Sweden’s Grand Magus occupies an elite place in the world of heavy metal. Every album is filled with the spirit of classic heavy metal and comes with those doomy shades that make the band somewhat of a unique entity. Bassist/backing vocalist Fox Skinner, guitarist/vocalist Janne “JB” Christoffersson, and drummer Sebastian “Seb” Sippola are ace players, the songwriting – great riffs, deep lyrics, catchy choruses – are built to last, and the albums are ones that are best heard as start-to-finish experiences. It was 2008’s Iron Will that knocked me off my feet, but the more I listen to Hammer of the North the more I think that it is at least on par with it, and when all said and done I may end up dubbing it the trio’s best work. Time will tell. But for now I thought it best to let JB tell the story of the album, including the track-by-track commentary that you’ll read below. By all means, proceed.
I was paging through the booklet, as I had just recently gotten the European CD version, and came across the band picture of three of you standing with the white wolf, or dog, sitting in front of you and howling away. What’s her or his story?
Actually, it came from an old Army friend of mine… It’s a wolf hybrid, half wolf and some kind of Husky type dog. I knew he had it because I saw it as a pup and so I asked him if he would be up for bringing it for a photo session. It went really well. He managed to bite the press officer from Roadrunner in Germany [laughs].
No kidding? So I guess he’s on the aggressive side.
Well, he’s like a one-person type dog. He’s got so much wolf in him that you can’t really treat him as a dog. He’s got very territorial instincts. But he’s not aggressive; it’s just that you have to let him do what he does.
Well, you didn’t look nervous standing there when the photo was taken.
Well, we like dogs, all of us, and I’ve been around wolves. You just have to be relaxed and they will feel relaxed themselves.
What was the reasoning behind Roadrunner releasing Hammer of the North as a digital-only product in North America?
Wow, I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that. I think that the most important thing was that it’s a big undertaking to release albums physically, especially in such a big region like the U.S. It was important to get the music out and it was also important that the album didn’t just come out when we didn’t have a tour booked. It didn’t make any sense I guess to put the whole thing in motion. That’s basically the reason behind it and there is also a chance to release the physical version properly the next time around. We’ll put it out physically before too long.
Is it available on vinyl anywhere?
Yes, there is a very nice gatefold release on Coroner Records in Europe.
Obviously, I have the digital promo, but because I like having the CD versions of the albums I really enjoy, I ordered it through Amazon.com and it shipped from the UK. And the price, including shipping, was still only around $12. So it’s not like you can’t get the CD at an affordable price if you’re in the States.
Yeah, exactly. That’s the way things are starting to be. With the different territories it’s not such a big deal anymore because I can order stuff from Amazon in America and it doesn’t cost me much either. If someone wants to get it I’m pretty sure they can without having to sell their house or anything [laughs].
Let’s jump right in into the album and talk about these tracks. “I, The Jury” opens the album.
Yeah, “I, The Jury” was I think the second song we wrote for the album. It was also one of the ones that we did a demo for. We had a really strong idea about how it was going to sound and I don’t think we changed anything from the demo version really. It was a really easy track to record and it was a really fun track to sing. I think it’s the only track on there where I actually had a bit of alcohol in me [laughs]. It was basically just one take and a lot of fun. We were pretty sure from the get-go that this was going to be the first track on the album.
It’s a good way to kick things off with some high energy. Then we’ve got “Hammer of the North,” which has more of an epic feel – though not in length – that is characteristic of several of the songs on the album.
“Hammer of the North” was actually the first track that we wrote for the album and it was also kind of a catalyst for the whole thing. The album is not a concept album in any shape or form, but all of our albums have had kind of a common thread running through each one, since the writing is usually rather condensed period-wise. So when that song was done I felt that this is what this album is going to be like. I’d say it was the most important track in making the whole album and also that majestic feel is something that we really strive for and it’s something that I really get off on. It’s been an important part of the band since we started.
Majestic is a better word for it, rather than epic.
It’s a little pretentious to say that yourself, but that’s what we aim for at least.
I understand that completely. Thus far “Black Sails” I find to be the catchiest track, but I can hear that changing the more I listen to the album. But lately that’s the one that always hooks me.
That’s cool. Well, it’s got a pretty strong chorus and I think it’s probably my best vocal performance, but it was a really difficult track to record because we kind of ran into trouble with the guy we recorded with, Nico [Elgstrand] from Entombed. He thought that my idea for the chorus sucked [laughs]. He kind of said “Enough of this, let’s have lunch and during lunchtime you have to write a new chorus over this music that we already recorded.” So I was sitting at the cafeteria, humming along with the chord changes and it just wrote itself. The music had already been recorded, but the vocals were pretty much totally different. I think Nico was right, but it was a bit of a blow [laughs] to start from scratch.
“Mountains be my Throne.”
It’s a really straight forward track. Basically the riff is kind of the song, but always melody is the most important thing. We needed a pretty catchy verse, something memorable apart from the riff, but the riff was really the starting point on that song.
Keeping with the northern theme you’ve got “Northern Star.”
