by Niklas Göransson
In another feature of overlooked Scandinavian treasures, we hear the tale of Svartsyn – one of Sweden’s oldest still-operational black metal bands. Returning from the brink of death, founding member Ornias glances back on a cursed career.
– It all began back in 1980; I was five years old and found a cassette tape in the yard. Written on it with a black marker pen was, ‘KISS “Alive 1”’. Shortly thereafter, I was given the album on vinyl by one of our neighbours, which was my first time seeing a photo of what KISS looked like. Damn, it was the coolest shit I’d ever seen. In primary school, some of my classmates had older brothers who’d force-feed them various hard rock and metal. During those years, I listened to a lot of MOTÖRHEAD, JUDAS PRIEST, ACCEPT, IRON MAIDEN, and WASP. Notions of one day making my own music manifested mostly thanks to MAIDEN’s “Piece of Mind” – which, I might add, is still their best album. I then went on to discover the likes of CARCASS, BOLT THROWER and NAPALM DEATH.
Having taken an early interest in the genre-typical lyrical concepts, Ornias first came across the occult in seventh grade.
– My school class visited the city library. In the English section I found a book on out-of-body experiences, sleep paralysis, and things like that. Then, later, I studied religious literature like The Book of Revelation, which remains a huge influence to this day. It was the main inspiration behind the seven-headed beast that recurs throughout my work.
Ornias’ career as a musician began in the late 80s when his friend acquired a broken acoustic guitar from a neighbour who was about to throw it away.
– It only had three strings, and there were big holes in both front and side. We didn’t mind, so we sat in his room taking turns playing it and recording improvised songs. We called the project DIGERDÖDEN.
In 1992, influenced by early Norwegian acts, Ornias formed the black metal band CHALICE with drummer Tormentor.
– I remember the first time I heard MAYHEM; “Freezing Moon” with Pelle Dead (ex-MAYHEM, MORBID) on vocals, from the “Projections of a Stained Mind” compilation. When the first notes rang out, I had chills running down my spine; never before had I heard anything so cold and evil. And then came DARKTHRONE, BURZUM, EMPEROR, THORNS and all the rest. TORMENTOR’s “Anno Domini” demo made a huge impression on us, especially Attila’s performance – they’re the best vocals ever put to recording, either before or after. And, believe it or not, SEPULTURA’s “Morbid Visions”.
Didn’t you record a cover of “Show me the Wrath” from that album?
– Never got that far, we only rehearsed it a few times whilst preparing for the “Skinning the Lambs” recording. I can’t remember exactly but I think we came to the unspoken conclusion of discarding the idea. Who the hell wants to be associated with what SEPULTURA turned into after “Morbid Visions”? It’s a fucking great album though.
Around the same time, Ornias started finding his way into the fledgling Swedish underground metal scene.
– The closest to MAYHEM’s feeling I came across was MARDUK’s “Fuck me Jesus” tape, though the best release to ever come out of Sweden is CREMATORY’s “The Exordium” demo. From the very start, we’ve held on to exactly the same influences. Listening to our old rehearsal tapes from this time, I’m still impressed – perhaps not so much by the actual music as the total immersion.
Ornias is from a harbour town called Nynäshamn, sixty kilometres south of the Swedish capital. During the early 90s, the town had a vibrant black metal contingent; on weekends, metalheads from all over Stockholm take the train down there for the wild parties. These destructive black metal urges got a bit out of hand in early 1993, which included a pyrotechnical disagreement with the local Jehovah’s Witnesses – a tale discussed in the conversation with fellow Nynäshamn band UNPURE.
– We were very tight-knit and lived out everything we wrote music about. I remember my eighteenth birthday party; a pretty macabre event with a lot of blood since, as per usual, it ended up with everyone cutting themselves. The incidents that later became subject to court proceedings didn’t exactly have a calming effect either. In the aftermath of all this, significant pressure was put on us and, when the dust had settled, Tormentor left what was supposed to be our life’s work. It was initially a very hard blow. He promised to return once the storm had passed, but never did.
One of those who frequented the festivities was Draugen, a drummer from Stockholm who played with bands such as AZRAEL, INCURSION, and his own black metal solo project ILLSKA.
– We agreed to release a split with ILLSKA and CHALICE. Hräsvelg (ex-UNPURE) played the drums for me on that recording. Afterwards, CHALICE would continue in the form of SVARTSYN – a name which came to me as lightning from a clear sky.
Like many Swedish words, ’svartsyn’ has no English equivalent. It’s used for a world-view permeated by bitterness, gloom and melancholy – and would as such prove rather apt for the band’s future career. Following the name change, Ornias recruited a guitar player from the local scene.
– Surth, such darkness in that man. I’d taught myself to play the drums by then, so we rehearsed and recorded nine songs, five of which were released on the following year’s “A Night Created by the Shadows” demo. After hearing the demo recording, Draugen offered his services so I switched to bass and vocals. His entry into the band actually came a bit later than anticipated; I always had a sense of predetermination about his place in SVARTSYN, but he was busy with other projects around that time.
