It might be easy to hear Avatar’s latest album, this year’s Hunter Gatherer, and think of them as a new or breakout band. The record’s a huge step forward for the Swedish quintet, showcasing a genre-straddling power that will result in them reaching countless virgin ears. But it’s been a long, strange journey for Avatar, starting back in the mid-2000s and seeing them go from brutal death metal act to the label-defying sonic force.
“When talking about the experience of Hunter Gatherer, I think a lot about aggression,” says frontman Johannes Eckerström from his home, “and what it means to make aggressive music when you’re younger and when you’re older. If [Avatar’s sophomore album] Schlacht was a killer in a horror movie, it would’ve been a killer who bashed your skull in with a hammer — not very efficient in getting the point across, but does it in a way that’s gruesome and spectacular. While Hunter Gatherer is a bit more like Hannibal Lecter — he knows his way around a scalpel, he knows how to do a stab or a cut for maximum effect.”
With the band ascending and Hunter Gatherer blowing up our speakers, we decided to ask Johannes about how the Avatar catalog sits in his favor. Here’s what he came up with…
8. Avatar (2009)
“I would probably put our self-titled album at the bottom. At the time, we were in sort of an identity crisis, and also just frustrated. We started so very young, and remained Avatar through thick and thin somehow. The album is tainted by a sense of, Please like me. There was a lot of second guessing on this one, of, ‘What are people going to think?’ And in hindsight, there are a lot of great songs on it — we would open shows with ‘Queen of Blades’ around Hail The Apocalypse. ‘Reload’ is something we brought back into the set. I have a very soft spot for ‘Out of Our Minds.’ But we were really trying to learn a lot of things musically, and trying to find some sweet spot between death metal and rock and roll. It’s tainted by its intention.”
7. Thoughts of No Tomorrow (2006)
“That’s purely from a production standpoint. I still give us a pat on the back for pulling that off — self-produced, self-financed, two weeks in the studio to record and mix…I don’t really have actual complaints on how the songs are. There’s some stuff that’s very juvenile, but that’s because we were young. But I know it has that chorus of ‘The Willy’ that I would’ve sung completely different today. ‘My Lie’ and ‘Last One Standing’ had a very layered way of riffing, which was musically ambitious. So the memories of all this is pretty fun, but we didn’t have the tools to bring it all the way.”
6. Schlacht (2007)
“Budget limitations, experience limitations, all those things — that’s just the nature of the beast. But I think here, the execution was just much better. And it is a weird album, for better or for worse. There are only two songs that are over three minutes long. It’s just that we played it so damn fast. It was very technically challenging, and at the time it was important that it was that. I used to feel back then like we had one song too many. And ‘All Which Is Black’ is something we’ve put back in the setlist. I have some very powerful memories of writing this one, especially the lyrics for “Letters from Neverend,” which came during a very powerful time in my personal life.”
5. Avatar Country (2018)
“I’m very happy with [Avatar Country], because at this point, we have reached a period where we are able to articulate a greater vision. And this album was made to be funny–for us to try and be funny. It was for us to do this tribute to heavy metal of the dragon-slaying variety. In order for it to be what it needed to be, we had to take it all the way, and I think we nailed it. The magic of this whole world-building, and how we dedicated ourselves to that not just onstage but outside of that, in interviews, everything–and how our fans were all on board to play this game with us. Writing those songs, getting to do the orchestral things, doing eight-minute songs with I don’t remember how many solos–we had a lot of fun with that.”
4. Black Waltz
“It feels unfairly low here, because this is really where some things…how do I say it? This was a restart for the band. In this period, a lot of other things happened. Like, we found out what our music looks like, which is something we’d wondered in all the years leading up to this. We started to grow in our confidence, and our ability, and started to formulate a quite basic open-ended idea of what metal is for us. It’s all about riff — at the end of the day, it’s all about the riff. And the riff is defined by its groove, meaning, it’s Tony Iommi meets Bill Ward. The right beats for the right part. That’s when the riff gets magical. If the drums in ‘Iron Man’ had been double tempo, it would’ve sucked. Even playing death metal, it needs to be groovy. Seeing Morbid Angel live at some point in this period, we thought, ‘Oh wait, this is like a funk show. My spine is tingling.’ It’s also where I grew proper confidence on this album. I just did it. That journey started on here.”
3. Feathers & Flesh (2016)
“The whole trick of doing a concept album for the first time, purely for the reason that we didn’t know how to make one — we wanted a challenge, we want a challenge every time. With Hail…, it was to play live, with Feathers it was the concept album. To really piece everything together, it was a nightmare, and though we felt like, Woah, we’re not even close, we’re so far from done, it still came together amazingly. This is where we stepped up our game in terms of being emotional with what we’re doing. Having something like ‘Sky Burial’ or ‘Regret’ on there was really satisfying as a writer.”
2. Hail the Apocalypse (2014)
I think many fans would agree, and that might affect [its position on the list]. “Blood Angel” is our most watched music video, “Hail The Apocalypse” is our second-most watched. They’re live staples–honestly, this whole album is. We’ve played this album live excessively, for years. It was the first one where we recorded live, as we did for Hunter Gatherer. It turns out there was no other way of doing it — that is when we end up sounding our best. And any band who has the balls to do that, that’s when they sound their best. Our confidence built throughout the process of [Black Waltz], but with Hail the Apocalypse, the confidence was already there.
1. Hunter Gatherer (2020)
“Hunter Gatherer just came out, so I can’t really rank it in any way. It is probably my favorite album, because my favorite album is always the next one, the one we haven’t done yet, and Hunter Gatherer is probably the closest to that right now. Making albums is a pendulum–if you go very lighthearted with one thing, it swings back to heavier stuff. But I’m not sure it even can be ranked. It’s either at the top, or it should be left off entirely.”
Avatar’s Hunter Gatherer is out now on eOne.
Words by Chris Krovatin