In terms of music, 21st century Sweden has become what England was in the sixties. Amongst that small, but beautiful, country lives a plethora of multi-talented individuals that create some of the most incendiary heavy music that is in the game today.
Today we take a deep dive into the diverse world of Gothenburg band, Avatar. The band that is now most well known for their ‘sinister sideshow’ appearance, and masterful craft at balancing melodic tunes and extreme metal origins. However, that was not always the case for the Göteborg band.
Nearly two decades ago, drummer John Alfredsson and guitarist Jonas Jarlsby, who were in separate bands at the time, joined forces to create this wonderful project of Avatar 1.0. Avatar 1.0 consisted of the co-founders Jonas Jarlsby (guitars) and John Alfredsson (drums), then enigmatic frontman Johannes Eckerström (lead vocals), Simon Andersson (guitars) but would then later be replaced by Tim Öhrström (guitarist & backing vocals) and Henrik Sandelin (bass & backing vocals)… and well, no costumes, just pure death metal.
Avatar 1.0: Pre Costume & Clown Era
In early 2004, the band released their two EP of demos called Personal Observations and 4 Reasons to Die. Then two years later, the band released their first LP called Thoughts of No Tomorrow (2006), which included a mix of tracks from the two demo EPs and a handful of new songs.
Thoughts of No Tomorrow (2006) is exactly what you would expect from a Swedish Death Metal band hailing from Gothenburg. The opening track “Bound To The Wall” is guttural. Literally. Johannes Eckerström instantly shows off his insane talent with growls, and he does not back down throughout the next 10 songs.
Interestingly enough though, and what they, themslves, probably didn’t even realize, is that although their first few albums are very different from their current sound, you can hear the signature Avatar guitar sounds sprinkled throughout out. Jonas Jarlsby is very underrated in terms of honing a signature sound so early in his career and having the ability to write memorable guitar parts.
Overall, the album is nasty in all the best possible ways, and although it’s a solid death metal album… it charted very humbly at #47 on the Sweden Albums Top 60. It does not take a genius to recognize that despite their incredible talents, they were not an overnight sensation. Nonetheless, Avatar’s first album gave the band the exposure they needed to open for some of the biggest Swedish bands like In Flames.
Shortly after, in October of 2007, the band released their second LP called Schlacht (most likely inspired by Johannes‘ German roots). Schlacht (2007) was the group’s first chance to showcase their progression as professional musicians, and that was reciprocated well amongst their home audience, gaining them a sweet spot of number 27 on the Swedish album chart.
Much like their first album, this sophomore record still holds true to their heavier roots, but I find it to be very vocal-centric. I can’t say for sure if that’s what they intended, or if it’s just because of poor mixing, but Eckerström definitely overpowers the instrumentals on most tracks. Normally that would be annoying, but since Johannes does have incredible death metal vocal abilities, it’s still pleasant to listen to.
You do, however, find yourself wishing that you would get a better listen of the melodic, and relatively power metal instrumental notes that are scattered throughout. That aside, this album is further evidence that Avatar used each studio opportunity as a learning curve, as Schlacht (2007) displays their eagerness to play around with new sounds and recording techniques.
These “power metal” elements are, most likely, the recognition that they, as a group of musicians, can offer something beyond death metal. The five Swedes were also growing their live performance theatrics, and it was probably obvious to them that the more texture their songs have, the more they can do on stage.
Keep this in mind as we move forward.
In November of 2009, Avatar released its third album, which was self-titled, and once again, we are greeted with significant progress in the band’s sound. For example, Avatar (2009) is the first album where the frontman and lead vocalist, Johannes, uses his clean vocals more regularly. Could it be there was a realization that this style of vocal technique will not hinder the metal sound, but instead add character?
Possibly, as this is a tool that the band will continue to use for the remainder of their career (so far).
He also uses his growls more for emphasis, and more strategically, rather than “let me scream the entire track and thus muddle out everything going on in the background”.
That is a pretty normie explanation of metal, but honestly, we need to acknowledge that sometimes it can be overkill and that’s just the facts.
By 2009, one can assume that the band learned that the combination of their incredible instrumental abilities and Eckerström‘s voice, is enough to make their music to be the metal odyssey that they always desired to be (wink wink). This self-titled album is a huge turn in their 1.0 chapter, and although they were still not charting relatively high, the band was able to sign with Sony Music for the German and Swiss release of the record. Thus gaining them more serious international attention.
