DARK TRANQUILLITY – Forging A New Beginning
November 7, 2016, a year ago
Along with In Flames and At The Gates, Dark Tranquillity pioneered melodic death metal, specifically, the Gothenburg, Sweden sound. These three bands grew up together and were close, respectively sharing stages, riffs and studios. In Flames’ Anders Fridén worked the microphone on Dark Tranquillity’s first full-length, Skydancer (1993). A year later, Dark Tranquillity vocalist Mikael Stanne lent his tortured screams to In Flame’s first record, Lunar Strain (1994). When these two records came out, not many people in America took notice.
At The Gates was the first band to show its face in America, touring with such iconic bands as Morbid Angel and Napalm Death. They also thrashed American audiences with the now-legendary Slaughter of the Soul album, which came out on one of the biggest metal labels of the time, Earache Records. This album’s influence wasn’t felt at the time, though. It wasn’t until years after the band broke up that people finally started to understand its groundbreaking significance. All three of the bands would make their influence known in the next decade, creating a whole new genre and influencing major artists of today such as The Black Dahlia Murder, Unearth and Killswitch Engage.
It can be argued that of the three bands Dark Tranquillity has remained the most consistent. Just a year after releasing Slaughter of the Soul, At The Gates broke up and took nearly 20 years to release another full-length. In Flames left their power and folk metal roots in favor of a groovier, more mainstream accessible sound. Also, band founder and riff wizard Jesper Strömblad left the group. Dark Tranquillity’s core members, Niklas Sundin (guitars), Anders Jivarp and Mikael Stanne have never left the band and remain today.
Unlike In Flames, Dark Tranquillity has kept much of its disparate sound. They still balance melody with blazing speed and soul-capturing harsh vocals. Sundin continues to write riffs with Gothenburg’s tradition in mind. Stanne snaps back with more personal, thought provoking lyrics. The band hasn’t so much changed its style as it has expanded it. The have infused their material with aspects of Goth rock. Stanne incorporates more clean vocals (I call them Rick Astley vocals) and keyboards add an extra layer of atmosphere.
Their recent recording, Atoma (due November 4th), may be their most keyboard-laden album of their career.
In preparation for their upcoming album release and North American headlining tour, Mikael Stanne was the subject of the following feature. He discussed the things that inspired him and his mates to create Atoma.
BraveWords: Your new album is titled Atoma. Tell me about recording the album.
Mikael Stanne: “We recorded at the same studio that we always do, which is Martin Brändström’s, our keyboard player’s, own studio. It’s right here in the heart of Gothenburg. It’s something we’ve grown accustomed to and really love. This time it was a little different, though. We started working on the songs and demoing the material almost nine months ahead of the actual recording, which gave us a lot of time to work on the material, to finalize everything and make sure every aspect of every song had the right impact that we are looking for. We tried out a lot of different things. The plan was not to rush things, but it doesn’t really matter how prepared you are, you’re still working against the deadline at the end of it. It will stress you out to no end. It’s a difficult and long process, but it turned out well. It’s a cool process to work like that, to have almost everything done so everyone has a good idea what the song should be. It’s about adding to that once you have the basic structure of a song and working in the studio to make sure every piece is there and it works the way you want it to. It was somewhat of a challenge but a good one. Once all the hard work was done, you can sit back, relax and take it all in and enjoy it for what it was that kind of satisfaction is tremendous. We are really happy at the way it came out and how things worked out.”
BraveWords: It seems like it’s a very melodic album. Of course, you’re a melodic death metal band but even for you guys it seems very melodic and keyboard driven.
Mikael Stanne: “Yeah, it’s something we decided early on. We had all of these melodies. A lot of it was written on keyboard or piano, just basic melodies. A lot of the riffs and a lot of the material started out like that, and then things got turned into guitar riffs and some parts were kept as keyboards. It’s definitely melody driven. Sometimes the guitar will do that, sometimes the vocals, sometimes the keys. It’s just what we really wanted to focus on. I guess that started in concert a little bit, where the emphasis was always on melody and drive. Maybe that was even clearer this time around.”
BraveWords: It’s not like there isn’t anything fast on the record. “Encircle” and “When The World Screams” are up-tempo tracks.
Mikael Stanne: “Oh yeah, for sure. It’s very heavy, aggressive and intense as well. There is maybe a bit more room for some of the other stuff we like to do as well.”
(Photo by: Daniel Falk)
BraveWords: The keyboards are an aspect of your later era. When did you start incorporating keyboards, around the time of your Projector album?
