Portrait – Burning with SteelMonday, 31st July 2017
Seeking out a love of true/traditional heavy metal with bursts of speed and power, Swedish band Portrait started on their quest to develop their sound a little over a decade ago. While many are quick to put them in a ‘Mercyful Fate’-like stance as far as their higher register vocals and equally evil riffing, there’s more to this act as far as their love for the older style. They’ve been unafraid to buck trends- putting out split vinyl with fellow Metal Blade band RAM for instance- while releasing three full-lengths to date that appeal to multiple generations.
Their latest album Burn the World expands on the template established previously – being more aggressive when necessary, faster at times, but also digging deeper into establishing melody and hooks that are mandatory for elevated headbanging. If there’s a blast beat necessary, they’ll do it. Even guest keyboard solos that rival the great Jon Lord in his classic Deep Purple heydays, aiming to create records that stand up to the classics in modern times is not an easy task. Portrait appear to be setting themselves up though for a long, healthy run based on their quality output to date.
Shortly before the late summer release of the new record, we reached out by Skype to guitarist Christian Lindell to catch up on the early days of the band, the dynamic differences that make the new record special, and learn more about his love of movies, the occult, witchcraft, and why he’s not pleased with the celebrity deejay craze.
Dead Rhetoric: Portrait came about in 2006 through drummer Anders Persson and yourself, rehearsing an old Running Wild classic “Black Demon” in a previous band. Did you know right away what type of timeless, elevated form of heavy metal you wanted to develop – are there specific characteristics you wanted to achieve musically with this band?
Christian Lindell: The thing is during that time when we started out as you said we were playing in another band, and we did this Running Wild cover. Earlier on it had seemed like heavy metal was more or less untouchable. You had to have a perfect singer and a lot of other things are completely different with musical skills compared to the thrash and death metal stuff we were playing. Through time we realized that this is what we really wanted to do- so we took this as a challenge to try and do some great heavy metal.
In the beginning, it was a bit more primitive than the stuff is nowadays. I’d say we have always wanted to create our own bit of heavy metal. The process is long to develop into something of your own, especially these days. We are not far from what was set up as a goal from the beginning, actually- (there are) no drastic changes from the original ideas.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you feel fortunate so early on in your career to perform on prestigious festival stages like Sweden Rock and Keep It True as a demo level band? What memories do you have of those early performances, did the response from the fans and other bands give you enough proper feedback that you were heading in the right direction?
Lindell: Definitely- we were blown away by the response on the demo that we did (Welcome to My Funeral). People started writing us from other countries and started asking for more songs and rehearsal tapes. We had not counted on that- it was beyond what any of us had as far as feedback with earlier bands we had been in. The response at those festival shows- I remember both Sweden Rock and Keep It True. Both were very big things for us. We couldn’t really ask for more. In Sweden Rock we played on a smaller stage which was in a tent at the festival area- that tent was jam packed with people when we were playing. That was great- and Keep It True was a bit of a different thing. We knew that this type of audience was our main target, we share the same music tastes as most of the attendees that go there. We have those influences also- that was less surprising with the feedback.
Dead Rhetoric: Were there specific bands at those festival shows you were happy to see and play with those years?
Lindell: At Keep It True, Pagan Altar played the same year, which was a very big thing for me. I remember myself and the other guitarist we had in the band at the time, we travelled to the Keep It True festival before the year we played- we got to see the whole building. We were blown away by the lineup- and Pagan Altar was the main thing for us. At Sweden Rock, I can’t really remember that year which other bands were playing because it’s very close to where I live. I’ve been going every year for 15 years, so I have a hard time remembering the bands I saw that year- but I am sure the lineup was great.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you look at the three previous full-length Portrait albums at this point- any specific highlights, memories, or things you would like to change in retrospect?
