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By: Sam Birkett
On the last show of their UK tour, I met with Portrait’s Christian Lindell to talk heavy metal, religion and escapism. Packed into a tight spiral of interviews that afternoon, Lindell was still welcoming and professional, the well-worn subject of many articles. His patience and willingness to be the face and voice of his band speaks volumes of his commitment to their ethos and devout faith in his genre and culture, things that became palpable as the interview progressed, even as we moved into more personal territory.
At first, Christian’s responses felt like the performance of a heavy metal persona, calling the show to come ‘the final slaughter,’ and answering my question ‘what is Portrait a picture of, and what is it painted with?’ Simply: ‘blood.’ This dramatic expression seems comical, and with a wry smile occasionally showing I think Christian found it so too, but seeing Portrait perform live one cannot deny that they believe passionately in melodramatic, fist-pumping, hair-swinging heavy metal. It seems their approach to their genre is to embrace its entirety – from the empowering to the ridiculous. Christian lives heavy metal, the aficionado aficionados pretend to be on messageboards, and as a result he struggled to explain his culture – after all, explaining how to breathe is a challenge. When asked about why he believes the genre to be ‘timeless,’ he said:
‘I think because it goes hand-in-hand with attitude and rebellion. When you internalise heavy metal, it becomes a way to put the problems and the struggles of the everyday world behind. When you only really care about concerts, and records, there’s really no interest in doing anything else.’
This description is one that will resonate with any music fan, because by and large all music that has the power to move us to rabid rapture is or has been counter culture. But Christian’s faith in heavy metal is clear by his talk of ‘internalising’ it, a rather psychological or ritualistic turn of phrase, implying Portrait kneeling at communion, taking bread and wine from Judas Priest. This religious element to the music is no misinterpretation – Christian spoke of heavy metal as ‘a resort, outside of everything else,’ a shelter beyond society to shield its members from ‘so many things that are forced upon us from the minute we are born – we are told it’s very important to have a job, to procreate – you get fooled by the minute you are born.’ A timeless feeling and a timeless aim, particularly within music, but unlike punk or other protest movements, Christian’s heavy metal appears to be an attempt at amorality – at refuge, not revolution – and perhaps this is the key to its resilience. Still, those who do not share Christian’s view will most likely just hear the ‘old school’ in their sound, and seeing a bunch of dudes in vests swinging their hair will just seem like a novelty throwback, regardless of the sincerity of those swings and vests.
One thing he was relieved to be asked about, and the first topic he enthusiastically opened up to, were the lyrics of Portrait’s newest album Crossroads. As the band’s lyricist, it is clear how his ideals become so entrenched in their songs and performance, but on this new album there are also distinct, entwining themes of religion, spirituality and death – subjects that go beyond just escapism. When asked about their origin, Christian grew more enthused and told me:
‘The reason for the religious parts is that they are things that have come forth to me through religious practice and spiritual work, which hasn’t really been the case before. Some songs are focused on the good – my goals in life, and death – those are positive things for me. They might be curses to others, but they are blessings to me. In other songs we discuss the other side – the negative things, from my perspective – and then it becomes more violent in the lyrical context. And that’s what I like the most about the new album, there are many ways of expression in it.’
This two-sided structure makes the lyrics on Crossroads an impressive feature of the band’s sound, and their reference in the title led me to ask about Christian’s thinking behind the choice:
‘A crossroads could be at a certain point in life, it could also be a supernatural place, like a cemetery, where the paths of the dead and the living cross, or natural crossroads said to be magical in folklore.’
True to his interpretation of the word, the album is full of these images, a vibrant portrait of the supernatural, the personal and the epic. The sincerity of which I wrote earlier brings much of the power in these lyrics, as they could easily stray into the territory of the generic in ways that even a purist could find boring, but in the hands of Christian Lindell there are still depths in heavy metal to be explored if you’re willing to immerse yourself in it: to him, timelessness is fresh feet and adamant hearts at a well-worn crossroad.
PS: If Portrait were a biscuit, they would be a type of Swedish biscuit that apparently shares a name with ‘vacuum cleaner.’