SULPHUR – Madness, Thorns and Omens of Doom
The band Sulphur, which hails from Bergen, is one of those excellent albeit underrated and overlooked musical outfits that never fail to deliver something out of the ordinary. Granted, quite a few years have passed between the predecessor, "Thorns in Existence", and the excellent new assault entitled "Omens of Doom", but you can bet your ugly ass that the wait has been well worth it. Why, I hear you ask? Well, "Omens of Doom" is neither a run-of-the-mill album nor predictable. Rather, it is vibrant and dynamic, original and innovative, and so goddamn cleverly written that you can keep listening to it over and over again only to discover different nuances, layers, and subtle details every time. Yes, my dear fuckbags, Sulphur is definitely one of those bands that ought to be supported, in case you were wondering. Naturally, we just had to have a chat with a couple of the members, namely Øyvind (guitars, programming, keyboards) and Thomas (vocals), about "Omens of Doom" and the band in general. Sit back, relax, put on "Omens of Doom", and read on.
Hi Thomas and Øyvind, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Much appreciated. How are you doing today?
Øyvind: Great! Can’t complain, we have a new album out after seven years since our last one, and the reviews have so far been amazing!
For those out there who are not familiar with how Sulphur came about and how it all started, could you briefly outline its history and tell us a bit about the members of the band as well as your releases? Some of you are involved in other bands, so how and why you decide to join forces and bring Sulphur into the world?
Øyvind: It’s a very long story but I will try my best. It started all the way back in 1996 under the name Taakeriket. Back then, the music was more straightforward black metal. We got tired of it and started to mix in some death metal and progressive/avant-garde elements in the music to make it more interesting. We also felt we needed a different band name since the Taakeriket name gives more associations to an ice-cold black metal band, so it was changed to Sulphur in 1999. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of different members, so I won’t go too deep into that other than that I have been in the band since the beginning in 1996. Thomas joined around 2001, I think, and has been in the band since then. Eivind (former guitarist), Erik and Vegard joined around the same time, I think, in 2006 just after our first release, "Cursed Madness". When we recorded "Thorns in Existence", it was the first time we recorded an album as a full band. On other releases we’ve always had to rely on session musicians, so it was a really good felling to finally be complete as a band. Eivind and I are also the guitarists in Vulture Industries, and we’ve been very busy with that, so maybe that’s a reason why things have been going pretty slowly with Sulphur. Eivind had to leave Sulphur in 2011 due to lack of time to play in two bands and was replaced by our new and very talented guitarist, Martin Lynn, in 2013.
Was there a certain motivation or desire behind the launch of Sulphur? In other words, was there a specific purpose or an agenda of sorts, or did you, personally, feel that you needed this particular musical outlet in order to express yourself fully?
Øyvind: I can’t remember if there was any special motivation for starting Sulphur. We love music and, personally, I really need to compose music to express myself. I don’t know of any better way to do that.
I really dig «Omens of Doom». It is a very solid and captivating album from starts to finish. I wasn’t surprised by that, mind you. I had a feeling that it was going to rule. Given that its predecessor, "Thorns in Existence", was released in 2009, I was just wondering how long you actually spent writing and recording "Omens of Doom". When were some of the first songs off the album composed?
Øyvind: I remember I really struggled to finish "The Force of Our Fall". That one was very difficult to complete, I think there exists about 7 different versions of the song. I had to let it "rest" for a couple of years before I managed to complete the song. The first song that was written for "Omens of Doom" was "Plague and Pestilence" and I think that was back in 2010. The last song that was written was in late 2013, and that was "Alt Svartner", I think. So, basically, the writing process took 3 years. Erik recorded the drums for the album in November 2013 and it took some months before we started recording the guitars. Since Martin doesn’t live in Bergen like the rest of us it made the whole process of recording the guitars a bit challenging. We also made quite a few changes to the guitar arrangements along the way. A few of the reasons that it took 7 long years to complete "Omens of Doom" are a combination of me being busy with Vulture Industries and a lack of inspiration to make new music.
What is the atmosphere within the Sulphur camp like these days now that you have this killer album out? I can imagine that there is a lot of enthusiasm in the band right now. You did spend quite a few months in the studio recording this one, right? I seem to recall reading somewhere that you started recording and tracking songs in late 2013, but I could be wrong about thatJ
Øyvind: The atmosphere in the band is great nowadays; the new album has received lots of good reviews, so we can’t really complain. The recording process was at times a bit too slow, but there are different reasons for that. Martin lives in another city than the other band members and Vegard is also at times very busy with work. I have also, as I mentioned before, been very busy with Vulture Industries at times, so it’s not always easy to make thing work out. However, we can’t just blame those things only; we might have been a bit too lazy at times as well;-)
One of the first things that caught my eye when I received a promo of the album was the highly evocative song titles. "The Force of Our Fall", "Gathering Storms", "Plague and Pestilence", "The Devils Pyre", and the title track all have apocalyptic and somewhat biblical over- and/or undertones to them. Unfortunately, the lyrics were not included, so I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about the themes and subjects covered by and within your songs? Is there a concept of sorts that runs through every song?
