A Bolt of Blazing Gold: Dark Tranquillity’s “Skydancer” Turns 25
The year 1993 seems so long ago, especially in the scope of extreme metal, but death metal was already approaching its teens. Scream Bloody Gore and Seven Churches were nearing double digits. Sure, the genre was young, but approaching a crux -- what happens next?
In the United States, the Florida scene had already moved in one direction; bands like Death, Atheist, Nocturnus, and Morbid Angel began using bizarre atmospheres and immense technicality to define the next era of music. Across the Atlantic Ocean, death metal was different. Though the burgeoning Stockholm and Gothenburg scenes were beginning to experiment with folk-inspired melodies, these were mere afterthoughts in the still very grinding, immensely aggressive sounds of death metal's youth.
From the ashes of the short-lived Septic Broiler, Dark Tranquillity burst onto the scene with an immediacy and precociousness. With a single demo (Trail of Life Decayed) and EP (A Moonclad Reflection), a near-immediate signing with the legendary Spinefarm Records brimmed with opportunity.
Before the canonical "Gothenburg sound," Dark Tranquillity, then fronted by future In Flames frontman Anders Fridén, was given a clean slate. This was their chance to make something truly new, something different. Now 25 years after its release, Dark Tranquillity's debut Skydancer is remembered for its remarkable ambition and punctuated existence.
"Skydancer was just… an experiment.," Stanne tells us over Skype. "We tried so many things and wanted to see what worked. We were so ambitious and pretentious -- we wanted to do this and that. There were these grand ideas of what songs can be."
When listening to Skydancer -- and subsequent EP Of Chaos and Eternal Night (both are from the same creative era) -- there is that undeniable grandeur. Something mysterious, atmospheric, Baroque. Citing the influence of Swedish folk, a historic style whose melodies eventually defined what would become the "Gothenburg sound" of melodic death metal, there is a stately and aged character to Dark Tranquillity's first era.
Not quite death metal and not quite black metal, at least in hindsight, Skydancer fits somewhere in the middle, but this is merely due to its time period. In 1993, there wasn't really much by way of melodic extreme metal making its way to Sweden. Starting from square one, guitarists Niklas Sundin and Mikael Stanne (who transitioned to vocals after Fridén moved to In Flames) adventured through archways of moody melody and creative catchiness with little regard for genre. It was meant to be intense, melodic music first and death metal second.
"Some of the comments I remember the most were like, Hey come on! It's got to be heavier than this! It's not enough! That kind of thing," he reminisces. As expected from anything so new and groundbreaking, Skydancer was met with confusion. In this era, death metal was something fast, a brutal answer to the speed of thrash metal or spirit of heavy and power metal. This album avoided that, choosing to express death metal's inner essence through a different medium.
"We were trying to… make fun of the death metal genre, almost, and they took offense to it," Stanne says, laughing afterward. There was no humor in the music, however, only passion -- the kind of passion which changes a style of music forever. It was from here, with the help of fellow Swedes In Flames and At the Gates, which gave birth to the melodic death metal style still heard today, but it was Skydancer which cleared the path they all took together.
In an exclusive interview, vocalist (and then guitarist) Mikael Stanne reminisces about Dark Tranquillity's unique debut, the time period surround it, and its legacy. Even now, there is nothing quite like it, nor was there anything like it before this strange turn in death metal's history.
So Skydancer is turning 25 and Dark Tranquillity has been very active since then, but how does it feel knowing your debut is that old?
Oh, it feels weird. I was talking to a friend of mine a couple days ago and he asked when we started. We started, what, 1989? It feel strange. Doesn't feel like 25 years. We've been keeping ourselves busy this whole time. No hiatuses, breaks or anything. Time goes by so fast, but, of course, thinking back on those days seems like forever ago. It seems like this relationship you have with the past. Sometimes it feels like it just happened, other times it feels like a different life, a few lifetimes ago. It still feels good to do this -- we haven't grown tired of it yet, you know? Twenty five years ago we were just stupid kids who had no idea how to be a band or how to play music, but we figured it out and are still figuring it out. It's been this ongoing learning experience and ongoing exploration of what we can do with the music we chose to play.
With that particular album, I imagine your relationship with it is different considering you were a guitarist primarily on it before shifting entirely to vocals. What is it like listening to you guitar playing since afterward you were a frontman?
I realized I made the right choice! I was a horrible guitar player [laughs].
You were? I honestly couldn't tell.
We played more than we could play, basically. We tried things that we couldn't pull off [laughs], so to speak. I think we wanted to do more than we were capable of at the time. It was very difficult for me at the time. For Niklas [Sundin], it was easier. He mastered it faster than me, even though we started playing guitar at the time.
