“We’ve always written from a very human perspective of life – being in the actual moment of where we are and where we’ve been,” says Evergrey singer and guitarist Tom S. Englund, as co-guitarist Henrik Danhage nods along beside him.
The Swedish progressive power metallers have just unleashed their 13th album, A Heartless Portrait (The Orphéan Testament), via a new deal with Napalm Records.
It finds them on terrific form, delicately balancing thick metallic guitars with keyboards and synths on top of pounding rhythms, creating towering structures that sound notably more contemporary than the power metal scene they’re often compared to.
“Our music always comes from a honest place,” continues Tom. “There is no fictional concept with this album, the title is a summary of me talking relentlessly about myself, maybe too bluntly, carelessly and graphically sometimes [laughs].
“You could see this album as time stamps from today going back to 1996, when we released our first album. It’s me writing about me and the world I live in, being affected by the people around me...
“It’s about my self-reflection, I guess. But I’m always trying to find more poetic ways to say it. And I think that’s what people identify with: this music that could easily have been written about their own lives, finding themselves in a world they don’t fit into.”
His bandmate explains how the past few years “forced every band to slow down” and perhaps reassess things. Having played together for over two decades, except for the few years when he left in 2010, it’s been a dizzying onslaught of album cycle after album cycle.
Considering how the music industry was forced into relative uncertainty for the best part of two years, with the continuing repercussions of the pandemic still being monitored and measured as live events make their return, Henrik is surprisingly grateful.
“This is the first time we’ve ever been able to stop touring and pause,” he notes. “So much changed because of that. We went back to spending time with families and getting excited about music – we really enjoyed recording this album as something more than a vehicle to go out and tour.”
There’s a certain bounce to riffs like Midwinter Calls. How do you know when you’re on to a winner?
Tom S. Englund: “If it makes you bounce your head, it’s a winner! If it doesn’t then maybe you should come up with something new. That’s our recipe for writing a banger. We all write riffs. On this album even our bass player [Johan Niemann] tracked some of the guitars.
“That Midwinter Calls riff you mentioned was written by our drummer Jonas Ekdahl, who I think actually played it on the album.”
That’s very interesting… Guitarists aren’t typically known for letting bassists and drummers record their parts!
Henrik Danhage: “That’s what’s very cool about this band right now. When you let go of the egos, you can get a much better end result that’s more effective. On this album, I didn’t play any rhythm guitar at all, for the first time ever. It was only Tom, Johan and Jonas!
“I didn’t write any riffs this time round, we focussed on the others' riffs. And the riffs were already so well-played, so we kept it that way. If it made things better, I would have played more riffs, but it was not needed. Everything already sounded great!”
It probably helps when you’re in a band with well-rounded musicians…
Englund: “For sure. Johan is a great guitar player, for instance. When he plays his own riffs, they sound like his riffs, like the song The Great Unwashed. Why would Henrik or myself try to go in there and reinterpret it when it’s already bringing something new or exciting into Evergrey?”
Danhage: “That would make it worse, because it would be me or Tom trying to play like Johan. It’s like repainting something that doesn’t need it. A complete waste of time. Some riffs need to be well executed and others need the right feeling, and for the latter, it’s often the first few takes from the demo stage.”
There’s definitely a hair metal feel to a lot of the solos – almost celebratory in spirit when compared to the dark and gloomy riffs underneath them…
Danhage: “Thank you for saying [that], because on a lot of the songs I [wanted] to have that kind of vibe. We have different roles in this band now. If I’m not working on the rhythms I want to shine on the leads – I take great pride in those parts.
“For a lot of them, I wanted to play it all in one take and record it on my phone – the movie would be my reference point for later. Sometimes I think it’s easy to aim over the target as a guitar player. You lose the vibe and all the feel. It can suddenly sound like a guitar exercise rather than a piece of music that breathes.
“For one of the tracks, I had about 39 different takes. I went back through the movies and noticed the early ones were super-good and then they started sounding fucking boring. Yeah, the shred stuff sounded cleaner, but all the rough stuff and sexiness was just gone!
“Some things need to be produced, sure, but I like writing solos to feel like their own section of the song – something that anyone likes, whether they are a guitar player or not.”
Call Out the Dark in particular has some fantastic lead parts…
Danhage: “That came out extra good because both of us knew the other player was going to deliver something really kickass. I had a completely different vision for my lead – I remember telling the guys I was going to use a Les Paul and play a classic Rainbow in the Dark [Dio] kind of solo.
