THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING!
If the name Harald Hardrada means little or nothing to you, let LEAVES' EYES' terrific latest epic 'The Last Viking' be your thrilling first look into this fascinating historical figure. Harald Sigurdsson (later known as Hardrada) was Norway’s king from 1046 to 1066. He fought his first battle at age 15; his brother Olaf was killed and he was seriously wounded. He went on to become a mercenary and later a military commander in the Kievan Rus (in Russia) and the Varangian Guard (in the Byzantine Empire) -- he also fought in Jerusalem and Sicily, among other places. He was held prisoner by Michael V in Constantinople for reasons unclear to this day, but escaped. Personally speaking, Harald was said to be a big man who composed skaldic poetry and played sports. He attempted to claim the Danish crown and failed, and died in his attempt to take the English crown at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Historians called his death the end of the Viking Age, hence the album’s title.
Enjoy our chat via email with singer Elina Siirala and history buff, re-enactor and swordfighter (oh, and singer/songwriter!) Alexander Krull.
So ‘Vinland Saga‘ dealt with Leif Erickson and ‘King Of Kings‘ with Norway’s first king. And now we have ‘The Last Viking‘, which tells of Harald Sigurdsson (Readers: Check out the novel “Lord Of Sunset” by Parke Godwin, it’s about Harold Godwinson, but it mentions Harald quite a bit — Harald fought against Harold at Stamford Bridge).
ALEX: I guess the saga of Norse King Harald III is a very epic and decisive saga, as after his death, the Viking age was over. LEAVES’ EYES will always be connected with Norse mythology, medieval topics, powers of nature, legendary landscapes and mystical themes. So all our albums can be seen in a continuing and evolving process.
First of all, how did each idea arise, to look at these particular historical figures, and whose idea was it to do these projects in the first place?
ALEX: ‘Vinland Saga’, which has the background of the discovery of the American continent by the Vikings, and ‘King Of Kings’, about the dramatic fight of Harald Fairhair to become sole ruler of Norway, were great sagas to turn into music! The concept of ‘The Last Viking’ has another approach with a fantastic and very epic background and it is taking place at very different locations — from the North of Europe to the land of Rus (Russia) to Bulgaria to the Byzantine empire, through the Mediterranean Sea all the way to the land of the Saracens, even a mission to Jerusalem. For us as musicians this is a bright field of inspiration as Harald III has to flee as a young Viking from his home and go to far-away countries with different cultures.
Where did you gather all the information to write about Harald’s life, from what sources? How did you decide what parts of his life you wanted to focus on?
ALEX: I was reading the Saga of Hardrada and also studying his historical background. The research was an adventure in itself, as I also wanted to include all exciting and important background information into the lyrics of such an epic project like this new album. It is important also to reflect the main character as good as possible. I’m also a swordfighter and Viking re-enactor and so I’m all the time in contact with historical backgrounds and Viking lifestyle, and I also have a lot of friends who are re-enactors, history experts, even book writers. Some of my friends are doing Varangian guard, Rus, Slavic or Byzantine re-enactment, too. Coming with the album is the new 95-minute film documentary ‘Viking Spirit’, which is on the special Artbook edition of the album. The first chapters of the documentary, about Viking lifestyle, Norse mythology, and the music of LEAVES’ EYES are just released on YouTube! (Readers: To see the documentary, visit https://youtu.be/-0Vj7EnDcdE)
Is the album in any chronological order, because it doesn’t seem to be? It begins with Harald’s death and the escape from Byzantium (‘Chain Of The Golden Horn‘), then into his fight with Harold Godwinson (‘War Of Kings‘) and bounces around his life — in the bio, it says that this takes place as he is dying and his life flashes before his eyes, so is this why it’s not in any certain order?
ELINA: You’re right, it’s the moment he dies and all the adventures and life events flash before his eyes, so it’s not in a chronological order.
Why did you decide to tackle it this way instead of in a more linear fashion?
ALEX: I thought it’s more exciting instead to have a more unpredictable way of the storyline. A lot of dynamic, surprising story parts and great adventures as a source for powerful metal songs and atmospheric tunes seem to work the best this way with the concept, except the ending of the album, when the epic title track and ‘Break Into The Sky’ go into each other in a kind of (chronological) order.
