Svartsot and the inspiring black death
After many years of listening to death/thrash and black metal, I wasn't really ready to embrace the folk metal scene. When it first exploded on the scene when I heard Fintroll and many of their irk, I wasn't impressed. It sounded like polka metal. When I heard bands like Arkona that's when I started to open my mind a little more. Thanks to one Jason 'the viking' Hans I started to embrace the genre a little more. From the northern shores of Denmark comes Svartsot, formed in 2005, the band mix the brutal stylings of death and thrash metal with traditional scandinavian folk. Taking each ingredient from their first two albums the end result is the creation of their third opus "Maledictus Eris". "Maledictus Eris" recounts the era of the dark period of european history: the black plague. Fueled by hatred and xenophobia of the church even though misguided and unfounded many innocents died, not only by the plague also by the hand of the hand of the church. Before we get the interview I would like to thank founding father of Svartsot for the enlightening and informative interview for which he took time from his personal endeavors of everyday life to answer my questions, as we learn little more about this album.
Greetings Cris, how's your summer so far? It's in the triple digits here in Texas.
The summer seems to have disappeared here! We had a period of a few weeks with sunshine and “high” temperatures, though nowhere near as high as those you describe. And now it is overcast and cooler with the occasional shower, which is more typical Danish summer weather. We’ll have to see how it turns out in August – maybe it’ll get better.
Couple of days ago the band released their third album "Maledictus Eris" on Napalm Records. What has the feedback been so far and how well it's doing?
At the time of writing the European release dates are still about 2 weeks off, and the US/Canadian release a week after that. We haven’t yet officially been sent any reviews yet, so I guess they will come soon. But so far the interviewers seem to have really liked the album.
"Maledictus Eris" is based on the true accounts of the black plague in not only Denmark but also Europe, which was a very dark time in Europe?
Yes, the album is basically a concept album about the Black Death and how it affected not only the victims of the disease but also the survivors, but also touching on life just prior to the outbreak in Denmark in 1349/1350 and just after the disease disappeared from the country a few months later. The sickness killed at least a third of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351, and almost no regions were left untouched by it. It was a pretty catastrophic epidemic that hasn’t really been paralleled since. We spent a lot of time researching the Black Death and the general history of the period to make the lyrics as authentic and accurate as possible. It was quite a fascinating subject to read into.
At one time during that period, the Jews were blamed for the plague and many paid for it with their life.
Yeah, that happened particularly in southern Germany and France in 1348, and thousands of Jews were massacred in some cities. That’s not really a side of it we looked too much at, especially seeing that the persecution had stopped before the disease reached Scandinavia the year after. Besides that, there don’t seem to have been many Jews in Denmark at the time. We did touch on it in one track, Farsoten kom, which deals with the different theories put forward at the time of how the disease was spread and how it started. But the fact that the Jews died of the plague just as the Christians did is also a bearing element in that lyric.
The band has been together for six years now, when you first started this band would you imagine that the band was going to last this long?
I don’t think I really thought too much about it back then. It was just fun playing in the band. But the more serious the band got, the more I couldn’t imagine not playing in it. Having said that there was a period around the end of 2008 and start of 2009 where the band underwent major line-up problems, and I was the sole active member of the band for a few weeks. I didn’t really know exactly what was gonna happen back then, but I was still determined to try to keep the band alive. I was lucky enough to find some dedicated new guys within a very short space of time, and they ensured that the band kept going. And now, I can’t see any reason for us to stop.
How many line up changes before you found the right mix of people that fit the Svartsot profile?
We’ve been through a good few line-up changes over the past 6,5 years. The band came into being really as a line-up change! Luckily we’ve only had the one really major line-up change which was back in 2008/2009. All of the other changes have just been one man at a time. And with the exception of one guy, we’ve had the same line-up since early 2009. Officially we haven’t yet replaced the guy who went out of the band last year, but we are working with a live rhythm guitarist who we may ask to join permanently at some time.
Can you tell the readers about the band's music and how would you describe your sound?
Basically we play folk metal with heavy influences from Scandinavian folk music and medieval music – the latter of which really shows on the latest album. I often get asked which metal bands have influenced the metal side of the music, but I can’t really answer that, as a lot of bands have influenced me. I guess much of my influence comes from the more melodic metal bands from Iron Maiden to Opeth. Maybe the weight of influence comes from Swedish melodic death metal, although there is also a good dose of heavy metal there too. I generally just try to write riffs and melodies that interest me rather than sit thinking “which band should this riff sound like”. So there isn’t really a list of 5-10 bands that have influenced me and the band’s sound most.
The band also uses alot of folk instruments like whistles and bagpipes. How did you manage to fit these instruments with the traditional metal sound?
I pretty much always start by writing the melodies first. Especially the guitar melodies, but sometimes, as in the case of the bagpipes, I’ll start with the “other” lead instrument. Once the main melody is in place I will work on chord-work to go under the melody and then work on harmonies or whatever for the other leading instruments. There are pretty much always two instruments playing lead at the same time in the main melodies. Once the melodic basis of the track is laid I will progress to write verses, middle pieces, bridges, etc. By starting with melodies, it’s quite a straight forward process, and it’s the melodies that dictate how the rest of the track will turn out.
