DEATH…IS JUST THE BEGINNING
Hard to believe, Dark Tranquillity, one of the originators of the ‘Gothenburg Sound’ (aka The New Wave of Swedish Death Metal), are 27 years old this year. Over the course of 11 full-lengths, two of which, 1999’s grand vision Projector and 2007’s furious fan-favorite Fiction, were nominated for Swedish Grammy Awards and countless worldwide tours, the Swedes have persevered through thick and thin. This endurance is powered by Dark Tranquillity’s insatiable hunger to constantly and consistently reinvent, to confront stagnation, even when all signs point to staying put and relying on a successful formula. From the day lauded debut, Skydancer, hit store shelves in summer 1993 to the shock and awe of Projector’s unorthodoxy to 2002’s stupendous Damage Done to the urban noir of 2013’s killer Construct effort, the Swedes, now men, whose perspective is now of wisdom and contemplation, continue to unflinchingly challenge the unknown. That new album, Atoma, marks the group’s silver anniversary couldn’t be more perfect.
“When we first started putting together the band in late 1989 I was 15,” remembers vocalist Mikael Stanne. “The band has been the main focus in my life before I was an adult. So, naturally this is more than just second nature. It’s a huge part of who we are and as much as you sometimes try go get away from categorizing yourself of putting yourself in a certain spot it is still definitely there. I am absolutely fine with growing old as a band and as a person. So many cool things have happened because of the band, but also so many other things totally unrelated and in a way these things inform each other and bleed over. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Neither would guitarist Niklas Sundin, who along with Stanne and drummer Anders Jivarp, round out Dark Tranquillity’s original core. Together, they’ve seen and done it all. From the poetic lyrics of The Gallery and The Mind’s I to the genre-breaking sonic explorations of Haven and its more aggressive relative in Character, the group’s ventures were of vision and courage. To Dark Tranquillity, limitation, to creatively fester, wasn’t an option. They were always willing—with eyes and ears on continuity—to move forward, even in times uncertain and impetuous. Atoma, an album three years in the making, is proof there’s still more depth in Dark Tranquillity.
“I think it goes beyond fear,” Stanne gasps. “You go through all kinds of emotions going into something like this. Where do we go? Do we still have something to offer and say? Can we maintain the high quality we’ve set for ourselves? All these things play into our insecurities, but as you slowly move towards the finish line that very thing turns into great triumph and relief. It’s so easy to second guess yourself and go back and forth between ideas until you eventually lose sight of what you were supposed to do. But that just means more time is needed to work something out and as hard as that is sometimes the end result is what matters. As long as you get there, it will all be worth it.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
The writing for Atoma was gradual. The Swedes didn’t want to rush into their 11th full-length without their usual democratic prudence. That doesn’t mean they weren’t enterprising, however. Drummer Jivarp and long-time keyboardist/tactician Martin Brändström had up to 20 songs on offer, before the rest of the band shaved it down to 12 key tracks. The songs were then re-shaped and re-tooled. As with Construct, there was more freedom, a precedent set by the band not, say, the record label, to try new things, to expand upon ideas that seemed insignificant at the time, but ultimately blossomed into fully formed songs. “Encircled”, “Force of Hand”, “The Pitiless”, and the contemplatively dark “Merciless Fate” are successful products of Dark Tranquillity’s ‘new’ process.
“In a way, every new album feels liberating,” Sundin levels. “But there might be a certain sense of ‘openness’ on Atoma that we hinted on with Construct. In my view, we managed to stay relevant by creating something that’s unmistakenly Dark Tranquillity, while still adding somewhat of a new perspective. This is particularly the case with the arrangements, that are a bit more musically advanced (as opposed to complex) than before.”
Whereas We Are the Void and Construct were dark, city-like, and, at times, cold, Atoma’s center is one of diversity and energy. For certain, there are odes to the monolithic abyss in tracks like “Faithless by Default” and bonus track “The Absolute”, but overall the album represents a more colorful Dark Tranquillity. Across Atoma’s hour-long span, there’s more in common with tracks like “Hours Passed in Exile” and “The New Build” and “The Wonders at Your Feet” than, say, “Uniformity” or “Dream Oblivion” or “Iridium”. For long-time fans, Atoma is best represented by a single word: urgency. There’s criticality to what Dark Tranquillity are up to. As expected, there’s heft—physical and emotional—behind the music.
