Battlelore – Awaiting the ShadowsSunday, 17th July 2022
In industry terms, a decade-long break from the studio could seem like an eternity to followers of a band. Finnish epic symphonic metal act Battlelore have awoken once again from that deep slumber with their seventh studio record The Return of the Shadow – infusing their blend of styles as a seven-piece that incorporates male/female vocals, dual guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums that cross a multitude of subgenres – extreme to melodic, always aiming to achieve a wide sonic reach throughout their records.
We reached out to vocalist Tomi Mykkänen on Zoom recently to catch the readers up to date on their prolonged absence from the scene, the work behind the new record, the cover concept, the importance of stage gear and props to their live outlook, thoughts on where they sit in the Finnish versus global scene as far as a following, plus what’s cooking behind the scenes for future promotion.
Dead Rhetoric: After a ten-year creative break, Battlelore returns with your latest album The Return of the Shadow. Were there any specific circumstances that made this the right time to place the band on hiatus – and how did you know when the time was right to get things going again?
Tomi Mykkänen: I think we kind of had quite a creative ten years before Doombound. We started feeling that we would be needing a break, when we were making that album. We had some things happening in the band, people were having children, things like that. It just felt at the point that we needed a break from the band because we had been doing so much, six albums and a lot of touring. It kind of burned us out. We will see what happens after Doombound. We were in touch with each other, and still friends, so it wasn’t like we didn’t see each other in ten years. We didn’t feel like doing songs for Battlelore. A couple of the songs from the EP Jyri had done in 2012, and then in 2016 we played in Belgium. We played a couple of gigs in Finland as well. It was actually in 2020 at a Finnish festival John Smith, the promoter of that festival asked us if we would have Battlelore play there. We were like, yeah – we can be there. And that kind of pushed us to think about a couple of demos – we had all these Finnish gigs booked for the summer and autumn. It made the flame burn inside, we started something, so we needed to do this.
We started working on the first demos a year and a half ago, before Christmas of 2020. In the end it came quite quickly the songs that we worked on. We felt that, okay, this is fun again and we are being creative. Ideas started flowing. We wanted to have the EP and the album, because the EP songs we worked on first, and then the music went to a different place. Why now? It’s just the right time again. I don’t know what happens next, but we are having a lot of fun together again.
Dead Rhetoric: What were those initial sessions like writing this material after such a long break, did you have any worries or fears about matching the spirit of previous Battlelore albums? And where do you see this record sitting in terms of the catalog, were there specific elements or aspects you wanted to push forth this time around that maybe differ from the other albums?
Mykkänen: That’s a good question. Most of the older songs are from Jyri, the ones from 2012. Those were the first songs, and “Avathar” was the first one we worked on, the steppingstone where we understood it sounded like Battlelore. At that point, all the songs are demoed at the same time and recorded at the same time. In that sense, the EP and the album are the same – but we decided to have the EP as a separate thing. We had the songs, thinking about song order – what we had in mind is to release an album, the artwork is done for the double gatefold. The album breakdown is side a and side b, and the EP is like a side c. And then Napalm informed us that we would have to wait for the vinyl until autumn. Now we only have the CD, but that’s cool.
There are some aspects that we worked on – we thought about all these arrangements. We changed the songs while we were doing the demos, took things out, we did lots of work. We really needed good demos for this. One thing I told the guys when they started making the demos, when you open up your DAW (digital audio workstation) it gives you the automatic BPM at 120. I told the guys that you don’t always use the default value – change the tempos so it can be a little slower or a little faster. That makes it a happier album than if we think about Doombound, it was in your face and really dark. If we think about the discography of Battlelore, against the things that I’ve been told as I wasn’t in the band for the first two albums, that Battlelore was metal before Tomi joined and now, they are not. If we think for example about Sword’s Song, it’s easily the poppiest album in the catalog. All the way. In a sense, there are three albums that are a bit happier: Sword’s Song, The Last Alliance, and the new one. So far, The Last Alliance has been my favorite. But I love the new album, it’s really good. I had fun even though I was quite sick when I was recording the vocals. You can hear in my clean vocals that I had a bad flu at that moment when recording, it sounds strange in my ears. In a way it’s good, it’s easier to listen to now because it doesn’t sound like me.
