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Avatarium – Interview with Jennie-Ann Smith

Avatarium

Avatarium

Originally published in Powerplay Rock and Metal Magazine Issue 160 – December 2013

Joining a new band that see’s you working in a different genre of music from the one you have spent most of your career in can be a challenge but that challenge can only be greater when your bandmates have come from some very successful acts. Following doom legends, Candlemass calling time on their recording career bassist and songwriter Leif Edling began writing material with the help of Evergrey guitarist Marcus Jidell. Early material was intended for a doom project featuring Hellacopters drummer Nicke Andersson with Opeth mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt  singing however when Opeth began work on their next record plans for that were shelved. Enter Jennie-Ann Smith, a vocalist with a background in jazz and blues. How did Jennie become part of Avatarium? “Marcus asked if I would come to the studio and sing on some demos. They originally planned to have a male singer with a bluesier feel, someone like Robert Plant but lucky they liked what they heard.”

Jennie is modest when speaking about her part in this super group, yet one listen to “Avatarium” will show you how important her role is within the band. The rich melting pot of influences in Avatarium’s music takes in classic rock like Rainbow with jazz overtones and even a pinch of folk. Where did these influences come from? “I never really listened to metal before so this was quite new to me.” Jennie admits. “I grew up with singers like Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell although I did sing in a rock band when I was fourteen. We mainly did covers of Led Zep and Rainbow songs, which were where my love of rock comes from. Jon Mitchell taught me how to be soulful but Dio taught me how to sing with power!”

Indeed working with such luminaries would be a baptism of fire. Where nerves a factor for Jennie-Ann early on? “Leif is such a great composer and it is a pleasure to work with such great players. I was a little nervous to begin with but Marcus and I had worked together with another Swedish artist so that made it easier. Our producer Ronni Lahti was very encouraging. He understood that we wanted to make an album that sounded natural and emotive rather than technically perfect. Leif and Marcus are great at writing melodies so inspiration came very easily.  I have been a freelance musician, doing a lot of session work in Stockholm, which allowed me t work with a lot of different people. I also work part time as a psychosocial counsellor in a hospital in Stockholm so I have been able to take on creative projects that suited me. When I got the call from Marcus I couldn’t wait to get started!”

A classically trained alto vocalist, Smith’s contributions make Avatarium stand out from other female fronted acts like Blood Ceremony. Leif Edling has said that Avatarium’s lyrics are inspired by “heretical idolatry of the pre-Christianized cults throughout ancient Europe and esoteric allegories of the late medieval secret societies” the vocalist was somewhat taken a back at this revelation. “I did not know that but that’s very interesting. Leif wrote all the lyrics and I helped with arrangements. This album has historical themes like the one you mentioned but contemporary ones also. “Moonhorse” is about a sick child who daydreams of another world to escape the pain of his illness. It is a very emotional song for me to sing because I have worked in paediatric care, seen a lot of sick children and spoken to their families. It feels very personal for me even though I didn’t write it.”

Multifaceted with great depth and hidden meanings, Avatarium are more than just another occult rock act. Jennie may not have written the lyrics to these songs but her stamp is all over them. Considering “Moonhorse” was originally intended for Opeth’s frontman did Jennie have trouble adapting? “Actually that one was no problem. The most difficult track to sing was “Lady In The Lamp”. I wanted that song to feel like “Catch The Rainbow” or “Greensleeves” but we had to be careful. We did not want it to sound corny. Even the gentle moments on this record are accompanied by very dark themes.”

Indeed Avatarium’s work never comes close to being corny or trite. The band even took the bold step of recording Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” for the b-side of the “Moonhorse/Boneflower” maxi single. A risky enterprise considering how frequently this particular composition has been recorded, by other artists with mixed results, it could have gone horribly wrong. “It could have. Jennie admitted, “I think we got it right. The acoustic arrangement has not been done for this song I don’t think. “War Pigs” was actually my idea. We relished the challenge of covering such a famous song. The twelve string guitar really add a different element to that. It gives it a different feel, while retaining the power of the original. It would have been cheesy to try to do a big electric arrangement of the song. That would be a pale imitation of the original.”

Avatarium have yet to make their live debut save playing a couple of songs at the private birthday party of their drummer Tiamat stickman Lars Sköld. When can we expect this compelling group to play live? Considering these musicians involvement in other projects arranging live shows must be quite a challenge. “We are discussing our options. Obviously, Lars is touring with Tiamat this year and Marcus has Evergrey but we will come to an arrangement. We want to play a few shows and some festivals next year. We can’t wait to show people what we have created!”

Indeed Avatarium have created an enchanting blend of folk, blues, rock and doom. How would Jennie describe her bands sound? “That would depend on who was asking what we sound like! I would describe it as “Dark, heavy and poetic” for people who have not heard metal. I think it will surprise many metal fans who expect only one thing from Leif and Marcus. This is a new band, not some rehash of our other projects. I described us to my mum as dark poetic music, which seems to fit. This is the first album from Avatarium but it will certainly not be the last! I can’t wait to hear what the world makes of it!”

Avatarium’s self titled debut album is out November 22nd on Nuclear Blast

ROSS BAKER

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DOWNLOAD 2012 DONINGTON PARK

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DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL

DONNINGTON PARK 8 – 10 JUNE 2012

Having experienced torrential rain for three days prior to the weekend it’s frankly ridiculous that the organisers failed to put hay down on the mud soaked ground before the event which resulted in the shameful cancellation of both Rise To Remain and Cancer Bats. Let left Fear Factory the task of opening the festival which unfortunately turned out to be one of the most anticlimactic moments of the weekend. Burton C Bell struggled to hit any of the high notes and a god awful sound neutered their machine like procession. A terribly disappointing set from an act capable of so much more.

