Tribulation's Glorious Atmosphere Of Death
Have these young Swedes made the best metal album of the year?
Photo courtesy of Linda Akerberg
Call them “goth metal” if you really have to. Or “horror metal,” or even plain old death metal—even though there’s nothing plain or old about them. The members of Tribulation have heard it all before. “It’s obvious, I think, that we don’t really care about being a death metal band or a black metal band or a whatever band,” says 26-year old guitarist and co-lyricist Adam Zaars with a laugh. “When we were touring the States, people said we were ‘doom metal’ or ‘thrash metal.’ And I just read ‘art rock’ and ‘art metal’ in some reviews as well. We have a lot of labels, I guess.”
Not that Zaars and his bandmates—vocalist/bassist Johannes Andersson, guitarist/album-cover artist Jonathan Hultén and drummer Jakob Ljungberg—are sweating it. The young Swedes’ third and latest album, Children Of The Night (note the KISS nod) eschews prosaic subgenre strictures in favor of a seductive midnight-graveyard atmosphere in which the possibilities transcend the usual necrotic scenarios and/or encounters with things that go bump in the night. Soaring metallurgy like “Strange Gateways Beckon,” “In The Dreams Of The Dead” and “The Motherhood Of God” somehow ooze horror, triumph and romance simultaneously. Like if the Cure played death metal and didn’t moan about it. In fact, Tribulation covered the Cure’s “One Hundred Years” as a bonus track on the digipak version of Children Of The Night. Which, by the way, is easily one of the best albums—regardless of genre—that’s come out so far this year.
We caught Zaars between his day jobs doing graphic design for a Swedish brewery and UK metal mag Iron Fist to talk about vampires, stage makeup, and why atmosphere rules all.
NOISEY: Children Of the Night has been getting rave reviews. Many in the metal community are already calling it the album of the year. What do you make of the reaction?
Adam Zaars: It’s a bit overwhelming, to be honest. I mean, we expected good reviews but we didn’t quite expect this. I think I’ve only read like two kinda lame reviews, but they were both Swedish so I guess they take some pride in writing bad about us. [Laughs] I’m a little ambivalent, though, especially when it gets personal. I’ve read that I’m “a genius” and stuff like that, which is just nonsense to me. It’s very cool to hear, of course, but it’s very much to take in. It would be cool to hear what the people who actually buy the album think because we’ve only heard what journalists think. [Laughs]
How did you approach the new album differently than your last one, The Formulas Of Death?
I think we had a different mindset when we started writing this one. We didn’t think about it at the time, but in retrospect I think we took on a new challenge. When we did The Formulas Of Death, we just wanted to make an album with music that had no end. We had so many ideas, and we wanted it to be as free as possible. That’s why it ended up being 75 minutes or whatever it is. We really took to heart that we wouldn’t care about the length of the songs. It wasn’t made to be played on the radio—it was made for people who wanted to seriously get into it and immerse themselves. That record demands a lot from the listener, which is good I think.
This new one does as well, but the challenge was to make the songs in a different way. Some of the songs are still very unorthodox in their structure, I guess. Just like we did on The Formulas Of Death, we didn’t really care about a verse or a chorus or a bridge or whatever. But some of the songs really are structured in more of a basic pop/rock way. I think one even has three choruses. [Laughs] That’s a big step for us. Not because we wanted to be more accessible, but it became more accessible.
You’ve used that to your advantage, though. By adhering to more traditional structures, you’ve distilled the essence of Tribulation and the music has become more powerful.
I agree. And we actually did adhere to [William Faulkner’s] “kill your darlings” [theory of writing] with the last album, but with this album we did it even more. We removed the unnecessary parts of songs as much as we could. Who knows what we’ll think about it in a year or two, but I do think we stripped the songs down even though they’re all kind of long. We just made a video for the first song, “Strange Gateways Beckon”—which is one of my favorite songs on the album—but it’s also one of the shortest. So it was very convenient to make a video out of that song, because it takes more time to make a video out of an eight-minute song.
“Strange Gateways Beckon” is very appropriate as the opening track and lead single because it clearly feels like you’re welcoming the listener into your world. Was that the intention?
It kinda was, actually. I guess we knew that “Music From The Other” was most likely going to be the closing song. When we almost had the entire album finished, we realized that we didn’t have an opening song. We had some songs we could use, but “could use” isn’t good enough, you know? So I actually asked [guitarist] Jonathan [Hultén] to make the song because he had another song that we had decided not to use, but there was this one riff—the main riff in the song—that was so good that I thought he could make an entire new song around that. So it was intentionally written as the opening track. And he made it really fast as well. He’s amazing at doing things fast and good.