Avatar did not use this as a cashout or let this acknowledgement from music industry peers to hinder their efforts to take over the metal industry. Instead, they worked harder and shifted their focus on expanding their live performances, which would later become their trademark characteristic.
Avatar 2.0: Costume & Clown Era
In late 2011, tides of change came rolling through for the band once again (we love a band that continues to grow). The once death-metal quintet from Gothenburg, Sweden decided it was the time that they upped the ante, and have yet to look back.
According to an interview in louder sound, frontman Johannes shares that it was two nights before Halloween, in 2011, the band decided to unveil their new look.
Johannes expresses that he fondly remembers the first time he painted his face in joker-style makeup, dressed in ringmaster inspired clothing. In this interview he reflects that although he was nervous, he sauntered on to the stage at a venue in Helsingborg, Sweden called The Tivoli, with full-body confidence…. only to be greeted with laughter… and not the good kind.
Johannes continued, “It drove a new level of self-consciousness, I put a big bullseye on my face. It’s strange because I was always singing, always standing in the middle of the stage, the guy who spoke between songs, but still, I was more hidden between different types of tropes. Since this is not black metal corpsepaint, there were no given tropes for how I was supposed to behave. So the process has been about exploring.”
After the unveiling of the Clown and his group of jesters, in December 2011, guitarist Simon Andersson parted ways with the group and was replaced by Tim Öhrström.
No real statement was ever released by the band on why Andersson left, but from personal speculation, I assume on it was artistic differences: aka not wanting to be in costumes, and the dislike in moving away from the classic, more brutal, death metal sounds they began with? Possibly.
Nonetheless, the add-on of Tim Öhrström particularly benefited the band, as he is a true guitar wizard (Not only to listen to but to also watch on stage).
It also should be noted, that this is the only band drama in their history together. The current lineup works better than bread and butter, and I hereby declare its all thanks to Tim Öhrström.
So, that aside, the group released their fourth LP The Black Waltz (2012) in January and reached their highest charting position (25) in the Swedish album list to date. Black Waltz was then later released in the USA in February, and in turn, Avatar embarked on their first-ever US tour alongside Lacuna Coil in early 2013.
The Black Waltz (2012) is home to some of the most popular songs in their discography, such as Torn Apart, Smells Like a Freakshow, Paint Me Red, etc. Songs that are still performed to this day, and truly the foundation to the Avatar many know and love today.
There’s not much to say about the album other than it’s a solid album. It’s something I personally still listen to very regularly, songs like Freakshow and Paint Me Red are actually my favourites to hear live. I think it’s a great foundation for the Avatar 2.0 chapter, however, the real star of the show in this section is the next album.
After spending nearly the entirety of 2013 on tour with some of the biggest bands in metal music, like Avenged Sevenfold, the band found time to put a pause on their hectic touring schedule to jet off to Thailand for a month to create new music with some of the best producers and mixers in the business: Tobias Lindell & Jay Ruston.
If you listen closely, you can hear the gates of metal music heaven (or hell) open.
For four consecutive weeks, The five Swedes, with the helping hands of Tobias & Jay, locked themselves away in house by the beach in Thailand, to create what would become one of the best Avatar albums to date (in my humble opinion), Hail The Apocalypse (2014). This album is truly a step up from all their previous work and it is a huge thanks to the brilliance of Tobias Lindell & Jay Ruston.
Seriously, listen to this record and then listen to any one of their previous albums. There are so many brilliant changes in the recording process (and mixing) that the band probably didn’t even know they needed until the album was finished. Such as recording the albums live.
Avatar IS a live band. They shine when they’re placed into a room together and told to do their thing. They feed off each other’s energies so well, you can hear it when you go to their show and when you listen to their more recent albums.
Also, hats off to Jay Ruston. This album is so well mixed. It’s just so clean.. for the lack of a better word, everything sounds so good together, and the band doesn’t lose their sound (aka not overly fixed)… it really is just a work of art, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop raving about it.
What makes this album so notable to me is that, although The Black Waltz (2012) was the physical declaration of the “clown” and sinister-circus thematic styles for the band, it is in Hail The Apocalpyse (2014) that (I find) Avatar really becomes a band of their own league.
