Album of the Year 2020: An Interview with Sweven

Artist: Sweven

Album: The Eternal Resonance

Label: Ván Records

Favorite Song: "Mycelia"

Well, in a Machine Music first the crowning of the albums of the year turns somewhat more dramatic this time around with an interview focusing on my favorite recording of the year, the cherry on top of the Best Metal of 2020 list simultaneously published with this interview. This has been a strange, painful, depressing, stressful and often outright terrifying year, one in which music has had a crucial role in maintaining the sanity of a lot of people around the world, myself included. It was also the year when my choice for my favorite albums of the year was clear from the first moment. Sweven's debut The Eternal Resonance, released in March via Ván Records, is one of those rare, magical works of art that both make complete sense and break new ground, a combination that, I have found, is quite important for me personally when I'm thinking about what "best" means. Other albums may have forged further ahead, while others might have been better examples of certain genres or moods. But truly great art, at least for me, does a bit of both, dances around in relatively familiar framework all while hinting, jabbing, celebrating all that may lie beyond.

The familiar aspect of The Eternal Resonance should, I think, be quite clear, with the band made up of two members of one of the greatest death metal bands of the past decade, Morbus Chron – Robert Andersson, who was the band's vocalist and chief songwriter, and live guitarist Isak Koskinen Rosemarin. As I have already made abundantly clear in my interview last year with Andersson about Morbus Chron final album, Sweven, the first since their breakup in 2015, MC was a unique, singular force in contemporary extreme metal, marrying an ear for sinister atmosphere with an almost bright, progressive side. So, in many ways, Sweven the band was really the natural offshoot of Sweven the record, and in many instances feels like a perfectly flowing sequel to that wonderful album in general mood, in it's melodic-harsh dynamics, and in its dream-death-like quality.

But The Eternal Resonance is, at the same time, so much more. It takes up on many of the ideas and stands that run through Sweven without repeating a single one, using those seeds to constantly expand not on any specific melodic line or riff but on the spirit that drove them to begin with. The result is not just what I believe to be the most playable album of the year, meaning that exudes joy and beauty in manner that makes it easy to listen to, but a complex, emotionally rewarding, progressive, cerebral, warm, and haunting masterpiece that will be reward repeated listens (trust me on this) both now and at any time in the future. Far from just assembling an efficient clump of ideas Andersson and his peers have created what to me often feels like a living thing. A heavy metal tree.

And so while the year has been naturally filled with outstanding music, most notably a very close second, for me, with Liturgy's magnum opus Origin of the Alimonies, it was clear to me all along that Sweven's stunning debut was the album to beat. For those reasons and others I have thus opted to return to interview Robert Andersson, since I felt it was only fitting that if we discussed the end of Morbus Chron we must then now discuss the beginning of Sweven.

Our last interview was during our correspondence over Sweven and kind of surrounded the last days of Morbus Chron and the reason the band called it quits. And so I guess I have a double question to start things off – Did you already know at that time that Sweven was becoming a thing and that you were going to record a new album and, I guess, a related question which would be why it is you think it took you as long as it did, relatively speaking, to pick up the threads from Sweven and form Sweven?

Yes, I knew it from the moment we ended the band. It’s funny because I remember that you asked me if there was something with Sweven that I was especially proud of, and I answered that simply finishing the album was the real victory. This was early 2019, and by then The Eternal Resonance was more or less done. All that remained was getting a good sound and to schedule a release date. Completing the album, from the first real writing session to finally holding the vinyl, took something like five years. Obviously not every waking hour was dedicated to the project, but not a day passed without me pondering over it.

Recording started around 2017 after about two years of writing and rehearsing. Back then I couldn’t imagine that it would take an additional two years to wrap it up. To make a long story short, due to me overanalyzing everything and struggling to be satisfied, each instrument was re-recorded at least once. That is, deleting everything and starting from scratch. However, it wasn’t until after the recording that things really went south. I became obsessed with reaching this unobtainable sonic ideal and was morbidly fixated on the tiniest of details. I truly got a glimpse of insanity. After what felt like a never ending cycle of abandoning and revisiting the project, I was so emotionally drained that I had no choice but to let go of it, or I’d be stuck in that same hole still to this day.

I think that one of the things that is abundantly clear about The Eternal Resonance is how much is just feels like a natural continuation or progression from Sweven. Were any of these ideas that were sparks or intuitions that originated in your work with Morbus Chron or was it all just getting back into the same “flow” that you were in?

By now I’ve got quite a collection of unused material. It often takes a while after that initial idea is formed before you try to make it into something bigger. I tend to go back and forth between writing on the spot and digging through the archives for inspiration. As an example, “By Virtue of a Promise” was the first song that I finished, and somewhere I know there’s a demo version that dates back to 2014, with a lot of the essential pieces already in place. So, there are tracks that were built on older ideas and tracks that were written entirely post breakup. Honestly though, it’s hard to tell them apart. Throughout the entire process I’ve had the same creative mindset that fueled the making of Sweven. The music comes from the same place. It would’ve been weird if it didn’t sound like a continuation. 

You spoke in our previous interview but also elsewhere about Morbus Chron ending basically because Edvin wanted to avoid journeying too far off from what you could I think call death metal and your own desire to do just that, or at least go with your flow. However, as is the case with many creative disagreements they often end, with a lot of effort, in a fruitful tension in the work itself. Did it feel like The Eternal Resonance benefited from an increased sense of freedom? And were there moments where you – for lack of a better term – “missed” the pushback from Edvin in the creative process?

