Ever get together with friends you haven’t hung around with for decades? Picking up where you left off is easy. Moments pass. Memories flood back. And suddenly, it’s as if you’ve never been apart.
It’s no different for Sweden’s the Halo Effect, the project that Dark Tranquillity’s centrifugal force, Mikael Stanne, dropped in our laps like a stork last year. Stop before you check Wikipedia or Google: the phrase “Halo Effect,” a Stanne-rrific scientific term if there ever was one, refers to how a single positive personality trait leads one to believe that the person must inherently be good throughout their whole self. (It doubly references a Rush tune.)
Uncorking the “Gothenburg sound” that is aging like the finest of wines, the band also features four of Stanne’s pals who also used to be members of In Flames: rhythm guitarist Jesper Strömblad, lead guitarist Niclas Engelin, bassist Peter Iwers and drummer Daniel Svensson.
Wait a sec, you forgot that Stanne was a participant in the band subsequently led by Anders Fridén? Better brush up on your Scandinavian melodic death metal, homie. Many, many moons ago — we’re talking 1993 to ’95 — Stanne sang lead vocals for In Flames on Demo ’93 and their first LP, Lunar Strain.
(Yes, the matter does get confusing when simultaneously retracing the lineage of Dark Tranquillity, for which Fridén originally sang while DT founder Stanne played rhythm guitar.)
It was In Flames’ own founder, Strömblad, who enticed Stanne to help get what was initially a side project off the ground. And about 30 years later, as Stanne recently told New Noise, he and his pal Strömblad are picking up where they left off, with their new outfit. Pulling in their fellow In Flames alums was a cinch; Gothenburg, after all, is still only home to about a half-million people.
Given their pedigree — notwithstanding Patrik Jensen, who fills in on rhythm guitar for Strömblad when he’s sadly sidelined with health issues — it seems odd to call the Halo Effect a side project. And with a sound resembling the heyday of In Flames (excluding Stanne, the other four members played together in that band in the late ‘90s), the echoes of the past are deafeningly loud.
And yet, the Halo Effect’s potent yet playful debut, Days of the Lost (Nuclear Blast), felt as fresh and crisp as a blast of cold winter air. The masterpiece is so pro, they could’ve taken a tip from Malcolm Gladwell and named it 10,000 Hours of the Lost. Then again, 35 years’ experience playing music amounts to many more hours than that.
Accordingly, it’s no wonder that what could have been a one-off affair, as Stanne revealed to us, is growing into a more long-term endeavor. Not only are fans at home already drooling for more Halo Effect concerts — and getting their wish, with gigs happening in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö happening mid-month — U.S. festivals are tapping the band too. Last week, Milwaukee Metal Fest announced the band will be part of its May bill (along with upcoming New Noise Issue 65 cover story subject Obituary).
Thus far, the Halo Effect’s concerts have revolved around the 10 tracks on their debut, all of which find the lithe (lethe?) Stanne pouring out his endless supply of passion. And that’s just what he did in his interview with New Noise: answering every question breathlessly, with an irrepressible sense of childlike rediscovery. Here is the latest snapshot of the most likable (dare we say lovable?) entrant in heavy metal’s extensive gallery of frontmen — free of irony and cynicism, rooted in the truth of his music, and always positively engaged with his audience. And interviewer.
When you hear about a musician and writer dabbling in a new project, you’re wary that it’s going to be a notch below. But holy smokes, your album blew me away. Are these ideas you had bubbling for a while or did it all come together as a unit?
Niclas is the guy who’s constantly writing and doing stuff. He cannot live without a guitar for a few hours. We’ve known each other forever, but in the last couple of years, we only see each other at festivals and shows and airports, when In Flames and DT are doing stuff.
We started talking about doing something together a couple of years ago. He’s a big record collector, as am I, so we talked about things we bought, things we were looking for, record trade shows, flea markets, used record stores. He said, “Maybe we should start something. I’m constantly writing, so if you’re up for it … .” And I was like, “Cool.”
