KILL SCREEN 037: Brittney Slayes of UNLEASH THE ARCHERS is Raising a Gaming Army

Metal

Photo by Shimon Karmel

The kinship between power metal and nerd culture is undoubtedly a short, straight line. For a subgenre lyrically rooted in a love of high fantasy and science fiction, it should come as no surprise to anyone that its devotees would be attracted to the fantastical worlds of movies, comic books, tabletop gaming and/or video games. Brittney Slayes, singer and lyricist for Canadian vanguards Unleash the Archers, has fallen under the spell of all mediums listed and proudly so. A dedicated gamer ever since her youth, Slayes flexes her nerd credentials with every album as she crafts a wholly unique narrative with each subsequent release to transport the listener into a journey across a whole new realm. The band’s latest offering Phantoma follows a topical approach as the titular character, a sentient A.I., grapples with existentialism while traversing a world ravished by climate disaster. You know, fiction.

Today’s conversation with the Vancouver vocalist, however, looks back at a fresher global catastrophe and the unexpected silver lining that it brought. Previous long player Abyss was left with the unfortunate circumstance of seeing a 2020 release, a difficult decision that was made in the interest of the group’s fans. “I personally was constantly scrolling through Spotify, being like, Where’s the new records? Give me something, anything in this time of darkness!,” Slayes recounts. “So, it was our choice, but it was like, So, this is what we’re doing? OK, let’s go try and get 110 percent.” Left with no live opportunities to promote the album, the quintet took to popular gaming platform Twitch and turned what started out as a fun way to pass the time into a thriving online community and a stronger connection with their fans. Though the band has enthusiastically enjoyed their return to the stage with another North American trek lined up this fall with label mates Powerwolf, Slayes returns to the small screen once more to link up with the co-nerds at Kill Screen to escape into a digital expanse.

Want even more Unleash the Archers? Be sure to pick up the latest issue of Decibel for some analog DLC featuring an exclusive excerpt from our interview with Slayes.

What was your first gaming experience?
The first, first gaming experience was when I was, like, six and we played Duck Hunt at a holiday party that my parents took us to. It was on an old-school CRT TV that was hooked up to the wall at the Legion that we were at and it was up way up high. I guess it was probably really high for me because I was tiny. I just remember being absolutely enamored with this thing the whole night and watching my brother play for the most part, but just kind of being like this [looks straight up with mouth agape] the whole time. After that, it was done, my parents were screwed because they had to go and immediately buy an NES.

What was the first game that you called your own?
I was always sharing with my brother, so it was always kind of his. But the one that I 100-percented for the first time was Super Mario 64 on the N64. That was when I was like, Oh, wow, this is a thing that I could do that I love.

Were you and your brother constantly playing games together? What was that dynamic like?
A lot of the times it was me just watching him play because I was so young and I just sucked and I think he couldn’t handle watching me do it. A lot of times it was him in control for the most part, but as I got older and got better at games myself, I would ask permission to go into his room—because it was always in his room—and play when he wasn’t there and he was like, “Yeah, sure, whatever, no big deal.” It wasn’t until we got the 64 and he was in high school by that time, so he was gone all the time. I could go in there and I really kind of felt like it was just as much my system as it was his. Typical parents always gave the gaming console to the boy for his birthday. That was really the first time where it was me and I would be like, “Can we get this video game?” And we’d rent stuff a lot, most of the time it was renting. You’d have, like, one weekend with the game where you’d do your best and then it was gone.

What were the games that stood out to you when you were growing up past Super Mario 64?
[GoldenEye] 007 and I really loved Star Fox. And, of course, Mario Kart. We were a big Nintendo family. I didn’t really get into Xbox until I had moved out. That was when I discovered Call of Duty and was just absolutely in love with that game and kind of got okay at it because I had a little bit more time to play. Dead Space was the first one that really was a storyline kind of game that I was like, Oh man, I actually wanna play the campaign for this. This is so unlike Nintendo games. I was very much a Nintendo gamer in my youth, so discovering Xbox 360 and campaign mode and Dead Space and games like that was a total game changer.

