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Rock Opera Direction in Therion’s ‘Beloved Antichrist’

Rock Opera Direction in Therion’s ‘Beloved Antichrist’
© Photograph by Rotka

The prehistory of Therion lies in the band Blitzkrieg. The band was formed in 1987, in Upplands Väsby in the county of Stockholm, Sweden, with high school students Christofer Johnsson on bass and vocals, Peter Hansson on guitar, and Oskar Forss on drums. Influenced by thrash metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer, but reportedly sounding more like Venom and Motörhead, the band did only two shows, both at their high school, before splitting up in 1988. Later the same year the three young musicians again joined forces to form the band Megatherion, this time influenced by the death metal band Celtic Frost in terms of both the music and the name of the band itself. Christofer Johnsson had switched from bass to guitar and the trio was soon joined by bass player Erik Gustafsson, who had previously played in the death metal band Dismember. The band name was shortened to Therion, at the suggestion of Erik Gustafsson, and the demos ‘Paroxysmal Holocaust’1 and ‘Beyond the Darkest Veils of Inner Wickedness’ were released in 1989. The demo ‘Time Shall Tell’ was released on vinyl by local record store House of Kicks in 1990. It caught the attention of Deaf Records (a record sublabel of Peaceville Records) who subsequently released Therion’s debut album ‘Of Darkness’ in 1991.

Although the album was musically to a large degree a standard death metal album (or progressive death metal, as characterised by the band itself), it included unorthodox elements such as the use of keyboards as well as some female vocals and clean male vocals in addition to Christofer Johnsson’s growled ones. The next album, ‘Beyond Sanctorum’, was recorded without Erik Gustafsson and released by Active Records in 1992. The album also incorporated esoteric themes in the lyrics, which had previously been comprised of more standard death metal political-apocalyptic themes.2 The experimental nature of ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ was even more pronounced than that of the previous album.

After ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ all the original members, except Christofer Johnsson, left the band. There followed a period of seven years with repeated line-up changes, featuring different hired live and studio musicians with Christofer Johnsson, as the composer of the music, the only steady member. During this period, the albums ‘Symphony Masses: Ho Drakon Ho Megas’ (1993), ‘Lepaca Kliffoth’ (1995), ‘Theli’ (1996), ‘A’arab Zaraq – Lucid Dreaming’3 (1997), ‘Vovin’ (1998), and ‘Crowning of Atlantis’4 (1999) were released. The album ‘Lepaca Kliffoth’ was the first one recorded for the major independent metal record label Nuclear Blast Records, a label the band has released all of their subsequent albums on. ‘Theli’ is the band’s “breakthrough” album. When planning for the album, Christofer Johnsson envisioned a grand orchestral work but was unsure whether the album could be produced due to the considerable budget this would require. However, Nuclear Blast Records agreed to the 56,000 DM that the album eventually cost, and the success of the album, greater than any of the previous releases of the band, both ensured a greater budget for later releases and propelled Therion to the top of the metal scene. This narrative highlights the role played by the “‘through-put’ sector, comprised of organizations which filter the overflow of information and materials intended for consumers.” If Nuclear Blast Records had not invested in Therion, the end-consumer would not been confronted with the music of the band, and in extension with the magical worldview of Dragon Rouge to the same degree. As Richard A. Peterson and Bharat N. Anand express it: “artistic creativity is not so much an act of individual genius as it is the product of the cooperative effort of a number of people,” and the role of record companies, radio stations, organisers of rock festivals, and other actors in the cultural industry, should not be dismissed.

‘Theli’ also marked the definitive move away from the band’s death metal roots towards symphonic metal. From this point onwards, classical composition relying heavily on operatic vocals and orchestral instruments were a defining element of Therion records. Whereas ‘Theli’ had used real choirs but programmed orchestral parts, increasing record sales made it possible for Therion to use real string orchestras on subsequent records. In addition to this, influences from 1980s heavy metal and 1970s progressive rock were increasing steadily. The period is also significant, and particularly relevant, as it was from this time on that Thomas Karlsson became involved as a lyricist for the band. From having written the lyrics for three songs on ‘Lepaca Kliffoth’ (the songs ‘Melez’, ‘The Beauty in Black’, and ‘Lepaca Kliffoth’), Thomas Karlsson went on to write the majority of the lyrics on ‘Theli’ and has been the sole lyricist from that point onwards.

The release of ‘Deggial’ in 2000 marked the rebirth of a band-oriented Therion. Guitarist Kristian Niemann, bass player Johan Niemann, and drummer Sami Karppinen joined the band as regular members. Although Sami Kristian Karppinen left the band after 2001 — to be replaced by Richard Evensand in 2002, Petter Karlsson in 2004, and finally by Johan Kullberg in 2009 — the band was changed. Christofer Johnsson was no longer the sole composer, even though he was still the core of the band. In 2008, Kristian Niemann and Johan Niemann also left the band to be replaced by Nalle Påhlson on bass and Christian Vidal on guitar. At the same time, Thomas Vikström was made the first ever permanent vocalist of the band (if not counting Christofer Johnsson when he used to perform this role). The 2000s also saw the release of a number of concept albums, the first of which was ‘Secret of the Runes’ (2001), which is centred on the nine worlds of Old Norse mythology. Other similar concept albums are ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ from 2007 and ‘Sitra Ahra’ (2010). The former of these is a double album focused on the Swedish runosophist, esotericist, and mystic Johannes Thomae Bureus Agrivillensis. The latter, while not as strictly focused as ‘Secret of the Runes’ or ‘Gothic Kabbalah’, still deals strongly with the “darkside” of Kabbalah; the Qliphoth. The 2004 double album ‘Lemuria/Sirius B’, is also noteworthy, as it features Therion’s most complex production thus far, featuring a staggering 171 musicians involved in its recording.

Fast forward to 2018, Therion’s newest release is entitled ‘Beloved Antichrist’, and was released on February 9th through Nuclear Blast Records, a conceptual album with an impressive length of three hours deeply inspired by Russian mystic Vladimir Soloviev’s 1900 story, ‘A Short Tale Of The Antichrist’. This musical colossal comes with twenty-seven chapters of orchestral, operatic rock.

Indeed, Therion’s impact on later metal music has been considerable. Considering the pioneering use of orchestral and operatic elements on ‘Theli’, and the popularity of the album, it is reasonable to speculate that Therion gave the impetus to later, more mainstream and thus more popular, the symphonic metal band such as the Finnish Nightwish and the Dutch Within Temptation. Both bands started out in 1996, the same year as ‘Theli’ was released, and released their first albums in 1997.

1.
The demo featured Matti Kärki of Dismember on vocals.
2.
The lyrics on ‘Of Darkness’ range from distress over the destruction of nature through the dangers of drugs to treatment of human rights-violations.
3.
The album was Therion’s tenth anniversary release, and contains four cover songs, three leftover tracks from the ‘Theli’ recording sessions, an acoustic version of the ‘Beyond Sanctorum‘ track “Symphony of the Dead”, and the soundtrack for Per Albinsson’s film, ‘The Golden Embrace’.
4.
The album was originally conceived of as an EP, but three cover songs, three live versions from the ‘Vovin’ tour, and a remix of the Vovin-track ‘Clavicula Nox’ were added to make it into a full-length release.




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