Saturday, March 2, 2024

A Turn For The Unexpected – An Interview With Norse Metal Pioneers Helheim

Following the recent release of Helheim’s tenth full-length record, the incredibly diverse and unconventional Rignir, RAMzine simply had to have a chat with bassist/vocalist V’gandr from the Norwegian Viking metal ensemble; in order to learn more about what makes them tick, why alienation is a relevant and important theme within the context of the new album, and how the writing sessions within the Helheim camp usually unfold.

RAMzine: The first thing I wanted to ask you regarding the new album is how and why the theme of nature became a source of inspiration to you? Was it a conscious decision to base something around the (dark) forces of nature or did that come about by chance?

V’gandr: It came with the title really, which happened while I was studying. The Norse word “Rignir” signifies or connotes “it rains”. I thought that was a really interesting and wicked title, and it rains an awful lot here in Bergen, so it felt natural. Then I started thinking about a conceptual record where the songs are individual or only loosely connected and where the album functions as a bad weather omen. The weather is merely used metaphorically here and is meant to symbolize inner thoughts and feelings. It is not always easy to put words to feelings and so on, as these are rather abstract matters, so one could argue that we tried to take something that was quite abstract and make it slightly more concrete and concise by means of weather-related phenomena, if that makes sense. The weather is something that you can sense, touch, experience, or feel.

RAMzine: I noticed that there are only eight songs on the album. Is there a deeper significance or meaning to that? There were usually nine tunes on each previous record.

V’gandr: No, not really, we just went with the idea that H’grimnir and I would come up with four pieces each. The whole 9-song cycle thing is over and done with now that we have no more Helheim-parts left. Besides, we suck at writing short songs, so eight compositions made sense ha-ha.

HelheimRAMzine: What about the evocative artwork then? Is there a symbolism there? It looks very pleasing to the eye.

V’gandr: H’grimnir came up with that, and he has been in charge of our artworks for quite a while now. If you look closely, it looks like a drop of water with the blue color connoting coldness. The rain is coming towards you as if in stormy weather.

RAMzine: I love all the mid-tempo parts that are present in the title track as well as ‘Kaldr‘ – those are monumental tracks. There are quite a few influences from prog rock present in your music, but how much of that is conscious or intended, if you catch my drift?

V’gandr: Well, we do not really think about that anymore to be perfectly honest with you. Prog has become so diluted over the years, or at least rather diffuse, and it covers so many things, but I guess you could say that there are some postmodern prog tendencies to what we do. However, we are not a prog band. Then again, we are neither a black metal band nor a post-black metal band, so… I suppose there is a musical skeleton or a foundation in Helheim that we simply add to and then all kinds of elements and impulses get thrown into the mix. This is one of those things that I could talk about for hours and hours ha-ha.

RAMzine: Rignir covers a lot of musical ground and I love the fact that so many influences and genres are in play on the album. Prog rock, pop music, pagan metal, black metal, and so on and so forth.

V’gandr: The opening track on the album even incorporates some gothic rock touches here and there, but not in the modern sense ala HIM or any of that stuff. Rather, we are talking about proper and real goth rock ala eighties goth rock, which can be quite minimalistic. I love the monotonous elements that are present in that genre such as the borderline hypnotic and drone-like bass lines that more or less run through entire songs.

RAMzine: It’s funny that you should say that, because there were a few parts where Joy Division came to mind due to the linear bass lines and melodies that occasionally rear their heads.

V’gandr: Brilliant! That is awesome and makes me VERY happy to hear, because the whole scene that Joy Division were a part of was certainly an influence. There are some truly monotonous bass lines present on the new album, or at least some lines with very few variations to them.

RAMzine: I love the element of surprise that Rignir holds. You are never quite sure what you are going to get when you pop a new Helheim CD in the player and press play.

V’gandr: That is great to hear, because we love to surprise ourselves as well. We ditched the horns this time around as we felt that it would intrude and not really fit in. There were some things that there were simply no room for.

