By Jason Deaville
SATYRICON is an odd entity within the entirety of the Norwegian black metal scene. They seem to exist separate from the central figures that played a roll in shaping this legendary musical movement. I mean, i’m sure many of you, myself included, likely cried ‘sell out!’ post-Rebel Extravaganza, particularly with the self-professed descriptor of ‘black & roll’ being bandied about the media. But, in hindsight, it could be argued that what Satyricon were doing during this time was the complete antithesis of selling out. Is not true artistic expression one which sees the artist shedding all cliches and stereotypes in an effort to challenge preconceived notions of their art? Deliberate or not, Satyricon have poised themselves as not only the quintessential Norwegian black metal band, but a band that has successfully crossed-over into so-called scholarly cliques, as witnessed by their recent performance with Norway’s National Opera Chorus; a show brimming with high-brow, intellectual, artistic types whom respect, appreciate, and welcome a genre outside their comfort zone – a genre that certainly augments their very own, and vice versa.
I asked the man who helped mold Norwegian black metal, a genre once reviled by the mainstream/uneducated, his view on this gradual path of acceptance of his art into mainstream Norwegian culture, now appealing to the very same people who at one time scoffed at black metal.
“They were wrong until now, and we the black metal artist and fans were right,” asserts Satyricon frontman, Sigurd Wongraven. “That is how I see it. Slow learners is what the world is mostly made up of, but let’s just celebrate the fact they picked up. I have to say that the people at the Opera have been amazing though. They get it, because they are used to niche music. I am rather referring to the lame mainstream media we have in Norway, and their never ending focus on black metal as an “export article” as opposed to important and influential music of high artistic quality. Outside Norway, I have the feeling it is even worse, but maybe I am wrong.”
You might think that this new-found acceptance would influence one’s art, perhaps shaping the consciousness of how those outside the realm of black metal will perceive said art. You might be wrong, as Satyr clarifies.
“I live happily unknowing and I shall continue doing that,” steadfastly corrects Wongraven.
I’ve always pondered a time when black metal becomes completely ingrained into Norwegian culture, a total penetration of the mainstream where all stereotypes/baggage are left behind, paving new and exciting forms of art and expression based around black metal ideals. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for a corpse-painted Miley Cyrus any time soon.
“That will never happen,” says the ashen-faced vocalist. “Despite our new record actually being number one on the official Norwegian album charts and very high in Sweden, Germany, Finland, Austria and what not. More people get it and more people listen to metal because more people get exposed to it, but it is what it is and will therefore have its natural limitation given its extremities.”
It’s all but obvious that band’s such as Satyricon, ULVER, DIMMU BORGIR, KEEP OF KALESSIN, etc. have been making significant strides at appealing to those outside metal circles. Does Satyr believe there exists a concerted effort of those within his genre to see that black metal breaks down these boundaries, crossing over into a place where going to see a black metal band is seen as relevant and artistic as, say, a night at the Norwegian Opera?
“I would definitely not mention Satyricon and Ulver alongside Dimmu and KOK,” clarifies the frontman. “Dimmu set out to have mainstream appeal and always stood up for that. They want to be a huge band and are willing to make compromises to get there. That has made them the very commercially successful band they are. Fair enough. KOK participated in the Eurovision Song Contest for the very same reason. I always looked upon Ulver as free-spirited band that followed their hearts and musical instinct. If Satyricon would have wanted commercial success for the sake of it, we should have made a whole album of Mother North songs in 1999 instead of Rebel Extravaganza; or a whole album full of songs like ‘K.I.N.G’ in the aftermath of Now, Diabolical. Anyone who claims we did that needs to look out for people in white coats or have their ears checked. Opera is really as far away from mainstream as you can get. It is very conservative, like black metal (unfortunately), but it is not mainstream. GARTH BROOKS is mainstream. NICKELBACK is mainstream. Therefore, working with the Opera must be understood as a project between dedicated craftsmen. I really enjoyed it, learnt a lot from it, and hope to do more of it in the future.”
Being a globetrotting musician, I ask Satyr his thoughts on the differences between art/culture (and their expressions) in Norway and North America. We North Americans seem really very narrow-minded and closed off to all kind of artistic expression here – sadly.
