Have Avatar just written 2016's freakiest metal album?

Avatar 2016

Sit down by the fire, I’ll tell you a spell. An ancient old tale of travels through Hell… We’ll learn far too little and still leave unwise, just jesters in tears when the stone walls arise.’ Open Avatar’s new book – yes, book – and these spellbinding words will stir to life as the first notes of its accompanying album, Feathers & Flesh, dance dramatically, tempting you to leave the daily humdrum and run away with the heavy metal circus. They have a tale to tell, the latest step on a journey that, despite the band being in its 10th year, you somehow feel the young Swedes have only just begun. Onstage, frontman Johannes Eckerström makes a big impression, crackling like a bolt of electricity, his maniacal grin plastered across a jester’s face that transfixes you with piercing eyes. Waiting for his call, we don’t know what to expect.

“How are you? I’m doing very well,” he purrs enigmatically, a hint of a croak creasing the edges of his Scandinavian baritone. “I’m sitting in Berlin feeling interesting and famous like you get to pretend you are when doing press, rubbing the ego the right way!” We can’t help but enquire if he’s in full circus garb.

“No, I get to be my old lame self here!” he chuckles, self-deprecatingly. Slowly, we get to know the warmly sincere and intelligent man behind a mask which outwardly reflects an exuberant inner persona. “That is pretty much it,” Johannes confirms, “which is why it struck such a nerve with us. We’d finally found the proper visualisation of the music and what we were about.”

What Avatar are about continues to evolve. The band, completed by guitarists Kungen and Tim Öhrström, bassist Henrik Sandelin and drummer John Alfredsson, adopted their carnivalesque persona on 2012 stomper Black Waltz, and solidified it on 2014’s Hail The Apocalypse. Feathers & Flesh marks another switch in style, retaining their freakish edge but pushing into new territory with a themed record and a companion book of lyrics and illustrations.

“Our big ambition is to always find a new challenge,” Johannes explains. “The challenge this time was to do one of those cool concept albums. It started there and grew. We figured out we were going to make a fable.”

Fables – dark, often-rhyming fairytales with a moral sting – are the perfect medium for a band with suchtheatricality. It’s a chance for Johannes to leave the stage and tell you a bedtime story sure to make you quiver. Feathers & Flesh tells the story of an owl, proudhuntress, queen of the night, threatened by the onset of day and the coming of her nemesis, the Eagle. Determinedto see her dark reign endure, she calls other creatures of the forest to fight for her, but not everyone will stand for her cause, and with war comes a terrible price. But this is a fable with a twist; something the metal world, with its wonderfully warped perspective, is so uniquely capable of doing.

“I created my own archetypes for what different creatures can be,” the singer explains. “In classic fables, there’s usually a big bad wolf, but our wolf is nice. And while nocturnal creatures are usually scary, we see events from their perspective.”

How appropriately metal that the feared creatures of the night become the heroes of the piece! “Yeah, it’s not a huge sidestep from what is already happening in metal,” Johannes acknowledges. “But in the context of fairytales, the approach is refreshing.” The owl is close to his heart. “It’s an appropriate creature to portray parts of me,” he reflects. “Growing up, I felt like an outsider – the kid that dared to dream about being in a band, wanting to go onstage in front of people in school that didn’t even like you!” He laughs. “Then you grow up and find your peers, and discover that there are more similarities than differences between people.”

An age-old problem; we often cannot see past our petty differences. Johannes seems compelled to find an entertaining way of instilling within us the message that we are all the same. “It’s all about perspective,” he affirms. “The battle between the Owl and Eagle is interesting, because in the end they discover their needs are similar. Our lyrics have always been psychological, whichever way you express it, through a fantasy theme or something down to earth. It’s an exploration of the mind; different human aspects take the form of creatures.”

The lyrics of each song form each chapter, and are sung from the perspective of animals drawn into the conflict, with their own musical themes. The bees swarm amidst frenetic brutality, the cocksure eagle is accompanied by fist-pumping pomp, and the pike lurks in a mire of doom. This is metal illuminated by the gilded stage, juggling the blues with breakdowns, double-bass drums with melodrama, and fire-breathing rage with jester’s tears, the different styles commandeered and dominated by the band’s sheer force of personality, unified by the life-affirming solos that veer in and out. Listen to the album while reading, and it’s like an immersive story experience. Avatar had to focus hard on finding the sounds that would drive the narrative forwards – much more challenging than their previous records.

“Usually you can worry about one song at a time,” explains Johannes. “But because this was story-driven, if a song didn’t quite work, you couldn’t just throw it away – you had to keep trying. Instead of hearing something and thinking, ‘This makes me think, ‘Fuck the system!’ it was like, ‘Oh, this is a fish song, I’ll write about my fish!’”

Switching up styles has resulted in Avatar’s most diverse album yet. “We don’t like to write the same song twice,” explains Johannes. “Queen and The Beatles went in many directions on the same album. We want to achieve the same for heavy metal.”

A lofty ambition indeed. Such effective mixing of music and message without becoming too preachy is a balancing act that Johannes is still trying to steady himself with; a desire to impart his beliefs without spoiling Avatar’s exuberance. “Feathers & Flesh is open to interpretation, but at the same time I recognise there’s a strong anti-war theme,” he ponders. “I’m inclined to see things from a pacifist’s point of view. It’s not what I was looking to say specifically, but it’s there because of who I am.” It’s a subject of obvious importance to him. “It can be attractive when powerful messages are cloaked in entertainment,” he continues. “Music is a powerful tool, but it can also be deceiving. It can move people, but if we want to bang our drum and say that the music we make can do so much good, then maybe [people will think] music can do all the bad things that we want to deny – people wanting to blame Marilyn Manson form school shootings, for example, which I think we can agree is fucking daft.”

Johannes treads carefully around this issue, accepting that people may interpret his work one way or another, without wanting to take responsibility for how they do. “I’ve received letters from people saying, ‘Your music saved my life’,” he reveals. “If you’ve been through something where staying alive became hard, then you are the survivor – you’re the one who fought and lived to tell. I provided the soundtrack, but I don’t want the credit. Maybe it’s better to say that music provides people with catharsis – that it triggers a response that they interpret in their own way.”

He can relax, regardless of how the record is interpreted. Heartfelt but not overly serious, it works as entertainment and morality tale. It’s a massive step up, the sort of record crying out for a special live production. As yet, however, there are no plans. “I think that will be a 10-year anniversary thing,” Johannes says dismissively, before Hammer gently reminds him that this record marks a decade of the band. “Wow!” he exclaims. “We’re always in denial – we’ve been around for a long time, but because we started so young, we always feel like we’re just getting started – it’s way too early for any kind of retrospective.”

Avatar might feel like they’ve just begun, but with an avid fanbase and the buzz surrounding Feathers & Flesh, big things may yet lie around the corner – the big top that their carnival deserves. When they finally take a moment to flickback through the storybook of their career, you get the sense that this will be a defining chapter.