22 Jun 2024

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Shepherds Reign


Shepherds Reign bring their house to your ears, mind and heart. Their power and passion is unequivocal, their musical voices luminescent and majestic. They do not simply hit the stage to perform their songs. Their vocation is to present all aspects of their lives and culture, and there is a special passion and raw power in every word and note they seek to share with the world.

Hailing from South Auckland, New Zealand, and Polynesian by birth and blood, Filiva'a James (vocals/keytar), Gideon Voon (guitar), Oliver Leupolu (guitar/production), Shaymen Rameka (drums) and Joseph Oti-George (bass) are not messing around. Shepherds Reign is their life. Literally.

The band was co-founded by Filiva’a, Oliver and Shaymen. Filiva’a spent much of his childhood fighting on the streets of Mangere. He flipped that to become a correctional officer. Now he is chasing his dream of becoming a rock star. Says Fili, “As a baby, my parents and older siblings said I couldn’t sleep without music playing. Growing up with a big island family, everyone had their own taste in music. I grew to love them all. Bands like ABBA, UB40, Tiama'a, Jim Reeves, etc. My love for rock started when I first saw November Rain by Guns N' Roses at about 5 years old. Then I saw Slash with his guitar, and my mind was set”.

Oliver comes from a musical family and is also a musical magpie. His father is a classically trained pianist and his mother springs from a large Pacific Island family where singing and jamming were as common as speaking and hugging. A late starter to music, he was given the nickname “Mozart” at school as a result of his musical proclivities, and ended up studying classical piano and guitar at University. But as he moved from piano to guitar (“the piano is amazing but you can’t it to the beach”), he also felt the conservatorium environment was staid, restrictive, and out of touch, and sought musical challenges in other genres. But true to his non-rock roots, Oliver is married to an Opera singer!

Drummer Shaymen also has music coursing through his veins and grew up around musical siblings and extended family. And his father’s record collection. His devotion to rock music came on the back of discovering Joe Satriani’s ‘G3’ featuring Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. Bassist Joseph is Shepherds Reign’s youngest member, at a sprightly 20 years of age. Growing up on his father’s steady diet of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Metallica, he was enticed into the fold as a high school student with Oliver as his music teacher! Gideon was born in New Zealand to Malaysian Chinese and Thai parents and spent a large part of his childhood growing up in Malaysia. Tone deaf as a kid, Gideon’s passion for music was ignited when he discovered the band Paramore. He attended MAINZ (New Zealand’s Music + Audio Institute) where he met Fili. The newly formed band members realised pretty soon that the five players in Shepherds Reign, along with the myriad pieces of the lives that comprise them, fit together perfectly. And a new family was born.

As for their live show, Shepherds Reign are famous in Australasia for their primal performance, one which evokes many aspects of their cultural heritage and fierce Polynesian pride. There’s the enormous intimidating presence of Fili, a towering hulk of humanity adorned, as are all members, with the shark tooth necklace, who demands your full attention (and gets it!). Then there’s the gargantuan riffs and twisting dual melodies of Gideon and Oliver, whose virulent virtuosity is undeniable. Rounding out the sound is the crushing,
bombastic rhythm section of Shaymen and Joseph, which gives Shepherds Reign their propulsive, dynamic metal sound.

Meanwhile, their videos have become a thing of independent heavy metal/hard rock legend, with narratives and production values which embarrass many an established musical act. They have amassed 3 million+ YouTube views with the video for Le Manu, whilst Aiga has chalked up nearly half a million views.

A fearless trek through the track listing of Ala Mai indicates that this is not your usual heavy metal fare. Opening with a traditional Samoan song, the record soon tears into the first band track, Aiga (tr.: Family), a riff-heavy lecture based on the traditional tune, about someone who ventures from home, falls prey to temptation, loses themselves, only to discover that happiness lies within their roots.

Indeed, Ala Mai is filled to the brim with references to the band’s rich cultural
heritage; Le Manu (tr.: The Beast), an earlier single for the band, is a battle song invoking one of Samoa’s most dominant warriors: Manu Samoa. The lyric focus shifts and the song becomes a war cry for Shepherds Reign, imploring their ancestors for guidance on their journey to becoming one of the most dominant metal bands in the world! Similarly, the title track, Ala Mai (tr.: Awaken), sees the band call for strength from their forefathers as they represent their region around the globe. Nafanua, meanwhile, is a story about
Samoa’s Goddess of War, the daughter of the God of the Underworld (Pulotu) who was born of a blood clot and buried in the ground, before rising to defeat all warriors who stood against her.

But while some of the stories may consist heavily of localised lore, the themes are unquestionably universal. And beyond any of the regional references, there is a universality to the band’s music and messages that sinks in deep, like a blade into a human heart. And here’s where Shepherds Reign really come into their own. While they give off an air of perpetual power and strength, this is a band unafraid to reflect, examine and sing of their weakest moments. Of their human frailty. Of the dark mental clouds that can beset positive minds. Of anxiety and depression. Of times when their hearts beat too loud. When the blood pumps in unusual ways. When tears flow. When big men fall. Shepherds Reign are open about their travails, their challenges, and they embrace life’s questions with an openheartedness that borders on naïve. The World Bleeds is the band’s take on the state of the world. Spoiler: it’s not in good shape! Cold Summers Night is a ballad that paints a picture about the realism of depression, something members of the band have struggled with and are open enough to talk and sing about. While Finally is a paradox on the album, a straight-up love song. With the requisite amount of existential angst applied, of course.

And then there is family, perhaps the core of the band’s worldview. But singing about family is a more bracingly open-hearted endeavour for Shepherds Reign than it would be for most. For Shepherds Reign, this is not gestural, it is truly authentic. They do not present a nuclear, sanitised or televisual version of their lives. It’s the real stuff. Soaring highs and crushing lows. Ua Masa’a is a special case in point. The song is about lead singer Fili’s sister who was murdered by her spouse and his family. The song is filled with rage and emotion which cannot be contained. The title translates to The Cup Has Spilt, a symbolic look at a love once shared, and lost like water from a broken cup. Never Forgotten is an
ode to guitarist Oliver’s son, Tom, who tragically passed away. It is sung in Samoan, English and Tongan, representing his multi-cultures. While Atali’i (tr.: Son) was simply written as a celebration of the band’s love for their children.

The closing track, Samoa Mo Samoa, is the conclusion of the band’s hour-long sermon. And it’s high stakes. Death and victory. Fear and bravery. It’s a tribute to those who fought and died protecting their land from would-be invaders and colonisers. They will be remembered, always. Samoa for Samoa!

Quite a journey. Epic, even. Which makes perfect sense for a group of Polynesian adventurers, aiming to engage with other cultures and spread their music, their message, their connection, their lives, around the globe.

Band Members:
Filivaa James (vocals, keyboards, pate)
Oliver Leupolu (guitar)
Gideon Voon (guitar)
Joseph Oti-George (bass guitar)
Shaymen Rameka (drums)


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