NORTHWARD – Scratching A Ten Year Itch
November 6, 2018, 6 months ago
Leave anything sitting on a shelf for ten years and there’s bound to be a certain amount of decay that sets in, unless it’s a McDonald's cheeseburger. This includes music, the passage of time and changing tastes often capable of rendering it painfully dated. Last year, Nightwish / former After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen and Pagan’s Mind guitarist Jørn Viggo Lofstad dared to revisit their sidelined decade-old rock-oriented project since dubbed Northward, curious to know if it still had a spark. Turns out there was plenty of fire left in the original demos, more than enough to warrant a full blown album.
"I met Floor for the first time in Atlanta in 2007, and we started to write music for this album five or six months later," Lofstad begins. "After Forever shut down while we were writing for this. We started to write these songs in early 2008, and we took about six or seven months to do it. We would do these long weekend sessions from Thursday to Sunday; we were very productive and the songwriting was very smooth. Recording the drums started in late 2008, and in early 2009 I started to record some of the guitars, and at that time it was clear that After Forever had stopped. Floor was a bit stressed, obviously, because she didn't want that to happen. She decided that the music we wrote for this was a little too much on the side compared to After Forever and wanted to start a new band that was more like After Forever, which became ReVamp. That's why we put this on hold, and then her burnout came along (in 2011) and this was put on the shelf indefinitely."
Lofstad stopped recording guitars for the Northward album in 2009 and picked them up again in 2017, which he calls "weird." TNT bassist Morty Black was brought in to play bass on the record, while drummers Stian Kristofferson (Pagan's Mind) and Jango Nilsen took turns behind the kit. Lofstad explains how he and Jansen got back on track:
"We didn't actually meet in person again and talk until 2016. I guess it was always in the cards that we would pick this up at some point, but we had no idea it would be this long of a wait. Floor joining Nightwish as a full time member (in 2012) obviously put everything else back, but in 2016 she reached out to me because Nightwish was coming to the city where I live (Trondheim). She asked me to come down so we could catch up and talk, and when we met she told me that they were taking 2017 off. That was very early in her pregnancy, and we met up again in early 2017 to plan things with this music about two weeks before her daughter was born. We listened through all the material together to see if it still felt good after so many years. Did we need to change a lot of stuff? Did we need to rewrite some stuff? Is there anything we don't want to use? But, it felt really good. The only thing we changed were the lyrics in the last song (‘Northward’), and we switched out one chorus on 'I Need', which got a new chorus compared to the demos. Otherwise, the album is very true to the demos we made in 2008. Basically, we just picked up where we left off."
Lofstad and Jansen left the expected trademark leanings in the direction of Pagan's Mind / After Forever prog metal locked away. Any symphonic metal influences from Jansen's current status as Nightwish's singer were likewise ignored. Northward is a basic vocals / guitars / bass / drums album, played naked and straight, no bells and whistles cluttering the music. The arrangements and dynamics are refreshingly unpredictable and impressive for "just" a rock album. There are huge contrasts from song to song, from first single "While Love Died", to the over-the-top shred of "I Need", to the '80s commercial pop-ness of "Storm In a Glass". As mentioned in the BraveWords review, the Northward album doesn't sit still for a single moment.
"The core of the album is hard rock music, but at the same time it has a lot of variety within the different songs. There are a lot of nice musical elements, a lot of dynamics. It's funny that you mention 'Storm In A Glass' because it's the most pop-oriented song on the album; people that don't really listen to metal have said it's a good song and a lot of people really like it, but many of the metal people don't like it. Style-wise, the song is like something that Billy Idol could have put out in the late '80s. We discussed having it as the first single, but I felt that people would get the wrong impression about the album. It was the wrong song because every other track is much heavier. Floor agreed with me, which is why 'While Love Died' was released first. But I'm glad 'Storm In A Glass' is on the album. And 'I Need' has some great energy, a great riff; our drummer just played that one hard yet kept it so punchy. What he contributed on that song was amazing."
Reactions to the Northward have been positive for the most part, with any naysayers being drowned out by the accolades for something decidedly different from / for Lofstad and Jansen.
"For me, it's the ultimate reward to hear that people like the stuff," says Lofstad. "We've been getting really good feedback. Of course it's a side project, but at the same time I do the best I can with any project I'm a part of, to make it sound as good as possible. If I'm not going to give 100% of myself there's no reason for me to even start. It's not about quantity or money; if there is one thing I hope to be remembered for delivering quality music. That's all I aim for and we really did the best we could. Both Floor and myself are super proud of the result, so it's nice to finally get the album out there."
Jansen has endeared herself to many a longtime Nightwish fan by being able to sing anything and everything in the band's back catalogue, in particular the early songs featuring original vocalist Tarja Turunen. Her vocal diversity continues to shine with Northward, showing off the powerful rock side of her musical personality, on par with one very lethal Lzzy Hale of Halestorm fame. She really can sing anything...
"I've known that since 2007," Lofstad laughs. "I knew this would be the reaction from people when they heard Floor on this album. This was very new territory for both of us when we started, and Floor wanted to take that rock approach. I've had the rock feeling in my bones since my early teens so it comes natural to me. I knew when this album came out people would be saying 'I knew Floor was a great singer, but she can do this as well..?' I think that's really cool because it's one thing to have a great voice and be able to sing high and all that stuff, but there's a certain respect you get when all the layers of keyboards and orchestrations are taken away, things are stripped down to guitars, bass and drums, and you can still deliver as a singer on such a high level."
Some of the credit for Jansen's delivery can be given to Lofstad, as he was out to present her and the songs in the best possible light.
"When it comes to the songwriting I've been fortunate to work with great singers like Floor, Nils K. Rue (Pagan's Mind), and Jorn Lande. One thing I've learned to do is think about the singer first when I write music. It doesn't matter what key it's in, if we come up with a melody it has to be perfect for the singer. That's when the song is going to be best. I think a lot of people that come from a guitar perspective, they come up with cool riffs and the singer has to adapt, which means you get 80% of the result you wanted. I feel it's my responsibility to make a singer sound as good as possible."
As to the question of touring, Northward fans are advised not to hold their collective breath... at least not for the moment. A shame, really, considering the music is tailor made for a live performance.
"Absolutely," Lofstad agrees. "I knew from the beginning that this was going to be great stuff to play live, and when we started we had planned to do that, but we have no plans to do that right now. Nightwish has a really tight schedule for the next couple of years, but me and Floor have never discussed this particular point. If people really like the songs and we have a timeframe later on that allows us to - and this is just me thinking out loud - I would love to do a second Northward album and then go out and play. Live gigs will come as a natural thing if they happen, not as something we have to do."