Though often lauded for the death-metal stylings of its 1990 debut album, Left Hand Path, Sweden's Entombed has shape-shifted with each subsequent release. Openly impressionable to outside influences, the band has been on a restless creative trajectory since its beginning, when its name was still Nihilist. By 1993's Wolverine Blues, Entombed had strayed far from the confines of typical death-metal formula, having morphed into a style the members describe as "death and roll." As a result, fans are never sure what's going to come next, a situation that fosters both curiosity and unease. Entombed's latest release, Inferno, contains a little bit of everything the group has explored throughout its career.
"Entombed has always been in constant movement," says guitarist Alx Hellid. "When we started out in 1986-'87, we were drawing from hardcore. Through tape trading with English and American bands, we started getting into the whole death-metal scene a bit more. The first album just showed where we were at that time. We'd always been like a crossover. When we started, it was more like hardcore metal, and then we just didn't stop. The first album was, I guess, pure death metal but had some hardcore parts in it. And then, with every album, we try to take it a step further in any direction. That's what we've been doing -- just trying to make it interesting for ourselves and hopefully make it interesting for the listener, as well."
Hellid describes Inferno as "a good mix of all the different styles that we usually draw our music from. It's, I guess, a bit darker and heavier than [2002's] Morning Star."
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The U.S. release of Inferno, Entombed's eighth album, comes after a delay resulting from a bizarre record-company mixup that muddled proceedings with its new label, Century Media. According to Hellid, a one-off deal was arranged with the European metal specialty label Music for Nations for the American release and distribution of Morning Star by New York-based indie Koch Entertainment. Apparently, Nations misunderstood the arrangement, invariably throwing a big wrench in negotiations with Century Media over future distribution of the band's self-run imprint.
"They say that they made a genuine mistake and assumed that they had the rights to Inferno," explains Hellid. "What they really did was destroy half the negotiations that we've had with Century Media. So all of a sudden, the guy over at Century Media is asking us, 'We already have your album in our warehouse -- what's up with that?'"
Hellid describes all of this with a mix of irritation and amusement.
"Music for Nations still say that they're really sorry, but it's so stupid, you know, 'cause they shot themselves in the foot, too; they released it, for some reason, like two months earlier in America, which has never happened before. So, of course, the European market started importing albums from America before the album came out in Europe. I mean, it was very...unbelievably stupid, what they did."
As Hellid suggests, Entombed has weathered its share of label troubles. If it manages to secure a long-term home at Century Media -- for itself and various other pet projects -- it will reverse a trend that has more than once jeopardized the group's future. Luckily, the act has been able to hold onto the same lineup for the past four albums. That wasn't always the case, however.
Entombed grew out of Hellid's creative partnership with original drummer and co-founder Nicke Andersson. The two first met as teenagers at, of all places, summer camp. Shortly thereafter, they formed Nihilist. Guitarist Uffe Cederlund and vocalist L-G Petrov started out as peripheral participants but were both fully on board when the lineup solidified. When the band was approached about a name change by another act with the same moniker, it turned out to be a fortuitous moment.
"The name change came along not because of the other band; we didn't really care about that," Hellid clarifies. "We changed the name as a way of getting rid of the bass player. For a short while we split the band up, but we re-formed shortly after that."
The first half of Entombed's catalogue is marred by a personnel change between every release -- one of the most notable being when vocalist Petrov took a leave of absence and the rest of the members recorded Clandestine without him. When asked about this part of his act's history, Hellid laughs before coming clean.
"We've been trying to cover it up, make up stories -- but it was really about a girl. I think he was hitting on Nicke's girlfriend and they got into an argument. During that time, we tried out maybe two or three different guys, and none of them worked out. After a while, we just said, 'This is stupid.' So I called him up at like two o'clock in the morning, woke him up and asked him if he wanted to rejoin. He had a few days to pack his stuff, and we were on tour again."
