IN VAIN – Establish the Ænigma

IN VAIN – Establish the Ænigma

If you do a look up on Metal Archives for the name In Vain, multiple entrants show up. Once most listeners take a listen to any of the three full length albums from this sextet from Norway, they’ll know there is only one progressive, extreme death/black metal act they need to hear, breathe, and experience currently.

Forming in 2003, their sound is refreshing in a sea of bands that seek to show off or blow away competition through technique. As guitarist Johnar Haaland explains during the course of our interview, for In Vain the song remains king. Fresh off their European tour Solefald and Vried, I thought it would be best to not only delve into their previous back discography but also probe deeper into some personal thoughts and outlook on life.


Can you let the readers know about your own personal background when it comes to your childhood- and how you developed your music tastes into adulthood? Do you remember some of the gateway bands/ albums that let to you picking up an instrument and starting a band?

During my youth I was like everyone else, basically just listening to whatever was on the charts. The first genre I got into was grunge. I remember enjoying bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Grammatrain, etc. I guess I was around 15 years old. In those days I started my first band ("Germinate"), which was a grunge band. From that I continued with hardcore and metalcore. I liked the music and the energy, but struggled with the screaming vocals. However, with the passage of time I got comfortable with it. Eventually I got into real metal. The first extreme metal record I bought was ‘Zyklon – World ov Worms’, and I still think that is a brilliant album. So as you might understand, I have not listened to metal for a very long time. When it comes to picking up the guitar, it was my parents who forced that upon me J

In Vain started in 2003- what can you tell us about the early days of the band regarding the formation? Did you have an idea from the start of the progressive death/black metal direction that In Vain would establish- or is it something that came out organically through rehearsal and songwriting sessions?

Andreas (vocals) had always been a die-hard metal guy, and he and I had for a long while talked about how fun it would be to start a metal band. Back then I was a student at a music school and there was a project in one of the classes which implied that everyone had to record a song in the school’s own recording studio. So I thought, why not try to make a metal song? I had quite a lot of riffs laying around, and those riffs later merged into the song ‘As I Wither’, which was the first song In Vain song ever recorded. We had a lot of fun and decided to book the studio for the whole summer. This turned into our first EP, ‘Will the Sun Ever Rise’, released in 2004. During that recording I was very influenced by Zyklon, hence a lot of fast riffs, and a mix of death and black metal. The progressive element was more present from our second EP ‘Wounds’ and onwards. I guess that was a result of me exploring other kinds of music. It did certainly not come from rehearsals, as I guess the first In Vain rehearsals were in 2007.

Your first 3 song "Will the Sun Ever Rise" release came out in the fall of 2004 independently. What do you remember regarding the recording of this release- and how was the public/ press reception?

I remember we were new to recording software and did not really have any knowledge on how to use it at all. I learned how to program drums manually in Cubase (a very painstaking process…) and I recorded bass and guitars through my POD xt. When I mixed the record I remember using a lot of EQ-ing, but probably nothing was done according to the book. We had a lot of fun though, and I look upon the summers when we recorded our two EPs as some of the best memories in the band’s history.  

When it comes to the reception, the EP was very well received. We were also approached by several labels and had a long dialogue with Century Media for instance. When we released ‘Wounds’ they were still interested, but in the end they concluded we were not commercial enough.


The following year your "Wounds" EP would gain the attention of Indie Recordings who signed the band to a recording contract. Do you see any major differences in the songwriting over the year between those releases? Were there other labels interested in signing the band, and if so what made Indie Recordings attractive to In Vain?

I partly answered some of this before. When writing for ‘Wounds’ I had started to listen to a lot more metal bands, but also dived into other genres. Obviously, this had an impact on the songs on that album. A vision of trying to include what I found as the strengths in various genres into my own songs, but still to keep it metal, was born. I was also very much into Opeth at that time, and I think the ‘Wounds’ EP is the closest we ever were to Opeth, style wise. When it comes to labels, I’ve already mentioned Century Media. There were 4-5 others as well. Some small, some big.

