TÝR – Heri Joensen on ‘The Lay of Thrym’
Interview by Ann Sulaiman
Originally formed in 1998, Týr blend together traditional Faroese folk melodies with progressive and Viking/pagan heavy metal to form their own style of music. Taking their name from the Norse God of War as well as the title of a Black Sabbath album; the band eventually gained international attention outside the Nordic countries when they signed to Napalm Records in 2006 to release third record ‘Ragnarok’.
Rolling on with their newest offering ‘The Lay of Thrym’, I got down with frontman and lyricist Heri Joensen to talk politics, what he makes of his band’s place in the popular Viking folk metal scene and their tribute to Ronnie James Dio.
Listening to the new album, it seems that you’ve changed focus this time around – the mythology that Týr are known for doesn’t feel as strong as the political side that’s present.
Actually, the basic aspect of the album was the political one! The mythological side this time is there to compliment it, as the overall themes are anti-tyranny, anti-totalitarianism and anti-theocracy.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that the issue of dictatorship comes not just from events like the recent uprisings throughout the Arab world, but also European history (case in point, ‘Shadow of the Swastika’ and World War II).
Though why did you pick the story of Thrym, to match the theme of anti-tyranny? Surely the trickster Loki and his army preparing for war against the gods would have been more fitting?
[note: in Nordic mythology, Thrym was a giant who stole the hammer of the thunder god Thor; for a ransom of the goddess Freyja as his bride]
Well, we sort of already covered that with Ragnarok (2006)!
In the case of the story of Thrym, there is a single dictator and opponent – which is a much simpler set up for us in a way. Here, I wrote the lyrics with Thrym representing the guy who stole power from another (when he stole the hammer), and Thor as its rightful owner represents the one who fights to reclaim it – or even more than one person! After that, we admittedly didn’t put in a lot of the mythos into the album; we didn’t follow the story as closely, since it was pretty much adapted to fit the political message.
Looking back at it, not only are politics more prominent here but you also show something of a defiant attitude against party agendas; somewhat similar to what you’ve previously shown towards religion on ‘By the Light of the Northern Star’.
Why the change in focus?
Well, the issue with left v. right politically has been on my mind for quite some time, so I decided to finally write about it.
I’ve been bashing religion for the last three albums, so I thought I’d give people a rest with that as they’ve probably got the point now! (laughs) It seems fitting to write about something else which I find important. The changes we’re seeing in the world today are very relevant and worthy causes of attention, as they are something we should speak about and take very seriously.
For instance, the fifth track ‘Hall of Freedom’. I suppose you could call it a loose reference to Valhalla (in Nordic mythology); more importantly, it’s a tribute to people who have fallen in battle and how that impacts on the rest of the world. They didn’t do it for nothing, as they’ve died for other people’s freedom which deserves great respect. The track after it, ‘Fields of the Fallen’, is written from a more personal level and looks at what might push you towards doing so in the first place.
Music (and especially metal) has always had an odd relationship with politics – either it skirts away from it, or it lashes out head on.
I think that usually, metal is critical of politics but then again so are most commentaries – the way to improve it is to show what’s bad with it. What’s good about politics could be good for several reasons, depending on what point of view you had to begin with; what’s bad though, is what most people can agree on more easily! Maybe in a way that’s taking the popular stance by criticizing what’s already wrong with it, but I never wanted to make Týr an explicitly political band.
‘The Lay of Thrym’ turned out the way it did, because I just write about whatever has my attention at the moment and it turned out that there was a huge political issue. If it weren’t for the current uprisings that we’re seeing and hearing about in the Middle East, it’s likely I’d be picking something else! As such, where my attention goes will likely also be where the band goes in a lyrical sense.
I’ve never really seen what we do as any sort of escapism – I never wanted to neglect or even deny what’s going on around me. I’m fine with seeing things for what they are, since I find reality and knowledge about it as very uplifting and inspiring thing.
‘Take Your Tyrant’ – aside from the obvious connection between revolution in Egypt and Libya, in what ways does it tie in with universal issues for you (as the songwriter)?
I have to say that I didn’t have many universal speculations to acknowledge through it. Mankind can already acknowledge that personal freedom is a basic human right which doesn’t need to be defended for any reason – it’s simply a right that we have and everyone has the right to enforce.
The rest is pretty obvious – you can either see it from the political side with people going for their tyrant, or the mythological side, in which it’s Thor going for Thrym.
In a way it’s edging them on – not that they need it!
