SVARTSOT – When Folk Metal Becomes Serious

SVARTSOT – When Folk Metal Becomes Serious

When talking about the Folk Metal genre, you usually come up with an image of a hairy bunch of people, accompanied by a violinist and / or an accordionist and boast songs that deal with alcohol, parties or other light-hearted subjects. SVARTSOT however abandoned the drunken way already in its early days, and began to engage in more serious matters, whether it’s historical battles, or stories from the Black Death period. All the while they continued to develop their style and make it distinct from the many bands of this genre. With their ​​third album, Maledictus Eris, the Danish band reached a new stage, thanks to its leader / guitarist Cris Frederiksen, who brought the best out of his fellow band members. So in honor of the fresh release, we asked this Danish guy to answer a few of our questions – although he provided some very interesting facts, it seems that there was a serious lack of humor in them… Oh these Danes, serious all the way.

OV: Congratulations on the release of your third album “Maledictus Eris”. How would you describe it to new and old listeners?

Thanks. Basically “Maledictus Eris” is a Folk Metal album which is heavily inspired by medieval music. The record is a concept album based around the story of the arrival of the Black Death in Denmark around the years 1349/1350, starting just before the coming of the disease and ending after the first outbreak had gone by. The lyrics deal mainly with the way people reacted to the disease that caused the deaths of around a third of Europe’s population over a period of 4 years – not just of the victims, but also the survivors.

The album is quite different to our earlier releases. We feel that it displays a maturing of the band both musically and ideologically. There are a lot more layers and textures in the material on this album, which contrasts greatly to the comparatively one-dimensional sound on the first album. We have concentrated a lot on creating more harmonies and counterpoints for the leading instruments to play each other off with. We have introduced new elements for the band, for example clean singing for the main vocal on one track and the Swedish bagpipe on a couple of tracks. There is a reduced use of whistles in comparison to past releases, and an increased use of acoustic guitars and Mandolin. We have also left much of the “rowdiness” of the first two albums behind us, concentrating more on the atmospheric side of the music.

OV: In favor of some of the readers who are not familiar with the band. Would you mind telling us a bit about SVARTSOT’s history, which led you up to this point?

SVARTSOT was formed early in 2005, evolving from a short-lived earlier band that the majority of the first line-up had played in together. Continuing on from the earlier band, we decided to play Folk Metal with elements being drawn in from especially Melodic Death Metal / Nordic Folk music. We also decided to base the lyrical concepts on Danish history and Folklore, and that the vocals would be growled and in Danish. We recorded a couple of demos, before being signed to Napalm Records in 2007, and releasing the album “Ravnenes Saga” later that year. 2008 was spent gigging around Europe, including a tour with TÝR and ALESTORM. But the year ended on a turbulent note, as our whistler was forced to take a long-term break from the band due to his wife’s ill health. The band had also been experiencing internal problems over a longer period, and this event caused the problems to come to the fore, resulting in four of the remaining five members leaving the band.

I was fortunate to be able to piece a new line-up together in a relatively short space of time, and we returned to the stage again already in the start of March 2009. That line-up has remained to this day with only one member being changed. In 2009 we resumed work on the follow-up to “Ravnenes Saga”, so the album “Mulmets Viser” was recorded in October 2009, and released in March 2010. That year saw us playing a good few high-profile shows, including a couple of guest-slots on the Paganfest tour, Napalm Records’ 15th anniversary show and Wacken Open Air festival. We also worked on new material for the new album, and “Maledictus Eris” was recorded in March of this year.

Cris Frederiksen
Cris Frederiksen
OV: On “Mulmets Viser”, you concentrated mainly on the Danish Viking’s raids to England. Why did you change your concept towards the Black Death period in Denmark? What are the most interesting stories of that period?

Only two songs on “Mulmets Viser” are about the Viking raids on England – “Æthelred” and “Lindisfarne”. In fact the album has a very broad scope of themes, which can be divided into various topics: Historic (the two aforementioned songs and “På Odden af hans hedenske Sværd”), Folklore (“Grendel”, “Jagten”, “Højen på glødende Pæle”, “Havfruens Kvad” and “Lokkevisen”), and quasi-historic (“I Salens varme Glød”, “Kromandens Datter”, “Laster og Tarv” and “Den svarte Sot” – the latter being about the jaundice-related disease the band has taken its name from). So a very broad range of topics, and inspiration taken from prior to the Viking age and right up to Folklore collected in the 17th/18th centuries!

There is a popular misconception that the band is in some way a Viking or Pagan band, but we have never limited ourselves to one period, and we are certainly not a religious band! We decided to bring peoples’ attention to this by writing an album that had nothing to do with the Viking age or Paganism and thereby attempt to shake off these rather irritating labels that have been forced upon us by others. When I started writing the material we had still not settled on any specific theme for the album, although we knew it was to be based in the middle ages. We always let the music dictate what the theme of the song is going to be, and the new material was somewhat darker than our previous work. So we decided to look into the Black Death, and we felt that the theme had enough scope for the whole album. There is a lot more to that period than just people getting buboes and dying!

