Subterranea: Lucifer - Guiding Light

Oaths are meant to remain unbroken. For frontwoman Johanna Sadonis, it was a promise she was sadly forced to break when, in mid-2014, her former band, The Oath, split shortly after releasing one of the year’s most celebrated debuts. Cryptic about the reason at the time, it has since come to light that irreconcilable differences between Johanna and guitarist Linnéa Olsson laid the band to rest: an agonising decision to make, and one that no one wanted. So why did it happen? Just what transpired between them?

It’s a question you get the impression that Johanna has been asked once too often; one that she takes a moment to contemplate through a haze of indulgently exhaled cigarette smoke. “I don’t want to go into too much detail,” she replies cautiously, “but I can say it was a very intense relationship, as musicians, also as friends, that worked really well when we were writing together, but on a personal basis, there was too much friction.”

Things happened fast. It wasn’t long after Linnéa and Johanna met that they began writing. “We started right away,” she remembers. “It was a very close time… for a while.” One gets the impression that their relationship was very much like a whirlwind romance: swept off your feet before you realise what you’re getting into. “Exactly like that!” She exclaims, “We got pregnant with a baby right away,” she laughs. What a baby it was; merging the elemental forces of early metal with the portent of Sabbath-worshipping doom, The Oath brought a spiky vitality to a classic sound that many aim for but few attain.

That, however, is in the past, and Johanna is working towards a brighter future. That future goes by the name of Lucifer, and is one that she wasted no time in instigating. “I was very proud of The Oath and had a lot of plans, so it was devastating. I wanted to turn all this negative energy into something positive, and that’s worked really well. As much as I loved The Oath, I am now more passionate about Lucifer.”

First, however, she needed a band. Luckily for her, The Oath’s drummer Andrew Prestridge and bassist Dino Gollnick were waiting, raring to go, but she found herself without a guitarist, in need of an individual of sufficient might to carry the weight of her ambitions. No mean feat. Cue legendary Cathedral frontman Lee Dorrian. “Lee said, ‘Why don’t you ask Gaz? He’s an amazing player’,” Johanna remembers. For someone who had been a Cathedral fan since her teens, this casual suggestion carried with it great significance. ‘Gaz’ referred, of course, to none other than Gaz Jennings, former Cathedral guitarist. When he agreed to join, albeit as a studio guitarist, and was a fan of what Johanna had done with The Oath, she was overjoyed, but it was important that Gaz understood her vision. Lucifer is very much her baby, and offers a change of direction from The Oath. Bonding over a mutual adoration of Black Sabbath, the pair soon got to work.

“I told Gaz that this was supposed to be more of a 70s heavy rock kind of thing with doom incorporated. With The Oath we jammed in a rehearsal room and wrote on the spot, but with Lucifer it was Gaz and I sending each other files. He sent me a ton of riffs. I got to cherrypick – it was amazing! He sent me so much it was hard to choose, because he is some sort of riff wizard.”

It was a long-distance working relationship that Johanna ultimately preferred: “I work better alone. I can take more time to compose melodies. It’s more efficient for me to sit undistracted at my desk, looking at the old church opposite my window for inspiration, instead of being put on the spot in a rehearsal room. I would like people to see Lucifer as a full band, and not just me and a bunch of guys – that’s why I went for a cover with just the logo – but in terms of decision-making, anything you see is what I make. It is freedom for sure to have people around that allow me to do that. There’s a really good atmosphere in this band.”

Their debut album, Lucifer I, sultrier than its predecessor without sacrificing an iota of riff-worshipping sanctity, is a magical journey filled with intrigue: the cryptic story of a woman on a personal journey, as recounted by her haunting vocal. The cover, adorned with an all-seeing eye (“It is very important to go through life with open eyes, to never stop learning”) emitting 13 rays of light (“12 wouldn’t have made sense to me”), signifies that Johanna’s obsession with the occult, and the numerological implications of the number 7 in particular, herein reach new levels of profundity.

“Lucifer is seven letters, so here we go again!” she laughs. And of the devilish implications of the band name? Why Lucifer, and not Satan? “Satan has his appeal, but it’s one-sided. I think life, death and everything beyond is about duality. You can’t have death without life or darkness without light. Lucifer is an amazing figure, because he was misunderstood. In the Old Testament he was portrayed as being something positive. In later versions of the Bible they turned it around.”

The duality that Lucifer represents is central to understanding Johanna’s attempts to balance the light and dark, an intensely emotional individual with an empathic curiosity that at times has made her life difficult. “I find life overwhelming. There have been many moments where I’ve questioned it. At the same time, I’m so in love, and positively overwhelmed, that I always think it’s worth it to stick around. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets, because I’m not certain what comes when I die, maybe I have only this one life, and you’ll be dead for a fucking eternity!”

Like many of us, she found respite in music. “It’s a world you can disappear into. I find so much salvation in it. What I’ve been writing lately captures where I am at this moment, and everything I’ve soaked up along the way.”

Soon, this journey towards enlightenment will embark upon new paths, Lucifer’s first tour, and a first for Johanna, despite having spent much of her life in bands. For now, her desire to make a second album, to see the band flourish, to survive, will have to wait.

“I named the album Lucifer I as an omen. It means there will be albums following.” Numerology again? “Exactly, but also it’s a classic run of titles that bands do. Right now it’s about playing live. We just got our first American tour confirmed with High On Fire. We only played seven shows with The Oath; this will be my first proper tour.” She pauses, thoughtfully exhaling smoke as the realisation of what that entails dawns upon her. “Oh God,” she jokingly exclaims, “I’m going to be on the road with 20 Neanderthals!” But apart from all the sweaty socks in your not too distant future, is it bright?

“I hope so,” she replies cagily, as if haunted by recent experience. “Let’s see if people want it.”