"The Formless Fires"
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Jacob Björnfot: Vocals / Guitar
Kristian Gustavsson: Guitar
Rasmus Rova: Guitar
Per Lindström: Bass
Fredrik Andersson: Drums

There have been many great extreme metal bands from Sweden, but only one from Kalix. This remote beauty spot near the Finnish border, on the northernmost shores of the Baltic, is home to Jacob Björnfot, creative mastermind behind Kvaen (named after the folk who populated the area in the Viking era). Kvaen's third album The Formless Fires - their first for those world-renowned headhunters at Metal Blade Records - is a sumptuous but bitingly intense exploration of beauty and violence, a melodic black metal masterwork radiating an inspirational sense of place. Even more than 2020's folky, speed metal-infused debut The Funeral Pyre or 2022's compelling, expansive follow-up The Great Below, the vast pine woods and icy lakes are powerfully evoked in the elemental gloom riffs, chilly melodies and windswept solos running through these eight mighty, meaty songs.

"Because of our surroundings, bizarre weather conditions, northern lights etc help shape the way we see and hear things. It affects us more than we think," Jacob ponders, contemplating the effect of his Lapland hometown on Kvaen's exquisitely tuneful but richly atmospheric black metal. "I think it's way better to be raised here than in Stockholm for example. I never liked big cities, except for weekend visits. I don't like the big city attitude; here we are all calm and down to earth. I am in my thirties and most people have either left or returned. I am not planning on going anywhere soon. I still go to my cabin in the woods of Torne Valley and write a lot of music, especially during the winter, which can feel very long and sometimes harsh."

Assisting in this record's immersive sweep are Jacob's fascinating lyrics. Like many Swedish songwriters, his use of English reveals a love and care for the language that few native speakers even bother to rival. If this album seems less intimate and more universal than the raw candour of its predecessor, it's only because Jacob's knack for allegory has improved: "This one is just as personal but not written like an open book," says the frontman. "I always take a lot of time to write lyrics since they are very important to me. Comparing the first album to the latest I can clearly see a development in both writing and grammar. I also think my way of expressing myself has improved. I want my listeners to feel convinced."

Illuminating some of the lyrical themes, Jacob asserts "I love mythology. Basilisk is for example the king of serpents, but is rarely mentioned by the mainstream. The Perpetual Darkness is about being born different from those who are 'normal'. It is also about being a lone wolf and banished from society. That song has become a personal favourite of mine." Additionally, De Dödas Sång (Song Of The Dead) tackles the disturbing theme of Ättestupa, the ancient Norse suicide ritual whereby elderly villagers jump to their deaths from sheer precipices (graphically depicted in 2019 Swedish/American horror film Midsommar). "Lots of history going on there," comments Jacob, though he's careful to keep back the finer details. "I don't want to spoil too much; half of the fun is opening up the vinyl and reading the lyrics!"

Although his cryptic writings and vituperative vocals remain vigorously on-point, Jacob majors on the guitar, and here is the strongest improvement from what was already a high standard; guitars are utterly heroic on this LP. Ask how intensively he's been practicing over the last two years, and his answer is endearingly frank: "Honestly, not that much," he admits. "But then again, we have toured so much these past two years, and I have written so much music during that time as well, I think most of my practice time went to writing good songs - which is way more important than practicing scales and arpeggios." The accumulation of live experience - especially a six-week tour supporting Finnish gloom legends Insomnium - has surely been the keenest impetus for Kvaen's remarkable development.

As usual, Jacob has written and performed everything on The Formless Fires (except drums, resoundingly hammered by ex-Amon Amarth skin-punisher Frederik Andersson). However, there is now a stable live line-up ready to take Jacob's singular vision across the world: "Kristian and Rasmus are really amazing at learning new songs and are easy-going guys," enthuses Jacob, appraising the bandmates that he's trusted to help nurture his musical baby. "Per has a name in the Swedish underground and his image fits the band like a glove. Fredrik has tons of knowledge from his past with bands like Amon Amarth and is a killer drummer, so it's easy to say that we're on Damnation's Highway! Our goal is to be a busy band touring wise. We have some festivals across Europe, and two tours coming up by the end of 2024, and it looks like next year will be very busy as well. Into Certain Death!"

The Formless Fires features guest solos of Sebastian Ramstedt (Necrophobic) on "Traverse the Nether" and Chaq Mol (Dark Funeral) on "The Wings of Death".

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