Moonspell have a really special place in the landscape of contemporary metal, a band with legacy and pedigree, but a continuing adaptability characterized by a real care and consideration in their approach.
They're heroes to their national scene at home in Portugal, comfortably casting the largest shadow of any band from their country, but their idiosyncratic gothic metal is able to morph between albums in a way that makes being a fan continually rewarding.
The latest record, Hermitage, is among their best, in part because it is marked with a distinct consciousness and worldliness that could only come from a band with as much experience as Moonspell. This is not a fiery recapturing of youthful abandon but a timely look at a real broader picture.
Frontman Fernando Ribeiro is among the most thoughtful and erudite people in metal you can talk to, and in this interview he tells us why Hermitage is relevant to all of us.
Hermitage as an album has a much more subtle and patient approach than where you've just been on the previous album 1755. What inspired that move?
I have to say many things. That slow build-up is probably part of our attempt at making an album that is more grown-up. Sometimes heavy metal music can be done in a rush. I’ll listen to a metal record sometimes and it will initially sound great, but after a while I cannot catch up with them. We found we wanted some room to do something more fluid. I think that is very classic in that sense. I am quite glad that the album is out there now so that people can listen to the whole story, instead of us having to worry about which singles will bring people in the best and not spoil it. We wanted to make an album with not a lot of strings attached. Some people say it has a signature sound of Moonspell, personally I don’t know what that is and that we are maybe still searching for it, and in mixing what we have with some novelties always that slow build-up is one of the big parts of Hermitage. It demands from the listener some time and some spins. This can be problematic because nowadays we always in a rush, even now when we cannot go anywhere there’s always a schedule, but I think that the Hermitage idea and concept really got into me with thinking about time and the temporary, and this album has a narrative that I hope people have the patience to hear as a whole.
Were you consciously channelling more progressive influences?
Before writing Hermitage I went to an uncle of mine who had this cool leather bag from the 1970s which he gave to me, and inside there were all of these records from Pink Floyd, ELP, Sabotage by Black Sabbath, Revolver by The Beatles, so of course I set up my record player again and just jammed with them. Sharing these things with the other guys in Moonspell, we all got into that zone. One of our biggest influences always has been Bathory, and people think of Bathory as a black metal band and rightfully so because if you take Under the Sign of the Black Mark and then the first Immortal album Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism it’s very clear how influenced by Bathory all of these black metal bands after were, but if you take Twilight of the Gods with its epic singing and classic influences like Gustav Holst’s Planets elements, you can even see a little bit of Pink Floyd there. The thing that most excites me about metal from the 90s is that it is a kind of fusion music. Obviously you have a band like Opeth who are such a big band of progressive metal, we’ve known them since their more extreme days, but there are bands who are the unsung heroes of combining prog with underground metal. Tiamat did this back in ‘93-’94 with a great album called Wildhoney, and that was the time that we showed up in the scene. Now today there are bands like Our Survival Depends On Us or Crippled Black Phoenix in this post-rock or post-metal territory, and they I think are really onto something because they still have the extremity but with a different flavour added into it that’s weird and dark. I hope we’re not too old to get into that. We don’t wanna be the old guys interfering with a new trend but it’s a kind of homage as well. We came from a black metal background but that kind of music for us always seemed like a high form of what metal could be. We’ve done bits and pieces and experiments, but right now we were able to gather all of the conditions for us to do such an album of progressive rock, space rock, and classic rock territory. A lot of people want bands to go back to their roots but sometimes our roots are a bit mouldy. Sometimes metal music can stuck in the past, not just because of the music but because we had a great time back then. In ‘95 I was 21 and touring Europe. Nothing was happening in Portugal but I got to travel and yeah, it was in a van and I was ripped off, but it was that or living with my parents and I got out there. We have twice as many years on our back than when we started, when you’re young and just want to devour the world with an immediate feeling, and nowadays we have more of a concept of time. When you have so many albums under your belt as well it’s almost like your music becomes more separate from your life. You’re someone off-stage who is not like the guy on stage, where when you’re young it is your whole life and identity. That though can bring factors that come round again and feed into influencing your music.
What is that lyrical concept underpinning Hermitage?