It sounds like you were hooked at a young age and then you stayed consistent with it.
Absolutely, always had a gaming console in my personal ownership since I was young. When I moved out actually, I bought my own N64 when I went to university, because they were on Craigslist by that time—well, not Craigslist, Used Victoria was the one that we used back then. I never, never didn’t wanna play video games and have them as something that I could do in my free time.

[In university,] we actually ended up moving it out into the common room because everyone was always like, “Can I borrow the N64?” [Laughs] We were like, “Ah, fine, let’s just put it out there and anyone can play it whenever they want.” So yeah, it was a lot of fun. Lots of parties in our dorm. The best is when you’d go to a party or whatever and they’d have Mario on N64—kind of in more recent years—and I’d be like, Oooh yeah, and I’d sit down because that was my game and just destroy people at the party. They’d be like, “What the fuck? Who comes here and does that?” And it’s just like, “I don’t know!” It’s, like, literal muscle memory, how to do everything in that game because it was just [such] a huge part of my youth. It was a good time.

What have you been playing lately and what are the games that you typically prefer to play?
I’m still stuck on [The Legend of Zelda:] Tears of the Kingdom because I just haven’t had a lot of time. I know that came out last year, but it’s not the kind of game that you can just sit down and have 20-minute spurts. You start wandering and you’re like, I’m just gonna go do this one temple, and then two hours later, you’re still wandering around, cutting down grass, trying to get menu items for your next cooking thing. You just get lost in that game. It’s mostly Nintendo because I’ve got the Switch and I love that I can bring it on tour.

We have PlayStation 5 and we started a few games on that one. [Partner and Unleash the Archers drummer] Scott [Buchanan] did Elden Ring and I just kind of watched that one because From Software is way too much for me. [Laughs] I can’t, it’s so big and so hard. I started, I did, I tried, but it’s just a little too intense for me. I prefer a smaller map, something that I can actually focus on. We had a couple that we downloaded for that, a bunch of side-scrollers on there as well, like Hollow Knight and that kind of stuff. And, of course, the new retro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: [Shredder’s Revenge], that was a lot of fun. That one is really good for just, Hey, we’ve got 20 minutes, let’s pick up a game. But what I’m really looking forward to actually is the new Princess Peach: Showtime! game. I’m such a Nintendo nerd, I know. They’re games for children, I know, but I don’t care, I love them. They’re always so much fun. We just finished [Super Mario] Wonder and so we’re excited for this one.

Not to be disagreeable, but I [James] do not agree that those games are just for kids. You’ve got to figure they’re aware that half their audience are people that were born in the ’80s and ’90s and still playing these games.
For sure. I find that they walk that line really well. When we were playing Wonder, actually, my little girl came along and was like, “What is going on here?” And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely, mash on some buttons, go for it,” because I’m just so, so stoked to raise a girl gamer, it’s not even funny. The colors are kind of childlike or whatever, but the gameplay is always awesome and a really good time. It has some hard moments. But the thing that’s best about it is that I always feel like 100-percenting the game is not totally out of this world. Apparently there’s a few games for Nintendo that people have been like, “Don’t try to 100-percent this,” Tears of the Kingdom, getting all of the Korok seeds, it’s just never gonna happen. In Breath of the Wild, I really tried, I was almost there, but it’s just a little bit too much.

We’ve heard a lot about consoles. Have you ever explored the PC gaming side?
No, never. I had a girlfriend back in the day that her brother or dad or something was a total PC gamer and I sat down and watched them play… I think it was Myst, maybe? But using [a keyboard], I was just like, What the heck? I could never wrap my head around that. But I know it’s always been this dispute on how much easier it is to use once you figure it out and when Call of Duty [became cross-platform], how much easier it was for PC gamers to just destroy us console gamers and I totally get it. I’ve always wanted to. When I started streaming on Twitch and everything, everyone was like, “Oh, you need to get a PC set up. You need to get your shit sorted out here,” and I’ve always been like, “Yes, absolutely. I totally agree, but I don’t have the time.” [Laughs] Maybe one day I’ll get there, but it’s always been in the back of my mind.

