For our loyal Vault Hunters of a certain age, the title “Forever Young” may bring to mind the Bob Dylan song from his 1974 album Planet Waves (and more recently heard as the theme song for TV show Parenthood). Or you might think of the sort-of-but-not-really cover of the song Rod Stewart had a hit with in the late 80s.
If you are thinking about either of those songs, then don’t worry – Danish quartet Phantom did not record a blackened doom version of a Bob Dylan song. And in spite of what the title may lead you to believe, it isn’t an uplifting song either. Mild spoiler alert: the girl in the song stays forever young because she was murdered at age 12…
But I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself – let me back up a bit. When Phantom dropped their debut album Incendiary Serum back in 2013, they immediately garnered critical acclaim for their mix of aggressive-yet-melodic black metal, gothic doom, and supernatural horror-influenced lyrics. It might sound like I’m damning its long-awaited follow-up Death Epic with faint praise by saying that it offers more of the same, but nothing could be further from the truth. Available on July 20 from I, Voidhanger Records (preorder here), Phantom’s sophomore offering is definitely a refinement of their sound, not a rehashing of what they’ve previously done.
From the creaking door and ominous footsteps that kick off album opener “The Horror” to the delicate passage of clean guitars that close out final track “Hurt Them,” Death Epic plays out like the best horror short story collection you’ve ever heard. Evil goddesses, vengeful spirits, and other unnamed terrors populate these nine songs, while the band deftly switches tempos and styles to match the shifting moods within the narratives.
We’re thrilled to be premiering one of those nine stories here today at the Vault. Give “Forever Young” a listen, and then check out my interview with Phantom’s guitarist/vocalist/primary songwriter SS below.
Indy Metal Vault: So first off, thanks for the interview. I’m really digging Death Epic – there are certainly some familiar stylistic elements in your music, especially from gothic doom and black metal, but you also have some very grandiose moments in there as well that work beautifully with the supernatural themes in the lyrics. You’ve had a while to hone that sound, though. I didn’t realize that Phantom had been together for over a decade until I started doing a bit of research to write these questions. You formed in 2005, released your debut album Incendiary Serum in 2013, and then Death Epic will be out later this month – you’re apparently not a band that’s in a rush to release new music. Are the lengthy periods without releases by design, or is your approach more like ‘it takes however long it takes’ when writing and recording?
SS: When we started out in 2005 under the name Mare Crisium, we had a different drummer and a much more dogmatic approach to black metal. We recorded an EP, Antimon, which was never officially released. Soon after that, we decided to bury Mare Crisium and reform as Phantom with a new drummer. This also marked a switch to a more diverse style, incorporating gothic and doom elements. There are many reasons why it took us five years to release Death Epic, but the primary one is probably that we tend to spend a lot of time on each part of the process – writing, recording, mixing, artwork and so on. Each of us is busy with many things, so everything tends to take a long time.
IMV: Speaking of songwriting, I’m struck by the way you’re able to switch tempos and shift from more melodic riffs into passages of aggressive black metal in your songs while maintaining a very distinct sort of atmosphere. Some of that may be thanks to the keyboard accents, but those don’t appear in every song. What’s your songwriting process like? Is one person mostly responsible for writing the riffs? Or is it more collaborative, with the songs being pieced together from everyone’s contributions?
SS: In Mare Crisium, it was a more collaborative effort, some of which spilled over to Incendiary Serum. On Death Epic, I’ve done most of the writing. Some bands can be very productive during rehearsal, but that kind of collaboration isn’t my strongest side. I usually have a concept in mind, and when trying to translate it into a song, other people’s input can feel a bit disruptive. It’s a rather introverted process to be honest. That said, once I’m fairly content with the composition, the others in the band – Andreas, Thomas, and Jeppe – add their own elements, melodies, and rhythms, and this always improves the songs. So the final work is a result of collaboration.
IMV: Lyrically, you focus almost exclusively on supernatural horror. Where did that interest come from? Also, your approach in terms of the writing of them seems fairly unique. They tell stories in a way that occasionally reminds of King Diamond’s lyrics—like “Forever Young” or “They Are Here,” for example—and I don’t think I’m just saying that because you’re all Danish. At the same time, though, they’re far more poetic in their construction than they are narrative – looking at them on the page, some of them certainly seem to leave room for listeners to interpret what’s happening. Does you have any sort of literary background?
SS: I do write fiction on the side, but writing song lyrics is a very different process. Two separate forces pull at you – on the one hand, the lyrics need to sound right and fit the song. On the other hand, I try not to overthink the words and allow them to manifest on their own. This sometimes results in questionable grammar, but the overall feel is more important than the structure. King Diamond was one of the first metal artists I listened to as a kid, and he is definitely an influence to this day. To me, extreme metal is the exploration of dark emotions, particularly fear. When I write lyrics, they usually vary between theatrical horror, a more visceral style of body-horror, or eerie, unnatural settings in the vein of David Lynch.
IMV: So because there’s that room for interpretation in some of the lyrics, I can’t tell if Death Epic is a concept album, or if death is a common thematic thread that runs through a series of independent narratives. Which is it?
SS: The latter is more accurate. The protagonist in each song is either dying – sometimes wanting to, other times fleeing the inevitable – or he is actually dead, which is described as alternately peaceful or violent.
IMV: You used Carl Bloch’s Den unge mand og Døden (The young man and Death) for the cover of Death Epic. I know Bloch for his “Life of Jesus” series of paintings that the Mormon Church has used extensively in their printed materials – I had no idea he did secular art as well. It’s really a perfect choice for this record, though. How did you come to use it for the cover?
SS: It was actually a bit of a coincidence. I was searching for Danish artists that had treated the concept of death and came upon this simple drawing, almost a sketch. It’s quite striking, rather beautiful, and conveys the theme of death worship that is reflected in some of the songs.
IMV: Today we’re premiering “Forever Young” at Indy Metal Vault. What can you tell us about the song?
SS: Of the nine songs, “Forever Young” is probably the one that mostly resembles a narrative, where the influence from King Diamond also shines through. I had been humming the main guitar riff for a couple of weeks and finally decided to record it, even though I wasn’t convinced it would work. The song really wrote itself around that riff, which is usually a good sign when that happens. The song has a bit of a rock vibe that was new to us at the time.
IMV: What’s next after Death Epic comes out? Is Phantom the sort of band that does much touring?
SS: I’m afraid we don’t do any touring at all – at least not at present. We’ll see what the future brings. I’m slowly getting back to writing a couple of new songs, so hopefully it won’t take us another five years to release a third album.
IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
SS: We would like to thank everyone who listens to the album! We are very grateful for the opportunity to share our work.
Phantom and I, Voidhanger Records were kind enough to allow us to reprint the lyrics for “Forever Young”
Relatively uneventful existence until she was 12
When vile murder occurred
Seventeen stabwounds left her
Her parents were weeping by the grave
But she was not dead
And so she rose again
Thirsting for vengeance upon her killer
At night she spoke to him in his sleep
Of hellish things and dire dreams
Of childhood scars unhealed
Of cellar doors locked and sealed
He awoke drenched in sweat
At first relieved to be alone in bed
But then somewhere close he heard a chilling scream
The ghoulish girl, her face unfurled, lurched at him
His children were weeping by the grave
But he was not dead