UNLEASHED – Gathering The Battalions
A post-doomsday story, a trio of compositions (‘Courage Today, Victory Tomorrow!’, ‘So It Begins’, and ‘As Yggdrasil Trembles’) on March 2010 outing As Yggdrasil Trembles inaugurated the tale which April 2012’s Odalheim features. Penned by Swedish death metal outfit Unleashed, the story begins with global tree Yggdrasil trembling which is a signal of grave events to occur. This heralds the end of the world and so Fimbulwinter follows, three successive winters without any intervening summers.
“If we were gonna start this storyline, we had to start it somehow,” muses Johnny Hedlund, vocalist, bassist, and co-founder of Unleashed. “We figured ‘Okay, let’s do this on the first three songs of the Yggdrasil album.’ We continued it with this one, which is after Ragnarok. That’s a good time to start the new world in the storyline, so yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. There’s a connection there. We took the decision to release this album about two, maybe three years ago because we already knew back then that we were gonna do this. It’s just a continuation from the previous album, really.”
The creative process surrounding Odalheim wasn’t a departure from previous efforts. “The process making this album has been pretty much just like our previous ones,” the mainman confirms. “We normally take like two years, and that’s something that we probably have just developed. We start pretty much directly after the previous album and then we just keep on working, so it’s a two-year process. We make a pre-production six months before the real thing, but all in all, after two years it’s done again (laughs). It’s something that we’ve always felt was a good timeframe. So here we are again, pretty much two years after the previous one.
“This one is more of a concept album, which we haven’t really done before. In that way I guess we could say it’s a new thing for us, but on the other hand there’s 11 songs on the album and every song is really just an Unleashed song. It’s the storyline of the lyrics that are really a concept thing and not really the music so to speak, so in that respect I guess it’s kind of a new thing. Generally though, we just picked up where the previous album left off. It’s a little faster this one I guess, a little bit more intense than the previous one overall I would say. There are some smaller black metal influences on this new album, but perhaps it’s more extensive than on the previous one. That’s definitely a small change I would say; it’s not really big, but there’s a little more black metal on this album. It’s not really that we’re reinventing the wheel or something though; it’s just the same Unleashed music as on the previous albums.
“We figured that we would do a concept album a couple of years back, but I wasn’t ready with the storylines. Odalheim is really a book I’ve been writing for a number of years; I’ve been working on it for six or seven years, and my problem is I never have the time to finish the thing. We figured we should put this on the album now instead of waiting until the book is ready, because it might never be. We figured that we would take each chapter and make it into a small song, and that’s pretty much what happened with Odalheim. I sat down a good number of years ago, and thought that it would be nice to create a continuation to Norse mythology and to the Viking tradition. There’s very little out there to read; there’s very little out there that comes after Ragnarok, which is literally the end of the world. I figured it would be nice to write a continuation of that, so that’s why I invented it. I invented this name for the new world, which is Odalheim. The story is really about the Midgard Warriors who survive Ragnarok and carry on the Viking tradition into the new world, and obviously they have their fights against White Christ who is the main enemy and so forth. It’s a big story but it’s obviously bigger in the book, so this album is really a very short story of a much bigger concept.”
White Christ isn’t an original character exclusive to the storyline. “White Christ is in the Sagas from a 1,000 years ago,” Johnny informs. “It literally translates from Icelandic to White Christ, who is the enemy to the heathen Vikings. In my story, it’s a more right-wing type of Jesus Christ. It’s very right-wing, so it’s not really common Christianity as it is in 2012. I think in the United States, perhaps you can find that type of Christianity today. Maybe even in Sweden, but very little. It exists, but they are not so many in numbers. As this is a story set in the future, I allowed myself to look at what things could be like in a number of years from now.”
