by Niklas Göransson
Unpure is one of Sweden’s oldest still-running metal bands. Bass player and vocalist Kolgrim reflects on twenty-five years spent navigating remarkable amounts of underground calamity.
– It all began when I was very young, stuff like ALICE COOPER and DEEP PURPLE had a massive impact, and building on that groundwork I discovered increasingly heavier music. In 1986, when I was twelve years old, my family moved back to where I’m from – Nynäshamn. One of my new classmates noticed the KING DIAMOND sticker on my wallet and we struck up a friendship.
That was Hräsvelg, who started out as UNPURE’s drummer but went on to become guitar player and second vocalist.
– He’d gotten into metal in pretty much the same way I did. Åberg, our first guitar player, was also a classmate. After some dabbling in various projects we formed what would later become UNPURE in 1991.
Listening to the first recordings, I’d say it’s a fair assumption that CELTIC FROST had found their way into the young men’s lives.
– “Morbid Tales” is to this day one of the best albums I have ever heard. It’s difficult to let go of that first feeling you get upon such a discovery. It floored me completely and altered the course of my entire existence. Another milestone was TIAMAT’s 1990 debut, “Sumerian Cry”. It was the ultimate album; never before had I heard such darkness. People say it’s out of tune, call the playing sloppy and so on – none of that matters, to me it’s perfect. I still listen to it regularly.
As Kolgrim’s music obsession intensified, he started paying attention to the plodding tone lurking behind the guitar distortion.
– Bass. At first, I didn’t even understand its function – then I learned to listen to it and became transfixed, having now discovered its true beauty.
Once they’d been properly acquainted, Kolgrim knew he’d found his calling. He also realised that many of his favourite musicians were bass players.
– Peter Baltes (ACCEPT), Ian Hill (JUDAS PRIEST), and most of all Martin Ain (CELTIC FROST) – the “Circle of the Tyrants” video was tremendously inspiring, as was his writing. Most bass players are overshadowed by their guitarists and that suits my personality perfectly. I’m not a particularly outgoing person and prefer to remain in the background. I suppose you could say I have neither need for validation nor the slightest trace of a competitive streak. That’s why the bass became my weapon of choice, though I’ve never been especially interested in sharpening my skills. I don’t have much musical talent and should probably have started playing at a much earlier age.
Back in these days, there was no internet and the established music press wouldn’t go anywhere near the emerging black and death metal scene. Instead, Kolgrim’s exploration of the underground came from lurking around record shops as well as tape-trading and exchanging letters with people from all over the world.
– It was the only way to keep track of what was going on. You’d get these flyers with ridiculous descriptions, killer photos, and ordering instructions – then write directly to the band. One had to follow one’s gut feeling, with barely any information and no chance for a preview.
This period – the late 80s and early 90s – is what Kolgrim regards as the golden age of underground metal.
– This scene is largely dead now, unfortunately; as are the fanzines all over the globe that kept it alive. It was a different time back then, keeping up to date required genuine devotion. When it was at its most intense, in 1993, I’d receive at least five letters every day. I sat up weekday nights, hammering away at my typewriter. Some of these correspondences built the fundamentals of real friendships, many still intact to this day.
He would write to contacts in Poland, Germany, Malaysia, Norway – all over South America as well as the US, where UNPURE even got local radio airplay.
– I also had a lot of contacts in Australia and was really into their scene. I still am to this day.
One early Aussie favourite were the maniacs of SADISTIK EXEKUTION. When they finally made it over to Europe for a tour with IMPALED NAZARENE and ABSU in late 1995, Kolgrim and his friends were some of few Swedes who got to see them.
– Hell of a trip that one, chaos from start to finish. It was my first gig outside of Scandinavia. I had an old Volvo we were supposed to take on the ferry from Gothenburg. After getting hold of some worn-out summer tyres, we took off through the hail and snow. The car broke down about one hour before the ferry was scheduled to leave so we had it towed to a workshop and then got a lift to the harbour.
Not only had they lost their means of transport, they were now also bereft of accommodation.
– We were supposed to sleep in that damn car. Without a clue of how we were supposed to get to Hamburg or where to stay if we made it, we decided to party ourselves into oblivion. Once the ferry arrived, we found a bus that would take us to Hamburg. I can’t imagine we were especially popular among the remaining passengers, and certainly not with the bus driver who we kept forcing to stop for piss brakes.
