originally written by Juho Mikkonen; band photos by Daniel Falk
There’s a peculiar inborn dichotomy between volume and marginality in underground metal.
On the other hand, the pint-sized flame that was ignited already forty years ago seems to have gotten out of control, outstretching far beyond the acceptable limits of harmless wildfire and leaving behind nothing but scorched ruins of old wooden churches. Indeed, newly initiated dilettantes, just about to enter the game, will nowadays have to grapple with a bottomless well of source material completely devoid of clear starting point. Looking at this tightly knit web of interconnected bands, labels, distros, promoters, venues and fans that spread like a disease even to the remotest shitholes of our dearly beloved giant crapper, it seems like there’s no barricade or trench to shield the planet against this snowball effect.
However, antithetically, it also looks as if nobody really fucking cares. The big blue marble keeps spinning completely indifferent to the full particulars of trueness and falseness, and the way of the world seems to be little shaken by the call of the Archfiend, channeled through the progenitors and disciples of Helvete. A widespread revolution of minds maybe, but a truly subversive force underground metal is not, and nobody would’ve probably stormed Bastille were it for Satan instead of hunger. At the end of the day, we, as metalheads, appear to be forever doomed to exist in a limbo, reminiscent of that famous Chuck Palahniuk novel before the escalation of the main character’s schizophrenic fantasy.
All of this manifests itself in a gripping manner on a regular if teensy bit weather-beaten Thursday night in a small town in Northern Finland (a setting exploited to early death by this author). A relatively-yet-not-so-unknown Swedish band called Moloken is about to kick off their weeks-long Scandinavian run with post-rock outfit Radar following it for the Finnish leg. Countless people have donated their collective heart, muscle, brain and other organs for the event, but they are powerless trying to rival against the hamster cage. Tomorrow is a business day and its reflection in the turnout bears a saddening testimony to the great success of nine-to-five lifestyle. To be quite honest, it would be more convenient to introduce the crowd to the bands than apply the long-established rock ‘n’ roll code.
Moloken and Radar don’t seem to mind, though. They rip and tear like it was a full house and the handful of daredevils – bold enough to defy the early morning wake-up call – get more than their money’s worth. The curfew cuts the Swedes’ gig a bit short and the eagerly awaited climax, “11″12”, never arrives. Nobody slips out without buying merch and having a quick word with the band members, who also don’t have the luxury of oversleeping the following morning. Altogether, it’s just another day at the office for a touring metal band. As for these rollicking men of honor, they are just stoked to be on the road, doing what they live for.
“We’re really thrilled, because we’ve usually done all the bookings ourselves…you know, for so long. This is the first time someone contacted us and wanted to book us,” Kristoffer Bäckström (vocals/guitar and the owner of Discouraged Records) rejoices; the rest of the motley crew clearly has no objections.
This dawning tour isn’t the outfit’s inaugural batch of gigs, though. Since Moloken’s inception as a proper four-piece in 2007, the band has been tramping down lonesome roads from the Scandinavian Peninsula to Germany in search of new opportunities to limber up its live act, hinging solely on its unflagging PR and marketing department that consist of nothing but Kristoffer’s phone and email. As the front figure elaborates, it’s crucial for a small band to keep the engine constantly running:
“We have always plans, you know. Actually, this tour became smaller than we initially hoped for. There are eleven confirmed dates, and I think our first European tour was the same, although, yeah, this is our first proper Scandinavian tour. But yes, we always do have plans…after this tour we’re just gonna go and rehearse for the new album and then obviously record it. However, we for example plan to return to Finland in March and then do a couple of summer festivals maybe…you know, to hopefully be able to combine a few Scandinavian dates to a bigger European tour. We just love to play live.”
It’s worth recognizing that, over the course of the last two years, Moloken has racked up roughly eighty shows, which is no small feat; especially given that you have practically no dedicated éminence grise to dope out the back end of things. Mr. K. Bäckström concedes without reserve that it has been an arduous process of learning-by-doing, while simultaneously harnessing all the contacts he has been able to scrape together by virtue of his past musical pursuits and submitting oneself to a modus operandi whereby every fair shake is as good as the next one.
