by Niklas Göransson
From humble death metal beginnings, Sweden’s Tribulation have since evolved into indeterminate categorisation by way of music that to a certain extent composes itself. As they glance towards a fourth album, we learn about hermaphroditic allegations, tantric initiation and how a Christian upbringing paved the way for the Hindu pantheon.
I couldn’t help but notice that TRIBULATION’s latest EP “Melancholia” features an OFFSPRING cover. Explain yourself.
– It does, Adam admits, and if you’d actually bother listening to it I’m sure you’d understand why. It doesn’t sound like an OFFSPRING song at all. We had to record a few covers for the B-sides of our singles and this song has strong sentimental value to all of us – it’s something we listened to when we were kids, it wasn’t meant as a statement or anything.
Adam Zars (guitar), Johannes Andersson (bass, vocals), Jonathan Hultén (guitar) and Jakob Ljungberg (drums) are all from the municipality of Arvika in west central Sweden, they’ve been playing together in various constellations since they were children. Today’s setting is essentially a continuation of a project three of them started in 2001– thrash metal band HAZARD. They became TRIBULATION in 2004 but didn’t release their debut album until five years later.
– “The Horror” was released 2009, yes – but by then it had already been recorded for two years.
The debut was acclaimed by critics and fans alike, anointing TRIBULATION as contemporary torch-bearers of old-school Swedish death metal.
These days, can you relate to the person you were when that album was recorded?
– Perhaps in certain ways but not fully. My taste in music hasn’t changed all that much and I have the same sources of inspiration; classic heavy metal, MORBID ANGEL and motion picture soundtracks. While our music might not sound the same, we’re still trying to capture the same feeling – what we call ‘the necromantic’, with this whole nosferatu thing.
The ‘thing’ in question is in reference to various vampiric allusions in lyrics, layouts and merchandise. Many of them are from German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the classic 1922 expressionist horror film Nosferatu.
– That film; I can’t quite put my finger on it – it’s melancholic and nostalgic in some strange way, beautiful and miserable at the same time. I feel very at home with it for some reason. It also relates to sex and death; Eros and Thanatos, which are reoccurring lyrical themes of ours. Sex is the driving force of life while death offers initiatory powers – the vampire personifies both.
Then there’s the sanguinary aspect.
– Blood is a fascinating and strange substance with immense symbolic significance. Just consider that rushing through us, we have a fluid that some people faint at the mere sight of. It’s as if it contains some form of power.
While horror movies have clearly had a big influence on TRIBULATION, Adam is not as big of a fan of the genre as one would think.
– It’s like with everything else; I don’t really like death metal – I like MORBID ANGEL. I don’t like black metal, I like “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” (MAYHEM) and FUNERAL MIST. I don’t like horror films, I like B-movies – but what I can appreciate about the genre is a certain mood, an atmosphere. That’s the vein we’ve always been trying to tap into, all the way back to the first album.
TRIBULATION’s second album “The Formulas of Death” (2013) saw the band moving away from old-school death metal into significantly more progressive territory.
– I wrote most of the music on that album by myself. At the time I lived in Stockholm, Jonathan in Arvika and Johannes in Gothenburg – we didn’t even have a drummer. I was working on my own for a few years, but by 2012 the rest had all moved here and we prepared to enter the studio.
At this point, drummer and childhood friend Jakob had joined the ranks. It wasn’t until they started rehearsing as a full band that they noticed how different the new songs were compared to the debut.
– After a while we realised that this one was turning out fairly different but we were pretty far into it by then. IRON MAIDEN were a huge influence at the time – especially the post-Blaze Baily era when they started writing these long, epic songs – beyond caring if they were radio friendly or not. This probably explains the running time of 76 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, when “The Formulas of Death” came out in March 2013 there were aggrieved parties who lamented the departure from the old school sound.
– We’d thoroughly processed it ourselves at that point so when the reactions came we were prepared. Obviously we knew that the Nuclear War Now! crowd would move on so that was hardly a shock. I was actually pleasantly surprised that so many people stuck with us. I love having fans tell me they’ve listened to us since the debut and still do, that they like our development and appreciate the fact that we change.
He notes that advancing age is making him take increasingly more pride in the reception to his work.
– When I was younger I didn’t really care either way but there’s something innately compelling about touring and seeing people get completely immersed in your music. It’s a very strange feeling, I must admit. This is clearly the wrong business to be in if you’re trying to detach from your ego.
Held far less fondly are remarks about the members not looking overtly macho. Adam laughs and rolls his eyes when the subject comes up.
– Sure, it can get tiresome. I mean, really – is this what people choose to focus on? I generally don’t care but I’ll get annoyed if I come across a review that describes us as intentionally feminine, which is nonsense – we’re not. If someone wants to wear women’s clothing then by all means, but I don’t care as long as I feel comfortable with whatever I’m wearing. I know some people are grievously offended by it but this is simply the way I look, it’s not in any way deliberately androgynous.