After finally making it to Hamburg, they set out into the night to meet with one of Kolgrim’s Australian contacts.
– I assume everyone knows what you do in Hamburg – headfirst into debauchery, and as a result we almost missed the concert. Fortunately, we got there in the end and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen; insanely violent.
After having a few drinks with the band, the motley crew then embarked on their journey back to Sweden in much the same fashion.
– We somehow made it back to Gothenburg – enduring a full-body search in the process – and managed to get the car repaired. Then followed a hellishly hung-over drive with blank tyres in two decimetres of half-frozen slush. I’d like to point out that it’s nothing less than disgraceful that no one booked SADISTIK EXEUKTION to Europe again before they stopped playing.
UNPURE are from the municipality of Nynäshamn, sixty kilometres to the south of Stockholm. In the early 90s, it had a vibrant black metal scene.
– Nynäs is a small town, so all the local metalheads knew each other and shared a great hunger. It was an inspiring time to spend one’s formative years in, we learned and discovered everything together. There weren’t very many of us so we grew extremely close, and since we were hated by many there was no shortage of unrest. This was also when NIRVANA and similar rubbish came along; everyone got ridiculous haircuts and hideous clothes. They’d scoff and tell us to grow up and follow suit but the more shit we had to put up with, the blacker we became. It was a wild and wonderful time.
Many of their exploits were reported by the local newspaper and some even came to the attention of law enforcement. One of these incidents took place in early 1993, with the burning of a local Kingdom Hall – place of worship for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As it happens, Kolgrim’s balcony overlooked the bonfire.
– These people had taken an interest in me. They let themselves into our rehearsal room, read our lyrics and then got us evicted. I was surrounded by them, they infested the whole apartment block and kept harassing me.
Harassing you, how?
– Calling me, ringing my doorbell. They’d be waiting outside my front door when I got home from work, bible in one hand and cross in the other while raving about demons. No, seriously – I’m not joking.
Unsurprisingly, this caused some resentment.
– I was hosting a lot of loud parties at the time. That’s about the only thing that went on at my place though, there were none of these black masses they were on about. One of them put forth the accusation and then the rest took it as gospel and commenced the witch-hunt.
According to the police report, as the flames were raging, neighbours reported hearing the word ‘fire’ shouted along to a song repeatedly.
– Keep in mind that the investigation was based almost solely on the testimonies of neighbours who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m obviously not ruling it out completely, the word appears in a number of songs.
1995 – four years and three demo tapes after their conception, UNPURE entered a local studio to record their self-titled debut.
– Hräsvelg and I used a guy we’d worked with for our first studio song, “Lust of Darkness” (1993). At this point, he’d upgraded and relocated his studio and it soon became blatantly obvious that he was interested in little else than earning some cash.
As with most UNPURE endeavours, the entire process was plagued by mishaps. What ultimately turned out to be a faulty circuit board caused a several-day-long delay during which, as part of the troubleshooting procedure, the entire drum-kit was disassembled and then reconstructed on the other side of the room. Once they were finally up and running, diplomacy was tested further when the studio was burglarised – with band and engineer both suffering property theft.
– This imbecile accused us of involvement, implying that it was some kind of inside job. It made absolutely no sense for us to orchestrate a heist in a studio we were currently recording in, going so far as to steal our own equipment. Bear in mind that we only had two weeks of recording time.
It’s customary for an artist to enjoy some manner of creative satisfaction upon a project’s completion. In the case of UNPURE’s debut, this sensation was spectacularly mitigated by the album’s booklet – with which their label, Napalm Records, had taken some artistic liberties.
– We had a very simple idea that was perfect for our concept. Napalm held a different view and demanded flashy theatrical images – preferably featuring fangs and scantily clad women. I don’t think they really understand metal. Honestly though, the fault is mine; I should have foreseen this since most correspondence tended to gravitate more towards their enthralment with pornography rather than our vision for UNPURE.
Unimpressed with the band’s suggestions, the label decided that the visuals were in need of some spicing up.
– Without even notifying us, they hired some self-proclaimed computer-wiz from ABIGOR. This guy must have dipped his cup deep into the Jägertee before falling upon our layout; the lyrics were full of errors and had words thrown around, even a song title misspelled. Needless to say, no one from the label bothered to check before printing the damn thing.
The greatest surprise, however, came from the cover artwork; the blatant logo misplacement soon became a trivial nuisance upon discovering the astrological addition.
