Many heavy metal connoisseurs credit Scandinavia — the Land of the Midnight Sun — with having some of the world’s most interesting metal bands. Sweden’s Avatar has gathered a worldwide following with a melodic metal style marked by its infectious rhythmic groove.
Avatar will be returning to the Azalea City in support of its latest effort, “Feathers & Flesh,” a concept album focusing on a dying owl as it reflects upon its past as a nocturnal predator. As the band prepared to take the stage in Atlanta last week, frontman Johannes Eckerström took a few minutes to give Lagniappe readers an inside look into Scandinavian metal and the fable that is “Feathers & Flesh.”
Stephen Centanni: When people think of metal from Scandinavia, many instantly think of black metal bands. But several bands, such as Avatar, are proving the metal scene in that part of the world is more elaborate than it seems. How would you describe it?
Johannes Eckerström: Well, I guess first and foremost, I would talk more about the Nordic phenomenon or Scandinavian, because I want to count Finland into that. Finland is not in Scandinavia, and I think that Denmark is not as proficient as Norway or Sweden. I don’t know how much of a scene it is.
You’ve got the Stockholm death metal scene and melodic death metal in Goteborg and how Norwegian farm boys moved to Oslo and all that. Aside from that, the funny thing is that bands like Meshuggah come from a place that’s pretty much as far from Goteborg as Northern Italy. It’s kind of scattered like that. It’s a culture that encompasses whole countries. I don’t know if it would be right to describe it as a scene.
I think … [the first thing that comes to mind] is definitely the history of Norwegian black metal. It’s one of those things that ends up on book covers, when people think of Scandinavian metal. It’s scattered all over the countries and spread all over the genres.
So many metal bands with multiple styles are Nordic, from stuff like H.I.M. to stuff like Sabaton. Then, you’ve got your Opeths and your Meshuggahs and your Entombs and In Flames and At the Gates and Dimmu Borgir. It just goes on and on.
But there’s so much diversity there. That’s one of the things that I think we do good. Most successful bands are ones that have worked really, really hard to figure out what they are about themselves and not just wanting to be like, “Well, we like Judas Priest. So, let’s call this song “Screaming for Schmengeance.”
Centanni: Speaking of work ethic, Sylvia Massy, who produced your new albums, describes you as “relentless.” I can’t argue with her, because it seems the band’s determination has allowed you guys to get bigger and bigger with each release. What keeps Avatar motivated?
Eckerström: It’s a combination of things, but I think, first and foremost, is our passion for what we’re doing and not stopping before we have a result that we like. That goes into everything. We have a photo shoot and throw away every single picture, because we realize that we didn’t get what we’re looking for. It goes into the music. When you’re driven so strongly by specific goals, you just end up sucking at taking a break here and there. We’re starting to learn that it might be beneficial for the end result.
Recording with Sylvia, every evening at some point, she would say, “Now, I’m going home. There will be no more recording.” We’re, “Come on! We’re so close.” She would say, “No, there’s a day tomorrow.” We would say, “How do you know that?”
It’s sometimes on that level. It’s just the way we are. It’s driven by passion and some strange, unhealthy anxiety. Just as much as you want to get things right, you’re terrified of getting things wrong. I think it comes natural when you’re pursuing a profession that came from when you were quite young. You already have this dedication for it, and as a teenager, it shaped your identity. You got to keep building something from that phase. It carries over into adulthood and into good, ol’ workaholism.
Centanni: What made you want to dedicate the concept of this album to an owl?
Eckerström: Well, one of the first ideas that came with dedicating to write a fable is to twist and turn the perspectives and play around with archetypes of what a creature gets to represent in any given fable. Because they hunt at night and are a predator, either they’re a very bad omen connected to the devil, or she’s very wise like what they make fun of in “Winnie the Pooh.”
I wanted to twist and turn this idea that the owl could be a delusional and lost soul. Because of the fact that she is this nocturnal huntress and creature of the night, the creatures of the dark are the protagonists of the story, without putting extra value on the basic “Star Wars” formula of light being good and dark being bad. It’s just that we put a protagonist on the side of darkness. Then, it’s unraveling during the course of the story that it’s not that simple. It made more sense with the music and the framing of it to start on the dark side.
Centanni: Listening to the songs and reading your commentary on the songs, I get the impression there is a lot of symbolism going on. If you had to pin a moral of the story to this album, what would it be?
Eckerström: One main theme, in terms of a moral of the story as every fable should have, is the observation that with all the accumulated knowledge and experience we gather as individuals and species, we are still very much unwise. We learn, but we don’t learn. That’s what happens to the owl. She faces different ideas and perspectives. She’s challenged. She seems to grow a bit, but by the end of the story, she hasn’t grown at all.
I feel like every time we talk about how history repeats itself in the worst possible ways, and the atrocities that happen, and how we treat each other tells me that we’re making slower progress than we could or should. That’s the central theme in terms of moral.
Centanni: Avatar is also a very visual band. With this concept driving this tour and album, what is the stage show like on this tour? Does the concept bleed out on stage while you’re playing?
Eckerström: Actually, it has shaped the visuals, but our live performance, as it is now, encompasses everything Avatar. We play songs from the past three albums on this tour. The songs from “Feathers & Flesh” are integrated into the concept of Avatar as a band.
We knew it was going to be a concept album and something made to be listened to from start to finish, but still, it doesn’t stop the fact that we want to make kick-ass, headbanging, fist-in-the air, “isn’t this a sweet riff, man” heavy metal. Therefore, we wrote strong standalone songs. For example, to describe this ambition, one of the greatest concert albums of all time is “The Wall” [Pink Floyd]. You don’t have to understand anything to enjoy “Comfortably Numb” as a song.