Do you ever lose patience with this and resort to fisticuffs? I’ve seen you engage in melee combat before, albeit with more enthusiasm than technique.
– It happens… the last time was in Minneapolis, we were on stage and some fucking idiot at the front was giving Jonathan the finger. It’s a pretty rare occurrence though, I suppose it depends on what mood I’m in and what’s happened leading up to it.
Besides assaulting the audience, TRIBULATION usually subjects them to quite the ambitious live show.
– We come from the likes of KISS, that’s where our origins are. It’s always been important to us, if people are paying good money for a concert ticket they deserve some effort put into it. It’s always funny when we’re touring and meet bands that don’t really bother – mostly Americans, playing in flip-flops. Nothing wrong with that of course, it’s clearly a hit over there.
After the success of their debut, TRIBULATION were approached by current label Century Media – they declined and instead opted to sign a one-album deal with Invictus Productions from the republic of Ireland.
– Going with Invictus felt right at the time and soon proved to be the sound choice, given that our intentions were to show who we are. In retrospect, I think it was fortunate that we released it through an underground label; this should dispel any idiotic notions that it was some greedy corporate entity that lured us into evolving our style with promises of fame and fortune. We’ll always do precisely what we want.
TRIBULATION’s third album “The Children of the Night” was released in 2015 and saw the band develop their sound further. The gap wasn’t as wide as between the first two, more of a continuance of the basic recipe used for “The Formulas of Death”.
– I’ve actually moved on from that record by now, I’m focused on creating something new. I think the next one might be more in the vein of the second album, but it’s impossible to say at this point.
The primary reason why this bars prediction is due to the way his music is composed. Adam’s riffs never surface through a guitar; the melodies are intercepted as spontaneous sonic emissions that he mimics by humming and then records with his smartphone. He describes how he’ll be out for a walk and then suddenly sense a tune playing in his head. It must be immediately transcribed or lost forever.
– I’ve come to completely rely on it, so I was a bit worried for a while since I didn’t think I’d gathered all that much. The same thing has happened before – I’ll go brooding over this and then one day suddenly find myself with enough material for four or five songs. I think I’m getting there now.
Not everything that emerges is good enough to use, and a fair bit of what is won’t come out right on the guitar.
– It becomes an interesting creative hurdle that I’m forced to find my way around. This is one reason we include piano, keyboard and various strings – to properly convey these melodies.
Adam doesn’t know what to call this, or even if the source is internal or divine in origin. While he concedes to the possibility of it being some kind of benediction, he points out that one common misconception about religion is the belief that every metaphysical occurrence is unique or special.
– If I say they feel like blessings of sorts, I’m not claiming to be the chosen one or anything of the kind. Terms such as that sound rather pompous and that’s not how I see them. To my understanding, there’s an endless stream of ethereal melodies being broadcast – sometimes you tune into the right frequency and sort of capture snippets of it.
It sounds like something out of Ancient Greece – tales of channelling ‘the Muse’, the abode of the goddesses of inspiration in science, literature and art. It was through communion with them that one received knowledge; this was then preserved through hymns, poems and tales. Bear in mind that this is where modern words such as ‘music’ and ‘museum’ come from.
– This line of thinking was never considered strange in the past, it’s only in modern times it sounds entirely alien. You have it in Hinduism too, teachings like bhakti yoga allows one to offer up artistic output into a sacrament to the god or goddess.
How would you define yourself, theologically speaking?
– I don’t know to be honest. Religious? Absolutely. I’m not a Hindu but their pantheon is the foundation for how I try to interpret the world. Not how I see the world, that’s an ever-changing perspective. I wouldn’t call myself a Hindu though, I think that term is heavily laden with cultural connections. Labelling myself has never been a priority.
Adam says it’s not until recently that he’s started to come to terms with many of the Vidyās – Indian wisdom teachings, branches of the tree of knowledge.
– It’s not enough studying just one aspect; you have to learn all of them. You need to know everything – tantra, vedanta, yoga, jyotisa and so on. Ayurveda is another example that’s very important, and it seems people have finally started realising this.
Speaking of which, are you a yogi?
– To a certain extent but in the more traditional sense, since I meditate. I used to practice hatha yoga but not anymore, though I’m sure I’ll resume it at one point. It was mostly due to a knee injury but partly because I learned more about its history and didn’t find much use for it after that. I realised that yoga in the form it’s practiced today has very little in terms of historical foundation.
Adam describes how yoga was originally used to prepare one’s body to sit down in meditation for extended periods of time, as physical preparation for warriors, or just ordinary people seeking to replenish their Prana – life-force. He claims that many current systems of yoga might be authentic in their own way, but that large parts of the teachings are recent additions developed for an increased appeal to a larger market.