– A constellation with stars of Bethlehem shining in all their glory, forming the head of a goat. Indescribably humiliating, anyone could see how fucking idiotic it looked. Everyone besides this magnificent artist that is – to this day, twenty-one years later, I remain highly sceptical of his creative talents.
“Coldland”, UNPURE’s second album, was released in 1996 – once again the aesthetic representation garnered notoriety of the comedic persuasion. Unmoved by the black and white photo provided by the band, Napalm took it upon themselves to add a dash of colour – predominantly from the pink and turquoise spectrum. Did they learn nothing from the first attempt?
– Evidently not, they were still convinced that what UNPURE needed was bosoms and blades. This was unacceptable – in Coldland there are no concubines, only pain.
Then there’s the, tactfully described, somewhat streamlined sound.
– Clearly, something went disastrously wrong in the mastering process. The first version sounded beyond terrible, the second… the one they insisted on releasing, mind you, was not much of an improvement. Perhaps it simply wasn’t possible to produce anything listenable from the original recording quality but I recently found an old cassette with the final mix and it sounds much better, though far from good.
Additional exasperation regarding the first two records stems from them being long out of print, seemingly without plans of rerelease. The same goes for the third album, “Trinity in Black” from 2001, which Drakkar Productions only printed in a thousand copies and then never re-issued.
– That’s especially upsetting as I’m actually rather pleased with this album. Going by contractual clauses, they were supposed to make a second press as well as a vinyl version once the first sold out – but that never happened. This nonsense about how independent these underground labels are is just a load of shit. Welcome to the real world; it’s a business just like everything else. Which is fine, of course, but why bother to sign us and then just do nothing? It’s not that Drakkar did anything wrong per se, they just didn’t do very much at all. Recently, they finally saw fit to contact me for a re-press. I haven’t written back, I’d rather see “Trinity in Black” released through a label that will commit to it.
In 2003, UNPURE signed a two-album deal with Polish label Agonia Records and released “World Collapse” the following year.
– I imagine their position is that the deal is still valid. In my opinion, they broke so many of our agreements with “World Collapse” that I regard it as one big breach of contract. They got in touch when we started playing again but, in that delicate phase, I wasn’t in the least bit interested in speaking to any label, I’d likely have ended up losing patience and stopped playing again altogether. Anyway, this is a discussion that’s pointless to have before we’re actually planning on recording something.
It’s not only their physical output that’s suffered endless misfortune; their résumé of live appearances is a litany of tragicomedy and features a number of cancelled tours.
– I think the first was supposed to have been with GORGOROTH in 1996. The latest was after “World Collapse”, I might have been guilty for that one but I can’t remember. I don’t really recall many details about any of this; it’s such a travesty that I’ve done my utmost to banish it from memory.
One venture which ended up going forward despite first being cancelled was the February 2002 Black War Tour with WATAIN.
– The night before we left, Hräsvelg allegedly came down with a near-fatal stomach bug so Jonathon (drums) and I didn’t have much choice but to cancel. WATAIN talked us into going ahead anyway, with Necromorbus – then-FUNERAL MIST drummer who played bass in WATAIN – filling in for me while I acted guitarist. An unfortunate arrangement for everyone involved, especially seeing as how I don’t actually play guitar.
Necromorbus wasn’t the tour’s only hired gun; Mörk, then drummer of Stockholm black metal infamy MALIGN, had been recruited to stand in for WATAIN guitarist Pelle Forsberg who’d sliced his hand open with a broken bottle. Kolgrim points out that since WATAIN frontman Erik Danielsson is originally a drummer, the two bands consisted entirely of five drummers and one bass player.
– While on the road in an old minibus, we put together a setlist that Necromorbus listened to the entire way down to the first gig in Prague. We then sat backstage… well, the booth in the middle of the bar that was graciously reserved for the bands, and rehearsed the songs we were attempting to play.
So, what did it sound like?
– Don’t know, don’t want to know – in all probability like absolute shit. We managed to make it through the entire tour alive though, for which there were no guarantees considering the madness that went on. I had to do most of the driving since our two ‘tour managers’ had been in possession of their licenses for a combined total of eight weeks and did as such not excel behind the wheel. There are enough stories about this roving pandemonium to fill a book.
Since Kolgrim, a fairly modest man to begin with, is notorious for his thoroughly undramatic storytelling style we turn to Erik Danielsson from WATAIN in hopes of further details.