Draugen had just left a relatively new Swedish black metal band after playing on their self-titled 1994 mini-CD. As it turned out, this short percussional sojourn would come to haunt SVARTSYN for a big part of their lifespan – with labels, despite explicitly being instructed not to, slapping huge ‘Featuring ex-DARK FUNERAL member’ stickers on their albums.
– I lack the words to describe how fucking annoying that is, or was – it hasn’t happened since “Destruction of Man”. Extremely embarrassing behaviour. Our music doesn’t need any marketing tricks or selling points, it stands on its own merit.
“A Night Created by the Shadows” attracted the attention of German underground label Folter Records, who contracted SVARTSYN for their debut album “The True Legend” –released in December 1996.
– We wanted a filthy sound, something in the vein of the first BATHORY album. Unfortunately, the producer, who knew very little about metal in general, didn’t quite understand what we were after. When we played him the BURZUM debut as reference, he refused to believe it was even recorded in a studio. We should have taken this as an omen, and perhaps gone elsewhere. Musically, it’s a strong album – really good. Unfortunately, the production is its downfall. Along with the cover artwork.
It wasn’t only the soundscape impairing the album – the aesthetic representation ended up slightly underwhelming: an up-close photo of a bonfire.
– We’d found an artist to paint our cover, but he changed his mind about working for us in the last minute. I honestly don’t remember how that fucking campfire ended up on the cover, we were sent everything via fax.
In May 1997, SVARTSYN went on tour with LUROR, DESASTER, and BEHEMOTH. Ornias, who isn’t exactly famed for dramatic storytelling, summarises the venture with ’not much to say about it really’. However, once they returned home, Surth was out of the band and Ornias had replaced him on guitar. Two months later, the remaining duo recorded a new EP called “Tormentor”. It was released by Canadian label Black Militia – posthumously, since its owner took his own life after sending the seven-inch to the printing factory.
– Yep, he hung himself in his apartment. As a result, “Tormentor” suffered the usual hellish delays. I was quite surprised the following year when I suddenly received a package containing the EPs. If I recall correctly, it came from his mother who was trying to get rid of the label’s releases.
Preparing for their second album “Bloodline”, SVARTSYN recruited UNPURE’s Kolgrim on bass.
– If it was up to me, this would be the line-up I’d return to the stage with. There was something unspeakable about it, an atmosphere of darkness and destructive energy. Like DARKTHRONE’s one-off gig in 1996 – which, I might add, remains the best live concert I’ve ever seen. So fucking surreal.
For their follow-up album, SVARTSYN decided to use a different studio – hoping to finally bring the production to where they wanted it.
– Folter Records gave us the go-ahead to book Sunlight Studio. However, the financials still weren’t in order the day before we were supposed to begin. They assured us it was being taken care of, so we proceeded with the recording – big mistake. Time went by, and the label was nowhere to be found. It ended with us having to take a huge bank loan to pay off the studio. About a year later, I re-entered Sunlight to update a few guitar lines and re-record the vocals. We still couldn’t find anyone interested in releasing the album, so we just let it be. It would have to remain unreleased, which was for the best since it’s a shit album. “Bloodline” is the worst SVARTSYN record. Musically it’s okay, but the execution is terrible. It’s incompetently played – really stiff, and the production is too clear. The material was written for a much rawer sound. Instead, we focused on what would be our third album recording; “…His Majesty”. We rehearsed the material for a full year before we began recording it in late 1999. Aiming for a filthier production this time around, we built a soundproof isolation box for the guitar amp in our rehearsal place and recorded everything on a portable studio.
Six months later, after the recording was completed, SVARTSYN played the 2000 edition of Under the Black Sun – a still-running German underground festival organised by Folter Records.
– Our old tour manager helped to get us booked, it was the least Folter could do. Someone from the French vinyl label End All Life saw us play and asked what we were up to these days. We agreed to release a double-LP through them, with both “…His Majesty” and “Bloodline”. It was around the same time that Sound Riot from Portugal approached us, wanting to handle the CD version of the new album.
Surprisingly, releases in both formats went ahead without major delays, deaths, or other disasters. In early 2001, whilst preparing for their fourth album, SVARTSYN were offered to participate in a three-way split with KRIEG from the US and Swedish TRIUMPHATOR.
– KRIEG’s “Rise of the Imperial Hordes” was really fucking ferocious, as was the TRIUMPHATOR album. We recorded four songs as our contribution, but the other bands backed out – nothing happened. So, another recording was discarded.
The tracks would remain unreleased for an additional three years – until Shamaatae from Swedish black metal band ARCKANUM got his hands on them and proposed a collaboration. This is what ended up as the “Kaos svarta mar / Skinning the Lambs” split album.