Elina, you serve as narrator in ‘Chain Of The Golden Horn‘, while Alex is Harald — it seems to be like this through the whole album, that you serve as narrator and observer, even as Valkyrie (and also as kind of a cheerleader in something like ‘Varangians‘) — can you talk more about that, if that’s true and what you enjoyed about doing that, how you approached that role as a singer?
ELINA: I’m often the storyteller in the songs and I enjoy that role. Especially on this record, there were different kinds of sagas with very different character to them, so it was nice to explore all the different nuances.
There’s so much detail in these songs, but not so much that it bogs things down and that’s great — how was it determined in the writing process what to leave in and what to leave out, since there’s so much rich detail in his story? Was it important, too, to keep the songs fairly brief, as they all are (and that’s a good thing)?
ALEX: The adventures of Norse King Hardrada are very fascinating, and sometimes the world of sagas differ a bit from historical backgrounds – e.g., the saga tells us that Hardrada blinded Constantin IX, while historians talk about his predecessor, Michael V. The sagas also include mythological figures, mystic powers, dark visions and legendary tales of heroes or landscapes as well as the old Gods and traditions. This fits very well with the musical and lyrical background of LEAVES’ EYES. Indeed there are so many beautiful and exciting details, and my part is to get out the essence of the storyline and to write lyrics and vocal lines for great metal songs, which are to the point and transporting the right atmosphere through music and lyrics.
I love how you use the Norse names for locations — can you get into that more?
ALEX: Whenever I have the feeling to bring in Norse names or other specific words to spice up the lyrics in the music and to create an exciting, authentic atmosphere, to get into the right emotion and context of a song, I use it — and of course, when the sound and meaning of an original name or word is fitting much better to a topic than any translation of it.
How did it happen that Clémentine Delauney (Visions Of Atlantis) would have a guest spot on the album, and why on ‘Black Butterfly‘ specifically? Did the two of you sing together (if so, what was that experience like), or did she contribute vocals remotely? About the title, it’s said that a black butterfly represents “change, transition, freedom and rebirth” — did that contribute at all to the title and the idea?
ELINA: It was great that during these difficult times we were able to organise it, so that Clémentine was able to travel to Mastersound Studio. She recorded her vocals there and it was really great with her! We wanted to choose one of the EP tracks for the duet and thought that ‘Black Butterfly’ would work the best. We wanted a singer with a different kind of voice from mine and I think Clémentine’s voice is a great contrast, while it also blends with mine and gives a different character to the song. In this song, the ‘Black Butterfly’ refers to the Russian Queen Ellisiv, whom Harald is in love with.
‘Serpents And Dragons‘ is another track where you really use detail well (“On his casque / Sword-blade rang / Into the sea he sprang,” that was Sweyn and his men, who jumped overboard because they were so frightened of Harald), and I love the play on “Serpents” the whole way through, as that was the name of his ship — how do you as a singer enjoy these little touches?
ELINA: Alex puts a lot of thought into the lyrics and there are lots of these little touches, as you mention. It’s great to have that special dimension in the texts as it makes them more special.
ALEX: Exactly — the “Serpents” and “Dragons” are the longships of the opponents, which face each other in a big sea battle close to Denmark. “Ormen” was the serpent of King Harald and “Drekanum” the (dragon) ship of the Danish king.
Elina, you sing ‘Dark Love Empress‘ alone, and I know it’s about Empress Zoe, who kept Harald prisoner — there’s one part where I think Zoe herself is speaking, and that’s “You were coming out of the deep dark / Like a spear into my cold heart” — do you think she had feelings for Harald apart from just political ones, that she actually loved him, if you could speculate?
ELINA: That’s true and she was definitely in love with Harald. Sometimes love makes you do cruel things.
ALEX: What a dramatic scene, this is the stuff made for a movie. That’s why we picked ‘Dark Love Empress’ and ‘Chain Of The Golden Horn’ as the first two video tracks.