Thomas: Yes, I am glad you noticed that. It was my intention to make the titles of the tracks ominous and interesting. "Omens of Doom" is not a concept album but there is a red thread throughout the album. The title "Omens of Doom" says it all as apocalyptic themes run through all the lyrics of the album. Each track is in a way one "omen of doom", i.e. ways in which the world could/can end, be it natural disasters like volcanos and great storms or human created disasters like nuclear wars and plagues. I know that the apocalyptic themes have, as you say, biblical over- and/or undertones to them, but I have tried to think more about the madness of humankind and our ways of destroying everything and everyone around us. Just looking at the news can provide inspiration to write as the feeling of hopelessness and insanity is overwhelming when I look at how we humans are treating each other and the world around us.
How do you guys go about writing and composing songs for Sulphur? Do you compose and write stuff separately and then bring all of that to rehearsals where you then experiment with it, or is everything written and arranged collectively?
Øyvind: This time around I wrote the whole album and Thomas wrote all the lyrics as usual. I compose and arrange the music in my home studio and share the finished songs with the other guys. Everyone learns their parts at home and then we meet up at our rehearsal place and start rehearsing. During the rehearsal, we often make some changes to the songs all together. All in all, everyone has a say in how the songs eventually turn out.
Do you improvise a lot in the studio or is everything more or less planned out and set in stone before you start recording? How do you like working in the studio, by the way?
Øyvind: The basic structures of the songs are pretty much set in stone so there is not a lot of improvising in the studio apart from things like guitar solos and leads. Many of the guitar solos for this album was improvised during the recording sessions in studio. Moreover, we also used quite a lot of time on experimenting with different kinds of sounds/effects for the keyboards, which came out great I think. When I am in the studio and recording, I prefer to be alone for maximum concentration, but we all have different preferences as to that, I guess.
Are you intuitive and spontaneous when it comes to composing songs and coming up with ideas and so on?
Øyvind: Yes, absolutely. I usually always have a guitar standing ready in my sofa just in case I suddenly get an idea. I can get inspired when I watch one of my favorite shows. Sometimes I have to suddenly turn off the TV and run into my home studio to record something that suddenly came to my mind so I don’t forget it. Drumming is also a thing that’s constantly on my mind, I often sit and pound my legs and always try to come up with new and interesting ways of making drum patterns.
"Alt Svartner" is one of my favorite songs off the new album. and it has this really eerie and otherworldly vibe to it that I can`t quite translate into words or anything resembling a description. Could you tell me a bit about the meaning of that song? The very title itself is extremely bleak, and it is quite cool that it is in Norwegian. That kind of sets it apart a little from the other tunes.
Thomas: "Alt Svartner" is the last "omen of doom" on the album. This is where the world ends, life’s essence withers and everything goes black. The last scenery of a dying earth before we all fall into a cold ocean of nothingness. It is a bit inspired by Voluspå and the start of Ragnarok where stars fall and the earth drowns in the sea, but then taken back to the world of today with my own twist of the end. This was the final lyric that I wrote and it started out in English as "All Blackens". We decided after some attempts with pre-production to make it in Norwegian and into what it is today. A wise choice that I am glad we made. We also have one track in Norwegian on each of our two previous albums, so this turns it into a tradition;) I enjoy lyrics in Norwegian myself and I think Black Metal in Norwegian has a unique feeling to it, so I am glad you share my enthusiasm for "Alt Svartner".
I love the cover art for "Omens of Doom". It is somewhat psychedelic and unsettling, and it underlines the theme and atmosphere of your music perfectly; dynamic, diverse, and unpredictable. I love it when music, lyrics, and artwork all go hand in hand and «enhance» each other, so to say. Would you agree that every aspect of a release is important?
Øyvind: Of course, you need the whole package when you make an album. If you make a great album I think it’s very important that the cover art is just as great as the rest of the product.
Thomas: Yes, the cover art is amazing! Thanks to Costin Chioreanu and his insanely great art. I was struggling a great deal with the cover for this album as I wanted it to be perfect. I had some artists make some sketches, but the rest of the band weren’t too happy about them. We did have Costin in mind as he made a great cover art for Vulture Industries and their release entitled "The Tower", but we weren’t sure if his artwork would fit our style. Little did we know, when we sent him a copy of the raw mix of the album and the lyrics, that he intended to blow our minds. The colours! In my mind, I expected a dark/black-coloured album cover, but when this red colour palate came up on my computer screen I was amazed. I think I felt it exactly like you describe it. Psychedelic, unsettling and with a great atmosphere. As the author of the lyrics, I felt he had captured what I tried to describe in words with his artwork.
