Smoulder Cast a New Enchantment with “Spellforger” (Early Track Stream + Interview)
Canada’s Smoulder made a lot of noise in the scene a few years ago both via a series of explosive festival appearances and with their extraordinarily successful debut album Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. Leaning into high fantasy, true epic metal of all speeds, and their disdain for what anyone else thinks, the album crushed everyone under a solid weight of destructive, riff-filled magick and sold about a gillion copies. With only a single mLP since 2019 to whet voracious fan appetites, Smoulder have had ever-increasing expectation to live up to—and now, with their second album release finally looming, it’s time for Smoulder to once again absolute crush fans worldwide under the force of their heavy metal willpower.
Like their first album, Violent Creed of Vengeance is obsessed with witchcraft, doom, and sorcery; (vocalist) Sarah (Ann)’s powerful singing (sounding even stronger than on the debut!) rings with tales of power and death and loss, with songs narratively continuing their fascination with all of the same topics the band has sang about since starting. They somehow even got Michael Moorcock himself to narrate the introduction of a song on this one, unsurprisingly about Elric and Tanelorn—and like the band’s heroes Blind Guardian, who also sang about Tanelorn, among other fantastical things, Smoulder have decided to speed up this time.
I don’t want to spoil things for the rest of the album, which comes out later this month, but today’s premiere for “Spellforger” is both the fastest and most clearly European power metal-inspired song that Smoulder have written yet. I didn’t mention Blind Guardian out of nowhere, and while this song is not the one that Moorcock was on, the comparison is there for a reason: This is the one that Sarah described to me as their “speed metal Blind Guardian” song, something she mentioned before we started the interview that you can read below, and if the band’s normal Reverend Bizarre influences made it onto this song, the influence is there in a way too esoteric for me to parse. It’s bold, muscular, and rages without any breaks for the entire duration of the song—a great way to break up the album, and lead into the final track, a monolith appropriately titled “Dragonslayer’s Doom” that you, the reader of this article, will just have to learn about on the day that the album actually comes out.
Check out “Spellforger,” and read below for a killer interview with the band ranging not only into the new song but into much more.
Violent Creed of Vengeance feels like a faster album than your debut was, which is not to say that the doom is gone entirely—but the direction is certainly more “Bastard Steel” and less “Black God’s Kiss.” Today’s premiere of “Spellforger” is perhaps the most power metal that has been present yet on a Smoulder track. How does the band balance all of your disparate influences to form a cohesive whole? Are any influences or moods off limits for a Smoulder track?
Collin Wolf (guitar): We really leaned into the power metal aspect of our sound on this album. I personally don’t think that there’s anything that’s specifically off-limits for us, just more that we have a pretty strong filter on what gets passed as a Smoulder song. It has to work for us and our general atmosphere.
Kevin Hester (drums): All of us individually tend to write music a little differently. Collin’s style tends to be heavily riff-centric; Vincent likes to write long passages with few repeats, and I tend to be more melodically driven. It’s challenging to take the best from all of those approaches and combine them together in one song.
Sarah: Our variety and willingness to step outside genre boxes is our strength. We love power metal, epic metal, speed metal, and epic doom, and merge them into Smoulder.
When Collin mentions a “filter” for the Smoulder sound, does that mean many entire songs are being rejected? How often does this happen? Do rejected sections or songs have the potential for use at a later date, either with Smoulder or another project?
Sarah: We “rejected” multiple songs for this album alone. They felt incomplete or weren’t at the high standard we’ve set for the band, so they didn’t end up on the album. Perhaps they’ll be reshaped and perfected later, perhaps not. After we released one track that I felt wasn’t up to our standard, I will never do that again. I want every single song to be fantastic.
Like on Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, the new album ends on an epic, which is even longer than “Black God’s Kiss” and is now your longest track yet. Is it an exciting challenge composing these epics? How does it vary from putting together other tracks in terms of Smoulder’s writing flow?