Looking at ‘Shadow of the Swastika’, it shows that you’ve gone even further with your own personal stance against fascism and "white guilt" – themes which have plagued the band for a few years, now.
I wanted to make something which wouldn’t just fall through or miss anyone’s attention. There’s one verse of the song for the left-wing, and another for the right; spelling out very bluntly how ridiculous the whole situation is! For good or bad, why do you judge people by the colour of their skin? Let alone stigmatize symbols from non-relevant cultures, like Scandinavian folklore and runes as fascist?
It’s also the most contemporary song that you’ve written.
There’s nothing mythological in there except perhaps the swastika itself, but that’s not really an issue here. It’s a completely modern piece, with no reference to anything else or mythological landscapes like with our other lyrics.
Aside from a modern song, you’ve also changed back to a modern image now. Your recent photos show that you’ve done away with the armour and chainmail, after quite some time.
The thing is, we had wanted for some time now to tone down the "Viking" image, as we felt that we were just pushing it in people’s faces more often than necessary. I mean, we could do Týr without much of it!
Since the last album ‘By the Light of the Northern Star’, we also played in the armour – which turned out to be terrible for that, if you can imagine! For that reason, we also opted to get rid of them for live shows which I don’t think will be any damage to the fans.
To begin with, I think that genre definitions like "Viking", "Pagan" or "Folk" are completely fictive and products of the imagination for marketing purposes. You know, dividing the audience into categories which they likely wouldn’t take on themselves but would take from the outside.
Some of your peers have also changed their image – namely Moonsorrow and Turisas.
Yeah, I noticed that too. Henri Sorvali [Moonsorrow, guitarist] had a very good point about what to call their music – they insisted that it’s not "Viking" metal, but "Post-Christian Science Fiction" metal (as their latest album is set in the future)! Turisas sort of went the same way.
I can only imagine that they feel the same way about this Viking/Folk thing as we do, as we never set out to be in such a constructed category.
Referring to the metal scene as a whole though, I’ve noticed that you’ve got two cover songs on the bonus edition of this new record: ‘I’ by Black Sabbath and ‘Stargazer’ by Rainbow, both of which were originally sung by legend Ronnie James Dio.
It’s interesting that your takes on these tracks are coming out about a year after his death!
Some time ago, we decided that we wanted to cover our all-time favourite songs. Originally it was four songs – the two you’ve mentioned, and another by Pantera and Iron Maiden (respectively) – and this was a long time before Dio passed away.
After his death, it was a coincidence that we eventually picked the ones which he had originally sung; we chose them well before he was diagnosed with cancer. The other two however, we’re planning to save for the next album.
Ronnie James Dio was (and is) one of the most influential icons of Metal.
When you got the news about his death, how did you personally feel at the time?
I felt very bad… like everyone else, I hoped that he was going to make it, but I wasn’t terribly shocked when he didn’t. I know that cancer can get you so suddenly, and I remembered in an interview after his illness that he always planned to make a trilogy out of the ‘Magica’ album. Now we’re robbed of the privilege, and that was something I really wanted to hear because I think that album was one of the best in his solo career.
It’s been noted that many kids today who listen to metal don’t seem to know much about Ronnie James Dio, or even other icons like Judas Priest or Black Sabbath.
In what ways do you think that introducing some Dio to your younger fans on ‘The Lay of Thrym’ could encourage them to learn about his legacy?
I hadn’t really thought about that aspect! We ourselves are in a generation where people already know about this if they’re into metal – Dio and Black Sabbath together with the ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Mob Rules’ albums really cemented modern heavy metal, more than they ever did with Ozzy Osbourne.
If you’re interested in the history and development of heavy metal (which many people are not), then that’s something you should know about. As I said, I didn’t see this move in covering Dio’s songs as an educational thing. But if it helps in that way, then all the better!
What else do you think of the gradual loss of Metal’s Old Guard, namely Judas Priest’s decision to do a farewell tour?
Well, they’re not getting any younger! I’m not that worried by it, though I’d love to see their last concert if I can.
Halford still has his solo project, which I hope he’ll continue with, but they’ve done their share and then some for heavy metal. You can’t expect them to carry on forever; I don’t see it as a tragedy, though it’s nice to have bands around who were big long before I was born!
Before we close this interview, do you have any words to fans who’re looking forward to the new Týr record?
I really hope you’ll all buy it, and that you won’t expect too much mythological, viking, folk or pagan stuff this time since we’re trying to catch up with the present!