Fifth Angel – The Making and History of their debut album
Written by Kevin Tanza on August 12, 2021
“Well, I have a feeling of pride with what we accomplished and created. And I’m truly amazed that there is still an audience for it! From my perspective, Fifth Angel was in limbo for a very long time….sort of like the story of Rip Van Winkle….so then, we awake years later to find out that people still are interested in the music. That’s pretty mind blowing! And this tie in with what I was saying: life has an ebb and flow, and you really never know where it may take you!”
– Guitarist Ed Archer about the legacy of Fifth Angel’s debut.
Fifth Angel is a very interesting case of the American underground Metal scene of the 80s. Sure, you get some of the usual stories and tropes: a very good album, lack of support from their label and a very good reception that is sadly not accompanied with record sales. But you also get a group of people that have been doing this since they were together in high school and a group of musicians that was solely focused on studio work, which was a rarity at the time.
But above all, you get quality music.
Fifth Angel’s 1986 self-titled debut album is one of the strongest Metal works of the decade and an incredible combination of melody, guitar work, drumming and some of the best vocal performances that you can listen to. It is an extremely well-crafted album where every song feels like a remarkable journey through the musicians’ minds.
And in order to celebrate the 35 years of such an underrated Metal masterpiece, we’re going to talk about the history and making of Fifth Angel’s debut album. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to talk with drummer Ken Mary (who already visited our website once for an interview), bassist John Macko and guitarist Ed Archer about the album, the origins of the band and what happened after their debut was released. Hope you can enjoy it.
“What great times we had! Always some crazy adventure, or misadventure (laughs)!”
– Ed Archer about the band’s early days.
Fifth Angel is one of those iconic bands of the 80s underground Metal scene, so their origins might be a bit unknown for music fans in the grand scheme of things. And as an interesting fact, this band hails from the land that would be known for Grunge in the next decade, Seattle.
“It might sound a little cliché, but for me the Seattle scene was like one big party!” said guitarist Ed Archer, one of Fifth Angel’s founding members, told me when I asked him about the early days. “It was a great time to be a young musician in a band, and there were a lot of musicians and a lot of bands, and different kinds of gigs for bands….and yes, a lot of partying!”
The core of musicians that would eventually form Fifth Angel met in high school, with Ed forming a friendship with Ted Pilot, who would become the band’s vocalist. Pilot would be a key element in the future development of Fifth Angel as a group, but first and foremost, he was a really good friend to a young Ed Archer.
“My first thought is…Ted was a real hoot to hang out with! Very witty, very funny and very smart! And of course, having the gift of being very musical,” Ed told me. “I first knew Ted as a friend, really. Like I mentioned, being in a new school and meeting new people, and as they say; ‘birds of a feather flock together’….so I was meeting new people and forming new friendships, and Ted was a part of my new ‘musical friend group’.”
There were other friends that played with them in a band they had before Fifth Angel, whose connections would prove to be quite important to Archer and Pilot down the line.
“We talked about music and hung out, and decided to get together for a little jam!” Ed told me. “It sounded decent, even for being young guys with no real experience, but we needed a drummer! We tried out a number of people, and finally a mutual friend, Scott, told us about Ken….and the rest is history (laughs)! We learned cover songs that were popular on the radio….Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Judas Priest, Van Halen and on and on. We got connected with a booking agent and started playing gigs….a bunch of young teenagers traveling around and playing!”
Of course, that Ken would be a young and talented drummer named Ken Mary, who went on to have a very successful career in Metal, playing for multiple notable bands, including Alice Cooper. But by circa 1983, Ken was just another teenager from Seattle with big dreams of making it as a musician.
“I always knew I wanted to play drums,” Ken told me. “When I was 5 years old I would bang around on pots and pans, and when I started school they would sometimes take pencils away from me for banging them on the desks. When I was in 6th grade they asked what instrument I would like to play for the school band and I of course picked drums. That became a lifelong pursuit and has brought me great enjoyment over the years.”
These three musicians, along with a bassist named Greg, would play some gigs in the Bellevue area in Washington where they were from, cutting their teeth and gaining experience on the field. And this was how Ted Pilot’s singing style, both powerful and melodic, would help the band to get their missing piece for the final piece of the Fifth Angel puzzle.
“Eventually Ted Pilot built a great reputation as a vocalist in the Seattle area, so James Byrd offered him to sing on a demo he was about to record,” Ed said in 2014. “They were James’ songs, but I listened to them and found that they had a lot to do with what we were doing. So we decided to get James (on board) and he didn’t record that demo. When we founded Fifth Angel our goal was to play and record the music we liked and to get a record deal.”
James Byrd was another young talent from the Seattle scene. A great guitar player in his own right, his mix of technical and melodic Metal was a key factor in taking Fifth Angel’s sound to the next level and he was also a hungry musician that had to overcome a lot of different challenges in his own personal life to become the great guitar player he is even to this very day.
“My own musical influences actually pretty much came to an end in 1980 actually, because I didn’t have any money to buy albums, and I was playing almost every weekend,” James Byrd said in 2011. “But the East Side is very different from Seattle proper in terms of culture. It’s the suburbs, and metal was huge here. It seemed like everyone wore white Capzios and leather and had long hair, whether they played in a band or not. Scorpions and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, along with Van Halen, were extremely popular here. Iron Maiden was also really popular, but I never owned an album by them. I remember hearing them before they had Bruce Dickinson, and not liking them much. I LOVE Maiden now of course (one of my favorite still around metal bands). But my influences were always limited to bands with great guitar players like Blackmore, Roth, and Schenker.”