RAMzine: Suffering, loss, loneliness, alienation, and inner peace are themes and motifs that are very close to my heart. Let us talk about those in relation to Helheim and Rignir. From your perspective, have those things always been present in your music?

V’gandr: Yes, I do. There is always that sense of sorrow and that feeling of never really belonging present in our music. That is something that one can experience within one’s thoughts and not necessarily in the physical world, which may sound a little abstract, but feeling or experiencing alienation does not entail that one walks around feeling sorry for oneself. One essential part of art is the appeal of being sucked into an inner universe, which also happened to me this time around, and concrete terms and definitions such as storm, rain, snow, and coldness create an inner world that is quite bleak.


RAMzine: Quite a few depressing and melancholy moods course through your new album, but not in the postmodern sense of walking around in some urban area of Oslo feeling down and out or displaced in terms of identity.

V’gandr: Exactly, and the album has nothing do with me as a person as such. It is more about not being able to relate to a lot of things in modern society on a deeper level or recognizing and acknowledging the meaning and substance of certain things in modern society. It is this idea of taking a stand and deciding to remove all the things that are negative influences in life, which is a positive thing in my opinion. You remove all the stuff that holds no meaning or value to you, if that makes sense. If we take a crude example, Vikings on TV or computer games and so on have nothing to do with reality and those things mean nothing to me. I want something more. The question is “What do all these superficial things really mean?”. Alienation is not about Vikings, but instead a personal thing akin to an inner spiritual journey. We are not singing about Vikings; we are into the speech and thoughts of Odin and the runes. One can find a beautiful and solitary world of one’s own that is rich in inner peace and quiet. Simply put, alienation can be utilized as a tool.

RAMzine:  So, alienation is neither a bad nor unwanted thing within the context of Rignir then?

V’gandr: Right on. Like I said, alienation is not necessarily something negative, which ties in with what I said before about removing influences, impulses, norms, and conventions that are essentially superficial, meaningless, or downright ridiculous. The previous record also had a theme of alienation to it with the song Baklengs Mot Intet being a prime example of this. When words no longer suffice and make sense or when basic constructs turn into unidentifiable affairs, then one is experiencing total and utter alienation.

RAMzine: To my ears, there has always been a strong current of longing coursing through Helheim’s musical outputs. That is still very much present in your music, I think.

V’gandr: Definitely, but it is probably a bit more mature and developed now. Earlier on, it was mostly rooted in anger and maybe even hatred, but nowadays it has mutated into… well, let us call it wisdom ha-ha.

RAMzine: The word suffering can mean a multitude of different things to countless people out there.

V’gandr: Sure, it could be bodily suffering or mental problems, just to list a couple of examples, both of which can also result in alienation. I often use my inner demons in order to get the point across in my lyrics, but again, that does not mean that I walk around feeling even remotely sorry for myself. Suffering could also mean that you sacrifice something in order to gain something else.

RAMzine: In the press sheet that accompanied the promo copy of Rignir, there was a reference to Ulver, but how do you feel about the old Ulver albums? Perhaps one could draw a parallel between Rignir and the first few Ulver outputs in terms of atmosphere in certain places?

V’gandr: Yeah, and we did talk about that when we recorded the album because it came up in conversation. I think our producer, Bjoernar E. Nilsen, also brought it up, and we are totally cool with that. Funnily, those records are categorized as black metal and were even categorized as black metal back then, but they are something more than that in a sense, which partly has to do with the vocals. If people make a comparison between Rignir and the old Ulver records, then I think that is a compliment.

RAMzine: I did get that sense of nostalgia when listening to Rignir while simultaneously being aware that I was being introduced to something new and different. That was really cool.

V’gandr: That is very cool to hear. Some bands are dead set on inventing something new or being totally innovative all the fucking time, but that is not what we are about. The most important thing is being honest to oneself without copying others. If one feels that one can draw a musical parallel to other sources of music, then that is fine if you ask me. There is a difference between parodying or copying something as opposed to being inspired by it. If it helps to absorb other forms of music or bands and albums and whatnot in order to achieve or evoke a certain atmosphere with respect to one’s own music, then that is totally fine, I think. Everything can be related to something else, i.e. something that came before it. But again, recycling the ideas of others sucks ass and is hardly very creative or conducive to anything.