“We decided in the beginning that let’s just get out there and play as much as possible. I mean, the bands we like from the 70’s did just that, which made them good musicians. So, I think it’s a great way to develop as a band, because you have to put yourself in a position which is not possible in a rehearsal situation. It means that you grow as a band and musician. But, yeah, we’ve taken every gig that’s been handed to us. We’ve done all those shows, but we’ve slept in a hotel only twice. It made those gigs possible, you know, to be able to sleep in people’s apartments. And sometimes we’ve slept in the car, so hopefully all this touring will eventually enable to higher those standards a little more,” the singer-guitarist reflects.
Although Kristoffer’s brainchild by origin, Moloken is nowadays nothing less than a fully-fledged quartet where everyone has their say, which is unquestionably demonstrated by how every member of the band seems to feel free to speak out during the interview session. Growing up in the small Swedish town of Umeå, Kristoffer and his older brother Nicklas (bass/vocals in Moloken) were roped into the totality of death metal when they were no more than a couple of young bucks in the 90’s, but were eventually sidetracked for a short while as a result of relocating up north to Piteå. The lack of death metal enthusiasts within the area compelled Kristoffer to pipe his musical aspirations through a shifting cast of short-lived projects, including some hardcore bands and a progressive doom experimentation with his brother.
Moving back to south in the mid-2000s, Kristoffer’s involvement in active bands had dwindled to nothing, unlike the nagging irritation of not having managed to reach his zenith as a musician and composer. With “nothing else to do” and a stack of material – harkening back to the days of early Opeth, Katatonia and My Dying Bride – in the back pocket, the two brothers started jamming in Nicklas’ living room, the outcome of which eventually developed into Moloken’s debut one-track EP, We All Face the Dark Alone. Then, Nicklas recruited the sticksman Jakob Burstedt from his now-defunct prog metal outfit, Lithany, first as a session drummer for recording purposes, although the post was very quickly changed from fixed-term to permanent. After that, it was only a matter of finding an au fait second guitarist to accompany Kristoffer.
“Our first guitarist (Johan Öman) announced just weeks before recording our debut album, Our Astral Circle, that he was going to quit. So, he recorded the album, but when we were finished he took his stuff back home, and then the search began. Two weeks later, Patrick (Ylmefors) was in the band and we were already rehearsing the new album,” Kristoffer recollects.
“And I knew I was probably going to be in the band, so I remember being at the last show and just looking at his (Öman’s) hands all the time,” Ylmefors laughs.
As far as these crackerjacks are concerned, Moloken stands currently as their main artistic foray, a vehicle leveraged to bring together and cross-breed four different musical frames of reference. With the genotypes coming from such diverse backgrounds, one might have a sneaking suspicion that this intercrossing would irrefutably result in some kind of rootless, genre-chart-desecrating mishmash of styles, but somehow the four songsmiths have managed to channel their discrepant histories through the same filter and, thus, create something that is rich in influence but consistent in delivery. By borrowing from the time-honored vernacular of doom, sludge and hardcore, the band has inevitably – albeit inadvertently – anchored itself in the ocean of Neur-isis-core, but unlike many of their compatriots, Moloken is set to cover a lot more ground than that.
“When we released the EP, I was kind of coming straight from the hardcore bands and the vocals weren’t really…well, they were more like punk. And the way we recorded it…it was really simple. We also described our music as doom-core, because that sounded cool, so that led people to think that we come from the same genre as Cult of Luna or Isis. Moloken can be for fans of those bands, but we’re more based on death metal, and we have this progressive rock thing, as well. Of course, there are lots of similarities with those bands, but our foundation is a lot different,” the singer-guitarist declares before yielding the floor to his brother:
“There could be worse bands to be compared to, but we don’t think we sound like Cult of Luna. You know, we come from the same town and we play heavy, slow music, but there’s really nothing else in common.”