I just remember having anxiety and being nervous every day going into the studio because I knew I'd have to record some guitar parts and it would be difficult and take forever for me to "nail it," whereas when I was doing backup vocals or vocal parts, it was just something I looked forward to. I was dying to get to the studio to do singing, but guitar playing was always difficult for me. I just didn't feel comfortable doing it. So when I listen to it now, I imagine what this would sound like if someone who knew what they were doing played it. It would be… sweet.
I never knew you had struggles with playing guitar. The album is very technical and proficient. Very unique for its time.
We tried to do things that maybe we didn't pull off, but it still sounds fine. We took our sweet time making sure we got it right somehow, but it was still us trying to figure out how to construct songs and write cool riffs and melodies. We were very curious about how much you could do with an album. We had only recorded twice in studios before -- tiny studios which didn't have the kind of equipment like this one had. We figured we could do anything, so we had all these ideas about guitar layering and multiple takes of guitars and keyboards and melodies and acoustic guitars. We wanted to do everything because we had finally made it to the point of recording in a proper studio.
It was pretty much a reality check when we started laying out our ideas to the producer. It was like "No, you can't do that!" and "Well, we could try that, but it sounds like a horrible idea!" [laughs] We figured It's a studio! We could play shitty and they'd fix it! They said "No!" The playing you have to do yourself, but they can't play horrible playing. We learned the hard way, being in the proper studio for the first time.
I turned 19 during the recording. We didn't know anything and were really pretentious when it came to our music and what we wanted to do. Me and Niklas talked about how this should be something so totally different than anything else around at the time. We wanted to include so many elements and different instruments just to make it sound unique and special. We eventually didn't do much of that! We just recorded a metal album.
You talk about pretense, and obviously you took that beyond the idea of the studio and making something unique. There was also a very striking visual element when you performed -- there was also this Renaissance garb. Was this all part of it? Did you want to be this Renaissance death metal band?
I wouldn't say Renaissance, but there were some bands who influenced us heavily. One of them was Sabbat (the British Sabbat) that we loved. They had that kind of look which Niklas really took to heart, and also Martin at the time. We wanted to be different. If we saw something cool or a band who we looked up to did something cool, then we figured we'd copy it and see if it worked for us! It was more like that, and desperately trying to not look like the other death metal bands with the death metal logos and T-shirts. It was differentiation. Trying to get some attention or at least people would perceive us for being different.
It all fit together so nicely, I just assumed! It just meshed -- the Renaissance look and the sound, especially on songs like "A Bolt Of Blazing Gold". It seemed like you wanted to do something "old sounding." Like you wanted to look the part.
Yeah! A lot of our influences came from Swedish folk music in terms of melodies and mood, so it makes sense. At the time there were a lot of younger bands playing traditional Swedish folk music and that was inspiring, as well. I remember Niklas and Martin being really fond of that, so I think that was a big part of it.
There were a lot of bands drawing from that same "folk" center. Opeth had started around the same time, and a lot of the more melodic black metal bands followed a similar style. It all fit under what people called "dark metal."
I know that's a bit of a "catchall" people used back then because people didn't want to call themselves death metal or anything like that. Is that something you caught yourself doing? Not calling yourselves death metal?
No, we tried not to come up with our own genre. We just always said "We'll do melodic death metal" or "aggressive melodic death metal." Whatever! We didn't really care too much about that.
You have so many bands explaining their own style in these weird terms and you just say "Oh, come on." It just sounds silly. We always felt like that's something other people can do. Also, that whole "Gothenburg sound" and all that stuff came later -- we never shared that and we never thought about it that way. We just wanted to create aggressive, intense death metal with a lot of melody. That was it.
It seems like everything coalesced into a sound which almost sounded like Skydancer. Again, especially in the black metal scene, which is surprising. I showed a friend Skydancer and he remarked that it resembled Swedish black metal! What was it like seeing everything coalesce into a sound maybe a little similar to the Skydancer sound in a completely different scene?
It was kind of weird, you know? I saw some bands kind of copying some of the lyrics from the album, some bands took some of the melodies. It was kind of cool! This was in... 1993. There was not that much death metal around, so you pretty much end up listening to everything that came out. Sometimes you hear something which isn't your genre of choice, but it's what you had, so you listen to it anyway and find parts you like here and there.
It was definitely weird, especially since the more hardcore death metal guys I knew back then listened to Skydancer and said "Hey, what's going on here? This is not true death metal, what's going on? This is too soft, too melodic. Not powerful enough." But we were trying to… make fun of the death metal genre, almost, and they took offense to it. At the same time there were some black metal bands which took the melodies to heart, in a way.