Machine Head however couldn’t be more empathic as they crushed the main stage severing up slabs of fantastically brutal yet melodic tracks such as the awesome ‘Locust’ although the absence of staple track “Davidian” was unfortunate. Serving up a prog masterclass on the Zippo stage, Opeth delivered a set cut equally from recent platter “Heritage” as well as tested classics. “Slither” was excellent with its “summer’s gone” hook sounding very prophetic considering the dreary weather conditions. While the absence of heavier material from Opeth’s recent performances has been a letdown for many, the inclusion of the blistering “Demon of the Fall” had the audience in awe.

Electing to skip the lackluster Chase and Status on the main stage, it was time for a dose of symphonic metal from Nightwish. Why Tuomas Holopainen persists with Anette Olzon as vocalist is a mystery. While by now means an awful singer she is no match for her predecessor Tarja Turunen ultimately Nightwish have two choices either pair down the operatic aspects Olzon struggles with or get another singer as continuing like this will only harm the band’s legacy.

The Zippo stage needed a shot in the arm with some classic rock ‘n’ roll which Slash supplied in abundance. Miles Kennedy fronting the band full time was an absolute coup. Arguably the finest vocalist in modern rock he oozes charisma and has a voice which handles the Guns ‘N’ Roses material arguably better than Axl can right now.  Tracks from standout new platter “Apocalyptic Love” rub shoulders with classic G’N’R material like “Rocket Queen” and the man himself was loving it! Ripping through a set of raunchy 70s inspired noise which had the audience in ecstasy. Axl who exactly?

Further genius was evident on the Pepsi stage with yet another masterful performance from Canadian legend Devin Townsend. Haven taken the stage later than expected Dev ploughs through a set of hits that puts The Prodigy’s main stage performance firmly in the shade. “Seventh wave” washed over the audience in a wave of pure joy and the scorching “Bad Devil” had the audience jigging around like their lives depended on it. While many acclaimed acts turn out inconsistent performances it seems there is still no stopping this prolific maverick.

Thankfully day two see’s the ground start to dry out a bit allowing for a more pleasant and cheerful atmosphere. A feeling that could be summed up in one word: Turbonegro! New singer Tony “Duke Of Nothing” Sylvester was great replacement for Hank von Helvete, preening like a peacock while guitarist Euroboy electrified us with storming party anthems like “Wasted Again”. Concluding with a rousing “I Got Erection”, they brought some glitter and danger to Download today.

Jesse Leech’s return to the ranks of Killswitch Engage has breathed new life into the Massachusetts metal act. His hardcore bark and soaring clean vocals inject vitality and meaning into the likes of “Life To Lifeless” and closer “My Last Serenade”. It’s just a shame that guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz had to spoil the atmosphere of the occasion with his puerile and idiotic ramblings between songs.

While they have only turned out one decent record in over a generation Metallica still remain a fantastic live act. Resplendent in a leather waistcoat full of old school metal patches, James Hetfield was in commanding form. Over two hours of classic hits from “Hit The Lights” to “Sad But True” ensured that no one could complain with the Bay Area acts ability to put on one hell of a show! While it was indeed a treat to hear all of the “Black Album” in its entirety the daunting question remains will the Bay Area titans will ever record anything great again? For tonight however the biggest band in metal put on another masterclass in entertainment.

Finally day three and kicking off the day in style are trad metal warriors Kobra and The Lotus. Vocalist Kobra Paige is a warrior queen leading her troops into battle. Her commanding stage presence coupled with a sound which references the likes of Judas Priest there could be a bright future for this promising new act.

Refused seemed somewhat shocked at the response they received. “We used to be a tiny Hardcore band from Sweden” Dennis Lyxzén humbly commented before mutating into the dejected love child of Iggy Pop hurling himself around the stage. Numbers like the fiery “Refused Are Fucking Dead” and calling card “New Noise” truly lit up the stage showing they are on more than a nostalgia trip.

It had been fifteen long years since Soundgarden played the U.K. Opening with “Spoonman” they held Donnington Park in the palm of their hands to begin with but seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the reception they are greeted by. Chris Cornell’s vocals weren’t always note perfect but when you have a catalogue of songs like “Rusty Cage” and “Black Hole Sun” to fall back on it was still a welcome return from the Seattle mob.

Having caught only a couple of numbers from Satanic masters Ghost it was time for Black Sabbath to bring the curtain down on the weekend. While Ozzy Osbourne is looking extremely frail and misses many notes he still faired better than expected. Having toned down the clown prince act sans one bucket of water thrown during “Sweet Leaf” Ozzy was as good as he has been in the last fifteen years. While this was a pleasant surprise special mention must go to lord of the riff Tony Iommi who put in a noble shift here following his recent cancer diagnosis. “Children Of The Grave” has one of the finest riffs ever written with Paradise Lost vocalist Nick Holmes spotted in the crowd headbanging enthusiastically.  Despite all the hyperbole and bullshit surrounding the absence of original drummer Bill Ward Sabbath did themselves justice closing a year of fine performances from bright new stars and returning heroes.

ROSS BAKER