February 22, 2012
Tucked away beneath the North Pole, Sweden is seen as either a nation of impassive minimalists with great kitchens (thank you, Ikea), or a land of large-breasted blonde females with morally-casual attitudes (thank you, beer commercials). Sweden is of course, neither, but a righteous cultural epicenter, where a high premium is placed on education, art and innovation. But old stereotypes die hard.
Worse yet is the image problem suffered by Swedish music exports. Apart from ABBA, one of the biggest pop acts in history*, Swedish music is written off as offensively overproduced, saccharine and thirsting for soul. Admittedly, the Swedes’ ability to take a well-crafted song and hammer it into a synthy, generic, digitally-enhanced slab of cow shit is virtually unparalleled. Thankfully, there is far more to Swedish music than pop.
Take Swedish metal for example, one of the country’s most enduring exports. Death metal–that sub-genre of heavy metal marked by growled vocals, distorted guitars, and machine gun drumming–was born in Sweden. Death metal burned hot in the west coast city of Gothenburg, where bands later polished the sharper edges of the style with clean vocals and melodic guitar parts, creating a distinct style called “melodic death metal,” or “Gothenburg metal.” Music observers, especially those outside of heavy metal, understandably shake their heads at the incomprehensible number of genres and sub-genres of metal, alleging that “they all sound alike.”
This month, a new release has blown in from the blustery streets of Gothenburg that sounds very different.
Avatar have been around for ten years and three albums, until this week flying entirely under America’s radar. With their new release, Black Waltz, the band have married the heaviness of death metal to the swagger and groove of good ol’ fashioned rock and roll. The results are spectacular.
This is death metal with massive hooks, clean rock vocals and blues-powered guitar solos that synthesize into a collection of speed limit obliterating jams. Such an ambitious outing could never work without superior musicianship and high quality songwriting and with ten years of playing together, Avatar bring both to the table. The production is excellent, with a volcanic low end and just enough polish to enhance the more traditional rock and roll elements without softening the edge of the extreme aspects of the music.
On “Torn Apart,” Avatar reveal what they do so well, mixing a straightforward rock attack with the more intense elements of death metal. On slow-burning “Napalm” singer Johannes Eckerström mixes iceberg-sized vocals into a a chorus that is, dare we say, anthemic? “Blod,” the only Swedish-language track on the album, is a wickedly enjoyable rhythmic assault and “Let It Burn” indulges in Manson-esque industrial flavors, ultimately marking the perfect intersection of death metal and rock and roll. If you’re not into screaming, this isn’t your cup of tea. But fans of metal–and especially Pantera’s faithful–will need a new pair of trousers after they get a hold of this album.
I had an opportunity to speak with vocalist Johannes Eckerström to discuss the new record and Avatar’s plans for bringing their sound worldwide. The affable front man was more than happy to discuss all things metal, world history and of course, ice hockey.
This is your first American release but you guys have been around for ten years. What have you been up to?
Basically ten years ago we learned how to play metal together. We were like fifteen years old, halfway into puberty and we learned how to play together, then did a self-financed EP and then three albums that we released in Europe. Number four is the first time that we’re actually getting some attention from the States, so that’s pretty cool.
How does it feel to be breaking in the States?
It’s a real cool thing to see, you know? It’s nice to re-live this thing of being new, where no one has heard of you and you get another chance to present yourself to an audience for the first time. Still, like you said, we’ve got ten years of playing together and doing shows, so we’re a well-trained, well-oiled machine who are coming over and showing up like the new kids on the block (laughs). Well, like the new group on the block, or the new kids in the neighborhood… It’s an awesome feeling.
That’s an interesting point that you make about getting to be new a second time. Did you re-invent yourselves at all, or is this essentially how you were five years ago?
We re-invented ourselves big-time for this album, but we do that every time. On every album, we tear everything to pieces in order to build something bigger. So it’s a different album than the first three, simply because this was the only way for us to do it, not for the chance to go to America.
The ambition has always been for the album to land in as many countries and continents as possible. We didn’t really change our course to please anyone in the American market, because we’re very bad at following trends. We’re always a couple years behind on the new stuff. When Korn released their new album in dubstep, we were all like, “Dubstep? Well that’s interesting…” Then we talk to some younger friends–guys that are like five years younger–and they’re like, “Oh man, that’s so old! I’m sick of dubstep. It’s been around since like… August!” (laughs) And we’re like, “Really?”
So we’re terrible about following trends. The only thing we can do is follow our hearts.
Heavy metal has a confusing number of genres and sub-genres and sometimes it’s difficult to separate one from another. But I hear your sound described as death metal. To me that doesn’t feel right…
To me neither, actually.
How would you describe it?
I guess when we started out, we found common ground in technical death metal and melodic death metal, so we have these death metal roots in that sense, but to me, it isn’t pure death metal now. And I say that as a huge death metal fan. If somebody would present our music to me and say “That’s an awesome death metal band!” I would say, “Fuck you! That’s not death metal. It’s awesome, but it’s not death metal to me.” Death metal to me is Carcass, Obituary and Cryptopsy. We’re something else.
On our third album we started to work on bringing in our rock and roll influences, and so that redefined us a lot. We started getting melodic in a different way and used different kinds of riffs and grooves and even though we went back to something that feels more like metal than the third album, we’ve still got these ideals with us from rock and roll, like, “Let’s create great groove. Let’s create something that you can bang your head to, but also stomp your feet, at the same time that you beat somebody in the face… (laughs) Let’s combine those worlds.”
Something else that came up when we worked with our producer, and another guy named Walter, was we created this industrial atmosphere to it. So it’s somewhere inside those three–rock and roll, death metal and industrial metal.
