- Interview by Faye Coulman
TALES FROM THE CRYPT: Swedish occult metal collective Vampire reflect on making of epic third opus &
If there’s anything experience has taught us, it’s that meddling with the classics is seldom a particularly rewarding or worthwhile exercise - a fact richly illustrated by the many painfully lacklustre ’80s horror reboots, retro acts and hyper-commercialised cover songs that have spent the past few decades ruthlessly desecrating the legacy of this famously iconic era of music and filmmaking. Every so often though, there’s that rare breed of artist who is capable of not only competently handling the trappings and traditions of old, but also of skilfully forging and refashioning them into a work of their own ingeniously orchestrated design. Presenting, for your delectation, the grave and grimly absorbing pleasures of Gothenburg crypt-dwellers, Vampire…
“You expect metal music to build on the traditions of the early stuff, to build on something with old, greasy and cranky parts,” muses Vampire main man Lars ‘Hand of Doom’ Willfors on the basic, fundamental function and purpose underpinning the raggedly visceral, pitch-black core of the Swedish cult metal act’s being. But since first coalescing into murkily cacophonous existence almost a full decade ago, this humbly understated assessment barely scratches the surface of the band’s altogether more intriguing trademark blend of battering ultra-violence, nightmarishly immersive atmospherics and delectably hook-laden compositional ingenuity. It is, in short, the unmistakable mark of a band in firmly established possession of their own uniquely distinctive sonic identity, having long ago progressed onward from the mere aping and emulation of their legendary, genre-defining predecessors. Crowned, last month, with the release of regally grandiose third album ‘Rex’, theirs is a sound as richly steeped in tradition as it is audibly bristling with compositional ingenuity and vigour. And indeed, for all its catastrophic recent occurrences, the year 2020 marks something of a career-defining breakthrough for the fast-rising Gothenburg aggressors. But, as Lars hastens to remind us, Vampire wasn’t always such quite a sophisticated and creatively purposeful unit.
“Vampire basically started as just a few guys having a beer on a Friday night and playing music just for the fun of it,” the vocalist recalls. “There’s this really old American death metal band called Necrophagia who released a couple of albums and a couple of decent demo tapes. So, listening to Necrophagia one night in the summer of 2011, I basically said to the other guys that we should form a band that sounds exactly like this, with riffs that aren't really riffs and a sound production that isn't really a sound production and singing that isn't really singing. Just some raw, all-out noisy caveman proto-death metal, so that was how it all got started and then we obviously progressed from there. Then we threw in all other sorts of things that we liked, like South American death metal like Sarcófago and Vulcano, some German thrash like Deathrow and Sodom and also some Scandinavian black metal that we all grew up with and then eventually it turned into something very different to this retro joke that it was supposed to be, but our ambitions were basically non-existent in the beginning. We wanted to sound like demo-era Necrophagia and you can have no worse ambitions than that if you're forming a band,” the vocalist chuckles. “The challenge was really non-existent compared to the other bands that we had played with before. We didn't raise the bar, we lowered the bar to floor level and were just fooling around, so that was the initial stages of Vampire.”
Yet, for all the relative simplicity of these initially rather primitive early recordings, Vampire’s raw but richly evident musical talent soon sparked an almost instantaneous sensation among die-hard devotees of the underground metal scene. Forging their reputation off the back of nothing more than a handful of hastily snapped-up demo tapes, word of the deliciously nostalgic Gothenburg aggressors spread at a pace that none - least of all its utterly dumbfounded creators - could have possibly anticipated.
“I don't really know what exactly people were hearing, but somehow people went totally apeshit over this thing,” the frontman elaborates, his voice still audibly tinged with wonder and disbelief. “We had no ambitions whatsoever, but just out of pure chance and good timing things happened for us in the fall of 2012, and that was before we’d even started doing gigs. When we first took the stage, we had a sort of reputation from mouth to mouth, like via the underground network. Like, "Have you heard this band?" sort of thing. Playing live is great fun but from the get-go, it wasn't essential for us to have this band happen and the core of Vampire is really just the joy of making music. We played something like 50 shows during the last eight years and I think I'm the one in the band who, perhaps more so than anyone else, thrives off playing live. Because obviously I'm in the spotlight and I'm the frontman and everybody's looking at me and that always feels great. You can act out and have fun, so that's a very good excuse. In all honesty, I'm a bit of a theatre ape. I enjoy being centre of attention and having a good time, and a live show with violent and energetic and suggestive music is, of course, a very good place for me to be.”