Kevin: I composed the music for “Dragonslayer’s Doom,” and it’s my personal favorite Smoulder track so far. Most of the time, when I start writing a song, it usually starts with me coming up with a couple of riffs or musical ideas and building around that. But for “Dragonslayer,” I had to plan the rough outline of the song layout ahead of time. I was heavily inspired by “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when I started the songwriting process, and the song structure is quite similar. There’s the slower beginning, an ambient quieter middle section with a buildup, and a faster end. The parts I’m most proud of are the chorus riffs and the ending dual guitar harmony sections, which are both played in different feels throughout the song’s duration. I felt like I could really flex my music theory skills with this track, and I’m really proud of the end result.
Sarah: These epic songs are the most challenging as the lyricist and vocalist, absolutely. I think emotionally, this was the hardest one to finish, as the themes are intensely personal and contain constant double entendres. Timing is intensely important to all of us. As such, this was the first song on the album I started writing lyrics for and the last song I finished.
When an individual songwriter is putting together a song like “Dragonslayer’s Doom” and writing in harmony sections, are those being left open for the guitarists to figure out the exact harmonies, or being brought to the table as a complete package? How collaborative are different dual-guitar sections in individual songs?
(Shawn) Vincent (guitar): When a full song is brought to the table, especially with Kevin’s stuff, the harmonies and leads are usually included. For the most part, Collin and I will play the harmonies/leads exactly as they are written, with small changes based on our own playing techniques. Solos are sometimes included, but usually we write our own. For example, “Dragonslayer’s Doom” had all the leads and harmonies written in the tab, but the guitar solos in the middle were written by each of us, whereas in “Path of Witchery,” the leads/solos/harmonies were played almost exactly as they were written in the tab. Kevin is the harmony master, so if Collin or I ask for them, he will provide.
Chatting before the interview, Sarah mentioned that Shawn did not initially care for “Spellforger” much; the track credits on the vinyl layout attribute it to Kevin and Sarah. How does Smoulder internally balance democracy and quality control? Shawn, was it difficult to relinquish control and back off enough to premiere the track? Given the positive early reception to it, how do you stand now?
Sarah: I am definitely the hard ass in this department and consider myself the band editor, given that I do the “management” piece of our band. Kevin and Vincent write the majority of our music, and while they usually come to agreements about what does and doesn’t work, this song was a funny one and ultimately resulted in a “work better together and integrate more of each other’s edits, or I’m going to cut your songs” speech at Headbanger’s Open Air (laughs). At some point, Vincent didn’t want the track, and after spending months nailing the vocal sections while hiking very steep switchbacks (which was my secret for improving my vocals on this album), I told him he was wrong. To be fair, this happens extremely rarely in Smoulder!
Vincent: When Kevin first brought the track to us, I thought it was a little too simple given the complexity of the other tracks we were working on, and I wanted to make some major edits. However, most of the changes I made didn’t make it to the final version. Given that Kevin also wrote the vocal melodies and some of the lyrics, I think he wanted to retain the original feel of the song, which I totally respect, as I've definitely vetoed proposed edits in the tracks that I’ve written in order to maintain a specific vision. We write all of our music in Guitar Pro files that we keep in a shared folder, so it’s pretty easy for everyone in the band to see what edits are being made and give their own input. As for quality control, we’re all aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, so when a member suggests a change to a song, it’s probably been given much deliberation. Ultimately I'm glad that Kevin stood his ground because the track ended up being an integral part of the album, and it adds a lot to its overall dynamic. I had already come around on it before we entered the studio, but Sarah’s vocal performance really sealed the deal and made me feel confident in calling it a Smoulder song. She pushed herself to another level and absolutely nailed the melodies and delivery. It’s a short, simple, and undeniably catchy track that will certainly make the divide between the “arms crossed in the back of the venue” and “dancing in the front row” crowd obvious. I can definitely see it becoming a staple of our live set in the future.
Collin: “Spellforger” was the first song Kevin and I ever worked on together back in college and has been sitting in our back pocket for years now. At first, I wasn’t into using it as a Smoulder track in its original state, but with Sarah’s vocal performance on our demos for the album, it was sold for me. It brings a quick, more lighthearted, straightforward NWOBHM-influenced breath of fresh air to the album and fits well within the greater context of Violent Creed.