“Northern Star” is probably the fastest song that we’ve ever attempted to record. It was actually a really easy song to record as well. I think it’s one of the catchier things that we’ve done and I just had a really good feeling about that track right from the get-go. I never discuss the lyrics in detail, but it kind goes very deeply into things that I have very strong feelings about.
And “The Lord of Lies.” I won’t even ask you what that’s about.
Well, it might not be what you think.
It usually isn’t, is it?
[Laughs] It’s actually connected to Scandinavian tradition. I guess it’s the closest thing we come to doom these days. I feel that so many people call us like a doom band, but I would say doom in the vein of Candlemass, yes, but also classic metal very much influenced by like Judas Priest or Black Sabbath. We’ve never been into that doom-doom type stuff. I can enjoy that, but that’s not our thing or something that we really listen to. So Candlemass, but that’s different.
Well yeah, even with Candlemass it’s not all slow songs; they have up-tempo, more traditional heavy metal rockers and things of that sort.
Yeah, and it’s still very much rooted in classic heavy metal.
The way I’ve always described the music of Grand Magus is that it’s based in classic metal or New Wave of British Heavy Metal with doom shades.
Yep, there is melancholy or whatever you want to call it somewhere in there, but if you’re going to have a strong melody then you can’t play that fast all the time; then it just becomes a blur I feel. It’s that kind of mid-tempo kind of Rainbow, Dio, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest thing. That’s always been the type of heavy metal that got me going, not necessarily the fastest songs.
What about “At Midnight They’ll get Wise?”
That was a completely new experience. We had this riff and I kind of thought it sucked; I wouldn’t have at all wanted to continue with the song, but it was a really good riff and we thought we should still do this song. Again, if you get that feedback you see something you thought was crap turn out to be one of the best songs on the album. We also did a video for that track. It’s a memorable heavy metal track and it’s got same kind of feel I got from listening to “British Steel” and stuff like that. [“You Don’t have be old to be Wise.” Anyone? – SA]
“Bond of Blood” is one of the songs that after a few listens it started grabbing me with its chorus as well.
Nico called it the Peruvian song [laughs]. He thought the chorus sounded like a protest, folk kind of South American thing [laughs]. Like what you have you been sticking in your pipe, mate? We have a pretty strong folk influence and it’s obviously Scandinavian folk music, but then again folk music in our country has quite a lot of similarities in the tone, language, or whatever you want to call it. So that chorus especially has a very strong Nordic feel to it. Then again, if you’re from Peru, then maybe you think it’s Peruvian [laughs], I don’t know.
That was the third demo track that we did. That makes it very easy to record because you’ve already done it basically. The main problem with that track was the vocals on the demo turned out really good, or at least we felt. I didn’t hesitate when we did the proper recording and Nico was like “Ah, you fucking suck, it’s so much worse than on the demo; come on, show me some feeling” and blah, blah, blah. Then I was like fucking desperate. I felt I was pouring my heart out here and then I had him isolate the vocal track from the demo to make sure that it was that good or was it just the whole vibe of that recording. And it turned out that it wasn’t that great [laughs]. Basically, all the takes that I did of the new version were better than the one on the original. You can get paranoid like that sometimes. In the end I felt that we did the song justice.
Well, on the European version you wrap it up with “Ravens Guide our Way.”
Obviously, there is a very strong Scandinavian theme to the lyrics. There is a way of telling a story in the Scandinavian tradition and I try to emulate that way, which I mostly do anyway because it’s like poetry when you write lyrics and the way that these tales are told has a pretty straight formula. You use certain words to enhance the feeling or whatever. And “Ravens Guide our Way” is probably the best example of that on the album and I think it turned out really well. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. It was a very emotional experience to do the vocals on that one.
On the North American digital version you’ve got the bonus track, “Crown of Iron.”
Yeah, that’s probably the weirdest song on the whole album. I really like it and I actually prefer it to… I shouldn’t say which one, but maybe I prefer it to let’s say “Mountains be my Throne.” I would have preferred to have it on the album, but it was not an issue because we had so much trouble recording that song. It used to have a completely different chorus and it was the absolute last piece of vocals that was recorded in the session. We finished the new chorus on the last day or recording. So we’d been struggling with that song ever since we laid down the basic tracks. But it turned out to be a pretty fuckin’ good chorus [laughs]. It was such a nightmare to struggle with that song, so I guess we were kind of biased. But now when I listen to it I really like it. You have to have a bonus track on the Japanese version, so that’s where it originally came from; it’s on the Japanese release.
By the way, what’s interesting from a reviewer’s standpoint is that I always know going into a review is that Grand Magus is something to which you must listen more times than usual, as there is always this growth quality about your releases. So initially I was thinking that Iron Will might be a bit better overall, but the last few days I’m thinking that Hammer of the North may actually top it. So there is something about Grand Magus albums where you need to spend some time before making a final judgment.
That’s really nice to hear. To me that kind of says that there is some content in there and it’s not just a sound or a rhythm or whatever. It’s about the songs and it’s got to have something that makes it stick. In my life there always has been stuff that you like it at first of course, but you have to really listen to it to really appreciate it.
You must have done these track-by-track commentaries in the past, because you exceeded my expectations with what you’ve done here.
Thank you very much. I appreciate that.