What is ‘Two Kings, One Realm’ in reference to exactly?
ELINA: Magnus, the nephew of Harald, became a king in Norway and for a certain period of time, they ruled simultaneously. So there were two kings and this is what the song is about.
ALEX: Indeed — when Harald heard that his nephew took over the Norwegian crown, he decided to return and leave Byzantium. In the times where he was forced to leave his home country and became a war hero of the Varangian guard in the Byzantine empire, and also while he served for King Jaroslav in the land of the Rus, he became a rich and powerful man. When Harald returned to Norway, he and Magnus, his nephew, came to an agreement to share all gold and land to avoid a war for the Norse crown. It turned out Magnus didn’t have much gold to share, but Harald did. Actually, Harald had the reputation of being very clever and trick his opponents, but this time it went a bit different. Both men got what they wanted — Harald became king and Magnus didn’t have to fight his uncle. But the reign of the two kings didn’t last very long, and soon Harald became sole ruler of Norway after his nephew died. And the times of war returned to the north as Harald wanted also the crowns of Denmark and England.
Another great story is in ‘Flames In The Sky‘ (in which Harald tied burning wood to the legs of birds and released them; when they flew back to their nests under the thatched roofs of the buildings in the town he was besieging, the buildings burned) — what made you want to include this chapter, because it’s very colorful but obscure, like probably not a lot of people know this story? Had you known about it?
ELINA: When Alex told me about this story and what the song was about, I was amazed! It really is a perfect saga for a song, so I’m not surprised that he wanted to include it for the album.
‘Break Into the Sky of Aeon‘ is placed where it is for a reason, is it not, right before the final track? I almost see it as Harald having a premonition of his own death — was that what was intended with it and also with where it is in the running order?
ALEX: I do really like this song to be the elegy for the dying king Hardarda and his final chapter — the perfect song and mood for such a dramatic finale and the appearance of Valkyrian powers to lift the fallen Einherjar to Valhall in old Nordic traditions.
And the title track is really impressive, how you, Elina, as narrator and you, Alex, as Harald work together so well to tell the story — it’s the longest song, of course, but it’s paced so well, the action builds to the ending. Did you find it hard to sing, knowing the storyline, knowing the part you were playing in the action, all the emotion in it?
ELINA: I wanted to bring the different colour into the parts I was singing, less powerful, and then building up toward the chorus where Alex starts. The music brings this out naturally, though, so I just had to follow the lead.
Harald was called “Hardrada”, or “hard ruler”, and while he unified Norway and brought peace, he did it rather harshly at times — do you think he deserves that title and why or why not? How do you think history remembers him? Had you known about him previously growing up or was this all new to you?
ALEX: I knew about the saga, and if you check the last song, ‘Waves Of Euphoria’, off our last album ‘Sign Of The Dragonhead’, it is already about Hardrada – so die-hard fans could sniff out where our next journey could end up. Hardrada’s conflicts were solved with a hand, so Hardrada was feared by his enemies and celebrated by his men. The saga tells us his men died in a circle around his body, defending him til death. History-wise, it’s very interesting as Hardrada installed proprietary churches with his own priests and bishops for political reasons and against the will of the Pope and the Catholic Church. He is founder of Oslo, capital of Norway. Hardarda tried to re-install the North Sea Empire with one king as leader of Norway, Denmark and England. As he failed, his vision did not become reality.
Since you’re obviously not touring now because of coronavirus, are there any live streaming events or new merch or anything like that our readers should know about? Are you planning on any sort of touring next year, or is it too early to say?
ELINA: There is of course the new album in various packages that can be pre-ordered already, and in addition, there will be a really cool Viking documentary that Alex made called ‘Viking Spirit’ (see above link). We are all the time working on options for the live shows as well. Our tour is now postponed to next Fall and we hope there will be a chance to do something in between. We just have to see how and where since the regulations also keep changing all the time.
ALEX: We hope to see everyone soon again on tour, we miss you all! In the meantime, enjoy the new album and documentary. Thanks for the interview, thank you all for the support.
Thanks to Dustin Hardman at AFM Records for making this interview possible!