James Byrd is a bit of controversial figure in the history of Fifth Angel due to his notorious contributions to the creation of this memorable debut album and the acrimonious way that he left the group afterwards. The man himself has stated throughout the years that his exit from the band wasn’t the most amicable (we’re going to dwell on that later on in this article), but no one can deny that his contributions to this debut were monumental and that is something that his fellow guitar player agrees with.
“So then….Ted told me about James’ song ideas and how they aligned with songs that Ted and I had been working on…. we had a backlog of music ideas,” Ed told me. “It was an exciting time! Randomly crossing paths with a musically like-minded player, and a very exceptional player at that! So we all put our heads together with our music ideas and started creating!”
Now with the band fully formed, it was time to work on their own new material and find ways to get the interest of labels to produce their first record. The early 80s were a very fruitful time for the Metal scene in Seattle and as a big Queensrÿche fan I couldn’t help but ask if Fifth Angel ever had the chance to play with them in a venue during both bands’ formative years.
“Fifth Angel never did….but before Fifth Angel and before Queensryche existed we did!” Ed told me. “That probably sounds confusing, but part of the Seattle scene back then was like a big musical soup: bands breaking up and new bands being formed, and then that band fracturing and getting some new members, etc., etc. So the guys that eventually became Queensryche were in bands that played with us guys that would eventually become Fifth Angel! I remember how a particular band called Tyrant, where Geoff Tate was the singer, and our first band I mentioned were in a Battle-Of-The-Bands. We got to know each other, and stole their bass player (laughs)!”
There was also the need of picking a name for the band and the guys found inspiration through the Bible, of all places.
“We were looking for a unique and different name that would provide a certain dose of mystery,” Ed said in 2014. “It was Ted’s little brother who helped us when we were all coming up with the right name. He was in theology class and began studying the book ‘Revelations’ in the Bible. He was reading stories about the ‘first angel’, the ‘second angel’ … until he got to the ‘fifth angel’. Here’s how we found the ideal name: Fifth Angel.”
Interestingly enough, even though that the band had added James Byrd to the equation and they were writing their own original material, they decided to not focus on doing the typical concert circuit that a lot of bands used to do at the time, which is something that definitely made Fifth Angel a very peculiar outfit in the early-to-mid 80s of the Metal scene in the United States.
“When Ted, Ken and I first got together with James, we decided that our time was best spent fleshing out music ideas and developing songs rather than playing live,” Ed explained to me. “Actually, it was the logical thing because we didn’t have a full band yet, just the four of us, so we couldn’t play live even if we wanted to…we didn’t have songs to play and we didn’t have a full band! So that scenario lent itself to working on music, with first focusing on creating music, then recording it, and then thinking of live gigs later. But again, we weren’t really in a situation to play live initially….and of course, the way life worked out, Fifth Angel never played a live gig until many years later!”
Regardless of this, the band was already working towards making a record in the mid-eighties and by 1985 they were able to produce their first demo, which featured songs that would be released on this debut, such as their namesake track, Wings of Destiny and Fade to Flames, plus a song that didn’t make it to the album, Under Pressure.
Fifth Angel’s 1985 demo, which had songs that would make it on their debut.
Being a band that had a group of musicians with a lot of experience working in other groups and producing several demos, especially when it came to James Byrd, they had enough knowledge of the multiple studios in the Seattle area, which made it easier for them to pick the right place for their 1985 demo and thus they ended up choosing Steve Lawson Productions.
“One of the things we did was listen to recordings from different studios, and take walk-thru tours….we liked what we heard and what we saw at Lawson’s,” Ed told me. “And Lawson’s was similar to other pro-level studios at the time: if you had the money, you could book the time and get to work, and that’s what we did!”
“Before recording at Lawson’s, we recorded demos at a friend’s home studio. He had a Teac/Tascam 8 track tape machine and corresponding mixing board….back then it was pretty cool to know someone with this kind of equipment! I remember he liked Canadian beer, so we paid him with beer (laughs)! We’d go over to his place with a case of Molson or Labatt’s and start recording! Anyway… the plan was to record demos at our buddy’ studio, then review what we recorded and make changes if needed, and then go into a pro level studio to get high quality recordings to submit to record companies to try and get a record deal!”
The producer for the demo was no other than Terry Date, who went on to have a very significant career producing very important bands such as Pantera, Soundgarden, Slayer, Limp Bizkit, Overkill, Dream Theater, Slipknot, among many others. But back in 1985, Date was just starting out and he saw his first big chance at producing with Fifth Angel.
“It was really just a happenstance kind of thing with Terry,” Ed told me when I asked him about how they got together with Terry Date as their producer. “He was the head engineer at Lawson’s, and he had experience with recording. I don’t think Terry had any music production credits at the time, and I think Fifth Angel was the first band he recorded that was released internationally. Terry had a really good sounding demo reel of bands he’d recorded, and he knew his way around the mixing console. He was well versed with mic placement and all the technical wizardry that goes on with professional audio recording.”
