Soilwork: The Metal Majestic
The veteran Swedish melodic death metal band resurfaces with a revised lineup and one of their strongest albums yet.
Just before the release of Soilwork’s latest album, The Ride Majestic, the group announced that bassist Markus Wibom would be replacing Ola Fink, who had been with the band almost from the start of their 20-year career. “I’m not quite sure what happened,” says Wibom. “Björn (Strid, the lead singer) just said, ‘Things are pretty good, but we’re having some difficulties. We want you in the band.’”
While many bands would be shaken to the core by such a change, Wibom had previously toured with Soilwork as a guitar tech and lighting designer, so the transition was fairly seamless. Besides, Soilwork has weathered similar storms in recent years. Guitarists David Andersson (an MD who moonlights as a gastroenterologist) replaced founding member Peter Wichers in 2012, and Sylvain Coudret replaced Ola Frenning in 2008.
Still, the making of The Ride Majestic was impacted by tragedies within the Soilwork camp. During the writing and recording process, death and severe illness befell several members of the musicians’ families. The band channeled their emotions into the music, and not surprisingly, a touch of melancholy is evident throughout the album. “Whirl of Pain” is driven by a wistful melodic figure, while “Death in General” employs a dissonant motif and haunting open-string clusters.
Premier Guitar spoke with Andersson, Wibom, and Coudret about melody in the metal genre, the writing of The Ride Majestic, and the band’s current gear.
From the lyrical passages that open the album to the catchy chorus of the title track, it seems like you prioritize melody. Is melody a lost art among newer metal bands?
Sylvain Coudret: Yeah, a lot of bands are really fantastic musicians, but sometimes I miss the melodies. It’s more difficult to write good melodies than just some fast stuff. Or to write good parts behind the melodies.
Markus Wibom: It depends on the music. Some people are doing just fine without it. Every band has its own thing. It’s for every band to decide whether to have melodies or not. Maybe it fits their style, maybe it doesn’t. There are bands that almost never use vocal melodies, but they still get it together.
David Andersson: To be honest, I don’t listen to much new metal. We’re a little older now, and we all grew up listening to lots of melodic music as well. We all love metal, but all of us are also big fans of classic rock, progressive music, pop music, and whatever. Doing melodies comes quite naturally to us, I guess. We hear some younger bands and—not to be rude to them—it sounds like the melodies are sometimes an afterthought. I grew up on classics like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy Osbourne, and then I gradually learned the early thrash bands. One of my favorites growing up was Testament. Then the Swedish melodic thing came with bands like At the Gates and Dissection. When I listen to metal now, it’s newer stuff like Behemoth.
Markus and Slyvain, what were your musical influences growing up?
Wibom: My influences come from old punk bands. That’s what I’ve always listened to, and I still do. I’ve always been a fan of Matt Freeman from Rancid because he does fairly technical bass playing on simple songs. So I grew up on punk rock. I started touring with Soilwork in 2004, and I started listening more to metal. Soilwork is a band I’d always been into. Every time there was a new record, I’d listen to it intensely.
Coudret: When I started playing guitar I was into Beatles songs. When I was a kid I only played acoustic guitar, so I got into Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin. When I turned 18 I got my first electric guitar, but I was already into AC/DC, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.
How would you characterize the differences between your soloing style and David’s?
Coudret: We’re pretty close, and it’s hard to describe the differences. We grew up on the same music, so we’re in the same area when we play together. Differences? Maybe I’m more into the Steve Vai types, and David’s more into the classic rock types. I know David’s a big fan of Scott Henderson. I used to listen to him a lot too. We love pretty much the same jazz-rock players.
Do these influences creep into Soilwork’s music?
Coudret: People say things like, “This sounds a bit jazzy, or like jazz-rock.” But we don’t think about it. We just play the way we want to play. Maybe because we used to play that stuff a long time ago, that’s the way we hear it.
Andersson: I actually sneak in a few fusion influences here and there. Perhaps they’re not audible [laughs].
The solo on “All Along Echoing Paths” has some ear-perking note choices you might not expect in a metal context.
Andersson: Yeah. I guess you hear it pop up in some places if you know what to listen for. I’m a big fan of melodic minor, and I base my riffs on it. That’s also a part of the Scandinavian melancholic thing. A lot of Swedish folk music is based on the melodic minor, and it’s also a big thing in jazz and fusion music.
That’s a refreshing alternative to Yngwie’s harmonic minor vocabulary, which a ton of metal guys copped.
Andersson: Yeah. Obviously no one is doing Yngwie better than Yngwie.