At the time — this was, like three years ago — I had just started writing the latest DT album [2020’s Moment]. I was in that process, sitting right here where I’m sitting right now talking to you, recording new ideas and trying out new songs. So I said, “I’m in front of a microphone every day, so send something over, and I’ll do it.” Nothing really came of that at the time.
But then Peter said to me: “I talked to Niclas, and he wants to put a band together. And I talked to Daniel, and he’s pretty into it too.” And I was like, “Holy shit, really?” Daniel hadn’t been playing for five years at the time, and Peter, three or four years. So I was, like, “Fuck yeah, I want to be a part of this and do something! Why not? And why not ask Jesper too?” And he was, like, “Yeah, sure!”
We started with some of Niclas’ songs that Jesper then added onto. And then we were off. It was awesome, because it was just about having fun and doing something together. At the time, we didn’t think much would happen to it, because I was super-busy and thought, “Once this [DT] album is done, I’ll go on tour, and that’ll be it [with the Halo Effect].”
But we recorded some demos in late ’19, I think it was, and it felt good. We were really excited about it. And then, once DT finished [Moment,] the pandemic hit. [My Halo Effect bandmates and I] were, like, “All right, now we have time to take [this project] seriously. Let’s do it.” We recorded some more demos and stuff, and it was good.
No one knew about it. We didn’t tell anyone. There were no expectations — no pressure at all. It [felt like] what we would’ve been if we had met [up] back in ’92 or ’93. That’s how we viewed it. Obviously, with 30 years of experience. But still. No second-guessing [ourselves]. No afterthoughts.
Niclas writes amazing stuff. Jesper has this amazing muscle memory and natural instinct for melody. And Daniel and Peter, obviously, are a rhythm section like no other. It was so easy. Then I heard a song and said, “I’m going to write something super-fast and use total instinct.” And that’s what we started with. That became the thing we worked with throughout the songwriting process: finding what works immediately and sticking with it. Obviously things change here and there, but that core feeling … we didn’t want to lose that sense of discovery. It was like, “Hey, we can do this. That sounds good. Everyone agrees. Cool. Let’s move on.”
Having a band for 30 years, you constantly think about how you get away from yourself. How you redefine yourself. How you find new ways of expression. How you find new ways of presenting your material or sound. And that takes forever to get to. It’s fascinating, and I love it, but doing this instinctual, very joy-filled recording and writing was very refreshing.
It was very much like the first couple of albums we did, where everything was new and everything was new and like, “Let’s do it and see what happens. We don’t have to worry about what people think. We have all this experience and know how to do this. Let’s create something we love first and foremost.”
That’s what drew me to it and made me really want to focus and make sure this album was amazing.
Which songs materialized from those initial stages?
The first demo that we did was three songs: “Shadowminds,” “Gateways” and “Feel What I Believe.” So, two of the singles and “Gateway,” which is one of my favorites. We didn’t play it for anyone till later, but we felt like we were onto something. I wanted to play it for everyone … but we did another three-track demo, [and only then did we start] playing [our music] for some friends and journalists from the area. They [agreed] that we were onto something.
Then we started wondering seriously, “Maybe we should get a deal and actually record an album. We can, because we’re home.” Thanks to the pandemic, that became a possibility. And, all of a sudden, we were in the studio for eight months, two in which we wrote and six months in which we recorded the album.
Wow, that’s a while.
Yeah, it’s crazy — but it was good. It was such a cool and open environment. We wanted to make the best of it, try everything and throw away whatever wasn’t good. But most of it stuck. The demos are pretty much exactly how the songs sound on the album. It’s very much instinct.
Am I correct in recalling that you test-flighted those first few songs online? I seem to recall on your Twitter account or somewhere, getting a whiff of “Shadowminds” in particular. So you hadn’t recorded the whole album at that point?
We had, actually. We recorded the “Shadowminds” video early on to get the deal. I’ve known the head of Nuclear Blast [Markus Staiger] for 20-plus years, so we sent it to him, and he was like, “Yes, I want this immediately. I trust you guys. Here’s the money. Go record and go nuts.” And that’s what we did. They didn’t hear anything [else] until the album was completed, when the master was done, 11 months later. Once that was finished, then we released “Shadowminds” as a single.
