Gardenian

I spent much of my college years and the years immediately thereafter listening to a fairly popular subgenre of metal called “Swedish Death Metal”, supposedly identifiable by the “Gothenburg sound”.  For the layman, imagine Iron Maiden or other meat-and-potatoes melodic metal bands with screamy, not grunty, death vocals.

Several such bands, including In Flames and Arch Enemy, have achieved almost legendary status among younger fans now, much like Megadeth or Anthrax were to my generation.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s a mid-90s In Flames track.  To me what makes it supremely Gothenburgy is the Iron Maiden-esque guitar interludes and the implied melody underlying the vocals.  In a lot of other death metal bands the vocals are almost a rhythm instrument, but not so with Gothenburg bands.

(Anders, the vocalist, was still starting to learn English at this point, leading to some fun mispronunciations a la “architecture” around 0:45)

One of the less known bands from the late-90s surge in Gothenburg-style bands (most of which were indeed from Gothenburg, Sweden) but which has been one of my favorites since I was introduced to them by a drummer friend is Gardenian.  Gardenian had enough unique qualities to make them stand out among their class, and actually has gone on to play a role in the careers of other, still-surviving bands.

Gardenian only produced 3 albums before vocalist/guitarist Jim Kjell quit, was replaced, and the band gave up the ghost.  In those 3 albums though they showed an instinctual grasp of what makes heavy music enjoyable to those who enjoy it as well as willingness to play with the rules of their genre.

They started out basically as a down-tuned melodic death metal band, less focused on showing off their virtuosity than Soilwork, less folk-revivalish than the first few In Flames albums, and less in thrall to metal clichés than Dark Tranquility.  Still memorably hooky, even with all the chromatic riffs.

For the second album they hired a guest vocalist named Eric Hawk to handle all the clean vocals.  The result is a collection of songs that could almost be called mainstream, until Jim Kjell’s bellow reminds us what genre we’re listening to.

By the third album they were quite comfortable writing songs that in an alternate universe they could have sold to someone like P!nk.  By this time Jim Kjell was also handling clean vocals (autotuned on this song, for effect I hope), which he did with a lot more character than many of his contemporaries in the early 2000s, when In Flames and Soilwork albums began to feature about a 50/50 mix of clean and death vocals.

Guitarist Niclas Engelin was part of a side project with In Flames singer Anders Fridén back when Gardenian was still active, and would go on to join In Flames permanently after it folded, just as that band was entering the phase many of its fans would call its “Load/Reload” period.  Unfortunately he hasn’t seemed to bring much Gardenian to In Flames.

Gardenian was briefly associated with singer Apollo Papathanasio, who is one of those metal singers who seems to appear on 3 albums by different bands each year.  If you like Spiritual Beggars (and who wouldn’t like a stoner rock band staffed by death metal veterans?) they are one of many bands within 2 degrees of separation from Gardenian.

The music they were working on with Apollo sort of makes me glad they left their legacy intact with Jim Kjell rather than went full melodic metal.  They reunited with Kjell in 2012 but no albums seem forthcoming.

I find it hard to write with my customary detachment and quasi-academic voice about the bands I like, probably because the bands I like are usually described with phrases like “fuckin heavy as shit”.  Still, let me try to explain my interest in this band to my readers, despite the fact that the only topic that my readers seem less interested in than class activities is metal (and anything other than gripes about Japan).

You know I play guitar.  I’m fascinated by good rhythm players, particularly ones who can add character to the strings of 16th notes that characterize metal.  Gardenian was lucky to have two rhythm players who can do that, as well as a bassist (well, 2 bassists) who has a recognizable tone and style, reminiscent to me of Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez.

Something I’ve never understood is how they get their guitar sound so thuddingly heavy, but not unarticulated.  Many of Gardenian’s riffs use barre chords (as opposed to the 5ths, or power chords, that dominate all metal and most rock), and you can hear all those notes fairly clearly given that they’re tuned down to C and of course very distorted.  In metal, where spikes in a few frequencies in the EQ provide so much of the aesthetic quality of the recording, a good or at least memorable bassy or midrangey guitar sound can really make an album.

Last, the clips I’ve posted here make clear that for their more melodic songs at least, Gardenian didn’t stray far from the C major – D major – E minor school of songwriting that goes back to the earliest Black Sabbath albums.  Their thrashier songs, even on the 3rd album, were more likely to have Megadeth-influenced chromatic riffs or chord progressions other than those made ubiquitous in metal by Iron Maiden.  Still, they never sounded like they were “paying homage” to these bands by self-consciously copying their styles or ritualistically reproducing what they considered a “true” style of metal.  Nor did they, to my ears at least, seem like they were using clichés unaware.  This band had a lot original about it, but even the familiar parts felt like I was hearing them with fresh ears.

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