Was that how the album was received in the death metal community? With confusion?
Some of the comments I remember the most were like "Hey come on! It's got to be heavier than this! It's not enough!" That kind of thing. At the same time there were reviews from fanzines and magazines -- really positive reviews which said it was refreshing, different, and really cool. Some Swedish magazines said there were elements of Bathory in it, which was really weird but at the same time complimentary.
People had a hard time categorizing it. What is it? Is it death metal? Is it power metal? That seemed to be a problem at the time. Death metal just started. These other subgenres hadn't really gotten a foothold just yet.
It seems like the element of atmosphere hadn't quite made it into the Swedish death metal scene. There was quite a bit over in the United States in Florida with Morbid Angel experimenting with weird sounds, as well as bands like Nocturnus looking into deep space. Do you feel you were this new beginning of atmosphere and adventurous sounds in the Swedish scene?
I don't know about that, but we were definitely inspired by it. We love those more atmospheric elements -- Nocturnus, definitely, as well as the more technical aspects of Atheist, bands like that. More than just the brutality and intensity. Something that is more -- we were drawn to that when we got into the death metal scene, all the old bands we could get our hands on.
When Skydancer was finished, obviously there was an EP which followed (Of Chaos and Eternal Night), but then The Gallery was completely different. It was much more progressive and concentrated on being heavy. What changed? Obviously a new guitarist came in, but there was a big character change between the two. What led to that paradigm shift?
Skydancer was just… an experiment. We tried so many things and wanted to see what worked. We were so ambitious and pretentious -- we wanted to do this and that. There were these grand ideas of what songs can be. I guess once that was done and I started singing, we had Fredrik on guitar, we said "Let's learn to play!" We started rehearsing like crazy and really tried to… figure out how pull this off. Once we finally got into writing for The Gallery, we wanted to see how we could take this further.
At the same time we got into a lot of progressive music like Rush, Yes, and Dream Theater, which inspired us to try new things and really practice like crazy to pull those off. I remember feeling like we were finally a real band, finally it feels good. I was where I was supposed to be. Now we understand how this works. Now we can do anything. Skydancer was definitely like… just trying things out and seeing if this works.
In calling Skydancer an experiment: is that a diminutive thing?
No, no. Maybe not an experiment, but since we didn't know anything we just did what we could. We did what we felt was different and cool. You start experimenting later when you figure out what you can do. This was a best attempt at finding a style of music that we felt no one else was doing and finding our own musical identity. This was the first step to that.
Like a stepping stone or growing up.
Yeah! For every band, the first album… in retrospect, I wish we had waited a few years before we recorded our first album. Where we felt really comfortable and found our spot. But of course, when you're young and you really want to get something out there, you rehearse a lot and try to get a record deal quick. I always tell younger bands to wait another year until they find their own way. It was different times and getting that first deal from Spinefarm records blew our minds and we were so anxious to get something released.
That anxiety and impatience led to what is considered a legendary album. Do you agree with people viewing it as such? Do you find this confusing like other artists feel about their first albums?
I don't know. Of course I understand when you look back on what kind of music was being released at the time, this was very different and it got us started. It paved the way for all the things which happened since, so of course it is very important for the band… But, I don't know about "legendary." Just because it is the first album doesn't make it legendary by default. Of course, it is a very different album and I am incredibly proud that we were able to pull it off. We did this remaster thing three years ago or something like that, and it was so much fun sitting in the studio again "for the first time." A proper mastering made everything come out clearly. Now you can hear mistakes even clearer! At the same time you think… what did we do back then? More rethinking. How did we come up with this melody, or that riff. It's fascinating and so much fun, as I hadn't listened to it in years before then! Going back to it was fantastic.
It's fun, sometimes we'll do a signing session out at a bar or record store and they'll put on some background playlist of Dark Tranquillity songs. Sometimes a Skydancer song will come on and we'll look at each other thinking "Is this us?!". It takes a minute before we realize what it is. It's weird, but it's been twenty five years so it isn't fresh in our minds. It's strange, feels like a different band when we listen to it now.
It sounds like a different band! It was meant to be something different and then you found yourselves afterward.
Yeah! At least, that's what I feel. That's mostly because of how I felt more comfortable as a vocalist instead of a guitar player, but for Niklas it was just a continuation. I think for Martin, who was the bassist at the time, he started trying things on Skydancer but really, really started trying and finding his own style for The Gallery. For them, it was just a natural progression.