RAMzine: That reminds me of what you and I have often discussed in private when talking about music; why listen to a cheap clone or some crap-hole copy of something when one can listen to the pioneers.

V’gandr: Exactly, ha-ha.

RAMzine: The song entitled Hagl is extremely introspective and catchy, but when one writes and composes a song for Helheim, how important is it that it is decidedly catchy?

V’gandr: Well, sometimes it is (at least to some extent), but other times that does not even cross one’s mind. One often ends up being surprised at just how little control one has of how the tune will turn out. The songs have a life of their own in a sense, and we are merely the tools. However, we were determined to turn the title track into our single from the album and we stayed true to that idea. We spent an awful lot of time on that particular song, but it turned out exactly the way we wanted it to.

RAMzine: For the record, the closing track on the album (Vetrarmegin) is also quite introspective.

V’gandr: That is a good example of how…well, let me put it this way: I love it when one starts out with a basic idea or concept in mind and then ends up with something completely different. Like I said before, it often feels like one is merely a tool and that the song more or less writes itself, which is a great feeling.

RAMzine: How does one decide which song to make a video to?

V’gandr: Good question, because that can be a rather tricky situation, but very often we all agree on which composition is most suitable for a video- and single-release, and I must say that it feels pretty good when we all see eye to eye on stuff like that.

RAMzine: I do not think that I have ever asked you this before, but when you were nominated for the Norwegian Spellemannprisen, how did that feel?

V’gandr: We never really thought about it much even when we were nominated, almost as if it was a bit surreal, but when we were there that night it felt quite special. It was definitely a compliment if you ask me. Yeah, it felt good. We are not that arrogant or trve kvlt ha-ha. That was a good experience and a pad on the shoulder.

RAMzine: Does Taake function as a creative outlet by any stretch of the imagination or is that more of a live-on-stage-exorcism for you?

V’gandr: The latter. Taake is Hoest’s brainchild and he composes and records the music pretty much singlehandedly. I have written a couple of lyrics for it, and I have a huge amount of respect for what he does and take great pride in being a live member of the ensemble. Taake is basically two bands; one is a live band (which is what I am a part of) and then a studio band, which is run solely by Hoest.

RAMzine: You toured with Gorgoroth back in 2010. Did that experience give you a new perspective on their music or a new appreciation of their catalogue?

V’gandr: No, not really. I truly enjoyed performing many of the old classics, but the tour itself was rather short and I was merely a hired hand and a session-member, so that was it, really. It was a good tour, but I do not think that I will ever do session work like that again as I have more than enough on my plate nowadays with Helheim and Taake ha-ha.

RAMzine: A while ago you played me some ideas for a solo project of yours that you were working on. How are things coming along? Some of those ideas were superb.

V’gandr: Arghhh… well… right now I fucking hate that project because it is so HUGE and time-consuming, but eventually I will get it done and I intend to go through with it. It is on ice for the time being as I have a lot of other things going on and Helheim is taking up a huge chunk of my time, so the solo project will have to wait. It will materialize and surface someday, but there are no time frames or deadlines when it comes to wrapping it up and finalizing the cursed thing. It could be a year from now or maybe even ten years – who knows?

RAMzine: When you walk by the legendary Grieghallen in the city center where you recorded some of your records, does it bring back a lot of precious memories?

V’gandr: Hell yes, I only have fond memories of that place and the days that we spent there, but I walk by the place every day now on my way to work, so I do not think about it THAT much anymore. Sometimes when I talk to others about it and how things were back then, there is a sense of nostalgia that rears its head and one cannot overlook or forget the fact that it is a historical landmark within the black metal milieu and a place of huge importance to the genre. But then everything has a time and a place, and things inevitably change. We also lost the venue named Garage not that long ago, which was a real shame, but one must look forward instead of looking backwards, and so I have not really been that nostalgic about all of this. I do not long for the past or wish to go back in time, if you know what I mean.

