Hällas – Wisdom of the PastSunday, 3rd April 2022
Adventure rock exists for those who wish to whisk away to a land of forgotten time – where fantasy, sci-fi, and progressive music collide. Such is the case for Swedish band Hällas – coming together in 2011 to fuse a sound that contains elements of psychedelia, proto-metal, progressive rock, and heavy metal. Their third album Isle of Wisdom brings a twin-guitar sensibility, thoughtful bass/drum interplay, and a bevy of keyboard/ organ tricks to set up a sound very 70’s-oriented – when bands like Genesis, Rush, and Wishbone Ash garnered major attention. We spoke to guitarist Marcus Petersson about the evolution of Hällas for this new record – the origin of the main character, vintage gear/ cover art discussion, and his riff machine abilities plus a peak into future songwriting work.
Dead Rhetoric: Isle of Wisdom is the third and latest album for Hällas. What were your main goals and objectives in the writing and recording of this record – and how would you assess this album in the discography of the band?
Marcus Petersson: The main goal was probably like always to make things better. For us to enjoy the process and the songs more. I would assess this as a step back to Excerpts from a Future Past, the debut album. We very much like Conundrum, but it wasn’t as natural this time to go back to that more laid-back synthy sound. There were a lot of heavy metal riffs coming out of us. You can’t really decide what you do, it’s what you get.
Dead Rhetoric: A song like “Earl’s Theme” has the obvious bright organ/keyboard sounds and marching tempo that would have been perfect for an 80’s fighting soundtrack like Rocky or Karate Kid. What can you tell us about the development of this cut – and what are some of the other standout moments to you for Isle of Wisdom?
Petersson: Yes, the main riff was actually (from) Alex our guitarist sent us this folder of fifty riffs. He’s a very good player, but this riff just stayed in my head because it was good and bad at the same time. That is always… if a riff stays like that, it annoys you but it’s that good, you should make something of it. Until this day, he doesn’t like it – he thought this (riff) was a joke. That is a good thing – I’m glad you said marching as that is exactly the idea. The original riff was a bit faster, but we decided to make it a marching theme with very orchestral things growing out. It’s not a war theme, but a call to arms to this evil guy. It’s written ironic, until we die for us its obscene, that mindset. We started to work on that riff, Nick took it and evolved with it, made things even more orchestral, and we took it back and made it the version it is now, laid back and rock. A mix of 10CC and Uriah Heep.
My favorite moment is the final song “The Wind Carries the World”. There is a long section that is beautiful too, that Tommy wrote with his very nice melodies and singing. It grows into this crescendo. We are all fans of crescendos. These two minutes are probably the best thing we have ever written. The first time we recorded it and played the demo of it, the hair on my arms when I watched Tommy sing that part for such a long time, it was so beautiful. He did it again in the real recording, even longer.
Dead Rhetoric: Was it an easy process to decide which songs from the record you would feature as visualizer videos?
Petersson: The visualizers were chosen by the record company. We did not have anything to do with that. They need something for YouTube, and we didn’t have anything prepared at the time. The singles were chosen by us I guess, mainly because of the length. The songs also are the most straightforward, even if they weren’t necessarily written as singles. Being on the proggy side, it’s not always easy to choose the song to present to the world. You need something that will make people curious, but nowadays you can’t have a twenty-minute song and release it first.
Dead Rhetoric: Can you tell us about the origination of Hällas that is the main character who drives the lyrical content – and how you believe these stories mirror the brand of ‘adventure rock’ you deliver as a group on the music front?
Petersson: The first time he appeared was in the song “Hällas”. It was written before I joined the band. Back then, it was more of a beware the mighty character. He was on the rise. At the time, from Monty Python he was a templar in the movies. We had a picture of that guy, this looks good, we had the castle and used photoshop for some reason to put Michael Palin’s character into that picture. Which evolved into the cover for the first EP. On the second album, we thought there should be a rise and fall arc to things – that’s where he started to have more struggles, the meaning of life and being chased by difficulties. The hubris story in there.
Dead Rhetoric: So where does the theme go this time – as I know the last album finished up a specific storyline?
Petersson: Yes, exactly. He is now considered a fading hero and aligned with the stars. That knight is not on the new album. Instead, the theme is very similar. People struggling, being chased, those kinds of themes are explored too. He’s not with us anymore.
Dead Rhetoric: How are you as a band able to work out the mixture of vintage and modern gear to achieve the sound of the group? Is it a balancing act considering the wide array of older influences at play, while trying to appeal to a modern audience?