Yes, we decided that it was the only right thing to do. Looking back now, it was inevitably going to happen anyway. Edvin was simply the first one to bring up his discontent. As for fruitful tension, except for a few instances and in the very beginning of the band, there was never any collaboration in the songwriting department. It wasn’t too different from how it is today. In reality, I’ve involved the other guys a lot more now than previous times. I wanted to hear their thoughts and input, whereas earlier I was likely a bit more stubborn. I wrote my stuff at home and brought complete songs to the rehearsals and so did Edvin. Of course there were changes made after the fact. Smaller interventions, like a drumbeat or a bass part that we didn’t agree on. But it felt like everyone was onboard with the general direction—although sometimes it probably took some persuasion and processing before all of us were sufficiently convinced. I’ve talked to Edvin about doing something again but nothing has come to fruition yet. If there’s something I miss it’s his company and just messing around together in a musical context.

One of the key features about The Eternal Resonance is its emphasis on that light-and-dark play between an almost pleasant sense of melody and a painful, anguished, perhaps heavier side. And I think it’s safe to say that it takes that melodic, ambient element even further from Sweven, where I think those elements where quite balanced in their application. So, that begs the question, what was interesting to you about exploring those moods and colors?

It felt right to push the extremes even further. As you point out, contrasting elements are characteristic for both albums, but the dials have been turned way up on this one. To me, the heaviest parts of The Eternal Resonance, although few and far between, are the heaviest I’ve written. And on the opposite side is music that’s way softer than anything on Sweven. I’m not especially concerned with keeping a good balance between the opposites. It doesn’t really matter to me if a song ends up being mostly heavy and distorted like “Mycelia”, more somber and clean like “Sanctum Sanctorum”, or a perfect fifty-fifty split. They’re all still very connected on a deeper level. Of course, I could go out of my way and try to incorporate a little bit of everything in a track, but I find it’s often just better to ”listen” to the song when it tells you where it wants to go next, forcing it as little as possible.

I’ve spent some time talking with artists and musicians who made what I consider to be unique art, the kind that takes a measured step away from a certain kind of tradition and create something new. And I’ve been surprised to find out that in some cases that “leap” was simply inserting a “non-metal” influence into a metal idiom base. To me some of the arrangements on The Eternal Resonance sound almost classical, or classical as heard through the prism of 70s prog, for instance. Be that as it may, is there a sense in which other genres and moods have inspired for you the shift that album represents?

Except for a few years in my teens when I was a diehard metalhead, I’ve always consumed a wide variety of music. As long as it comes from a sincere place I can usually find something to enjoy in most styles. This has obviously influenced me and what I write. However, for the most part this all happens at a subconscious level. When writing, I try to remain as shielded as possible from outside influences. I take joy in finding new ways to approach the guitar and discovering different sounding chords and progressions, without someone showing me the ropes. Of course I’m never doing anything groundbreaking, but on a personal level there’s still this sense of discovery.

The most defining moment was probably when I noticed that if you finger a regular power chord, but move the first finger down a string, and the second finger up a string, sort of inverting it, you have a minor interval. At the time I had no clue what that meant, I just liked it. It’s very basic guitar and music knowledge, but for me, being self-taught and having played nothing but condensed rock chords, this was a fresh sound that lent itself to a more emotive form of expression.I’d had many powerful experiences listening to music before, but for the first time I felt that I could start replicating them in my own work.

In that context I’d really like to highlight the guitar solo in “The Sole Importance.” So much of the album hovers over this anguished-melodies tension, and, as I said, so much of it sounds almost classical in construction. And in all that that solo really sticks out as this rockin’, flamboyant moment. Is there a story behind that decision to go full “glam” in that moment of the song?

Haha, rarely have I been accused of going full glam. Whenever I feel that a solo would be appropriate I like to heed that call, because it doesn’t happen too often. During the solo section of “The Sole Importance,” before there was a solo, I was just naturally inclined to hum some sort of ”exotic” sounding stuff over it. I gave Isak the first three notes and told him to build on that. It ended up being one of my favorite moments. He wrote three solos, but that one really stands out to me. There’s a fine line between being tastefully technical and a show-off, and I think he balances that perfectly. If you feel that it takes a detour from the established melodic language of the album, it’s not too surprising since it was written by another person.

You describe your creative process in a very personal manner and it seems like you put a lot of energy into feeling you got it “right” or according to your own vision. I can only assume that The Eternal Resonance is as close as you’ve been to that vision, but are there things you have discovered along the process of creating and recording that album that might signal the objects of another, different vision somewhere in the near future? What interests you to explore now?

Yes, so far it’s the closest I’ve come. Now that it’s finally out there and the dust has settled a bit, I can appreciate it for the first time in very long. As for what to explore now, I have a decent share of material that I feel good about. Overall it’s just really nice to work on something again. No matter how much I envision the final product from the outset, in the end it’ll just become whatever it becomes. Probably equally similar to the last album as it is different. I think we have a pretty distinct sound at this point and from here it’s mostly a matter of exploring further within the realms of that soundscape and see how far we can take it. One thing I can say though is that developing the instrumentation is of big interest. It was really rewarding to experiment with piano, percussion, choir, etc., on top of the standard rock instruments. I foresee more of that in the future.

Looking back at The Eternal Resonance, is there anything you’re especially proud of? In terms of, say, a specific moment or a “riddle” you felt satisfied in cracking, as it were?

I’m going to have to reprise my answer from our last interview and say that I’m most proud of just finishing it. If I thought that Sweven was a tough riddle to solve, then The Eternal Resonance was an entirely different beast. My sincerest thanks to Isak and Jesper for taking care of business, for fundamentally coloring and shaping the end product, and for putting up with my bullshit.