Do literature and paintings serve as an inspiration to you in terms of music and lyrics? Or movies perhaps? Songs such as "The Devils Pyre" and "Rise of the Mushroom Clouds" have a cinematic feel to them in places.
Thomas: Everything you mention has a lot to do when I write the lyrics. "The Devils Pyre" is written mostly with inspiration of just looking at paintings like "The Last Day of Pompeii" by Karl Brjullov, "The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum" by John Martin and other similar paintings. The story about the great outburst of Vesuv at Pompeii was also a great help when writing this lyric. "Rise of the Mushroom Clouds" was very inspired by the post-apocalyptic book named "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. Both of these lyrics are descriptions of sceneries more than anything else, so painting and visualisation helps a lot in the writing process.
Do you feel haunted by your own sense of perfection when listening to "Thorns in Existence" and "Cursed Madness"?
Øyvind: Hehe, no, I have never thought about it in that way before. I don’t listen very much to our albums after they are finished, recorded and released. However, sometimes when I listen to the older albums, I think that we could have done it better today. It´s like you are never really 100% happy with the result.
Could you list a few of the albums that have inspired you the most throughout your career, both musically and lyrically?
Dissection – Storm of the Lights Bane
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Anglagård – Hybris
System of a Down – Mesmerize
Anathema – Alternative 4
Mastodon – Crack the Sky
Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction
Genesis – Nursery Cryme
Dissection – Storm of the Lights Bane
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Satyricon – Nemesis Divina
Ulver – Bergtatt
Keep of Kalessin – Armada
Carach Angren – Where the Corpses Sink Forever
Has it ever been difficult for you to find the time for other musical projects/bands beside Sulphur and to create some sort of balance between them?
Øyvind: It’s a daily struggle, I play in two bands and that is very often one too many.
What records are you currently listening to at home?
El Caco- 7
David Bowie- Blackstar
Major Parkinson- Twilight Cinema
Hyperion- Seraphinical Euphony
Mistur- In Memoriam
Amorphis- Under the Red Cloud
The distribution of music has changed drastically over the past 10-15 years and many bands and artists operate independently now and are no longer affiliated with any labels or managers or anything like that. You can basically release your own material digitally in a matter of seconds. On the other hand, it can be extremely difficult to actually have people notice your music and pick up on it. Tons of stuff is released constantly and nobody seems to be able to keep track anymore. Where do you stand on all this and what are some of your views and perspectives on the whole thing?
Øyvind: I think bands today still need a label to take care of business for them. There is a lot of stuff to take care of besides composing new music, rehearsing and playing live as a band. You have to have someone who can fix interviews with magazines and webzines, distribution deals and different (and important) ways to promote the band. In my opinion, a band needs a record label to take care of things for them. There are of course many things that you can do yourself, but overall I think you stand a better chance of being noticed if you are signed to a label and they have the right contacts to help you out.
Thomas: I think almost everybody is affected by this change nowadays. There are too many bands out there to cover them all and it is a real pity because many great bands get lost in the masses. I think that we are one of those bands as well. Even though we have gotten a lot of great reviews, there are not many people that have heard about us. It is a tough market and every band has to fight fiercely in order to be heard. I also feel that even though the quality of the music nowadays is great, there is still the lack of the classic, supreme releases that will stand as strong in time as some of those mentioned above by Dissection, Emperor and Satyricon. I feel that most of the music we listen to today is forgotten tomorrow. It might be that we don’t have the time to enjoy it enough before new releases take their places or that it just lacks the supreme quality that the old days offered. Okay…I am getting old. I see it now;)
What are your plans in terms of touring the "Omens of Doom"?
Øyvind: We are currently working on a little tour after the summer sometime, but there are still some pieces that need to fall into the right places, so you will have to wait and see.
Speaking of live activities, I remember watching Sulphur perform at Garage back in March 2010, and it was a killer show. You guys were in total command of the stage and ruled it with an iron fist. Just out of curiosity, would you ever consider releasing a 7" EP containing a few live cuts or perhaps a digital version of a live album or something like that? Your songs definitely work well in a live setting.
Øyvind: Thank you very much. I would be cool to do that someday, but there are no plans for that yet. Our sound engineer recorded our last show at Blastfest and we talked about recording the future shows as well, so maybe if we sound good and play well we might consider it someday.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer this interview for Eternal Terror Live. Any final words, threats, or comments?
Thomas: I would urge everybody to listen to our new album because you deserve it;) It is not an easy listening and it won’t open at once so let it spin a couple of times before you throw it away. I also want to thank everybody at Eternal Terror Live for your great work and an awesome review of our album! Thank you!