Dances With Death

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With album number 3, Maledictus Eris, Denmark’s Svartsot have continued their consistent enjoyable take on folk laced death metal. However, rather than frolicking synths and fruity jigs, Svartsot deliver folk metal with a bearded, burly presence that’s as much Amon Amarth than anything else. But what makes the consistency surprising is the band turn over and the fact that guitarist Cris Frederiksen is the only remaining member from the debut, Ravenes Saga. So I visited with Cris to get a little more insight in the band’s new line-up, as well as some details on the new album.

First, how is Stewart Lewis’ (band’s whistle player whose taking a break from the band) wife faring, I hope she is better?

I’m not really sure how much I can say about Stewart and his wife’s situation. So all I’ll say is that the complaints she suffers from are all long term, and she will never be 100 % well again. But I can also add that none of the ailments are terminal, so she still has many years left! Although Stewart’s wife can function more or less normally, she lives a pretty reclusive life, and she needs Stewart to be close by most of the time. So touring and recording are completely out of the question for Stewart.

Stewart isn’t so young anymore either and although he says he misses the band, I don’t think he really minds not being active in Svartsot anymore.  He still plays folk music with a group of friends, but it’s nothing they have any ambitions with, and this seems to suit Stewart much better. I can’t disqualify it completely, but I doubt very much Stewart will ever be back with us as a full member.

There’s been a considerable line-up shift from the first album to this third album. How hard is it to maintain the band’s sound with such a radical loss of original members?

Seeing as I wrote in total about 75-80 % of the material on Ravnenes Saga (both music and lyrics), and then wrote all music for Mulmets Viser and Maledictus Eris (with the exception of the melody in the intro track, “Staden…”), there has been a continuation of main composer. But at the same time, I also think that the band’s sound has changed radically. The line-up from Ravnenes… would certainly not have been able to record an album like Maledictus…, so there have been some major developments in the sound and style too. But now that the line-up has been more or less stable since 2009, and having used Mulmets… as a bridge from the older style of the first album towards the newer style, it was possible for us to record such a complex album.

As far as I am concerned, the line-up change was a pretty positive thing. We’ve had line-up rearrangements every now and again right since the start (although never on the same scale as in 2008), and it has always had a positive effect on the band. The new guys who joined in 2009 were almost exclusively fans, which helped a lot. They also wanted to push the band further, which I feel we have done to a greater extent than the old line-up could have done with the limitations we had.

Maledictus Eris is a concept album about the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 14th Century. What brought about, first, the idea of a concept album, and second, a concept album about the Plague?

We didn’t actually have any plans about doing a concept album when I started writing the material. Even the idea about doing an album about the Black Death was secondary. We just wanted to dissociate ourselves from the “Viking/pagan” tag that has been forced upon us by people who don’t really know what Svartsot is about. Although we have taken inspiration from the Viking age for some of our lyrics, we have taken more influence from later periods – even using folklore collected as late as the 18th century. So originally we decided to write an album based in the extremely Christian medieval period so that it had absolutely nothing to do with Vikings.

It wasn’t until a small handful of tracks had been written and we started to think about writing lyrics that we started looking at exact themes. As the music was far more somber than the earlier albums, we needed a suitably serious theme. So we began research the Black Death, and found that there was so much subject matter in the theme that we could easily base the whole album around it. Originally it was just meant to be a collection of songs set in the period, but that changed later on, and the album became more of a proper concept album.

Obviously Svartsot means “black sickness’, so there’s obviously been an interest there from the beginning, right?

“Svartsot” is an old name for a jaundice related disease, whereby the malfunctioning liver can no longer filter the waste from the blood, and the skin ultimately turns black. A lot of people have presumed that Svartsot was another name for the plague, but it isn’t.

It only took a year for this album to come out after Mulmets Viser. How come the quick turnaround? Especially after the gap between the first and second album was three years and this effort is a concept album?