White Christ is the central antagonist of the tale. “That’s the opponent, the main enemy,” the singer verifies. “They are most definitely the main enemy, but after the catastrophe the world doesn’t really look like it does today. In the storyline, White Christ is literally the dominant political and religious power of the world. White Christ is really not just a political power, but obviously also has a very powerful military machine. The Midgard Warriors – who are the good guys (laughs) – are really the ones fighting against them on a number of different levels. They obviously have weapons too, but they are greatly outnumbered in the beginning of the story. After a number of defeats, they decide to gather battalions from many other places of the world because that’s the only way they will ever survive. Otherwise, they will literally look at extinction. They have no chance to survive because White Christ is obviously a lot stronger, and a lot more powerful. That is the beginning of the story, how it starts. They are very close to extinction. A lot of things are hard to compare though, so I had to make a lot of assumptions obviously when I wrote the story.”
Odalheim doesn’t actually conclude the affair, meaning the story’s continuation could technically surface on future Unleashed albums. “We haven’t really taken that decision yet, but it is very likely to happen,” Johnny reckons. “I think it’s gonna continue because I have a lot more written, but the great work is to adapt that to the songs of course which takes a lot of work. The storyline I have for at least one more album though. It keeps playing out in my head anyway, so we figured if it works out well and people like it then we will likely continue. The main criteria anyway is that each song on every album we release will still be a normal Unleashed song. I don’t really personally like concept albums if the songs are 12 minutes and are connected to each other musically. With this album you’re really able to pick out each and every song, and listen to them just as a song. I think we managed to do that, so I’m happy with that. I’m guessing it’s gonna continue on the next album.”
Odalheim’s novel version is a fair step away from completion. “It wouldn’t take more than two, maybe two-and-a-half to three years from now to complete,” the co-founder deduces. “The problem is I do a lot of other things as well though (laughs). When I started writing it in 2004, 2005 I was in a totally different social situation, so I had a lot of time back then. I figured ‘How hard can it be? I’m gonna do this now,’ and then obviously time went by. I got myself a son and a family too, blah blah.
“It’s really hard now to just sit down and write a book, and not care about anything else. I also have to do another album with Unleashed of course, which is always the main thing – to keep working on the band. Those things right there just stopped me from really delving into the book, and really spending a lot of time on it. I really don’t know if I ever will finish it. To me that was a little bit disappointing in the beginning, because it took me six to seven years to figure out that it was time to put this on the album or it may never be out. Since I keep getting these ideas about things that happen in the storyline though, you never know. If I actually had the time in the future, I will probably sit down and keep trying to finish it.”
Odalheim’s outline perhaps suggests the proposed tome could rival fantasy trilogy Lord Of The Rings (1954-55) in terms of scope. “I wouldn’t dream of trying something that big,” Johnny stresses. “I would definitely settle for something a lot smaller though (laughs). Otherwise it would never get finished, that’s for sure.”
The novel is being penned in English. “Obviously my Swedish is a lot better, but I have good help as well,” the frontman divulges. “I have a friend of mine who works as a Swedish / English translator, so I have a lot of professional help when it comes to grammar. He has also read more books than anybody I know, and he’s very talented in that area. I can draw a lot of experience from him as well, so if I really put my mind to it then I will probably finish it.”
Despite his writing ambitions, Johnny hasn’t always fancied becoming an author. “This whole thing – like I said before – started with me wanting to continue Norse mythology, the Viking tradition,” he reminds. “There was nothing written after Ragnarok. There was very little out there; there are a few lines to be read, but there’s really no story afterwards. It just stopped, and I wanted to continue it because I didn’t want it to stop there. It is a little bit of a risky project obviously because nobody has done it before, but it was more of an idea. I figured I’d work on, and since I write a lot of Viking-type lyrics anyway I figured I had a lot of ideas already. It was just a nice thing to do, and to see if I could develop into something bigger. I think we’re pretty much on the way right now.”