The drummer picks up: “Of course, every one of us has heard albums from Isis or Cult of Luna, but there is really not much to compare between us and them. They have more of this, you know, playing-one-riff-for-five-minutes kind of thing, and that’s the structure of their songs, but we rarely have the patience for that. They have a completely different structural and musical approach. “
Indeed, besides the usual exploding crescendos and brooding gloominess (“moloken” is an old Swedish word meaning “gloomy” or “dispirited”) the outfit’s music is also heavily drenched in the same looming sense of bludgeoning menace that characterizes the upper tier of death metal. Moreover, and especially on Our Astral Circle, there’s also a small-yet-striking progressive twist in the form angular, almost Converge-esque riffage. Needless to say, utilizing the term “genre-defying” is rarely this fitting, although Kristoffer is clearly not someone who is too shy to wear his influences on his sleeve − nor is he a man desperate to break away from hog-tying cubbyholes:
”I think progressive doom metal would be a fitting term. Like I said, early Katatonia, early Opeth and early My Dying Bride mixed with King Crimson, Rush and Marillion. It’s founded in metal, but it’s really hard to define.”
“It also depends on who you’re talking to. If it’s somebody who’s into metal, they pretty much know what progressive doom could sound like. But if it’s someone who has no clue, I just say that we play slow grind,” Ylmefors adds, accompanying his words once again with a heartfelt chuckle.
In addition to being four metalheads playing slow grind, Moloken is also a band that clearly wishes to highlight its progressive elements, and, by the same token, Kristoffer goes to great lengths trying to describe the essence of “progressiveness” and how it gets represented in the band’s music. I hear familiar terms like “constant evolution”, which might ring hollow these days when boundary pushers have outnumbered those who outspokenly stick in the mud. Indeed, the cynic inside me takes over, and it’s not until the guys start chattering about their daily routines as songwriters, when I finally submit into believing that ultimately Moloken’s progressive edge doesn’t pertain exclusively to calculated, banal catch phrases.
It’s hard to extract any sort of intelligible idea out of the next few minutes of our discussion, when all the members try to passionately go through the different stages of giving birth to a Moloken composition, but suddenly I wake up in the realization that this mind-fucking, incomprehensible discourse might just be a microcosmic view into how these Swedes actually work. There’s little preconceived in how they build a composition, save for some fixed behavioral patterns – like, for example, Burstedt sometimes storming in with the whole enchilada, leaving only nuggets of riffs and arrangements for fine-tuning. Otherwise it’s just coming up with ideas and working on them as a group, whatever that means in any particular instance. Like Ylmefors explains, this couldn’t be possible if all the members didn’t get along so well together or hadn’t “found themselves musically,” and not only because it creates an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable with presenting their ideas. Namely, it’s the other side of the coin called constructive criticism that truly calls for square shooting relations. Therefore, it doesn’t come off as surprise that Kristoffer boasts with pride to have such a working chemistry within the troops:
“It took us a while to find some kind of similar path, which we would all want to walk. Nowadays we’re pretty efficient and I’m amazed by this band actually, because I’ve been in many bands before and it was really hard for everyone to get along. If you have four different songwriters, who all write in different ways, it’s pretty rare actually.”
Nicklas: “It’s also quite fun, because if I have a bass line, I might think it sounds like Rush or Marillion. Then, when Patrick hears it, he adds some of his black metal guitars and Jacob adds his drums, and it doesn’t really sound like Marillion anymore. I think that’s great.”
“Everyone has grown up and found some kind of musical style, and we’re sort of safe with that. I mean, now that we’ve played some three years together, I feel really safe with what my brother can bring to my songs. Of course, if I create a structure for the guitars I can try to say that I would like to have this and this kind of feeling from the other guys, but often we just let everyone fucking improvise. So, in that respect every song needs a long time, because eventually everyone must find exactly what they wanted to say with their instrument. I’m actually little surprised how little we argue, although me and my brother can be like a married couple sometimes. But I think the reason why we don’t get into arguments so much is because everyone feels that they matter, no one is left behind and no one will block your ideas,” the younger of the two brothers concludes.