The 2½ year gap between Ravnenes… and Mulmets… was primarily due to the line-up changes in 2008/2009. We had already written a whole album’s worth of material before the four guys decided to quit the band. I then had to drop half of this material due to the old members’ participation in the writing process. But that was also fine by me, as I was not really interested in the direction the old line-up wanted the band to head in, and I also considered the material to be inferior. I resumed writing once the line-up was in place in February 2009, and we recorded Mulmets… already in October 2009. Seeing as half of the album was written in 7 months, it wasn’t the biggest problem to write an album in a year. I was also in a situation during 2010 where I could spend more time on writing. Added to that, James (Atkins the new bass player) took over writing of the lyrics, so I “only” needed to translate them (James is from Yorkshire in England, and hasn’t yet mastered the Danish language). The subject matter too was very inspiring for us, so it was actually comparatively easy to write the album – even though the material is much more serious than on the first two albums. My situation has now changed, and I no longer have the time that I had last year. So I’m counting on the next album taking longer to write.

How hard was it to write a concept album on a much darker subject matter, especially when considering your style of music is typically a more happy, bouncy and uplifting form of metal?

As mentioned earlier, the concept album side of it was first decided on in the later phases of writing, and for most of the time we spent writing, we just considered it to be a standard album. So that didn’t really have an effect on the writing process. Regarding the more serious side to the music, I guess I just wrote from a more personal perspective than I had previously. This was a trend that we started on with Mulmets…, resulting in that album being far more textured than Ravnenes…, which I consider to be a very one-dimensional album. I think this was due to the fact that there was more than one composer, and that the level of musicianship – especially on rhythm guitars and drums – was far lower than it is now. We didn’t concentrate so much on layering the music, and the whistles followed the guitars very closely. This was changed for Mulmets… which has more harmonies between the various lead instruments. Maledictus… has even more layering, harmonies and counterpoints, so it was in many respects a continuation of our development. I was also starting to get tired of the clichéd jauntiness that many folk metal bands decide to concentrate on. There is more to folk music than that, so why not include other aspects? The writing process ran pretty smoothly for the main part, and once I had started it was easy to continue. I did however go back and rework some of the songs, as I felt that they could have even more detail than they had in the original versions.

Has there ever been any interest in doing lyrics in English? Especially for this concept album?

I’ve kind of answered this question already – the lyrics were actually written in English to begin with! But as part of Svartsot’s basic concept is that the lyrics are in Danish, they were translated. We discussed whether to write the lyrics in English or Danish right back when we started the band. But seeing as the lyrics are primarily about Danish history and folklore, it would seem wrong to use English. I know that James would be overjoyed if we started to use English, but it would seem wrong for me. We have however included some Latin phrases in the lyrics this time, as they were fitting for some of the subject matter. This was the first time Svartsot has ever used another language to Danish, and it was limited.

Can you give me a quick rundown of the album’s storyline, especially my two favorite tracks “Farsoten kom”?  That sea shanty track really jumped out at me, and the somber “Kunsten at dø”. My Danish isn’t so good.

The intro “Staden…” (The Town…) sets the scene for the album. Two women can be heard talking about a ship arriving from England with cloth (the plague seems to have come to Denmark from either the UK or Norway, and the cloth trade seems to have been the major transmitter) whilst two men talk about the plague spreading in Norway. We enter a tavern, where the scene is set for the next song – “Gud giv det varer ved!” (May God Let This Continue!). This track is about the minor diseases people suffered from in the medieval age, and ends with a traveler entering the tavern. He is welcomed to join the crowd, and the track ends with a cough (one of the first symptoms of the plague).

“Dødedansen” (The Dance Of Death) is based on the dance macabre motif of the later medieval age, which was directly influenced by the Black Death. This track introduces the death side of the story. “Farsoten kom” (The Epidemic Came) discusses the various theories people had at the time about why the plague came and how it spread. “Holdt ned af en Tjørn” (Held Down By A Thorn Bush) is about a pious man who has contracted the disease, and he questions the church’s theory that god had sent the plague to punish mankind for its sins. He also describes the symptoms. “Den forgængelige Tro” (The Corruptible Faith) also questions the church’s theories that faith will cure people of the plague.

