The unlikely event of a metal band appearing on the front cover of a daily newspaper for reasons other than church-burning, eating bats or satanism is something Swedish sludge metal quartet, Horndal, can add to their growing achievements. Few artists take their name from their home village or residential abode (Portishead and Parkway Drive come to mind), but Horndal have put their former steel town on the global map once more.
Horndal used to be a thriving industrial location before western manufacturing became uncompetitive and lost market share to the Far East and South Asia in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Europe and North America is full of villages and towns like Horndal, where their exit from history seems more likely than their survival as places to raise children and invest in jobs. But the band, Horndal, are willing to fight for their home riff by riff. One listen to their sophomore record, Lake Drinker, is enough to persuade you that the urban-rural divide is still a pressing concern, although this time the potential investment from Google in a new data server in the Horndal woodlands brings new anxieties. Will they exploit the nearby lake to power their servers? How might villagers benefit from it other than the few who are lucky enough to secure jobs as security guards at the proposed plant?
This is the story of how an extreme metal band with monstrous riffs and abundant grit put the globalisation debate back at the centre of music. We spoke to drummer, Pontus Levahn, to find out how the group’s latest album is starting conversations and attracting attention from mainstream media in Sweden and beyond…
Let’s start with the Swedish village from which you take the name of your band. You are all proud natives of Horndal. We know it used to host one of the most productive steel plants in Sweden before the forces of globalisation saw it go into decline at the end of the last century. Now your village has less than 1,200 residents and one grocery store. Which three positive features would you promote if you had to write a tourist guide for Horndal?
Pontus Levhan (drummer): First: talk to the locals. Swedish steel town people aren’t known to be the most talkative but give it a shot. These fine folks have been through a lot and came out tougher than most. They have great stories and big hearts.
Second: Eat and drink at Berta’s. If it’s a Saturday night and you’re lucky, you’ll get stuff to write home about.
Third: Take a swim in Lake Rossen, one of the cleanest lakes in Sweden, before it’s drunk by big corp.
How much awareness is there among the natives of Horndal that a progressive sludge metal band is promoting the name of their village worldwide through the medium of music?
Pontus: A lot, I would say. An old neighbour complained that the band gets more search hits online than the village, haha. But we actually got this year’s local culture award, ‘Blacksmith of the year’, for spreading the stories about our little town. For us that was a huge deal. So honoured. It’s like being knighted here. What the fuck is a Grammy?
Let’s talk about the theme of your excellent sophomore album, Lake Drinker. What is the latest on Google’s proposal to build a new data server in the woodlands of Horndal?
Pontus: Wow, thanks! After many hearings, protests and countless days in court, Google got the green light to exploit the land and start building their server facilitates. Still many questions left to be answered regarding water pipelines, the enormous amount of heat it will generate, and how many jobs they will actually create for the community. And the weird thing is that even though they have cut down the forest and now have the go-ahead, they still haven’t decided if they actually will invest in the project. That’s how stinking rich and powerful they are. Most people in Horndal have high hopes that it will help the place prosper again, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
You based the story and conceptual theme of your debut album, REMAINS, on a protest play from 1979 that the residents wrote and performed to highlight the impending catastrophe of the steel mill closure. Your latest album is about the potential environmental costs of a major tech company using the land and lake of Horndal for selfish reasons that may be of no benefit to the residents. What worries do you have that the band might lose its identity if you abandon the blue-collar politics and civic protest stories on future records?
Pontus: I used to have many. First, I only thought we would be a one-album-band, given the tight concept. But as soon as we started digging deeper, we found so many stories, angles, and reflections here that are still highly relevant today, and not only here, but all over the world. Blue-collar themed or not. I mean, there are forgotten places and decaying hometowns everywhere, with some weird magnetic power connected to them. A lot of people seem to relate to it. We get mail all the time from people from similar towns all over the planet. So, I think we can go on forever. The next chapter is already in the works. And if we would run out of topics, we can always just be a band named after a place. Like Europe.
As a band from a small town in Sweden, how did your record deal with Prosthetic Records materialise?
Pontus: I wish I had a cooler story to tell than “I emailed them and asked. They said yes”.
Lake Drinker mixes thrash metal with sludge and introduces progressive elements into the music. Which artists and albums were you listening to during the writing process of your latest album?
Pontus: OK, pretentious bastard warning! Scott Walker, Steve Reich, Autopsy, Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Chavez, Repulsion, Charles Mingus, Hawkwind, Antichrist, Anti-Cimex, Voivod, Dead Kennedys, Poison Idea, Bowie and Black Sabbath.
In your opinion, which song on Lake Drinker captures Horndal’s music at its ferocious best?
Pontus: Tough call, obviously, but I think I’ll go with ‘Horndal’s Blodbad’. It’s a slower track with its own kind of heaviness. I like the spooky yet melancholy harmonies, the lyrics, the orchestration with vibraphone and glockenspiel. When percussionist Pelle Jacobsson from Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded those mallet tracks, my head and heart exploded.
Sweden’s tech sector has had a major impact on the way we consume and share music thanks to the rise of Spotify. What is your stance on the current state of the music industry? Is the rise of streaming platforms and corresponding decline of CD sales a good or a bad thing for artists?
Pontus: Wish I had a unique take on this, but I really don’t. I am an aging man who still likes his vinyl, the old album format, and the mystery of not being able to know everything about every member of every band. But I am also a lazy man who likes the convenience of getting things served to me, all the time. So, I hate Spotify’s guts but use it every day. Sad? Maybe.
How much attention has Lake Drinker received in the mainstream Swedish press outside of the metal underground?
Pontus: It has been insane, to be honest. We were on the cover and had multi-page articles in two daily newspapers. One of them being Sweden’s biggest. Interviews on the national cultural news show on Swedish Public Service Radio, reaching all morning news listeners. Not mentioning music media. So, pretty crazy for a metal band. But the album story taps into other hot topics and current events here, so it really resonated with regular, non-metal people too. So weird! But great, of course.
Which member of the band is most likely to end up as the mayor of Horndal in the future and why?
Pontus: Henrik, my brother. It would be the most restless and trigger-happy mayor the world has ever seen. With the meanest voice.
Final question: The anxiety of living in a declining village is at the core of your music. Why do you think the urban versus rural divide is no longer a pressing concern for most voters in Western Europe?
Pontus: I guess the same answer as always: Follow the money! Serving the upper middle class in the bigger cities and taking to their needs has always been the most lucrative route. But in Sweden this has actually become one of the most important issues again. All parties, who really haven’t given a damn about the rural areas for many years, are now trying to convince the voters they will ‘make all of Sweden flourish and thrive again.’ The pandemic pushed that too, when the middle class started dreaming of leaving city life. But in time for the election, I guess fear will rule, as always – less immigration, more police, lower taxes, and all that.
*** Horndal released Lake Drinker via Prosthetic Records on 9 April 2021. You can read the original SBR review here.