“I remember us running out of studio time and money, so we made a deal to get more time by having Terry listed as one of the producers! Our debut album was actually self-produced alongside with Terry. I think at that time some of our ideas of adding in samples and trying things like putting exciters on cymbals and stereo bus compression may have been new ideas to him.”
The demo might be understandably rawer than what we ended up listening in the debut album, but the musicianship, the melodies and Pilot’s phenomenal pipes are already right there, showing that this group already had a very clear sound and style even before they got into the studio for their first record. And of course, they managed to get the interest of Mike Varney, founder of the label known as Shrapnel Records.
Varney is an important figure in the underground American Metal scene of the 80s, using Shrapnel Records to give a lot of bands their first big chances in the music business and betting on sounds that perhaps were not as popular as Glam or Thrash Metal, at least in terms of cultural resonance. Groups like Racer X, Chastain, Cacophony, Vicious Rumors, Steeler, Exciter, many different shredders like Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Vinnie Moore, Tony MacAlpine, and, of course, Fifth Angel, all found a home in this label to get their careers started.
“Mike Varney heard the demos and got back with us,” Ken Mary told me. “I remember talking with him on the phone and negotiating a recording contract that was kind of a mess. He had this standard form, but he had written it himself. Since we didn’t have money to spend, we did the deal without getting lawyers involved, which was kind of odd but it all worked out. Mike was actually a really cool guy to deal with, and we remained friends over the years. He thought Fifth Angel had a killer sound and felt like we could make an impact worldwide.”
And while there is no denying that Varney definitely believed in what Fifth Angel had to offer, especially considering the man’s track record with bands of a similar ilk and music style, Ed Archer also offers another perspective to the reason why they were picked by Shrapnel Records.
“Well….we were sending out our demo and band bio to every place we could think of! We had this large music industry book that had addresses and phone numbers for record labels and managers and A & R people, so we sent our package to all the pertinent players that we could! I think Shrapnel was on the list…and they were the only ones that were interested, probably because we didn’t have management and were sending our package unsolicited,” Ed told me. “You know the saying, ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’? We could have very likely gotten on with a big label from the start if we had reputable management to present to record labels, that’s actually what happened after the first album was released on Shrapnel. Anyway, Varney was always focused on lead guitar playing, and we certainly had that with James!”
Be that as it may, Fifth Angel had finally landed a record deal with a label that believed in their sound and what they had to offer, had a very solid demo and were poised to get into the studio and record their first debut album–an album that has become the very definition of a cult classic and that has enjoyed a very enduring legacy.
“This one turned into becoming the story behind the band name, with trying to describe the ominous tale of the Fifth Angel! You never really know exactly where a song is going to end up when you’re first starting it…it can go into its own ebb & flow as it develops. It’s quite a story there with this one…I think this particular one came together easier than some others.”
– Ed Archer about the title track.
The band got back to the Steve Lawson Productions studio with Terry Date in late 1985 to start recording their debut album. Due to the fact that they already did the demos in that studio and with Date as their producer, they already had a decent knowledge of what to expect and thus the recording process was a bit swifter and more precise, which only helped with the music that we found in the final version.
“I’d say we were more focused on the recording process, trying to record the best performances we could, and trying to get good tones with instruments and vocals, and effects too,” Ed told me. “The demos we did, at least the demos we did at our buddy’s place, were pretty casual…I mean, we took recording seriously but it wasn’t a pro-level studio, so a lot of beer drinking and such (laughs)! The more serious recordings at Lawson’s had less drinking I mean…you don’t wanna’ be totally shitfaced when you’re spending big money on studio time!”
Steve Lawson Productions was a studio that had enough technological advances for the guys of Fifth Angel to experiment and really complement their sound. Considering that they were a studio band, this was something that played greatly to their strengths, especially when you factor in that they couldn’t get into the studio during the week due to time restrictions.
“We did recording mainly on weekends, and weekday evenings,” Ed explained to me. “Lawson’s did a lot of recording for TV and radio commercials, and maybe some film scores….that kind of stuff was more of the Monday through Friday business schedule. Recording bands seemed like it was sort of a side thing for the studio, doing recording during off hours since it wasn’t the studio’s main bread-and-butter! But it was cool. We could roam freely around the studio complex and experiment with things! It was actually two separate 24 track studios, an 8 track studio, a dubbing room, a keyboard room, etc, etc. I remember spending time in the keyboard room experimenting with synthesizers to get thunder sounds and other sounds that we recorded!”
“(Laughs) I remember the tape and duplication room at Lawson’s,” Ken added. “Ed and I spent some time back there recording words and playing them backwards. Then we would try to learn them, say them backwards and record them with the machine moving forwards. Then we’d flip the tape and play it backwards again to see if we could make it sound like you had said the word correctly. I know it sounds complicated, but basically we were trying to say words reversed and then reverse them again to play normally. We had some pretty good laughs. A couple times we probably cried, we were laughing so hard. And we discovered sampled keyboards. They had a Kursweil we ended up using for some background choir on Cry Out the Fools. We couldn’t believe how great the samples sounded. Back then the technology was just beginning to emerge, and it was kind of like magic to us.”
Focusing strictly on the musical side of things, one of the key factors in the sound of Fifth Angel’s is the differences between the guitar of Byrd and Archer, which is something that the latter pointed out about his former partner in crime when I talked with him.