From a listener’s perspective, it seems like Tribulation is more about creating a specific atmosphere than sticking to a specific genre. Is that the case?
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s what we’re doing. I received this same question before, and I think you and the other people who’ve said it are right. [Laughs] That’s usually how it works in Tribulation. We are rational people, but we try not to analyze the band. We rely heavily on intuition when we make the songs and when we make everything, I guess, because we never know where it’s going. And it never turns out like we thought—for the better, I think.
Who writes the lyrics? The album credits all music and lyrics to the entire band.
I write the lyrics for my songs. I did five on this album but one is an instrumental, so four with lyrics. And Jonathan wrote the lyrics for his songs, which is also four. I don’t think it matters that much who wrote what, but I’ll tell you off the record if you want to know. Most of the songs were worked on by the entire band, so that’s why we want to keep the credits simple.
You wear makeup in your promotional photographs and when you play live. Do you view that as a transformative process?
More and more, actually. You feel like a different person when you do it. Or I should say it’s become like that. I didn’t really feel that way when we started doing this, but you get more and more comfortable with that person who’s standing on the stage. It’s you, but it’s an extended part of you. Putting the makeup on and doing the whole ritual with the clothes and everything, it helps you get into that. It isn’t even conscious. It just happens now. [Laughs] I mean, a beer can help sometimes. But people have said they’re surprised when they meet us because we’re nice guys. [Laughs] That sounds pretty weird to me, because we’re not trying to be “bad guys” up there. It’s sort of like a character, but not really because a character is someone who isn’t you. We’re just stepping into a different part of ourselves.
There’s a long history of dark theatricality and ghoulish makeup in hard rock and heavy metal—Alice Cooper, KISS, Mercyful Fate, Ghost, etc. Do you feel part of a lineage in that sense?
Yeah, to some extent. Seeing photos of KISS is what got me into this to begin with. So it’s always been there, and there’s never really been any other way to do it for us. Even in other bands that we’ve played in, we’ve never gone on stage just wearing our regular clothes. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, actually. [Laughs] Maybe I should try it.
No way. KISS should never have taken their makeup off. It was the biggest mistake they ever made.
Of course I agree. [Laughs]
We should probably mention that Children Of The Night is a nod to KISS’s Creatures Of The Night.
Yes. We actually talked about covering the song as well. We still might do it in the future.
Speaking of covers, you did the Cure’s “One Hundred Years” as one of the bonus tracks on the digipak version of the CD. Why the Cure, and why that particular song?
The head brewer at the brewery I do some work for is a very close friend, and he made a very in-depth analysis and review of The Formulas Of Death. In it, he mentioned the Cure song. So that’s how it became a part of the band, I guess. It was Jonathan’s decision. As I said, we spoke about doing “Creatures Of The Night” by KISS, but it didn’t really fit. When Jonathan mentioned the Cure song, it felt right. We’re kind of in a difficult seat when it comes to making choices for covers because we can’t really do a Morbid Angel song or something. We have to find a song with clean vocals and do it our way. So there’s a limited amount of songs. But I’m really glad we decided to that one. I think it turned out really good.
I agree. The Cure obviously has no aesthetic relationship with death metal but within the context of Tribulation, the song makes perfect sense. Even when you listen to the Cure’s original version, you can hear the atmospheric relationship.
Exactly. There’s a similar atmosphere there. Not in all of the Cure stuff, obviously, but in that song in particular. It’s a very dark song, and it fits within the gothic part of what we’re doing.
The Children Of The Night cover art is based on a still from the 1915-16 silent film serial Les Vampires by the French director Louis Feuillade. What drew you to that image?
I saw the still and I saw the movie, and it became quite obvious to me that we had to have it. It’s one of those images that actually contains the perfect feeling of the album, which is something very important to me. And then Jonathan made his own version. When we posted it online at first, people got upset because they thought we just stole the still from the movie and said that Jonathan made it, but if you look at it it’s of course very obvious that it’s handmade. I think it turned out just great. He’s a very talented obviously, so it’s good to have him in the band as well! [Laughs]
A real-life version of the vampire dancer on the album cover also appears in the video for “Strange Gateways Beckon.” What significance does that figure have for you?
Well, the vampire has become kind of a symbol for us. We didn’t decide on that, but people seem to think so and I can see why, of course. As a symbol for the band, it’s quite fitting because the vampire is steeped in sex and death. And sex and death is of course procreation and destruction. It’s making something and destroying something, and that’s what we’ve been doing since the start. We’ve been constantly renewing ourselves and constantly slaying what we’ve been in the past so we can step into something new. And, most importantly, it creates the right feeling.
J. Bennett plays guitar in Ides Of Gemini. He highly recommends Tribulation’s new album.