by Niklas Göransson
Swedish black metal band Valkyrja emerge from the rubble of what was their most recent studio recording experience. Guitarist and now reluctantly crowned frontman Simon Wizén reflects over the recent months’ chaos and calamity.
– Attempting to remain objective and judging “Throne Ablaze” from a listeners perspective, I’d probably recognise several of VALJKYRJA’s key elements but also the improved dynamics along with a few rather unexpected twists. I’d ask listeners to free themselves entirely from expectations. To be honest, I’m rather sick of categories in general; they’re such a limitation. As such, I’m making no claims of this necessarily being black metal – at least not with the contemporary scene as reference. Maybe it is to some extent but what does that really change? Nothing. Listening to this album from the inside, I hear a band that’s been bleeding a whole lot only to rise with a completely new face.
Ah, yes – I was led to believe that there was a fair bit of hassle involved in the recording process?
– Mm… where to even begin? Well, as with each of our past albums, I was critical to the full extent of the word. I collected a lot of ideas, some even dating back from “The Antagonist’s Fire” (2013), and began putting everything together back in the fall of 2017 but the problem is that I’m never satisfied; at some point, it invariably feels as if everything can be improved upon and I just start all over again. The pressure always rises as recording draws near and by then I’m usually panicking to the degree where compositions emerge by themselves. Despite feeling fully immersed in the creative process, it’s typically experienced as devoid of any cognitive input. This time around though, I had yet to even finish all the material when the drum tracking started on April 13. Fortunately, we worked in the studio incrementally – taking breaks of a few days between sessions, which provided some greatly needed time to wrap everything up properly.
While stressed out of his mind, scrambling to finish the songs, Simon was at least blissfully unaware that he would soon also be charged with performing the vocals.
– The real chaos began with the sudden disappearance of our vocalist, RSDX, who became absent for personal reasons; a situation culminating in him completely isolating himself. The matter was further complicated by the fact that he lives in Holland. All this is what ultimately led to us parting ways with him, at which point – as I’m sure you can imagine – things became rather frantic. With respect for his work, we chose to keep only the lyrics for the one song we’d finished and arranged together. Consequently, our next challenge became that of summoning inspiration to narrate the remaining six…
Simon says that, as a result, the lyrics for “Throne Ablaze” are of a more existential character than before.
– We explore the unknown, posing questions rather than providing answers. Perhaps they best reflect my life the way things stand right now. The way I see it, very few people – myself included – live in accordance to what they believe in. On the contrary, life is more of a trap of yesterdays and tomorrows; constant progress and various obligations. In other words, a human mind. But in VALKYRJA I can work unfettered and without bounds, which to me is an inspiring way of navigating such thoughts. I’m not a preacher, nor is it my goal to enlighten anyone besides myself. I’m a cynic by nature and like working with strong feelings such as despair and hopelessness.
Learning to perform black metal vocals while simultaneously recording them must have been a new and exciting development to an otherwise lively situation?
– I’d call it anything but exciting; I had the perfect idea about how I wanted it to sound but what I heard my voice doing was something entirely different. While I’ve done vocals for DIE HARD, a thrash metal band I joined in 2010, having sung that style wasn’t especially helpful – in fact, it probably made everything much harder. My most relevant past experience has been the occasional VALKYRJA rehearsal when our singer has been absent, as well as performing backing screams live and for previous albums. Actually, we discussed me assuming vocal duties back in 2014 already but I wanted to focus on my guitar playing so we never really got so far as to try it out.
Simon says the challenge that arose during the recording of “Throne Ablaze” was all the more crucial since there’s VALKYRJA’s back catalogue to live up to. Despite this being his first attempt at mantling the vocals, it had to live up to the quality one should expect from a band’s fourth studio album.
– The process felt endless but, considering that we began recording the vocals in late June and finished them two months later, I must say progress was indeed fast. I suppose the fact that the album had to be completed within a certain time-frame acted as a serious booster, propelling me into full focus on improvements at a rather unreal pace. We refused to stop until we felt as if the results were not only as good as possible, but as good as they had to be. I found judging my own progress extremely difficult, and the same goes for Vlad (bass) who oversaw most of the vocal recordings. We decided to get external opinions from ears unaffected by the process and received very promising feedback, reassuring us that we were on the right track.
I’m assuming all this ultimately ended up affecting the outcome a far bit?
– Oh yes, it did. In the midst of it all we had complete tunnel-vision and there was neither the time nor room for reflection. Days felt endless – sleep deprivation, terrible mood – forcing all possible energy out of myself. It’s not until now, when I can listen to the mastered album in its entirety, that I can distance myself from all the chaos and really take pride in our creation. In fact, I still have this really palpable feeling of ‘What the fuck just happened?’.
Once everything was finally recorded, Simon realised there was now an additional hurdle to pass – live vocals, on top of playing lead guitar. As such, VALKYRJA are currently engaged in intense rehearsals to whip the reluctant frontman into presentable shape before the touring cycle begins.
– Luckily, here I have some use for the experience I gained with DIE HARD, although this is definitely more challenging. We knew in the studio already that this work had barely just begun but, at the time, there were more pressing matters demanding our attention. Progress is still being made on a daily basis – let’s just say that the energy is vibrantly alive, now more than ever! VALKYRJA will be represented with my full capacity and devotion; months of despair will be vomited forth over Europe. Come November 30, we’re heading out on tour with MARDUK and ARCHGOAT. I must admit I can´t wait to see it unleashed.
VALKYRJA have been prone to fluctuation within the ranks before. I’m wondering if Simon has any theories about why this is – meaning, are we talking exceptionally poor luck here or might he and Vlad be a right pair of bastards to work with?