Actually, we asked Indie Recordings about this one time and they told us that they really liked the track ‘As I Wither’ from our first EP ‘Will the Sun Ever Rise’. Then they heard our second EP ‘Wounds’, thought that was even better and decided to sign us. We are actually the first band that ever signed with Indie Recordings.

Your debut album "The Latter Rain" came out in 2007- a mixture of your early independent material plus a series of new songs. Did you have a lot of material at your disposal to record- or did you feel it was necessary to re-record some of the earlier material with better recording/ production techniques at your disposal? What can you tell us surrounding the length of time it took to record the album, the songwriting, and favorite/ frustrating moments?

The re-recording of three songs was a combination of our label’s request plus the fact that we did not really try to sell our EP to a great extent when we released it (sold out soon now though). We used the EP mostly for promotional purposes. That being said, personally I actually prefer the EP versions of those songs. In my opinion, they sound more fresh and alive. With regards to the new songs, I just wrote enough to fill the album basically. I knew we already had three songs as a basis. However, I remember not having a lot of time to write music, so it was a very hectic process. ‘The Latter Rain’ is one hour long so we could easily have skipped a couple of tracks.

I do not remember that much of the songwriting process, however I think I had been influenced by more heavy and slow music when I wrote the new tracks for the album. Many of the new tracks had a more slow and heavy groove, compared to the much faster and aggressive songs on ‘Wounds’ and ‘Will the Sun Ever Rise’. We spent the summer recording the album, around 5-6 weeks. Most of us were students living in different parts of Norway, so there was no time for rehearsals (both for ‘The Latter Rain’ and ‘Mantra’ we never did any pre-production or had any rehearsals). I remember our drummer Stig coming back from the military service just days before the recordings actually started. The recording process was tough, but we managed to get through it somehow. The favorite moment must have been when Jan K. Transeth (ex. In the Woods…) was adding vocals, as he was the singer in one of my all-time favorite bands.

Following a series of live festival appearances and a European tour with Vried/ Battered, you commenced work on the second album "Mantra"- released in 2010. Were there any particular life circumstances that influenced the writing sessions of this material? What are your views on this record in comparison to your other discography?

I cannot recall any particular life circumstances influencing the songwriting, but some did influence the lyrics. E.g. the song ‘Sombre Fall, Burdened Winter’ is about my own life experience, being troubled with inflammation in both arms for about one year after the release of ‘Will the Sun Ever Rise’. During that time I had just started business school, and because of the pain in my arms I could not take notes in class. It was a hard time, and I thought about quitting school. Additionally, I could not play the guitar either and was basically just watching TV, trying to rest my arms. When I wrote the lyrics for ‘Sombre Fall, Burdened Winter’ I was recalling that dark time.

When we released ‘Mantra’ I was certain that the album was way better than ‘The Latter Rain’. I had way more time to prepare, to listen to and analyze the songs, make a more balanced tracklist, etc. In addition, the production on ‘Mantra’ is better. However, looking back now there are of course some things I would have done differently. E.g. I think it would have been better to leave ‘Wayakin (The Guardian Spirit of the Nez Perce)’ as a bonus track, because the song is so different from the rest of the album. A lof of our fans and most reviewers really hated that track, although I thought it was magic when we recorded with the Native American (Gil Silverbird) in the studio. My impression is that the majority of our fans prefer ‘The Latter Rain’ to ‘Mantra’, but in my opinion ‘Mantra’ at least have some of the best In Vain songs ever written.


You started the songwriting sessions for the new album "Ænigma" in late 2010/early 2011, but ran into some legal issues concerning an apartment purchase that preempted you from finishing the writing for almost a year. How frustrating was this for you and the band? Do you think in retrospect this allowed you to be more critical and specific with your material?

That incident was indeed very frustrating, because I believed not all relevant information had been provided to me before buying the apartment. I spent all my free time preparing for a possible court case. Only people who have had similar experiences know how painfully time consuming such a process is. To make things even worse, I did not have any insurance so I had to do all the work by myself, without a lawyer. My concern was never that the album would be delayed. I had a far bigger concern; the fear of getting into financial distress. However, in the end I won the case and today I look upon this event as a good learning experience.