There are so many interesting things in that period of history that it is difficult to choose the most interesting stories! We could easily have written more tracks, as we didn’t cover all aspects of the period. I would say also that as all sides of the story are so interwoven with each other it would impossible to take some few aspects and relate them here. We will be issuing English translations of the lyrics on our homepage at some point, so it will be easier for people to check out all of the tales related on the album for themselves.

OV: Do you see any major progression since “Mulmets Viser” came out, if it’s the way of recording, writing lyrics or something else?

Yeah! The whole thing has progressed in huge way since “Mulmets Viser”! The evolution process that was started between “Ravnenes Saga” and “Mulmets Viser” has taken a pretty large leap during the writing and preparation of “Maledictus Eris”. Starting from the writing phase, I have let myself show through more than I ever have done on the earlier material – in many ways the songs were kept simple on “Mulmets Viser” as I felt that the band needed continuity after the line-up changes in 2008/2009. Even then, there is a pretty big difference between the two albums. But seeing as the line-up was more or less 100 % stable, and that we now knew each other so well, it was possible for me to push the limits more than previously.

“Maledictus Eris” introduces a whole new chapter to the band. And although there are certain characteristics that go all the way through the three albums, there are many differences between “Ravnenes Saga” and “Maledictus Eris”. Both the band and the music are maturing now. We’ve left the “drunken Folk Metal” aspect in the background, and have concentrated on creating a new type of soundscape for the band, with complexity and textures as the main elements. Lyrically this subject is the most serious we’ve ever dealt with, although this too was a trend that was started on some of the material on “Mulmets Viser”.

The line-up from the “Ravnenes Saga” days would not have been able to record this album, and it would have been too early to do it already at the time of “Mulmets Viser”. The actual recording process was in many ways as it had been for “Mulmets Viser”, as we recorded at the same studio with the same producer. But I think we probably used Lasse Lammert more as a producer this time than for “Mulmets Viser”. The album was indeed more complicated to record due to the sheer complexity of the material and the amount of layering required, but there weren’t any huge alterations in the process.

OV: What other new “things” one can expect on your latest release, as far as concept goes and maybe new Folk instruments?

I think we’ve already touched on most of this in the previous answers. But to summarize, the band matured across the whole board, both musically and lyrically. We added a couple of new instruments to the SVARTSOT sound on this album: the Swedish bagpipe and the Jaw harp.

OV: We have heard, you used to have a problem, of not having a member (or members) to play those unique instruments on stage. Has that been solved by adding Hans to the lineup?

No, you heard wrong. We’ve always had a member to play the extra instruments ever since we introduced the whistles back in mid-2005. Hans-Jørgen initially came into the band as a stand-in for our original whistler, Stewart Lewis, for the tour in 2008. So when Stewart announced he was going to take a hiatus from the band, we asked Hans-Jørgen if he would continue working with the band. This was just a few short weeks before the exit of the four members, and Hans-Jørgen made the decision to join permanently whilst I was looking for new members at the very beginning of 2009. So Hans-Jørgen has actually worked with the band for longer than most of the present line-up.

OV: Speaking of unique instruments, what is the situation with Stewart who is still considered part of the band?

To tell you the truth, I’m not 100 % sure. Due to busy schedules neither Stewart nor I get to speak together as often as we could wish. And it’s not really something we discuss when we do speak. He used to come to practices on occasions, on a more social level, but it has been a long time since we’ve seen him. I doubt very much if Stewart will ever come back, however. He is not so young anymore, and his wife still needs him to be close by, so touring and recording would be out of the question for him. It also seems that Stewart, although he misses the band, is quite happy not to have to be a part of the sometimes hectic and stressful life that the band leads. He still plays Folk music for fun with a group of friends, but it is nothing they have any ambitions with at all, and he seems to be content with this.

OV: Now be honest, I know you chose your current vocalist, “Thor”, partly because he has such a cool name… And seriously, how and where did you find him? Also, what happened with Claus that you let him go?

Hiring a guy because of his name would be one of the most stupid things a band could do – so that assumption is completely unfounded! But I guess those who desperately insist on labeling us as Vikings and pagans probably revel in that sort of drivel and it’s only to be expected that people would jump to that sort of conclusion. Thor and other first names beginning with Thor are relatively common in Denmark, so that doesn’t make his name especially cool for us. Thor’s other band played a show with our drummer, Danni’s, previous band at the time that we were putting the line-up together in 2009. I was impressed by Thor’s stage presence and could hear potential in him (and no, I had no idea what his name was at that time). So I went back stage to speak with him after his set, and asked him if he would be interested in an audition. He wanted to think about it first, as he didn’t really know anything about SVARTSOT at the time. But he came for an audition the week after and fit in perfectly with the rest of us. So he joined.