Odalheim could be Unleashed’s quickest paced full-length to date. “We’ve done overall fast albums in the past as well, but when we were ready with this one we said ‘Maybe this is the fastest one,’” the vocalist reveals. “We didn’t really think about it too much – it just came out that way. We never really sit down, and say ‘Okay, three slow ones, three mid-paced, and four fast.’ Since we never do that, we just take the songs that we think are the strongest ones. We probably write 25 to 30 songs to choose from. When we start writing lyrics, I pretty much pick the songs that I feel are the strongest ones. We communicate within the band, and if everybody agrees we just go. When we got up to ten or 11 songs this time in the pre-production that were really the strongest ones, we said ‘Oh, this one is really fast’ (laughs). That’s cool though. It works. It could have been a little bit slower of course, but I just feel that the most important thing is always to have the strongest songs that are valuable to you. That’s how we work.”
Unleashed’s second quickest album is more difficult to determine, however. “I guess in the past we did a few really, really fast ones,” Johnny reflects. “I guess the first album (May 1991’s Where No Life Dwells) is pretty fast, but I’m not sure. It’s a hard thing to compare (laughs).”
Lead guitarist Fredrik Folkare handled production yet again on Odalheim, but didn’t deviate from pre-existing working methods. “Obviously we wanna try to develop, but this is our 11th album and we’ve done this for about 23 years now,” the bassist emphasises. “It’s always hard to sit down and say ‘Okay, let’s make a lot of major changes,’ and become a lot better in this and that. We wanted to develop in the details, make small adjustments, and get a little bit better at small things instead of trying to make an amazing change. There’s nobody who wants to see an amazing change though, and we definitely don’t. I think we did just that; I think there are some small changes here and there. I’m proud of the improvement of the guitars, and especially the vocals. I think he’s done just a little bit better job than last time, and the overall production I’m also very happy with. That’s enough; I don’t really need anything more than that so to speak.”
Having composed 11 albums’ worth of material, writer’s block seemingly isn’t an issue for Unleashed. “That’s the reason why we always work on new songs, because that can happen for sure,” Johnny notes. “I’ve already started working on the next album and I have another 24 months before the release of the next one, so I am not really in any kind of hurry. It’s the same with Fredrik; he makes most of the music, and whenever he has a good feeling towards something and a good idea he just sits down and tries to create something strong. I think that allows you to sometimes have a block. Sometimes maybe nothing happens in a month, and that’s fine because I don’t think anybody can be creative every week (laughs). That would be impossible. The only thing is I don’t really know if I have some kind of block, because I just figure that I’ll do something else. I just wait awhile, and then I sit down whenever I feel very creative.”
Spanning across a 21-year duration roughly, Unleashed’s offerings largely fall into one metal subgenre. “We’re a death metal band, but these days there are so many different labels,” the mainman acknowledges. “I’m not gonna protest if somebody says we’re a Viking death metal band, because we are. We’re a Viking death metal band. If you asked me 20 years ago you didn’t have to make up a label to separate a number of bands, so people would call us Swedish death metal and that was it. There were maybe ten bands from Sweden that played death metal (laughs). But yeah, we’re a Viking death metal band or just a death metal band.”
An official lyric video for album cut ‘Rise Of The Maya Warriors’ was unveiled on March 15th. “To be honest, that was the choice of the record label,” Johnny imparts. “I would say all of the 11 songs have a part to play on the album. I don’t think there’s one song that is more catchy than the other, but obviously somebody must have really thought that that was a good song to put out there first.
“Nuclear Blast asked me initially if we had any plans for that, and I said ‘If you do that, that’s fine with me. You can pick whatever.’ I didn’t really sit down, think, and have a plan about which song to put out there first. It doesn’t matter too much to me; it’s all about the whole album, anyway. I’m not sure who actually picked that song to be the first released, but I think I even answered ‘The title track’ when they asked to be honest. There were more people involved though and our management was involved as well, and I think they had a discussion. I don’t really know what the discussion was though, because I had very little time to follow their argument. That’s alright though, that’s okay. It’s fine.
“It didn’t matter to me, because they are all representative of the album anyway. It might be a strange song to pick only because it’s the topic of the Maya, and it’s easy to misinterpret because it’s in the middle of the storyline. That very song is song number seven, which means it’s the seventh chapter in the book. Obviously, it’s in the middle of the story. I would have thought that maybe you should pick a song that is at the beginning of the story, but it doesn’t really matter.”