Avatar is sincerely a rare band. I have yet to find another group that can marry brutal death metal riffs with sweet melodic tunes, on top of that tell the narrative of fantasy-inspired stories; as well as them.
In Hail The Apocalypse we are given this fantastic anecdote of fascistic-dystopian rage, and how the common people have been used and abused by it. It tells this very whimsical, yet relatable tale of the common struggles of being a “freakshow” in such a square world.
The clown and his band of jesters? they are all of struggling creative people in a world where we’re told to lose our personalities to fit in. We see this in songs like Vultures Fly and its music video. Even when one tries to escape, there’s “The Man” following and ridiculing the escapee.
The real apocalypse, you ask? It’s the freaks breaking free and reclaiming their voice.
Ok fanatic gushing aside, let’s get back to the fact that Avatar finally got (some) of the recognition they deserve. The music video for one the single Vultures Fly earned the distinction of being voted #1 for five straights weeks in Loudwire’s video countdown. The attention on them was finally growing, the admiration for these five Swedes in full costume and makeup had been maximized, and the band continued to tour and only get better with every show.
PEAK performance from everyone.
Immediately after Hail the Apocalypse (2014) was released, the band set off on a relentless tour, even earning them headlining tours and mainstage festival slots. Soon after, Avatar was back in the studio in December of 2015 in for their Avatar’s sixth studio album called Feathers & Flesh (2016), which would be released in May of 2016.
Unlike Avatar’s previous recording process of detaching from their homeland of Scandinavia and sending themselves to a land far away, the band split the recording process to three European locations: Castle Studios in Rhorsdorf, Germany; Suomenlinnan Studio (Although some sources say Finnvox) in Helsinki, Finland; and Spinroad Studios in Lindome, Sweden, and was once again mastered by the brilliant Jay Ruston.
Many music critics from the USA have marked the album Feathers & Flesh (2016) as Avatar’s attempt to re-introduce themselves to the US market, due to the fact that Hail the Apocalypse (2014) did not grant them the spike in attention, that, honestly, they really deserved. Despite these remarks or dare I say, criticisms, Feathers & Flesh (2016) led to the band winning of the Breakthrough Band Award (2017) at the Metal Hammer Golden God Awards.
I think it’s, also, important to emphasize that analysis’ and opinions of music are subjective and should be taken with a grain of salt. Whether one individual finds an album to be the best thing ever created, there will always be someone that finds the same piece of work to be literal trash. Which one is correct? Neither. It’s all about personal taste.
This is why when I write these deep-dives, I try not to throw in too many personal comments, because what matters most in this context is whether or not an album or a piece of art had been created with heart and effort.. and to me, that is something Avatar never fails to do. Therefore, even though I do write this as an avid fan of the band, I am not saying these things with my head up my arse, but more so using the facts presented to regurgitate them back to all of you.
Nonetheless, the impression I get when I listen to Feathers & Flesh (2016) is that their confidence as individual musicians, and as a musical group has significantly strengthened by the time they recorded this LP. It is for this reason, even as a so-called-metalhead, I don’t mind that Feathers & Flesh (2016) is not a ‘brutal death metal record’ like their earlier work.
The album oozes masterful talented that can only come from years of practice and hard work, the writing in this record is effective, the composition of the songs sits so well with the whimsical lyrics. That takes courage and skill.
Really, listen to their entire discography (in order) and tell me you don’t hear the growth. You don’t need to be a fan that is frothing at the mouth to acknowledge that.
Despite all this technical work, many critics were quick to hit Feathers & Flesh (2016) with the “it’s not death metal, it’s hard rock at most” as if that is a form of insult. Sure, the critics words hold some truth, but not as an insult.
Hold on to your hats men:
You don’t lose your “metal music” status if you want to stop screaming for an album and want to incorporate other ways to express your message.
Shocker, I know.
Feathers & Flesh (2016) could be labelled more prog metal category due to its orchestral compositions. The record is embellished well with a lot more ballads and softer songs that carry the sorrowful tale that is being told. That is not to say there aren’t the nods to their heavier roots, as Avatar still proceeds to melt your face off with songs like “For The Swarm” and “Tooth, Beak & Claw”.
