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Avatar's Johannes Eckerstrom: "It was time for our darker, attitude era"


As 21st century metal continues to evolve, few are as adaptable to change as Avatar. The Swedish giants have morphed into a multitude of lifeforms over their decade and a half long span. Yes, theatricality has remained the bands ultimate go-to, but as we reach a pivotal turning point for the five piece - their ability to change with the wind has never been more important.

That wind change facing Avatar is, of course, the trials and tribulations of modern life. And as you'd expect, the world looks like somewhat of a different place today than it did when the Swedes journey began. That's not to say the band yearn for time travel, but if the quintet were ever planning on taking a harsher look at reality - it was now or never.

New record Hunter Gatherer is the very embodiment of that harsher lens. More direct, and sincere than Avatar have ever been before - the album calls for a closer look at several aspects of current life, one of them being technology. It's apt then that we catch vocalist Johannes Eckerstrom on the day of Hunter Gatherer's release. He's relaxed, and confident about the future (or at least as confident as you can be in today's climate).

He discusses the differences between album release dates pre and post digital age with a smile on his face. He laughs as he recollects running to his nearest record store to buy a Finntroll album. Those moments of pressing play and sharing the lyric booklet with his friend while they inhaled a new album are obviously special to him. But he doesn't use this experience to lambaste the digital age. Instead he uses his knowledge of what that first spin of a new album can feel like to drive forward ideas Avatar can thrive off.

Hunter Gatherer was "leaked" by the band the night before its release, a full play through stream was available to fans, it's something Johannes is proud of. "It was a really cool thing for us as a band. Because normally you wake up, the albums out and it's like 'so, the sky is still blue'. It feels like a normal day because you don't get to be around the people hearing it for the first time. But with that event, a lot of people got to hear it for the first time, at the same time, and share that experience. It was a sense of 'premiere' not just release."

Johannes speaks at length about the parallels between two of his loves: pro wrestling and metal. The industries are closer aligned than you might think. And though the link between both has often been artists themselves (Limp Bizkit, Alter Bridge, and Code Orange amongst others have all been used for wrestler/event theme songs), arguably the greatest similarity between them both is that their popularity peaked at the same time.

The mid-late 80's of pro-wrestling saw Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Randy Savage finding cultural icon status, while metal had Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, and Metallica reaching similar levels of notoriety. The late 90's/early 2000's would replicate this, but with new stars at the forefront. Stone Cold, The Rock, and the NWO forced wrestling into the mainstream, right around the same time Nu Metal was exploding with Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Linkin Park each becoming a phenomenon.

Popularity for both industry's have largely cooled, but nowhere near died since. Even with the talent at its disposal today though, Johannes thinks another "boom" for metal is unlikely. "Part of me feels like putting out metal music in the year 2020 is kinda like releasing jazz in the year 2000" he says. "There's a place for it, an audience for it, and more than anything else, there's an artistic value to it. But for something to hit with the mainstream there needs to be some kind of novelty to it, or something that will make people gather around it as a phenomenon. Where you don't compare the new metal band to other metal bands, they're a cultural icon."

Bleak as that outlook may appear, that doesn't tell the whole story. Yes, Johannes' response might seem surprisingly grounded for someone of his persona, but he goes further into detail. He feels that maybe, the current situation we're in could result in a thirst for extremes once it's over - and metal fits that billing quite nicely.

"If I'm to speculate, once we get through this situation I can see the potential for that [metal having another boom period]. Metal takes place in a heightened sense of reality, I think there will be a need for a kind of release that does that once we can finally get out there. As soon as we can touch each other again, maybe we want to bruise each other again, you know? And where do you find the loudest audiences? Metal. There's nothing quite like it."

Even with that said though, metal is undeniably in a great place creatively in 2020. But despite every sub genre in metal being flooded with new, bold bands - it's arguably never been harder to make money. The great streaming debate permeates music discussion across genre's - Johannes doesn't shy away from having his say.

"It is what it is, I'm not in a position to push it one way or another. This is the reality I need to exist in. But don't be mistaken: there is money to be made through streaming, depending on what deals you have with your label and who gets what. It's almost the question of how many middle men do you have? I heard his [Spotify owner] take on it, and I don't see any reason to listen to him. In the big picture: I'm paying rent with music right now, it's not too shabby, I don't have a gold-plated shark tank, but I'm paying rent."

Discussing the new record with him is specifically interesting, as the lyrical pretence of Hunter Gatherer was a first for Johannes. He credits his ability to "trust in the process" as what drove him forward to make somewhat of a side step with the records thematic presence.

"The darkness kind of came by itself, as we wrapped up Avatar Country [2018] we all kind of knew and agreed that the next one was going to be heavier. We did something colourful like Hulkamania, and then it was time for our darker, Attitude Era. It proved to be deeply connected to what we had going on mentally I guess, for a while, our music didn't get to be that outlet - it grew very naturally I'd say."

Finding darkness in their reality has ultimately lead to Avatar writing their harshest, truth hitting material to date, and it couldn't have been timed any better. Their message of theatricality has spent the last decade being widespread, but this, in this climate arguably means more.

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