Per Aspera ad Astra.
When the time comes to commit Mason Hill’s rock ’n’ roll adventures to the annals of history, that inspirational Latin phrase, translated literally as Through hardship, to the stars…, might serve as an apt mission statement for the young Scottish band. As documented on Against The Wall, the quintet’s explosive debut album, their journey has not been without challenges, trials which may have sunk less committed bands. But as the writer C.S. Lewis once famously noted, hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny, and it’s in facing up to adversity that Mason Hill’s character, strength and unity has been forged. Emerging at a time when humanity’s resolve is being sorely tested, the themes underwriting Against The Wall – self-belief, courage, fortitude, brotherhood, conviction – resonate powerfully, giving the band’s own lived experiences a highly relatable, universal appeal. Here, finally, is a rock band to believe in.
To trace the Mason Hill story to its origins, one must travel back in time to 2008, to eavesdrop on conversations between Glasgow schoolboys Scott Taylor and James Bird. At the age of 14, Bird was already an accomplished, award-winning, gifted guitar prodigy, who’d shared a stage with Ozzy Osbourne/Black Label Society man Zakk Wylde, a personal hero, toured across the UK, and secured endorsements from leading music brands. The teenage Taylor already harboured dreams of fronting a rock ’n’ roll band, and the pair’s friendship and shared aspirations led them to form Black Velvet, a hard rock outfit who became local heroes after winning the Scottish section of prestigious European battle of the bands competition, Surface Festival, in 2012. Their triumph led to a performance at London’s O2 Arena, but more significantly, fired the duo’s imagination, offering a glimpse of what the future may hold. Emboldened by the experience, in 2013 the pair formed Mason Hill, adding drummer Craig McFetridge, bassist Matthew Ward and guitarist Marc Montgomery in due course. Five diverse, colourful characters, the members of the group were instantly bonded by a shared, singular vision for their band: Taylor relinquished long-held plans to become an Olympic swimmer in order to focus on music, while Ward withdrew from a degree course at the University of Glasgow, where he’d been studying microbiology/virology. For these ambitious young men, Mason Hill was priority number one.
Released in December 2015, the band’s self-titled debut EP, recorded at Motherwell’s Foundry Music Lab with Sandy Jones, served notice of the emergence of a captivating, vibrant new presence on the resurgent British rock scene, and gigs with the likes of Airbourne, Gun, Dan Reed Network and Stone Broken bolstered both their swelling reputation and fanbase. An appearance at 2017’s Planet Rockstock festival was hailed as “nothing short of a triumph” by Planet Rock magazine, who subsequently tipped the band for future stardom in a 2018 New Rock feature. And when the then-still-unsigned quintet sold out the 750-capacity The Garage in Glasgow, it was abundantly clear that here was a young, hungry group with a rapidly-expanding, fervent following and genuine, undeniable momentum. The buzz around the band began to be amplified from a whisper to a scream.
One might wonder then, why it has taken a full seven years for Mason Hill’s debut album to emerge. There’s no simple answer to that question, but when a planned partnership with a well-regarded European label was dissolved, the group took some time out to re-assess their options. The experience was challenging: “We didn’t know if we’d even be a band after what we went through,” James Bird candidly confesses. Ultimately, Mason Hill rallied with a renewed focus and determination. Raising £16,000 via their committed and loyal fanbase through Kickstarter, in November 2019 the reinvigorated group recorded 11 songs at iverside Studios in Glasgow, with Scott Taylor later travelling to New York to track his vocals at the legendary Electric Ladyland Studios under the mentorship of renowned engineer Brian Sperber (Ozzy Osbourne/Patti Smith/3 Doors Down). Titled in acknowledgement of struggles overcome, the result is Against The Wall, the most hard-hitting and engaging debut album to emerge from the British rock scene in 2020.
From its seductive, inviting opening notes, Against The Wall is an enthralling, spellbinding distillation of everything Mason Hill have learned in their seven year history, a modern rock album for a new decade. It opens, in dramatic fashion, with the self-explanatory Reborn, one of the band’s earliest compositions, and a piece of music which will be instantly familiar to devotees as the introductory music to the quintet’s live shows. Written when Taylor and Bird were just 15 years old, and honed for the modern age, it climaxes with the lyric, “No more pain, I feel reborn”, a declaration of intent and purpose which neatly sets the tone for what is to follow.
If one were to seek out another lyric encapsulating the defiant resolve of Against The Wall, one might do worse than alighting open the opening line of the stirring, impassioned Hold On. “Wake up, wake up,” Scott Taylor sings. “Did you really think I’d disappear?” It’s a line which speaks volumes to the group’s resilient character, a bold, fearless statement laid at the feet of anyone who ever doubted Mason Hill. That same swagger runs through the album’s gritty title track, an anthemic modern rock masterclass to file alongside the likes of Shinedown and Alter Bridge. The influence of Myles Kennedy’s band can also be detected in the beautifully bruised climactic epic Where I Belong, where Taylor sings, “I know who I am, and I know where I’ve been” before Bird launches into a stunning solo flight that recalls Guns N’ Roses legend Slash at his most lyrical. The moody, evocative Who We Are is another obvious high point: written by James Bird, it’s a compelling widescreen ballad described by its author as “a song about positivity”, with its celebration of overcoming fears and facing up to the promises of new days dawning. Broken Sons, one of the very first collaborations between the then-teenage Taylor and Bird is another empowerment anthem, calling upon the disillusioned and disaffected to dig deep and rise above the obstacles strewn across life’s winding paths. That same ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ mentality is sprinkled throughout No Regrets, another elevating anthem-in-waiting, calling for courage and faith when fear grips and paralyses. Somewhat ironically, the track was penned in tribute to the band signing their ill-fated first record deal, but its ‘Go for it!’ sentiments seem all the more relevant in the light of everything the band have experienced since. The future starts here.
“I don’t think there’s any other band on the scene that has come through anything close to what we’ve had to deal with,” says James Bird without bitterness. “So much personal sacrifice has gone into this album, and obviously it’s a collection of work that means so much to us, that’s everything to us. I’m excited that we finally have the opportunity to share it with the world.”
“Honestly, if everyone who’s asked us when is our album is coming out was to actually buy the album, we’d be looking at a Top 10 chart placing,” laughs Scott Taylor. “It’s been such a challenging time for us as a band, but we’ve grown stronger with all we’ve had to face. Everything that’s happened is written into this album, and we can’t wait to present it to our fans, old and new.”
“It’s going to be nice to sit back and see people’s reactions,” adds Matthew Ward. “We’ve been frustrated by all the hold-ups, but now the album is finally here, and we’re ready for the next steps forward. We’ve overcome all the challenges thrown in our way, and that gives you confidence to face the future, whatever may lie ahead. We’ve evolved so much, and we’re excited for what comes next.”
That journey begins now. No more pain, Mason Hill are where they’re meant to be.
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