Although initially conceived as a collaboration between Candlemass mastermind Leif Edling and Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt, Avatarium quickly outgrew the tentative conversation between two great Swedish metal pioneers that brought the band into being. With the addition of husband-and-wife team guitarist Marcus Jidell and singer Jennie-Ann Smith, plus Tiamat drummer Lars Sköld, Avatarium repudiated its early ‘celebrity side-project’ status by the sheer magnitude of their performance and material. Mikael was always too busy to commit, and now even Leif has stepped down from full-time bassist status, relinquishing the four-string to Mats Rydström on the band’s new album, Hurricanes And Halos, which has emerged just 18 months after their highly acclaimed third LP, The Girl With The Raven Mask. Leif, however, retains a unique role as ’creative overseer’, his songwriting still a crucial cornerstone of Avatarium’s sound and style.
“We’ve had quite a unique creative journey together,” reflects Jennie-Ann of recent changes in the band’s processes. “Leif’s definitely onboard as a mentor, and what’s better? I think every band should have a mentor! We didn’t plan on writing a new album this fast, but we were lucky to win an award from Metal Hammer in Germany, and we got quite excited about the whole thing. So we gathered in Ghost Ward Studio and sat down together, almost in a ring. Leif brought in five or six embryos of songs, and Marcus and I had some stuff as well. Piece-by-piece we tried things out together, rehearsed for a week or two working on arrangements, instrumentations and sounds, so it really was a band vibe, a great atmosphere. Bass, drums and rhythm guitars were recorded live, and some of the vocals are from the first take. I think that’s a great thing!” she laughs, remembering the pressure she felt at other stages of recording.
“Life was so hectic at the time, I was in a situation where I really had to get myself together and focus. Leif is a creative force of nature, it’s inspiring just to be around him when he introduces his ideas. Every time my first thought is, ‘I’m never gonna make it!’ You have to put in all your emotions and thoughts and musicality, and shape it, turn it into something magical. The whole Avatarium situation really pushes your limits. You have to move onto another level, and there were times when I really doubted if I could make this as good as I wanted it to be. But you have to bring it home, remember who you are and have the courage to make an impact. I think all that really contributed to the vibrating energy on the album.”
One most essential facet of Avatarium is the sublime juxtaposition of beauty and horror, exemplified by the unusually coloured floral Gorgon sleeve art, and although its subject matter can be oppressively dark, the album has a profoundly radiant uplift. The title is explained by Marcus as concerning “how power enables people to do evil in the name of a good cause,” but are Avatarium using that theme to tap into something universal, or something in the human psyche?
“I think it’s possible to relate to both of those,” asserts Jennie-Ann. “If you read a newspaper or listen to the radio, what’s going on right now is…” she breaks off, considering her words. “I’m not sitting here in cold Sweden feeling scared, but I definitely think one has to have a civil courage, and for me it’s important to make a stand. Of course I’m very worried by the nationalistic winds that are blowing right now, and if you want to think about Hurricanes And Halos in a political way you can, but we all have our own perceptions about that. It also connects with those underlying psychological phenomena that we’ve been working with since we started, the dynamics between light and shadow. This album takes that further.”
One of the more heartbreakingly intimate songs on the album – indeed, one of the most beautiful songs of recent years – is When Breath Turns To Air, a “Nordic folk-jazz” ballad concerning the death of Marcus’s father. And as with the grieving process, Jennie-Ann was on hand to help her husband through the composition.
“That song is quite special,” she admits. “Marcus was so close to his father, and the change has been a big part of our family. But when it came to writing the song, I was quite inspired by these famous Swedish crime writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They were a married couple who started writing together, so he was at the typewriter and she was knitting, he’d write something and then they took turns. I don’t know if they took turns with the knitting! But that song was written in that way. Marcus came up with a melody and the basic harmonies, I listened to it, I carried on writing, recorded something and sent it to him, so it’s written back and forth together. This is what is so amazing about writing music, I never stop being surprised. Somewhere in your subconscious lies all of those thoughts and emotions, and you sit down with a guitar and suddenly it’s all there.”
It’s this sense of being swept away by the unknowable force of music that accounts for the mystical intensity of the album. Avatarium are not an ‘occult rock’ band, but there’s something vividly supernatural about their processes.
“Music is mystical!” she affirms. “It’s really connected to your unconscious, inner parts. No matter how much we try to figure out how the mind works, it’s as complicated as the universe. Even though I might be familiar with the theoretical, mathematical part of music, I don’t think anyone will ever figure it out totally. I understood when I was little that I could sing, but the reason I continue is the need to express myself, and with Avatarium I get to do it fully. I can belt out my deepest anxieties with the toughest power I have, then go from that to being very loving and fragile. For me, it’s the best of the best! I get to fully express my inner emotional states. That’s the reason I keep on.”
HURRICANES AND HALOS IS RELEASED ON MAY 26 VIA NUCLEAR BLAST