You mentioned Dead Space was your introduction to a strong narrative within a gaming space. You yourself typically write a story per album that is the through line for all of the songs. The latest one, Phantoma, follows an AI that is exploring a dystopian world. Were there any games that you could point to as inspiration for helping you with the songwriting or lyric writing for this album?
It was mostly movies for this one. A lot of movies: Star Wars, Aliens, Terminator 2, that was really sort of where it came from for the most part. Maybe a little bit of BioShock-ish-ness? A little bit of that vibe, of this ruined place that you can run amok in. But for the most part, it was science fiction movies, science fiction books as well that I’m a big fan of.

Not too many video games on this one, but definitely in the past, some others have been influenced by video games. Dead Space had a bit of an influence on our first album a little bit, just one of the songs. And then I had never really played it, but I always watched other people playing Bloodborne and I just loved the aesthetic of that. That aesthetic sort of helped shape the Apex world a little bit. I just loved this solo character traversing through this beautiful expansive place. The alone-ness more than anything, really, was a part of it. It was just an influence, not so much an inspiration. For the most part, I guess you could say comic books affected a lot of the stories that I come up with in everything as well, because it is so character-driven for me when I write the stories behind everything. A few video games, but not too many.

We would say that the two strongest pillars of power metal are typically high fantasy and science fiction. Do you have a preference between the two in terms of subject matter? Does that preference then transfer over into the games that you like to play?
No, there’s no preference. I think I read both equally. They’re both just as exciting to me. I mean, [with] movies, I’ll see anything that just takes me away. Just escape from this world for two hours, please. And then when it comes to games, I mean, I love the Alan Wake sort of world, Control, all that sort of stuff. I would say that that is this really cool combination of both—it’s more of a supernatural fantasy combined with science fiction. I just love that. I never played Skyrim, but I watched the whole time that Scott did and absolutely loved that and would listen to the soundtrack when I was on my own, because I was just so used to it being in the background of my life for so long.

Both of them are great. It’s not necessarily like, Oh, cool, this one’s a science fiction-based video game. I’m gonna play that for sure. It can be anything, really. What stands out to me the most actually when trying to play or find new video games is often just art style. And is it first person or is it third person? I really like when you can follow behind your character more than anything else.

The press material [for Phantoma] brought up the presence of electronic and synth elements in this album in particular. Were there any soundtracks that the band could point to as an influence in that sound? Do you have any personal favorites in terms of game soundtracks?
There wasn’t anything really that totally influenced that. When we write the record, I always write it out as a story in a track-by-track format, and then I’ll say, “OK, track one, chapter one, this is what’s going on. This is how I want it to sound and how I want the listener to feel. Here’s some music that you might use as inspiration.” I threw some Tron: Legacy stuff in there because I just loved that movie so much. And I loved the original as well because, of course, you’re surrounded by gaming. It was a little bit of that vibe that I was sending to the boys and saying, “Let’s do some of this and let’s see what we can play around with that.” That was where maybe that came from a little bit. But I didn’t necessarily say, “Let’s do some sweet 16-bit stuff.” When you think of an A.I. computer program becoming sentient, what do you think of? Binary, old-school computers, CRT monitors, Matrix style, watching-the-numbers-roll-by-on-the-screen kind of stuff. That was really the vibe that I was trying to impress upon the boys and be like, “This is how she starts. Let’s see where we can take it from there.” I feel like they did a really good job with interpreting that sort of thing.

Soundtracks that I really like—Skyrim obviously stands out. They did such a great job. Oh! Doom Eternal. Geez! Fantastic. The first Doom came out and that was the one that everyone was like, “Oh, they did this huge metal choir soundtrack and everything.” And then the second one, I think it was kind of just a remake-ish? Maybe? I don’t even know really how it worked. We played the most recent one [Doom Eternal] and absolutely loved it. I loved the music the whole time. It was so rad. And I did actually reference one of the Doom songs in this record when saying, “This is the kind of intensity that I’m looking for on this track.” But then when we went back to listen to the original—where the second one had come from—it didn’t hit me as hard. It was really weird. And the gameplay was a little bit older. The graphics were so much better on the new one. Even just the control was so much better on the new one. You moved so much more fluidly and [it] kept you constantly on those crazy rails of like, Ahhh, dudes everywhere! Let’s go! It was really funny that the second one was kind of just remixes of all those songs. But yeah, absolutely loved that one for sure. That’s all I can think of right now, I think. I’m sure there’s a ton that I’ve listened to over the years.