“Om jeg lever kveg” (If I Am Still Alive) describes the fraction of society that for some reason reacted to the Black Death by sinning as much as possible. Experts often liken this reaction to shell shock. “Kunsten at dø” (The Art Of Dying) is based on the book Ars Moriendi which describes how laymen can administer the last sacrament. Although written later, the book was based on a practice starting during the Black Death, as so many priests either died or ran away in hope of escaping the plague.

“Den nidske Gud” (The Treacherous God) is about a soldier returning home after fighting in North Germany in 1349 to find that his whole family has been killed by the plague. He asks which kind of god can kill so many innocent people. “Spigrene” (The Spikes) is about the practice of nailing people into their houses – the healthy along with the sick – and left to die in an attempt to prevent the plague from spreading. And finally, “…Og Landet ligger så øde hen” (…And The Land Is So Desolate) is about the aftermath once the disease had disappeared.

On Mulmets Viser and this new album, you used Lasse Lammert and a German studio to produce, after Jacob Hansen and a Danish studio for the debut. What was the logic in going from a big name producer and studio to a smaller, less known name? Did having label mates Alestorm record their new album there have anything to do with it?

To tell you the truth, we were never 100 % convinced that Jacob Hansen’s sound fit the band, and were already looking at recording with another producer for the follow-up album before the events at the end of 2008. All respect for Jacob; he has managed to create quite a name for himself. But you can always hear a Jacob Hansen production, no matter which band it is, as the sound – especially the drums – is always the same. And this sound never really suited our personal ideas of how Svartsot should sound. Besides that, with the rising popularity of Volbeat and with Jacob starting to record more mainstream bands at the time, Jacob had become too expensive for the budget we were given for Mulmets Viser. But even if we’d had a big enough budget, I’m sure we wouldn’t have chosen him again.

So I was looking around for producers and therefore asked Napalm Records if they could recommend anyone. They suggested that I should contact Lasse, as they had good experiences through his work with Alestorm (Lasse has worked with Alestorm since the Battleheart-days), and because Lasse is based in Lübeck, which is pretty close to the border to Denmark. After having mailed with Lasse a few times we really hit it off, and Lasse understood exactly where I was coming from and what Svartsot hoped to achieve. The recording process for Mulmets Viser ran really smoothly, and we were satisfied with the result, so when we were ready to book a studio for Maledictus Eris Lasse was the natural choice. And he has also done a very good job on this album, so I can’t imagine any reason for us changing him out for coming albums. Besides that we have also built up a good relationship to him, both workwise and personally, and that means a lot to us. We have a good team spirit in the studio, and that’s not something you can pay for.

Speaking of Alestorm, Napalm Records is really gathering the best, most respected folk metal bands on the planet; Alestorm, Heidevolk, Arkona, Korpiklaani, Crimfall, Falkenbach, Tyr as well as awesome newcomers like Jaldaboath and Skalmond. How is it being on such a perfect fit of a label?

For sure, Napalm Records are doing an extremely good job of finding the best up-and-coming folk metal acts, and have set careers off for some of the bigger names in the genre – some of whom (for example Korpiklaani) have gone on to larger labels. So in that respect it is the perfect label for any folk metal band to start their career on. The only major problem is that Napalm Records’ size doesn’t quite qualify it as one of the larger labels, and with the major slump in record sales due to illegal downloading this can often be felt in the budgets, which are mainly based on sales figures. Of course I can understand the attraction of downloading – who doesn’t want to get as much as possible for free or next to nothing (albeit in poorer quality and without the appeal of a physical product)? But the “fans” are ultimately biting their own arses, as downloading is killing the music business. Without sales, labels – especially medium sized and smaller labels –can’t give bands proper budgets. This results in bands either not being able to afford to record or having to be more lax on the production side; either way it means fewer quality albums.