It was fun to see the reaction. Of course, people were surprised and amazed that Jesper’s back, and Daniel and Peter are playing together. And Niclas is playing — which, for me, is one of the highlights, ‘cause they were never together in In Flames, and now they’re collaborating and putting their heads together and bouncing these amazing ideas off each other. That, I just love. The response was fantastic.
As someone who’s listened to Swedish melodeth for many years, I’ve long been fascinated by how fluidly band members change between groups. There seems to be a real kinship, maybe, that I can’t quite wrap my head around here in the States. The closest I can think of is the early grunge scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Was there any sense of finally wanting to tap into ideas that Jesper and Niclas had — and that you had — way back when, and that you found now was an opportune time to do so?
Maybe. Getting back to the simplicity, especially. We didn’t have material that was sitting there for years and years. Because this is a new band, it can be anything. And that sparked a lot of imagination in both Niclas and Jesper. There’s a song like “Last of Our Kind,” for instance, where everything feels very familiar. When they presented it to us, we were like, “Holy fuck, this could’ve been written in ’92!” It’s still original, but it still has that vibe. We added a string intro as a tribute to the early At the Gates, where [Jesper] Jarold played violin. We even asked him to do it.
We’re wearing our influences proudly. We constantly talk about the important bands and how we first saw them in Gothenburg. It was a small scene. The reason there’s so much in-breeding between bands is that there was just a select few metalheads in town. Everybody was, at one point, part of every band or guested [with them]. There were only a few drummers. So Anders played in many bands and Björn [Gelotte] played drums for a while, and [now] he play[s] drums for In Flames, of course. That happens.
More than anything, when we started [the Halo Effect], we wanted to play to our strengths and focus on what we know. There was a lot of reminiscing. “Holy shit, do you remember that? When we toured together?” All this stuff we hadn’t talked about in ages. Doing that at the same time as we were trying to come up with new music. There were some good times. Especially during the pandemic — I was here, in the studio and at the local bar. [Laughs.] And also with family. That was it.
[But unlike in the early days,] we focused on creativity instead of the misery of not being able to travel or being afraid. We focused on enjoying this [project]. Because everything else, we had no idea if it was going to work. It helped us get through [the pandemic] for sure.
Did you hide any Easter eggs or nods to previous albums or songs?
Apart from that intro … there’s some stuff that’s obvious to [us,] like how Peter plays or how Jesper does harmonies, that we recognized. There was some stuff that was too obvious that we removed. It’s so easy to talk to people who have done this for as long as I have and come from the same area. Our musical language is the same. We can reference something we all know immediately, even though we’ve never been in a band together. That made it so much easier, sharing this common history and knowledge of music. You don’t have to discuss anything. Otherwise you over-analyze everything, which is what we all do in our respective bands that we’ve been doing forever. We went with our gut feeling and went for it. It’s going to be difficult to do a second or third album, but this one was easy.
So you do have a long-term view for this project!
Yeah, definitely. We have tons of material for a second album already. So that’s the idea. Everyone’s so excited about writing and coming up with something new, so yeah. It’s impossible to stop Niclas right now. He’s on a roll. He’s like, “When shall we start?!” “Let’s travel around the world a couple of times first, and then we’ll talk.” Timing [is] the only obstacle we’re going to have.
To my mind, you’ve been the most consistently active member of the band over the years, as far as making music and touring goes.
Did you have to instigate or galvanize anyone else to keep up with you?
No. Everybody was excited to tour — maybe not in the way that I do. [DT] go on long tours. Whereas [with the Halo Effect], we’re going to go on tour when we have time and when it’s cool.
We’re going to keep doing this. Of course, I’m going to regret everything eventually, because I’m taking on too much work. But for now, it’s good. I think we’re going to be able to have this coexist with everything else that I’m doing. Everybody’s very busy with their private lives and work. We just want to make sure this is fun and full of passion and that it’s something we want to do, not something we have to do.
