Sweden has been intrinsically linked to black metal since the genre’s very beginnings, with successful and much-revered outfits such as Bathory, Marduk and Watain each keeping the flame alive in successive decades. Alongside such enduring names one must also place Dark Funeral, a band who were not only there at the beginning of the 1990s, helping to bring black metal back from obscurity, but who have remained active ever since, releasing numerous recordings and playing live all over the world, conquering Europe, the Americas and even China.
That said, recent years have not been easy for the corpsepainted horde. Their last album, Angelus Exuro Pro Eternus, saw the light way back in 2009 and since then bassist B-Force and the grandly-named vocalist Emperor Magus Caligula have both departed – the latter leaving after no less than a decade and a half of service. Having taken time out to repair their ranks, Dark Funeral are now back armed with a new collection of familiarly infernal tunes entitled Where Shadows Forever Reign, an assault of icy melody, unrelenting percussion and blasphemous vocal work.
It might be our imagination, but there also seems to be something of a retrospective, contemplative feel about this long-awaited opus, a point seemingly underlined by the cover art, created by none other than legendary painter Kristian ‘Necrolord’ Wåhlin, the same artist who worked with the band back on their 1996 debut The Secrets Of The Black Arts. So is this a band keen to return to its roots? Well apparently not actually, as we found out straight from the band’s guitarist and sole remaining founding member Lord Ahriman…
It’s been over six years and now you’ve returned with an album that seems to give a nod musically and visually to your early days – did you see this as a chance to explore the band’s core values and revisit early inspirations?
“No, this was never done by intention. With regard to the album cover, myself and Necrolord – we’ve always had contact since the ‘90s – felt that as this year is the 20th anniversary since we did the Secrets cover together, it would be a good idea to celebrate this. But starting work on this record was like always – go with the flow, follow my inner demons and see where they go. Of course you can say you want to do this or that and bring forward some ideas, but it’s very hard to do it in the end – when I started writing everyone said there was lots of old school feel to it. It’s also got new influences, so maybe that’s where I am in life – somewhere between the early days and some years ahead of myself at this time.”
Did you have any particular goals going into the writing or recording process?
“There were a few things I wanted to do, and none of them were about looking back in the past. Musically there were a few things I wanted to improve, to write more dynamic songs and get more room, not only in the drums but with the guitar melodies – to get more rhythms in the melodies if you know what I mean. I think as a guitarist I managed to bring a lot of new things that I never did before: some new weird rhythms, some new self-made chords. I feel I’ve progressed quite well in my playing and writing. Things are more dynamic, more interesting.”
Is technical progression important to you and is it hard to balance a desire to push yourself as a musician with writing memorable, effective songs?
“Sometimes I feel ‘This is not challenging enough for me…’, but then I think, ‘…it sounds fucking good, so I should just let it be’. I like to challenge myself and play fucked up melodies that go at 300bpm and stuff like that, chase the notes and just fly over the guitar in a way But that’s for my own pleasure and then you need to balance that so you can make a good song out of it. Before I could get really stuck, but now I can see that I have the right feeling in the riff, the feeling I’m going for, and carry on with the song.”
The line-up change must have made an impact on the band, how is it working with new vocalist Heljarmadr?
“Andreas [Heljarmadr] is a fresh guy and we worked very well together, and he brought in new energy to the band. He’s a new vocalist and has done impressive work, but when it comes to the songwriting, it is still me behind it. When it came to the vocals, me and Andreas were working very closely: I felt it was very important that the lyric themes fit with the music, fit what I had in mind, my vision when I wrote the songs. I was more involved in the lyric and song arrangement than I have been for many, many years.”
You worked together with Caligula for some 15 years, his leaving must have left a mark…
“Not really, because when we worked together he worked on the lyrical side of the songs, while I worked on the music. I always gave some input as to what I had in mind when I wrote the songs and he followed it sometimes, but with this record I felt as this is a new singer, I wanted to be more involved. When I write a song I have a clear idea of what the song means to me and with this record we had so many meetings where I explained the song and said, ‘This is what I have in mind and it’s important that comes forward in the lyrics’. I guess I’ve opened up more to him than I have ever – there are a few songs on all the records where the lyrics weren’t really what I had in mind.”
On a social level though, losing Caligula must have had some impact? After all, you made four albums and toured the world several times together.
“In the beginning of course it felt weird to work without him, but on the other hand I always followed my own vision whether it’s with someone or by myself and I never let anyone stand in my way. It’s never really been an impact for me when people left because I always kept my vision strong, but of course some people you miss and he made a big impact on the last record with all the work he did with that. But I’m not really the guy who looks to the past, I look to the future and to my vision and I will walk over dead bodies if I have to.”
What does keep you going? You’ve been doing this since 1993, what is your motivation all these years down the line?
“This is me, you know? Everyone finds their path in life and this is mine. Sometimes you hate this business and everything in music but on the other hand you can’t live without it, you need it to fucking breathe. I need a channel to vent what is going on inside of me with the guitar, that’s what I have to do.”
Do you find making music to be cathartic process?
“Of course, that’s kind of normal for lots of musicians, especially doing this type of music. It’s a channel to process lots of things going on inside you, it’s like a kind of therapy if you will. Every time you manage to get a song together that gets out something that’s been tearing inside of you… Things change in your life your private life and that reflects in the music of course. On the new album there’s a song called As I Ascend – that’s a song that is the most personal song ever for me. If you read and understand the lyrics that’s pretty much where I’ve been between the two records. The lyrics are basically about me falling into a dark black hole, then getting back the fire, the energy from the flames of hell, and returning. I was in a black hole for a while and that song brought me back in a way, made it possible to come back with writing. I had processed everything I was going through and was able to see a future with the band… well not the future, I always saw that, but I sort of came back to life in a way, which I needed to do to be able to bring the band into the future.”
Did you ever think the band might not return?
“No, never. It was just a period when I said to the other guys, ‘I need a bit of a time-out because there’s too much bullshit going on and I can’t focus on the band’. But this is my life and I can’t really see it ending, this is what I am, this is what I do, this is everything for me. But sometimes in life you need to take a short time away to be able to move forward.”
Things have changed immeasurably within black metal since you first formed and recorded your 1994 EP. At a time when lots of bands of your generation are playing retrospective shows, you seem very keen to keep looking forward.
“The old days were good in one way, but I feel more comfortable with today than yesterday. I led a more chaotic life and the scene was more chaotic, so I feel more stable in today’s scene. Of course it was amazing to be a part of everything that was happening at the time, but a lot of people say things have to be done like they were in the ‘90s, and they weren’t fucking there. I was. I’ve done it and I’m trying to move forward and challenge myself in new ways. That’s what it’s about, not getting stuck in some made up rules and submitting to something that was real at that time. You have to move on.”
Dark Funeral are playing Incineration festival in London on 7-8 May. Their new album Where Shadows Forever Reign is out 3 June, via Century Media.