Mikael Stanne: “It was right after Projector. Even though we used some on Projector, but Martin joined right after Projector was recorded. We asked him years before to join the band. He was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know. Maybe death metal is not my thing. I won’t have any space in your type of music.’ Then he heard Projector and said, ‘Maybe there is some room for a guy like me too.’ I guess he has really grown as a player when it comes to arraignments. He’s more confident in his sound building. This time he started experimenting with analog keyboards such as Moogs and stuff like that that he loves. I love those ‘70s sounds as well, but he made it sound modern in a way, I think. David Castillo who mixed this album was really taken with the idea that the keyboards would sometimes take charge of certain riffs. I think that’s a really cool addition because it’s still really heavy and raw sometimes. Sometimes I think it’s kind of hard to hear if it’s a guitar or a keyboard playing some of the leads and some of the melodies. I thought that was a cool way of going about things when he was mixing it.”
BraveWords: Tell me about the title, Atoma.
Mikael Stanne: “It’s something that I’ve always struggled with. You spend months writing lyrics for an album, and you have to name it something, something that encompasses all the lyrics on the album. I always find that kind of difficult, so I try to seek inside help for that. I called Niklas (Sundin, guitars) and we were discussing it. He had read through all the lyrics and he has this idea that all the songs had a recurring theme of what we are as people, as human beings. What is the core of our existence? What is the foundation of who we are, what we do here and what is our purpose? Where does it all come from and how come we are this way? How come we are sometimes stuck in the past and at the same time looking towards the future? We were talking about all the different things that have happened to us on a personal level and in the band and we’ve made some new ones on the way. So many things have changed in the last twenty-seven years of the band’s existence. We also felt this was the beginning of something new. It was the beginning of something new in how we work and write and also for the upcoming live shows maybe things will be a bit different. Since Martin Henriksson, our guitar player since day one, left the band recently, we felt that this should be a fresh start. We thought we should name it Atoma. To me, I thought that was the perfect title because it’s like a nucleus and a new beginning. Niklas came up with the cover, which really suited the title as well. There is this new entity, new life form that has been created out of nothing. It’s intriguing and thought-provoking.”
BraveWords: You made a video for the title track. How much input did you have in making this video?
Mikael Stanne: “That’s Niklas. He’s always done the cover art. Every visual aspect of the band has always been Niklas’ designs. We were thinking about what kind of video we wanted to shoot. We wanted to get people amped up for the release of the album, so we decided to do “The Pitiless,” which is a live video from a show we did this summer. Then Niklas did this animated video for “Atoma,” which showcases his animation and visual style for the album. That’s something that’s going to be used on the live show as well on the projector. Then we have a video coming out next week that is for the song ‘Forward Momentum.’ That’s a very, very different video. It’s kind of like a short story or short film that takes place in the northern most region of Sweden in an amazingly beautiful area called Abisko. I went up there and got to do some light acting. That’s going to be a really cool video that I hope people enjoy. We saved it for the release of the album.”
(Photo by: Peter Herneheim)
BraveWords: The title also denotes science. You’ve taken science and made it metaphorical. I’ve seen that on other albums. Talk a little about how you’ve incorporated science as a microcosm for humanity.
Mikael Stanne: “For me, science is a new religion. It’s what we should look to for answers. It has taken the way for what religion used to be, which gave us the easy answers. Now science tackles the really difficult ones, but it’s the truth. It’s something we should all aspire to. Like you said, I use science as a metaphor for ourselves, and for what we are and how we deal with things. It’s also the standard for which we should conduct our lives around. It’s something that is almost an absolute. Most it is pure fact. It’s such a beautiful thing to have absolute truth in nature and life that you can look for. There are no two ways about it and I like that. That gives me comfort even though sometimes one scientific, proven fact will open up two hundred new questions. That’s exciting. I like how we are constantly striving forward to become better and better understand the world around us. I think we should continue doing that instead of standing still or sometimes even going back to older ways of dealing with things. A lot of belief systems are holding us back. We should strive forward and let science lead the way. I tend to write about that a lot. It’s something that I’m really passionate about and fascinated about.
BraveWords: How do those ideas fit with the song “Faithless By Design”?
Mikael Stanne: “For me it’s kind of about leaving the old ways as well. That’s about indoctrination, about being raised a certain way where you don’t really need it. It’s about how your social life, your family, your living situation will affect you as a young person, as a child. We shouldn’t be born into something. We should adapt that ourselves. You should be able to grow up and make your own decisions about things and not raised a certain way or raised with a certain faith or religion, which I think is kind of strange. Sweden is a very secular country. Seeing this makes no sense to me at all, even though there was little bit of that where I grew up. I never even noticed it. I find it fascinating, strange and a little frustrating.”
