Portrait - Interview


In this day and age, there is always some everlasting quality and excellent songwriting to be found amongst many traditional heavy metal bands that left a big mark on the world. Out of all these bands that were formed in the early or mid-2000s, one of the undeniably best examples is the Swedish band Portrait. From their early beginnings all the way up to present time, they certainly have come a long way, especially with their latest album "The Host" which marked the band's first official concept album and it's by far their most complex work yet. As I've said before, this is a very long and broadened album which contains a lot of ideas that stretch from their 17th century inspired storytelling towards the darker and more atmospheric moments which are cemented in their so called "heavy metal darkness".  Three days before the official release of "The Host", I had the pleasure of talking with the band's vocalist Per Lengstedt, where we discussed about the work on the new album, from the songwriting to the recording process, while bringing up the idea of doing a proper concept album, as well as some key influences in the lyrical themes and musical ideas. If you wish to dive deep into the blood-bathed and God forsaken world of "The Host", then feel free to join me on this journey, because I believe you will find it incredibly exciting and engaging.

Vladimir

Hi Per, how are you doing man?

All good, all good. A little bit hectic nowadays, but it's as it used to be, just always hectic times in May and June with daytime work and other things, I got two daughter's birthdays as well, and on top of that a new album release.

Yeah, I can't believe it's in three days, it's finally out on Friday.

Yeah, that's cool, I am really looking forward to it.

I am really happy man, because I have to say that I personally enjoyed "The Host" a lot, I always thought that Portrait's songwriting is unmistakable and incredibly imaginative after all these years, but now you really took it to a whole new level. On top of that, this album is also quite complex and more musically layered in comparison to "At One With None" from three years ago. What was the band's primary goal while working on "The Host"?

Well, the whole idea for Christian started right after we got off our tour with Satan, and he just had this idea for a story of a soldier in the 17th century, dealing with occult stuff and revolting against the church. The church was the big authority back then, nowadays, there's other types of authorities. I think he wrote the whole concept like in two weeks, with the finished story and context, he had a bunch of riffs and when he had led the path towards the story, the songs more or less wrote themselves this time, because I think it was easier for all actually. And then Anders, I think he's written two or three songs, and also our new guitarist Karl, or our latest because he's been with us in a couple of years now, but it's his first song that's been put on an album, and it fit the whole album concept very well and made it even more diverse, I think. Christian had to change the lyrics just to fit some songs which is normal, but this time maybe even more just to get the drama in the story, write together with the riffs and so on.

I really couldn't overlook the fact that the album is also atmospherically darker than some of your previous works, even the eerie blood bathed cover art by Niklas Webjörn perfectly captures that essence, it almost feels like a real dreaded world that lies beyond the frame of the painting. This is also your first concept album and it was inspired by 17th century Sweden, both partly inspired by historical events, as well as fictional. When and how did you guys decide that it was time to do a full-on concept album for Portrait?

Well, it was never decided in that context, like I said before, right after we got off the tour with Satan, Christian had this idea and he just had the inspiration, wrote it and then he presented it like "Guys, I think our next album is going to be a concept album, because I've got this cool story going on here", and we're just "Hey man, go for it!". I myself was blown away the first time when I read the whole thing, the first draft for the story.

Did you guys have any authors or other sources that inspired the album in terms of the lyrical subjects, as well as the overall songwriting?

It's really Christian's thing to ask, I cannot speak for Christian here, but I know he reads a lot and there are some certain books that he has drawn much inspiration from, picked up many references in the story, both real historic events and also occult tales from that time being.

You can basically direct it and make a movie out of it, based on the overall concept, and even how the album transitions as a whole, it basically is like a storytelling pattern from start to finish. There is a track that was a big personal highlight for me, which is the ballad 'One Last Kiss', because it has some elements that lean towards Judas Priest ballads and some Iron Maiden/Bruce Dickinson ballads as well. Can you tell me a bit more about the story behind the making of the song?

That's really Portrait's first effort going towards a more ballad style, but in the vein of 80's. Myself when I heard it the first time, Christian had done the demo for it. First, I had some Scorpions reference to it when I heard the chorus, and then the last part when it takes off, it goes more up tempo and it is just like 'When Death Calls' by Black Sabbath.

Oh, I love the song, it is one of my favorite songs of all time.

Yeah, I am actually gonna do a demo of 'When Death Calls' with another guy, we're gonna do a split vocal thing just as a tribute to the Tony Martin albums being re-released.

Yeah, that box set is one of the biggest blessings we've received this year.

Yeah, definitely.

For years I couldn't stop listening to those Tony Martin fronted albums, when I saw that they are finally on streaming platforms and that they are getting more attention than before, I could not have been happier. To me he is an incredibly underrated singer, but he was always up there with Dio, because he's a great vocalist, plus he's a great guy overall.

