The Hällas “Conundrum”: How Prog-Rock Can Rock So Hard (Stream + Interview)
Honestly, Hällas writes the type of music I've spent a lot of my adult life trying to find. Once I got past the initial flurry of music discovery, across all the different sounds and flavors rock and metal come in, a few clear winners arose. One of them was the heavy-metal-leaning progressive hard rock of bands like Blue Öyster Cult, Uriah Heep, and Jethro Tull. They sit in a soothing pocket of musicality where the riffs are abundant, the music heavy, but it just feels good to listen to, being more amenable to major-key frolicking and experimental widdley-widdley than some of their heavier kin. But they also weren't in it to pump out straightforward radio hits -- though some of them found tremendous success, they wrote absolutely bonkers stuff, always pushing the envelope. I eagerly consumed it all, and, to this day, I continue to seek bands in this realm.
Fortunately, the spirits of the aforementioned legends are alive and well today, channeled by Hällas, a Swedish "adventure rock" group who are pioneers in the field of looking backward while blazing new paths at the same time. Their upcoming second full-length Conundrum levels up the throwback appeal of their prior release Excerpts from a Future Past with retro-futuristic elements and soul-stirring harmonies that ought to kindle the spirit of adventure in any willing heart. We're streaming the new album below for your listening pleasure.
As the opening synths that comprise the intro track "Ascension" swelled and peaked, I had a little apprehension, personally: Excerpts From a Future Past was great. So great, in fact, that following it up was automatically going to be difficult. I had to wonder what was in store, and the opening of follow-up song "Beyond Night and Day" answers that question with a pair of resounding tom hits, resplendent in their 1980s gated-reverb glory. Bottom line, you're in for a solid slab of progressive rock that's taken a bifurcated turn toward past and future. The core elements are there and working splendidly: twin guitar harmonies are joined by organs, synthesizers, and the trademark voice of Tommy Alexandersson, whose accent and powerful intonation grants the poetic vocals a mysterious sheen. What's different now, I'd say, is that the band has sought out more complexity and leaned into their progressive edge: as the drums and bass carry the songs on with steadfast rock rhythms, the rest of the band boldly melds their often vastly-contrasting sounds together into swirling textures that swath the grooves. Not a new occurrence for Hällas, to be sure, but the layers here are deeper and more daring at times.
It would have been fine by me if Conundrum was just more of the same: another cut of the comforting, 1970s-hinting magic that defined Excerpts of a Future Past. Instead, Hällas slightly tweaked the dial on their Nostalgia Generator™ and sculpted a sound that's from a tad more recent past. Evident on tracks like "Strider," the synthesizers wielded by Nicklas Malmquist are brasher and further shape the sound of the band; accordingly, the guitars take a lesser role at times, though they get plenty of action overall. We even get some vocoder-esque vocals before the album's conclusion, actually, but the biggest evidence of the changing sound for me were the drums: along with the glorious, gone-too-soon tom tones of the 1980s, the snare is bigger and fatter to cut through the album's multilayered atmosphere.
Even if Conundrum feels like a record that was sent to the future from the 1980s for preservation as part of some Terminator-esque intrigue, this isn't something the past could have produced. None of the bands I rattled off earlier sound like this, and honestly neither does anything else today -- there's a dashing spirit intrinsic to the music that's Hällas's own thing. The best I can describe it, it's something like an urge to climb a mountain... but specifically, a mountain on a far-away planet. So, you go to Hällas if you want adventure rock, as they've been aptly branded, because they're the only ones offering the audio equivalent of interplanetary mountaineering.
The band's keyboardist/organist, Nicklas Malmquist, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the upcoming record -- check out a brief interview below:
Conundrum marks the completion of a trilogy for the band, which I assume consists of the Hällas EP, Excerpts from a Future Past, and now Conundrum. From what I've heard, you had the idea to develop the themes from the EP into a concept based on the song "The Astral Seer," and that's what Excerpts from a Future Past is about. Was Conundrum envisioned as a continuation of that concept as you started to write it?
Yes, as Excerpts from a Future Past ended with a sort of a cliffhanger we were determined from the start to continue and end the story with Conundrum.
Do you plan to continue writing concept albums now that this story seems to be concluded (based on the lyrics to "Fading Hero")?
We haven’t really decided exactly what to do next yet but we really like concept albums and we feel it goes well with the concept of an album in itself, that is meant to be listened to from start to finish.
The biggest-hitting single for Excerpts of a Future Past was "Star Rider," which was maybe poppier than the rest of the album but rocked exceptionally hard, and still stands out as a highlight of the album for me. For Conundrum you put out only one single, the excellent "Tear of a Traitor." What led to its selection as the lead single?
I’m not sure what the others would say but in my opinion this was the song that would work best as a bridge between the two albums. I think the song almost sounds like it could have been part of Excerpts of a Future Past.
On Conundrum, your sound has taken on some new elements that feel like they're from a different era than your past two records: there's lots of unusual synth tones and bigger-sounding drums. Did you have a specific sound in mind for the record, and was it driven by the material?
We didn’t want to do the same album or sound all over again. It’s important for us to move in a direction, to evolve both in sound and composition. We wanted more synthesizers to make it sound more futuristic but still old at the same time. The drum sound could be that we used a bigger and better studio, and Kasper used a different drum set this time.
But overall it seems the outcome just becomes what it becomes. I think it’s mostly driven by the material and experimentation and you end up somewhere where it feels everything fits together well in the mix. We had some thoughts about what to aim for but things always change along the way – the way the basic sound will turn out in a recording can be difficult to foresee and it sort of sets the mood for what you’ll end up doing with it in the mix.
The main goal was to make it sound better and more evolved than the previous album and I think it does.
Hällas is described as "adventure rock" in a lot of places. It's definitely accurate, but not a term I've seen elsewhere. Is that a label that the band came up with, and if so, how did you settle on that as a descriptor?
We use it to describe our music. I think it was during the recording of our first release or maybe even Hällas’ first demo a year earlier. The music kind of sounded like someone was out on an adventure somewhere, and it was probably rock as well, so we called it ‘adventure rock’.
Right now, the rest of the world has heard Conundrum, but us Americans are still waiting for it to be released. What tracks from the record are you most looking forward to sharing with us?
My current personal favourites are found on Side B, "Labyrinth of Distant Echoes" and "Blinded by the Emerald Mist." But I hope some of you will listen to it from start to finish the first time. Maybe after listening to the previous record (with a pause in between). We are very excited to hear some feedback on the album from America, and we hope to be able to come over and play there soon!
Conundrum releases February 14th via Napalm Records.