The beginning of “Ghosts in the Mist” kind of sounds like [Castlevania:] Symphony of the Night a little bit. But that may just be anytime I [Michael] hear that very synth orchestral arrangement, I’m just like, Oh, it’s Castlevania! It’s like any time you see fog and think, Oh, it’s Silent Hill!
[Laughs] Absolutely! Well, I mean, if your brain’s already there, right? It’s going to interpret things around it already in that frame of mind. But yeah, that’s a good point. And now I hear that vibe, too. That’s funny that you say that. I’ll have to ask [guitarist] Andrew [Saunders] where he got that from, because “Ghosts in the Mist” was actually one of the songs where after reading through the track-by-track, he was like, “Oh, I got this one done,” and he had the song written beginning to end before we even got to have a say on it or anything. He was [like], “This song was pretty much complete.” I’ll have to ask him. We’re actually going to do a little Twitch thing where we run through our parts that we wrote for the song, just try to do a live “this is how we wrote it” sort of a thing. Maybe we’ll find out some juicy tidbits from that.

In addition to video games, you and the band are also big fans of Dungeons & Dragons. When did you start playing D&D and what keeps you playing to this day?
It was actually the pandemic. It’s really funny. Andrew had played it a little bit before and [guitarist] Grant [Truesdell] had played some before as well. Everyone had always told me when I was young, “Why don’t you play D&D? You love acting, you’re such a character and you love science fiction and you’re a total nerd.” And I was always just like, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” I was big into sports and stuff when I was younger, so I was mostly doing that a lot. When the pandemic came around and our friend who ended up being our DM was like, “Do you guys want to play some D&D on your Twitch?” I was just like, “Yes, absolutely! Let’s do this. Let’s finally do this thing.” And it was just a great way to keep in touch with everyone and to get out there in front of the fans because you couldn’t play live, of course. It was just a way to hang out with everyone and be present and constant. That was really where it came from. We haven’t played in a while because we’ve just been so busy with with everything that’s going on with the record, but we keep being like, “OK, let’s do D&D this month. Come on, let’s go! We’re in the middle of a campaign here, people!” It’s just a really fun way to get to become somebody else for a little while. And yet you put your own experiences and stuff into the characters that you create. The one that I’m playing right now is Bork, the half-orc. He’s a super huge, powerful, strong person, but also he loves animals and fluffy things and protecting his friends. You just get to have these two sides of yourself in there if you want or just make whatever you like. And I just think that that’s fantastic. Being someone that likes to write stories in their music, it’s fun to get to play through stories in real life with your friends, so why not?

Even though you’ve only been playing since the pandemic, has the experience with D&D affected the way that you approach story writing at all?
Not really. I’ve always tried to do the hero’s journey kind of thing—build yourself up, come against a great obstacle, fall and pick yourself back up again—which I think is often how D&D campaigns just play out anyways. What we did with [2020’s] Abyss was we had this pre-order campaign contest where you could play a round of D&D with us. So I was thinking about how we turned Abyss into a little one-shot—well, two-shot—and, like, how could we do that with Phantoma? Back in the day, it’s always about fantasy—you’re this troop of adventurers going to hunt dragons or elves, dark elves, whatever it is that you come upon. It’s actually becoming more and more popular for science fiction to be a roleplaying game. Aliens is now its own franchise and Delta Green and a little bit more of a science-y kind of vibes. When I approached our DM being like, “OK, we’re going to have to be out in space. Is that OK? Can you figure out how to make traditional DM D&D formulas and systems?” And he was like, “Uh, yeah, I think I can figure it out.” So I was actually thinking how we could transform Phantoma as a storyline into some sort of D&D campaign after the fact, but I wasn’t really thinking about it too much during the writing process.

