Music

Sun and Air: An Interview with Anneke van Giersbergen and Krystoffer "Garm" Rygg

Van Giersbergen and Rygg's core audiences remain on the metal side, proof that no matter how diverse your music becomes, your old metal fans will still stubbornly cling to you like barnacles to a creaky hull.

It may have been placed innocuously at the very end of the Gathering's subdued 2003 album Souvenirs, but "A Life All Mine" was a dream duet for fans of progressive metal, a pairing of the best male and female lead singers the genre has produced in the last 15 years: Ulver's Krystoffer "Garm" Rygg, and the Gathering's angelic-voiced Anneke van Giersbergen. A languid, somber track inspired more by trip hop and IDM than contemporary metal, not only was it a drop dead gorgeous stage for the duo to exhibit their singing ability, but it was also a perfect indication of just how far the singers had evolved as artists.

Van Giersbergen had gone from a young vocalist belting out the high notes atop a rather straightforward goth/doom backdrop to the frontwoman for a bold, forward thinking, highly revered group of auteurs. Rygg, meanwhile, started out as one of the most prominent figures of the Norwegian black metal explosion of the early '90s, but quickly abandoned the extreme sounds in favor of more industrial, ambient, and often eccentric musical styles, his vocals ranging from screeching, to chanting, and finally settling on a sumptuous, velvety croon that he uses to this day.

In a way, four and a half years later, the two singers' careers have merged again, with two albums, both of which are due out this October on the great progressive metal imprint The End Records. Rygg is back with Ulver's first album since 2005's spectacular Blood Inside, a piece of work that takes the band's constantly evolving sound to an extreme that some might not have expected. Van Giersbergen, meanwhile, is starting from scratch, having announced her departure from the Gathering this past June, and quickly getting back on the horse with a new band, Agua de Annique, which, like Ulver, continues to move further away from those '90s metal roots in favor of something a bit more accessible.

But no matter how wide the appeal of both albums actually is, both artists' core audiences remain on the metal side, proof that no matter how diverse your music becomes, your old metal fans will still stubbornly cling to you like barnacles to a creaky hull. Blood & Thunder caught up with both singers, two days apart, in late September.

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***

"I had been in the Gathering for 13 years, and I had never done anything for 13 years in my life," says a cheerful Anneke van Giersbergen, on the phone from her home in Holland. The singer shocked many by leaving the Gathering less than a fortnight after the band's North American tour this past spring, and what she left behind was a legacy few female metal singers can ever match, from six groundbreaking studio albums to an entire generation of female singers directly influenced by her work.

"It's been my whole adult life, so to leave that, on one hand, was a very clear decision and a very strong feeling, and I was ready. In 13 years, things had changed in my personal and musical life. It was difficult as well, because the guys, they were like brothers, so to leave that and to change that relationship has been a long process and was probably one of the hardest things I did.

"I told them at the beginning of March, and so we really took some time to assess the situation," she continues. "Also, the guys, they wanted to see what their plans would be next. Of course they were not happy with my decision, but they are respectful and they have good spirits to continue. Of course, I put a big stamp on the sound and the look of the Gathering, but on the other hand I'm not the only singer in the world, so it's going to change, but it's not going to stop."

It was during the writing and recording of her debut solo side project when van Giersbergen realized just how much she enjoyed being fully in charge of her music, and also that she was ready to step immediately into a more artistically rewarding project helped make her decision easier.

"There were a lot of physical reasons, but they all came out of one big feeling in my heart that it was time to change," she explains. "I was supposed to do this record besides the Gathering, and I was given time and it was all okay, but I like to do other small projects and work with other people a lot. I had some plans, and the feeling became stronger to develop that more seriously and also especially to be with my family a little bit more. Now, I can direct everything I do from this one agenda, and it feels very good to be the director of your own life. In a way the Gathering was officially a bigger band, and we were day and night constantly working with it, and it was quite intense, all the processes. So a lot of small things became one big feeling, like, 'Okay, I'm ready.'"

The more the dust settles from all the upheaval, the clearer it becomes just how prepared van Giersbergen is to set out on her own. Air, the debut album by the creatively named Agua de Annique ("'Annique' sounds better than 'Anneke'," she laughs) is a superb, highly confident collection of songs that run the gamut from hard rock ("You Are Nice"), to folk ("Come Wander"), to Coldplay-esque pop ("Yalin"), to piano-based balladry ("Day After Yesterday"), to even a few progressive-minded moments that would make her old band proud (the best being the hard-charging "Witnesses").