Yeah, definitely. Have you seen me doing the vocal exercise? I actually uploaded a video when I did a vocal warm up for "Anno Mundi".

Maybe I did, possibly if it was on social media.

I am not sure, but yeah, it's on YouTube.

I think I did see it, but you will have to excuse me because I constantly interview a lot of musicians and listen to a lot of albums, so I lose track of what I saw and what I heard, and sometimes I am like "Oh yeah, that did happen!". But once you mentioned "Anno Mundi", I think I did actually see it. Honestly you should definitely go for it, because a lot of people would cover anything from the 70's Black Sabbath, but Tony Martin, dude that's amazing.

Yeah, it is.

And the fact that this ballad 'One Last Kiss' was so well-written, it doesn't sound like a made for radio hit, it's not a radio friendly song at all. Even nowadays people would criticize a band for including a ballad, but here it's all following a concept. This album is also pretty long as well, with a total of 13 tracks, with the closing track 'The Passions Of Sophia' being the longest one with its 11 and half minutes of runtime. However, no matter how long the album is, it successfully manages to keep your attention from start to finish, plus you get more invested and immersed during the second half. Was it challenging for you guys to make The Host so structurally complex and rich as it is?

Well, I am very pleased that you said that you find it interesting throughout, because personally it's a very long album. In my opinion it's too long, but as I produced it, you work with it so intense that the last couple of days before you have to leave it to the printing, your mind is so exhausted after that and you don't even know if it's good or bad. The only thing I can say is that we had just one rehearsal where the whole band played the album from start to finish as it was more or less, I don't think we changed a lot after the arrangement. I think it was more or less written, no rearrangements or so. But then, it was the first time I sang the whole album from start to finish, and I got the feeling for the story and I got in the mode for every song, it took me deeper and deeper, and I got really struck by it. I told the others "Man, I think we've got something here", because it got really emotional with the story. And after that, the way you work in the studio, you're pushing yourself just to lay down the best vocals, and after that you put on your producer hat and you just blast your ears for several days trying to make the best out of it. After that, I was totally exhausted, I didn't know if it was good anymore hahah. That's why I am so glad to hear that you find it interesting throughout the whole record.

Yeah, but for me personally, there are albums that are just way too long that I can't stand listening. For example, I don't know how you feel about it, but the new Metallica album "72 Seasons", really isn't that interesting. First of all, it's way too long, and it's so lifeless and uninspiring to listen to. When I got to the last song 'Innamorata', I was like "…Really?!". And this isn't like with 'The Passions Of Sophia', even though it's the same length, but the song still keeps your attention constant, it's not like "Oh my god, this song is going on for so long". The part where you said that you don't know whether it's good or not, I remembered when Tobias Forge of Ghost said when he was working on "Impera", after re-listening to the album so many times, he didn't know if it's good or not because he got "hearing AIDS" so to speak, he lost track of it. So, I understand completely.

Yeah, you do, when you listen to the songs too many times, you just listen to the details when you are in producer mode, so you just lose track of the whole feeling, the feeling that you want the listener to catch, you don't know if the music brings it or not. And definitely with the latest Metallica album, there are some quite good tracks, but way too long like you said. I think there's always some guys out there on the internet that cut down the songs to much shorter and it's much more interesting to listen to actually hahah.

Yeah, because that's one of the biggest mistakes that happen during the songwriting, when you want to keep the album as long as possible, and that's one of things that Iron Maiden does too. There are lot of long songs, the only difference is that Iron Maiden has some sort of entertainment, whereas with Metallica it is the complete opposite. It goes on for way too long and you're not even hearing melodies, you are not even hearing guitar solos or rhythm changes here and there, but in your case, you do much of a good job that people don't give you enough credit like "Wow these guys really know how to put on a very length album and still keep it strong all the way through".

The last song 'The Passions Of Sophia', it was actually one of the songs that was intended to be on the last album "At One With None", it was written during that time, but in the last minute we felt there was something missing and it was the intro. We didn't have the soft intro and it wasn't arranged then, and Christian wrote that part and he felt that this will fit perfectly as an ending for this album, because the rest of the song is more or less exactly the same arrangements as we had before. For the lyrics, he just had to actually change very little in the lyrical concept, because 'The Passions Of Sophia' are the soldier's last thoughts, it's the aftermath of all he's been through, and it fit perfectly.

Really great job done there. I also wanted to bring this up, I heard some black metal influences on the album as well, like blast beats and tremolo picking riffs, and this was a real pleasant surprise for me because it blended wonderfully with your dark and theatrical heavy metal elements, somewhere along the line of Swedish melodic black metal bands like Dissection and Sacramentum. Can you tell me a little bit about the decision behind this inclusion, because I know you guys fancy some black metal?

