MACHINE MUSIC'S ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: AN INTERVIEW WITH MORBUS CHRON
[This is the third installment of my The Albums of the Decade series of posts and interviews. For more information go here.]
Artist: Morbus Chron
Label: Century Media
Favorite Song: "Chains"
The Bare Bones: The second full-length album from this Swedish death-metal unit, that started its life as something of an Autopsy-worship band, and displaying that tendency, albeit infused with much creativity, in their debut album, Sleepers in the Rift released in 2011. It would prove a short life, however, as Sweven was released just one year before the band called it quits indefinitely in 2015.
The Beating Heart: While Morbus Chron was first conjured as an attempt to mimic of the most idiosyncratic death-metal band of all time, its death song (pun, I guess, intended) was perhaps unsurprisingly one of the most idiosyncratic death metal albums of the twenty-first century. Combining equal parts psychedelia, seventies stadium rock, eerie organic doom, and vicious death metal, Sweven stood out among the crowd the moment it dropped, causing a whole lot of buzz around this very young and relatively inexperienced band. And the source of that appeal, the immediacy with which it was favorably received, may have something to do with the sense, so rare in music in general and metal specifically, of mystery and magic. It is perhaps commonplace nowdays to think of extreme metal in terms of magic, most notably with the fascination with the esoteric and sometimes spiritual.
But while many modern bands take the literal approach to mystery, attempting in their own way to erect esoteric, ritual structures, Morbus Chron managed to achieve magic by other means. By way of welding and weaving together a sense of "old school" that isn't just OSDM, a warmth and intimacy, and a ferocity of originality and heaviness that produces the only magic music should be interested in: the musical kind.
So, in honor of this ongoing and unfurling series of interviews with the artists I feel created the albums of the decade, I conducted a correspondence with former Morbus Chron vocalist and guitarist Robert "Robba" Andersson about Sweven, the role that album had in the band's life, and death, and the way in which he looks back on that (magical) album now. Before we get to the interivew, just a small reminder that if you wish to participate further in this series, as well as in the other forms of content this blog offers, feel free to join the Facebook page, join the new Instagram account, follow Machine Music on Spotify (playlists galore), or donate/subscribe through the Patreon. You can also subscribe to the blog itself through that weird button up there on the left hand side. On with the show:
Is there a moment in your life, perhaps as a younger person that you remember changing the way in which you thought about music? Or perhaps made you want to become a musician yourself?.
It’s still an ongoing process. I change the way I think about my music and music in general all the time. But there was certainly a shift for me during the making of Sweven. A shift from having a pretty lighthearted approach to music towards making it more of a serious matter. I became emotionally attached to the material in a much stronger way than before and for the most part that was just a fantastic experience. A feeling of having found an outlet. It was liberating. Of course hearing Autopsy for the first time and joining what would eventually become Morbus Chron was an ”aha” moment if I ever had one. Honestly though, what I mostly yearned for back then was probably a feeling of being a part of something. The music was of course important, don’t get me wrong. But the real need to express myself creatively, and the realization that there probably isn’t anything in the world that I value more than that, came later. Sweven was a personal milestone for me in the sense that it really cemented the feeling of having to write music in some way or another.
How important was it for you to feel free when writing Sweven? Did you feel freer than in previous records?
Well it was extremely important. There wouldn’t have been another record otherwise. Anything that sounded good and felt right could make the cut, however far off it was from what we’d done before. It is important to point out though that we never felt constrained or limited when writing the material for the first record. At the time the only thing we wanted was to release a record that sounded like the pre 90s Death Metal we saw as the epitome of the genre. Sure that put us in a tiny box with a strict set of rules, but to us we were just as free as we wanted to be. We never said, ”Damn! What a shame we can’t incorporate these catchy synth parts!”, because we hated synth. I never cried myself to sleep because I couldn’t find a fitting place for some acoustic guitars, because that was never the plan. But after the release of Sleepers and during the three years that passed between the albums it became obvious that I wasn’t interested in doing the same record again. And what I’d previously not seen as limitations I started seeing in a different light.
How do you maintain freedom when still working with your inspirations? Or your own past as a musician?
Everything’s a remix. I can’t unhear all the music I’ve heard from the moment I was born up until now. I’m a product of my musical input as is everyone. There was a big difference in how I approached each record though. Sleepers in the Rift wore its influences on its sleeve. Sure, there are some weirder parts here and there, but most of the time it’s a retelling of the classic albums we loved. Whereas on Sweven I tried my best to just let things flow without any conscious outside influence. You can approach it in different ways, and therein lies the freedom I guess, if there is any freedom to speak of at all.
As for the second part of the question. I get that your past work can tie you down, especially if you’re a bigger band that has maintained a certain sound for a long time. We never found ourselves in that position though. We were an up and coming death metal band with one album behind us. There was no outside pressure to speak of and we felt free to venture wherever we wanted. In the end it’s a matter of getting your priorities straight. Honest expression above all else.
You spoke quite extensively about how much the band owed to Autopsy, and I think that link is even more apparent in the doomy-trippy chaotic atmosphere of Sweven. What elements do you hear of that background influence, and where do you think you diverged more radically?
