Breaching the aggressive beauty: an interview with Johnar Haaland and Kristian Wikstøl from In Vain

Photo by Jørn Veberg

Photo by Jørn Veberg

We may only be three months into the year but Norwegian progressive extreme metal band In Vain has made a startling claim for album of the year with the stunning Ænigma. The third album from the band is a compelling and inciting tempest of towering imaginative and inventive ingenuity evolving the rich already brewed essences of the band into a new exhilarating inspirational of fresh and sharpened ideas. Beautiful and destructive the release sets new heights and templates for themselves and for others to aspire to. To learn more about the band, their expansive music, and Ænigma itself, we had the distinct pleasure of talking with songwriter/guitarist Johnar Haaland and bassist/hardcore vocalist Kristian Wikstøl.

Hi Guys, welcome to The RingMaster Review and many thanks for taking time to talk with us.

In Vain is back with a vengeance with your new album Ænigma, a release which has taken a fair while to arrive since your last album. Was there any deliberate intent to take your time over this one or was it just how life imposed upon and dictated the journey for the album to its existence?

Kristian: First of all, thanks for a nice review and for taking your time! In Vain have always been about quality before quantity and to use your words, we are back with a vengeance with Ænigma, in my own opinion, our strongest album so far. From the fact that we are 6 members in the band with jobs and different projects in our lives it’s sometimes difficult to make things happen as productive and smooth as our fans would prefer. Kjetil became a father last year, Stig travels a lot in his job and I’m studying aviation in Florida. So yeah, it’s the result of many factors that lead to this.

Johnar: The main reason for the delay was that the songwriting process was interrupted. I am the only songwriter in the band and I had some personal business issues that I had to solve in 2011. This stole all my time and I had to put the songwriting on a halt for almost a year.

Obviously as a band you are confident and proud of the album, and rightly so, but has how it immediately ignited passions in fans and the media in any way surprised you?

Kristian: To be honest, I’m not surprised at all that people are excited about this album. I can say this because before I joined the band 6 years ago, I was a big fan of In Vain. Johnar and Andreas are my good friends and I remember being blown away by the sheer quality of the songs on “Wounds” and “The Latter Rain”. I’m still a fan though it’s always difficult to be objective to your own art and creations. We are thrilled to see that our fans are embracing this album.

Johnar: With the risk of sounding cocky, In Vain has always been blessed with great reviews. But we never take it for granted, and we also know that it has its side effects; people raise the bars for every release. It’s of course much easier to catch people off guard and surprise.

One of the triumphs of Ænigma, of so many , is that though it has the ‘typical’ In Vain sound and imagination which tells us its 424462_10150271525174990_907351002_nsource without the band name being needed, it is still a distinctly different  character and encounter compared to your previous albums. Where so many other bands struggle to achieve this is it something you intently work on or just something which arises organically as you explore your new ideas?

Johnar: I think you are touching on something very important. Personally, I only listen to bands I find somewhat original, and by that I mean that I am able to know exactly what band I am hearing on the stereo, because they have their own unique voice. Thus far, I have been the only songwriter in the band and I think that has given us a consistent sound.

For “Ænigma” the idea was to continue to explore the same field, but to try also to make some shorter songs, in order to have a more balanced album. I find “Ænigma” as a solid representation of everything In Vain has done so far.

Of course the core and heart of your music is extreme metal seeded with many diverse flames of styles burning within the progressive breath of the album. One can only assume across the band there is an eclectic passion for different music which filters into your music and imagination, again is it something with naturally brews its own spices as you write or at times do you deliberately follow a certain flavour to include in a song?

Johnar: All the members of In Vain have a very broad musical taste. Personally, I listen to everything from very quiet and mellow music, all the way to extreme metal. I am also a big fan of rap music. When I make music I try to combine what I consider as the strengths in the various genres that I enjoy. For instance, I blend in the feelings in the blues, the aggression in Black Metal, the heaviness in Doom, etc. When we started In Vain I had a vision of trying to combine all these elements, without making the songs chaotic and non-cohesive.

How does the songwriting process work and once together in the studio is it a somewhat flexible stance for ideas from all leading up to the recording?

Johnar: I write all the songs alone and I prefer to present finished songs to the other band members. Consequently, I make demos where I record/program all instruments. I have a strong opinion about everything, from how the vocals should be, what rhythms the drums should play and so forth. Then I incorporate whatever feedback I receive and the songs enters a phase where I listen to them a lot and try to find areas for improvements. When we record I give each members strong guidelines, but everyone is still free to add their personal touch to the music.

Lyrically like musically, the songs on Ænigma have their equally individual themes and presences but is there any underlying connection across the album between songs, apart from being written by the same author of course.

Johnar: There is no connection between the songs on “Ænigma” or between the various albums. As with the music, we have no limits for what our lyrics can involve, except that we stay clear of direct religious or political messages. On Ænigma the lyrics deal with personal experiences, nature, philosophical reflections and our view on which direction the world is heading.

Photo by Jørn Veberg2

Photo by Jørn Veberg

Johnar: I believe I have a strong personal integrity in my songwriting. I have a profound view on how our songs should be, and what makes a song good or not. For instance, I am very concerned about contrasts. Variation is key because if you use the same tricks/riffs too many times people will notice and get bored. I am also a dedicated believer of the fact that arrangements are way more important than the individual guitar riffs you use. In my opinion, you end up with a bad song, even though it only has good riffs, if you arrange it in the wrong way.

How did the recording of Ænigma differ from your previous albums?