But however great its creator’s lifelong affection for the violently energised heat and immediacy of classic death metal, the years that followed saw a steadily progressive fine-tuning of this initially raw and instinctive early formula into increasingly more atmospheric and expansive sonic territories. Roughly two years following the release of their violently electrifying self-titled debut, follow-up album ‘With Primeval Force’ would go on to cement a markedly more sophisticated sonic formula, having sourced ample inspiration from some of the last century’s most iconic works of classic horror. Imbuing in these bloodcurdling, violently abrasive compositions uncharted new depths of blackly absorbing atmosphere and mysticism, this deftly accomplished second full-length drinks deep from a dusky plethora of assorted sonic and cinematic traditions. Ever hungry to advance this rapidly evolving sonic formula, the year 2020 sees the Swedes delving still deeper into the timeless legends and traditions of old, with newly-unleashed opus ‘Rex’ drawing rich inspiration from a darkly thought-provoking array of ancient myths and legends. Exchanging much of their former, rather schlocky retro horror trappings for something altogether more timeless and fundamental in essence, it is this significant broadening of Vampire’s once somewhat limiting thematic horizons that Lars identifies as a pivotal starting point for the freshly inspired creative phase that followed.
“We had this idea that we should leave some of the horror clichés behind this time around and and dig into something a bit more real, a bit more historically relevant and something that broadens the vista for the Vampire aesthetics in a way that doesn't only speak to the other horror buffs in the room, but something with a little more weight and relevance. So that was the vision, and I don't know if this idea influenced it in any way but, for whatever reason, the album came out a bit more grand and heroic than our previous efforts. So there is this vibe in many of the songs that actually gels pretty well with the lyrical content, being a little more pretentious compared to our previous albums, but we're fine being pretentious every once in a while. It's cool.”
“So the very first step towards this album was actually in the form of a song title and that was the song 'Serafim' which means angel in several Roman languages, and that became a sort of guiding star for how this album should feel and smell and be. That there should be short, to-the-point titles. Song titles that were easy to read, but weren't immediately comprehensible or easy to understand, so there should be some sort of contrast between something brief and to-the-point and something with a certain aura of mysticism behind it. This then grew into some sort of loose concept about ancient or forgotten deities from different ancient cultures - Melek-Taus being one example of this, Moloch being another and so on and so forth, but we never really went full circle with that concept thing so it doesn't really add up. But that was the ambition and that was the starting point and we got that idea from a couple of titles from our previous album, 'With Primeval Force', where we had one song called 'Scylla' which references ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, Scylla being one of the sea monsters that Odysseus had to get past on the wide sea. And we had another one called ‘Metamorphosis’ which kind of dealt with a sort of transformation ritual based on excessive drinking and drug use. I don't think that sort of thing was particularly popular in antiquity, but it did happen in Ancient Greece, for example.”
While there are, assuredly, no concrete certainties or absolutes in these exceptionally dark and uncertain current circumstances, the remaining portion of 2020 and beyond is already looking remarkably promising for this highly accomplished circle of musicians. Having entranced an ever-growing legion of loyal fans and followers almost from the very moment of their inception and, in 2014, been nominated for a Swedish Grammy award, it’s clear the carving of a legacy alongside some of the greatest and most influentia icons of the genre is already well underway for Willfors and co.
“It's obviously impossible to plan for winning a Grammy,” Lars points out. “But something I look forward to seeing - if we're nominated again and, if we are, if we can possibly grab the fucker and take that with us to Gothenburg. That would feel super and even more so in this current situation when things aren't really working out for anyone in the music business. It would be a true strike of victory to do that. A couple of idiots from Gothenburg snagging that award, so that's my plan. And it's a super-vain kind of plan but that's as far into the future as I can see, the Grammy Awards in February. It's all vanity, like most other things. When I talk to my parents about being in a band they are only mildly concerned that I will harm my speaking organs or that I will break my neck or whatever, but if I can just say that we won the Grammy award then it's indisputable that we're doing something right here. It’s essentially all just one big ego massage really,” he laughs before concluding, “in the very best possible way, though.”
'Rex' is out now via Century Media