Lindell: In general, I have a good feeling about all the albums. As bands always say, they are a good representation of where the band was at those times. There are always things one wants to change with every album- things in the production, arrangements, guitar solos, or specific parts that you think back to in hindsight that you feel could have been done differently or in a better way or longer or shorter songs. I would say at least with every album released there are fewer and fewer things that I would want to change. We learn from every album and every recording process. In 20 years there will maybe be a Portrait album that I don’t think will need any changes.
Dead Rhetoric: Who came with the idea to do the split Under Command release with RAM come about – I for one applaud the idea of recording a song from the other band, as well as the special outside cover choices you did (your pick being “Aggressor” by Exciter)?
Lindell: Yes. It was actually myself and Oscar the singer for RAM. We hang out quite a lot- it was one of those nights where I visited Gothenburg and we had a few beers and talked. Ourselves and RAM have the same stance to most things when it comes to heavy metal and what it means to us. We have the same attitude towards music and the whole world itself. The bands are very close. We discussed the idea as I had seen Desaster from Germany had done a split with Pentacle, and they also did this thing where they did a cover song of the other band. That was the basic idea- us covering one song of theirs, a new song from each band as well. But instead of doing a 7” vinyl single, we decided to do a 12”, and we needed another cover. I thought it was good- Exciter for example is one of those bands that people maybe don’t think about when they hear Portrait, but they’ve been a huge inspiration for us. I have a good appreciation for all those bands that continued from the 1980’s into the 1990’s to do great metal, when things were not as easy as it had been. I think they deserve all the respect that we can give them.
Dead Rhetoric: The newest members of Portrait include guitarist Robin Holmberg and bassist Fredrik Petersson. How do you keep the mood and work flow up considering these shifts in members – especially as you’ve gone through a few bassists in Portrait over the decade plus time frame?
Lindell: Yes. It’s never a funny thing to switch members, and it’s been a few different reasons for it over the years. Each switching of the lineup has its own reasons, and when you get new members into the lineup it takes time to get to know them, and also for them to grow into the band, both in the writing process for the studio and the live performances. It’s always a setback when it happens – and even though it may not seem like it, we have always fought to not having to switch members. In this latest case, Cab decided to leave for personal reasons- for David it was more a lack of effort thing and really his own choice. In the end, there was not so much that we could have done differently, this time at least. It seems like not necessarily starting from square one, you take a few steps back that I had hoped wouldn’t be needed but we can’t really do anything other than to solve it the best possible way. Now it feels very good about both new members- I really hope that this lineup will last for a long time.
Dead Rhetoric: Burn the World is the latest Portrait album. How do you feel the songwriting and recording sessions went, and where do you feel this release stacks up next to your other albums?
Lindell: As usual when it comes to the writing process, that is my favorite part of being in a band. When you have the new ideas going on, rehearsing it and seeing how it manifests. Inspiration is either there or it isn’t there. You can’t really push things forward. All of the songs came really easy. It came natural, as it has always done with all our previous albums. We felt that we went in a bit of different directions here and there. Our aim was to expand in all ways that we think we can handle- when it comes to the more aggressive riffing and parts, as well as the more atmospheric and melodic parts. In both directions, we went further. As it feels now it’s our most dynamic record.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the keyboard work in “Likfassna” come about with Hell’s Kevin Bower – it gives the arrangement even more of a throwback Deep Purple/Rainbow vibe? And when did the idea to get Dissection guitarist Set Teitan for guest guitar solos come into play?
Lindell: About the keyboard parts- we spoke with Kevin Bower some years ago. We’ve known him for some time at festivals. We talked to him, and we discussed if he could do some keyboards on a future album. It didn’t happen on Crossroads for some reason, but when we were recording Burn the World we felt like there were a few parts that it could fit with keyboard arrangements. He said he could do everything from orchestral stuff to Jon Lord-like solos. Then I got the idea for the specific part in this song- it was going to be a guitar solo there from the beginning, we felt that it could be worth a try to have a Jon Lord solo there. He tried and he succeeded, it turned out really cool.