Every album, the two Moonspell guitarists Pedro Paixão, Ricardo Amorim and I sit down for a discussion, because I write the lyrics with a general idea or concept and they translate it into music. We have to have this talk because if I come to them with a specific theme for an album, the music will take on quite a different colour or direction. This time, I had this word "hermitage", and that would be very different-sounding to if I had come to them saying I was going to write lyrics about the Knights Templar or something. I had these ideas of revelation, of saints, of going into the desert to fight inner demons, and then of course there’s the unavoidable observation of the world we are in now. Nowadays with social distancing, it’s decreed by law as a sanitary thing, but looking back a few years before the pandemic we were already social distancing. There’s a lot of connectivity in today’s world but not authentic connections. We have stepped into a very atomised world where you cannot talk about sexuality, gender, or race without making enemies. It’s not like we are St. Anthony fighting demons being pictured by all the classic masters of painting, a romanticised hermit, but we are going into a place where we are definitely alone. This is how I was feeling and so I started elaborating and researching. There’s a lot of literature about hermits of all different kinds. In 19th century England you have aristocrats in their big rich properties never emerging from their dinner parties, and there are contemporary hermits that are very different from the image of the guy with the long beard and the staff in the desert. There are younger people in Japan for example who just do not accept the culture there of working until you die, enriching the higher-ups in the office they work in, so they run away and stay away from it all. What it really means is a change of perspective, and hermitage is a place of self-awareness and self-thought. There’s the story of the artist Manfred Gnadinger, who came from Germany to Galicia in Spain with these ideals of peace and quiet, who became really beloved by the community there for his transformation of the area and became a symbol of that region, and then came the Prestige disaster where a big oil boat collapsed on the coast of Spain and Portugal and completely ruined his world. It became this metaphor for a clash of cultures. It’s not an album where we try to moralise, there’s more questions than answers really, but it’s an album that invites people to think about things, about these retreats and the ways in which people then bring something back into their community when they return. There’s a clash between being sociable and unsociable that everybody has, and right now something we have all been forced into in a way that’s scarily contemporary. So often you can find that you’re tired of people and don’t want to go out, but now you’re stuck inside and all you want to do is see people, and when you release an album called Hermitage right now everyone will see it under these lights.
A lot of bands would say that in their writing process they create instinctively and then fit a particular theme or concept to that sound, but the way you’re describing it sounds more like the order in which you’d create a movie where you are altering your approach in order to fit a certain idea and story. Is that fair to say on the way in which Moonspell operate?
I think the fact that I don’t write music myself plays a part. I became the singer of Moonspell back in the ‘90s because I couldn’t afford a drum-kit. I think my colleagues kinda expect a little guidance from me in where they take it, not an oppressive guidance like so literally dictating the sounds used to fit my words, I’m not the kind of guy who surrounds myself with people with talent and then tells them exactly what to do, but they appreciate that direction. You’re absolutely right on the gut instinct that often comes with writing music, picking up a guitar or sitting at a piano, but I think that filmic thing is true where I provide something of a script that glues the ideas together. Even as fundamentally as in general life when you christen or name something, that thing that you name will carry that name forever and that alters the way in which you see it. A name changes its personality and it leads you to a certain place with it. Moonspell is never a band where we’ll have a couple of songs lying around and I’ll last minute write some lyrics. When we write we already have certain pieces of information that inform the rest of it. It’s like a mood board. Even the working titles I try to put a little bit of poetry into because it changes how we feel about it. Moonspell works best with meaning.
Going into this album, you've also highlighted that you're entering your final years of your career. Bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest have been going for decades longer than you and are still around, so what made you feel this way, and how much does that finality play into the music that you're writing now?
First and foremost, the bands you quote there, they are not just bands. They become a part of the culture and so they have this kind of larger than life and larger than time nature to them that bands like Moonspell simply do not have. It’s a question of power and a question of dimension. I think that nowadays, bands can be big but they probably will not be legendary. Since the internet became a little bit more temporary. About that calling that we tried to describe, for me it happened eight years ago when I became a father. A lot of things play in your mind when you are a parent and certainly, you’re always blaming yourself for not spending enough time with your kid. Being a professional musician involves you being absent most of the time, and this year there will have been a lot of people making up for that lost time. Since my kid was born, I think much more about the final chapter of the band, but I don’t know how long or short that is going to be and I want it to be the best. I think that my mechanism of compensation for being abroad and being absent from my home life is that everything I do, every record or live show, it has to have quality and it has to be thought out. It cannot be random and it cannot have loose ends, and in that way I think that having kids actually made Moonspell a little bit better. I also think it is healthy for bands to think about their end. I think it is healthier than people having this dream of being forever young, or dragging themselves along just to make a buck. I hope I can avoid all of that, and to do that you have to foresee it and think about it. You cannot live it tragically, but a slow dance. Some people might say that I am saying this for marketing of this album, but we’re a metal band from Portugal. We were supposed to last one or two years and play a couple of shows to drunken people who’d rather throw us Molotov cocktails. The fact that in 2022 we are going to be thirty years old as a band, it’s a cool thing but also a heavy thing, because it was never expected. One of the things that I think actually marked Moonspell apart from other bands from where we came from is that we didn’t try to be our nation’s Judas Priest or Metallica. We were a band who wanted to record some cool tapes we could send to the people we knew in Norway or England that would spread all this stuff from good underground bands, and in Portugal we just had Sepultura and Pantera clones back then. When I read the story of Judas Priest or Motorhead, that’s not our story at all. Not everyone in Moonspell actually agrees with me with all of this, our bass player wants to die romantically on stage and fair enough, but I want to do this until it feels authentic to end. I would say that about our new album, that it feels authentic. I have seen good people that I had fun with living destructive lifestyles because their expectations weren’t met. To think about the end, it’s also a way to enjoy things while they’re here and to end things on a happy note.
'Hermitage' from Moonspell is currently available now via Napalm Records - order the album - HERE