Petersson: It is a balancing. We are not as much as you think interested in vintage gear. Of course, we would like to use as much old gear as we could – it’s also a hassle because things break, and they are also very expensive and difficult to buy. The effect pedals, amplifiers are not necessarily from the 70’s, more the 90’s or 2000’s. I think it’s more about the approach of things. Be aware of distortion and just use overdrive. Probably it’s more the way we write things, the dynamics have to be there. This is something we are also working with continuously and try to get better on. Everybody does not have to play at the same time all the time. We never set out to be a vintage band and only have vintage gear. Even though we enjoy the vintage things, nothing was really recorded using… we recorded this on tape, and that was an experience, an attempt to achieve a vintage sound or earth based.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the thought process and execution of the cover art? Do you still believe that artwork and imagery are important to give off those initial first thoughts before people press play on the music?
Petersson: Yes. If you see the artwork first and hear the music second, that would be very important. On the other hand, most people when you discover new things, Spotify puts on the next song. It’s still very important for us. For the first three albums, we discussed the colors and what color the album may feel for you. On Excerpts we thought of blue, we all agreed. This time we wanted … since we were starting a new story, we thought it was an opportunity to see if another artist could bring some other element to the table. It took us a long time, and the songs were already done by the time we received the cover. I personally don’t prefer doing it this way – because the theme can also help with the songwriting.
Dead Rhetoric: What first attracted you to progressive rock in general? Who are some of the bands that really fuel your creative desires and approach to guitar when it comes to this style?
Petersson: Personally, for me, while it’s not progressive I listened to a lot of Norwegian black metal. Somewhere along the way I found out about Rush, Genesis. The black metal, the landscape moving forth, it’s inspiring and what I grew up playing. I would make black metal songs that I would never release. When I joined the band in 2014, I listened to 2112, which is a big influence on me guitar-wise. Then I found about Camel, Genesis, the guitars within Marillion. Goblin as well and the Italian scene, it’s not as baroque, it’s scarier, and progressive rock versus progressive music.
Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel to be a part of the Napalm Records roster – who may be more well known for their diverse metal styles they promote versus the proto-metal, folk, psychedelic, and hard rock/70’s influences that you meld together into a progressive context?
Petersson: Yeah, that is interesting. I am honored that they are the ones to work with us, but it’s also why do they want us? It works well, we have one foot in the progressive rock, and we have a lot of heavy metal riffs. I think it’s a good fit.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you feel the greatest level of satisfaction – the studio or the stage? Or are the differences wide enough that they both maintain equal importance to you as a musician?
Petersson: I would say they maintain the equal importance because on one side in the studio, or in the rehearsal space that’s where the magic happens. You play something together and someone adds something and you hear it for the first time. That is also isolated, but being a millennial, I need likes, and that’s what you see live from the audience when people are happy and singing along with the lyrics and the riffs. It’s another experience and feeling alive. I have done a lot of gigs, but I’m still just as nervous every time.
It’s nice to go off stage and find out if the gig is good or not so good. It helps us work better for the next time.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges Hällas faces in making a stronger footprint with your music?
Petersson: To us, it’s probably the live puzzle. Families and work. Making ends meet and all that. We all would love to do more, but there is so much time you can use between work and families. It’s finding the time not only on the necessities like rehearsing or writing new songs but also the time to reflect on them, how we can make things bigger, how to evolve the songs. It’s like jumping in the river and learning how to flow along – it’s hard to get control of everything.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe your approach to the guitar – what do you consider some of your best qualities and what would you like to improve upon in the future?
Petersson: My approach was like I don’t want to learn too much, and get too technical, because then I think the magic will disappear. That was what I was thinking when I was younger, and now I’ve developed more skills. During the pandemic I had a lot of time to practice, and something I was never satisfied with was my ability to do guitar solos. I practiced a lot the past two years, and it’s more fun than I thought.
My best quality sounds cocky, but I can be a riff machine. I can get home and write five or ten riffs, that is probably the best thing.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some hobbies and interests you have away from music when you have the free time to pursue them?
Petersson: The regular things – a lot of television shows and movies. Video games. I’m a media consumer. You can say it’s mostly related to the music we do. Fantasy/ sci-fi games, television shows. I wish I had more time and people around to play RPG’s – I would enjoy that very much.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s in the future for Hällas over the next twelve months when it comes to promoting this record? Have you already been working on material for the next effort – and if so, what direction are things going in so far?
Petersson: Right now, we have still all the shows that were cancelled from 2020. The Conundrum tour will be merged with the new record. Then we will see, book more shows. Maybe more through 2023, as we are fully booked. I got the question today, when are we going to start new songs – from one of the band members. We are very much… it’s so weird. We recorded the album in September, and now it’s March and we are looking forward to starting again. We have a couple of leftover songs – we have a long song that never fit, we are very much looking forward to where we can go next. We want to make things even better.