Symphonic metal’s originators detail how their latest record eschews the excess and provides a gift to the old school fans.
Thousands upon thousands of metal bands exist and have existed over the genre’s fifty plus year history, but only the tiniest pocket of those have ever reached levels as extravagant and bombastic as Therion. Having pioneered the very idea of symphonic metal in the mid-90s, blossoming from a Swedish death metal band into the very template that has allowed for the likes of Nightwish or Epica to be some of the biggest European exports heavy music has ever seen. Famous for their multi-layered operatic concept records filled to the gills with guest performances and every instrument under the sun, Therion still made their past work look conservative with Beloved Antichrist in 2018. A three disc, three act, three hour near-musical based on the work of Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov, it was the kind of work that made even long-time fans used to their bold statements gasp at the sheer audacity of releasing such a thing to a heavy metal crowd.
The band’s latest album Leviathan could hardly be more different. A 45 minute heavy metal album full of direct Therion hits with no central story or theme, and a self-described gift to the fans for their patience, it’s both refreshing and shockingly immediate. Vocalist Thomas Vikström, lead vocalist in the band since 2007 and very much an advocate of the classic Therion sound, tells Knotfest all about the work that still goes into the most basic of Therion records.
Your new album Leviathan is out now and is such an obvious departure from Beloved Antichrist. What was the choice to make something more compact and obviously metallic?
For me it was kinda a blessing, because since I joined the band in 2007 this is only the second “normal” album so to speak we’ve done. First Sitra Ahra but then in the middle there was a French cover album and Beloved Antichrist which was a massive opera, so I had a chat with Christofer and we agreed to do something more like this and come home. I think that’s what we accomplished and I’m really pleased with the work. We’ve had fans say that is the same core and spirit as some of the older albums, and I’m not saying we’re trying to recreate the 90s but we took that feeling and put it into 2021.
You’ve also described it as a gift to the fans after taking in such an enormous project with Beloved Antichrist. It’s rare to see bands be so open about that. Is that something you’re happy creating?
With Christofer, it has always been that he is going his own way. He never listened to people who warned him when he started blending symphonic parts into rock and they told him it was commercial suicide. I remember so well the moment we were sitting in the tour bus and he looked up at me and said “We’re going to do a French cover album”. I’m wondering whether it’s a gas leak in the bus making him hallucinate but he wanted to do it and I respect him so much for that, because he was right. Today if you look at Therion’s most played songs on Spotify, in second place there’s a song from that album. But for myself, I really enjoyed going back to make a normal album again. It has different songs, there’s not one theme, and that feels great. Christofer will have some strange mountain he wants to climb next but right now it feels very good to be back.
How easy is it for you to flip that switch and get back into this style of songwriting?
For me it’s kinda easy because my songwriting is more straightforward. That’s the kind of music that I usually listen to, I listen to traditional metal like Judas Priest, so for me it’s not a big thing. Easy does not mean worse, a lot of easy songs are genius, and I find it quite easy to the certain style that we agree on. I wrote a lot of the songs on this album and because of the virus we had to write it online, sending files to each other, and that was interesting to work with. The amount of gigabytes that have passed through our computers must be some kind of a record. When it came to recording, we’d planned to do the whole album in Malta, but since the world stopped we recorded the guitars there but I recorded my vocals in Spain, the choirs were done in Israel, the opera vocals by Lori Lewis in the US, some vocals in England, some in Finland, some in Germany, and the drums in Sweden, so it was a multicultural process.
How much problem solving did you have to do in order to get access to all the different musicians or components you needed to make this right now?
There were plans to have some people on the record that could not make it because of it. There will be more records though and we left out those songs for later when everyone can be part of it. We’re planning a new record as fast as next year, with a stack of songs already written.
This is the seventeenth Therion record which most bands will never reach, and no one could have blamed you for taking a break after how huge an undertaking Beloved Antichrist was. How quickly are you always churning out material?
This came about pretty fast, you know. When I write, I don’t only write for Therion but for other artists also outside of rock and metal too, I sit down with a piano and find something that can be useful. Christofer and I were sending each other ideas for about one or two months solidly, before we said we had enough.