Who would you say would be some of the rock and roll influences that you brought in on that third album?
Well, for me, those big guys, like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest. And I’d love to say Sabbath because I’m such a huge fan, but I don’t think that you would hear Sabbath on our album. But also the whole attitude of Entombed, the Swedish band, they made an album that they said was about “death and roll.” We loved the words, “death and roll,” and they did a cool album with completely different death and roll–death and arena rock. It was more of this idea of what death and roll could be. Now we know it’s about the song and about the riff. It’s not, “Whoa, how did you learn to play that, man?” Now it’s, “Hey, that sounds good–wanna fuck?” It’s about music that hits you both in the head and groin.
You’re Swedish and you sing in English. Does the language affect your songwriting process at all?
I hope not anymore. Here’s the thing: English is the language on TV and it’s the language that all your favorite bands sing in, even the Germans. So that’s where it starts, but you also want to write about fire and death and steel, or whatever you’re into, and with time I started to re-think, “Why am I writing…creating art in English?”
But I discovered there were still a couple of pretty good reasons to do it. Number one, to me, English is not a cool language anymore because you speak it. English is cool because I speak it, and people in China speak it, and we communicate all over the world in English. That’s the interesting part. The least interesting part is Australia, England, New Zealand and North America, if you get my drift. So that’s the thing–this is now a global language.
Then again, one song on the album is in Swedish (“Blod”), and when we got the idea for it, we thought, “This song would be so cool, and so aggressive that it should be be angry, and to be able to do something like that for the first time in Swedish was so liberating. I wrote those lyrics in about the time it takes to hear the song. Because I think my brain has been waiting for so long to create something in Swedish.
In one of your blog posts, you say that the album is about power. What do you mean by that?
Well, it’s this Swedish word, “makt.” Power and control. It’s one of the themes of the album. In that particular blog I mention two songs, “Let Us Die,” and “Blod.” My lyrics are about creating emotions. That’s always the number one goal. The guitar player, Jonah, he shits riffs, you know? You go up to him and hold out your hand and he fills your hand up with a bunch of cool riffs. I always start working on the ones that make me feel something, emotionally, and I try to capture that feeling.
For instance, “Let Us Die” is about a documentary I saw. In Africa and in the former Yugoslavia and generally in war, it’s a common tactic to send in soldiers with orders to rape every woman in the village or the community, no matter what age. Mass rape is a tactical tool in war. Now for the first time, the person who orders it is guilty of a war crime, which it wasn’t before. So that story about how people misuse power and put themselves above other people, like that, is one side of it.
On a more personal note, you’ve got all these songs about feeling powerless in your situation or powerless over your ability to control your life. I think power is a theme that you can see basically in every aspect of life, like political power or lack of control over your own life.
I’m getting pretty abstract here… I discovered after writing the lyrics that it is a very common theme.
Obviously it’s something that everyone can relate to in one way or another. Is that important to you? That people relate to what you’re saying?
When I was fourteen I got into a big fight with my dad and I went up to my room and listened to grindcore–songs about serial killers and mass murder, not because that’s what I wanted to do but because music full of rage communicated something to me that was an outlet to me as a pissed-off fourteen year old that day. So it’s more important to me to communicate that feeling. If I’m being romantic, you don’t need to know exactly what happened to create that feeling in my life, or if I’m talking about self-destruction I don’t feel that I necessarily need to explain what happened to me or what happened to the people I’m writing about in the lyrics. I’d rather you relate to the feelings that I’m expressing in the lyrics. If you do, then I’m pleased because I’m doing my job as an artist.
What are the band’s plans for 2012?
We’re working really hard. Right now I’m working with our bookers to make some shows in Europe happen, because there are some places that we really want to re-visit. Then top priority is getting shows in North America. The album came out February 14 and right now we’re fighting with teeth and claws to find good spots for us to come over to America for the first time. We do albums so we can come out and play. That’s where it’s most fun and that’s where the songs are being done justice–in the live experience. I think that’s what most metal heads would agree on, anyway.
We end our interviews with some Either/Or questions. I’ll give you a choice and you pick one or the other. If you want to say why, have at it. Sound good?
Heaviness or groove?
Groove, because that is where true heaviness lies, because it embraces all genres, all music–all music that has a drum kit in it–so it’s necessary for making something heavy anyway.
Alice Cooper or Rob Zombie?
Hmmm… (long pause) Hmmm… Alice Cooper, because of the history, the Alice Cooper band and finding him in my heavy metal discovery years.
Festivals or small clubs?
Oh, that so depends on the mood. Hmmm. You know, I think I have to say festivals, because there’s always so much fun going around, that it’s a can’t fail mission. Also we’re able to bring all our pyrotechnic stuff to festivals, so the whole thing is such a fun trip when it’s festival season.
Ice hockey or football?
Ice hockey. Number one, Sweden is much better at it and with football, and I hope you mean soccer…
Good, I prefer that you say “football” anyway. I heard that the Super Bowl just happened but over here, we were like, “Meh.” We just don’t get it. So ice hockey for me, definitely.
OK, and the last one one: heroes or villains?
Ooh… Well, as a Batman fan, I must say villains.
Got a favorite one?
Well if you look at my makeup, you’ll see that the Joker has an influence on me, but it’s not mainly the Heath Ledger one. It’s the Jack Nicholson one, when derangement is fun. So I guess… hmmm… that’s always a tough… (laughs) That’s a tough, nerdy question, but the Joker– the arch-nemesis.
Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time.
*And who have never received credit for imparting a vital lesson to the music industry: go out on top and no one will ever write about how silly it is to see you in your sixties, prancing about on stage singing about your implausible inability to secure satisfaction. Hey, hey, hey.