You cannot go wrong with Sweden's CRYSTAL EYES. If the combination of Classic Heavy Metal with European Power Metal -and especially its Teutonic version- was and still is your cup of tea, then this band is the absolute must. They are moving closely to the 30th year of their existence and they have released their 8th "Starbourne Traveler" full length. We had a very interesting conversation with the band's main man Mikael Dahl, he was pretty kind and he had a nice story to share about pretty much everything: The 90s demo era, the first record deal, the live shows and the line up changes, not to mention his album by album comments. Grab a cold beer -or whatever you prefer to drink- and enjoy the interview!
CRYSTAL EYES came to life during the early 90’s. During that time Sweden had a solid death metal scene and an underground power metal scene: bands like Tad Morose, Nocturnal Rites, The Storyteller, Hollow and Morgana LeFay were around. Do you have any memories of that time? Was there a classic/power metal organized scene, or there were scarce bands that did concerts now and then?
From what I remember when we started Crystal Eyes in 1992 no one else in Sweden were playing classic Heavy Metal as it was in the eighties and it was all about Death Metal, Pantera, Grunge etc. Yes a few underground bands showed up but it wasn’t the same anymore. For me it was German bands like Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian, Helloween, Rage, Heavens Gate, Scanner etc that kept the melodies through the nineties. I think the great music from bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept, Black Sabbath, Manowar etc was gone in 1992 and that’s why we started Crystal Eyes to keep that legacy which we still do.
During the first years of the band you had some line up changes. Did you had difficult time finding new musicians, since extreme metal was on demand an ambitious musician could have more opportunities if he collaborated with more extreme acts?
During the first years it was hard to find people willing to commit at all. Girlfriends, sports or just about anything was more important than rehearsing to a lot of people. And there were not many musicians interested in playing traditional Heavy Metal at that time. The member changes are pretty ridicules in Crystal Eyes but I was always the one writing the music and that hasn’t change and in the end the music is what counts. Claes Wikander has on the other hand been in the band since 1997 so half Crystal Eyes has been intact for 22 years.
Until 1998 you had a huge demo activity. Had you ever any feedback from listeners outside Sweden or the demos moved locally? I read at your biography that you opened for Blind Guardian in 1996, this must have been a huge experience.
Yes we received at lot of positive feedback from the demo tapes released between 1994-1998 both in Sweden and places like Brazil, Italy, Germany, Greece etc. Opening for Blind Guardian in Sweden was a great deal for us. I was a huge Blind Guardian fan at the time and I remember being nervous as hell at the sound-check because the whole band was watching us while eating dinner. The gig went great and the Blind Guardian folks were absolutely great and very friendly. The sound engineer was Piet Sielk who told me he was working on an album with his new started band called Iron Saviour and after the gig some guy asked for a demo tape to review for his upcoming new started magazine called Bright Eyes which is called Sweden Rock Magazine today. Our demo tape “The Final Sign” got 10/10 in that first issue.
In 1998 you recorded your very first album “World of black and silver”. Though your company Crazy Life Music arranged for you to record it in Germany the result wasn’t to your satisfaction. After all these years do you feel that you should have handled things differently?
It was amazing to finally get a record deal and it was totally insane that we got to go to Germany and record the album, and the record company would pay for everything. We had no idea what to expect but we prepared us as well as we could because we had only 2 weeks to record and mix the album. Everything went great but we got very disappointed when we received the mix a month later because it sounded terrible. We forced them to do a second mix but we weren’t happy with that either but they refused do change it one more time so that is the mix on the album. I still love those songs and there’s nothing wrong with the performance but the production is a big mess. I mean bands like Stratovarious had a great production and we sounded like a demo-band. Later we asked for the original tapes to remix for a re-release but they were erased so we couldn’t do anything about it.
I still remember reading about “World of black and silver” in a Greek underground magazine (I think it was Steel Conjuring) and the editor considered this album to be a great release. To my ears it sounds great: the production is not very good, but it creates a moody otherworldly atmosphere. Combined with the direct power metal I think it is an awesome underground obscurity.
Have you ever thought that this release should have a greater status maybe next to Swedish underground gems like Gotham City or Axewitch? How was the feedback from the underground community?
It actually got great reviews all around the world with lots of 10/10 in Germany, Italy, Greece, Brazil etc. Even if I’m not totally happy with the sound it should definitely have a greater status because it sounds like nothing else and the songs are super strong. We still have 2 songs in our live set from that album and I’m still very proud of it.