Evernight is a really dark album. The first one is okay. But then we have these poppier albums. The new one – I think it’s the best album we have done so far.
Dead Rhetoric: Being a seven-piece outfit, how do you navigate the challenges when it comes to expressing yourselves musically and getting everything to fit into place without overwhelming the listeners in terms of content song to song?
Mykkänen: Musically it’s quite easy. When we start making music, it’s usually Jyri, Jussi, Timo, or myself, we come up with an idea on guitar. We go to our rehearsal place and then work on the drums and record it, guitars and bass. We give it to the others, and then whoever is the fastest records his or her parts first. This time I did most of the vocal ideas. Maria did a couple of songs. When we were making the songs, we were thinking that they were quite different, especially how the ideas fit. Maria came up with the keyboards, and then we knew it would sound like Battlelore.
When we are arranging like I told you earlier, we took out some guitar parts and some synth parts to let things breathe more. We do some arranging and removing of ideas – but mostly these songs come together quite easily. Rehearsals are more of a pain in the ass.
Dead Rhetoric: Artist Kirsi Salonen handled the cover art for the new record. Tell us about the concept and how the process developed with Kirsi – do you believe it’s still important in today’s marketplace to develop strong cover art?
Mykkänen: Yeah, I think the cover art it is really important for us. I know in some generations it’s not that interesting, if you only listen to music through Spotify, who cares. But for us, it’s really important. I had an idea for the album cover back in 2012 – sometime around that, I saw this dream, the album cover and the name of the album. Jyri didn’t want to use it at that point. Jyri found Kirsi, and she lives around us in our hometown. We didn’t give her that much input about what the idea should be except that Jyri wanted something dark and green (laughs). And then when Kirsi showed us the first sketches, we thought this was cool.
She had free hands on what to make. We of course had something different when it comes to the EP cover. We picked from a different picture; it was something that had been done previously. It’s on the pages inside the CD booklet.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been a part of the Napalm Records roster since your debut album …Where the Shadows Lie from 2002. How does it feel to watch the growth of the label, and how would you describe their outlook and promotional reach for Battlelore – do you think they have a proper understanding of generating the right push and positioning for the band to grow your following on a global scale?
Mykkänen: Yes. It’s been a huge leap for them, especially because they are signing a lot of new bands plus many bigger bands, old-timers. Even older than us! (laughs). I come from a different scene, and I was really surprised when they signed Monster Magnet. How is this happening? Now they have lots of new bands. At some point, I think we were one of the higher mid-level bands from (the roster). We had a nice push, especially when we were touring a lot. Their promotion is quite good. Now that we are a smaller band in a sense compared to the signing of say Katatonia, who they signed last week, or W.A.S.P., Monster Magnet, Xandria, friend bands of ours – I am quite sure they might not push as much. They are doing a nice job for us; we get lots of interviews. It will be up to us to write better songs to reach more people. We’ve been talking about this, Jyri and I, we started talking about this. How could we gain a bigger following?
The biggest problem we have had throughout our entire career is that people think that we are folk metal. We have never been folk metal; we may have a riff or two on our albums that resembles folk metal as I see it. Maybe we should actually make a folk metal album to reach a bunch of new people. We are making metal that is stylish – multifaceted. We have black metal, we have death metal, we have pop metal, we do some rockin’ stuff. That’s how we do it. There are good bands that do folk metal and have fun, but that’s not for us.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the importance of your stage gear, props, and imagery when it comes to Battlelore? Do you believe it enhances the lyrical content and gives people more of a multi-sensory experience, especially when it comes to your video work and live performances?