– Black War was our first ever tour, says Erik, I’d interviewed UNPURE for our zine Hellish Massacre a few years earlier. The tour’s name was taken from Kolgrim’s answer to my last question of what the future held; ‘Black war and chaos!’
Given the disarray that lay ahead, it was only fitting that the tour shirt design was drawn by Rok from SADISTIK EXEKUTION.
– All in all it was a very exciting, chaotic and decadent endeavour that went surprisingly well considering the circumstances. Besides winding roads, freezing cold nights on floors, starvation-like hunger and general confusion about where we were and why, I mostly remember the significant stuff. Like how we ended up having to take turns holding the battery in place on the boombox – the van’s sole music source, so we could listen to one of the two tapes we’d brought along. Drinking that dead-cheap gasoline-infused Eastern European ‘vodka’ became a little easier with some music.
Having been randomly paired together by their mutual label Drakkar, the tour forged a camaraderie that would go on to influence the path of UNPURE in many ways.
– Despite all hardships, Erik continues, the energy and general atmosphere was one of constant eagerness and hunger. It sealed a long-lasting companionship that has since seen so many wild and bizarre twists and turns that I’ve lost track. The way things are going right now, there appears to be plenty more to come.
In 2008, UNPURE received an invitation to perform at WATAIN’s ten-year anniversary but were haunted by yet another last-minute cancelation.
– I don’t remember the exact cause now but, unfortunately, Hräsvelg became incapacitated once again. As I said, I’ve successfully repressed most of these memories. It would’ve been around this time he began losing interest in UNPURE.
This left the band in a state of hibernation.
– It wasn’t a mutual decision; Hrävselg simply wasn’t into it any longer. From my understanding, we were just taking a break so I tried waiting it out. At this point I’d made some drastic changes to my life in order to adapt to UNPURE so, to be frank, it felt a bit like a kick in the scrotum. As I tried to salvage what remained of the band, this uncertainty was the worst to deal with. Things certainly didn’t improve when I finally realised that it was in fact a cessation, as opposed to a hiatus. I’d never played with anyone else so I didn’t really know what to do.
Did you ever consider just putting the band to rest?
– Not for an instant, I live for this. The very thought of recruiting new members was daunting though, every musician I knew was busy with their own bands. Not to mention that most of them tend to harbour hopes of enjoying some manner of success, and that’s more than I could ever offer. Besides metal, my only guarantees are chaos and misery.
The first signs of new life came December 3, 2011, when UNPURE returned to the stage for their twentieth anniversary. It was before a crowd of thirty in WATAIN’s rehearsal place and bar, Wolf’s Lair.
– It began earlier that year when Erik and I were jamming UNPURE songs – he played the drums and I guitar. After a while, Pelle Forsberg joined us on guitar and I returned home to bass. All of a sudden, we were a band again. There were no plans of actually doing anything with it, as Erik was far too busy with WATAIN. However, things changed when our old drummer Jonathon who, as it turned out, had never lost his fire found out and offered to resume his position. Finally, an additional guitarist joined – Hampus Eriksson from Uppsala death metal band DEGIAL. That’s when we decided to play a small, private gig in Wolf’s Lair. It was our twentieth anniversary so it felt suitable, playing at a private thirtieth birthday party. The response was absolutely feral; it was the best comeback a band like UNPURE could ever hope for.
In conjunction with the live performance, UNPURE announced plans of recording new material. Given that five years will soon have gone by, I suspect it’s a fair assumption that something happened along the way.
– On the contrary, nothing much happened at all – it’s just been a matter of inactivity. Pelle and Hampus both have their main bands to tend to, that was the deal from the start. The intention and motivation is certainly there; if it were up to me we’d rehearse and record several albums at once but one has little choice but to submit to the forces of reality.
Not only has there been a lack of releases, the same goes for the live front – UNPURE haven’t played in Europe since a December 2012 Stockholm gig with DESTRÖYER 666.
– I’m not especially fond of playing live without having produced something relevant in the recent past; I’d rather focus on creating something lasting. We haven’t released anything since “World Collapse” twelve years ago so it’s about time we present something new.
The odd exception was two February 2015 shows, in Los Angeles and Tijuana of all places.
– Hampus, Pelle, and I were all going to be in California at that time so they only had to fly in Jonathon. We played two pretty small clubs, not our best sets due to some problems but they were wild and violent.
How did you find the Tijuana nightlife?