BraveWords: I don’t know how Sweden is, but in Norway most of the country identifies themselves as Christian, but only a very small percentage of the population goes to church.
Mikael Stanne: “Norway is actually very religious, but here in Sweden we have churches, but no one goes there. It’s really a dying breed of Christians here. People over seventy, but other than that, it’s not really a thing at all.”
BraveWords: Talking about Christianity and science, you think science is something real. A lot of your lyrics on this album are about facing reality. For instance on “When The World Screams” you sing about building walls. Are you using this as a coping mechanism?
Mikael Stanne: “I think so, especially the last couple years things have been pretty crazy around the world. We’ve seen it a lot in Europe with the immigration crisis. There are tons of really horrible things that have happened not that far away from us. Since we are this neutral country that nobody cares about, we don’t really have to worry about anything. What we do is watch TV and read the newspaper. We see what is going on in the world, and there is a certain detachment. That is such a distance that you seem to not really care enough. It makes me frustrated because it’s hard to empathize with something you don’t fully understand. The last couple of years we’ve had a lot of immigrants coming over that need shelter, need protection, help, our sympathy and support. Of course, we have the capacity to do that and it actually works. We’ve also seen a lot of people be actually afraid of that. Not being able to have sympathy for people who have had incredibly hard lives and have been dealt the worst circumstance you could ever have growing up. It’s weird to see that we can’t be better as people, to have this compassion and sympathy for what is going on. I’m trying to deal with how tough that is. I’m trying to take it all in a good way and deal with it as a normal person should. It’s difficult. It really is. It’s hard to face these really horrible situations that are kind of close to where we are. It’s on the other side of the TV screen, so maybe it doesn’t really matter.”
(Photo by: Daniel Falk)
BraveWords: Does “Our Proof Of Life” fit into that concept. One can perceive that in many ways. There are a lot of ideas presented--loss, disbelieve, bereavement, hiding from reality.
Mikael Stanne: “Yeah, that’s definitely about getting lost and losing somebody. There have been a lot of things that have happened in our life within the band. We are all like a family, growing up on the same street when we were kids, so whenever something happens in another family, it affects all of us. It was a way for me to deal with that, at the same time trying to make sense of something that is the most natural thing in the world, but it’s still hard to grasp. Of course, you always want an explanation, that symbol that’s easy to understand. Sometimes there just aren’t any. There is frustration to that. I wish I had a believe system that could shield me from feeling lost like that, which would make it easier but I don’t.”
BraveWords: Is “Clearing Skies” about depression? You sing, “I know one day sorrow will find you.”
Mikael Stanne: “It’s more about what you leave to the next generation. It’s about trying to explain to your kids, to the younger generation what is going on, what the world is like. It’s hard to explain that and explain it in a way that makes sense and not freak anyone out. You want to protect the people you love and realizing you’re not one hundred percent capable of doing that. It’s a tough feeling. It goes along with being a parent. Here in Sweden it’s changed the last couple of years to a place that is totally different. When I grew up I didn’t have to care about anything. I didn’t have to be exposed to the world and whatever horrors were happening. I was on the other side of the planet and I didn’t have to care. Nowadays it’s so much closer and so much more real. That means that everybody has to deal with it somehow. Dealing with how to explain it to your children is difficult. It’s something I’ve been struggling with.”
BraveWords: The last question concerns the early days of Dark Tranquillity. Anders Fridén of In Flames sang lead vocals on the first Dark Tranquillity album, Skydancer. You sang lead vocals on the first In Flames record, Lunar Strain. How did this come about?
Mikael Stanne: Gothenburg is a small city. We were just a bunch of kids hanging out, going to shows, drinking beer and starting bands. When Dark Tranquillity started, I was playing guitar and Anders was the singer. We recorded our first album in ’91. We realized we couldn’t really work together, so Anders left. Around that time, Jesper Strömblad started In Flames. He needed a singer, so he asked me because he had heard some of the backing vocs I have done. They scored a record deal immediately after that and he asked me to do the Lunar Strain album. I thought I could maybe do it, but I wanted my first album as a singer to be with Dark Tranquillity. But he kind of convinced me, ‘Come on, come on, I’ll buy you some beer and we can record the album.’ We did the album Lunar Strain. We did a couple of shows and then they got another singer. Then they got another singer, and after that, Anders joined. It was not a thing where we switched or anything like that. Anders was in a band called Ceremonial Oath at the time. I was never really a member of In Flames, but I sang on that first album. That was that. It was very interesting. It was a great experience. For me it was about getting the experience, being in the studio, recording and rehearsing was just something I wanted to do to get better at what I wanted to do.”
(Top photo by: Daniel Falk)