How Avatar are staking their claim in the metal ‘parallel universe’
“Metal exists in a parallel universe that is so much better than this one. It’s where the ugly becomes beautiful, the ridiculous becomes awesome and the normal becomes mundane,” opines Avatar singer Johannes Eckerström. Within that universe lurks Avatar, a five-piece Swedish metal band, together since 2001, who strive for originality: “We’re trying to carve out our own little piece of land, trying to become pioneers in a pretty well-established universe.”
Avatar achieved that via their 2016 concept album Feathers & Flesh, which is accompanied by a book and videos that are as creative and detailed—if discrete from—the songs and album storyline. (That storyline, in short: The story of an owl who goes to war against the world.)
To wit, their video visuals don’t tie literally into the song-story from Feathers & Flesh, but are as imaginative as band itself. A year after the album’s release comes the video for the single “New Land.” A previous single, “The Eagle Has Landed,” did well on radio, and “New Land” is following suit. While “New Land” is of course part of the overarching concept of Feathers & Flesh, Eckerström is confident it can stand on its own. “I don’t think everyone driving along in their car listening to ‘New Land’ on the radio are sitting with the book alongside, going, ‘Oh yeah, it’s the part where…’ That was a very conscious effort to make stand-alone songs.”
While Eckerström appears onstage in a joker/creepy clown face paint, marking him as the band’s focal point, Avatar—rounded out by Jonas Jarlsby, Tim Öhrström, Henrik Sandelin and John Alfredsson—are a united creative force. “In theory, we are five songwriters in terms of writing music. Maybe three of us usually write a tad bit more, but it’s still very open, multiple composers,” Eckerström explains. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I am the one sitting there with pen and paper for lyrical concepts. Once I managed, recklessly, to explain what I wanted to do, story-wise, in a way that made sense for the others, everybody still tried to write their coolest thing ever musically.”
As the band’s previous five albums were non-conceptual, a new approach to songwriting was needed to create the cohesive storyline for Feathers & Flesh. It fell to Eckerström to pose queries like: “‘I need a fish. Where’s the fish song?’ ‘This is cool, but not quite fishy enough.’ Then we figured ‘Black Waters’ was a kick-ass fish song—a pike, to be precise.”
"We don’t go, ‘Let’s jam and see where it goes.’ We like to know where we’re going before we start to play it together..."
Album producer Sylvia Massy (Tool, System Of A Down) helped Avatar’s creative collaboration on Feathers & Flesh. “We don’t go, ‘Let’s jam and see where it goes.’ We like to know where we’re going before we start to play it together,” Eckerström explains of Avatar’s songwriting. “It’s a slow process to let loose and be spontaneous a bit, and react and understand, and do what people who are good at jamming are able to do. With Sylvia, we did more of that.”
The “New Land” video, which also has a “making of” mini doc-style video, was likewise a group effort, including video director/longtime collaborator Johan Carlén. In the video, a steampunk vibe permeates a “space” journey based loosely on Star Trek (with Eckerström in the Captain Kirk role), and possessed of the humor, hope and goofiness of ’60s-era sci fi TV. “No one in the band objected to anything,” says Eckerström of the crazy concepts. “It was more like, ‘Fuck yeah, we get to fight with swords and tentacles and drink coffee on the moon.’ Some of the original ideas in the video are hilarious to me. Like navigating through space with a compass cracks me up.”
The “impregnation”—as the frontman refers to his loosely penned video concept—occurred while Avatar were on tour in the States in October 2016. Carlén then took it and ran. Planning and conceptualizing went on over the year-end holidays, and shooting took place over two weekends in January. Between those weekends, Avatar took to the seas for four days playing the ShipRocked festival. February was final edits, special effects, “and us getting to bitch about tiny details,” Eckerström says laughing.
The end result speaks to the band’s collective, slightly nerdy vision: “The surreal, bizarre, dark humor—or maybe light humor—all that weird stuff we are into, and it’s just our personalities. That’s what I love with this music.” The “New Land” video encapsulates “the human urge to explore and expand, putting your life on the line for your crew, your friends, your brothers”—your band—“lost in space. I think a huge part of metal is exactly that.” As for “New Land’s” wacky aesthetics: “I have no issues with cheesiness or campiness at all, so I don’t worry too much about that, as long as it comes with a high level of sincerity,” concludes Eckerström. “There is a balance, a line that you can cross where you go from being funny to being a joke. I’m sure we look like a joke to someone, but once people see us on stage, they’re ‘Okay, this is as legit as any of your true satanic, viking, Norwegian black metal band church burners.’ Just in our own way. We are very, very sincere.”