Obviously there is still always a huge element of opera and storytelling in Therion. In comparison to a 3 hour concept record like your previous, how much of this album is still structured like a play or a movie?
The new album has no specific theme at all. It’s a straightforward Therion album with different stories in different songs. For example, Ten Courts of Diyu is inspired by Chinese legends, and you hear that very well when you listen to the arrangements there. Tuonela with Marko Hietala is about Finnish mythology, so the lyrics are still very mythological but about different things with no thread between. I find that a refreshing thing after Beloved Antichrist, I don’t write the lyrics because I don’t have enough knowledge of these topics, but we have a guy Per Albinsson who does them who is a very skilled poet. Not only does it have to be good story but good in the mouth to sing, of course.
With Therion pushing the boundaries of the kind of sounds you heard within heavy metal, is there any sound or instrument you feel you’d still like to try with the band?
Ten Courts of Diyu funnily enough was something I did not write for Therion in the beginning, it was something I had and initially it was done with sitars and Indian-inspired instruments. I sent it over to Christofer in the end and he loved it, but had the idea to change it to Chinese sounds. He did what came to him with it and I loved it. I am not sure how it would be done but I was thinking over the idea of American-inspired folk music. It is so easy to make it Whitesnake though when you make that fusion, you know what I mean, I love Whitesnake but it’s not Therion. In some way though to try and incorporate that would be very cool.
How much do you strive to get a sense of authenticity when experimenting with those regional sounds?
I wrote for a future album something after I was at a flamenco club in Spain, where I live now. I am trying to take in as much culture here as I can, and I incorporated that sound into something I wrote for Therion and it fits, because it’s very close to the Arabic tones that we have used before.
What about the guest singers?
Well I’m never thinking realistically! That can sometimes be very good because you might make that phone call for Alice Cooper and have him say yes. You never know. I don’t know for the moment who I am thinking about, but when we have a part in a song that should be this or that kind of voice that nobody in the band has, we are not afraid to take somebody in who has. That’s probably not so common for other bands but we embrace that. I personally love fusing in the unexpected things. I would love Tom Jones to come sing a song, because when those strange things happen it can be totally terrible or totally genius. Why not try? I can promise you I will not become a rapper, I can’t speak for Christofer, but everyone should have the balls to try things. Sometimes I write something fully for ego, it’s going to be for me, and then Christofer says “This is going to be a girl”, and that’s fine because it’s good to have another opinion that opens up other doors that are much better. I don’t have to sing everything.
2021 also marks Theli turning 25 years old which is obviously an important step in Therion moving away from being an underground extreme metal band towards the kind of band you are now. Do you take much note of those kind of milestones at this stage?
I totally get that Theli is a landmark record for Therion and maybe symphonic metal even, and you can never recreate that again because it was not planned for Theli to be that landmark. I respect that album very, very much. It doesn’t have the best production in the world but it doesn’t matter, it was something fresh and new that came out and made me people think “what the hell is this?” and either hate or love it.
What’s your view of experimental heavy music and that community today compared to the 90s?
I think that sadly a lot of things sound quite similar today. I don’t know if you agree but a lot sounds the same, and the limits used to be stretched a little bit more. Today things are quite streamlined. A band I really like are Myrath. The singing is incredible, the songs are stellar, and they came in with something that felt fresh. I like the latest Nightwish album also, the instrumental part is a bit too much to digest for me but I really like the handicraft on that record.
How is your relationship with your audience at this stage?
I read the forums and what people think. Some of them are not very nice sometimes, 90% are, but those people don’t think we are reading those comments but we are. Sometimes I’ll hop in, say “thank you very much for that”, and they become very nice instantly, but that aside the fans are for us everything. We do listen to them, like with this new album, and then in the end we will also do as we please but we have the biggest respect for their opinions and they are in a way our bosses.
With you writing new material already, any ideas you’re willing to share of what you might be cooking up next?
Yeah, apart from touring which of course we do not know when that will happen, we are planning a record for next year that will be sort of a second part to Leviathan, but will be much darker. That’s where we’re aiming and is all I can say about it.
Leviathan from Therion is currently available via Nuclear Blast Records and can be streamed/purchased – HERE