Unleashing the best in Scandic Hard Rock with no apologies to the English
by Todd K Smith
Scouring the world for a true phenomenon in progressive hard rock we find Stockholm’s own Abramis Brama. The Swede five-piece find their footing in heavy 70’s riffage with a bow to Mountain, Sabbath and November including elements of local folk-rock legends Pugh Rogefeldt and Mikael Ramel. What attracted us to this wooly bunch was their uncanny ability to convert while fiercely maintaining their conviction to sing in their native tongue. We even selected their latest opus Smakar Söndag as our pick for Record of the Month in August 2009. Formed in 1997 and having released six albums, five in Swedish one in English, the group has maintained a steady climb from heavy sludge to a more colorful array of classic song crafting. Smakar Söndag has risen as the group’s most successful album to date scoring high on the Swedish album charts and getting noticed abroad. Last spring the band were invited to play the illustrative Sweden Rock Cruise with bands H.E.A.T., Death Angel and The Devil’s Blood.
In an effort to crack the lid on the band’s recent success we joined them for a fun filled night at the Twin Club Custom Bike Show in Norrtälje, Sweden. The fishing village traces it’s history back to 1219 and was burned to the ground in the 18th century by Russian plunders. It now hosts a diverse bike show attracting folks from the entire Baltic region. As the midnight sun settled on the horizon, vocalist Ulf Torkelsson, guitarist Robert Johansson (Backdraft) and drummer Trisse (ex-Grand Magus) first made their introduction to me. We talked about their set list and their strategy for the night’s gig. Guitar hero Peo Andersson, with English derby top hat was next on the scene followed by bassist Dennis Berg. Berg’s striking English accent lulls us into conversation as we discuss everything from the band’s formation to their current burst of notoriety. “We recently got nominated for the ‘Best Rock/ Metal’ category on Swedish public radio.” He says. “It’s surprising how many doors that’s opened. We’d sent out copies of Smakar Söndag to venues and festivals looking for gigs prior to the nomination, but after the nomination we were invited to play all sorts of shows. It makes life easier when you call up and the promoter knows your name.”
One would think the band’s choice to sing in Swedish would be confining. Berg agrees. “We sort of painted ourselves into a corner by doing that.” He confesses. “A lot of people were against it. They think rock and metal should be in English. But we chose to stay with our original decision.” After releasing Dansa Tokjävelns Vals (Dance the Mad Devil’s Waltz) in 1999 the group switched lead singers from Christian Anderson to Ulf Torkelsson. In 2001 their sophomore outing När Tystnaden Lagt Sig (When Silence Is Here) showed a more sophisticated direction and included a cover of The Pretty Things “Cold Stone” sung in Swedish. At the request of Record Heaven, the band’s label, they were cajoled into recording Nothing Changes in 2003 with English lyrics. “It was sort of a best-of album with songs from the first two records,” says Berg. “We re-recorded the songs with new lyrics on new subjects ‘cause the translation didn’t work so well. The working title was ‘We Sold Our Souls To Record Heaven’.”
“In hindsight,” he continues, “those takes were better than the original ones. They were songs that we’d been playing for three or four years. We’d worked through all the finicky things about them, but in the end nothing happened with the album. It wasn’t the hit the label was looking for so we went back to Swedish.” In 2005 the band recorded their fourth album, Rubicon, the only disc the band released as both CD and gatefold LP. “There was a difference in the band after Rubicon,” says Berg, “that’s when Robert (Johansson) first came in as a second guitarist. He influence Peo to try different things step over borders if you will. We also changed drummers and Ulf took over writing the lyrics. With more people involved in the songwriting it made the material more diverse. With the first couple of albums there’s a lot of me in them because I was the primary songwriter. Then my gasoline started to run out. Now with everyone contributing, it’s growing to be more cohesive.”
Guitarist Robert ‘Rabbi Rob’ Johansson joined in. “We create our music based on emotions and what we’re listening to at the time. We let it be spontaneous. Sometimes the melody will take you away into a different place. I think Ulf works best that way; he hums the line, and then finds the words to fit in place later. His voice is his instrument. We don’t want our lyrics to be too obvious. It’s like poetry that you can sing.” As a gift to the fans, the band took time to release Live! in 2007. It was a raw recording showcasing the energy and power of Abramis Brama in top form. “We pride ourselves as being a good live band,” says Berg. “When there are language barriers you really up your game as a live act.” This spring the group was invited to play the four-day Sweden Rock Cruise, a seven-story cruise liner that sails from Stockholm to Finland and back. “We were the first band on the day back,” says Berg. “Usually that’s the bottom slot ‘cause everyone’s hung over in their cabins. When we came out at 2:00PM there was a good crowd hungry to see live music. We put a dynamite set together and really got the crowd going.”