With Set Teitan, I have been friends with him for some years now. We get along well, he’s a good friend and a talented guitarist. I asked him if he could do one solo on the album, he came to the studio and recorded it. When he was there I felt there was some more parts that I originally played myself that he could do some improvisation on. Then he did it great- so he does solos on three songs instead of the one original song.
Dead Rhetoric: Has it always been a priority to keep the production as raw and analog-oriented as possible – given the style the band plays?
Lindell: The way I see it, the most important thing is that the production fits with the music. It should be atmospheric, and gives life to the recording. The newer albums sound too well-produced, they don’t have so much personality. It should have its own personality and atmosphere that fits, like a red line throughout the whole album. It’s not always easy to get that, especially when there are a lot of differences between the songs. It’s a lot of work, but with that part it’s become better and better with every album. It’s an interesting challenge to get things right.
Dead Rhetoric: Discuss the push and pull issues of holding down day jobs/careers and music productivity with Portrait- as you’ve had to make difficult decisions turning down certain tours through the years. How do you decide what is worth the commitment in terms of tours/festivals and what you pass on?
Lindell: That part, there have been a few occasions where we have had to turn down offers because of private situations for members and a lot of other reasons. To me, the most important thing to keeping on with music is to give a manifestation with what I feel inside that inspires me to write music in the first place and have it properly recorded and released with good artwork and so on. Of course, I would have enjoyed doing more touring, but it has never been a question of continuing or not. The most important thing is the actual writing and outcome of the music itself.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you get the greater enjoyment from – recording or performing? Or are both equally exciting due to the differences?
Lindell: I think the live part – it’s great and it’s more fun than sitting in a studio recording with every note (that) has to be as perfect as you can get it. Live situations are more fun and more relaxed. To me it’s more important to do a great album than doing a great show. Both parts are important, but as long as I can write and record music I will continue to do it any way, even if it cannot be performed live.
Dead Rhetoric: In Sweden you mention a celebrity deejay craze taking over the club scene- has this cut into patrons wanting to see real musicians perform live these days? I’ve also heard that many times, international bands draw better than your local bands, is this true depending on the style of metal?
Lindell: This deejay thing, I don’t think it has really stopped or diminished live music performances. The whole celebrity deejay thing is something I have a bit of a personal issue with. Those deejays playing other bands songs and calling it gigs and tour dates and so on. It’s maybe only my problem or concern. The thing with local bands and so on, we aren’t really big in our hometown or anything. If we go to a small town in Germany, there would definitely be more people there than if we played in our hometown. It depends from town to town, what type of musical climate and types of music are supported in each. With international bands- Sweden is quite a trendy country also.
Dead Rhetoric: What is your stance on the power of social media and the internet in general? It can level the playing field in some respects, but also be very harmful in others…
Lindell: There are good things about it- you can get in touch with a lot of people and share thoughts and ideologies, everything with (them). It’s easier to connect with people through the internet with people otherwise that you might not have ever met. For the metal scene, if people would use it in a good way, I don’t really see it as a problem. But there’s also a lot of things with social media that take unnecessary attention away from people. Some people spend their lives listening to Iron Maiden, but others see things on Facebook that they get butt hurt about and feel that they have to join in on some useless, online debate. If you have enough discipline, it can be used for good things- but as you said, there are also risks with it.
Dead Rhetoric: What types of passions or hobbies do you like to engage in when you have the free time to do so away from music?
Lindell: I read a lot – I’m interested in witchcraft, the occult, religion, folk magic and so on. I also like to watch movies- everything from horror and gore to drama, war movies. Those are my biggest interests outside of music.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Portrait after the record’s release? Will there be plans for a return engagement to North America, even if it’s just on a case by case, festival basis?
Lindell: That would be great. The agenda in general, this fall we will be doing a European tour, starting in October or November. After that, we don’t have anything confirmed. If we are contacted by North American promoters, we would definitely be interested in coming over, even if it’s a one-off show. We would like to go there, we haven’t played outside of Europe yet.