by Niklas Göransson
Shadows beckon from northern darkness as Swedish black metal band Skogen unveil their latest work. Bridge-burning frontman Jocke Svensson speaks of wilderness tranquillity and underground devotion.
– There’s been a slight increase in clean vocals, yes, this has been a gradual process throughout all our albums and nothing we planned. I’ve also been told that our work differs musically between releases but that’s not something we really think about during the composition process. We’re constantly writing music. Some tracks might not suit the album we have in mind and end up being rewritten for the next one, or simply thrown in the bin. As far as plans go, the only thing we had in mind was making sure we didn’t put out another double-LP – no more sixty minutes of music
Is that why the songs are shorter than usual?
– No, this happened organically. It might have been lurking in our minds subconsciously but we could have just as likely ended up with four lengthy songs instead. Ever since the band’s conception, Mathias and I have been writing whatever we find appropriate. Everything we’ve composed, even in the beginning, has sounded like SKOGEN. While there are more Nordic-sounding melodies than before, in general I’d have to say that this album is actually less melodic than its predecessors. I believe the higher prevalence of clean vocals might be what gives people a contrary impression. We tuned down from D to A# to make it heavier, which in turn brought along additional changes we hadn’t anticipated such as higher vocals. When tuning down that much, the vocals get so low that they must be sung in an octave higher – that’s probably why people hear a difference. Music-wise, I’d have to say it sounds like we always have.
I’ve gotten the distinct impression that SKOGEN find no resonance whatsoever in the folk metal moniker.
– That’s correct. Despite the Nordic melodies and elements of traditional music, we don’t consider ourselves a folk metal band. Truth be told, I absolutely abhor that term. If you’ve ever been to a European open-air festival, you’ve no doubt been subjected to the people who adore this genre; the ones with kilts and humorous caps, unironically worn fleece shirts depicting either wolves howling at the moon or Indian chiefs, Viking mead-horn with which to drink Hansa Export beer, complete with an XL-size coat featuring NIGHTWISH, BURZUM, SUFFOCATION, PANTERA, Che Guevara and three of the same FINNTROLL patches in a row. I don’t want SKOGEN to be in any sense associated with this genre. Fans are obviously free to garb themselves in whichever way they want – certainly none of my business – but that’s exactly how I picture folk metal fans and kind of puke in my mouth every time it comes to mind.
Alienating the entire fanbase of a genre one’s band is often labelled as is an interesting commercial strategy, I must say.
– Oh, I’ll be here burning bridges all night! I’m not a big fan of categories – they’re obviously helpful in describing the music’s direction but beyond that, who cares? There are so many ridiculous subgenres these days… I mean, I recently heard someone say ’ecological doom’. Now what the fuck is that? Never mind, I don’t even want to know. Enough about this.
I’m curious about that peculiar sound towards the end of the first song, “Det nordiska mörkret”, it reminds me a bit of a subtle unsettling vibe found in older material – “Begraven” comes to mind.
– It’s a handmade bowed lyre, crafted and played by an acquaintance of ours – Pontus Bergqvist from Jönköping, Sweden. We were looking for something with an old Scandinavian vibe so, being aware that Pontus builds his own instruments, I decided to ask him. It gives the song an eerie ending which suits the track. With “Begraven”, we weren’t satisfied with only the acoustic guitars and vocals so in order to achieve that creepy feeling we added two keyboard notes that don’t really work very well together – A and Bb I think, since the track is in A. In my opinion, it gave the song another dimension. As on many similar occasions, KING DIAMOND was an influence on that one, even though it might not be immediately noticeable.
Judging by the feedback I skimmed through while researching this article, the new album appears to have been received quite favourably.