At the time of writing, the prospect of a music video proper is cloudy. “I don’t know,” the singer confesses. “They haven’t really said anything about that yet, so I’m not sure. I just get the feeling that this YouTube thing is something that they can probably do a lot cheaper, and whatever they can create and just put out on YouTube is gonna be the way of the future. At least that’s the feeling I get, because nobody has spoken anything about doing a proper video. We’ll see. I haven’t turned it down, and I haven’t really gotten a proposal anyway (laughs).”
Sebastian Ramstedt returned to handle artwork duties for Odalheim. “I think he did the three previous albums before this one, and he knows a lot of Norse mythology,” Johnny enthuses. “He knows a lot of Viking tradition, and also he has a lot of good ideas. I present to him my idea, and then we talk about that. He keeps doing a really strong job, and he interprets my ideas very well. He is also the former guitar player of Necrophobic, so yeah. He knows death metal, and he’s a very good guy to work with. I’m very happy that he keeps working with us, because it’s easy to get my ideas across to him.
“The artwork itself is really an image of Birka, which is on the island of Björkö. It’s early dawn, just before White Christ has made one of their numerous attacks on the island. It looks a little strange on the album, because it’s not really very common album artwork. There’s a lot in that image to be interpreted if you read the storyline. For those who are not interested in the storyline then the album may make very little sense, but that’s how it is. There’s also a small continuation as well from the previous album because that had Yggdrasil on it, and this has the roots of Yggdrasil coming in from the right side which is our way of just saying that there’s a continuation with the two albums and also in the mythology as well. In As Yggdrasil Trembles Ragnarok takes over and the world ceases to exist, and then the new world rises. The new world is called Odalheim in my world. There’s a continuation with both the albums, and you can clearly see that they sit along with each other. So yeah, that’s the image of the new album.”
Odalheim is the second Unleashed album to be issued through Nuclear Blast Records, the first being As Yggdrasil Trembles. “It’s working well,” the co-founder surmises. “We have a good co-operation. I think Jaap (Wagemaker), Flori (Milz), and everyone are really good people, and very professional. I think they’re very responsive and work very fast, which just makes me happy. I really like to work with people that respond to me on an everyday basis, which they do. They don’t really leave things unanswered, which is really positive. They’re very easy people to work with. We’re just having a really good time right now.”
Studio albums eight and nine (October 2006’s Midvinterblot and June 2008’s Hammer Battalion) were released via SPV Records. “It was good,” Johnny reminisces. “We had a few good years with SPV, but they unfortunately went bankrupt. Of course it also had consequences for us as the label ran out of money, because that’s literally what happened. It was the same for all the bands on the label though, and we were not really an exception. It was the same for everybody, something that we just had to deal with. I don’t blame any person for that. There were some consequences due to that obviously, but that’s how it is. Yeah though, I really think we had a good time – there were no bad feelings. We really just had a good co-operation. I sometimes see some of those people at festivals, and keep in touch. Yeah, it was just very good.”
From inaugural record Where No Life Dwells through to album seven – July 2004’s Sworn Allegiance – Unleashed were contracted to Century Media Records. Comparatively speaking, the frontman looks back more fondly on his time with SPV. “There was a huge difference,” he accentuates. “When we signed to Century Media, we were kids – that was in 1991. We had no idea about the music industry, how things worked, the record deals that you sign, the publishing deals that you sign, the boring deals you sign, and merchandising deals. I had no idea about what was right and what was wrong. We were literally fools, and we are still suffering from those deals because they are very long term.
“With SPV, it was just a much different situation. We sat down and talked about things and we negotiated in good faith, so it was a two-way street. Century Media was never a two-way street though; they just wanted our signatures on a piece of paper way back then, and we were 16-years-old. It’s impossible to compare that to these days because we know so much more now, and we understand the music industry. I’m an economist myself, and work as an accounting manager. I know things these days that I would never agree to, but way back then we had no idea. We were just kids wanting to go out on tour and have a good time, and unfortunately we trusted people that were around us. We trusted people on the new record label because we thought that they wanted good things for us, but in fact they just wanted to make a lot of money on something that was up and coming, which we were.”