“In silence they march” was a huge improvement from the first album, mostly in the sound aspect since the songwriting was already in high level. Do you believe that it was a step forward for the band and a logical sequel to the first album or somehow, considering the fact the problems with Crazy Life Music continued, unaltered the status of the band?
Since “World Of Black And Silver” was or debut album and the band had existed for 6 years we had about 50 songs to choose from so it’s kind of a best of Crystal Eyes first 6 years. The songs for “In silence They March” were written during the year after the debut and somehow it got more aggressive and dark and I think I tried to write songs that were not so happy as on the first album. It has some great songs in With Hunter, Winternight, Sons Of Odin and the title track. It’s hard to compare those early albums but in my ears the production is even worse than the first album. That snare is just killing me and it sounds like a bad demo tape. This was the biggest reason for leaving Crazy Life Music to build or own studio where we could record and mix ourselves which proved to be the best thing we’ve ever done.
After leaving Crazy Life Music, you signed with Heavy Fidelity Records, a label that was affiliated with the promotional label you worked with. At that point of time you had minimal pressure and a home studio to record to. “Vengeance descending” was the first album in this collaboration and I have to admit that it is my favorite C.E. album. I love this, since it imbues the best elements from the first two album but in a more evolved and mature way. Songs like “The Wizard’s Apprentice”, “Highland Revenge”, “Mr. Failure” (was it written for someone specifically?), “Dream Chaser” are some of the best ones you have composed. I strongly believe that with this album the first period of the band comes to an end. Do you share that opinion? What are your memories from this period?
It was a great time. We had taking over a big recording studio built in the seventies which was like a dream and my younger brother believed so much in us that he started Heavy Fidelity Records where only Crystal Eyes was signed. I was really proud of the songs and this album is still one of my favorites. Yes I agree that the first 3 albums belong in one era. “Mr. Failure” was written for all those journalists that wrote shit about Heavy Metal at the time. “Vengeance Descending” took about 7 months to record and mix because we all had full time jobs and families and we decided that we never would do it like this again. All future albums should be recorded on day time when your free from regular work and that’s how it’s been ever since.
The album not only had two great guests (Daniel Heiman from Lost Horizon and Gerd Salewski from Chroming Rose) but opened the doors of Sweden Rock Festival for the band. However, you didn’t tour extensively. You didn’t have the opportunity to do it, or you couldn’t do it anyway? Do you believe that the momentum was perfect for the band to move into the mainstream scene?
Yes the time was great and we actually did quit a lot of gigs after “Vengeance Descending” in Sweden even if it was on smaller clubs. We always worked hard got get somewhere but it’s all about luck in the end. The Sweden Rock Festival gig was just great and it actually felt we were going somewhere and maybe it was a small step up.
The next “Confessions of the Maker” album, was somehow a step beyond for the band. Not only you had Daniel Heiman on vocals, but the sound quality was far better and the artwork more exceptional. The music was less aggressive and more into classic metal. You left behind the had-drawn art for more elaborate digital front covers. However, I noticed that the themes developed in the lyrics were pretty much the same, something served as a link to the past. I firmly believe that this was your breakthrough album. Do you share this opinion? What is your view on this record today? Did you witness a boost in the sales with this album or not?
Daniel was an old friend of mine and the reason I asked him to sing was that he had just left Lost Horizon and I felt it had become just too much to be the lead singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, father with a full time job and I was in 2 more bands at the time. I was responsible for the mix on both “Vengeance Descending” and “Confessions Of The Maker” but even though I think the production is better than the first 2 albums it’s not perfect. This album was also well received but for me it’s not one our of best albums. Moving to digital front covers was just a matter of money and I think it sucks. =) I’m glad we’re back to real hand drawn art on our new album just as it was on the first 3. Lyric wise nothing had changed and it was still me and my old friend Andreas Götesson writing the lyrics. He’s just a great writer when it comes to fantasy lyrics. There was no boost in album sales which probably had to do a lot with downloading getting bigger and bigger at the time.
Why Heiman left the band? He formed a new band called Heed, but couldn’t he play with both bands as most Swedish musicians do? I understand that this held you back a lot, but you decided to look for another singer. This is where Nico Adamsen stepped in and stayed for two albums. Both “Dead city dreaming” and “Chained” had far better sound quality than your previous efforts and kept the style you introduced with “Confessions….”. At that point of time European power metal had lost ground among popular styles. Did you saw that with Crystal Eyes or you kept the fanbase you had developed?