The vocals on Clandestine, though credited to Johnny Dordevic, are actually performed by Andersson. The players hadn't found a suitable replacement for Petrov and needed to move quickly. Dordevic, a friend who they thought would be a good fit, didn't end up working out. Hellid says because there was no time to rehearse and the group needed to track the vocals fairly quickly, Dordevic sang only a few words on the album.
The last lineup change occurred when Andersson left between legs of the tour in support of the fourth Entombed album, 1997's To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth. Hellid says Andersson announced his intentions well enough in advance and describes the transition to current drummer Peter Stjärnvind as particularly smooth. The rest of Entombed remains on good terms with Andersson, who went on to share a practice space with them as part of his new outfit, rock-and-roll revivalists the Hellacopters (where he goes by the name Nick Royal).
"He was just tired of playing drums and wanted to sing and play guitar -- that's basically it," explains Hellid. "They started the Hellacopters in, I think it was '95, and that was when Entombed decided that we didn't want to be on Earache records anymore. So we had like a full year of legal hassles -- and then going to EastWest and then Music for Nations -- so at that time, the Hellacopters didn't interfere that much with what Entombed was doing. But then when we started touring more and the Hellacopters started getting a lot of shows and stuff in Europe and in Sweden, it just got too much for him to do both.
"Stjärnvind had been friends with us from the same music community since we started," Hellid continues, "so I just called him up and asked him if he wanted to join. He came out on the last part of that last tour we did with Neurosis, for the last week of that, just to hang out and see what was going on on an Entombed tour. Then we got off that tour, rehearsed for like a week and got on the Machine Head tour in Europe straight after that."
Nonetheless, as Andersson was a major creative contributor, his departure required considerable adjustment. Andersson's replacement and the remaining members have spent some of the time since calibrating themselves as songwriters: 1999's Same Difference, the first album to feature Stjärnvind, is Entombed's most straightahead "rock" album, while the raw, technical speediness of the followup, 2000's Uprising, may very well have been a reactionary attempt at returning to the group's death-metal roots. Morning Star and Inferno arguably resume the natural progression that started with Wolverine Blues and Ride, Shoot Straight.
After more than a decade in the game, Entombed is still held in rather high esteem in death-metal circles. It's hard to imagine the same respectability occurring if the players had succumbed to death metal's narrow restrictions.
One area in which it has consistently managed to both satisfy and transcend death metal's parameters is lyrics. Early on, the outfit found a perfect balance between moribund imagery and topical depth, and infused them both with a healthy, subtle dose of humor. Hellid and company are quite adept at dropping Satan's name, which is suitably dark and creepy, for maximum effect -- but they do it with an underlying intelligence, something that so many others miss.
When asked about the recurring prevalence of El Diablo in Entombed's music, Hellid says, "I get inspiration from just life in general. We're not, like, a political band. I mean, we take our lyrics serious, but we don't want to preach or anything. I guess we use our satanic metaphors for describing what other people might use political words for.
"We're not a religious band," he adds. "And for me, satanism or whatever is just another form of Christianity. It's more symbolic, I guess. It's words that we like to use. At the same time, it's serious. I don't know how to explain it."
Interestingly, one drawback to Entombed's lyrical approach is that it's very difficult to get a sense of place or culture from their music. Maybe their home is just too much like ours.
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"Sweden is one of the most Americanized places I know," says Hellid. "Sweden loves everything American. I really love America, so for me it's not a problem, but it gets ridiculous sometimes when a country tries to copy another country so much, and they don't really -- I don't know -- they try to take some parts and don't take other parts. It doesn't make sense to me. Sweden has got a lot of McDonald'ses."
He mentions McDonald's as an alumnus: He and Stjärnvind once worked there.
"I taught him how to flip burgers! That was my first and last job. I don't know if it's a real job, but it's the first and last one," Hellid says with a laugh. "I think I'm on a -- it's called 'sabbatical'? -- for like fifteen years or something."
Lucky for Hellid, after all these years, Entombed continues to be death-defying.