Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Winters Bane, "Heart of a Killer" (1993)
Winters Bane: "Heart of a Killer" (Massacre Records, 1993)
Way back in 1994 or perhaps '95, I caught a Judas Priest tribute band called "British Steel" at my local New Jersey rock n roll dive bar. They put on an impressive set that faithfully re-created the metal legends' greatest hits, and my friends and I were particularly impressed by the band's lead singer - whose soaring vocal style was a dead ringer for the legendary Rob Halford. During British Steel's cover of the classic Priest track "Victim of Changes," my buddies and I were bowing up and down in front of the stage ala Wayne and Garth of "Saturday Night Live" fame, i.e. "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!", which got us a laugh and a high-five from the vocalist. The band also favored us with one or two of their own "original" songs, which sounded great as well. It was a pretty cool night of traditional heavy metal worship, which was a rare thing in the grunge-crazed New Jersey suburbs of the mid 1990s.
Shortly after that show I was flipping through a heavy metal fanzine in a record store when my eye caught a photo of a familiar looking group - identified as an Akron, Ohio based traditional metal band called Winters Bane. I said, "Hey, those are the guys I just saw!" The 'zine said that the band often gigged around the Northeast as a Judas Priest tribute act, and they occasionally "opened up" their own shows as Winters Bane prior to "headlining" as British Steel. When I read that they had recently released their debut album, Heart of a Killer, on Germany's Massacre Records (dang, does a record label name get any more metal than that?) I knew I had to track down a copy as soon as possible.
"Heart of a Killer"
Like many early 1990s traditional metal releases, Heart Of A Killer was not released in the U.S., so I had to track down an import copy from Europe. Fortunately, the album was worth the few extra bucks that it ended up costing me. As you might expect given their cover-band alter-ego, Winters Bane's original material sounded very much like classic Judas Priest, with some of Queensryche's epic/progressive streak and King Diamond's penchant for dark storytelling added to the mix.
The King Diamond comparison is particularly apt because Heart Of A Killer turned out to be a concept album -- well, half of it, anyway. Starting with the opening "Wages Of Sin," the first six songs on the disc tell the story of Judge Cohagen and a murderer who is brought into his court room. In "Blink Of An Eye," Cohagen hands down a death sentence to the criminal, who swears revenge and causes the Judge to suffer a heart attack. In the crunchy title track, Judge Cohagen is rushed to the hospital to undergo an emergency heart transplant...three guesses whose heart he receives? (heh heh!) When the story picks up six months later ("Horror Glances"), the Judge is plagued by constant nightmares and strange visions as the spirit of the dead murderer tries to take control of his mind ("The Silhouette"). By the sixth and final "story" track, "Reflections Within," the rapidly-declining Judge enters a final battle with the criminal's spirit for control of his body and soul.. but I'm not going to tell you how it turns out, that would spoil the ending. Tim Owens' vocals soar ala Halford and Geoff Tate throughout this mini-rock-opera, meshing nicely with the crunchy guitar work of his bandmate Lou St. Paul. The production on Heart Of A Killer is definitely on the cheap side (I later learned that the band recorded and mixed the entire album on a very low budget in less than a week), but it didn't take away from my enjoyment of the tunes.
The last four songs on Heart of a Killer are stand-alone tracks unrelated to the Judge Cohagen saga, and though they're all decent, riffy trad-metal tunes with lots of cool vocal acrobatics from Owens, I prefer the first half of the album and wish they'd continued the Judge's story through the entire CD. "Haunted House" is the best of the "non-concept" songs, though the instrumental "Winters Bane" gives the band a chance to show off their chops.
All in all Winters Bane obviously had the true-metal goods, and Heart Of A Killer still holds up pretty well today. Unfortunately this would be the only album recorded by this lineup.
Before he was "Ripper"
So Whatever Happened to Winters Bane?
I didn't know it at the time, but Winters Bane/British Steel was on the verge of breaking up when I saw them at that Jersey rock bar. After their split, life got VERY interesting for lead vocalist Tim Owens, who became the center of one of the most unusual Cinderella stories in heavy metal history.
Thanks to some fans who'd video taped one of his final gigs with British Steel, Owens' uncanny vocal resemblance to Rob Halford caught the attention of Judas Priest themselves, who had been searching in vain for a new singer since 1992. Tim was summoned to England for a tryout, landed the vocal slot in his favorite band and earned a new nickname -- "Ripper." When the Priest camp announced that Owens was their new singer, my friends and I who'd attended that cover band gig all said, "Wow! Well, at least we know he can sing the old stuff."
Ripper's debut with Priest, 1997's long-awaited Jugulator, was the band's first studio album in seven years. It sold respectably, was nominated for a Grammy and Tim's dreams-come-true story became the basis for the 2001 film Rock Star, starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston. He appeared on three more Priest CDs - 1998's Live Meltdown, 2001's Demolition, and 2003's Live In London - before the band mended fences with Rob Halford and welcomed him back into the fold in 2004.
Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Owens' sudden notoriety naturally led to renewed interest in his old band. Century Media Records re-released Heart Of A Killer in 2000 with new artwork and a bonus disc of demos and live tracks, and guitarist Lou St. Paul assembled a new Winters Bane lineup which released two more studio albums: the thrash-influenced Girth (1997) and 2006's Redivivus.
Since the end of his Priest tenure, Tim Owens has kept busy as one of metal's most in-demand session vocalists. He's appeared on albums by Iced Earth, Beyond Fear, Charred Walls Of The Damned, and Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force, as well as his own solo album (2009's Play My Game). His latest project is a collaboration with Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist Chris Caffery called Spirits Of Fire, whose debut album will be released by Frontiers Records in late 2017. Unsurprisingly, Owens says the Spirits Of Fire album will be "a cross between Savatage and Judas Priest," which sounds good to me. Bring it on, fellas!
Winters Bane Discography:
Heart Of A Killer - Massacre Records, 1993
Girth - self-released, 1997 (later re-issued under the band name "Kill Procedure")
Redivivus - DCA, 2006