“James was and is a very talented lead guitar player. He had a unique way of phrasing his leads, coupled with speed and articulation, and of course melody, not just random notes being played, but real thought and depth behind what is being played,” Ed told me. “His leads definitely played a major role in the early Fifth Angel sound. We all played a role with songwriting, some more than others depending on the particular song, but it all melded together into a ‘sound’, the ‘Fifth Angel’ sound, I suppose. As always, there can be a different musical perspective from different people….we worked through our musical differences and kept an open mind, and experimented with each other’s ideas.”
Fifth Angel’s iconic self-titled debut album cannot be fully appreciated without the powerful and iconic voice of Ted Pilot, who manages to combine a very clean singing style with a mighty range and a knack for melody that only the best singers possess. He is one of the most unique voices in Metal in the eighties and Ed Archer shed some light into why Pilot’s singing style fitted so well with the band’s music.
“Musically, Ted was more of a guitar player and less of a singer when I first met him, but after a while he started focusing more on singing,” Ed told me. “It’s a journey with singers, I think, with finding their voice. I remember Geoff Tate before he found his voice, the voice that he became famous for. I heard Geoff singing in different bands before Queensryche was formed…his voice sounded different back then.”
“The same was true for Ted. His singing voice was different in the beginning, although he had the inherent tonal qualities that are imbedded with a person’s physical makeup of vocal cords and larynx and such. Ted worked hard on developing his voice, taking singing lessons from different teachers before getting connected up with Maestro David Kyle. And if you’re not familiar with the Maestro, do a search! He played a major role with assisting some of the greatest voices and most famous singers in the world including Ann Wilson of Heart, Geoff Tate from Queensryche, and many others!”
“Anyway….Ted’s guitar playing was a real asset with songwriting. Ted understood the guitarist side of things in tandem with the vocal side, and vice-versa with James and myself. Ted would come up with guitar riffs sometimes, and I’d share vocal ideas….it worked out well! We all had a very good musical rapport with each other in the beginning, we didn’t always agree, but we were open-minded and would listen to each other’s musical perspectives. Then we would jam the songs with Ken as well and we’d all make any tweaks at that point.”
I don’t think I need to add anything else. Ed did a far better job than I ever could. But it’s also worth pointing out that doesn’t mean he was going soft on Ted during the recording sessions for the album, which is something that he highlighted when I asked him about the overall mood of the recording sessions for the debut.
“I suppose it was sometimes up and sometimes down, depending on what we were doing! I’d say it was mostly up, but we had differences at times with effects to use or EQ on certain sounds,” Ed explains. “I was at the helm for recording Ted’s vocals, punching him in and out on certain phrases and words. I really had him under the microscope! I could tell when his voice was getting tired, but sometimes he’d want to keep going when he shouldn’t and we couldn’t get the same tone or performance. He’d get frustrated, wanting to continue, but when you’re spending our own money and not getting the results, it’s time to hit pause and rest up and pick back up the next day. Usually having him come into the control room for a listen was when he’d agree that it was time to call it a day!”
The album kicks off with a very fast and powerful track in the form of In The Fallout. A lot of bands take their time to grow and develop, grasping the traits that make up their iconic sound–not in the case of Fifth Angel. They came out right out of the gate with a fully-formed sound and this particular song shows all the elements that made them such a phenomenal band: Ted Pilot’s breathtaking vocals, the guitar attack of James Byrd and Ed Archer and the powerful yet precise drumming of Ken Mary.
“For this one, I remember wanting a song that had a big impact with the intro, having full band punches, and then thinking of some guitar bits in between the punches,” Ed told me when describing the process for In The Fallout. “Ted did the majority of lyrics on most songs and this one tells an interesting story. As I mentioned, the writing process took time, trying different things and experimenting. It seems easier to know what doesn’t sound good and eliminate it, but then you have to come up with something good to replace those not-so-good parts!”
From the very first song we can hear the defining traits of the band and that knack for melody that made them stand out when compared to their contemporaries. Fifth Angel has been often labeled as Power Metal, especially of the more European vein, but I think they are a classic Heavy Metal outfit that simply knew how to write compelling melodies and In The Fallout is a powerful first impression for listeners.
Shout It Out is the following song, and while it is not as fast as In The Fallout, it offers us a greater insight into James Byrd as a guitarist, offering some impeccable leads and Pilot soars through the whole track, showing a commanding and charismatic approach to singings these lines.
This one is a more typical eighties Heavy Metal track, but one that works wonderfully, showing the band’s musical versatility and the kind of understanding that they had with one another in that particular time, at least from an artistic perspective.
If anything can distinguish Fifth Angel, even during the demo stages of their careers, was the combination of musicality and technique in Heavy Metal, making them a very unique outfit in a day and age where a lot of bands wanted to be like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. And that can be exemplified by Ken Mary’s musical influences as a drummer.
“I was influenced by so many, including jazz, Latin and fusion players, which were the first styles that I learned,” Ken Mary told me. “I learned to play with traditional grip, and only moved to be able to play matched grip later when I started playing in a rock band. My early influences included Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd, Tommy Aldridge, Neil Peart, Dave Weckel, and many others. I tried to learn as much as I could from every player that struck me as an impressive player.”