I like to know how the band differs from bands like Fintroll and others of their irks. To me it's drink beer polka metal and don't really interest me?
We had a couple of polkas (as opposed to the Finnish “humppa”, although the two styles are pretty similar in many ways) on the each of the first two albums, but I have lost interest in them now. The rhythm didn’t really fit in with the theme of this album either, so it was no big deal for me to not write any polka tunes this time. At present, I doubt we will use polka rhythms again on the next albums. They’ve kinda become a cliché in folk metal, and they really aren’t necessary. For this album I concentrated on medieval musical and rhythmic ideals, which maybe helps give the music the more serious sound. But sure, "Maledictus Eris" is much less beer orientated folk metal than the music of some other bands.
Most of the lyrics are written and sung in the band's native tongue. Is it easier to sing and write the lyrics in your native language than in English?
Part of the general concept behind the band is that all lyrics are in Danish. We have let a few Latin words slip in this time, as they fit the particular subject matter in their contexts. But the way we worked on the lyrics for this album is maybe a little alternative, as our bassist, James Atkin, who is himself English, wrote the lyrics in English first, and I translated them to Danish. The reason we worked this way is that James is a very good lyricist, but he hasn’t yet mastered the Danish language (he’s only lived in Denmark since the beginning of 2009). By me not having to think so much about lyrics, I could concentrate more on the music, which is my strength.
What was the highest point for the band during the the band's six year period so far and what made it so rememberable?
We’re very fortunate that a lot of cool things have happened for us in the comparatively short space of time that the band has existed in. But I think the biggest thing that has happened for us so far is that we played the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany last year. I know that a lot of Americans go to the festival, but I don’t know how widespread the knowledge of the festival is in the US. But Wacken is certainly the biggest metal festival in Europe. So getting to play there was one of the biggest opportunities for us here.
What was the lowlight of the band's carrer?
It was probably the uncertainty about the future of the band after the split in December 2008. I was left as the sole active member of the band for a few weeks, and there was a period of a few days where I seriously considered stopping the band completely and starting from scratch with a new band. It can be really difficult for a band to get over that sort of split, and many metal fans here in Denmark were against the idea of the band continuing without the same line-up. But after discussing the situation with our label and thinking it very thoroughly through, I decided to continue under the name of Svartsot. The next problem was getting access to the bands various profiles, domain and email accounts, as the ex-members had changed all of the codes. This made the process more drawn out than necessary, which was pretty demoralising. But it all worked out in the end, and the band has become a lot stronger for it.
You worked with Lasse Lammert on the recording of this album. Tell me about him and was he hard to work with?
This is the second album we’ve worked on with Lasse, so we knew what to expect this time. We had also had the possibility to meet up with him a couple times between the two albums, and this helped the working relationship in terms of that we knew each other pretty well. As with the first album we did with Lasse, there was a good deal of emailing between us beforehand, so he had an idea of what we were expecting.
Lasse is very easy to work with. He is a perfectionist, which is a good characteristic for a producer. He has managed to push us to our limits both times we’ve recorded with him, but in such a relaxed way that we still feel comfortable. He is also very willing to experiment and try new approaches, which means that we had the possibility to try ideas out. Some other producers we have worked with in earlier times didn’t have this attitude, and I am grateful that we have found a producer who is more willing to create the band’s sound rather than impress their own style onto the band.
Tell me about when the band did its first tour and what has the band learned from being on the road for the first time?
We’ve so far only had the possibility to do one full tour, and that was with the old line-up back in 2008. The tour was in the October, and the split happened in mid-December. We were of course already having internal problems before the tour, and I think the only reason nothing really happened before was because everybody wanted to go on the tour. After that we had a couple of high-profile jobs in Denmark, and then everything went very quickly downhill. What I personally learned was that if there are already cracks in the foundations of a band before a tour don’t expect the line-up to remain unchanged for very long after the tour. This is something we have taken to us in the present line-up. We get to the bottom of problems as quickly as possible. But as the whole ethic of the band is now completely different to back then, we very rarely have serious problems. This also means that there have been absolutely no problems whilst the band has been together in close conditions for longer periods of time – neither at the studio, on mini-tours or at the rehearsal room.
Is there any plan for a USA tour and what's your fan based like in the USA?
Judging by the response we get through our various profiles, we seem to have a pretty good fan-base in the USA. We have been asked by many fans in both North and South America if we will soon be coming that way, but we have unfortunately not yet been presented with any serious offers of an Americas tour.
What is the band's four year plan? Is there going to be a ten years anniversay tour?
That’s a really difficult one to answer, as we don’t really plan that far ahead! We prefer to take things in more manageable periods of time of no longer than a year. Right now, we’re just waiting to see how the response is going to be to the album, and maybe start writing some new material. We have a good few shows lined up for the rest of this year, and more are being added. The schedule for next year will be started on soon too, so we’re hoping for a tour or two. Over the next four years we should have managed at least one more album, and if the release is close enough to our tenth anniversary, and there is a demand for it, a tenth anniversary tour wouldn’t be completely out of the question.
Interviewer: Paul Lewis
Jul 23, 2011
Jul 23, 2011
Next interview: The volcanic eruption of Skálmöld