Mykkänen: Yeah, it really does. It’s been from the beginning that we have had all these props. For example, from my point of view, I’m kind of a quiet, shy guy. I am nervous about concerts, even sometimes too much. When we are preparing for a Battlelore concert and putting on the props, for me it gives me a different freedom. I get rid of Tomi, and I go into this character who sings for Battlelore. It’s so much easier to go on stage, better than wearing t-shirts and saying, ‘I’m Tomi’. For the listener and viewer, it gives them the idea that we are doing something different, and that we are fantasy metal.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess your outlook as a musician in your late forties compared to where you were as a person in your twenties and thirties? Do you believe your definition of happiness and success as a musician has changed and evolved over the years?
Mykkänen: Oh yeah, it has changed a lot. For example, I really don’t want to be a rock star. I want to have music as my hobby. That is one of the biggest outlooks that has changed a lot. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t have to tour if we don’t want to. We don’t have to make anything we want to, and we have lots of different bands and projects. I am doing so much stuff all the time. I do lots of stoner rock, synthwave, black metal, and then I have Battlelore and Evemaster. When I was younger, I thought when I was in that band, I was solely in the band. But now if I have a pop idea, I record it and figure out a way to use it somewhere. I’m not that strict anymore.
I used to be a black metal guy. Now, who cares? I love my black metal stuff, but my outlook is different. I have children and a wife, and that’s why I am here now. I’m more relaxed. As a songwriter, I do so many songs for different styles, and I’m a much better songwriter. I may be too mature for some people, but musically I see it as a good thing. I learn to do more things nowadays.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the heavy metal scene within your home country of Finland? Do you believe you are well-received for your work domestically compared to the respect and following you have across other parts of Europe, South America, the Far East and North America?
Mykkänen: Yes, kind of. We have always been more appreciated generally in Europe and the United States, South America. We are a small band in Finland. We have sold 1,000 albums for the earlier ones here. We haven’t done the work that some of the other bands have done like Korpiklanni and Moonsorrow have done, playing gigs around Finland all the time – or at least they used to. And then touring Europe all the time. That’s one of the reasons we aren’t that big. I think it was for The Last Alliance we decided this would be our hobby, and not reaching for rock stardom. We turned down many tours, including ones to Europe and the United States. In that sense, we get what we deserved.
Dead Rhetoric: What have you changed your mind about over the last few years – either in your personal life or when it comes to music? And why?
Mykkänen: We are a little bit older; we aren’t getting younger. When Jyri asked me to join Battlelore, I had just turned 30, and I told him that we are trying, and then we made the first tour for Sword’s Song, and we started making the next album. I told him I don’t see myself going on stage waving a sword when I am 40. And now I am almost 50 and I just can’t wait to do this! (laughs). We have four festivals coming up in a few weeks, I can’t wait to get on stage, wave the sword and have fun. I’m really trying to enjoy this as much as possible.
The biggest problem we had that led to the break is there was some mishaps with tours. We lost some money; the last tour was horrible. We played bad places. In the middle of nowhere. It was bad. But now, what might have changed is I may like to go and play those bad places for three people now. The realization that what we do is fun for some people and for us, we should enjoy it as much as we can. That’s the biggest change that has happened.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next year or so looking for Battlelore in terms of live shows, tours, festivals, and promotion? Are you hopeful to get the next album out sooner than the break between the last two records?
Mykkänen: Oh yeah! If we are going to do the next album, it won’t take ten years. We have to do it now that we are living the dream again. It’s the most crucial part, that we have fun. We don’t have a recording deal anymore, there is no one saying we have to make an album. We will see what happens. We have summer festivals in Finland coming up and playing abroad. We were told it is tough, there is a backlog of bands going to these festivals. We don’t have a promotional agency at the moment at all. I don’t know if we will start working with a new agency.
We are talking about a fall tour in Finland, and maybe next summer going abroad. What we have now, everyone is working. We can’t do two-month tours anymore. I would like to play more festivals next summer – Wacken, Summer Breeze, Bloodstock. I’m sad that we have never played the US. We were asked so many times. When you come over you need to do lots of gigs. We were offered on the last tour it was 52 gigs, and that was too long for us to be away from Finland. I would like to play Japan too. Then my musical life would be complete.