Grand Magus – Between the Hammer and the Anvil

Sunday, 19th January 2014 by David E. Gehlke

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In hearing Grand Magus mainman/Vocalist of the Gods/guitarist Janne “JB” Christofferson talk about things like “simplicity” and “meat and potatoes,” one starts to gain instant appreciation for the band’s less-is-more, keep-it-simple-stupid operating mode. There are bands who play it even more straight than the Swedes, but few can rival GM’s economical ability to craft triumphant metal songs without resorting to blatant plagiarism, a plague bestowed upon the various AC/DC, Maiden, and Sabbath soundalikes. In essence, Grand Magus has come to master the lost art of crafting “songs,” built upon riffs, melodies, and basic song structures. Everything else is just filler.

The band’s new album Triumph and Power (Nuclear Blast) carries on where 2012′s irresistible The Hunt left off. Guided by the slow, careful guitar work and vocal chords of Christoffersson, Triumph and Power continues the band’s simply marvelous four album run of tried-and-true heavy metal. In fact, there may be no other metal band at the present time this good at being so willfully basic.

“We are very no frills and our music is very simple,” our man begins. “That is the most difficult thing to do really well. I mean, a band like AC/DC might appear to do very simple stuff, but it’s an illusion that becomes very obvious if you hear other bands trying to do covers of their songs. They are virtuosos of simplicity, every beat, every note counts and they have the groove that makes it work. Pretty much any band can flail around with a lot of distorted guitars and weird time changes and a lot of fast drumming. But try and clean that up and play a straight 4/4 beat and they will sound like shit. What I’m trying to say is that we have very simple ingredients and we record things in an extremely basic way, but it takes understanding of this type of music to give it that extra edge.”

Producer/engineer Nico Elgstrand (who also handles guitar duties in Entombed) once again was called upon to capture GM in the studio, but unlike last go-round, the trio didn’t have to deal with a change in the ranks, or a new label. Drummer Ludwig Witt (also of Spiritual Beggars) is firmly entrenched, and the band is one Nuclear Blast’s early 2014 priorities. “For The Hunt it was really a hectic and sometimes a bit confusing process,” admits Christoffersson. “I mean, we lost our drummer, got a new one, new label and time pressure was ridiculous. We made a really cool album anyway and I’m very proud of the discipline we had to make it happen. This time everything was much more clear well prepared and obviously, we have played a lot live together since The Hunt was released and really gelled musically. I think it shows on this album.”

Three albums in with Elgstrand…things must be pretty easy and relaxed in the studio, right?

“Yes absolutely, but not comfort in the sense that it’s a walk in the park or cuddly,” laughs Christofferson. “He has extremely high demands and that’s why we work with him. He knows what’s what, and never lets you off the hook if you try to coast or take the easy way out. We trust him and know that he understands what we are after.”

If the Triumph and Power album title sounds like a natural fit for Grand Magus, then you aren’t too far off. Ones never afraid of hiding their love for old-school metal, the title has obvious ties to the days of yore. But, according to Christoffersson, the title also has a double-meaning.

“I think it pretty much speaks for itself,” he says. “We want to project the feeling of triumph and power to the listener with our music. That’s the feeling I got from the great metal bands I grew up with. It also signifies the power and ultimate triumph of nature. No matter how much we try and control and destroy nature, we have to realize that we destroy our own lives and that we can never ‘win’ against nature, we should be humble to its awesome beauty and power. And enjoy it and respect it.”

Going down the line through the album’s running order, several cuts of note emerge as instant winners, most notably album opener “On Hooves of Gold,” the pounding “Dominator,” and album highlight “Steel Versus Steel.” The latter, which leads with a melancholic guitar opening, only to roll into what could only be deemed as “Vintage Magus,” is one of the songs that came first when the band started putting together songs for the new album.

“‘Steel Versus Steel’ was a very natural song, for example,” relays the singer. “But usually what happens is that the first songs you work on are hard work and hard to pin down. After you’ve done three or four, the rest almost writes itself, you know? You have to break through that first door so to speak and find the key for the album. That usually takes the most time and effort. For me at least.”

The closing “Hammer Will Bite” certainly translates as one the songs fitting as the “key” for Triumph and Power. As one of the band’s true numbers epic in scope, “Hammer Will Bite” provides a dark, almost reflective cap to the album. “There’s always been a folk music influence in our music, not always obvious, but still there in the atmosphere and theirs is definitely a kind melancholy in some of the Swedish folk music,” admits Christoffersson. “Not in a depressing way, but in a contemplative and solemn way. We also felt that that song should expand in an epic fashion and the middle part harks back to some of the black metal influences that we also explored on Wolf’s Return and Iron Will, for example.”

Switching gears, the bearded singer recently took part in Ayreon’s new album, The Theory of Everything, lending vocals on “The Teacher,” adding to the long-list of Arjen Lucassen’s perennial all-star cast. Not one to take part in guest spots as much as he should, Christoffersson said working with the lanky Dane was a great experience.

“I was very nervous and unsure of the whole thing since I’ve never done anything like that before. Musically. Arjen is great and we had a lot of fun recording together. I’m very honored to be part of the album.”

So does this mean more special appearances are in tow? Not so fast…

“Not really,” he answers. “It has to be something very special then. I don’t want to be one of those people who are on seven albums every year in different projects. I’m the singer of Grand Magus and that’s it. Having said that, if it’s the right circumstances and the right people involved, sure.”

Speaking of the right people/place in time, Grand Magus was infamously gobbled up in the early 00′s by Lee Dorrian’s fledgling Rise Above Records roster. After a name change from the ill-fitting “Smack,” the Swedes had their self-titled debut released in 2001, followed by the pair of Monument (2003) and Wolf’s Return (2005), two albums that were more doom than the traditional metal they’re playing now.  And while the band doesn’t necessarily owe all of their success to Dorrian’s keen eyes, they probably wouldn’t be where they are today without the help of the now-former Cathedral frontman.

“We had actually changed the name before we were signed, luckily,” says Christoffersson. “It was pretty obvious that we needed a name that suited the music and Smack was definitely not that name. Regarding getting signed: I think we couldn’t really believe our luck and how big of deal it really was. I mean, Cathedral was a huge influence for us back then and to be signed by Lee’s label and an English label in itself was mind-blowing, really.

“But I guess we just carried on and did what we were supposed to,” he finishes. “We’ve always been like that, we just do what we do without reflecting too much on it. Of course it helped us immensely and we got to know so many great bands and people through the fact that we suddenly were in London rather than in Stockholm. We started touring proper tours on night liners and became quite professional quite quickly. I’ll always be grateful to Lee for that.”

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