by R.S. Frost
Icelandic blackened death metal band ZHRINE took the extreme metal community by storm in 2016 with the release of their debut album ‘Unortheta’. Offering cold and harsh audible elements as a reflection of the Icelandic landscape and climate, alongside deeply unorthodox and somewhat unhinged variations on death metal, Zhrine’s music is a unique and, for the most part, original dialect.
The band’s performance at ASCENSION MMXIX hinted at new music in the works, therefore I made contact with guitarist Nökkvi Gylfason and guitarist/vocalist Þorbjörn Steingrímsson to gain some insight into the band’s formation, ‘Unortheta’ and how it all came together, as well as where the album has taken them so far, and what lays ahead.
Nökkvi – With ‘Unortheta’, I feel we achieved a great number of things, individually and as a group. The album received positive feedback mostly, with negative remarks mostly, if not only, surrounding the visual aspect of Zhrine. For us, it has always been about music, not theatrics.
At the time of its release, we had no idea that it would have any impact or whether it would be well received at all. The chemistry between us musically from years of rehearsing gave us the idea that we were doing something right. However, we just wanted to be done with this whole process and get the album out.
Two years prior to the release of the album, Zhrine had been dormant with the four of us scattered around the globe. Due to our busy schedule with other affairs, there would sometimes be months between recording sessions and not all of us could always be present during the recordings in the studio. Subconsciously I think that the hiatus and the time this took from start to finish had a massive impact in the collective feeling that maybe this project might not go anywhere after the album is released and drift away naturally. We had already kept the spark of GONE POSTAL alive for a longer time than preferred and achieved pretty much everything we could hope to achieve in Iceland.
It was not a hard decision to silently wait until we could do this album the justice we felt it deserved. Too much of our time had been invested to merely walk away without seeing it through to the end. Only a few weeks after receiving the final mix and placing it in the right hands did we have a release date scheduled. When I look back at the last three years, I cannot say that we would have done things differently. We are satisfied with how things turned out.
Zhrine originally existed under the name Gone Postal, which released a handful of demos and the 2008 full-length ‘In the Depths of Despair’. Gone Postal’s musical output was much more straight-forward and of the death metal stylings than what the band members would go on to create. The final release under this moniker was the 2012 demo, prophetically titled ‘Unortheta’ which contained four tracks, three of which would be carried over and re-worked for Zhrine.
How did the change of name and style come about, and how do you see the creative nature of Zhrine versus Gone Postal?
Nökkvi – The style change came naturally as we progressed individually and collectively. There is no way of telling exactly when or how the change came to effect, but obviously most of my composing style changed when the spell of SVARTIDAUÐI became apparent in my writing. A more serious and sinister songwriting approach applied in their ranks with melodies always lurking somewhere deep within the surface. But even before that happened Gone Postal was rapidly shifting away from the sound and writing process responsible for the debut album anyway. Not to always hide behind the fact that we were indeed young when the Gone Postal debut was released, but I think for the most part we were just inexperienced and wanted to deliver songs that had a more straight-forward element to them.
There was another album recorded after the debut that was discarded, unfortunately. The huge gap of style change between the debut and the 2012 demo becomes less apparent upon hearing it. Songs that were not discarded were released on the ‘Promo II’ demo.
The creative process from the early days of Gone Postal to Zhrine cannot really be compared. In the old days we would just assemble random riffs until we had something to work with. When it comes to Zhrine it works the other way. A song must have that wave-like structure with melody or dissonance that complements each note and goes through endless filters of us criticising ourselves with individual recordings of all instruments during rehearsals. This leads to songs taking years to complete.
I understand that the word Unortheta is something quite important to you? The word is derived from the term “unorthodox theta”, which pertains to particular theta-wave behaviour in the brain that is associated with what has been described as a creative tsunami that occurs in the seconds before sleep takes over the mind.