Markus Wibom likes the powerful humbucking sound of his Fender Modern Player Jazz Bass, but he recently started playing a Fender Jazz Aerodyne live because he wanted something lighter. Photo by Josefin Wahlstedt
Tell us about writing The Ride Majestic.
Andersson: Last fall we started discussing where we wanted to go with the music on this one. Since we’re spread out all over the world, we mostly wrote by ourselves, and then we swapped files back and forth. We got together a couple of weeks before the recording and jammed on some of the things and went through arrangements.
Did you flesh out the arrangements at home after getting the other band members’ parts, or did you wait till the actual sessions?
Coudret: Most of the time when I’m writing the songs, I send the file first to Dirk (Verbeuren, drummer) so we can find some drumming feels and stuff like that. At that point, maybe we change some parts, and then the songs stay pretty much the same until the recording, though sometimes we change one part of a song or add more melodies. If the two-guitar parts are part of the rhythm section, they’re part of the first writing. But sometimes it’s just rhythm, and we add the melody stuff later.
Andersson: For this album and the last one, the demos haven’t been that developed. We wanted to give everyone the freedom to work out their own stuff and add to it. I try to keep demos as simple as possible to be able to have that freedom in the studio, whereas when Björn writes stuff on guitar, he tends to add lots of layers even at the demo stage. He thinks more of melodies, both vocal and guitar.
It sounds like you approach things in terms of melodic counterpoint between instruments and vocals.
Andersson: With Soilwork, even before I was in the band, we’ve always done music first, and then Björn comes up with the vocals. Sometimes we might add stuff later, but usually the music is done before he adds his vocals. We try to keep the music interesting. Even if we’re playing melodically, we try to keep the backgrounds interesting and try to have counterpoint melodies. Björn has learned to find melodies on top of that.
The rhythm figures for songs like “Whirl of Pain” and “Father and Son Watching the World Go Down” have strong and independent melodic and rhythmic components. It must be tricky at times for him to fit in his vocals.
Coudret: That’s completely right.
Andersson: Yeah, and that’s probably what keeps it interesting. I think the vocal melodies on this album are interesting compared to a lot of other metal bands that use clean vocals. I guess that’s an art form that Björn has developed over the years. Björn and I did most of the writing for this album, and we had an idea of developing the Scandinavian melancholic moods. I think we’ve accomplished that. It’s hard to explain but it’s sort of like having that old-school melodic death vibe, but hopefully with something fresh.
Markus, will you be adding your own interpretation to Ola’s bass parts?
Wibom: These songs are so established, and I don’t try to change things that are already carved in stone. I’ve been doing some minor changes that no one will be able to hear except for me. Some extra slides and stuff like that.
What are your main axes?
Andersson: We just got an endorsement with ESP Guitars. I use the ESP M-II Horizon series. On the album I mostly used my old Peavey guitar, the HP CT Special. I had an endorsement with them in 2006, when I did my first tour with Soilwork. It’s got a flame top and is really nice. It’s been my main guitar in the studio, but now I’m taking the ESP guitars on the road, and they feel and sound very good.
Coudret: I have an Iron Oxidized ESP Horizon. It has EMG pickups—the 57 and 66. I really dig them. The 57 is like a PAF Pro. It sounds like a passive pickup. I was more of a passive guy before, but I wanted to get back to EMGs. I’m going to put EMGs everywhere now.
Wibom: I use the Fender Modern Player jazz bass. It’s a really cheap one, but I’ve really been into it. I like the powerful humbucking sound—that’s the main reason I got it in the first place. And I just got two Fender Jazz Aerodynes because the modern players are pretty heavy. I need something lighter when I’m playing one-and-a-half hour shows every night.
How does The Ride Majestic reflect the evolution of Soilwork’s sound?
Andersson: I like the first two Soilwork albums, before they added clean vocals, but I guess we’re all a bit too old now to have that youthful aggression. When I listen to those first albums, I can hear that they were created in a rehearsal space by 18- and 20-year-olds. That primitive youthfulness is hard to recreate when you’re doing your 10th album.
Coudret: Twenty years ago the band was more aggressive. Now there are a lot of clean vocals, more than before. And on the last three albums the band has become more progressive.
Even with the progressive elements, you keep everything sounding organic and accessible.
Coudret: It’s hard to find the right balance, but we don’t think about that as we’re writing. I just write what I want to hear. The same goes for David and Björn. We don’t calculate it. We just play what we love to play.
Drama is a key to Soilwork’s sound. Check out this clip from the July 2015 Nord Open Air festival to hear how the band builds from quiet mystery to full-on bombast.