From my personal perspective, Call Out the Warning is one of the finest songs in the entire debut and one of the best tracks in the entirety of the Fifth Angel catalogue. Much like In The Fallout, it plays to the band’s strengths, but, in my view, does it on an even higher level and not a single second in this song is wasted.
This is a fast-paced song that has supremely gifted guitar work, a drummer that is hitting his kit with a delightful mix of skill and energy and a vocalist that completely steals the show when he gets to the chorus, which has an almost heavenly-like feel to it when you listen to it as the song develops. It is definitely a song that showcases the level of care for detail that the band had during this record.
As it was shown in the demos, the sound and musicianship that eventually ended up on this album was very organic and is a testament to the quality of the players that made these songs. This is something that Ken Mary highlighted when I asked him about his performance on this debut record.
“I’m very happy with what I recorded, and I feel it added the power, aggression, and foundation for everything that was laid on top in terms of the music,” Ken told me. “Compared with the recording process today, the methods were quite archaic. There wasn’t software like ‘pro-tools’, and no way to manipulate drums whatsoever. What your feel was and what you played ended up on the record, and if you weren’t a solid player and you couldn’t lie the foundation there was no way to fix it. I feel that the drumming, and really all the musicianship on this record, sounds very mature and especially so when you think of how it was recorded. If you couldn’t play it or sing it, it didn’t happen.”
And that only adds to the legacy of Fifth Angel’s debut.
The title track is a mid-tempo track that is carried by the phenomenal main riffs played by Ed Archer and James Byrd–they are energetic and catchy, playing a very good rhythm that never ceases to get your attention. Pilot really captures the solemn feel of the song and delivers a heartfelt and yet powerful performance.
One of the defining traits of Fifth Angel (and by extension, this debut album) is how sophisticated they were as a band while still maintaining an accessible and melodic feel to it. The title track is a great proof of that, showcasing a band doing a tight and technical performance, but done through the lenses of melody and hooks, which is something that a lot of bands tend to forget–they usually just focus on the hooks or technicality, but this band knows how to combine both aspects.
The middle section, where Pilot starts to add a couple of lines after the standard chorus, is one of the finest parts of the song and the album as a whole, with those epic riffs complementing his voice to a T. It is a rare and important chemistry between guitar and voice that only the best groups can accomplish.
Definitely one of the standout parts of the entire record.
The interesting part about Wings of Destiny is that it almost feels like Fifth Angel trying to create their own version of Iron Maiden’s iconic song, Hallowed Be Thy Name. Now, I’m not trying to imply that there is an attempt at plagiarism here, but rather that the band was trying to capture that somber beginning and then explode in a very energetic, powerful Heavy Metal track.
Much like the title track, it is a mid-tempo song and one that also shares the traits of an epic feel and a strong main riff that really carries the weight of the track. Both Byrd and Archer get a lot of credit for their leads, but the riffs in these songs are some of the best that you can find in eighties Metal and one of the most underrated aspects of Fifth Angel.
Once again, Pilot shines delivering these vocal lines and it makes you glad that Archer pushed him to do his best! The man wasn’t going to have a long career in the music industry (more on that later), but he made sure to deliver a performance for the ages on this album, with Wings of Destiny being a particular highlight of his, especially with those high pitch vocals near the end of the song.
A mysterious opening on The Night gives way to a powerful and fast-paced track that shows Ken Mary taking control of the situation once again with his drumming and a main guitar lick that really sticks in your mind after the very first listen. It might be one of the most “simple” songs in the entire album, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own charm and effectiveness, which is of course the point of music.
It’s one of the songs where Byrd offers one of my personal favorite guitar solos and that’s saying a lot as it showcases his technique and sense of melody–he doesn’t try to play a million notes per second but rather trying to come up with something memorable and he succeeds at that.
I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best songs on the entire album, but it’s still no pushover and definitely worth your time.
Despite being one of the founding members and one of the main musical forces within the band, Only the Strong Survive is the only song on the album credited to Ken Mary, with the majority of them written by Ted Pilot (also the main lyricist), Ed Archer and James Byrd, so I was interested to know Ken’s process to write this song.
“I had a hand in the lyrics and melody,” Ken told me. “I was the youngest member of the band, and my songwriting skills had not really emerged at this point. By the next album, I was beginning to write more fully formed ideas rather than just rhythm ideas or production ideas, but at the time of the first album I had not developed fully as a writer. When I joined Alice Cooper’s band, and all of those musicians were great writers, they encouraged me to get a programmable keyboard (an Ensonic, by the way [laughs]) that I would have brought up to my hotel room along with a four-track recorder to assemble ideas. That’s when I really began to hone my composition skills.”
Unlike previous songs, this one has a galloping rhythm that is maintained throughout the whole track and it is a nice combo of Archer and Byrd’s twin guitar attack with Mary’s powerful drumming. Ironically enough, despite delivering the goods, I was never fully convinced by Ted Pilot’s vocals here, although I admit that is more of a personal opinion rather than a technical criticism.
The chorus is certainly catchy and Ken Mary offers some interesting drum parts throughout, so I think it’s a nice song in that regard and certainly played a role in the man’s career as he started to come into his own as a songwriter.
One of the definite highlights of the album, and a song that has become a classic of sorts in the Fifth Angel catalogue, is Cry Out the Fools, which holds a special meaning to a lot of members of the band, particularly drummer Ken Mary.
