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For many, 2021 was supposed to bring a return to “normal,” with concerts coming back in full force and music festivals reinvigorating the live music experience once again. But as with just about every prediction over the past two years, it did not come true, for the most part, leaving artists in the lurch for an even longer period than most would have imagined. As late as December, bands continued to postpone, reschedule or cancel tours in support of albums whose status as “new” is passing their expiration date.
That doesn’t mean music stopped altogether, though. Some artists, cocooned at home, released music that was, in many cases, their best material yet. With more time to spend on songwriting and production, bands crafted new records without the stress of a due date, looming live experiences or even a timeline. Many artists dug deeper than ever before to create music that would have a lasting impact in the years to come.
Heavy metal was no different, with a litany of premium-grade records hammering eardrums just like any other year. As 2021 came to a close, the Big Takeover touched base with 10 bands — all hailing from different countries — that put out the best metal albums of the year, pandemic be damned. In our series of interviews, we dove deeper into those 2021 records, learned how COVID impacted the lives of musicians in all corners of the world, and found rays of hope in the music genre that is typically considered the least likely to bring it.
We began with Der Weg Einer Freiheit, one of Germany’s hottest metal groups, who issued their fifth studio album, Noktvrn, in the middle of November via Season of Mist. Frontman Nikita Kamprad, the mastermind who launched the band in 2009, told us about his project’s rapid rise over the past few years, why he decided to write songs at night instead of during the day — and the new tune he is too nervous to perform live (for now).
Congratulations on your new album. I noticed you debuted quite a few of the new songs on [November] 20th.
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Thank you. Yes, we did four shows, and we feel very, very fortunate to [have done] them, because it’s difficult to schedule shows everywhere in the world — including Germany — and do them in the end. Right now, we’re in a position to work with very professional promoters who take great care of [COVID-related] regulations [that are in place]. We also feel very fortunate because the reactions from fans have been mind-blowing. For many of them, it’s been the first show they’ve attended in two years — like ourselves. We really had very, very good shows.
it’s surprising to hear that crowds took to your new material so quickly, given that the type of music you make is so rich and complicated.
NIKITA KAMPRAD: I actually had the impression that many of them already got to know the album. We had the full album streaming a week before release. Many of the preorders also got shipped earlier than expected, so people could already have the record in their hands and listen to it before the shows. And that was a great thing, because … for example, when I announced the new song “Am Rande der Dunkelheit,” which was a song we hadn’t released before, the audience already knew it. [He laughs.] It was a crazy thing. I understand the point; our music isn’t catchy music that you listen to and immediately know everything that’s going on in the music. It’s more difficult, so to speak. But our fans are really hungry for the album and to experience us live.
This is rare for me as a music listener, but I actually got into you guys through a live album you made, [2019’s] Live in Berlin. It really captivated me that I hadn’t heard about you much — and when a band puts out a live album, you know they’re somewhat well-established. The live album was so well-made …did it grow your audience?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Yes, with [Live in Berlin,] the reaction was that it sounded like a studio album. So that was very surprising. We wouldn’t have released it if it had sounded like crap. When we recorded the live album, the other members of the band didn’t know I recorded it. I just pressed “record” on the laptop that was running along and, a few weeks later, checked out the individual tracks that had been recorded on that show. I found out they sounded pretty decent. Then I did a rough mix and found out that the whole show sounded good enough to release as a live album.
We hadn’t planned it to be a proper release … I planned to release it as a “goodie” on Bandcamp or something. But then we did a vinyl pressing and a digital release through Season of Mist, so it got bigger and bigger. The funny thing is, for us as a band — and for me personally — the live album marked the initial point I decided to record the next studio album in a live environment, with everyone in one room in the recording studio, playing our instruments at the same time. I knew there were different energies flowing between the band members in the live recording. The audience was missing in the studio recording, of course, but still, we are four people playing altogether at the same time, and that’s a different thing in comparison to a normal overdub recording situation. So Live in Berlin was a very important album for Nocturne to be produced, actually.