– If it’s not part of the tradition I don’t really see why I should be doing it, unless it’s purely for physical benefit in which case I’d be hesitant to even call it yoga. The same goes for tantra and the way it’s being portrayed here in the west.
As an example, he mentions that hearing the term ‘tantra’ here in Sweden or in the US – your average person will automatically think of elaborate fornication.
– Sure, there is a sexual aspect but it’s only one of the many facets of tantra. This Hollywood version comes from Victorian orientalists who saw exotic things in faraway lands, but interpreted everything entirely wrong.
So are you a tantric practitioner?
– I wouldn’t say that I practice tantra, no. Philosophically perhaps but I’m not initiated – so no. As long as this is the case I’m not going to be doing it.
Diksha, as it’s known in tantric terms, is an initiatory ritual in which the mind of guru and disciple alike is said to become as one as ‘the Truth’ is revealed. Boasting a capital letter, one would have to assume it is serious business.
– If you choose to believe in that or not is up to you, but I do – one hundred percent. If there is no initiation it shouldn’t be called tantra. It’s such a vital part of it and if you lack this then it’s difficult for me to see how it could even work. In my opinion it’s a transmission of knowledge and wisdom, which is why I put my trust in it.
Adam points out that these things aren’t to be adhered to strictly on merits of old age alone, tantra is a still-vibrant custom with 800 years of documented use and preserved history.
– I’d trust that a hell of a lot more than I would home-made black metal occultism, for there is no tradition there. If there even is one, it’s usually not very old and rarely understood properly.
While tantra is old, the Vedic tradition is archaic – it can be traced back as far as 8000 years. Then take into account that it must have derived from even older customs, of which we know nothing. Contrary to most of what we have here in the west, the mysticism of the Rg Veda is unbroken and intact.
– We have the Kabbalah and the hermetic tradition, both of which I find fascinating and enjoy reading about. I used to study a magic system based on meditation; something was certainly activated, it definitely works – I could feel what I at the time identified as the kundalini energy rippling through my body.
The proverbial ‘kundalini awakening’ is described a deep meditative state, often accompanied with feelings of enlightenment and bliss. The purely physical reaction is an unmistakable jolt of electricity that runs along the spine. The uses are many but most seek it for spiritual enlightenment.
– As I extended my studies I realised that this wasn’t something I should be dabbling with unguided, so I took a step back. I’m sure there are people capable of handling it on their own, but I don’t know if I’m one of them.
He points out that he still considers himself a neophyte, so his word is not to be taken for gospel concerning any of this.
– I’m in no way, shape or form claiming to be an expert on these subjects but it helped me a lot, I must say – moving away from the practical and immersing myself deeper in the underlying philosophy.
While they might have been what awakened his interest in the first place, he points out that esoteric learning should come from books or teachers – not metal lyrics. Some musicians might have done their homework but their songs shouldn’t be seen as scriptures of faith.
– I think it’s better to see the lyrics as a gateway, an inspiring read that can lead you in the right direction. I was discussing this with my friend Craig Williams, whose book Cave of The Numinous: Tantric Physics I’d highly recommend, when I met him in Austin on the latest US tour.
Williams, who presents himself as a practitioner of Vedic sciences and Gnostic spirituality, is in strong opposition to what he perceives as the type of occult systems assembled from cultural cherry-pickings, as opposed to teachings based in tradition with traceable lineage. Parampara, as tantric lineage is referred to, is crucial – for the credibility of the practitioner if nothing else.
– The first thing that came to mind when I heard him talk about it was old MORBID ANGEL interviews, with them basically presenting the cafeteria way of doing it as the way to go. Their lyrics were a big inspiration for me in delving deeper into subjects like these, but I would never rely on them for authentic spiritual teaching.
Most native Swedes find the very notion of spirituality completely foreign. People react with surprise to people who call themselves religious and they are almost instantaneously regarded as weirdoes. Religion comes more natural to Adam, having grown up with a Christian mother and a grandfather that was a preacher.
– Yep, that’s how it was – the Lord’s Prayer every evening. It wasn’t fanatical in any way though, absolutely not. It might have affected how I see religion but I never really believed in it. The church isn’t very skilled at explaining a religious worldview to people, especially children.
Learning from their mistakes then, how should spirituality be experienced?
– Just walk in the forest and you commune with the goddess. This concept is something that atheists seem unable to comprehend, that it’s not a physical incarnation or an embodied deity. Sure, they might appear that way in visions but the goddess can be felt in all things.
He points to the forest outside the window, to the trees and the winds sweeping through them.
– Now we’re getting into precisely what deters people from religion – including me; zealots who start ranting and raving like I just did. But if you scratch the surface and take a long, hard look at these things, this is how you’ll start seeing the world.