– ARCKANUM is one of the few bands I still have a lot of respect for. Had it not been for this fact, I wouldn’t have had any problem leaving them unreleased. I think it was a bit rushed, and three of them are old demo songs. We wrote “Skinning the Lambs” from a few riffs I had lying around and something Whorth (MALIGN), our bass player at the time, came up with. Shortly after the recording, he left the band and we lost our rehearsal place. We didn’t even bother looking for a new bass player but focused entirely on preparing the June 2002 “Destruction of Man” recording. Using the portable studio again, the entire process was completed only under the light of black candles. That album feels really dark and anti-human, it’s so palpable you can almost touch it.
Didn’t you record that one live?
– All of our albums up until “Wrath upon the Earth” were recorded live. Meaning – drums and guitar at the same time. On “…His Majesty”, the bass was also recorded live. “Destruction of Man” saw our second mid-recording label manager disappearance, this time Swedish Svartvintras Production. As a result, the new album was shelved upon its completion. A year later we heard from Sound Riot again, they wanted to release another SVARTSYN album. We re-signed with them on the condition they also release “Bloodline” on CD, just so we could get it out of our system.
And out of their debt accounts. Alas, Sound Riot simply ignored this part of the agreement and instead refused to release “Bloodline”. This time, enough was enough; the band couldn’t bear to accept defeat again and so hired a lawyer who forced the label to honour the contract.
– Finally, the loan from the studio bill was paid off. However, before the album came out, we lost the lease to our new rehearsal place. We didn’t rehearse for five years after that, despite everything being released retroactively the following years. By 2007, we’d resumed activities again and recorded a new album “Timeless Reign”. I had high expectations on myself for that album, but five years without rehearsing obviously took its toll. It felt like the final nail in the coffin, despite being spared the usual problems. I needed a change of scenery, so I left Sweden and moved to Belgium. After settling, I began working on what would end up as the 2011 album “Wrath upon the Earth”. Once I’d finished the pre-production, I asked Draugen if he wanted to be part of it – he declined, and so that was that. He was an immense asset to SVARTSYN for fifteen years: his predestined entrance, his dedication to the creative process and the small details.
Hoping for some stability after all the hassle, Ornias signed to Polish label Agonia Records where SVARTSYN remain to this day.
– I then collaborated with two extremely talented musicians, and over the course of a month we recorded “Wrath upon the Earth” in their garage. It sounds a bit different. It’s powerful. In retrospect, perhaps it’s a bit over-worked but it’s truly unearthly. I feel as if we created something beyond our capabilities. Then Agonia suggested re-releasing “The True Legend”, which I initially refused. But, on further thought, I realised it needed a better legacy, the material was good enough to deserve full refurbishing and proper cover artwork – as it was meant from the beginning. I decided this would only be acceptable if achieved by using the original old analogue tape. After going through the mix, I decided to re-record the guitars and vocals. I found a new collaboration partner in Huldre Hammerman of Mortsella Studio, who’d go on to record drums for the subsequent material. At some point during the process, something happened to me and I had to get my heart checked out.
As it turned out, Ornias had a congenital heart condition and was extremely lucky to even be alive. He was scheduled for immediate surgery.
– My first lucid memories after the operation are from the third day, when all the tubes and shit had been taken out and I’d been moved to normal care. When night fell, I was plagued by nightmares that were not of this world. I’d call them death-dreams, feelings of being entirely lost from this world. And it was in there somewhere the seed to “Black Testament” (2013 album) was sown, which grew into “Nightmarish Sleep” (2014 EP). This conceptual exploration reaches its climax with the new record, “In Death”. Anyway, I was finally allowed to play guitar again six weeks after the operation, so I started writing new material. I spent my recovery time studying Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, which left a heavy mark on “Black Testament”.
Has it affected you much, coming that close to dying?
– It happened so fast that I didn’t really understand it; I suppose this is something I’m only now processing on a spiritual level. It’s been a journey of the soul, my very purpose. The doctors told me I must have protection from above – and I know from who, or what, rather. It’s now become apparent that my music has always been death chants. Herein lies SVARTSYN‘s spiritual purpose, and I do my utmost to recreate these sensations in music. I’m still able to bring myself back into that deathlike and otherworldly state, which is how I’ve written all material since. I can’t just sit down and churn out a few riffs, it takes time. Like a spark that becomes a seed; a thought or a dream which starts everything. It’s almost as if I’m creating a body to be sacrificed, making my songs spiritual offerings.
Judging from how events have played out, Ornias believes there’s always been a curse over SVARTSYN – where all of his art has been born through the greatest adversity. As such, the music demands a deeper engagement from its composer.
– I think of all I’ve endured to create my music – and then you hear about bands throwing together songs without much afterthought, or scribbling down improvised lyrics on pizza cartons in the studio because they haven’t even bothered writing any. I don’t know, maybe I take this too seriously.