It’s ironic to hear that, amid COVID and lockdowns. So many bands have been rehearsing and recording not only not in the same room but in other locations. Did you know you were going to record the album live when you wrote the material as well?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Yes, I also had the impression generally, after releasing [2017’s] Finisterre that I had to do something different. With Finisterre and all the previous albums, it was basically only me and our drummer, Tobias [Schuler], who met at the studio. I recorded the drums with him, and after that, he left so I could do all the guitars and vocals myself. The whole band was … not a solo project, but I was doing all the songwriting and also doing the recordings mainly. And I knew with Finisterre that I had to change this because it was an exhausting process. It fulfilled me to a point, and I’m happy with all the albums I did, but I knew with the new album, even in the songwriting stage, I wanted the whole band to be recording. I even had this [notion] when writing the riffs and arrangements between guitars. On the new album, there’s mostly not more than two guitars on each side, and very few overdubs. That was important for me, because it gives the album such a natural feel which, I think, we didn’t have on previous albums.
Also, it starts with one acoustic guitar — maybe a different place than where most of your albums begin. Did every band member contribute to songwriting as well?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: No, the songwriting remains in my hands. I did all the preproduction — so guitars, lyrics, I wrote all those. But we met up at the studio for preproduction in October last year to find out, in the first place, if we could really pull off recording this live. We spent a week getting to know, analyzing and rehearsing all the songs in very small detail. What came out were still the songs I wrote, but the other band members — even if it’s just the last 5 percent — they edit some of the character to it. That was very important and put the songs on a different level.
After a week, we found out that the situation worked perfectly, and that became our goal for the album. Then we did the recordings in March of this year.
Did you find that, because of the participation of the other band members, there was a different feeling when you played the new material in concert?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Definitely. You can ask everyone in the band, and they will say the same thing: On the past four shows, when we played the new songs … the older songs are fun to play, but the new songs are really on a different level. Everyone remembered some moment from the studio sessions and brought it onstage. It was a totally different atmosphere.
The new songs are super-fun to play in concert, because they were written and recorded [in a live recording environment], and finally we can present them onstage the same way. It’s a great feeling.
On the other hand, do you feel like the lyrics to this album are your most personal to date, because they deal with your dreams? Or did you feel that dreams and nighttime are universal subject matter, therefore the album is more broad?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Our lyrics are always personal. At first, [the band] was kind of a solo project, but with band members. The way I write is inherently very personal, because I try to get to know myself more. I’m very interested in digging deep into my emotions, getting to know what’s in there. By writing lyrics, they display what I am looking for, in the mirror. Maybe with this album even more, because I wrote about dreams and the emotions that lie in the night and being alone and being in solitude. Always, being in solitude means you have to live with — and deal with — yourself. That’s a different thing. I used to write in the daytime, so switching to writing as a nighttime activity got out different emotions.
Did you surround yourself with more quietude?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Yes. In the daytime, you have to go to your job, you have to meet people — I like people, but being creative, for me, means not being distracted by anything except creating what comes out of me. If you’re the kind of artist who likes to create things with others … I am not that person, I don’t think … you always need some kind of solitude. Even if it’s just the four members of your band that you’re playing and writing with. It’s pretty important for me to be in mental and physical solitude.
Did anything that came out of this process surprise you? The album almost seems like a dream journal.
NIKITA KAMPRAD: The images that I had in my dreams that are also written in the lyrics, some images return in my dreams repeatedly. Also, there was this point when I actually dreamed a song, which was “Immortal” in the end, with the simple structure of a drum and bass line. That came to me in a dream, when I was half-awake and half-asleep in the morning hours. That was a crazy experience because I never had experienced that before. I thought, “I can’t forget this right now. I have to get up and write the song.” On a piece of paper, I wrote down the basic structure of the song during the day. Later in the day, I wrote the rest of the song and the melodies. That was a crazy experience, to be able to find that my mind writes a song in my dream. That’s also why the whole album is about the night and these different thoughts you have.
Did that happen because you were in a specific writing headspace? You had Chopin music lying around you, right? Can you read music?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: I can read chords and sheet music, but I’m not good with having a piece of music in my hand and doing the correct notations. I’m not that good. But it was really just the basic structure: This is the beat, this is the bass line. It was just one note, basically, so it wasn’t difficult to notate — just before I forgot it. I woke up, had some breakfast maybe, brushed my teeth, and then went straight to the computer, grabbed my guitar and did the rest of the song. It was important for me not to forget what I just dreamt.
