal drum introduction on Living in a Dreamworld and then David T. Chastain carries on with some firing guitar licks. This track might be one of the most underrated of the album, but much like the rest of the record, it’s rock solid and it shows the band playing the brand of Metal that they enjoy: fast, heavy and quite technical and precise.
“I think that if one of the early Chastain CDs such as Ruler of the Wasteland were released today with modern production values it would sound contemporary,” David said in 2015. “Chastain’s music is unique and really doesn’t sound dated in any of the eras. With my guitar playing and songwriting and Leather’s vocals we have our own sound. Love it or hate it, you can’t say Chastain sounds like another band. We are what we are. We have never chased trends or popular directions. I probably couldn’t write that way even if I wanted. When I pick up the guitar what flows out I have no control. I have 100s of hours of songs sitting in the closet never to be released to the public. Plus I think I keep my ‘chops up’ with daily playing. My personal influences are very diverse so I have quite a bit to draw upon.”
Children of Eden.
Ending the album with Children of Eden is a sound choice and the song has some of the best riffs of the record while David also adds a bit of groove to it. Much like Living in a Dreamworld, it can be easily forgotten when compared with the other tracks such as Angel of Mercy or the title track, but there is a lot to like in this particular song. This kind of musical diversity can be highlight by David’s musical influences, which are more varied than what people might think.
“Musically I have a very diverse group of influences,” David said in 2002. “Plus if you ask me tomorrow I will probably tell you different people. I guess the music of Sabbath/Maiden, the vocals of Dio, the guitar playing of Rhoads/Roth would be it for Metal. In my instrumental/fusion stuff it would be Holdsworth, Dimeola and the like. Blues Rock would be Allmans, old ZZ Top, Trower, Stevie Ray and the like. As far as today’s bands, there are tons of great power metal bands coming out of Europe that I enjoy listening to when I get the chance.”
A phenomenal album from beginning to end that was a great representation of what the underground American Metal scene was in the mid-80s, but also its own musical beast, which goes to show how, despite being clearly Metal, Chastain had a very individualistic personality as a band and this is clearly reflected in Ruler of the Wasteland. And 35 years later, the band members are still proud of it.
“We were very happy with the end results,” David said. “I thought it was produced a lot better than Mystery of Illusion. Just a more professional effort all things considered. I haven’t heard the album from front to back in centuries, but I don’t believe there is anything on there that I am not proud of even in 2021. Mystery had more raw energy but Ruler was a more professional product. So positive points for both of those releases.”
“Well of course, as the years go by you always want to change the audio to match better what’s going on now, but for it’s time I was very happy with what we put together and how it sounded,” Ken said about his thoughts on the album so many years later.
I couldn’t agree more.
Reception, touring and legacy.
Living in a Dreamworld live in Detroit in 1987.
“Legacy is an overused and misguided word. We just made kick ass Metal music that some people connected with and chose to hold on to. For that I am eternally grateful.”
– Leather Leone.
Ruler of the Wasteland was released in June of 1986 and was widely appreciated and regarded by critics and fans alike. Viewed by the vast majority of their listeners as their finest album and one of the best of the underground Metal scene in the 1980s, it’s always going to be a shame that Chastain never had the mainstream success they duly deserved, but that didn’t seem like something that bothered the band members as the craft and passion was always a lot more important than selling a lot of records.
“I was and still am shocked we didn’t break,” Leather told me. “But I’m not sure Chastain was open to playing the label game. It is a brutal business and he was not a pushover. He wanted things his way and there was always another band behind you that would sign and do pretty much anything.”
“We all got along well and were young and excited at that point in time in our careers and dreamed of big things,” David adds. “A few different decisions here and there might have taken the band to a higher level. But all things considered we are still standing when most of the bands of that era are long gone. We ran a pretty tight ship so there were no drug overdoses or anything similar. It was a pretty professional operation considering where we were at in the food chain.”
Future albums would be made and they would be of a similar quality, with The 7th of Never, The Voice of the Cult, For Those Who Dare and Leather’s Shock Waves solo album being phenomenal releases during this particular time in the band’s history, showing the quality of their output and how consistent they were during the late 80s. And despite the fact that they didn’t do touring for this album due to several logistic problems and things of the sort, the legacy of Ruler of the Wasteland lives on and it is something that has stayed with the band members as well.
“It was a great time of my life and I look back on this album with great fondness,” Ken said. “We accomplished something special musically that stood the test of all these years. I think it has a great legacy of an amazing metal album that really blazed the way, especially in terms of putting a spotlight on female Metal singers. Of course, people were already aware of guitarist’s being in the spotlight, but certainly David cut a unique path for himself as well. It is amazing that all these years later people are still enjoying this music. I hope they continue to do that for many years.”
“Good songs, production and performance,” David said about the album’s legacy. “I think every track still stands strong. I sincerely believe that if we went into the studio today and recorded those songs for the first time with today’s production values the album would be successful. Chastain has always had a unique sound due to my songwriting and Leather’s vocals. We weren’t trend chasers. So we would probably be as ‘out of style’ now as then.”
The Ruler of the Wasteland lineup.
One of the most underrated Metal albums of all time and one that I personally consider the best Metal album with a female vocalist in the history of the genre, Ruler of the Wasteland is a timeless musical effort that is as enjoyable today in 2021 as it was in 1986, thus showing that great music will always stand the test of time.
“In looking back at the album I would say it is one of my three favorite Chastain albums,” David said. “The best all-around album of the Leather 1 era. Not a weak track. I am glad that the album, like all of those first five albums, are still quite popular and many younger fans are just discovering them. Believe me, when we were recording those albums we never envisioned that people would still be interested and purchasing the music 35 years later! That blows my mind.”
And when I asked Leather Leone to describe this album with just one word, she was quite clear.