Scorched Earth – Exclusive interview with Mass Worship

Mass Worship (Left-to-Right): Gustav Eriksson (lead guitar), Dadde Stark (bass), Claes Nordin (vocals), Fred Forsberg (drums/guitar).

Sweden is rich in innovative metal bands, just as Australia and Brazil are rich in iron ore. The country that gave us Candlemass, Bathory, Entombed, Dissection, Meshuggah, At the Gates, Cult of Luna, Pain of Salvation and countless other pioneers has a new contender. But what happens when you take the seed of hardcore punk and introduce heavier and darker musical components into the mix? It’s a question many have asked, and it often results in the punk audience relinquishing floor space to the extreme metal crowd. Ask Napalm Death and Neurosis, two artists that are a clear influence on Mass Worship.

The Stockholm quartet that makes up Mass Worship could play to a post-metal audience or share a stage with Comeback Kid. They wouldn’t sink on a bill next to Gothenburg’s finest death metal bands, either. Napalm Death legend, Barney Greenway, makes an appearance on the group’s sophomore album, Portal Tombs, as does Jonas Stålhammar of At the Gates. They already have the approbation of their idols, but Mass Worship know their sound will only get better and make more sense to them as they develop.

SBR spoke to Fred Forsburg, the mastermind behind Mass Worship, who moonlights as the drummer but writes and produces the songs from guitar. This band will become your new favourite in heavy music once you understand their motivations and intentions.

Above: Fred Forsberg (far right) is the drummer, main songwriter, producer and engineer for the band.

Let’s start with your sophomore album, Portal Tombs. Wow! This might be the heaviest album of 2022. We hear Neurosis, Meshuggah and Gojira in the mix, but it also has its own unique sound. How would you describe your music for the following people?

(a) A PhD music student studying the clarinet

Imagine if Penderecki and György Ligeti had a bastard child, and that this child got tasked with writing the soundtrack to the end of the world – and now imagine how that would sound as a metal band!

(b) An attractive young Spanish woman who listens to Bring Me the Horizon

Imagine early Bring Me the Horizon being Swedish punks constrained to constantly play midtempo and being completely out of touch with trends.

(c) A drunken Dave Mustaine

Take ‘Hangar 18’, tune it down to A# and play the drums in half-time. Remove all the flashy stuff, scream the vocals as hard as humanly possible, and stick to three-syllable words. That’s Mass Worship!

(d) The Chief Executive of the Swedish Arts Council

Imagine being stuck for all eternity in the emotion you feel at 59 minutes and 20 seconds into Arvo Pärt’s ‘St. John Passion’!

It’s difficult to research the origins of Mass Worship. Tell us more about where you all met and the bands you played in before you formed Mass Worship?

Me and Claes (vocals) had a band called City Keys prior to Mass Worship. It was more hardcore punk oriented with a very small touch of Stockholm death metal. We did quite a lot of touring with that band and recorded two EPs (the second one with Thomas Skogsberg at the legendary Sunlight Studios). But when it was time to start working on a full length, I really started to feel limited in terms of what we could do creatively with that band and line up. Hardcore and punk is fun and all, but it felt extremely limiting. The band name wasn’t exactly inspiring, the imagery and vision was non-existent, and musically there was nowhere left to go.

So, me and Claes decided to change the name to Mass Worship, wrote and recorded our debut, and started looking for a label to work with. And in the midst of this process, the line-up changed quite drastically, and we recruited Dadde Stark (ex-Wolfbrigade, Asta Kask) and Gustav (Ordos, Offerblod).

All of us have been dabbling with both punk and metal all our lives, but the punk roots are definitely a huge, inevitable, intricate part of everything we do, whilst metal is more like the vehicle that we use to get more creative freedom and go places punk can’t – if that makes sense.

How did you secure a deal with Century Media so early on in your career?

We’ve all been playing in bands since forever, and fortunately we’ve built up a lot of relationships throughout the years with other bands, labels, and such. We actually already tried reaching out to Century Media under the City Keys era, but they respectfully declined. When we had the full length recorded under the Mass Worship flag, we tried again and got them on the hook!

It’s really hard to fully understand how these things work, but I’d say it was a combination of contacts, a history of hardworking and relentless touring, combined with timing and a bit of luck, as well as just giving the label an already fully recorded album. Century Media should get A LOT of credit and respect for actually signing bands so early. They’ve been an amazing partner in building this band, and we all love them so much!

What’s the most hostile audience you’ve encountered as a live band and why?

I don’t think we’ve actually had any so far! We always end up in this weird position where we might be a bit too modern and progressive for the old-school crowd and a bit too, dare I say, “punk” and brutal for the modern crowds. But usually what ends up happening is that both crowds like what they hear, and our sound adds a good flavour to most metal shows. So, I think and hope we can act as a bridge between those two opposing forces, ha-ha! We’re obviously not going to attract everyone, but there has to be a lot of metal fans out there just like us that feel like something’s missing in that middle ground.

Above: Instruction from the photographer: “Hi Guys. Pose for the camera as the thinking man’s metal.”

It’s unusual for the drummer to be the main songwriter, lead producer, and chief audio engineer. Tell us more about your musical background and which instruments you lay down first when writing a song.