It's interesting listening to music from that same era. Bands like Dark Tranquillity and Opeth both used lots of melodies and harmonies, possessing similar characters. What led to this spontaneous change -- these two Swedish death metal bands doing something completely different but finding inspiration from similar sources?
I think that's what it is -- we found inspiration from similar sources. I remember meeting the guys from Opeth in 1990 or something like that, before Åkerfeldt joined. We listened to the same albums and talked about the same guitar players, being inspired by the same stuff. It was the same with the At the Gates guys back during the Grotesque days, all those bands. We were constantly talking about music and trading tapes, sharing albums. I think we fell into this "this is what's cool, this is what's interesting." It was very open. You could listen to thin Lizzy or Maiden or Autopsy or Carcass. It didn't matter so long as it was good and different. There wasn't anyone who said "hey man, you can't listen to that shit" you know? That made everyone in the "scene" very open minded. We grew up on the same thing. Everyone was the same age, we listened to the same radio shows which played hard rock and metal, watched the same music shows. It's obvious that there are similarities.
In meeting up, trading tapes, and hanging out, it seems like this little scene was a big friend group instead of just being a group of bands who played similar music in the same area.
It was definitely. Especially in Gothenburg where we were all friends. It was not that big of a group, but it grew all the time. Through Tomas from At the Gates, he was in contact with the guys from Stockholm -- Tiamat, Opeth, Entombed, Nihilist -- so they always came down to party, so we'd always hang out on weekends. We'd go to Stockholm to go to shows. It was this natural thing to hang out with the few bands we felt were cool and were around at the time, sharing similar sensibilities and interests. Interests, of course, being listening to music and drinking beer.
It seems like everyone grew together stylistically, going off in their own directions, but there was this big family tree, especially considering (aside from a couple bands who stayed autonomous). There was the sharing of members, trading around. It seemed very self-contained.
I remember many years ago -- I think it was Chris Dick -- he made one of these family trees. They published it in some Japanese magazine -- a big poster you could put on your wall! It was fun, but, at the same time incestuous.
That happens with scenes!
I can imagine! It's crazy, but, of course, we all were at the same bars, the one club where you could see extreme music. We all would hang out outside that venue, trading tapes and drinking beer. That's how we formed our friendship and met new people. You met some other bands and were like "Alright, cool! Let's put a show together!" It's weird, most of those people I still know and am still in contact with! It's crazy!
Now, 25 years later, you've spent time remastering the album. Spending time with it as a seasoned musician and vocalist -- part of the band for almost 30 years. Do you think you'll find yourself revisiting these songs live? Especially since Atoma is… the 11th album?
We've been talking about it. We've done it a few times within the last six or seven years. You can tell -- not a lot of people go that far back in the catalog, not that many have this album as their first exposure to the band. So whenever we play those songs, you can see a few maniacs who really dig it and that's awesome, but most want to see the songs they know. It's a weird thing. I'd love to do more of the old stuff just to please the record collectors and the diehard fans, but whenever we've done it, we felt like… maybe we'd find another song next time. But I love those! I love doing it! It's so much fun to pick up an older song you haven't played in such a long time and figure out what you did back then. Part of the problem is, as I said, we were shitty musicians back then, so it's tough to get it right, to play as bad as we did back then. It sounds too good if we play it now.
It would be interesting to hear it with a practiced hand now! I'd be curious to hear how "Crimson Winds" turns out in a live setting. I was listening to the album and actually noticed that album is immensely louder than opening track "Nightfall by the Shore of Time".
I remember, that was one of the weird things when we mixed the album. This is some geeky trivia. The studio we recorded at was called Soundscape -- they had never done metal before. They were these young rock guys, not too experienced. They had just built this studio, it was pretty new and they hadn't done that much in it yet. We mixed "Nightfall" first and it took forever to get everything right since nothing was automated. Four people at the desk getting the mix right and getting it down on tape.
Immediately after that song was finished, Dragan [Tanascovic], the main producing guy, tore the whole mix down and wanted to start fresh for the next song. We were like "What? No! We want all the songs to sound exactly the same!" But he was a pop/rock producer and treats each song totally different. But it's all the same instruments! The same everything! He eventually got it, and the rest of the album has the same mix, but "Nightfall" has a very different one! That's the reason for that.
It's so jarring. Obviously the remaster is a little more leveled out, but listening to the old master, it's like… I crank it up to hear "Nightfall" because it's a very intense song, but I have to immediately turn it down or I'll crack my subwoofer!