“I would not go that far,” corrects Satyr. “Many North Americans get it. I mixed the record with an American and it was mastered by and American. They definitely got it and I feel many people in North America do get it. Sometimes the ways of expression can be confusing to us Europeans. If someone says, ‘your new album is really atmospheric, has great dynamics, authentic analog sound and real depth’, I hear them. A North American might say that it ‘kicks ass’. I am fine with that, but it would perhaps be interesting to hear what good it does beyond kicking ass. I like being in North America and I am thankful we have people who like our music there. I do think that North Americans should travel more though and also learn other languages.”
Reviews of the brand new self-titled album have been pouring in, many of them full of piss & venom regarding the pacing and lack of ‘extremity’. Personally, I don’t get this, as extremity can be taken in many different contexts, not just BPMs and blastbeats. A great example of this diverseness is the song ‘The Infinity Of Time And Space’; a song befitting of Satyricon’s overall musical and lyrical ideology: ‘a new narrative for the old themes’ as you will; a journey through the stars in search of a meaning to this mortal coil.
“To me it is the song that defines the record,” agrees Satyr. “It is the closest thing to having all the elements of the record in one song. If you don’t like this song, you will probably not like the album. If you do like it, there is plenty in store for you. It was a hard song to control dynamically, to express right and to give the right structural and musical fluency, but I feel we ended up making it. We really worked that song to the very last minute. The lyrics I wrote in one turn without pausing for a second. It is rare that I can do that and then actually make it fit perfectly rhythmically, but this time around it worked out just like I was hoping for. It is very personal to me. It has Satyricon written all over it as you say.“
Though I enjoy all of Satyricon’s recorded output, the new self-titled album recalls/recaptures moments from what I believe to be the band’s definitive album, Rebel Extravaganza. Not only is this evident in the music, but within the lyrical themes; such as the focus on metaphysical topics (time/space/the universe), as well as matters of what might be called a dark existentialism (life, and our journeys through it). Both musically and lyrically, this newest slab possesses everything that I think makes Satyricon the most important, genre-bending/defining black metal to have ever existed. It is the purest form of art, literature, and music in one all-encompassing package (.
“Wow! Thank you,” beams Satyr. “It is kind of funny how the reviews states all kinds of intentions on the bands behalf, without actually knowing what our intentions are, so I am glad you asked. Our emphasis was on moving away from the previous record that we saw as the completion of a journey that lasted throughout the 2000′s. One of the things that we always appreciated in music was dynamics, so I definitely wanted to pursue that more intensely. It is hard to achieve in extreme metal music, but I felt we did more so on this record than previous records. We always had elements of analog recording on our productions – I also wanted to take that to the next level. I felt the music of the 2000′s was very direct and compact which I enjoyed, but for this record I wanted to write more melodic and focus more on atmosphere as well. One other thing that I kept chasing Frost over was the way he utilizes his power. He used to hit rather weak back in the days, only to end up destroying everything in his way in the later years. I tried to make him understand the importance of being more sensitive in the way he distributes his power. Hit hard when that is what the part requires, but go soft if the part is mellow. That kind of thing. Sounds easy, but it was not! I also wrote the majority of the record when we were jamming. I have enjoyed working like that always, but unconsciously steered away from it due to other methods perhaps being more convenient. This time it was back to the jam format and it gave the record a whole bunch of solutions that came across more musical and alive. Lyrics is always easy if your only goal is to write well. Once you decide you want your lyrics to match the music rhythmically you have got yourself a challenge. This time around you could say I achieved a more interesting outcome I feel, from learning from past mistakes, but also good moves from the past, when it comes to expressing the artistic thought behind the lyrics without compromising their musical ability to be compatible. The last key decision was to try and involve as many passionate people as possible. Not always the very best guys, but good guys that really wanted badly to be a part of this project. I highly reccommend that to other artists!“
Curious as to how he fills his down time, I ask Wongraven if there were any outside influences that shaped the direction of this album – such as books, particular bands, art, other forms of music, what have you.