Ha-ha, yeah, I guess it is. The way I see it, I just play drums live because it’s so hard finding drummers, and I’m happy doing anything live with this band, really.

I’ve always been kind of a loner, so whenever I need something, I try my best to learn by doing it, myself, so I don’t have to depend on others. That goes for playing instruments as much as it does for writing, recording, and mixing – and a bunch of other things in life. It’s also a good way for me to make sure that the original intent, message, integrity, and emotion of the song stays intact and isn’t conflated with too many external ideas that have nothing to do with the song per se.

When it comes to song writing, I usually start with guitar and usually the melody, as funny as that sounds, being a pretty non-melodic band. Most of the time, it’s some sort of clean part or a chord progression on guitar that helps set the tone, scenery, and foundation for the rest of the song to be built on. I’m not really thinking in terms of riffs and stuff like that. I’ve never been much of a riff guy. It’s more about connecting to some sort of inner emotion and then trying to exaggerate that emotion to the greatest extent possible, through every step of the process – drums, bass, rhythm guitars, production, mixing – all the way. It’s about exaggerating the core emotion rather than anything else.

So, that’s really what I spend the most time and effort on, laying down the melodic and emotional foundation of a song and kinda building a world around that. The I try to figure out where that leads me.

Drums, bass, and rhythm guitars are very intertwined in my head, but it’s all very heavily focused on rhythms, I’d say, and the drums really play the lead role. Vocal arrangement is always at the back of my head throughout the process, but the lyrics are mostly written at the very end. Again, the instruments, vocal arrangement and lyrics mainly play the part of exaggerating the original intent and emotion. Our music is not meant to be technically flashy. We’re not necessarily trying to sound like any of our favourite bands – it’s all about using music as a means of communication, and I don’t really care if it ends up sounding like X band or X genre.

People are calling your music ‘dark metal’ or even ‘death-dark’ (whatever that means). The lyrics to ‘Dunes of Bone’ and ‘Scorched Earth’ seem to touch upon a dystopian future of planetary despoliation where the possibility of human extinction is a real one. How much can we read into this as an analogy for the modern anxieties about CO2 emissions and environmental disasters?

Ha-ha, yeah, the genre seems to be hard to define, but we love that!

Regarding the lyrics, I think that’s up to the listener to decide really, how deep you want to go. There’s definitely a layer of that, but the environmental issues we face are really just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion, above the surface so to speak – symptoms of the disease rather than the disease itself. There are much larger problems lurking below the surface, and that’s really what I’m digging for. The underlying incentives that lead a civilisation to where we are today, and the emotions that erupt in a society that has completely lost its future vision – I sincerely believe that’s where we are today.

All nine songs on Portal Tombs could melt the listeners face, but which one was the hardest to compose and why?

I think the one we spent most time on was ‘Unholy Mass’. We all really love the track, and there were so many places we could take it. But we wanted it to feel more like an interlude – a glimpse into a progressive path we’d love to explore more on future records – rather than anything else. It’s a perfect opportunity for a guitar solo battle between myself and Gustav and to really let the melodies lead the way. But it took a lot of twisting and turning to get it right. It ended up giving exactly that kind of breather moment needed for the record before diving back deeper into the black hole.

Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway appears on the title track. How did this guest appearance materialise? Did you approach him, or had he already heard your music and indicated that he likes your band?

Dadde (Bass) used to play with a Swedish band called Wolfbrigade, and they got to know Napalm Death over the years, playing shows together, etc., so that’s the connection. We just asked Barney if he would be up for it, and he was super stoked on doing it and so chill about it all. He added his own ideas to the track and really helped us take that song to the next level! We’re really grateful to have him, as well as Jonas Renkse (Katatonia) and Jonas Stålhammar (At the Gates), who also leave their mark on this record!

Above: Behind you is the headquarters of Nordea Bank. Tell us what you think of their brand…

What are your thoughts on the Swedish progressive-sludge band, Horndal, who take their name from their hometown and write albums about the rural versus urban divide?

GREAT band! I don’t know them personally, but I think some of the other guys might. I’m a sucker for any band that breaks new ground, goes outside of the box, and puts emphasis on using their unique voice rather than just being a clone of another band – and these guys really make use of their unique voice. Really dig the production on their latest release as well!

What should fans spend their money on when they go to a Mass Worship gig – buying beer for the band members, buying your merchandise, or purchasing your vinyl LPs?

All of that is of course highly appreciated, but if I’d have to pick one, it would be LPs!

A final philosophical question: Why do you write music?

To me personally, music, and really all art forms, are just other means of communication. Language can be pretty clumsy at times, and inevitably tied to culture, norms, etc.

Using music as a vehicle for expression can be very liberating in this sense. It’s sort of like communication on a purely emotional plane, where neither the speaker or the listener is in full control over the message because it’s being sent and delivered through a medium of which is outside of our control. Does that make sense, or am I just rambling? Ha-ha.

And then for the listener, what I’m hoping for is to evoke a feeling the listener didn’t quite know they were capable of feeling, giving them a glimpse into someone else’s interpretation of the world. That’s the type of art I’m drawn to.

*** Mass Worship released Portal Tombs via Century Media on 4 February 2022. You can read the original SBR review here.