And you have a couple of songs with English-language lyrics for the first time. How long had you wanted to try your hand at writing songs in English?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: It has something to do with the German language itself. It’s a very harsh language. Some people make fun of it being very hard. It fits perfectly with harsh vocals, and I love singing or screaming in German — but ever since I started to sing with clean vocals, starting with the_ Stellar_ album [in 2015], I found out that it’s very difficult at some point to write good-sounding lyrics in German. For me, it’s very important for me to have a smooth line with clean vocals, so it fits the song like another melody from an instrument. But in the German language, it’s too edgy. [He laughs.] So that was the reason I tried out the English language for clean vocals. There are different opinions about the English language, I’m sure, but it worked very well with me. I did it for “Haven,” the last track on the album, and also in the end of “Immortal.” The vocals on that one are also sung by our friend David [Mako of the Devil’s Trade].
How did that collaboration came about? Did you specifically write that part of the song for him?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Yeah, it was definitely him we wanted to have, because we’re good friends. The recent shows we played, he was the supporting act. He performed some of our songs with us, which was another mind-blowing, great experience. He’s so much better live … I’m not saying he sounds worse on the record, it’s just something completely different. I got to know him on tour in 2018 when I filled in on guitar for Crippled Black Phoenix. We did that tour from Germany to Athens to Budapest. It was there that I met him for the first time. We did the whole tour together, because he was supporting. We were friends after the tour, totally, because he’s such a cool guy and a great artist. Later, in 2019, we asked him to support one of our tours, so the rest of the band got to know him. Our first choice, for where having vocals made sense on “Immortal,” was David.
Sometimes bands are able to bring onstage a guest musician who recorded on their album later in the tour cycle, so it’s cool you were able to start your shows in support of this new album with him. You mentioned “Haven” … it doesn’t appear you debuted that song at any of your recent shows.
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Unfortunately not. To be honest, it’s the most personal song for me, with a very high-pitched falsetto vocals. It’s still very hard for me to sing. The current situation with the pandemic … it’s all positive things that are happening, but it’s very stressful. Always having this COVID thing in the back of my head, I’m not feeling too secure being able to sing it correctly. I don’t want to fuck up. People will have to wait another few months — or years — to be able to hear it.
To what extent did COVID change the timeline of this record, or did it not have an effect?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: It gave us more time than we thought we’d have to write and analyze the songs, so in the end, it was a positive effect, or side effect. I don’t want to speak positively about COVID at all. [He laughs.] The album was written and recorded … we asked the label if it made sense to release an album during the pandemic. They said, “No one knows when this will be over. You can wait until it’s over, but it might be five more years. You never know.” Back in 2020, everyone was saying we’d be back to normal in 2021, and now we’re here and, for me, it’s far from normal. So the only option was to just put it out. In the end, every band has their own “COVID album” maybe. But COVID didn’t really affect our schedule.
Do you feel like this album might help people struggling with solitude and prevent them from spiraling into inaction or inertia? It seems like this album could be very uplifting in some ways.
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Yeah. Although we’re doing, in general, black metal and a very aggressive thing — some people would say a depressive style — there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel in our songs. Hope. You don’t solve a problem by not speaking about it. It’s important for me to talk about the emotions I have myself, the problems I have with myself and other people, because, if I do that, it’s easier to find a solution. I hope that people get it. I think they do, because we get a lot of comments and reactions to the lyrics, that they’ve helped people a lot. Sometimes it’s very intense reading the comments, because they’re very strong, but it’s very uplifting for myself.
So are you scheduling tour dates for next year or taking a wait-and-see approach?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: We have some festivals in Europe scheduled for July and August, I think, and another European tour in October or November. We’re trying to confirm all the dates. I hope it will happen as it’s planned. For 2022, that’s the plan at this point. We don’t want to schedule a tour for another continent. We really want to go to the U.S., of course, but it’s not reasonable to schedule anything for next year. In 2023, we really hope to play there.
Have you played the U.S. at all before?
NIKITA KAMPRAD: Not yet. We scheduled a tour for 2015, but we worked with a visa agent who turned out to be a fraud and cost us a lot of money. Next to Germany, the U.S. is the market we get the most reaction from — and also the sales and digital numbers. It’s surprising for a German black-metal band. We also want to play South America and Central America. Those are in our future plans. We really want to make it [there] sooner than later.
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