– I honestly thought our music would appeal to a far narrower crowd since the genre at large is generally kind of anal, but more and more listeners seem to be warming to us – people you’d never think would appreciate something like this. Needless to say, we are deeply humbled by this. We play whatever music we’d want to hear ourselves, neither ripping off other bands nor going to any greater lengths in trying to be original – our music just happens to sound the way it does. When Mathias and I first met it took no more than a few beers for us to discover our common love for DRUDKH, as well as mutual ambitions of playing music in that vein. We then presented similarly-sounding songs to each other and just took it from there. We don’t sound anything like DRUDKH now but they were a big inspiration for us in the beginning. Roman from the aforementioned band released our albums on cassette some years ago, via his label Night Birds Records. That felt right, seeing as how we’ve always appreciated their music.
SKOGEN are signed to Nordvis these days, a Swedish label which I’m led to believe operates somewhat differently from most underground outfits. Andreas Pettersson, the visionary behind the project, appears to take a far closer interest in the musicians he contracts than does most of his peers, often flying them up to his wilderness habitat in the utmost north of Sweden. At a 2016 Tänk på Döden event in Stockholm featuring WARDRUNA, FORNDOM and DRAUGURINN – the latter two being tied to Nordvis – I noticed that Pettersson had also brought over several of his other bands and put them up in a hotel together.
– Andreas is a man with his heart in the right place. He doesn’t do any of this to earn money or fame but basically signs bands he likes and then does everything possible to spread their music and help them out. There’s a red thread running throughout Nordvis and all the acts on its roster, which is something I greatly appreciate. Andreas has a vision that most underground operations lack, one that’s shared by the bands as well. All this in combination is unique, I must say. I’ve been on quite a few labels with different projects during my musical years but Nordvis is the first one that actually feels genuine, working in harmony with the artists. And since Andreas himself has been an active musician for such a long time, he knows precisely what bands want and need. He’s got my total respect.
The most obvious common connection between bands signed to Nordvis is that their concepts all have some manner of nature-oriented link. SKOGEN is a Swedish word which means ’the forest’.
– We’ve all grown up in Småland, a province in the southern parts of Sweden with lots of natural wilderness. Where I grew up, Växjö, my parent’s house was located by a big lake called Helgasjön with a forest in-between. While having never been one to go on long hikes and such, I’ve always felt drawn to the calm serenity of nature. I live in Gothenburg now, which is kind of weird since my lifelong dream has always been to have my own cottage or cabin located somewhere on the outskirts of a city. But I’ve come further and further away from that dream, for some reason. Someday, when I have the money. Gothenburg is nice though, kind of small. And I’ve got many friends here, which was the reason behind me moving. How anyone could thrive living in – let’s say – Stockholm, New York or Bangkok is completely beyond me.
Besides his musical activities, Jocke is also the editor of an excellent fanzine in classic underground fashion – Trifixion Zine. The second issue was released in October 2017 and features the likes of IMMOLATION, DARK ANGEL, GROTESQUE, and REPUGNANT.
– My prime motivation was that I really missed the classic fanzines, although there are still a few here and there, and how none of the bigger magazines ever write about stuff I like, or at least not very often. So I contacted a few bands, interviewed them, and made a fanzine out of it. I worship the old cut-paste-and-copy approach, I used to do that with demos. And what’s great here in Sweden is that since I don’t have access to copying machines or anything like that, I started a so-called study-circle through Folkuniversitetet (taxpayer-funded adult educational association) in order to access their equipment for free and print as many copies as needed. The only thing you have to do is send in annual attendance lists containing at least three participants. I just put down the names of my father and a friend and wrote that we met four times a week to ‘study’, and then got everything for free. I didn’t think of this study-circle until the second issue though so I ended up paying 4,000 Swedish kronor (approximately 400 EUR or 450 USD) just to have the first issue printed in two-hundred copies. But, money means nothing when your heart burns for something greater.
Upon founding his publication, Jocke’s ambition was to interview musicians who normally don’t get to speak much publicly, along with bands he still loves but that no media outlets cover anymore.