Although Kristoffer declares that the concept of progressiveness should spur a more all-inclusive set of mental imagery than merely that of a small bunch of forward-thinking rockers , also Moloken has to plead guilty to paying their respects to the ghosts of the 70’s. First of all, the group might not share an obsessive-compulsive habit to tweak its compositions with neurotic pedanticism , but it still took them one year to complete their debut full-length. A lot of that time was poured into creating that familiar vibe and organic sound that still keep conquering hearts and minds after thirty, forty years. As Burstedt reveals, it was a multi-layered process, where the ultimate goal was to ”capture the live sound”, which required that a considerable portion of Our Astral Circle was to be fleshed out in a place where songwriting and production lose their meaning as separate categories, i.e. outside of studios and rehearsal rooms. Thus, for example the album’s closing epic ”11’12”, courtesy of Jakob Burstedt, had to undergo six months on the drawing board before obtaining its final shape.
”That was basically our idea: to play the songs live as much as possible before entering the studio, because then we could find the natural dynamics. That’s why we also didn’t do much tweaking in the studio. I used no equalizer at all. I just used the mixer to record into the computer, so it’s really natural and it felt good. It felt like we had the same vibe as the bands from the 70’s, when they played live,” Kristoffer describes.
Nicklas continues, ”In the studio, we had one day for one instrument, so the actual recording took us basically seven days. We managed to do it, because we had played so much live, but it was too little time. Every time you record, things gets fucked up, so you don’t have seven days to record. It’s more like five or six.”
On top of everything − as a tribute to the moth-eaten tradition of not dubbing one’s tunes − Our Astral Circle also contains a trilogy of untitled songs, which, however, don’t share a thematic connection. Overall, the seemless flow of the music invokes a deceiving illusion of a concept album, but, as Kristofer points out, Our Astral Circle wasn’t initially meant as such:
”Well, the lyrics are based on personal experiences, so it’s not like we have one song about a trip to the moon and one about a burial, but we have three different lyric writers so…well, it’s hard to describe. The cover art of Our Astral Circle is actually about a not-so-straight road, so I still think it’s kind of a concept album. That’s the feeling we wanted to give musically. It’s also a question of what do the people get from the music combined with the lyrics, because that’s what matters. For me the lyrics are always a secondary thing. The lyrics have to fit to the music, but…yeah, it’s up to the listener.”
”We work in different manners when writing lyrics. Kristoffer and Nicklas write more from the heart, while I write more esoteric stuff. It’s a mixture of all kinds of approaches to lyric writing,” Burstedt rounds off.
Our talkfest dives back into the topic of underground metal’s inherent dualism. A quick browsing workout on the digital highway of information and porn would suggest – at least for an outsider − that Moloken is somehow widely respected and preeminent impetus within our cherished form of art. Dozens of published references to the abnormal excellence of the band’s debut full-length offering are just a mouse-click away, but the very same diagnosis fits to hundreds of other bands, as well. Especially in this specific domain of metal that likes to fiddle around with post-rock, the competition rages on fiercer than ever, while the supply of more or less quality acts bears resemblance to the horn of that mythical Greek goat or some other source of endless wealth. Bands come and go, trying to eke out the twilight of their career in a desperate attempt to make a definitive stance. However, few of them finally pull off at moving mountains. Thus – as in Moloken’s case – the ultimate shot in the arm cannot come from outside, and more importantly, you shouldn’t be afraid of getting lost in the crowd, because most likely you will.
Kristoffer: “I just think you shouldn’t think about that too much. We try to play live as much as possible. We try to make music that we enjoy. I mean, it’s for example nice that we’re doing this interview, because it’s a sign that there’s interest. We’re releasing this stuff on my label, which is a small label. We do a lot of DIY stuff, and we do some promotion, but if we were signed to a bigger label, I guess they’d have money to promote us even more. But we’ve chosen this path, and I believe the next album will be…well, perhaps not that much more commercially successful, but well-known, if you know what I mean. But yeah, when compared to a lot of other bands, we’re still pretty much underground.”
“And it’s nothing to worry about. We just do our thing and hope that it works out. Like Jakob said, the bands that are supposedly in the same genre usually play the same riff for five minutes, and we’re not like that. Still, we seem to appeal to the same crowd, so I guess we can actually stand out. But of course they have to know about us first. All we can do is to get interviews and play more shows,” Ylmefors adds, before letting Kristoffer hit the nail on the head:
“We just talked about this, when we saw the Led Zeppelin poster outside. It’s different nowadays. It’s hard, because there are so many great bands.”
