Interview with vocalist and bassist Johnny Hedlund | By Chad Hensley
A frigid Nordic wind wails from afar across the snow-covered countryside.
Out of the frost and ice strides a battle hardened warrior, Johnny Hedlund, founding vocalist and bassist for the Swedish death metal band Unleashed. A former member of Nihilist and Entombed, Hedlund is an Odinist—a type of Germanic neo-paganism—who embodies the spirit of the modern day berserker. After forming in December of ‘89, “Unleashed chose that name simply because that is what we are all about,” he explains. “Our music and lyrics deal with issues that are normally considered taboo by the average person. During our live shows, we unleash everything that we have inside us.”
Unleashed is far from being a typical death metal act. The band dares to tread where few others in the genre can follow, away from the trappings of Satanism and the occult. The demonic imagery is gone, replaced with honor, faith, and pride drawn from their ancestral Norse history and mythology. As a result, the band was at the forefront of the genre dubbed Viking metal.
“The upside down cross in our logo is not a symbol of the devil,” explains Hedlund. “The Christian cross is usually a symbol that people want a leader. We turned it upside down to show the people that we don’t need a leader. We want to be free and we want people to think that way.”
“We still believe in the same symbols and values that our ancestors did,” Hedlund continues. “The Thor hammer is the symbol of Odinism; it means that you are an honest person and that you will fight for your family. It also means that you care for your country and your culture. But also, that you respect other cultures, of course. It also means that you are a bright person and that you fight for what you believe in. You will not surrender for anything that would try to make you think differently.”
Hedlund is very proud of his and his band members’ ancestral heritage. “First off, we introduced the Viking traditions and values into death metal when we first started the band,” he proclaims. “For some reason, in school and Swedish society in general, any and all things were based upon Christianity back in those days. You could learn about Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity in school, but never about our forefathers’ tales: Norse mythology. Politically, it was and still is a blasphemy in this country to talk about or promote things that belong to Swedish history, its folk or its traditions.”
“I do not believe in the existence of gods,” confesses Hedlund. “A thousand years ago, our ancestors believed in the physical existence of Thor and Odin, but I chose to use them symbolically in our lyrics. When I say, ‘Odin, guide my sword,’ it is a symbol for justice. People need symbols these days: something that unites them. I find that very positive. We do not call Odinism a religion.”
“Now, Unleashed rejects all religion,” adds Hedlund. “Thus, the Viking traditions and values are a way of life to us. We draw inspiration and wisdom from our fathers’ tales from the past and with present day strength and determination. We aim to defend the Viking traditions and values into the everlasting future. Our gods are of symbolic meaning, for example, to enhance something at a Blot—a Norse pagan sacrificial ceremony—or at a certain situation in life.”
Hedlund explains a bit about the band’s 12th studio album Dawn of the Nine, released April 24 on Nuclear Blast. “Our new album and the previous one [Odalheim] take their story from a book I have been working on for many years now, ‘Odalheim,’” he says. “‘White Christ’ means ‘cowardly Christ’ according to the Icelandic sagas in our forefathers’ tales. Being ‘white,’ at the time, meant being a coward. White Christ is the name of the Christian forces in the future world of Odalheim, and on Dawn of the Nine. Their social and political structure looks somewhat like the fascism of the 1940s. Meaning the freedom and needs of the individual is secondary to the needs of the state and its political force. In the future, White Christ will turn this into a much different and harsh fascism.”
Hedlund elaborates that Dawn of the Nine represents nine characteristics a person must have to survive in the new world of Odalheim. “A future warrior and a member of a Hammer battalion—a group of Midgard warriors who play a key role in several of the songs on Dawn of the Nine—need to possess these skills to be successful in Odalheim. The nine skills are inspired and drawn from the nine worlds of Yggdrasil: an immense tree that is central to Norse cosmology.”
“In short, you need to be the fire filled with hatred towards the unjust,” Hedlund continues. “You need to be the light, driven by passion and lust. You need to lead a life guided only by nature. You need to be your own god, master, and slave, free from all leashes. You need to be a warrior holding high the sword of courage. You need to be a giant crushing the world of lice. You need to be good and evil; whichever suits you best for the moment. You need to be death to all who oppose you. You need to be the shadow. If you can’t get vengeance now, wait… Your time will come!”
When asked if the Viking metal moniker bothers him, Hedlund says “Why not? It doesn’t really matter too much to me. We play death metal. We always have and we always will. Death metal, to me, is the most aggressive, brutal, heavy musical style. That’s why I like playing it so much. But it is also entertainment. And, as the leash tightens around your neck, the music gets more violent and aggressive as well.”