Claus was one of the guys who left in December 2008. As mentioned earlier, they left after a period of maybe six months of internal problems in the band. We could not agree on the musical direction of the band and the way that the band should be run. I offered to leave the band, but they decided to quit instead. It was completely voluntary from their side and a huge relief for me. I could say many things about them all individually, but as far as I am concerned it’s in the past, and it’s not something I can be bothered to dwell on. But had it not happened as it did, SVARTSOT would almost certainly not be releasing records anymore. The band survived, and we are stronger now than we ever have been. There has been some debate as to which vocalist is best. In Thor’s defense I will say that he is a much stronger vocalist on stage and knows how to manage a crowd. Unlike Claus, Thor’s voice has not been processed for the albums. Jacob Hansen, who produced the first album, has his own very set methods – for good or for bad. Lasse Lammert, who we now have worked with for two albums, prefers to find the band’s sound – in our case as natural a sound as possible.

OV: How big is the Viking / Folk Metal scene in Denmark in compare, to let say, Sweden or Finland? Are there any other Danish names that deal with your kind of music?

The scene in Denmark is very small. Omitting TÝR (who are Faeroese) and WUTHERING HEIGHTS (a Power Metal from Copenhagen who occasionally use Folk melodies), I think we count about five or six actual Folk Metal bands in total. The other Folk Metal bands were started after SVARTSOT, and a couple of them are certainly inspired by us. But we have pretty much all managed to find our own sounds that make us different from each other.

OV: From 2005 until 2008/2009 there was a boom of Folk Metal bands. Do you believe it was merely a “wave” or that it still popular as it was back then? Do you consider SVARTSOT part of that “wave”?

In answer to the first part of the question – it depends very much on who you talk to. Some say the trend is over, and that there is no future in Folk Metal. Others will have you believe that it is just as popular now as it ever has been, or is even increasing in popularity. Seeing that new bands are still being started and Folk Metal festivals and festival tours are still being held, I don’t think that the trend is over. It seems also that there is a tendency that almost all Metal festivals in Europe have to have at least one Folk Metal band on the roster. We also seem to still have a growing fan base, so we haven’t noticed any tides turning.

I was personally quite oblivious of any “waves” when we started the predecessor to SVARTSOT in 2004. I think the only Folk Metal band I knew of at the time was SKYCLAD. I had personally played Metal and Folk music for many years and had always had a wish to mix the two together, and had even tried playing what I guess could be called Folk Metal as far back as the early 1990’s – a few years before I even heard SKYCLAD for the first time. But the opportunity to do it properly didn’t arise until 2004. So seeing as SVARTSOT was started and we even released our first album during this “wave” I guess it automatically makes us a part of it, even though it wasn’t a conscious “jumping on the band wagon” at all.

OV: For quite a young band, you already debuted in several festivals, among them Wacken Open Air. Are there any major tour plans for you, or more big festivals to conquer?

Seeing as the band has only managed one full European tour (back in 2008), we feel it is important for us to do more touring – and also to be able to make it outside of Europe. There are also still many festivals we’d like to do, and it would be cool to come back to many of the festivals we’ve already done.

OV: Do you already have plans for your next album? What are you going to work on in the next couple of years?

I’m just slowly beginning to work on new material after taking a break. It was quite hard to write two albums in so quick succession, so I needed to take that break. I’m also expecting the writing process to take a little longer this time around, as I don’t have quite so much time due to my personal life as I did last year. I don’t really see a need to rush things either, as I would like to pay even more attention to details for the next album. Regarding ideas for the album, well it’s far too early to say right now. But it will certainly continue on from “Maledictus Eris” and presumably also have a medieval theme of some kind. We are of course also hoping to get out and play some more over the next year or so. Apart from that we don’t have any big plans – we’ll just take things as they come, as we always do.

OV: Are you aware of any other Metal scenes, such as in Israel, or bands that deal with Folk in a different way like ORPHANED LAND or MELECHESH?

We are of course aware of bands from other lands, and that there are bands such as ORPHANED LAND and MELECHESH who have a different perspective on Folk Metal. We have also played with MELECHESH and talked a bit with a couple of the guys after the show. As mentioned earlier, many festivals book at least one Folk Metal band amongst bands of various other genres, so we often meet bands from other places and who play other styles. We don’t just isolate ourselves! I think it can be quite healthy to meet and talk with other bands, as it allows us to get insider views on other genres in Metal. But we don’t necessarily use any of that knowledge for our music. I generally try not to listen to other bands whilst writing, as I find it counterproductive for my own creativity.

OV: Since this is your first Interview for an Israeli media outlet (or so we believe), what words of wisdom you’re willing to share with your fans here and those who haven’t had the chance to check you out yet?

We just hope that people will check the album out and give it a few spins. It might take a little while for some to get into the album – it’s not exactly the most immediately accessible material we’ve recorded. But we’re sure that many fans – both old and new – will like it.

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