Daniel agreed to sing on “Confessions Of The Maker” and future albums and live but as soon as he got the finished released album in his hands he told me he signed a contract that forbid him to collaborate with any other band. Sweden Rock was already booked so he couldn’t turn that offer down. This was a big turn down for us because we couldn’t play live and promote the album and we decided to wait with any announcement until after Sweden Rock to not effect the record sales. I remember being very angry with Daniel and this triggered me to lock myself in the studio to write our best album ever and “Dead City Dreaming” is still one of my favorites. There were extremely many singers interested in the spot left after Daniel. We had put 2 songs on our website for singers to add their vocals on with the description that we were looking for a singer in the style of Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, Ralf Scheepers, Ronnie James Dio, Eric Adams and Tony Martin. Nico Adamsen sent us a cassette with the 2 Crystal Eyes songs plus one song with everyone of those singers and we were completely blown away by his voice. I personally think Nico fitted better to our music than Daniel. “Dead City Dreaming” was also the first record we’re we let Fredrik Nordström at Studio Fredman take care of the mixing process because I didn’t want to do it myself anymore and it was time for a step up production wise. We were so satisfied with the result that we still work with him to this day. I never noticed any popularity change in European Power Metal because I believe Crystal Eyes has always been a Heavy Metal band but I can’t speak for other bands.
Both “Dead City Dreaming” and “Chained” albums had very diverse songs: though most of them were more modern, in the “Confessions…” style some other like “The Quest Remains” (one of my favorites), “Ride the Rainbow” or “The Narrow Mind” sound as if they came from your first albums. Was this a deliberate attempt to unite the past with the present or something that came naturally?
I just write song after song until I have enough for a whole album and never think about what style it should be. I try my best to write songs that I would like to hear on an album and I’m never satisfied until I can listen to a song over and over again. Before “Dead City Dreaming” I took a deep dive into the vast archive of unreleased Crystal Eyes songs and unfinished ideas which is now about 6 hours of music and used a lot of old parts. That’s probably a big reason to why it could sound like a tribute to the past since there are bits that actually is from the past.
Fast forward, six years later you released “Killer”. At that point many of us though that the band was dead, since Dahl was focused with his Judas Priest tribute band. However “Killer” was a killer album. Why didn’t you search for a new vocalist? How did you felt handling the vocals again?
The Judas Priest tribute band Defenders Of The Faith has always been a side project to Crystal Eyes since we started it in 1993. It has never been in the way for the main band and it never will. It’s just something we like to do every now and then. After “Chained” was released Nico became a father and since he lived in Denmark he couldn’t attend on rehearsals and didn’t want to be away whole weekends just for a small gig so we agreed to go separate ways. At this time we didn’t felt it was necessary to look for another singer because I had been handling that part on rehearsals all the time, I sang on all pre-productions, backing vocals on the records, lead on the last song on the last 3 albums and I was still the singer of Defenders Of The Faith so it was just a natural thing for me to be the lead singer once again. But then we had some difficulties with our second guitarist Paul Pettersson which became more and more of a problem and in the end he just had to go and back comes Niclas Karlsson for the third time. This could all had been perfect if it was not for our drummer Stefan Svantesson who slowly turned into a state where he could not perform live. At the end he suffered from such a stage fright that he couldn’t even get up on stage so we couldn’t do anything but keep on rehearsing. It was a really hard time and it was not easy to get inspiration to write music with everyone on full time jobs but somehow I suddenly had enough songs for the album which became “Killer”.
“Killer” had also a diverse sound: next to power metal anthems like “Hail the Fallen” and “Solar Mariner” were songs like “Spotlight Rebel” and “Dogs on Holy Ground” (the best song the new Accept never wrote). However, this was done more smoothly than the previous albums. Do you think that your occupation with tribute bands helped? How did you felt singing again?
It felt great being back as the lead singer again and everyone has agreed that my voice is the voice of Crystal Eyes and I assure you that we won’t look for a new singer again, ever. Of course me trying to be Rob Halford for so many years has helped me a lot and I’m more confident in my singing nowadays. I would never had tried to sing a song like “Hail The Fallen” in the early days.
What was the reaction towards “Killer”? Had you kept the old fans; did you make some new? By the way, why you broke the tradition of a smooth acoustic/electric ballad closing the album?