If there were any aspiring DMs that were to read this, are there any settings that you thought would make perfect sense for bringing one of the previous albums to life?
Well, we did have a few people turn the Apex and Abyss stories into Dungeons & Dragons campaigns for their crews. Nothing really jumps to mind, particularly in terms of exact campaigns or anything like that. I feel like you can turn anything you want into a D&D campaign, really, when it comes down to it. When we were turning Abyss into a campaign, it was kind of like, “OK, so the players are just going to accompany the Immortal on his trek as he finds all the sons for the Matriarch, and each son is like a miniboss kind of a thing. Each one is an adventure in and of itself to get to it.” That was really how I was like, OK, so this is how we can do that.

But Phantoma, I have no idea. [Laughs] That would take some time, for sure, to turn that one into a campaign. I’m not really the pro at D&D quite yet. I leave all the hard work to Dave [Amodeo], our DM. A lot of times when we were working on the Apex and Abyss one, I was just like, “Can I do this? [Laughs] “Is this allowed in the D&D world, with how things work?,” and stuff like that. And it’s like, “What am I rolling again? Is this a D20?” A lot of that. Nothing comes to mind in particular. But I think it would be a lot of fun. And hopefully people are inspired by the story of the album to make their own campaigns out of it, just like they did with the others. I would love to hear about that, for sure.

Not only does the band have a Twitch channel, you also have your own personal Twitch channel. How has that experience been?
Great. It was awesome. I wanted it to be something that I could just do at home and didn’t have to have a big production behind it. That was why I mostly was gaming on my channel. I did some vocal stuff, like when when we were getting ready to go on tour and things like that. I’d be like, “Alright, come into the jam spot with me. This is how I warm up my voice and this is how I get ready for tour.” But it was more just me chilling on the couch in our den playing video games. And that was a lot of fun. I did Last of Us and Last of Us II kind of back-to-back and that was a really good time. But of course, I’m freaked out because I love zombies and I love zombie movies—it’s one of my favorite genres, absolutely, hands down, I will watch any zombie movie regardless—so I really enjoyed playing that, but I was kind of scared the whole time. I was constantly like [pantomimes holding a controller and moving away from screen], “Oh, oh god!” Having to be totally terrified of what was going on on screen while playing in front of everybody was pretty funny. I just get fully immersed, so there’s moments where I’ll just be like [pantomimes holding a controller and staring blankly at screen, then shakes head and turns to camera], “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Sorry. Hey, how’s it going, everybody?” [Laughs] Like, Oops! I’m streaming on Twitch! It’s pretty funny. It’s a really, really great time and I wish I could get back to it more, but life is pretty intense.

Did you find it was a bit of a change hopping on Twitch? Was it hard to sink into a different mindset?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s definitely different because you’re the one putting everything out there. When you’re on stage, you get it back from the audience, but you’re by yourself in a tiny, dark room. So, yeah, it was different, but I loved it, and it was exciting. It was like you getting to go to a little party with your friends every night, just getting to hang out with everybody, but you don’t have to go anywhere and everyone’s just cool to hang out there and watch you play video games, which is, like, the greatest invention ever. It was definitely a change of pace. I mean, I wouldn’t give up playing live for anything. We did a couple of live stream show concert things, and everyone’s always like, “So, is this the future?” And I was like, “No, absolutely not. Nothing will ever replace live music. I don’t know what planet you’re on.” But yeah, it was definitely different.