"Some of these are quite old, actually, because I have so many songs," she says. "In the Gathering period I also had many songs and a lot of them hadn't been used, so they were shelved. I just recorded them simply, on mostly guitar and vocals, and recently I've been playing piano and writing a lot of songs on that. They all have kind of their own charm, like the easygoing, simple ones, but I'm equally proud of the mini-epic ones, because they all have a different feel. I have so much stuff, I think I can release four more albums."

Actually, Air, for all its eccentricity, does sound like an extension of the last Gathering album, 2006's Home. In particular, two songs, "Beautiful One" and "Lost and Found", rely heavily on the contrast between darkness and light that has always been the Gathering's calling card. "It was not intentional, but I think a logical thing," admits van Giersbergen, "because my participation in the Gathering was also very personal, the way I sing and the melodies and lyrics, they are all really me, and I was part of five people, a big band, and now I am only one of those people making this record, but those elements I take with me because they come from me. So it’s logical that particular sound is hearable in the music. Of course a lot of people hear that, it has the melancholy and dark edge, you can see very much in the Gathering as well."

Agua de Annique is currently preparing for a series of November shows in Holland, but for the first time in a very long time, van Giersbergen doesn't really know what to expect, and has a lot more resting on her own shoulders, saying, "With the Gathering, after 13 years, there are certain things that are very comfortable and easy, like knowing exactly what their rhythms are, and how they play and how they feel onstage, and we're one big thing, one whole. And that's of course very different now, because, this is all quite new and exciting, and also because it's my own stuff, so all the credits are for me, but all the critics are as well. So it comes a lot harder now, I really want to do a really good job, so I'm very focused on it."

***

Kristoffer Rygg’s musical journey has been nothing short of eccentric over the years, especially his work with his most well-known project, Ulver. Formed while still in his teens, the Norwegian band went on to become one of the most important black metal acts of all time, thanks primarily to the trio of starkly contrasting albums that kickstarted their illustrious career: 1994’s epic Bergtatt - Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler, 1995’s acoustic Kveldssanger, and 1996’s unrelenting, ultra-aggressive Nattens Madrigal - Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden.

However, despite the fact that fans and artists alike still cite those albums as major influences to this day (trendy American bands such as Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room are heavily derived from Ulver's early sound), the black metal aspect of Ulver's oeuvre is now a distant memory, as the last decade has yielded a series of challenging, polarizing, and often brilliant musical experiments, be they industrial (Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), dark ambient music (Teachings in Silence), various film soundtracks, and everything in between (2005's Blood Inside). On their seventh full-length, the trio makes yet another bold move in a career dominated by bold moves, as Rygg and bandmates Jørn H. Sværen and Tore Ylwizaker have decided to take a their music into a decidedly minimalist direction, with typically stunning results.

Stripped of all accoutrements, Shadows of the Sun is Ulver laid bare, an exquisite blend of warmth and frigidity, akin to bracing yourself against an icy Nordic wind as the sun rises in the distance. With very little more than drone loops, lugubrious drumming, ambient electronic touches (including an appearance by talented electronic artist Christian Fennesz on one track), and a haunting theremin, the focus is almost exclusively on the voice of Rygg, who turns in a subdued, sublime performance. And not only is it a complete departure from the last album, but it's also one of Ulver's finest pieces yet.

"Having done so much eclectic music and being into so much in your face stuff, it's natural for us to land in a more subtle place. But I think subtlety can be very interesting, and also more potent than more [aggressive] music." explains Rygg. Calling from a chaotically noisy New York street, and answering questions in an articulate, but carefully direct manner that some might misinterpret as terse, it's a far cry from the relaxed conversation with van Giersbergen a couple days prior, but the dryly witty Rygg is in good spirits, as his album, a month away from release, is already generating some serious buzz among critics and metal scenesters alike.

Packed to the gills with layer upon layer of samples, electronic flourishes, and organic instrumentation, Blood Inside still ranks as Ulver's most ambitious work to date, and is vastly different than the quiet solemnity of the new album, but according to Rygg, the approach in the studio for Shadows was not unlike the last time the trio worked on an album. "It's pretty much been similar; it's been hell," he laughs. "It hasn't been that different, but we've probably been in a different place mentally. In terms of how we worked, it's been more or less the way we've worked for almost ten years, after we acquired our own studio and stopped playing rock music, stopped playing band music.