“Thank you so much for the kind words,” Ken said when I complimented his drumming on this track. “I love the song still, and this song’s lyrics are perhaps more meaningful to me now than when we were young. Back at the time of this recording, being simple and tasteful drumming wise was really the mode. I listen back and am very pleased with what we created, and I do feel the power of the rhythm track really did enhance that particular piece.”
I couldn’t agree more. Cry Out the Fools is a remarkable mid-tempo song that is truly improved by the rhythmic drumming of Mary’s, the mighty voice of Ted Pilot and a majestic chorus that takes the track to a whole new level. Songs like these makes me understand when a lot of Metal fans try to label this band as Power Metal, but I think they just had a sophisticated and elegant approach to classic eighties Heavy Metal that truly worked like a charm.
Very few songs define the band as well as this one and if you want absolutely everything that’s great about Fifth Angel in one song, this is the one for you.
The album ends with Fade To Flames, which follows the structure of a slow beginning and then kicking into full blast of Wings of Destiny. And while I don’t think that this song hits the heights of the aforementioned track, I think it’s a fitting ending for the album as a whole.
One of the best parts is the eclectic guitar work, which goes from semi-acoustic to full-blown guitar hero stuff when you get to the solos and, of course, Ted Pilot’s vocal performance, who actually sings on a higher register compared to previous songs and ends the track (and the album) on a very high note that seems uncharacteristic when you consider everything we have listened until to this point.
But one that adds a degree of gravitas and drama to close down one of the best Metal albums of the underground movement in the eighties, and one that their own creators are still very proud of.
“I think the production has stood up over the years, certainly the music has!” Ed said. “From my personal perspective, the sound might be a bit overly compressed, but then, that was part of the sound of the 80’s I suppose!”
“I think for its era and the budget that was spent on it, it held up amazingly well,” Ken added. “Of course, stylistically production trends change, but for its time I think it was amazing. When you think that really all Epic did was change the artwork and remaster (not remix) the original album that says a lot about the value of the production.”
Not everybody in the original lineup feels the same, though. Despite how celebrated this album is in multiple Metal circles, guitarist James Byrd is not 100% convinced by his work on it, looking back at Fifth Angel’s debut after all these years.
“There really isn’t a lot on the Fifth Angel album I am still happy with today as a player,” Byrd said in 2011. “That album was also made under severe budget and time restraint, and all the solos were worked out to the note; they had to be because I only had 45 minutes per song to cut my guitars on that album. That’s absurd if you think about it.”
As an interesting fact, I also got to discover the mystery of who did the bass parts as it was known that Kenny Kay, bassist credited in the album, did not really play in Fifth Angel’s debut record.
“(Laughs) Well….we wanted to create the illusion of being a full band even though we didn’t have a bassist at the time,” Ed explains. “So we had Kenny step in for a photo shoot because he looked cool and he was a good friend. And we felt we should follow through with having him listed on bass to complete that! The truth is, I played bass on most of those tracks, and we had Randy Hansen play bass on the rest. Randy is a great guitar player, and Ken had been touring with him, so he was nice enough to come in and he laid down some solid tracks!”
“Randy is a super cool guy, and it was great to have him to come down and help us out. You can look him up! He’s still popular and touring in Europe and the US playing a tribute to Jimi Hendrix act forever.”
Bassist or no bassist, this album has held the test of time and it was a powerful statement of Fifth Angel’s, showing the world that they were a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, things started to unravel right after the release of their debut in 1986.
Reception, touring and legacy.
“For how young we were and the effort we put forth to try to create an amazing album, I’m very proud of what we accomplished. I think it sounds very professional for its era, because of the musicianship and the attention to detail in the songwriting, recording, and performances. The lessons of creating that album followed me though life, actually. Whatever you’re going to do, do it with excellence.”
– Ken Mary.
Fifth Angel’s debut album came out in January of 1986 and received a lot of recognition and positive reviews by the specialized music press. The band quickly became a cult favorite among metalheads and the album generated a lot of interest, which has remained to this day, even if the sales were not as high as compared to other big Metal albums that were released at the time.
“It was a very good reception, especially in Europe! It seemed to have created quite a buzz,” Ed explained to me. “I remember getting copies of magazines that had really nice reviews, and then getting approached by magazines for interviews. Pretty exciting stuff, but we put in a lot of time and effort with it too!”
“I don’t think we were really surprised with the response,” Ken added. “We had big aspirations, and we knew inside that we would be on a major label shortly. We even talked about that, and how it probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference to us. We just wanted to get the music out to as many people as possible, but we knew that would require a major label eventually.”
And one big label definitely knocked to Fifth Angel’s door. Epic Records heard the debut album and the success they were having in both sales and reviews by critics, so they decided to bet on the band–to the point that they were offered and given a seven-records deal on their contract, which is something that Ken Mary confirmed in an interview in 2018.