Nökkvi – At this point in my life I was fascinated by these waves in terms of their effect on sleep, dreams, and hypnosis. Also, how different stages of sleep have an enormous impact on our day-to-day lives. So, I figured it would make sense to incorporate this into the musical input of Zhrine. Through this tsunami vortex of the mind, a lot of musical arrangements came to life and a lot of ideas were thrown out and/or restructured.
From the final release by Gone Postal, the song ‘Clandestant Empre’ is the only one that seems to have not made the transition into Zhrine. Why was this song discarded?
Nökkvi – The song was not discarded; it was renamed ‘Empire’ with some minor alterations and adjustments to the lyrics and song structure. The correct title should, of course, be ‘Clandestine Empire’, but since English is not our mother tongue this came to be. The title was shortened to ‘Empire’ because it gives the listener less to work with and has a much stronger impact.
We have always felt that, with vocals & lyrics in Zhrine, less is more. We knew that this approach would give the instruments more space to breathe. Having heard a lot of artists drown their music in vocals, that became sort of an influence on how we would not dothings.
In 2015 Zhrine released the first offering under this name, an independently released digital single, ‘Spewing Gloom’, which would go on to be included on the following album.
How did you decide when it was time to release a new song, under a new name, in a new style, and was there any particular reason for this song to be the proverbial pigeon in the mineshaft?
Þorbjörn – We released the song not long after we got the master into our hands. We wanted it out in the open there no matter what. It is a powerful song that stands out and gave an excellent idea of how the band had evolved. I think at the time we wanted to release something that showed all the characteristics and energy that is Zhrine.
On April 8th, 2016, ‘Unortheta’ was released through SEASON OF MIST to an unsuspecting audience, containing seven songs that seamlessly tie together in sound and theme. The production of the album, which was handled by Stephen Lockhart at Studio Emissary, is, to my ears, almost perfect. There is a sharp edge to almost every change within the individual songs, and an overall sense of despair that constantly sits just under the focal point of the music, creating a tense and interesting listening experience. The album sounds like cold and wind-pummelled stone, not at all dissimilar to the environment in which it was conceived.
Why did you decide to work with Stephen and how much of a hand did all parties have in the production process?
Þorbjörn– Stephen is a great guy and it was very good to work with him. We’ve known him for many years and he was very interested in recording the album for us. After we recorded everything it was just a matter of listening to his mix and sending back notes.
Nökkvi – Stephen did an exceptional job elevating our music into realms of the unknown. Without him, the album would have missed a lot of the elements that define it. He arranged much of the ambience found on the album. As far as the production goes, we were not always in a coherent manner, but that made an impact for the better. We experimented with all kinds of sounds and instruments. An experience I look forward to revisiting. Immediately after working together with Stephen during the recording of ‘Flesh Cathedral’ I knew that he and he only could make the right push to see ‘Unortheta’ through. Recording with someone else was never an option.
The visual component of this artistic output is the work of renowned artist Zbigniew Bielak and provides a thoroughly resonant representation of the music contained within.
How closely did you work with Zbigniew concerning the artwork? How much direction was given by the band?
Þorbjörn – We gave him the lyrical content of the album and the atmosphere we wanted. The only direct visual demand we had was that it included the waterfall Svartifoss, a stunning paradise seen in the Icelandic nature. Zbigniew then gave us his ideas, which we liked. He then drew us a napkin drawing of it. After a few months of silence, he revealed the masterpiece that gave the album its true representation. Since its release, we have seen the cover art nominated for various awards.
The lyrics for the album are few, with vocals spaced across the songs in a way that ensures maximum impact, whilst letting the music do most of the talking. When these moments do occur, they are delivered with enormity and purpose.
Can you give any insight into the lyrics for the album, where they come from, and what they are aiming to communicate?
Þorbjörn – War, money, greed, conspiracy and the usual suspects. We are all donkeys trying to catch a flying carrot. The cake is a lie.
