Swedish Metal Band Avatar Welcomes Fans to 'Avatar Country' With New Album & Tour

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Johan Carlen

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Even before it first made its way Stateside in 2012, Gothenburg, Sweden’s Avatar had a flair for the theatrical. With his demented harlequin face paint and marching band getup, vocalist Johannes Eckerstrom presented himself as the ringleader of a circus troupe, with the rest of the band dressing the part to go along with its bombastic sound. However, for its seventh album, Avatar Country, and current tour, even they have upped that ante.

Eckerstrom hands over the spotlight to guitarist Jonas "Kungen" Jarlsby for the band’s second consecutive concept album. With the guitarist dubbed The King of Avatar Country, each of the album’s 10 songs has “king” in the title, and its live show begins with Jarlsby rising from beneath the stage on a throne, where he remains seated for the first song.

When asked about the new album, Eckerstrom at first doesn’t break character. “Now is just the time that we felt was right to reveal the truth of the nature of our king and open up the borders to Avatar Country,” he says.

Despite the regal trappings of its concept, thematically and musically, Avatar Country (which debuted at No. 6 on the Hard Rock Albums chart with 6,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music) is a celebration of heavy music. “Legend of the King” is an eight-minute-plus power-metal song that channels Manowar, while “The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country” sounds like AC/DC gone country. There are also some nods to the group’s beginnings as a melodic death metal band and several nonsensical interludes. The single “The King Wants You” is No. 30 on Mainstream Rock Songs.

“If you compare this album to [2016 record] Feathers and Flesh, the big difference was that album was a work of fiction, and this is, of course, the real thing,” says Eckerstrom. “But also, that album was about failure, loss, fear and death. Avatar Country is about strength, victory, hope, and it’s a quite joyful affair compared to what we usually end up with. And as Avatar is a metal nation, the album Avatar Country became a love letter to everything metal.”

For the current tour -- which winds through North America until Feb. 11, then heads to Europe to continue into April -- Avatar crafted an unconventional bill that Eckerstrom says goes along with the offbeat, carnival-esque theme of Avatar Country and theatricality of the live show. An area at each venue displays fan art in tribute to the rulers of Avatar Country, two costumed men staff the merch booth, and two other showy but decidedly non-metal attractions open the performance: circus sideshow act Hellzapoppin kick the evening off with magic tricks and stunts, while The Brains are a psychobilly band. “We wanted it to feel like Avatar Country as soon as you enter the venue,” explains Eckerstrom. “The whole package is aimed toward that, and that’s why Hellzapoppin and The Brains are here, both handpicked by us … they’re bands that we feel can put some emphasis on other aspects of what Avatar Country is all about.”

Having released three albums in Sweden before eOne licensed Black Waltz in America in 2012, Avatar always had the goal of being popular outside of its native country. “That’s the way you have to be thinking as a band to ever have a chance to make it,” says Eckerstrom. “You have to think and dream big. It just took a while for a label to pick it up and run with us.”

eOne senior vp rock/metal Scott Givens was sold as soon as he heard the album. “I thought the band were not only musically amazing, but also visually stunning,” he tells Billboard. “They are amazing showmen and have the ability to bring to life any creative vision they come up with. I wanted them with us and Entertainment One from the moment I heard the first track on Black Waltz.”

Perfecting its craft in Europe primed Avatar for success in America. “By the time Black Waltz came out, we were a well-oiled machine,” says Eckerstrom. “The stuff we did in Europe was more trial and error. The first album came out when we were 18 and 19 years old. We honed our skills and did some behind-the-scenes stuff, figuring out who we trusted and didn’t trust to work with. Those things matter as well, and that helped us be more in tune with ourselves.”

That carries over to Avatar’s live show and image. “You need to have a vision and be able to talk and reason around the abstract that leads to concrete things, such as a sweet theatrical live show,” says Eckerstrom. “The challenge is to make something that makes sense with the music. To just put a lot of lights onstage and have them blink a lot, or change from one outfit to another, all these tools that you can have for a theatrical show, that’s fairly easy. However, what’s hard is for it to really make sense and that you visualize the music accurately.”

Avatar’s touring has made it popular in other parts of the world, and its goal with this album is to continue expanding. “I predict we’re going to sell out our homecoming show in Gothenberg, but in continental Europe, there are places where we’re even bigger, like France and Belgium and the Netherlands,” notes Eckerstrom. “We’re doing really well in the U.K. and Western Europe. Other than traveling around and making the Avatar Country statement, [we are going to] really start pushing more east, like Finland and Poland.

As veterans of both European and American festivals, Eckerstrom says that America is starting to gain on the many European summer festivals, like Download and Wacken Open Air, in terms of atmosphere and culture. “It’s better every year,” he notes. “Especially with the Danny Wimmer fests [like Rock on the Range], I’ve felt the difference.” He adds, “There are certain atmospheres to a really nice festival. Part of it is location, layouts, how it’s organized, and that’s something that’s hard for me to define, but I’m starting to feel that more and more here. You start to build a culture around it, where it’s not just a corporate thing, even though that has to be there. I feel they’re starting to take on a spirit and feel of their own more and more every year.”

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