It took a while until I got into what I label "songwriting mode" again, but when I got into it, it was "back to business". The event did not change my way of doing things.

I love the fact that In Vain appear unafraid to add unique spices/ instrumentation when called for it: string sections, horns, guest appearances within the metal world and from outside of it. Is this experimentation something you strive for to separate the band from others in the progressive death/black metal genre?

By all means not! We add extra instruments when we believe they add value to the songs. We would never use such elements just for the sake of it. I don’t believe in "stunts" like that in order to try to individualize a band. To make your band stand out it’s pretty simple; write quality songs.

My favorite songs on the new album include "Hymne til Havet" and "Times of Yore"- what can you tell us about the lyrical concepts/ focus of these songs? Do the words come easy to you- or is it a longer process of development than the music?

‘Hymne til Havet’ is a hymn to the sea, both music and lyric wise. We were going for a majestic song with this one, in order to reflect the sea as the powerful natural element it is. All of the members have grown up close to the sea and we all feel a special connection to it. We talked about it and agreed that none of us would be able to live in a place far away from the sea for a longer period of time. Obviously, the sea is nice for recreational purposes, but there is also something special about just looking out to the sea and listening to the waves. It’s a good way of reflecting upon life.

‘Times of Yore’ is Andreas’ lyrics. They are dealing with Andreas’ view of modern life being too hectic, and that there is a sort of a time pressure on everything. ‘Times of yore’ means ‘Good Old Days’ and in short describes Andreas’ longing back to a more simple way of life.

Describe In Vain in a live setting- what do you see as the major differences between the band’s recorded material and how it translates in front of audiences? What have been some of your favorites show memories through the years?

I think the songs translate very well live. One challenge though is the amount of vocalists on some of the songs. On the songs where there are several people involved I guess it can be a bit confusing for the audience to understand which one is exactly the front person, if you catch my drift. We recently came back from a European Tour. Some of my favorite shows were on the Ragnarök Festival, Paris and in Italy.


Who do you consider 5 of the most important bands in metal that more followers need to listen to- and what are your three favorite albums of all time (they can be in the metal field or outside of it)?

Opeth, Extol, Emperor, In the Woods… and Shai Hulud. Opeth – Still Life, In the Woods – Strange in Stereo and Emperor – The Prometheus.

What are the major world concerns you believe people need to pay attention to for the future of mankind?

Overfishing, environmental challenges, fight against extreme religious intervention in society (especially those who hinder female integration/education and basic human rights) and against the advertising industry who wants to make us believe that the ultimate goal for every human is to consume as much as possible.

How does Johnar like to spend his free time away from music to recharge your collective batteries so to speak? Any special hobbies or passions that you like to engage in?

I spend my spare-time working out, reading books, keeping my body and soul healthy, cooking food, travelling, etc. I also enjoy getting out in the nature.

Do you consider friendship and mutual respect important when it comes to the development of a band’s style through the years? Is there anyone you wish to collaborate with as special guests on upcoming In Vain albums?

Friendship and respect is important in a band, but I am not necessarily sure if it’s important when it comes to the development of the style. In my opinion it is more important in order to have a good vibe within in the band. But I also think friendship can be a hindrance, if e.g. the bonds are so tight that you avoid unpopular decisions, even though they need to be done. If you want your band just to be a social club, then that’s ok. But if you want your band to progress and evolve, you are depending on all members developing their own skills and being serious. I guess many bands have experienced that one member is holding the others back, and it can be a hard decision to kick that person out if he is a very close friend with the other members. However, I have actually experienced this myself. Obviously I did not like it, but for the band it was the right decision.

What’s on the agenda for In Vain over the next 12 to 18 months as far as live performances and recordings?

We are playing several festivals in the summer and in the autumn. In addition we will do a release gig in Kristiansand and one Oslo, together with Solefald. Hopefully we will also play in other Norwegian cities during the autumn. When the autumn comes I hope to start writing new material as well. In the end I would like to say thank you for taking the time to do the interview!