Personally, if you guys, Alestorm, Jaldaboath and Heidevolk were to come on a tour of the US, I might poop myself a little. What would your perfect tour be?

That’s a difficult question to answer, as we have had the privilege of playing with so many awesome bands. I think in our current situation, a tour like Paganfest or Heidenfest would be best for us. We had a good time playing the two Paganfest guest slots we did at the start of last year, and both Finntroll and Eluveitie were very friendly towards us, so it would be cool to play with them again. It would also be cool to play with slightly less well-known bands such as Negură Bunget or Skyforger again. Or to get to meet and tour with bands we haven’t yet shared a stage with, but have respect for, such as Thyrfing or Ensiferum.

Do you prefer touring in Europe where Folk metal is much more accepted and embraced due to the history and culture, or do you like touring other countries?

Svartsot have so far only played in Europe, so I can’t really answer the question fully. But even within Europe there is a great diversity of cultures. One of the fun things about touring, or even just playing one-off shows abroad, is getting to meet new people and seeing how the scene and people in general are in different places. So for us it is cool no matter where it is.

What do you say to critics that your sound is pretty predictable and repetitive?

I actually find many of the “bad” reviews to be bordering on farcical as it is quite obvious that many of the critics who have written these reviews haven’t bothered to listen to the album properly. I have read several times that the album is repetitive, yet the same critic praises the track “Farsoten Kom” as a stand-out track. The whole basis of “Farsoten Kom” was an exercise in the traditional folk music-style of one main melody played more than 20 times in four and a half minutes, so this track was DELIBERATELY written to be repetitive! And isn’t that a bit hypocritical to complain of repetition, yet praise the song that was written to be as repetitive as possible? ALL of the other tracks have been limited to a maximum of three verses with an average track length of 4mins 30 sec – so how the hell can they be repetitive? None of the songs (with the exception of “Farsoten kom”) comprise of less than 4-5 riffs. But if the “critic” can’t be arsed to listen for longer than to the start of the second verse they are not going to get to the parts of the tracks that start to vary riffs, or where new riffs are added.

The predictability and the claims of “lack of innovation” hang pretty much together. But what do the reviewers expect from a folk metal band? I can’t think of a single folk metal band that has actually added anything new to the metal styles they rely on for the metal basis in their music. And folk music has been around for hundreds of years, so where’s the scope for innovation there? It’s all been done before, but since when has any folk metal fan expected a band to do something 100 % innovative? We could drop the metal side I guess, or even the folk side – now that would be innovative, but it wouldn’t be “folk metal” any longer!

The highest-rated reviews tend to be those, where the critic has actually listened to the album several times. One reviewer even wrote that he didn’t know how to review the album, and just had it on repeat for a day. Then he knew how to write the review – and it was a very positive one. I guess we were expecting bad reviews for an album like this. Most critics just don’t seem to understand the album, and can’t be bothered to listen to it more than once (if they even do that – most pretty obviously just skip after 30 seconds of each track). This album demands listening to several times before all of the layers start to reveal themselves to the listener. But that’s the kind of album I like. We’ve left the one-dimensional days of Ravnenes Saga behind us – much to the dismay of some critics – where everything handed on a plate on the first listen. This is understandable if the incompetent reviewers can’t fathom the material on “maledictus eris”. They also leave other tell-tale traits of their inabilities, such as copy-pasting the press material (and reconstructing the pasted parts in an incomprehensible order), spelling names wrong, and not checking who is still in the band or what instruments were used.

What can we expect from Svartsot over the next few years and albums?

That’s a difficult one to answer, as we don’t make any long-term plans. We hope to get out and tour Europe and beyond before too long, but we have to find a serious booking partner for outside of Denmark/Scandinavia first. And it probably won’t be too long before I start working properly on new material. The few melodies and riffs I’ve been playing with so far indicate that the next album will stylistically continue on from Maledictus Eris, and I have a few more ideas I want to experiment with. I certainly don’t plan on heading back to the tiresome one-dimensional qualities of Ravnenes Saga.

Thanks for your time.


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