“I don’t know what the total sales are today, but then, I don’t know what we expected,” Ed told me. “I don’t think any of us expected it to be completely ignored, so it was nice to see that didn’t happen! I remember when we got signed to Epic Records and they re-released the first record (in 1988). Epic was very pleased with how it was doing”
“When it came out originally, it was charting better than a number of major label releases in Europe, so we knew something was happening,” Ken added. “We really weren’t sure to what extent, but we could tell there was some legitimate excitement about the band, and the album, happening on a global scale. Back in those days, Shrapnel had recently discovered Yngwie, so people were paying attention to what Shrapnel was releasing. We were one of the Shrapnel bands that people seemed to take notice of.”
“When the time came for Epic Records to pick the band up, Mike (Varney) took a very reasonable number of points considering all that transpired. He of course wanted us to stay on Shrapnel, but I think he wanted us to become successful worldwide even more, and he felt that Epic had the power to make that happen.”
Sadly, not everything was rosy in the Fifth Angel fold and things were going to start to unravel. Guitarist James Byrd, such a key figure in the phenomenal music of the debut album, left the band after the release of the first record and has never rejoined them, even after the reunion in recent years. There have been multiple views and reports on the matter, but Ed Archer cites personal differences and Ken Mary has stated something similar throughout the years while James has been a lot more vocal in that regard.
“I get asked this question in nearly every interview,” James said in 2002. “It’s like rehashing a 13 year old divorce, it just gets to be a drag. So I will give you the briefest possible answer, but short answers do not really explain what happened because it’s complex. But I was fired from the band without notice, immediately after signing a new partnership agreement which relinquished certain important rights I had in the band. It was a stab in the back, it was done for money and a right to continue using the name without me, and if one wants all the extended and lurid details of what’s really a ‘heavy metal soap opera’, I’m just not up for it today. Sorry.”
While Ed Archer has been a bit more diplomatic throughout the years, common knowledge is that James Byrd and the rest didn’t see eye to eye in a lot of things and both parties decided to go their separate ways.
James would go on to have a very consistent solo career, developing a cult following as a guitar hero and improving even more on the six strings. He would also stay with Shrapnel Records where he would kick off his own solo project, James Byrd’s Atlantis Rising, with the self-titled debut being released in 1990.
If you want a spiritual follow-up to what was done on Fifth Angel’s debut album, then this record is the one for you and it is a shame that it doesn’t get a lot more attention because it’s classic Heavy Metal of the highest order. And to maintain the Fifth Angel spirit, drummer Ken Mary actually played in the entirety of the album, even though Scott Hunt is credited in some of the songs.
James Byrd is one of the most underrated guitar players of his generation and the work he did on both Fifth Angel and his solo efforts deserves a lot more time on the spotlight.
As for Fifth Angel, they were signed by Epic Records and the latter rereleased their debut album on 1988 with a new cover. In the interim, Ken Mary was hired by Alice Cooper and did studio work and toured with the man himself in that time period, doing his best to promote Fifth Angel on the side, as the guys were working on the follow-up to their first record as Epic wanted a second album and fast.
In order to fill the absence of James, they hired guitarist Kendall Bechtel, who, funny enough, played with a band called Fallen Angel and has become a mainstay in the role, even after the band got back together a few years ago, until he left in 2019. And to finally fill the bassist role, they got the only man that has officially played that instrument for Fifth Angel since he got the job, John Macko.
“I was always a music lover from an early age, I think the first song I heard that really had an impact was ‘Let it be’ by the Beatles,” John told me. “I grew up on a street where two of my neighbor friends were also into music and one day the three of us decided to form a band, one guy said he would play guitar, the other guy said drums, so the only thing left was the bass! I was probably 14 years old at that time. I had actually already been playing a little guitar. My dad had an old Martin acoustic I would mess around on. My dad bought me a cheap bass and amp at a garage sale and so the trio started.”
“I would say Chris Squire was the first which is why I started out using a pick instead of my fingers, I was never good with my fingers! The next guy was Ray Shulman from Gentle Giant and Michael Rutherford from Genesis, both of those guys also pick players. Others were Berry Oakley from Allman Brothers and of course Geddy Lee. Geddy influenced me in regards to using finger style. I would say I play the closest to his style when it comes to finger playing.”
Funny enough, he was hired before Byrd eventually left the band, which is an interesting fact because the latter didn’t rate John as a bass player.
“One of my buddies that worked at a music store in Seattle told me that he knew a band that was getting signed and holding auditions, so he got me in touch with Ed Archer,” John explains. “I sent Ed a package that contained a bio and photos, and an EP that I recorded with the Machine Band (his first group). Ed dropped off a copy of the first Shrapnel record and told me to learn 4 or 5 songs. Then they had me come out to James’ house where they had a practice studio setup in his basement. We ran though the songs, but I was pretty overwhelmed, to be honest! I don’t think I played those songs very well! If it wasn’t for how I looked, I don’t think I would have gotten the gig! I know James wanted to hire another guy who I’m sure was probably more qualified as a player, but lucky for me he was out voted!”
Despite those shortcomings and being a little bit nervous, he became Fifth Angel’s bassist. And considering that Ken Mary was such a fundamental aspect of the band’s sound, a good connection with his bassist was going to be paramount and this is something that both players started to develop as time went on.
“I definitely struggled for sure! Ken was so solid and precise,” John told me. “I was not used to playing with a drummer like that or on that level. It took me a long time to raise the bar on my playing before I felt comfortable with him.”
“Well, I think John is being modest here,” Ken added. “He was a super solid player and he had a great tone and a great sense of musicality. He fit right in with the high standard we had set for ourselves.”