– Oh, it lives up to the myth – believe me. I have only scattered recollections of tequila, tacos, foam, nudity, Mexican banjoists, she-males, and flying dollar bills. We also lost our payment and all merchandise money. All in all, a pretty eventful evening I’d say.
UNPURE have been rather consistent with their music over the years, honing but barely straying from the sound they started out playing. Despite forming as a black metal band and changing very little, they’ve been reluctantly linked with numerous ongoing trends.
– I’ve lost count by now. I’m not shocked when people label us an 80s band, that’s when we were cast as metalheads. It comes naturally, we haven’t changed since then – I still wear the same clothes.
Kolgrim is not quite as understanding when it comes to terms like ‘blackened thrash’.
– That one is a complete mystery to me as I’ve never really been into thrash. I followed the Bay Area scene during the 80s but it died out pretty fast and today I regard most of it as rubbish. Hräsvelg likes some thrash but not much else than METALLICA and SLAYER – I suppose this shone through occasionally yet it’s the smallest influence in our music.
I had a look at Metal-Archives before conducting this interview and noticed that UNPURE are now also classified as speed metal.
– You jest? I’ll be damned – whoever wrote that can’t even have heard us. That site has published bogus information about us before so it doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Having been active in the underground for so long, I imagine that Kolgrim must have seen just about everything when it comes to phases and trends.
– The worst are the ones involving something dear to me – the 80s retro trend for instance, was intolerable. Everything had to be so outrageously fucking 80s that it surpassed the decade itself. To me, this was nothing but a farce; more mockery than homage. I couldn’t understand it. Then imagine the spit in the face of being considered part of it.
So what does UNPURE play, according to you?
– Black metal. Though I’m well-aware that, going by today’s standards, we no longer qualify. Back then it was more about concept and attitude, many of the first black metal bands would’ve been labelled something entirely different today.
He concedes that’s why people call them ‘old-school’, though he detests the term.
– It implies that we’re intentionally trying to look like an 80s band, when we in fact are one. It sounds like something ancient and outdated, as from a forlorn time. This is contradictory to me, I believe that black metal must be timeless or it will lose touch with its whole conceptual foundation. I will always consider UNPURE to be black metal. The day I stop doing that is the day UNPURE dies – that’s how we came together, it was the whole point.
Kolgrim notes that the contemporary scene has very little in common with the one they started out in.
– Now there’s a whole framework for what black metal is supposed to be like, heralded by a new generation of Google-educated experts who are rarely shy to share their opinions. As a small underground band without any scene credibility, one doesn’t get much say in the matter.
He quotes an actual conversation, as verbatim as he can remember:
– Shouldn’t you write more raw black metal riffs?
– What do you mean?
– Like this!
He hums and shows chords via air guitar.
– That sounds like MARDUK.
– Exactly, raw black metal.
– But aren’t MARDUK capable of playing their own songs, do they really need UNPURE backing them up as a cover band?
– Maybe not, but you’re going nowhere playing that music.
– I know, thanks for your input.
Kolgrim believes this sorry state of affairs the result of certain bands becoming popular, with thousands of copycats following in their wake.
– This becomes the new norm, the genre’s boundaries tightening even closer around certain styles. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would willingly participate in something so banal and repulsive. Then again, it clearly works; when a band gets big and appeals to the masses they’ll be closely followed by a swarm of imitators. It’s like in Hollywood, if one film becomes a box-office hit then hundreds of clones will follow. I’ve been on the road a fair bit, with bands both big and small. You better believe this scene has the exact same kind of personality cult. I’ve seen them, how they come scurrying in search of asses to kiss, eyes virtually gleaming at the sight of someone famous. Accommodate and flatter – simultaneously, there’ll be a lesser known band present or, heavens forbid, someone who doesn’t even play in one. Needless to say, they will be ruthlessly ignored.
I must say, this makes me question why he’d even object to not being lumped into it.
– This is not what I want to be a part of – in that context, I detest the scene of today. I simply isolate myself with people who share my vision. By autumn 2016 I will have done this for twenty-five years, more than half my life. Even if we’re not especially active, not a day goes by without me making it at least partly about UNPURE.
So what does the immediate future look like?
– Black, blacker than ever. UNPURE has always been shrouded in obscurity; nothing has changed and we’ll stay the course. We will release a new album at some point but first up are four songs for an EP; they’re already written, so all that remains is to rehearse and to record. When this might happen though, I have no idea. As stated, metal and chaos.