Kevin: To add to Collin’s answer, I think this song was written in 2014, and I have grown into a more “mature” songwriter since then, for lack of a better term. When I presented the track to the band, I was surprised at how much the other band members liked the first draft’s potential. As far as editing tracks go, I very much respect Vincent’s opinion and suggestions for edits. For “Spellforger” in particular, I just felt changing the initial product too much would take away from its relatively simplistic and catchy feel. Again, I like variety on an album, and I think it’s okay to have one or two songs that are easily accessible to the listener’s ear. That’s not to say we didn’t edit it at all, though. There were some minor tweaks here and there, and the ending guitar solo that mirror’s the chorus melody was a late addition.
I have a question for Sarah specifically. Obviously, the lyrics and aesthetic are a very important aspect of Smoulder’s identity, and a lot of care goes into them. Do you start writing lyrics for songs before the songs themselves are finalized? After? How does the process of putting together lyrics to a long epic like “Dragonslayer’s Doom” play out for you, and how does that vary from the process of a song like “Spellforger” where the vocal parts and lyrics are more collaboratively written?
Sarah: Usually, I start lyrics when the song is relatively complete, but it depends on the track and what I’ve got in my lyrics archive. I generally like to get a feel for the attitude and atmosphere of a song before I try to write lyrics that fit it. I find that when the guys bring lyrics with a song, they tend to have a really strong chorus in mind, although often, I thematically end up shaping them and making the language and peaks more obscure and strange. Given that both Kevin and Vincent have more experience with songwriting than me, I find writing with them a lot more FUN and a lot less challenging—Obviously, many hands make light work.
In contrast, when I write the lyrics, it’s a lot more work because I’m a perfectionist and want to be at their level, which requires a lot of effort on my behalf. When Kevin brought “Dragonslayer’s Doom” to the band, I was floored. It’s an amazing song. And I’m happy to report it features the best lyrics I’ve ever written. It was the first song I started writing after coming home from our Greece-tour-COVID-debacle, but the final song on the album that I finished (aka, it took over two years; I changed it hundreds of times). It was agonizing for me to nail because it is very metaphorical with constant double entendre, and not only did I want it to articulate the sorrow I felt while writing it, but the sorrow of what’s happening to the warrior in the storyline. It’s such a cliche in power metal to write a song about fighting a dragon and being a hero. This song isn’t about being a hero. It’s about fighting a desperate battle and dying in the process because your adversary is too powerful. Once it was truly finished, though… it felt like a psychological weight had been lifted. It’s the closest thing to therapy I’ve ever done artistically.
Circling back, Kevin mentioned that “Spellforger” was originally an older song, and I recall there being some of older songs on the first album and the mLP as well. Did any other older songs make it onto Violent Creed of Vengeance? Are there more in the archives for future releases?
Vincent: Yes! The “Talisman & The Blade” was a track I originally wrote for one of my old bands around 2012/13, and I had not touched it since. Back then, I was not as skilled at writing drums (resulting in many parts requiring three or more arms to actually play), and I didn't really know what to do with it. After the inclusion of “Bastard Steel” on Times…, it made sense to try and use it as a Smoulder song. When I handed it over to Kevin, he gave the drums a much-needed upgrade and added the two ending riffs. This made me stoked about the song again, and I later added the leads and solos to finish it off. After that, we all agreed that it had to be included in the second album.
Collin: Most of the riffs on Violent Creed of Vengeance I had written for another project, that I was involved in the recent past. When that fell through, Kevin and I recorded a primitive demo that was a sketch of what it might become and presented it to the band. Everyone really liked it, so Kevin and I (but mostly Kevin, ha!) went to work refining and reworking the song into what it is now. It’s interesting because it’s the first song Smoulder has done in a drop tuning (“Path of Witchery” is now in drop tuning as well)! As to the latter part of your question, there is actually quite a bit (songs, riffs, etc.) in the vault that might show its face
sometime, you never know!
Violent Creed of Vengeance releases April 21st via Cruz del Sur Music.