Avatar - the metal band whose theatrical image incorporates colorful videos with absurdist humor, Colonial dress and ghoulish face paint - embarked on a world tour in March in support of their 2016 concept album Feathers and Flesh. The Swedish quintet, which formed in 2001, has established an audience in the United States thanks to regularly touring the country for the past five years.
Their persistence is paying off -- Avatar's performance on Billboard's rock charts has improved, with the band notching a second top 20 single from Feathers and Flesh, "New Land," on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart. (Previous singles "The Eagle Has Landed" and "Night Never Ending" reached No. 16 and No. 31, respectively).
Singer Johannes Eckerstrom explained the concept behind the album to Billboard, which employs woodland creatures as characters in its story.
Feathers and Flesh is meant to be a fable.
Initial coverage about the album stated that famed French poet Jean de La Fontaine was an inspiration for Feathers and Flesh, but Eckerstrom attributes that misconception to not clearly expressing himself for a press release about the project: "I kind of researched the craft of fable writing and Jean de La Fontaine is one of the greats. It's like you say, 'I'm going to do a metal album,' and you might put on Screaming for Vengeance by Judas Priest at least once to get a feel for what it sounds like. Then you do your own thing with it."
The protagonist is an owl that wants to halt the sunrise.
Feathers and Flesh is the story of an owl that goes to war against the world to stop the sun from rising -- hence such song titles as "Tooth, Beak & Claw," "When the Snow Lies Red" and "For the Swarm." As a nocturnal huntress, "she's only ever awake at night, like a vampire or something," explains Eckerstrom. "That's the world as she knows it, as she understands it, and the idea that the sun will rise means that her rule would come to an end. Her existence the way she knows it would cease to be. It would dethrone her. She has this narrow perspective of what life is and what existence is and what the world is. And therefore when that gets challenged, it infuriates her."
Watch Avatar's video for "For the Swarm":
But this owl is far from wise.
Eckerstrom liked "the idea of having a fable where you twist the perspective and ideas of what usually different animals get to symbolize. It's no accident that our antagonist [in the story] is an eagle, because since the Roman Empire, [the eagle] has been a symbol of greatness or power." The owl "has all these strengths as a character, but wisdom I think is the one she's lacking the most of. That is her greatest weakness. She's very unwise. She leaves the world still unwise. So that was an important part of it.
"I don't know if any stories are interesting unless the person they're about has some flaws, has a chance to grow," he adds. "But the difference here is that her growth very much leads nowhere. There you have the thing that I wanted to do differently as opposed to other stories of this [kind]. Basically, if it would have been Star Wars, I wanted to [write it so] that in the end, Luke Skywalker said, 'Oh OK, I joined the Dark Side.' Like, 'I wasn't stronger than this.' "
Like all fables, Feathers and Flesh is meant to teach a lesson.
"You have that kind of thing in the end, or something about greed, or tying your shoes every night, respect the elderly or whatever," explains Eckerstrom. "But whatever lessons that should have been learned through the journey of Feathers and Flesh would have been a journey of learning about acceptance, learning about this, too, shall pass and how to deal with that. How to come to terms with change and death and your own mortality and your own imperfections."
But the owl isn't having it. "At the end of the day, all she wants to do is say, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, take it back. Let's start over. Let's have it the way it was.' She doesn't accept her death."
Current events did - and did not - inspire the album.
"I think some of these problems have been present in all eras of human existence," says Eckerstrom about the state of the world. "You can apply these concerns, these characters to stuff that's going on now, but I'm sure we could have pulled exactly this story in the '80s and could have applied it to something going on back then as well. In any artistic work, you think you're inspired by one or two things, and then if you give it some time, you discover three of four other things that also influenced you, but it was in the back of your head. I do that all the time. Among other things I did while writing these lyrics, I did read some news. So yeah, it's all in there."
Feathers and Flesh is passionate, not political.
"We're not a political band in the truest sense of the word, meaning that [don't] put into our lyrics what we think people should vote for or revolt against," notes Eckerstrom. However, he says that Avatar shares "certain core values. We care deeply about animals. We all passionately agree that any form of homophobia or anything like that is fucking stupid. There are certain core values like that that go beyond how we think we should solve whatever needs to be tweaked about healthcare in our home country or how to finance a bridge building in our hometown."
When it comes to lyrics, Eckerstrom says, "I would never put a message in there that wasn't somewhat in line with something the rest of the band could stand behind, because the bass lines belong to me just as much as they belong to [bassist] Henrik [Sandelin], just as the same way my lyrics belong to the whole band just as much as they belong to me."
Remaining Avatar U.S. spring headlining dates:
May 3: Cincinnati @ Bogart's
May 5: Nashville @ War Memorial Auditorium
May 6: Mobile, Ala. @ Soul Kitchen
May 7: Knoxville, Tenn. @ The International
May 10: Rochester, N.Y. @ German House
May 11: Battle Creek, Mich. @ The Music Factory
May 12: Peoria, Ill. @ The Limelight
May 13: Joliet, Ill. @ The Forge
May 14: St. Louis, Mo.@ Fubar
May 16: Hidalgo, Texas @ State Farm Arena
May 17: Corpus Christi, Texas @ Concrete St. Pavilion
May 18: Houston @ Proof Bar