Yeah, definitely. We listen to more or less everything, we are very varied in what we listen to, but I think that at least from the "Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae" album, already there was some kind of small black metal elements in our music style of heavy metal. We've always called it "heavy metal darkness", that's what it is definitely, and I think it fits kind of well. It is heavy metal in that sense with that type of darkness, so I think you can say that for each album we sneaked in more and more black metal influences underneath it all, and we're maybe kind of unique in that sense, I don't know.

Yeah, and it works so well, that's one of the things that I mentioned before how strong the songwriting is after all these years. Talk about the years, the band's 20th anniversary will be next year, and looking at your entire journey, you certainly have come a long way and you have really progressed and developed as a band, but also as musicians and as excellent songwriters. How do you look back on these years in Portrait and the achievement of keeping the band on the pedestal for so long?

We've never lost focus when it comes to what Portrait is and what our musical goal is, it's to maintain the core, to never be afraid to broaden the horizons and I think we managed to do so in a good way on this album, there are a lot of elements. But like I said, I am a guitarist myself from the beginning, and during these years that I've been with the band, sometimes I've just told Christian "I think I'll skip the vocals now, I'll take the guitars, we'll get another guy for the vocals", because I found myself in that position if I hadn't been in the band, I would be the biggest fan of the band hahah, because the riffing is so intricate and I think it's really good craftsmanship when it comes to riff making and songwriting. And I think that Anders as a drummer, he has also developed into a really good songwriter as well. That's very piecing as well. Me myself for the style I use, I wrote some riffs here and there, but never a whole song for Portrait. I did an instrumental song on the "Burn The World", that's my composition, but apart from that, it's mostly work of Christian and Anders. Yeah, I think that's one other reason why we never lost track and why we keep focusing on what's best for the band, keeping the core, and we have no intention of changing styles or anything like that. You are always going to hear that it's Portrait in the sense.

It will be very difficult to top this album if you manage to do a follow-up, because every time when you come up with a very strong album, people will always think "Wow, this is so good. How are they gonna make the next one?". That's one of the things that happened a lot with classic metal bands, a lot of people thought that it is probably the best they will ever go and that it will definitely be very difficult to write the next one, and it turns out to be the opposite and it's actually even more interesting and even more expanded. Like you said, it broadens the horizon and everything. I am really looking forward to the release of this album, I can sense people will definitely like it, and you are just couple of days away from the official release. I wanted to ask you are there any talks to do shows in Europe to support the new album?

We had a plan to do two release shows next weekend, two special small club gigs just to celebrate the release, so those were supposed to be very special shows and we were to play a lot from the new album, but actually the news got out today that it had to be postponed until the end of September, and we're working on doing a bit longer run than before. We are playing one festival, that's going to be the first show when the album is out, the Time to Rock festival in Sweden, and after that it's Wacken, we're gonna do our first gig at Wacken, I am looking much forward to that. We've got very good spots on the first day, after that we've got couple of shows down in Germany and in a French festival as well. But we're working hard on locking in a longer tour as well in Europe, we very much want to go to Southern Europe because it's been way too long, to play in Spain and Italy. For instance, we never played in Portugal, but that's what we are talking about, and east also. We are also working on our first South American tour, so I hope it becomes reality.

Yeah, this is great news. If you guys ever want to come in Hungary, Croatia or Serbia, I would really love to go and see you guys, wherever it is. Even if it's in Austria, I'd love to go there because you guys put on a hell of a show. Since you mentioned Wacken, I hope that the weather will also be of good use, because I know that there are always talks of heavy rain there and the mud of course, so hopefully that goes well.

Yeah, I hope so too. We haven't been to the festival, any of us in the band, for a long time. I was there in 2003 I think, it's been over 20 years since I've been there, and the other guys were there in 2005 or 2006, and we just made the pact that no one visits the festival before we play there, so it's gonna be a lot of fun. I hope the weather will be good, not too muddy. But seriously, we very much want to come out and play as much as we possibly can. Sometimes it feels like there are too few people that know about Portrait, that we exist in the sense and that we do put on a good live show. We need to get out there and let people know we're here, that we're not a force to be reckoned with.

Thank you so much for doing the interview, Per, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. I am really looking forward to the release of "The Host" and like I said, hoping to see Portrait live in the near future. Are there any final words you'd like to say?

Spread the word and if you want to see us live, just tell the promoters that we're here and that we're more than glad to come and play for you guys. We want to get out and play for as much people as possible, and there is plenty of countries where we haven't played as well. Of all the countries you mentioned, we played in Austria, but we haven't been to Hungary or Serbia or any of those, we are looking forward to come and play to places we haven't been, in these several countries.

Entered: 6/28/2024 3:44:56 PM

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