“This music is a channel to let my feelings out. Otherwise, like the Finnish person I am, I would find a rope and hang myself.”
Juha Raivio, Swallow The Sun’s founding member and guitarist, is a sardonic soul. It comes with being Finnish. Quips about suicide are par for the course in a country where the sun barely rises above the horizon in winter and the temperature can sink to a bitter minus 20 degrees. No wonder every home has a sauna.
The dark cloud that lingers above Swallow The Sun has never shifted. From their humble beginnings in 2003 with the aptly-titled Out Of This Gloomy Light EP to their 2015 opus – the triple-album Songs From The North I, II & III – every last drop, every note and lyric, bears their hallmark Nordic melancholy.
I always see music as pictures, like short movies, and if I don’t see it like that, I don’t believe it and I stop writing that song.
“A lot of the depth comes from songs that I was – and lots of Finnish people were – sang to when they were a child,” says Raivio. “The songs my parents sang to me were actually really gloomy, no major chords at all. So this kind of melancholy is in the blood; it’s just so natural that you don’t have to force it at all.”
Their latest release, Songs From The North, is the band’s most complete artistic endeavour to date and pushes them further into new territory with not one but three albums. The first is a natural follow-up to 2012’s Emerald Forest And The Blackbird, a melancholic exploration of doom’s dark abyss, splintered with shards of light. The second is a sumptuous acoustic rendition that recalls Katatonia at their most enchanting, while the third is a nerve-shattering example of Swallow The Sun at their heaviest.
“When you move from the last song of the second album to the first song of the last album, the effect is huge!” Raivio enthuses.
Though the third part of Songs From The North is blood-curdling, the release as a whole draws on a broader set of styles that, like its predecessors, makes it hard to define Swallow The Sun. While they’re often described as death doom, the Finns exhibit a more intricate approach to the genre, weaving in layers of melody that build up texture.
“There are loads of things going on in our music,” says Raivio. “We write a lot of melodies at the same time, and from time to time it gets quite messy, but it means that if you listen to our albums over and over again, you always spot something new. I like AC/DC but once you listen to their songs once, that’s it – you’re not going discover new things about the music.”
If you had to label it, progressive doom would be appropriate. Or if you really want to be ridiculous, artcore or (snigger) doomgressive. Doom bands with a progressive bent – decent ones, that is – are hard to come by. You’ve got Agalloch, Katatonia, Barren Earth and Pallbearer perhaps, but there’s the feeling that Swallow The Sun are on another level. They’re like early Anathema and Opeth, and just over 10 years after their inception, they’re lauded as influences by bands that follow in their footsteps. But where do the proggy influences come from?
“It’s all about atmosphere and the depth of the music and for me, Marillion have been the biggest influence,” Raivio reveals. “I got lucky to end up listening to bands like Marillion, Rush, Type O Negative and My Dying Bride, so they told me to go in the right direction. It’s maybe hard to hear Rush in our music but it’s a huge influence on me and there’s lots that I got from Marillion, especially from Steve Rothery’s guitar playing. I just love that guy – he’s the king of atmosphere and melody.”
Admittedly, a lot of the tracks on Songs From The North will be hard to stomach for lovers of traditional prog, but part of the music being identifiably progressive comes from Swallow The Sun’s ability to push their songs in unexpected directions. There’s no verse-chorus-verse set-up here. Instead, you get elongated explorations of morose and unnerving melodies encasing brutal growls and uplifting clean sung sections. It’s dense and macabre but the juxtaposition of the searingly crushing against those temporary moments of light plays with the senses.
I just love Steve Rothery – he’s the king of atmosphere and melody.
Of the three albums, the second is the one that will resonate most with readers of these pages. Beginning with a low-tone funereal piano on The Womb Of Winter, over eight tracks it builds a picture of the frostbitten north. Howling winds, wolf cries and the toll of a lonely bell give way to lush vocals, acoustic guitar and a thick backdrop of choral-laden sounds. One of the songs on the album, the instrumental 66°50’N, 28°40’E, is a reference to the Lapland town of Salla where Raivio grew up.
“I always see music as pictures, like short movies, and if I don’t see it like that, I don’t believe it and I stop writing that song. But that song was really amazing. When I wrote it, all these images of Lapland that I experienced when I was a kid poured into my mind and so I knew that I had to dedicate it to this place. When I wrote the song, I saw everything though the eyes of a bird, like a hawk, and I could so clearly see everything – the landscapes and the rust of the autumn on a clear day, and the sun shining off the lakes.”
Unlike some other frost-worshipping bands of the north, not least those forest-dwelling black metallers, Swallow The Sun have never been too concerned about their image. “If you take yourself too seriously you’re going to end up looking like a donkey’s ass,” Raivio chuckles. “That’s why I like Type O Negative – they have these flashes of black humour which actually make the music darker. Mind you,” he muses, “on our new album there’s not much of that. It’s quite a dark trip.
“I grew up with Rush and Marillion and I always found with those albums that you get a build-up of atmosphere when there’s a theme that runs from the first song to the last. That’s what I want with Swallow The Sun – I want that atmosphere to get deeper and deeper. I like music that gets hold of you, that grabs you by the neck and forces you to listen to it. I know it’s not always easy to do that with the music that we write but I couldn’t give a fuck. I write from the heart.
“We sacrificed a lot for this band: homes, relationships, work. It would make things easier if we wrote mainstream music and got a couple of hits, but with music like this, you just have to make huge sacrifices and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 10 years.”
Swallow The Sun recently made the switch from Spinefarm to Century Media. Although most of the songs on Songs From The North were written two years ago, problems with their previous label meant they weren’t able to record them. Thankfully, moving to Century Media means they’ve had the support of one of metal’s most prestigious labels to make their hopes of a triple album a reality. Still, it’s an enormous feat, so why do it?
“I wanted to make a statement,” says Raivio. “I fear we’re going to lose the album forever and we’ll reach a point where people don’t even know what ‘album’ means. It’s also a ‘fuck you’ to bands that say they don’t have time to release more than a couple of tracks.
“I have no problem with digital but I think that preserving the album – and I mean presenting a full body of work – is important for people today, and in the future too. They want to own music as a piece of art.”
Raivio pauses for a moment as his mind winds back to his impending album release. “But let’s see, maybe we’ll sell two copies and then I can look for that rope.”
And with that he laughs hard, but safe in the knowledge that Songs From The North I, II & III will probably do just fine.
Songs From The North I, II & II is out now via Century Media. See www.swallowthesun.net.