Kristian: The recording of “Ænigma” was more effective than any previous IV album. We are more experienced in the recording process now than ever and we know what to expect at this point. Another huge difference is that all previous IV recordings has taken place in our hometown Kristiansand during summer holidays where there’s been more people in the studio at the same time and, yeah, more slacking off. We recorded “Ænigma” in Oslo and tracked all instrumentations separately. Each member spent only a couple of days in the studio with their respective instruments, except Johnar who was supervising the whole process. A lot of bands, especially young inexperienced bands don’t realize the art and value of being an effective and focused band during the recording process. I’m all about having a good time, but when I enter the studio I wanna bring my A-game and be able to say I did my best for the years to come. I still enjoy hanging out in the studio, crack open a beer and try out all kinds of different stuff, but In Vain is complex music and you have to be focused and prepared when you enter the studio.

Johnar: As Kristian said, we are focused on being effective in the studio. But still, we always leave some time for experimentation and improvisation

How as a songwriter and as musicians have you grown and your approach to making music changed since your first release?

Johnar: For many of the songs on our previous albums I have things I would like to have changed. I think I have gotten more experience and become more “tactical” by age. By that I mean that I know what is necessary and what is not necessary to make a song good or not. Also, I have learned that the arrangement of a song is way more important than the riffs you use. I believe you can make a good song even though there are several less good riffs, as long as you balance everything and get the arrangement right. The most important for me is variation and that everything progresses fluently.

Are there any elements of the early days as a band and in making your records which have changed but maybe you in hindsight miss?

Johnar: I really enjoyed when we recorded our two EPs “Will the Sun Ever Rise” and “Wounds” back in the days. We were younger, things were less serious and we had more fun. For both those albums we just rented a studio for the whole summer and had a lot of fun.

Ænigma was produced by the mighty Jens Bogren (Opeth, Soilwork, Borknagar, etc.), what was it apart from the obvious about his style which you felt would exploit the riches of the album to bring it even more vibrantly to life?

Johnar: We chose to work with Jens because he had impressed us with his previous work. Additionally, we were looking for a crystal clear sound which would allow all the elements in our music to be heard.

Did his input and ideas change anything beyond your initial ideas upon the album?

Johnar: Jens only mixed the album after everything was recorded when he received the files from us. So the answer is no to this

Photo by Jørn Veberg

Photo by Jørn Veberg

question.

In our review we felt the album was seeded in your earlier albums expanding them into a new exhilarating and inspiring canvas of fresh and sharp invention, and as we said earlier stands as something uniquely separate at the same time. Is that how you see it too from the inside of the band?

Johnar: I think “Ænigma” is a very good representation of everything we have done so far. You have more epic and slow songs (‘Floating on The Murmuring Tide’) which could be compared to ‘Captivating Solitude’ from the “Mantra” album, and you have more aggressive and fast songs (‘Times of Yore’) which is reminiscent of our earlier work. Finally, you also have tracks like ‘Image of Time’ and ‘Rise Against’ which has a more fresh and new sound.

Again you have brought in guest musicians for the album including Lazare and Cornelius from Solefald. Though it is an on-going idea across your releases to date have you not had the urge to master many of the instruments these fine artists bring and provide them yourselves?

Kristian: Having guest musicians on the album is good fun for both us and the fans but also a way to ensure that you have the best man for the job. It would have been too time consuming to learn how to play the violin, cello, sax or whatnot only to play on a couple of songs. These musicians are amazing and have spent years mastering their crafts. It would have been like using a plumber to operate on your legs or a surgeon to fix your plumbing. When it comes to Lazare and Cornelius it just felt natural to work with them since In Vain and Solefald will be teaming up this year on the stage. They are two great musicians and artists with a unique style and pitch to things and it would be plain wrong to try to imitate them instead of inviting on the album.

 The vocals on your releases and especially Ænigma just blow us away, the mix of extremes and their fluid union is always so impressive and another major aspect for us alongside the startling sounds. I have to ask though is there any rivalry over parts in songs as they are written?

Kristian: Since we all have very different vocal styles it becomes natural who’s doing what. I know my strengths and limitations when it comes to vocals and I’m not even gonna try to do Andreas shivering BM vocals or Sindre’s clean vocals. As with the former question; the most important thing is that you have the best man for the job. With varied songs, you also need variations in the vocals.

Since forming in 2003 has it become easier or harder as a band over the years, and has your gained experience along the way made it easier to deal with obstacles and arising problems within the music business?

Kristian: I think it becomes easier the older and more confident you get. As a band we are tighter, better and more comfortable with each other than ever and I think that comes as a natural consequence of us having matured and gotten more experienced. I haven’t seen the ugly side of the industry yet, but I know it exists. There are shady people in just about any business though. A lot boils down to how you let these people treat you.

April sees In Vain touring with Indie Recordings label-mates Vreid and also Solefald. Will you include the whole of Ænigma within your shows and what else is ahead live wise for the year?

Johnar: Since we don’t tour that often we will also play some old songs. Also, a big number of our fans really love the “The Latter Rain” album, so we will play a couple of songs from that disc. But the majority will be from “Ænigma”. Since our songs are quite long there is a limit on how many we can play unfortunately.

Again many thanks for sparing time to tell us about In Vain and Ænigma. Any last words you would like to share?

Thanks again! Big thanks and respect to all the supporters of real music out there! Keep buying albums and go see a good ol’ rock show every now and then. Hope to see you all soon on a stage near you!

And finally for the tour what are the sounds you most likely will take to help ease all the traveling between venues?

Kristian: I listen to just about anything within music, I don’t really care about norms or scenes anymore, only quality and passion. If you want name droppings: Neurosis, Deadmau5, Converge, Shai Hulud, Kendrick Lamar, the Roots, Radical Face, the last Deftones album is nice, Totalt Jävla Mörker, Hans Zimmer, Thrice+ a thousand more!

Read the review of Ænigma @ https://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/in-vain-aenigma/

The RingMaster Review 23/03/2013

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