“Of course, it ended up being a 22-fret Jackson with lots of tapping and shredding. But then I listened to Tom’s stuff and a friend came back and listened to mine, asking me what exactly I was trying to say. It didn’t make any sense coming after Tom’s solo. In the end, I cut the first half, rewrote it and kept the crazy ending.”
Englund: “That’s what worked so great on this album. Our solos felt like conversations that we’re having together – his perspective and my perspective on whatever subject.”
So what’s the main secret to your chemistry as a guitar duo?
Danhage: “Me and Tom are such different guitar players. There are certain things that he put in the early riffs that felt so difficult for me – my picking hand is my Achilles’ heel, while for Tom it’s his strong point.
“Over the years, we’ve combined those styles to create our own twin-guitar style. When I send things to Tom, they come back with a completely different vibe. But we’re in sync enough for the old magic to happen, which is what worked for bands like Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden.
“It’s two different players playing something, instead of one perfectly in sync with themselves. Sometimes it might be me doing harmonies a third up to add more depth.”
Englund: “I think we ended up doing half and half in terms of solos this time round. But my approach is very different to Henrik’s; I try to write them out a lot more. That all came from Adrian Smith, because I always found his solos to be very composed.
“That’s what I’m aiming for: solos people can hum along to. But I love all styles, from David Gilmour to Paul Gilbert, who is also one of the most inspiring players out there. Mattias Eklundh is a good friend of ours – he’s up there, too!”
Henrik, you have a heavily relic’d Charvel signature that just came out. It’s rare to find an artist model combining both DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan pickups – most players tend to stick with just one company…
Danhage: “I saw a picture of Bruce Jenner, who as we all know as Caitlyn Jenner, doing a high jump at the Olympics wearing an Adidas and Puma shoe on each foot. That was quite interesting. It just means great stuff is great stuff; names don’t mean anything. I found my guitar had the perfect combination using two brands together… It’s what sounded perfect.
“For some reason, none of the other Charvel endorsees had gone for both a humbucker and single coil with a reverse headstock. I don’t know why! I spoke to the Custom Shop and took the new guitar out on the road, and since that day everyone has been asking me, ‘What is that guitar?!’
“Before this point, I was relicing guitars on my own. This was done to such a higher quality because [Charvel Custom Shop Master Builder] ‘Red’ Dave Nichols had done it.
“A lot of it was designed to make other players feel like it was their guitar, rather than mine. I love the 12-16” compound radius from Charvels – why would I change that? If you are a Charvel lover, you want the Charvel neck. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel too much.”
Tom, you’ve been playing Caparison guitars for a good while now…
Englund: “Yes, I’m still very loyal to them. I think it’s been almost 20 years now. It looks like I’ll be getting a signature model as well, at some point. I use all of them, but lately it’s been mainly their Dellinger Prominence, which is an amazing instrument. My signature will probably be based on that, with a few changes here and there. Like Henrik said about Charvel, I like how they feel already – I don’t want to ruin that.”
What kind of pedals are you using in the studio and on the road right now?
Englund: “I’m the guy who doesn’t like pedals. I want as few as possible, preferring to go straight into the amp. Henrik has everything, all the pedals in the world in front of him [laughs]!”
Danhage: “And they’re always changing! Right now there are three delays, including my old Ibanez one. I run a Bogner Uberschall [overdrive/distortion] in the middle, through a 2x12 with Celestion 75s.
“And then I have two Bogner Helios heads running into Mesa/Boogie 2x12s on either side with effects in the loop – so there are three amps in a row. I’ve turned up the effected sounds because I still have the Uberschall for the totally dry tone. It’s a very nasty sound that cuts through easily, with a lot of treble and presence. That tends to work best for Evergrey.
“There are a few delays and distortions, though right now I really love EQ pedals. I’d like to put out a signature one day – there are a million overdrive pedals out there and [there's] not much I can add, [but] you can get quite creative with EQs.
“We don’t use Kempers or anything like that; there is real sound on the stage that bleeds down to the audience. Who cares if it’s easier for the sound guy or more convenient to fly with… we rely on our live sound. It’s easier to get in-ears and run an Axe-Fx, but you might forget why you started playing music in the first place!”
- A Heartless Portrait (The Orphéan Testament) is out now via Napalm Records.