In a converted barn overlooking a corn field outside of Stuttgart, a Viking legend has been told. Under the heat of the summer sun by day and a bright moon by night, Leaves’ Eyes have woven the story of the first king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, son of Halvdan the Black. The windswept frostbitten fjords of Scandinavia, this is quite clearly not. But then this is an international project in more ways than one, and heavy metal doesn’t give a toss about your expectations anyway, so it’s perhaps rather apt.
Led by the pairing of Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull, the ambitious project taps into some of European metal’s best sources of inspiration: that overblown theatricality that gets better the more it strides gleefully past any boundary of restraint you throw in front of it, and Vikings. The symphonics are more adventurous than the band has attempted before, recruiting for this project the prestigious choral group the London Voices. You may not know the latter name, but they were featured on soundtracks including the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and Star Wars. Thankfully, Leaves’ Eyes weren’t tempted to overuse a resource so impressive at the cost of the ensemble.
“We had the choirs composed – everything – in advance,” says Alex. “We didn’t know that the London Voices would agree to sing. The whole process was already done. It was the other way around. We thought, ‘wow, we have so many choirs.’ We usually combine people from our area to have our own choir – we call it the Full Moon Choir, because we see the full moon here. This time we said, ‘let’s go for the London Voices.’”
They got them. With the final piece of the ensemble puzzle, the five-piece were able to put together King Of Kings. It tells the story of King Harald, flashing back slightly to hear more about his father Halvdan, visiting him as a ten-year-old first assuming the throne, before hearing how his desire to unite the nation under one crown sprang from his love, Gyda, refusing to marry him until he was king of all Norway. It’s a tale that ends with the climactic Battle of Hafrsfjord – the fjord that contains Liv’s hometown. The Norwegian singer is quick to make it clear that the story was bent to fit the music, not the other way around.
“The choices we make when it comes to characters – which character we put the spotlight on in what song – depends on the music itself, because the music comes into existence first,” she explains. “When I listen to the music, I decide this is more Gyta or Harald or Erik The Red. It’s about the expression itself. I avoid planning beforehand what my lyrics are going to be about. There might be a main theme, then I decide as Thorsten [Bauer, guitars] and Alex keep going on with the demos, with the music.”
There is also the problem of keeping the lyrical side of things entertaining. Historical accuracy is all well and good, but it can’t get in the way of the songs standing on their own. Added to this, the historicity of the pre-Christian Viking era is up for debate anyway, given that the Norsemen’s literacy was limited, and that most of the sources to have survived on the subject were written by their enemies.
“With the story of Harald, you have writers that were pro or contra him,” Alex explains. “You have old rumours sewn together about him. This is what we did, we gathered information that we thought was spicy and good for us – we wanted to be accurate, and it is. To make it a stiff history lesson would not suit us as an epic-sounding metal band.”
The trick to pulling this kind of tale off is to make the saga feel like a living story, rather than a didactic lecture. Ex Deo’s pair of albums – Romulus and Caligula – are prime examples of how to do it correctly, trying to get the emotions and personalities of the historical figures front and centre as much to get the narrative across. Leaves’ Eyes singer has a specific method of achieving the same thing.
“I like doing is to record demo vocals – bullshit vocals, I call them,” Liv says. “It’s basically about the rhythm and intonation. I set up a plan, what rhythm do I need, what kind of vowels do I want, what type of expression do I want, do I want smooth language or hard language. Then I dig my nose into books and start looking for the input, find the perfect words. It’s all about reaching the perfect sound of the voice including the words, and the flow of words. This is something I’m really interested in – I studied phonetics and phonology – to start with phonetics and intonation, and see what words fit in. So it’s always about the perfect sound, to make the tongue move smoothly. It’s all about how you use your muscles in your mouth and vocal chords to make it sound round, to sound good – perfect. The actual word that you hear on the album is what happens last.”
The added difficulty, once you have the choirs and Celtic instruments and grandiose arrangements, is that you have to then put some pounding metal drums and crushing guitar riffs. And Leaves’ Eyes haven’t scrimped on those aspects for King Of Kings, the record’s ambitious intricacy leaving room for moments of aggression and an overarching feeling of strength very much in keeping with the piece itself. It is up to Alex to balance the piece – and that involves its own kind of brutality.
“There’s a war of frequencies,” he says. “In the process of making music we already think off, sometimes, you have to erase some tracks. For example, when the orchestra plays together with the powerful riffs of the band, you might not hear all the lower levels – the basses, the cellos, and things like that – in lower parts of the orchestra. So you don’t even compose them if you know the band rocks like hell at that moment. But other parts, when you have smooth, nice intros and interludes, then you need the whole range of the orchestra.”
It’s a difficult juggling act, but it’s one Leaves’ Eyes have nailed nicely on King Of Kings.
King Of Kings is out 11th September via AFM Records.