Was it helpful to play D&D and video games on Twitch over the pandemic, or did it just make things harder because you wanted that in-person experience?
I think it absolutely helped, for sure. I haven’t had that much time to play video games in forever, so it was great. You have this list of “to be played” that’s on the shelf constantly. You just can’t get to them all and you really wish that you could. It was kind of super great in that aspect in that we finally had the time to do that. Discovering Discord was great because we got on Twitch and it was kind of like, “OK, so we’re streaming. We’re gamers now on Twitch. Cool.” And then everyone was like, “Well, normally then what you do is you create a Discord channel and then you can go hang out there after the stream and talk to everybody and decompress together.” And I was like, “OK, cool. Let’s make this Discord thing.” It has absolutely turned into one of the most positive places on the Internet for us, because it’s this awesome community, not just of gamers, people that were already present on Twitch, but also the heavy metal community carved out its own little place on Twitch during the pandemic. And it was such a rad, awesome place to be. So many metal musicians started streaming—you have Gene Hoglan on there! It was just such a cool, Let’s hop from one person to the next and just raid each other, and everyone’s playing music and video games or whatever they felt like doing at that stream. It was absolutely a great discovery. One point for the pandemic there was for sure the discovery of Twitch and the Discord world.

The video for “Ghosts in the Mist,” is live footage of your time at [2023’s] Mad with Power Fest. What was that experience like? Did you get to indulge in any games when you were there?
Oh, I wish. There were so many arcade games that I wanted to play. They were just lined up along the wall and on the back of the pit there. It was so, so cool. But no, unfortunately. We brought our baby with us, so she was 10 months at the time. I was having to constantly go back and be with her at the hotel and everything. I didn’t get too much time to play, but it was a really great time. And it’s a great festival. It’s like all our Twitch friends were there. It was this big, happy Twitch/Discord reunion and it was such a party getting to see everybody. While I was up there, it’s just so many familiar faces. When we did our meet-and-greet, people were coming up with little “My name is” and then they would have their Twitch name on their name tag and stuff. So we’d be like, “Oh my god! Good to see you!” All that kind of stuff. It was such a fun time. It was our first show back after the last of the touring that we did in 2021 and since I had a kid. We were definitely getting some of the the kinks out that night. But everyone was really supportive and they had a really great time. There was one point where I literally just forgot the words to the entire chorus and the whole place just sang it for me. It was a very touching moment and a heartfelt festival and the whole thing. We had a great time. Such a cool thing to do, to combine video games and heavy metal, and just the festival to have its own video game theme. Last year was Final Fantasy and this year it’s Mortal Kombat, so you can see everything has got that theme to it. It’s really cool.

In yesteryear, were you able to carve out a bit of time [to play games], whether before or after the show, or during long stretches of road?
When we were touring in the early days with a van, we had our own GMC Vandura that we called the Vangina because it was a burgundy pink color. [Laughs] So horrible. We had an SNES in that and a Spider-Man TV that we had bungee corded to a little drop-down shelf thing. It was like a little cubby. We just blocked off the doorway to the cubby and put this TV in front of it, and then we had our SNES up there. We spent a lot of time actually playing that on the road on those long drives. It was great. Tons of Mario Kart and Super Mario World, and Grant played a lot of NHL—I think it was NHL 97 that we had for that one. It was a really good time. We would pick up games that we would find in thrift stores and stuff. We’d find some good ones, some memories from from our youth kind of stuff. I think there was, like… Was it Lord of the Rings? I don’t remember. There was a game kind of like that that we grabbed and it was so bad. [Laughs] You think of what could be done now with a Lord of the Rings game or even [Shadow of Mordor]? That’s kind of what you’re expecting and it’s not at all what we got. [Laughs]

You also have a tour coming up with Powerwolf. Will you actually get to do much gaming while you’re on the road?
We’ll see. [Laughs] It will be interesting. Normally there’s this hurry-up-and-wait mentality when it comes to touring, so there’s a lot of, “You’ve got to get there, get everything organized,” and then nothing. Nothing to do. I’m hoping that I’ll have some time before we soundcheck and after the shows. Before you can break everything down and take everything away, while Powerwolf is playing, we should probably have some free time. I’m also the person that goes to bed earlier than everybody else. A lot of times I’ll lay in bed and play when I’m waiting for the boys to finish singing along to Journey or whatever it is they’ve got playing down in the bottom of the bus. There’s usually a little bit of time. I think I should be able to get some in there, hopefully.

Phantoma is out now via Napalm Records and can be ordered here.
Tickets to see Unleash the Archers with Powerwolf can be found here.
Follow Unleash the Archers on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok.

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