“The major influence was the break we had in 2010, that ended up running up until the summer of 2011. Those 18 months of working with wine production, traveling around the world for non-musical purposes and having the time away from Satyricon gave me the perspective, rest, and hunger that I needed to make what is to Frost and myself, the ultimate Satyricon album. We hope that some people feel the same as we do. That is why we do this. To share.”
Time to discuss the much heralded production, and the choice to go full-on analog with the new album. Personally, I was immediately struck by how warm, full and inviting the album sounds. Its tone is consistent and cohesive. For a band whom I’ve always associated with the cold & clinical, I was surprised at how well this sound fits the overall ethos of Satyricon. It seems to be a challenge to preconceived notions and rules of the genre and its inherently limited and tired formulas.
“The music needed it,” confirms Satyr. “We have used analog on all of our records to some degree. Tape compression is always interesting when it comes to recording drums, but it is not only about the recording device. It is actual outboard versus software versions of the same thing. Supposedly plug-in’s, as we call them, are the same thing as the real thing. An EQ or a compressor. Truth is that it is cheaper, more reliable and convenient as software, but it is not the same of course. There is a small difference and that is the small difference we were looking for, to get the tone, feel and organic warmth we felt the music needed to come across in the most spiritual way. Hopefully there are things about it that can inspire other bands in the way they work and perhaps it can open the eyes of people who review records with little consciousness over these important matters.”
‘Phoenix’ will certainly raise the eyebrows of the more discerning, biased types. I ask Satyr to set the record straight as it relates to this surprisingly diverse and thoroughly addictive song.
“I am glad you like it,” acknowledges Satyr. “Sivert Høyem is one of the real keys here and that guy is a proper singer, not a metal singer that knows how to sing with a clean voice. I can’t believe that some people have been asking me why I did not do it myself. Well, why did you not play instead of Wayne Gretzky, you know? If it was just the fact that people had faith in me, then I should be glad, but unfortunately it is a case of too many of us metal fans not appreciating enough the difference between someone pulling it off and someone who has real nerve and soul in his voice when singing with a clean voice. Underestimation actually goes for black and death metal singers too. Half of them can’t even stay with the pace and the rhythm of the song, yet they all get away with it, because they sound extreme. I am proud of his contribution and I made it to be a classic Satyricon song that had tailor made moves to fit with his voice. I asked him whether he wanted to do it before I wrote a single note, because I knew I needed to make it to fit his voice. Musically I was very determined to make it a Satyricon song. I figured the real difference would lie in what the vocal performance would do to it. To me it comes across as melancholic, yet driven and there is this strange combination of sadness and hope at the same time that makes it very intriguing. It creates dynamics between the songs in the album journey as a whole too.”
I’ll admit Satyricon kind of lost me with the past few albums, not that they didn’t find a place within my personal collection. I’m likely way off base with this, but it felt to me that the band struggled with identity, not within their genre per se, but personally. The themes and music during this time seemed to be more aesthetically focused, which i’m certain was as intended – challenging preconceived ideas of what this music is; yet, by doing so, the core of what Satyricon was/is might have been lost to many people who were there at the beginning.
“Well, I’m glad to have you back among us,” enthuses Satyr. “We were never lost and we never struggled with our identity. We followed our hearts and our musical conviction. We did what we wanted to at the time which is exactly what we have done for over twenty years. Is that not how it should be? For a band that has been around as long as we have, you see people come and go. It is supposed to be that way if you are relevant. I think Satyricon’s place is that lonely path where no one else walks. I think the majority of those who like us, like yourself, appreciate that as a core quality that the band holds.”
Finally, I ask Satyr to speak of his art in 2013, and how he wishes Satyricon to be viewed, now and in the future.
“We’ll see what the future holds,” opines the frontman. “I really don’t know, but I am sure it will be different than what most people expect – as usual. I am a studio guy and I enjoy being there. Frost prefers being on the road. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he does. We will do both as I enjoy playing in front of people who share the same interest for our music, but we will focus more on studio work and perhaps more unusual projects and collaborations. That is what I enjoy the most and we’ll try and spend our time where we have the most fun.“