But as mentioned, aside from those songs, Feathers & Flesh (2016) is more about the craft of the musicianship and the story being told. In early 2016, Eckerström shared with revolver magazine that the concept behind the album is about:
“It’s about this owl who goes to war against the world to prevent the sun from rising. It’s a fable inspired by the work of the famous French fable writer Jean de La Fontaine, so the creatures in the fable represent a side of the human psyche or different behaviours. Something good or bad happens to them depending on what they do in the story, and in the end you learn some kind of lesson.”
That explanation alone should stop the unhealthy obsession music-snobs have to categorize records, and instead, allow you to sit back and enjoy the story being sung. The album as a whole is an intense journey of epic sensations, and if you listen to it alongside the beautiful music video that the band put out for the singles: For The Swarm, “The Eagle Has Landed, Night Never Ending and New Land, you will get the full experience.
Avatar 3.0: The Era of The King
On March 6th, 2017, Avatar concluded their Feathers & Flesh (2016) storyline by dropping a music video for the song “New Land”. Which in retrospect, was the band’s big hint that something much bigger had been on the horizon, literally a new land.
Just over half a year later, the Gothenburg band released a music video for a new song called “A Statue Of The King“.
However, “A Statue Of The King” was much more than a teaser for an upcoming album, it was an introduction to a whole new era and world for the band. With its riff-driven melody, “A Statue Of The King” introduced the concept of Kungan, which is Swedish for “king” and is played by Avatar’s lead guitarist Jonas Jarlsby.
The king of what you may ask? The King of Avatar Country, which is also the name of their seventh LP.
Once-Upon-A-Time ( in the summer of 2017), the band and Jay Ruston, gathered within Sprinroad Studios in Lindome, Sweden to conquer the quest of building this metal world of Avatar Country.
This 10 track LP was released in January of 2018 and presented its ambitious tale about the magical, yet very metal, land known as Avatar Country. The album recounts the story of the Legendary King and how he conquested the world in gaining new citizens from every point of the globe (Not verbatim, but just what I’ve concluded after listening and seeing them live on this tour). Every track on this sprinkled with the mention of this noble king and burstinthe g with irresistible authenticity of such grand plotline.
Avatar Country (2018) is grand and mystical, and although it generally does not stray far from their classic epic, melodic death metal characteristics, there’s still surprises to be found. For example, the song “The King Welcomes You” carries pop-like, clappable (not a word, I know) beats that make you feel like you’re in a grand-hall meeting after the King has made his entrance.
Avatar Country (2018) nails the purpose of a concept album, as it takes you away and leads you to believe that this fantasy land is real and this album truly a gift from their homeland. It leaves you wanting more of this life they’ve created, and in true Avatar manner of always working hard, they continued to spoil us for a full year with gems from this album.
The grand story does not simply end with an album, as Avatar took full force in blurring the lines of fable and real-life expedition. Fans were spoiled with tours from the King and his band, to a full-length film (think Beyoncé’s lemonade but metal and badass), a website where fans can pay $15-$20 a year to have access to a simulation Avatar Country, Citizenships with a real certificate of authentication, and even a physical PASSPORT to Avatar Country where fans can collect visas and stamps when attending shows.
(You bet your ass I have all of the above)
From circus-themed music to a country of their own, what else can this band do?
Avatar 4.0: Goodbye King … Goodbye Clown??
Now in the present time of apocalyptic 2020, Avatar has been hard at work on their eighth album since November 2019. The band has been documenting this journey for their Avatar Country citizens in video-diary format.
The Swedes have proclaimed that this upcoming album is, once again, a new chapter and voyage of the group, what we can expect is probably beyond the unexpected. The most shocking news thus far had been that they declared the journey of the King is coming to a halt, despite the intense level of hard work they put into building the story these last few years. They also shared that the new record will be their first non-thematic-concept record in 11 years.
What we don’t know for sure is the state of the clown costumes and makeup? There has been no official word if those, too, will be irradicated. What is evident, however, is that this the band’s third attempt at a re-introduction to the metal scene.
Could it be that despite all the fun and games that were riddled between the costumes and theme hindered their chance at being taken seriously as the insanely talented individuals that they are? Possibly.
Costumes or not, Avatar is a band that I’ve been following for several years now, and however they choose to step back into the scene, I’ll be there at as many shows as I can and financially supporting the group in any way I can.
I sincerely hope you do too.
ps: check out my review from the first time I saw them live
(sharing my story of meeting Tim & Jonas to emphasize how great of humans they are)
Until next time Interwebs! 🕸
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