RAMzine: Do you recall your first encounter with Norse mythology?

V’gandr: To be perfectly honest with you, I do not. I must have been a small kid the first time I became aware of it and I suppose it was somehow ingrained in some of stuff that we heard or read back then if only to a small extent or in a rather subtle manner. But I made a conscious decision when I was in my teens to devote myself to Norse mythology, which was in large part due to the Bathory albums. I also remember a friend who stole a book on the subject and then gave it to me, and when I started reading it, I was hooked – that I do remember.

RAMzine: Given that you have devoted so much of your time to the subject and feel so passionate about it, one could be led into thinking that there was one huge and monumental encounter with Norse mythology that changed your life completely, but that is not the case then?

V’gandr: Some things in life you absorb gradually or perhaps even subconsciously until you come to the realization that “yes, this is for me”. I guess a lot of hobbies and passions and whatnot start out like that. When I was in my teens, I knew hardly anything about Norse mythology compared to now, so obviously things have developed and progressed since then and it has been a very personal and utterly gratifying journey for me that is nowhere near complete or final yet. Many beautiful things have been lost or neglected as the centuries have passed, but that does not mean that they are entirely forgotten.

RAMzine: That reminds me of a discussion you and I once had regarding the Håvamål. In my opinion, the Håvamål is akin to a philosophy and a way of life, or a way of thinking and approaching the world and one’s surroundings. Would you agree?

V’gandr: Absolutely, and it is still highly relevant these days. Perhaps more so than ever before? One could even argue that there are some things in the Håvamål that are universal or at least compatible with many different cultures and so on due to some of the thoughts and ideas that are present in it, but that is certainly not to say that one should preach the Håvamål or try to impose it on others or claim that others will turn into better humans because of it. The Håvamål is an interesting (life) philosophy in and of itself.

RAMzine: It is a hugely dynamic concept and idea, I think. I love having it as an ideal.

V’gandr: Totally! You could relate the Håvamål to all kinds of different contexts and situations and make use of it there.

RAMzine: What about your touring plans for the album and future plans in general?

V’gandr: We recently wrapped up our European tour with Vulture Industries and Madder Mortem, which was great. We also have heaps of ideas for a new album, so things are afoot within the Helheim camp. My brain is on the brink of exploding with new concepts and ideas ha-ha. I am always thinking ahead even though I am living in the present. So yeah, we have plenty of ideas for a new record and the future is looking bright for us. There is no rush when it comes to writing or composing an album and things tend to take time. Certain compositions take a lot of time to arrange properly whereas others are more or less fleshed out quickly, but maybe in two-three years’ time there will be a new Helheim opus out?

RAMzine: I think it is incredibly inspiring that you guys are still out there and that you sound better and more vigorous than ever before.

V’gandr: That is very good to hear. Fantastic! We do not want to stagnate or lose focus. From the high-octane aggression of our teenage years when we composed our first songs to now, there has been a steady progression, I think. We still have something that we wish to say or convey by means of our music. From Åsgards Fall and up until now we have just done what feels natural to us and allowed Helheim to be what it is, which feels pretty relaxing in a sense. Maybe that is something that comes with age? Ha-ha. Either way, there are no restrictions or boundaries these days, and we work as a band where everyone contributes to what we do.

RAMzine: If you have an idea for a song, do you present that to them in rehearsals or do your record it on your phone and then send it to them?

V’gandr: We whip everything into shape in rehearsals and present our ideas to each other there. That is how and where everything begins in a sense. No e-mails, text messages, or anything like that. We are pretty old-school like that and fortunately, I reckon that approach to things will never change ha-ha.

Jens Nepper
Jens Nepper
Born and raised in Denmark, currently living in Norway, and hopelessly addicted to coffee and Black Sabbath.

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