– Most who have played with us would probably agree that we run things professionally and as smoothly as possible for everyone involved. However, VALKYRJA is an active entity that requires a lot of time and dedication, which of course interferes with people’s lifestyle. And once you’ve acknowledged that time is limited, you need to decide how to use it. Are you gonna treat it like an endless source and wait for the stars to align, or simply act? We decided a long time ago already that we can’t take five individual schedules into consideration when it comes to the band.
The matter of devotion was the foremost contributing factor leading to the 2015 departure of VALKYRJA’s vocalist and co-founding member, A.L.
– This was a difficult step for all of us, a gruelling process lasting almost two years. There were no hard feelings and the root of this was the simple fact that A.L. didn’t feel comfortable with the level of commitment and touring schedule we had ahead of us, which in turn gave him negative energy. He simply felt that VALKYRJA should continue without him. A.L. remains my true companion, he’s been as dedicated to this as myself and still is to a certain extent – his voice can be heard on the new record as well. Replacing him was a brutal and lengthy ordeal.
Later the same year, VALKYRJA recruited the aforementioned RSDX as vocalist. Shortly before commencing their first tour with the new frontman, long-time drummer Jocke Wallgren was invited to join prolific Swedish death metal band AMON AMARTH.
– Jocke has always been motivated for a professional career so, judging how things turned out in the end, one could certainly say that he ended up exactly where he wanted to be. The timing couldn’t have been worse for us though – we’d just sent off visa applications for our US tour that very same day. Luckily, a friend of mine by the name of Eric, who I’d played with under different circumstances in the past, offered to help us out; he stepped in for almost all confirmed shows throughout the entire year while we searched for a permanent drummer. Eric also played in NIFELHEIM at the time so some shows overlapped, but Jocke covered up when available.
I imagine this is part of the reason why VALKYRJA had performed with no less than four different line-ups when the summer festival cycle of three years ago came to an end.
– People who’ve seen us on tour might be more familiar with Davide – who’s been acting session guitarist for more than half of our shows since 2011 – than Björn, our main guitar player, since he’s often trapped with other obligations. This is how we ended up having different constellations during the summer of 2015. That said, it’s critical to note how none of these temporary solutions affected the actual quality of our live performances. Later, we found a drummer in Victor Parri and all of us are very content with his work on the new record.
Simon is now the sole remaining original member of a band that’s played an essential role in life ever since his mid-teens.
– I’d like to think we’re each other’s consequence. While I’ve been shaping VALKYRJA, VALKYRJA has been shaping me in response. It remains a solid creative platform and a focus unbound from worldly matters. It’s served as heavy counterbalance to a life that would otherwise have been more or less scheduled since birth. To be more precise, its value to me leaves other obligations that take up big chunks of my time feeling less important. It’s brought me to places and contexts I was perhaps not entirely comfortable with from the beginning – you either avoid it or you’re swallowed completely. I know what happened to me.
For their second album, the 2010 “Contamination”, VALKYRJA were contracted by German record company Metal Blade. I’m curious if Simon believes that signing to a major label that early in their career was a wise choice, and whether it’s affected the perception and reception of VALKYRJA in the underground.
– Considering where it took us, I definitely think it was a good move but there are of course two sides to the coin. It’s important to mention here that Metal Blade was probably not a label we would’ve intentionally turned to – they approached us, initially through MySpace if I recall correctly. I didn’t have much experience with the industry, the ‘scene’, or the world at large. We hadn’t even had our first tour at this point so at the time it seemed to us like the single greatest thing that could possibly happen. And we felt good about being picked up by a label coming to us rather than having to spread some demo to every corner of the earth. That said, the deal we signed allowed us to work with better resources. “Contamination” was a very important personal chapter as it taught me how to really create an album as opposed to just recording a collection of songs.
As can be expected, Metal Blade has an excellent contact network. Simon remembers doing countless interviews in the wake of the album and believes VALKYRJA to have been represented in pretty much every major metal publication. Then, as their first-ever tour, they ended up in a nightliner with MARDUK for three weeks.
– Obviously, all this surely opened doors we otherwise might not even have been aware of. So, what was the downside? Well, while the album was widely available at big commercial chains like Media Markt, I couldn’t find it at our local metal shops. I think we simply missed many of our potential targets. I’m not claiming we did everything right either, because we didn’t follow all of their suggestions. At the time, we were very naive and perhaps had too much integrity to let outsiders meddle with our creation. It was inevitable that sales wouldn’t match the needs of such a label. We were also told that our deal was too good since the whole market plunged even further downhill between us signing the contract and them releasing “Contamination”.
One could certainly say VALKYRJA changed things up for their third album, with the move to fellow German label World Terror Committee. The seed for this collaboration was sown as a result of Metal Blade not dealing with vinyl at the time.
– That’s almost hard to believe these days, eight years later, considering the present situation with exclusive whatever rainbow colour LP editions. However, there was no interest from Metal Blade’s side but of course from ours so we managed to get a licensing deal with WTC to print the vinyl version. When we began working on the next album, “The Antagonist’s Fire”, we were in touch with several labels – including WTC, but they were busy at the time and couldn’t commit to an additional release. Things changed once we’d sent them a few pre-production tracks and a deal was inked shortly thereafter. We were pleased that it was our music that spoke to them, which breeds for a solid collaboration built of mutual dedication; I’d like to think this has opened doors we missed with “Contamination”. According to our label a lot of people were familiar with the name but mistook us for a pagan metal band, which is understandable. Such is the everlasting curse of VALKYRJA.