How did the other DT members react when they found out about this album? Were they angry you didn’t bring any Halo Effect ideas to them?!
… I played all the early demos for them. They were, like, “Wow, this is cool, this sounds great.” And they were really happy that Jesper is playing, and that Daniel and Peter are playing as well. We’re all friends here. We were in the studio with DT, and I was doing demos at the same time, mixing back and forth. For me, it’s more to do — but I had nothing else to do. It was a no-brainer, really. There was a lot of support. The DT members liked that I was going on tour with the Halo Effect because they could stay home!
Switching gears a bit, something I’ve always admired about your lyrics is your careful placement of words. And your articulation is bar none. How much time do you spend editing your lyrics and revising them to make sure they sound just like you want them to be?
Too much, sometimes. I know the rhythm and how they match to the music early on. But then I write random words or something stupid, and I’ll rewrite that so it actually makes sense. Sometimes I just write tons of lyrics offhand, so I can fit it in.
For [Days of the Lost], Niklas would send me a song, and I’d immediately write something. I tried to be inspired by the other guys. Tried to remember everything that we’d talked about over the years. How their lives have been. How our upbringings were. What it was like when we first became friends when we were 15. What it was that brought us together. How come we gravitated toward this kind of music in the first place. What it was like that made us go so incredibly deep into this and forget everything else.
You’d stop playing sports because it was all you were doing, and maybe let school slide a little bit, because all you wanted to do is to play guitar and scream and write and rehearse and be with your metalhead friends. Nothing else really mattered. We kind of became who we are now back then. What was that like? What was that for? Being the outsider. Being the weird kid in school. Finding your identity.
That made it easy, because I hadn’t really written about that a lot. So I took inspiration from that and the struggles Jesper’s had over the years. The issues we’ve had in interpersonal relationships in bands and all that — and to find what binds us together now. That was the starting point. That made it easy. So I started writing as I was listening to the song. Because there were no expectations, I could write about anything. This is the first album, the first songs. No one knows what this could be. I tried to start fresh and view it as a brand-new band, and that made it so much easier.
Also, writing about the process of how this band came together became an inspiration. That helped me find topics that mattered to me and to us.
When you looked back on those early years, how did you perceive your younger selves? Were you angrier, goofier?
[Laughs.] Goofier, maybe. Of course, we were angrier, because who the hell wants to grow up and be exactly like your parents? We grew up in a super-nice part of town, and everything was safe and there was no struggle, really — but that was boring too. Then, all of a sudden, you found this super-strange, incredible form of music that spoke to you, like, “Whoa.” Someone that understands you, that sort of thing.
I found Kreator, Morbid Angel, bands like that — and then you had a community of friends over the world through tape-trading. And you had friends [with whom] you went to these concerts in town at places that would hold, like, 90 people. We went to see Carcass and local bands there. It was amazing. We felt like we were part of something, right?
And that became everything. For years. And here we are, 30-odd years later, and it’s still the same. It’s fascinating. I love those days. It’s great to talk with Jesper, for instance, who I hadn’t seen forever, and have that be part of the conversation as we’re writing songs together.
Something that strikes me as very distinct with your lyrics is that you’re critical of commonly accepted social thinking and institutions — but you’re very against pessimism.
Yeah, yeah. It’s easy to just be critical and just be angry at things, but at the same time, there’s a positive side to it. Getting over these preconceived or accepted norms that are based on faith or stupidity or ignorance — there is something way better, like knowledge or science or something that actually makes all the sense [in the world]. It’s easy to put something down and be angry at it, but at the same time, I love to at least have some kind of hopeful view, knowing that reasonable facts prevail. That’s not the case in the world, but I like to believe that eventually it will be.
Have you always had a fascination with science?
Yeah, as long as I’ve been writing. Me and Niclas, we were fascinated by what is possible and what is out there. We tried to learn everything and read stuff that no one else was into — [or so] we thought. We tried to figure out why this [issue or that issue] isn’t talked about more. Like, how come no one is talking about this? How come friends are turning to religion or fucking astrology or whatever? It didn’t make any sense to us.