The lyrics for the song ‘The Syringe Dance’ are particularly bleak and allude to the downfall of virtue and wisdom. “Once beyond measure, boundless and omnipresent. When fruits bear no seed and the earth yields no fruit” – the cause of which I can only assume originates within the head of a hypodermic needle?
Þorbjörn – When fruits bear no seed and the earth yields no fruit. The world's inborn nature has truly been lost.
The album’s closing orations, although set within a cacophonous audible counterpart, provide a fleeting sense of hope; “A glimpse of light is all that takes to illuminate the darkness”.
I’m curious as to whether this ending note is to provide a cyclical representation of suffering and whether it is a launching point for a continuation of the album’s concept moving forward?
Þorbjörn – A glimpse of light is all that takes to illuminate the darkness. It only takes so little to do so much. But without the knowledge of how, it is extremely hard.
Nökkvi – Continuation is imminent, our inspiration of how the world works has not changed much. Neither has our passion for music.
Zhrine’s most recent adventures in the live setting began with a stellar performance at Iceland’s Ascension MMXIX, which was directly and immediately followed by a series of shows in Australia, starting with the annual ‘Hymns of the Dead’ instalment of Tasmania’s DARK MOFO festival.
Having been subjected to the unreasonable amount of time in transit that is necessary when travelling between Australia and Iceland, the idea of getting on that first plane straight after a show is truly abhorrent. How was your flight? And were you able to get any rest between Ascension and Dark Mofo?
Þorbjörn – We had only one day off between Ascension and our four flights, so we were well-rested. Being stuck together in a metal tube in the sky for over 20 hours while trying not to kill each other was a dream come true for us and probably the height of our diminishing career as musicians. If my memory serves me right there was this demon baby on the long flight that was entertaining everybody on board, it was nice. Zolpidem came to good use for some. Also, during our layover in Singapore, there was this nice lady telling us to empty our pockets and water bottles with the funniest voice I have heard to date. We met her again on our trip home, what are the odds? She is still a subject to a lot of great jokes within the band. I am getting sidetracked here, whoops.
Nökkvi – Doing our best to adjust our inner clock whilst probably being as far away from home as possible, I think we managed. On the plus side, we travelled from summer in Iceland to winter in Tasmania but found ourselves in temperatures of higher degrees.
How did you find yourselves in Australia, and how was your experience at Dark Mofo? How did the rest of the shows go?
Þorbjörn – Dark Mofo was great, it truly is an amazing festival. Being in Hobart at that time was surreal, red flags with black crosses everywhere. It was like being in a future fascist sci-fi film. All gigs were great. We really loved it; hope we get the chance to go back.
Nökkvi – Australia was amazing; meeting old friends & making new ones. Muchos thanks to Matthew Chalk. The DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT guys were fun. A bunch of schools (skulls) to those guys. Great mini-tour.
Is there anything you can share regarding new music and plans for the band?
Þorbjörn – We are working on new material as we speak. The new album is almost ready, and hopefully, it will see the light of day soon. Cheers!
This interview is featured in the print edition of Inner Missive #3, alongside discussions with ASCENSION FESTIVAL, SLIDHR, VOID REVELATIONS, DAWN OF AZAZEL, PERDITION TEMPLE, WINTERFYLLETH, TEMPLE KOLUDRA, CULT NEVER DIES, TODD HANSEN, BY NORSE MUSIC, MUNT, DEVOURING STAR, THE FUROR, ZAZEN SOUNDS, THE SENSELESS, FUCK I’M DEAD, SUFFERING HOUR, DISENTOMB, DEHN SORA, A MILLION DEAD BIRDS LAUGHING, KARMAZID, ENTHRONED, KRIEG, WEREWOLVES, GRAVEIR, SUNS OF SORATH, KAFIRUN, UMBRA CONSCIENTIA, EARLY PSYCROPTIC, MEPHISTOPHELES, MALAKHIM, BLAZE OF PERDITION, CHALICE OF BLOOD, MANNVEIRA, and HAXANDRAOK.