The band has also had a winning streak playing the Sweden Rock Festival; the largest of it’s kind in Scandinavia. They had a tremendous showing in 2000 but turned the corner on 2004 when they moved to the larger stage and playing to thousands. By the end of the day all their merchandise and albums were sold out proving that their music really was a universal language. “This is an art form for us,” says Johansson. “We’re all creating this thing together so to feel the audience approval is tremendous.” Berg recalls the last time they played live on the radio (Classic 106.7). “We drug all our gear down there at 6 in the morning, plugged in and let it wail. It was a hell of a wake up call. When we were finished all the other DJ’s had their faces pressed against the glass window of the control booth wondering what the hell was going on. People loved it.”
In 2009 Abramis Brama released the thunderous Smakar Söndag (Tastes like Sunday) to critical acclaim. The disc is magnetic with combustible riffs and gorgeously textured songs that play eloquently into their native folk rock culture. The recording is made all the more ambitious with guests that include vocalist Moa Holmsten (previously with Meldrum), Rolf Leidestad on keyboard and Grammy winning jazz saxophone Jonas Kullhammar. When asked about the group’s working relationship, Berg is keen to point out, “Of course we have different opinions but there’s no real fighting. It didn’t used to be like that, but we’re older now and fit together better. We still get a little heated working out the arrangements, but if an idea or riff doesn’t survive past rehearsals, it’s gone anyway. The good things always stick around; you come back to them and enjoy ‘em again. I believe things happen for a reason and for Abramis Brama that was to make music.”
All live photos by Linda Helsing ©2010, Linda Helsing.se
Website: Abramis Brama, Record Heaven
In case you missed it the first time, here’s our review of Smakar Söndag.
After four studio records and a live set, Swedish nationals Abramis Brama return with a powder keg of songs the catapult them into the heavy rock stratosphere. Stabilizing their lineup with Backdraft guitarist Robert Johansson and ex-Grand Magus drummer Fredrick “Trisse” Liefvendahl, original members Ulf Torkelsson (vocals), Dennis Berg (bass), Peo Andersson (guitar) have created a masterful working made all the more ambitious with guests that include vocalist Moa Holmsten (previously with Meldrum), Rolf Leidestad on keyboard and Grammy winning jazz saxophone Jonas Kullhammar. Fully fueled, the band’s heavy riffing in songs like the cowbell flavored “Kylan Kommer Inifràn,” the funky groove of Öga För Öga” and hook-filled “Enkel Resa” resonate a maturing drive that only thousands of road miles and endless gigs can capture. Influences like Mountain, Nugent, Cactus and Grand Funk are distinguishable but only as a reference. Interestingly they choose to sing in their native tongue (they tried English on their second record, but returned to Swedish shortly thereafter), yet their songwriting craft easily crosses over with amazing agility.
Having fine-tuned their retro ‘70s thunder, Smakar Söndag, adds subtleties and finesse that are on par with bands like the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac or even Chicago. That emotional investment and the group’s twelve years together characterizes some beautiful transitions like the prog-jazz instrumental that slides in at the end of “Sista Morgonljuset” after a pounding rhythm setup, or the Folk-inspired “Nej” which uses vocal layering and the duet with Moa Holmsten to create a Buckingham Nicks vibe. The ten-minute epic “Med Ont Försåt” is a prog rock classic that does for heavy rock what Opeth did for Death Metal. Framed with a thick, almost stoner bass/drum bottom end, the song twists and turns licking up Sabbath elements, Pink Floyd and sinister ELP. The mid-section grinds to a halt giving way to a country folk break shadowing the better moments of Curved Air. The country flare continues on “Långsamt” with magnetic shared vocals before being steamrolled by a crashing drum beat, pile driving guitar and serpentine bass.
“Smakar Söndag” is the record’s crowning jewel with its ’74-era Sabbath riff and hook-infested chorus. The texture it embraces is everything from Doobie Brother chord changes to an early Chicago Transit Authority horn section - all in the span of three minutes. “Vägskäl” (translated as “Crossroads” in English) drops in the center of the record and though starting with a subtle bass line soon finds itself in a wicked call-and-response guitar duel with Andersson and Johansson enjoying the dance. The magic of the disc is shear musicianship - that push and pull to get the best performance with skintight arrangements. The chugging “Förbjuden Frukt” is a ripe example with a bludgeoning Deep Purple focus and just enough Schenker in the solo to make it truly titanic. The disc closes with “Kommer Hem” a seven-minute gem that could easily be heard in a late night jazz bar. The suspended keyboard adds much to the track’s haunting mood, yet it isTorkelsson's passionate voice that caresses the melody and leaves a memorable impression. This is a classic opus for AB, one that should not be overlooked.