Evergrey takes flight on “A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament)” (interview)
Swedish progressive/power metal maestros, Evergrey, have been perfecting their brand of sorrowful and melancholic music for more than two decades. On its 13th full-length A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) — the follow-up to the band’s 2021 highly successful Escape of the Phoenix — the quintet has entered a new chapter in its vast career. With its new album and a new record label in Napalm Records, Evergrey has embraced its past while also soaring into the future.
Blessed with one of the most distinctive vocals in metal today, vocalist/guitarist/founder Tom Englund doesn’t stray too far from the band’s comfort level while also expanding upon their creativity. Based on a progressive heaviness with emotional lyrics, Everygrey paints a vivid musical landscape with precise production on A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament). By never having to prove anything to anyone at this point in their career, Evergrey still impresses its fans after 27 years of existence. During a recent Zoom chat, Tom spoke with us about the new album, the band’s legacy and more.
The album press release states that A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) represents a new chapter for Evergrey. How so?
Basically, it's just a new album. I guess it's the label’s way of saying that it's a new chapter because we signed with them. So in that aspect, it's of course true. But outside of that, it's an album that we wrote straight after releasing the other one, which is extremely fast for us. Usually, it's two to three years in between albums. But we figured we wouldn't be able to play live in Europe for a long while and that was a smart decision. It made us focus on the creative side of things and to just get another album out there because we had it within us. Instead of waiting two years, just because we released an album, and then fans would be starving for us, hopefully. This is a way for us to promote two albums at the same time.
You just released Escape of the Phoenix last year. When did you start writing for this one and did COVID give you extra time to craft it?
Yeah, very much so. We had two to 300 song ideas lying in the computer that we never use, because we have figured out that the music we write needs to be sort of contemporary for us. The music we write needs to be from the time period we are writing it. We can’t pick up old stuff and make it work. It can be great stuff, but it doesn't feel fun. It needs to be fresh. We didn't have anything lying around that we used for this album, we just wrote all new stuff. So the day after Escape of the Phoenix came out, we actually had a band meeting and we came to the conclusion that we would not be able to play live for a good while. So we just asked each other if we had it within us to write another one.
You’ve been rather prolific in the past two-plus years. By releasing your previous album and now this new album, that's a lot of material within a short timeframe.
I need to add in there… I also did two albums in the pandemic; I have a band called Silent Skies and another one is an American band Redemption that I'm also in, we also made an album. And then my partner in Silent Skies, we write for video game music. We've done four video games as well, so it's lots of music. But I think I figured out how my brain works now; the more I write, the more music I can write. I think that's how it works, which is amazing. And I'm grateful for that. You're always worried as a writer to have a drained well, if you will. That you can't get anything out of yourself, that you're not inspired. The more I write, the more inspired I get.
The first two tracks on the album are pretty explosive then the rest of the tracks settle in quite nicely. How involved are you, or how important, is the sequencing or the pacing of the album?
We often also write the music in an order, so then it becomes natural for us to place it in that order on the album. But then you move around some stuff back and forth. We're old school, we like to listen to an album from start to finish. But I think you could put this album on at any point from the album on any song and it was still represent the album perfectly, except for maybe the last song, which is a more low key, acoustic type of song. Outside of that you can put on the album on any song and it would represent the album perfectly. But for those who like me, like to have the full experience of reading the lyrics while you listen to the album, sit down or go on a walk or whatever. It’s extremely important to have the right song order.
Although A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) isn’t a true concept album, is there a common theme running throughout it and what does the title signify?
The first part of the title, A Heartless Portrait part is just a summary of me writing about myself basically on the last 13 albums and the last 27 years. I figured it would be a good time to try to summarize it somehow. It's small excerpts out of my diary, which is a great thing for me personally to have now looking back at it. I write about me, I write about what is affecting me, and that's the story for this album as well. And of course, The Orphean Testament part is more based on; one, it was a great way for us to make a cool, proggy title that no one will remember, which is highly unintelligent (laughs). It's also my take on Orpheus, the Greek mythology where Orpheus was a guy who played sad music so the gods cried and he tried to save his loved one from hell. And the only thing he had to do was to look forward instead of turning his head, but he couldn't do that. And that signifies for me how people are today. We're so short sighted, we need reward within 15 seconds, or else we move on. That's my take on the egotistic side of Orpheus. Not very deep, but a cool twist.
What are some of your lyrical inspirations on this album?
I think the general mindset for me going into this is that, I always write about where I see myself in the world at the time of writing new music. And now I feel like I'm fitting less and less into a world which is getting more and more hostile and more and more short sighted. “Save Us” for instance, came out the day Russia went into the Ukraine. It’s about how I think we lost focus on what is important, how our morals and standards as human beings are lost. And I don't know where we lost them and why. It's like we're more intrigued by watching other people and their stories and their lives on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook or whatnot. It's bothering me, because it's fine to have it as entertainment, but you can have it rule your whole life eight hours per day. It will make up your mind of who you are. I think it's important that you make up that you know who you are, before somebody else tells you who you are. You shouldn't kid yourself. All of these big acts like Facebook, Tiktok and Instagram, and whoever else, they have an agenda, right? And if people are keen to follow, it's easier to sort of shape them into what they want, and buy what they want, and whatever they sell. So for me, it's a key issue to address, especially when you're a parent as well. I want you to be aware that not everything you see is the truth. When you're younger, you haven't learned to criticize media.
A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament)was once again mixed and mastered by Jacob Hansen, whom you’ve worked with on previous albums. What were you trying to achieve sonically?
Me and Jonas (Ekdahl), the drummer, we are the producers of the album. We are super sonic nerds. We get off on working on details on everything from the tiniest synth sound to the big drums. We're just trying to get better, trying to make it sound interesting for us to our ears. Then we get to hand over everything, which is well recorded, and give that to Jacob, who is so talented. And he's been part of the team now for the fifth album, this one, and he was also an Evergrey fan before working with us. He has a good sense of what it is that we want to accomplish. He's a big part of the team and making us sound like we do.
I think most Evergrey fans are solely focused on you as the vocalist and may forget or may not even know that you're also an accomplished guitarist and write most of the band’s music. How much are you involved in the music writing, the riffs, and song structures? Should we be more focused on you as a guitar player as well?
I would say that I write together with the drummer, we write 90% of the music and structure it and produce it. And all of the riffs on this album is written by me or him. The bass player actually wrote a song. It goes from album to album. But I would say that me and Jonas are the key songwriters of the band, and definitely we are the producers. So of course, we're heavily involved in the structure and the buildups of songs and the main idea behind any sort of sonically theme there is. And guitar playing wise, I considered myself a guitar player up until the fifth album or so, then I started to refer to myself as a singer as well. So first and foremost, I was at least a guitar player. I'm getting my own signature model now with Caparison guitars. It’s a life of great things right now.
What would you like the legacy of the band to be when one day maybe you're retired?
I think we're pretty much getting what I was aiming for. We're getting a lot of respect from songwriters and other artists. We’re a great live band, and I say that without any shame. This is what we are. We have been like this for a long, long time now, and we're not getting mushy or older. We're still hungry. I think that's what I want people to remember; they were always hungry. They were always trying their best to make the best songs possible. When we can't do that anymore, that's the day we're going to end this. Right now, I see us doing 13 more albums… not likely, but I'd like to.
A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) releases today via Napalm Records.