Even though he was a really good fit for the band in both music style and personality, not everything was rosy as John wasn’t convinced about the group’s attitude towards avoiding playing live shows.
“I was not happy with that at all,” John told me. “I honestly didn’t understand it, it didn’t make sense to me at all, but I really didn’t have a voice in the band at that point.”
Those differences were also complemented with some really fun moments, like the anecdote that John told me about the time that Epic Records had a little party that involved a certain man from Birmingham, England, and his new guitar player.
“We were in LA for a PR trip and Epic Records our label at the time had a private party where Ozzy showed up with Zack Wilde,” John told me. “He had just hired Zack and was showing him off. I was able to have a one on one conversation with him for about 5 minutes which was so cool! Apparently we were all staying at the same hotel and the next day he was out on the restaurant patio and I waved at him and he hid his face (laughs)! I’m sure there were many more, I just can’t remember much from those days!”
Fifth Angel’s music video for the title track of the Time Will Tell album.
Fifth Angel’s second album, Time Will Tell, was released in 1989 with Epic Records, but it wasn’t the success that both the band and the label expected it to be. And one of the main reasons was the change in music style, aiming for a more Hard Rock and commercial approach, which was a far cry from the melodic Heavy Metal they played on their debut.
“That record, Time Will Tell, was kinda dictated by the label,” John told me. “They were looking for radio hits, which was why the lighter tone on that record compared to the first record. I think we pulled that off to a certain degree, but of course the timing was too late and then Grunge killed it for all of us!”
John’s point about Grunge is certainly important, but for different reasons. By the late eighties, classic Heavy Metal a la Judas Priest, Iron Maiden or Fifth Angel was starting to lose its spotlight on the mainstream and different music styles were starting to take over, which is something that not only didn’t help Fifth Angel because of the genre they played but also because they switched to a more commercial approach when they were still just starting out.
“That’s true as well. Ironically the Grunge wave grew out of Seattle, our hometown and Fifth Angel and many other metal bands and producers were pushed out of the industry,” Ken said in 2018. “We ended up losing our deal with Epic as a result of Grunge. It was very unfortunate timing, really. But that’s the music industry; you just never know what will happen so if you want stability you may want to get a job at a software company (laughs). That being said, it was really too bad that we were not more established before that whole scene hit. I believe we would have survived it and perhaps thrived during it if that had been the case. Queensryche did well during that period, but they were established much earlier than we were.”
Was Fifth Angel an unlucky band, victim of poor timing and not being in the right place at the right time? I’m a bit tempted to say yes, considering the quality of their music and how they were starting to get support from a major label when their brand of Heavy Metal was being phasing out from the mainstream, something that is somewhat echoed by guitarist Ed Archer.
“That is a really good question…something really interesting to think about with being ‘unlucky’” Ed said in 2010. “I think fate has a lot to do with things, you know? The way things are ‘supposed’ to happen in life. I don’t think Fifth Angel was supposed to do any more than it did back then…Grunge was coming on the scene, Epic was merging or being bought out by CBS. Things were happening (or NOT happening) that led to lack of label support and declining support in general…things just slowed down to a halt, and I quit! So, the end result, and everything related, such as sales and whatnot. And now, after all these years, becoming active again, I think….how crazy is that? I mean, I NEVER, EVER planned on doing anything in music or with Fifth Angel again…but here it is, I’m doin’ it now! Yeah, life has its twists and turns, and my life has certainly had A LOT of twists and turns…makes for a lot of experiences, some of them being pretty wild, but you can draw from them with creativity and songwriting.”
Time Will Tell is a very decent album, albeit one of a very different style and virtue to their self-titled debut, but that didn’t stop Fifth Angel from breaking up by the time we got to 1990. John Macko and Ed Archer left the music business until they got the band back together in recent years, along with Kendall Bechtel. Ken Mary stayed in the music business, playing with multiple groups, such as House of Lords, Chastain, Accept, Flotsam and Jetsam, Impellitteri, among many others, becoming one of the most reliable drummers in Metal and later on he helped reform Fifth Angel. James Byrd continued as a solo artist, releasing multiple interesting and ambitious albums in the process. And finally, vocalist Ted Pilot left the music business after Fifth Angel disbanded, becoming a dentist surgeon and he continues to do so until this very day.
Music video for the title track of Fifth Angel’s The Third Secret.
The band signed in recent years with the label Nuclear Blast and they released their third album in 2018, The Third Secret, which was a callback to the times of the debut while combining some elements from Time Will Tell. Definitely a worthy entry to the Fifth Angel catalogue and a nice comeback from one of the best kept secrets in American Metal.
Fifth Angel’s debut album, after 35 years of its release, is still one of the finest offerings that eighties Metal has to offer, at a time where the genre was at its absolute peak and competition was fiercer than before or after. And they stood out because they had what mattered: musicianship, quality and a lot of talent. All the musicians involved should be proud of what they achieved and the legacy they helped create with those phenomenal songs.
“Well, I don’t know if I have any words of wisdom, but a lot of life has happened since way back then,” Ed concludes. “Life has an interesting ebb and flow to it….a lot of things have happened that I never imagined would or could happen, both within the musical realm and outside of music. Life can be unpredictable and you just never really know where it might take you.”