– I contacted, among others, Jairo Tormentor – the lead guitarist on SEPULTURA’s “Morbid Visions”, which at twelve years of age was the first album of theirs I heard. It had a huge impact on me – “Show me the Wrath” is one nasty track! I also reached out to Kurt Kilfelt from HOLY TERROR, among others. He mentioned having rarely done interviews, if ever, and those people always sit on the best stories. Getting the answers took quite a while but was totally worth it, I had no deadline anyway. I also like to write about new bands and help promote their music. This is obviously not a lucrative undertaking but something I do for my own amusement and to support the scene. Some bands deserve more recognition, old as new. My fanzine might not help much, but at least it’s a small step in the right direction.
Sweden used to have a massive and vibrantly alive ‘zine community with several quality publications in Swedish, often featuring unique segments such as local scene reports and logo analysis-columns.
– What Jens Rydén (THYRFING, ex-NAGLFAR) of Dusk Mag did with the logo analysis was a cool addition! I am myself a great enthusiast of discussing the nuances and differences between them. We have the hand-drawn ones that are beyond hideous but still ugly in an awesome way, like the old logo SEPULTURA had… and, of course, DRUDKH‘s first which looks sort of like a tarantula roadkill. Then we have the super-symmetric computerised ones from the early 90s, such as NECROPHOBIC, SETHERIAL, NAGLFAR and so on. Further on to the graffiti style of GROTESQUE and BEASTIALITY and – lest we forget – the plethora of Old English logos. And so on, and so on. There are of course the bands whose logo is far better than their remaining output, like… no, I won’t go there, that’s an unnecessary bridge to burn. But there are a few Swedish bands, as well as American.
Jocke proceeds to the worst crime of them all – namely discarding the old custom logo and replacing it with a Times New Roman font. Or those who just modify and tone theirs down a bit, like METALLICA, MEGADETH, CANNIBAL CORPSE, FORBIDDEN, TESTAMENT and so on.
– That’s a classic hallmark of the music turning into a steaming pile of crap. Back in the day, one was able to trust a logo, blindly buying albums based on that criteria alone, and more often than not it was good. Nowadays, it’s hard buying records only relying on the logo – what might appear to be new black metal album will upon arrival sound like METALLICA’s “Load” with opera vocals; horrendous and repulsive. Anyway, we got a bit side-tracked there, which easily happens when I get worked up about these things. Where were we? Actually, it’s interesting to see how everything goes in circles, same with other genres. Seventies rock has been gradually watered down a fair bit by now, that was huge not too long ago. Before that we had 80s-styled bands dressing like it’s 1984, the second wave of Swedish death metal, and the “Altars of Madness”-phase. These days doom seems to be all the rage, with SLEEP as the forefathers. I’ve always wondered when the PANTERA, MINISTRY, or FEAR FACTORY revivals will fall upon us; I don’t want them to but they will, sooner or later, I’m sure of it.
Jocke adds that regardless of trends, as well as his own worship of the genre-pioneers and everything they brought along with them, claiming today’s underground to be dead is just plain stupid.
– I think… no, I know that it’s just as vital as ever, there are so many new good bands playing the shit out of the old farts. What I find somewhat contradictory are the people who only listen to the classics while calling the underground dead. Well, if you obsess about nothing but the past and don’t support the new, then how the fuck is the underground supposed to stay alive? Should everyone, regardless of age, sit down in the same basement and only talk about NECROVORE demos? I am a metalhead who happens to play music, not a musician who happens to like metal; there’s a massive difference there and I guess that’s when the underground becomes more important, like making fanzines and contributing to the scene you worship rather than just wanting to play on fancy instruments and listen to TOTO once in a while when your partner is out jogging. I love essentially everything about it – the DIY spirit, the youthfulness, the punky ‘I don’t give a fuck’-attitude; striving to make something unique without having any thoughts of becoming the biggest band on earth. Just an urge to create something honest. I’ve always been drawn to that. If there’s nothing out there for you to read or listen to, then you do it yourself.