“We’ve always wanted to make honest and serious music,” reminds Sundin. “It’s always flattering to see just how heavily our songs can resonate with some people. Again, it’s very subjective. I’ve seen fans in the front row crying from songs that, to me, convey entirely different moods, and there are people stage-diving and moshing to the more mellow songs as well. I don’t want to dictate how anyone should respond to the new songs. I’m sure that those who formed a strong emotional attachment to our previous albums will do the same with Atoma.”
Indeed, Dark Tranquillity’s music has carried seriously honest qualities throughout the years. Album after album, fans have connected deeply with the Swedes. While much of that is in the heartfelt guitar harmonies by Sundin or the ominous moods Brändström beams, there’s also lyrical weight, with emphasis on presentation by Stanne. The two—music and lyrics—are inseparable, really. With Atoma, Stanne and team decided world events were too vital to ignore. Fortunately, as most mellow with age, Dark Tranquillity are likely traveling in the opposite direction.
“Where Construct dealt with betrayal, trust issues and disappointment, this one is full of anger, doubt and fear,” Stanne asserts. “There is so much going on in the world right now and without touching on politics, I tried to find an angle that speaks to our human nature in these rather extreme circumstances. How do you empathize with people whom we know nothing about, how do we communicate the horrors of the world to our children, and how far do we stretch our imagination in order to make sense of it all? So, I am fascinated by our personal defense mechanisms and the ways through which we manage to get our point across no matter its validity. In observing this through a skeptic and atheist filter, I manage to find plenty to be upset about.”
For all the vibrancy and new hues Dark Tranquillity imbued in Atoma, there is also loss. Actual loss, in fact. Earlier this year—after faithfully serving as bassist, guitarist, and songwriter for two and half decades—founding member Martin Henriksson realized he had enough. Luckily, the parties ended the relationship amicably, with Henriksson moving from band member to back office, where the business side of things is handled. With Henriksson out, the second guitar slot is currently vacant. Separately, Dark Tranquillity transitioned age-old friend Anders Iwers, also bassist for Tiamat and re-activated cult death metal act Ceremonial Oath, from session work to permanently join the fold.
“It feels strange of course, after nearly three decades of playing together,” Sundin contemplates. “Compared to most other bands that have been around for so long, we’ve had an extremely stable lineup, so the departure of an original member is not to be taken lightly. However, Martin did the right thing since the motivation just hadn’t been there for a quite some time.”
CONSTRUCTION TIME AGAIN
As with Dark Tranquillity albums starting with Character, much of Atoma was recorded at Brändström’s studio, Rogue Music. There, the group settled into the normal process of cutting an album, something they’ve done with varying degrees of pain and suffering since 1993. But what separates the new album from previous efforts is the lack of big, sticker-on-album-sleeve names. We Are the Void was mixed by Tue Madsen at Antfarm Studios, while Construct was mixed and mastered at Fascination Street Studios by Jens Bogren. Though Dark Tranquillity did enlist Studio Gröndahl’s David Castillo (Katatonia, Soilwork) to mix the record, Atoma, by contrast, was mostly done close to the vest.
“There is certainly comfort in recording in Martin’s studio,” reveals Stanne. “It’s close and it’s great in every way. But everything about recording is something of a chore. The writing is great, full of anxiety and sleepless nights, but great. Then, the actual recording is just an end to that process and in a way the creativity ends there and I have mixed feelings about that. And as much as you feel that anything can happen during the writing, the actual recording is very mechanical and sterile. It’s just a matter of getting the most out of your instrument, making the most out of the song and making sure that you don’t screw up. I think the reason we worked so hard and long making this album was the feeling that we really needed to prove to ourselves that we can pull it off. And as I look back on it now the struggle and anguish are all there on the album. It’s stronger because of it.”
With a new album, a new lineup, and a refreshed outlook, Dark Tranquillity are stronger now than they were six months ago; they’re a better band than they were 10 years ago; and the Swedes are far more resilient now than they were as wide-eyed teenagers. No question, it’s been a saga and a journey. But Atoma is the start of a new chapter. It represents new life. With tracks like “Forward Momentum”, “Force of Hand”, “Our Proof of Life”, and the riveting title cut, there’s no stopping Dark Tranquillity in 2016. Or, in the years to follow.
“There are so many aspects of this album that I feel so strongly about that if just one tiny part of that translates to the listener I’d be satisfied,” Stanne says. “As much of a struggle the creation of an album can be, now that we hear the final product I feel invincible. And ready for 11 more albums!”