"The main difference is [Blood Inside] has so many layers, and there's really no technical challenge to put a lot of sound on top of sound, but it has to be like a meaningful layering process. With Blood Inside, we kind of compensated for the weaknesses of the record with putting more sound on it, whereas this time it was the opposite, the challenge was kind of keeping it interesting without resorting to all that kind of layering. So we just tried to keep things very simple. We had certain pieces that we liked, and just let that develop."

While listening to Ulver's more recent music requires a little more patience than many fans of extreme music are used to, Ulver's recording process asks the same of the band, which has become more and more meticulous as the years have gone on. "We're very much a studio-based band," explains Rygg. "We don't write songs like the usual way to write music, to make three or four different riffs and put those riffs together. Usually we have one single sound or loop or something that we start with, so it's a much bigger challenge to form a body out of that, when you don't have all the pieces before you're going to start making the form. So it's a little different, and certainly a lot more difficult. Before we could make a song in an evening, but now it takes us about a month," he chuckles exasperatedly.

Just as stark as the music are Rygg's lyrics, which speak of isolation, sadness, and an eerie detachment from the rest of the world, reflected in such songs as "Eos", "Vigil", the title track, and a terrific cover of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality slow-burner "Solitude", a ballad that suits Ulver's style perfectly. "[Shadows of the Sun] kind of refers to being on the periphery of things. You've got to believe what you want to believe, not like an ideal. It's just like we're out of something, so it's kind of a personification of how it feels. The original title was The Distance of the Sun, and the very first lyric is a simple line, 'The sun is far away,' and that speaks volumes about the atmosphere of the record. It's far away. There're no illusions left.

"We're kind of trying to unite the brutality of the sentiments with something that's constructive, something that's beautiful and pleasing to the senses," he adds. "It's a paradox in itself to describe something that's very desperate in soothing terms."

Of all the tracks, "Funebrae" is the most impeccable exploration of that enthralling dynamic of musical warmth and emotional desperation, as piano, theremin, what seems like mellotron, and various abstract drones provide the perfect atmosphere for Rygg's achingly poetic lyrics ("A strain of music / Hung from a willow"). "There's little doubt ['Funebrae'] is the best song. It's the best song, dynamically, and the lyrics I'm happy with. I'm happy with just the fact that it's the one song we spent the least time working with, so it kind of became, and it had some moments that were really defining lyrics for the record. Of course, that's all subjective and has to do with taste, but I think for me that's probably the most interesting song. It's very far away."

Describing Ulver's own musicianship, Rygg is modest, but at the same time, he delivers a line that perfectly encapsulates the band's aesthetic, and one of the reasons why after a decade of experimentation, they're still capable of unparalleled levels of esoteric beauty. "We don't play instruments; we do, but we don't do it good. What we do good is manipulate the things we don't do good," he adds with a laugh. "That's where our strength is at."

Typical of metal fans, when it comes to the music of both the Gathering and Ulver, the older, seminal material by both bands is loved the most, yet van Giersbergen and Rygg continue to distance themselves from their classic metal past. With a pair of excellent new albums that couldn't be less metal if they tried, it begs the inevitable question: Have they grown out of playing only metal music, and will they ever return to the heavier sounds that they played in the mid-'90s?

"I think where you come from, you never leave it behind, because you take it as baggage, as good positive baggage," says an optimistic van Giersbergen. "So what we did in the early days, in the Mandylion period, as we were in the same cradle as the female-fronted metal bands, and kind of evolved from that and everybody went their separate ways, and the Gathering, we made a lot of different kinds of records, we became broader, and I as a singer became broader. And when you're young, everything's black and white, you're either angry or happy. Now there's such a variety in your character and in the way you sing and write music," she says, adding, "You never know. Sometimes you have a personal revival."

While Rygg continues to dabble in the harder stuff (last year's excellent album by Head Control System is a good example), when it comes to Ulver, and especially black metal, he considers it ancient history. "I don't find it very likely. Not with this band," he says. "I can definitely join some stoner rock group or something, but I think it would have to be with other people. I think this band is like division and expansion, and it's ten years ago since we recorded something relating to black metal, so it's highly unlikely. We do work hard on trying to create our own form, so it would seem a little backwards to go back to doing something that thousands of other people are doing. It doesn't strike me as particularly interesting."


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