That’s a good question. We could probably have put “Dreamers On Trial” as the last song but it didn’t feel right for the song order so we decided to end with something different. This was also the first ballad with drums so it was not quite as strange as the first ones. It all started with “World Of Black And Silver” and it was impossible to put the title track anywhere but in the end. This was probably something we got from Crimson Glory’s “Transcendence”, to put a strange kind of ballad as the ending track. I think we kept all our fans since the beginning because we’ve never changed our music style, only explored new aspects within Heavy Metal. Anything from Judas Priest – Painkiller to Def Leppard – Pyromania would fit in Crystal Eyes.
Afterwards there were some line up changes in guitar and bass. It seems that line up changes do not let you move onward. Yet you return with “Starbourne Traveler”. Can you tell us some things about the recordings and the writing process?
For many years I presented complete demo versions of the songs with guitars, bass, vocals and programmed drums and what ended up on the record was pretty much copies of those demo recordings. With the new line-up I felt it was time to involve the others because they really wanted to take part in the process so I presented unfinished song ideas which we tried during rehearsals and arranged everything together. The main song ideas was always mine but everyone was involved with trying different beats, moving parts around, taking away anything unnecessary or adding some stuff here and there etc. Since we listen to the same music and had pretty much the same ideas it was just fun and a great experience of getting input from 4 different people. There was not a single argue over anything and we tried everyone’s ideas and I think the result is that the songs feel more complete than before. This is absolutely how we will work in the future and the next step will be to start jamming and just see what comes up. Henrik Birgersson is a fantastic drummer and when we tried some stuff during rehearsals I could ask him to do something in the style of Cozy Powell, Ian Paice or Vinny Appice or what ever and he knew exactly what I was talking about. On the previous Crystal Eyes albums Stefan Svantesson played the drums exactly how I programmed them on the drum-machine but Henrik did it his own way and that made the drums become more alive. Since our third album I recorded all rhythm guitars myself because none of our second guitarists at the time were interested or didn’t care but Jonatan Hallberg is young and hungry and definitely wanted to take part of that so this is the first album since “In Silence They March” where we have 2 guitarists playing on the whole album. It’s of course a big relief for me and we play very tight together. He’s also a great lead player and his solos are really tasty and melodic which is perfect for Crystal Eyes. The most important thing with Henrik and Jonatan is that they brought new life to the band which in the end effected everything in the music with a very happy and positive vibe.
In the new album you have re-recorded a couple of old tracks. As far as I know you haven’t been happy with the early recordings and the master tapes are lost. Tell us a few things about these selections and the story behind the early recordings.
We talked about re-recording the first 2 albums for years because we were not happy with the production but this would have turned into a big project and we could never find the time to do it. Before recording the new album we realized it would be released 20 years after our debut album and thought the time was perfect for re-recording 1 song and we picked “Rage On The Sea” since it had remained in our live-set since day one. With a couple of months left to the recording Claes came up with the idea to also record “Extreme Paranoia” for a possible bonus track or B-side since that was another track that have remained in the live-set but when we heard the final result we just couldn’t leave it out. I love the re-recordings as they sound just how it was meant to be and I can only dream of how the rest of the songs would sound. I think they fit perfectly with the rest of the album and we will probably do more re-recordings in the future.
What is the music direction of the new album (the first single had a Running Wild vibe that I loved)? Are there any plans for live performances?
I’m sure anyone who enjoyed Crystal Eyes previous records will love the new one. We are working very hard to get gigs and hopefully next year will be full booked.
You have been in the scene for almost 30 years. How do you feel the scene, especially the Swedish power metal scene has been evolved? Do you have any friendly bands from the early days that you still follow?
We live in a small town in Sweden but a couple of bands have released records back in the day and we’re still friends with Zonata and Freternia. Freternia actually did a reunion last year and has released a new album where you can find me and the singer from Zonata doing backing vocals.
I know that M.Dahl also sings in a Judas Priest cover band. Do you believe that this is the future of modern music? Cover bands and recycling old material? Is there space for new music?
I must say that I sadly think it is. The music from the eighties is still the best and you will never see a new Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept or Helloween. When all those early bands stop touring there will still be a demand for the great old songs and I guess there will be lots of tribute bands but it will of course not be the same.
Last question: tell us a few things about the equipment you use and a message to the fans!
I use Gibson and Ibanez guitars and Marshall amplifiers. If your into Heavy Metal then “Starbourne Traveler” is the album you need!
You can read our review on “Starbourne Traveler” here.