Between 1997 and 2002, Johnny achieved a degree in finance. “We had been on tour for eight years consecutively, and we were pretty tired of the whole thing,” he recalls. “We were pretty much worn out, so we figured it was a good time for a break and to do something totally different. If you do something very intense for so many years and you never take a break, then you get worn out. Death metal is a very intense type of music; in order to be onstage and deliver, you have to be hungry and passionate. You can probably work a machine or something in a daytime job, not be passionate, and make some money or whatever, but with music and the death metal industry you have to really be passionate. You have to enjoy it, and we were not enjoying the music industry way back then.
“We figured we’d take off a couple of years, and do something completely different. I spent a couple of years in a private school institute, and I took a degree in finance which is good. Today I know a lot more not only about the music industry, but about a lot of things that can be better in my private life. I can make some more money from my employer working in accounting, which I couldn’t do before. I had to stay out on tour for a very, very long time. Again, if you do that all the time then you get worn out. There’s no balance, so that kind of saved the band I think. That’s why we probably today can deliver a new album every other year. We’re always hungry, and we don’t get worn out today.”
Studying for a degree in finance wasn’t solely a response to having signed Unleashed’s aforementioned multi-album contract with Century Media. “I would say it’s in there, but it’s not really the one reason,” the vocalist ponders. “I really wanted to do something totally different than doing music for a few years, so it’s not really only because of the bad deal we signed with Century Media. We already knew that we could do better. Even if none of us took a degree in finance, we would still definitely get a better deal. We have a management that would do that for us, but it’s also important for at least one guy in the band to understand things on a deeper level within the contract. The contracts in the music industry are very extensive, and they are not written in common English even. The things that are written in there…
“You have to read five to six lines of stupid ass English that not even people who understand English understand. Not even the people at the record labels understand their own contracts; they have to speak to their own lawyers to actually interpret their own contracts. With all that, it’s smart to have somebody there who can actually deal with contracts. I figured that that is the smart thing to do, but accounting is really not just that. Finance is so many things, and I just work in accounting. That’s just one of the things in finance, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Unleashed tours less nowadays than in the past. “In the past seven or eight years, we’ve done a lot less touring…,” Johnny begins. “Well, not seven or eight years ago. Two to three years ago we did a lot of touring, but it comes and goes. It depends on how the social life works, and there are so many pieces that have to be put together today. It was different in the 90s when I had no family, and the only thing I had to do was the band. There are so many more things that have to fit today so I can go on tour, and I think that alone makes it harder to be on tour five months a year. You have to really pick your timeframe carefully, and really make the most of it so to speak.”
Work commitments aren’t a central factor in Unleashed’s decision to tour less, however. “We would have done that anyway, even if it wasn’t for jobs and stuff,” the bassist observes. “The conclusion we can draw from the 90s is that we are not hungry if we tour all the time. I don’t wanna be a worn out musician; I wanna be a passionate musician, somebody that can really keep on doing this for a very long time. We have to keep a balance. It’s easy to say ‘Okay, let’s do another tour,’ but is it smart? These are the types of questions that we started thinking about ten to 12 years ago, and I think we’ve followed that pretty close. Sometimes there’s a little bit more touring and sometimes a little bit less, but it’s never nine months a year like we did in the 90s.”
23 years into their existence, it’s difficult to estimate how lengthy Unleashed’s overall lifespan will be. “I don’t really see an end for this very reason that we just spoke about,” Johnny asserts. “I think the most important thing is that you need to really be passionate, and you need to really have a good time on the road and off the road. You have to have that balance all the time, and since we have that right now we’re pretty much the same guys as 20 years back. We’ve had one change of guitar player in the past 22 years, and I think there’s a reason for that: that is that balance. I hope to keep doing this for at least another 20 years. We’ll see (laughs).”
Odalheim was released on April 20th, 2012 in Europe and on the 24th in North America, all through Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in April 2012.