It's true! I remember when compilation albums came out and some of the Skydancer songs were on there. You could hear the other bands on there and it's loud and cool, but Skydancer comes on and it's half the volume. You always have to crank it. The mastering and production was quieter and kind of off, not as powerful. Now there's the loudness wars, but that's a different story, but I remember being kind of disappointed and thinking we sounded too mellow, not enough power in the master. I'm glad we did remedy that.
I'd rather crank an album than turn it down!
I do too! I have a lot of albums which have that mellow output because then I can control it, but on a compilation it can be not cool!
Are there any final thoughts? Any cool stories?
Six months ago, the cover artist [Kenneth Johansson] -- the guy who took the picture on the cover artwork died. He was an old guy, even when we met him, and he died when he was 80 years old or something like that. We were good friends over the years -- we met him just through just trying to find a cover photo.
We met him through Hasselblad, a Swedish camera company, one of the best in the world. He was one of their chief photographers so we figured we wanted something different from metal. Something atmospheric, something which would evoke something interesting. So we went through his photos and found different "wooden" photographs. Everything was really powerful and kind of serene, very evocative, we thought. We immediately liked what he was doing and eventually decided on the cover for the album. We continued to work with him for a couple more covers. He did The Mind's I, as well, even though it was a still life made by Niklas. It was cool to strike up that relationship early on and have someone to work with for a long time. He also took all the photos for In Flames in the early days, Evergrey, all those bands. At the same time it was kind of like meeting Fredrik Nordström [of Studio Fredman] when we started producing albums. Having someone to collaborate with was really cool, especially all the photos we made for Skydancer and The Gallery. It was something we felt was really different and well-made. We loved that. I miss it.
I'm sorry to hear of his passing -- it sounds like he was an important part of the band for those first few years.
Yeah! Someone you always expect to be there. He always came to the shows. Sometimes he'd have exhibits of all the covers and artworks he'd make for all these bands. He probably never listened to the music, but…
That's a shame. People get old, but you never want them to go away.
Exactly. Especially talented people like that. That's how it is. But it was cool -- the cover is so different from everything else which was released at the time, it was something which caught people's attention. It made an impact, together with the music, in presenting us as not the average death metal band. I'm happy about it.
Even now, Skydancer not your average death metal record, which is awesome. It definitely left its mark, it stands alone. You made something special and it's something I hold dear.
Cool! I appreciate that. I do, too.
Dark Tranquillity is about to embark on a North American tour with Amorphis, Moonspell, and Omnium Gatherum.
Sept. 7 - New York, N.Y. @ Gramercy Theater
Sept. 8 - Montreal, Quebec @ Cafe Campus
Sept. 9 - Quebec City, Quebec @ Imperial de Quebec
Sept. 10 - Toronto, Ontario @ Opera House
Sept. 11 - Ft Wayne, Ind. @ Pierre's
Sept. 12 - Detroit, Mich. @ Harpo’s
Sept. 13 - Joliet, Ill. @ The Forge
Sept. 14 - Minneapolis, Minn. @ The Cabooze
Sept. 15 - Winnipeg, Manitoba @ Park Theatre
Sept. 17 - Edmonton, Alberta @ The Starlite Room
Sept. 18 - Calgary, Alberta @ Dickens
Sept. 19 - Vancouver, British Columbia @ Rickshaw Theater
Sept. 20 - Seattle, Wash. @ El Corazon
Sept. 22 - Berkeley, Calif. @ The UC Theatre
Sept. 23 - Anaheim, Calif. @ City National Grove
Sept. 24 - West Hollywood, Calif. @ Whiskey a Go Go
Sept. 25 - San Diego, Calif. @ Brick By Brick
Sept. 26 - Tempe, Ariz. @ Marquee Theatre
Sept. 27 - Las Vegas, Nev. @ House of Blues
Sept. 28 - Salt Lake City, Utah @ Liquid joe's
Sept. 29 - Denver, Colo. @ Herman’s Hideaway
Oct. 1 - Dallas, Tex. @ Trees
Oct. 2 - San Antonio, Tex. @ Rock Box
Oct. 3 - Houston, Tex. @ Scout Bar
Oct. 5 - Tampa, Fla. @ Orpheum
Oct. 6 - West Palm Beach, Fla. @ Kelsey Theater
Oct. 7 - Atlanta, Ga. @ The Masquerade
Oct. 9 - Louisville, Ky. @ Diamond Pub and Billiards
Oct. 10 - Durham, N.C. @ Motorco
Oct. 11 - Baltimore, Md. @ Soundstage
Oct. 12 - Philadelphia, Pa. @ The Trocadero
Oct. 14 - Clifton Park, N.Y. @ Upstate Concert Hall
Follow Dark Tranquillity on Bandcamp.
Become an Invisible Oranges patron.