On the edge of a break, Skálmöld guitarist Þráinn reflects on an eventful decade
At the start of 2020, after ten wildly successful years in the limelight, the infamous Icelandic metal band Skálmöld (meaning ‘Age Of The Sword’) will rest for an indeterminate time period.
Founded in 2009, Skálmöld began as a hobby-band, but when their debut album ‘Baldur’ was released, they unexpectedly and rapidly gained international attention, subsequently putting Icelandic metal on the map. They’ve since released four equally strong albums, each centred on Norse mythology and Icelandic folk tales. Now, with their imminent hiatus announced, fans from all over the world will fly to Iceland this month to catch three final performances at Gamla Bíó, with special guests Finntroll and Blóðmör. But, as guitarist Þráinn Árni Baldvinsson assured us, this isn’t the end.
On tapping into a gap
“When we started in 2009, we never thought this would happen. We thought that you couldn‘t do heavy metal in Iceland. All we wanted was to make one album that we could be proud of and then die,” Þráinn laughs. Þráinn is tall, with thick blonde hair hanging down to his hips. A warm smile forms on his face as he remembers ‘Baldur.’ “It was expensive, so we took out a loan and used our bassist’s house as collateral. There was no plan. We thought that for the next year each of us would have two hundred copies under our beds, and would be trying to give them to relatives.”
Reality quickly defied their expectations.. With ‘Baldur’, Skálmöld tapped into a musical gap that many people underestimated. However, not even record labels were aware of the opportunities in the metal-niche. “Nobody in Iceland wanted to release the album so we signed with the Faroese record label Tutl. Within a week, 1,000 copies were sold out. Before we knew it, we got a record deal with Napalm Records and were touring with bands like Finntroll.”
A decade of fun
Now, ten years later, as Þráinn explains, the band gets recognised while grocery shopping. However, international fame was nowhere near the most rewarding part of their career.
“Our tours and the shows with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in 2013 and 2018 were definitely highlights for the band,” Þráinn says. “But when I look back, my very favourite moments were when the boys were together and had fun.” Þráinn chuckles when he realises that he’s referring to six grown men playing in a metal band as “boys.”
“We always have great parties on the tour bus. One time we listened to Iron Maiden for 7 hours straight. And we have these little traditions. When we play in Kraków, our keyboard player Gunnar Ben and I always go to the same place to get beer.”
The band also enjoys the songwriting process. “It’s so special because everyone contributes. Jón Geir, our drummer, is for example good at listening to the bigger picture of every song. We take this machine and it just flies,” Þráinn explains.
The lyrics are written by bassist Snæbjörn, with the strict rule that they reference or reflect ancient Icelandic poetry, which consists of different motives. “Sléttubönd is one of the most difficult motives, there you write a poem and when you’re at the last word, you start going backward and the meaning of the rhyme changes,” Þráinn explains.
With their roots in Norse mythology and Icelandic folk tales, all Skálmölds albums can be considered concept albums. “We basically write new stories without harming the integrity of the mythology. That’s really cool if you look at how tales are supposed to be evolving,” Þráinn explains. However, the meaning often exceeds the realms of story-telling. “When my mother died, Snæbjörn honoured her by using her name for one of the characters in ‘Börn Loka’,” Þráinn looks at his big hands and then shakes his head in a laugh. “The character was then, of course, brutally killed. It’s a piece of art that’s very well presented and respectfully done.”
Though strictly dedicated to Norse mythology, Skálmöld, since its inception, refused to be reduced to a “Viking Metal” band. The label has a kitschy connotation in the metal community. “We never tried to categories ourselves as such. I hate it when people say: ‘I don’t like Viking metal, so I’m not going to check out this band,’” Þráinn explains. “But I’m guilty of it as well. A couple of years ago I said: ‘I don’t listen to jazz.’”
For the same reason, you will never see Skálmöld wearing Viking costumes—one of the defining attributes of a “Viking Metal” band. “I remember when we made the first album, the record company said we would have to wear fur and swords and shit. But we said no. No dead animals around our neck. Ironically, we have always been touring with bands wearing such costumes,” he says. Their good friends Finntroll, who will be playing at their shows in December, is a good example of this. The band always clads themselves in mystical trollish outfits with fake ears and makeup.
The metal scene has changed since Skálmöld first took the stage. “I think that many bands are increasingly aiming for the general public, which is great.” Skálmöld is, however, unaffected by the trend. “We have always just done what interests us most. We are six individuals that all have big egos. We all think that we know what is best for ourselves and the band. Somehow that energy has just moved and found its path.”
A strong bond
Skálmöld has come a long way but they always stayed true to themselves. “We decided even before the first tour, that there would be nothing that would destroy what we had; friendship would always come first.”
Playing on the international stage comes at a price, however, and the band has had to carefully assess how much they are willing to pay for fame.
“I love touring. But doing four tours a year was getting to be too much. I have two daughters and it was difficult to be away from them. Most of the band members were on the same page and we decided to go on a break for at least a year, maybe two. It’s important for us to gain some perspective and be appreciative of what we have done so far,” Þráinn summarises.
“You know, we have played in Paris eight times but I’ve never seen the Eiffel Tower,” Þráinn laments. “I will probably go there during the break and actually see something.” He also plans to do some solo projects. “I don’t know if I dare to say but I’ve been studying a bit of jazz music.” He pauses and sighs. “Now the boys will kill me.”
Þráinn emphasises that the forthcoming break is temporary. “We’re not breaking up. There will be more Skálmöld albums. Also, a lot of things are going to happen while we are taking a break. Our live albums will be released and a book about the band is being written by Joel McIver.”
Stay tuned and fear not, Ragnarök isn’t here yet.
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