It’s been a long night, and while I finally get to haul my ass back home and change into my satin pajamas, Moloken has to start mobilizing their caravan to move a few hundred miles south. Luckily it will be a Friday night, so one can only hope that it will be a jamboree of a larger caliber. In any case, it’s another Kierkegaardian leap of faith for the band − something most of us wouldn’t have the bottle for.
Six months later, the Swedes have arrived home safely, and, beyond any doubt, they can declare the tour to have been a success by all accounts. What’s more, they have also managed to grab the bull by the horns and successfully put the follow-up of Our Astral Circle on tape, which leaves them happily lying in wait of a swift process of mixing and mastering. All in all, spirits are at all-time in the Moloken camp.
“All of the instruments and all the vocals are done, and it’s been a great trip, for everyone and for the end result. I’m totally satisfied with how the drums ended up, and I’ve never played as good on the drums as I did on this recording. But everyone did their part to their best extent, and, although we had a tight schedule due to lack of free days from our ordinary jobs and studies, we managed to pull this one off very nicely. Right now, we’re in the mixing process,” Burstedt comments on their sophomore full-length and Kristoffer adds:
“Haha, I am not at all so at ease as Jakob. At first I felt that we didn’t have enough time on the songs before entering the studio, and I am still waiting for that something to turn up and fuck everything up, but I think that’s just my obsessive need of control messing with me. With that said, I do feel that the songs did evolve in another way than on Our Astral Circle, so it’s more exciting to hear the end result for this album, because everything was not 100% pre-written before entering the studio, which gives the songs more nerve I think.”
The band hasn’t also let go of its two maxims concerning “constant evolution” and “capturing the live sound”. Upon our meeting on that bleak Thursday night, it was disclosed to me that − thanks to the new guitarist − the new material will introduce a more black metallic approach by way of disharmonics and linear structures. According to Burstedt, this influence didn’t ultimately find its way to the overall sound of the new album but can be heard in how they “play stuff and how the music is arranged”. However, both the drummer and monsieur Bäckström stress that − from the music to the organic, unembellished sound – their second full-length installment will take the Moloken blueprint closer than ever before to become utterly concrete.
“It’s sounding like expected actually, more of everything that is Moloken. We have explored our darkness and our hopes to create something new and exciting through music with passion, and we will present our first totally instrumental songs which I am really excited about,” Kristoffer outlines.
Burstedt sums up: “I think we’ve made it way more organic than the debut album. Now we’ve created a lot more dynamics between instruments and musical parts, and we still have the warm energy that flowed through Our Astral Circle. Part of it is due to the fact that we’ve become much better musicians and partly because we’ve created a much dryer sound, without effects and such.”
The singer-guitarist also assures that their old recording techniques have prevailed. What you hear is exactly what was recorded, and no polishing was done when the notes, chords and rhythms were reshaped into project files. Instead, a lot of hard work was put into “exploring the natural sound of every instrument and to bring justice to the songs’ natural dynamics.” On the whole, it seems like Moloken has decided to simply step it up a notch in all quarters, and this applies also for the lyrics department.
“For me this record has a huge difference lyrically. My trilogy song “Ulv” is not based upon me like always before, but on a close relative who took own his life. I worked really hard on writing it, so I had heaps of material to work with at the end, which gave me the possibility to narrow down the essence of what I wanted to say and still give a naked version of what I believe could have gone through his mind during the last days he lived. And since the lyrics had a very special theme, the cooperation between the music and lyrics felt even more important. In the end, the way the lyrical emotions follow the musical changes and moods is almost creepy. The whole song has a really special vibe to it and leaves you one experience richer in my opinion,” Kristoffer concludes.
Oddly, the front-man tries to dodge my questions about new labels, release dates and upcoming tours, which leads me into suggesting that something is indeed happening on that front, as well. Only thing that I can squeeze out of Kristoffer is: “Yes, but that will be revealed soon.” I guess that’s more than a nonbeliever deserves.