They were a big part of our musical DNA. We formed the band back in 2007 pretty much as beginners and taught ourselves to play our instruments by writing music that was supposed to sound like Autopsy. "Ridden with Disease" was to me what "Smoke on the Water" was for a lot of other young guitarists. Those forming years leave a lasting mark. It’s been more than decade since then but you can probably still trace it in my playing. Naturally the more ”death metal” aspects of the album draw heavily from Autopsy. We liked dissonance and groove. On the other hand, the softer mellower parts are something they would never have done. And that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Sweven, and this may harken back to Autopsy again, has a distinct warm, almost 70s vibe. A sense of organic songwriting, organic, if relevant, horror. Was this the result of a conscious effort on the production/mixing side?
The reason the record sounds the way it does is the result of a conscious effort to go for a more old school sound, and the fact that no one involved at any time in the process really had a clue of how to achieve a modern metal sound. We recorded on older gear, using older techniques and with Fred Estby [Dismember and Carnage drummer and prolific engineer and producer] at the helm, who harkens back to when the genre was born. I eventually decided to mix the album and the same can be said about me, I prefer things to sound somewhat natural and I wouldn’t know how to get that tight modern sound even if I wanted to. So while we’re capable at what we do, Fred certainly is, maybe the secret is to be completely incompetent by modern standards.
Did Sweven had anything to do with the band calling it quits? A sense of having fulfilled something, like Chuck Schuldiner’s famous desire to end Death?
It had a part in it for sure, not in the way that you described it, but in the way that it created a divide between me and Edvin [Aftonfalk, the band's lead guitarist and current guitarist/vocalist of the thrash/death band Tøronto]. The disagreements weren’t about the album itself though. I know he is proud of it as well. The issue was rather about where we would go next. I wanted to explore further, most likely doing something that would even less resemble the band we used to be, while he had reached his limit of what we could do and still call it Morbus Chron with a straight face. I understood where he was coming from. We had already strayed so far off from what we initially set out to do that taking another step was a step too many. I never saw the band as something other than a project I shared with my closest friend. We formed the band with a common goal and if we ever found ourselves not wanting to move in the same direction anymore we would end it together, leaving behind something that we were both happy with.
On top of that there were other issues that are destined to surface when you have four very different individuals trying to work together. Without going into the details I think we all agreed that it wasn’t as fun as it used to be, even though we all had very different reasons for our discontent. By the end of it we were all on board with the decision. We had a good run.
When looked at from a death-metal vantage point, then Sweven is definitely a very different, loose version of death metal. But, looking back, do you consider it to be a death metal album?
I never thought in terms of genres. To my best effort I just wanted us to do do something different. Upon answering interviews post-release you realized they had a hard time pinning us down though, with weirder and weirder prefixes being used to aid them in their struggle. I still think at its core it’s death metal. At the same time I’m not stupid – it might not be the first thing you recommend to someone that wants to hear a no bells and whistles death metal album. And it wasn’t meant to be that kind of record. Truth be told, I really don’t care much at all what people call it. A lot, if not most of the bands I really enjoy, don’t fit neatly into a specific category and that doesn’t bother me at all. In the end it’s just music, good or bad.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you felt it quite difficult to lay vocals on the music during the recording of Sweven. Did this have to do with the “death metal” aspect? That the album and the style of vocals resisted each other?
Not at all actually. I think the contrast between the screams and the softer parts make it that much more interesting. There are a lot of bands doing heavy distorted metal with clean vocals and I think the opposite has its place as well. The difficulties lied in the fact that I didn’t write the riffs or song structures with vocals or lyrics in mind. And usually I go for such a long time with the songs as instrumentals that I get so used to there being no voice. It was still important to be able to sing enough so to be able to tell the story though. But only where I really felt the vocals added something of value, or at least didn’t take away anything from the whole. In the end the album is still mainly instrumental, a fact that became very obvious when I stepped down from playing guitar during the live shows, haha.
Part of the enduring appeal of Sweven, to me is this sense of a heavy atmosphere or a general “heaviness” that isn’t necessarily the result of crushing, condensed riffs? How do you go about creating heavy by other means?
It’s hard to pinpoint. I don’t necessarily think of Cannibal Corpse, low tuned guitars or even heavy metal at all when I think of heavy music. Take a band like Bohren and der Club of Gore. That to me is as close to a definition of heavy as I can come up with. I swear I gain almost 100 kilos when the piano hits you in ”Im Rauch”. Like you said it’s more of a general atmosphere that you can create in a lot of different ways. You can be heavy with electric guitars and you can be heavy with an acoustic. Layers upon layers or a more sparse arrangement. There might be some shortcuts to heaviness, but in the end it’s the underlying emotion that matters.
Looking back, is there something about Sweven, a fact about the process, a particular song, that you’re especially proud of?
I could probably point to certain parts or just the album as a coherent piece of work. Raul Gonzalez made such an important contribution with his artwork. But I think what really makes me proud of myself and equally so of the rest of the guys is that we actually finished it. It was hard and we rehearsed like mad men. Everyone gave it their all. Kudos to Edvin, Adam and Dag for powering through. On a personal note, if there is something I struggle with it is seeing projects through till the end. The whole process was a battle that I nearly lost more than a few times. I hated this album up until the point where I finally let go of it. Somewhere along the way I realized that nothing in the world that’s worth a damn comes easy, and I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel before I realized that.