We dug deep into critical thinking and how to see through all of that. How to have an open mind and still be aware of what you see and what you hear, and to spot those logical fallacies that are so easy to fall prey to. To just be aware of everything and try to be good about finding out facts and truth, and not be fooled or deceived. That’s something we always talked about when we grew up, and it’s always been important to me.
Now, with the dawn of the Internet, it’s more important now than ever. It’s with a lot of frustration and anger that I start writing, but eventually, when I get that out of my system, I can see something positive somewhere, and hopefully that gets into the lyrics as well.
Absolutely. There’s this idea that a band is always going to challenge itself by making its music more complex with each successive record, but it’s your lyrics that seem to be getting more complex as you go deeper into your music, and I appreciate that.
Ah, cool. Thanks for that. I try at least to — you try to be more honest but, at the same time, get closer to some kind of truth. Being more honest is something I keep trying to get to. Because when you’re younger, it’s easier to hide yourself behind allegory and symbolism or whatever, just because you didn’t want to be too obvious or revealing about yourself. But I’m more comfortable with showing I’m vulnerable or have fears or insecurities as well.
Something else that’s always fascinated me about you is that you carry yourself with such a sense of gravitas onstage, but at the same time, you are the most gracious performer — at least in your medium. Is that something that’s going on in your mind as you’re performing, or does it come naturally to you, this ability to connect with the fans but still be a rock star onstage?
Oh, I don’t know …
The expression of music is one thing. You’re getting that out there. The songs are serious and deal with something I find incredibly important to me. So you have to perform with that in mind — and that helps the performance, of course. Like, “What was I thinking when I wrote this, and how can I perform it in the best way that I can?”
At the same time, it’s very liberating. So, after every song, [I reflect] on how we did it, we pulled it off, that there’s some kind of understanding between us and the crowd. Then it becomes a relief. “All right, cool! That worked, that felt good.” It’s because of the audience, when there’s a conversation happening.
That’s one of my absolute favorite things in the world, when you sense that you’re communicating [and that] it’s not just us projecting and screaming into the darkness of the crowd. When I sense they’re getting an understanding, that’s my favorite thing in the world — and that’s always very humbling, knowing that people care so much about what we do, that they want to stand there for hours and get into it and learn the lyrics to the songs. That’s amazing. That never gets old and never gets less fascinating. Maybe even more so, as we understand the depth of some of our fans’ dedication and passion. That communication is my favorite thing ever — and the reason we still do this.
I’ve seen you play to crowds of a few dozen and a few thousand, and the way you carry yourself is the same, and that’s a real test of character.
It is the same!
One last thing I wanted to mention: About 10 years ago, I reviewed a show you did on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, and the theme of the review was — and this is 10 years ago, so things have changed — “Why isn’t Dark Tranquillity getting their due?” I don’t know if this was you, but someone using your name posted a comment on the review saying, “This is the best review I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for this.”
Yeah, yeah, that was me! I remember that.
All right then, I gotta ask two more quick questions, so we don’t end on a self-indulgent note. First, what was the last fight you were in?
I’ve never been in a fight. Or — maybe when was in school, when I was 10. I’ve only hit one guy ever, and it was at a Morbid Angel concert in ’94 here in Gothenburg. There was this one guy who climbed onstage to stage-dive, and he bumped into David Vincent, and then he bumped into Trey Azagthoth. And I was in the front row, banging my head off. He disturbed the show, and then he jumped in front of me and some people behind me, and I was like, “Fuck you, you messed up the show,” and he disturbed David Vincent, my favorite singer in the world. I punched him in the face — and felt so bad afterward. And I still do. That was horrible. But that was the last time.
[Laughs.] Last question: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
It used to be The City of Lost Children. That was the movie I’d put on the most and fall asleep to.
It’s gorgeous. It’s like a painting. Every frame is beautiful.
Well, gosh, this was a long time in the waiting. Days of the Lost is my favorite record of the year. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Really hope to see you again soon.
Absolutely. It’s in the plans already. Cheers.