By David E. Gehlke
Anton Kabanen's 2015 split with BATTLE BEAST and subsequent re-emergence via BEAST IN BLACK the same year provided some rare intrigue into Finnish metal's otherwise heads-down, no-frills, drama-less profile. Citing the age-old "insurmountable disagreements" for his BATTLE BEAST dismissal, what Kabanen really wanted was complete creative control — something his bandmates weren't willing to give up. BEAST IN BLACK, though, has provided the guitarist and songwriter the platform for his unique brand of synth-drenched, unabashed 1980s-looking symphonic metal that has already produced some impossibly catchy songs: "Sweet True Lies", "Unlimited" and "One Night In Tokyo", to name a few. Over the span of three studio albums, including their latest "Dark Connection", BEAST IN BLACK has become one of the few recent acts to successfully balance pop hooks with metal, putting them in line to become the next European festival headliner and arena band — live shows permitting.
If all goes to plan, BEAST IN BLACK will begin live activity supporting "Dark Connection" in March, followed by their first North American tour in April. In the meantime, Kabanen has plenty on his plate: Promoting "Dark Connection", creating music video concepts, working in his studio and thinking about the band's fourth studio album. In this chat with Blabbermouth.net, the friendly guitarist waxed on BEAST IN BLACK's new album, his songwriting methodology and what he really wants from music.
Blabbermouth: BEAST IN BLACK had a lot of momentum going into 2020 behind "From Hell With Love". Was the pandemic a blessing in disguise that allowed you to put more time into "Dark Connection"?
Anton: "Yeah, it was a blessing in disguise. We were about to go on tour with HAMMERFALL to the United States in the fall of 2020. I was thinking, 'Man, I cannot get the album ready.' I was producing and mixing it by the end of 2020. The plan was originally to have the album ready by that tour. I was relieved that 'Okay, now there's time.' Otherwise, 'Dark Connection' would have seen the light of day in 2022, maybe, or 2023 — who knows? Our schedules were full with gigs and we kept getting more. We have great booking agents and they're constantly working on tours and gigs and festivals. I was secretly happy. I wasn't happy that corona hit the world. It's a really bad thing, but we got the time. It is a double-edged sword because we got too much time and when you have this time, you use it even though you wouldn't necessarily need it. You think, 'Okay, I have to do this, but I also have to do these other things.' You start to take on more than you can actually handle. That's what happened with me. I was working on many technical issues with my system and computer. I wouldn't have needed to do it for the album, but I thought it was a great chance to do it. I lost many weeks and maybe some months doing these additional things that aren't directly related to recording, editing, mixing or producing. It's more for other stuff. I was busy still because of a variety of things. I still think it's a good thing because if we would have had the album a year or two years from now, that would possibly be a worse thing. Now we have the album out and we had to cancel our first tour, which was about to happen right now. But, I think, 'Okay, the album is out and there's no tour.' There are always things, like preparation and planning for other tours and gigs, stage production, music production and lyric videos. The fourth album. I am working on all of these things with the band. Our bass player, Máté [Molnár], is taking care of a lot of things in the band."
Blabbermouth: Are you the type of guy who can't write while on the road?
Anton: "I write in my head while on the road. I always get new ideas for melodies, riffs and sentences that may turn into a melody or a full chorus or lyric. But, I tried it once or twice to have my computer on tour and write or even record something. Bad idea. [Laughs] It didn't work for me. At least we're not on that level yet where everyone can have a huge, personal room within the bus, like one bus per guy. It makes no sense. We love to be together on tour in the tour bus with the technicians and band members. I thought, 'Why would I bother?' I get to write stuff at home, but while I'm at home I cannot experience what I experience when I'm on tour with the others. When I go on tour, why would I try to do what I do at home? That's what I thought, even if there's a possibility, I wouldn't take my home recording studio on the road. It's better to have a clear difference."
Blabbermouth: Being that "Berserker" and "From Hell With Love" did so well, were you more critical of your writing on "Dark Connection"?
Anton: "I never think about anything when I'm composing or writing lyrics. You just have to do what resonates within you in that moment and grasp that moment and make something out of it. That's how every song is born and any piece of art, in my opinion, you have to have this creative instinct. It's a continuous flow that is in those people who are creative. They react to things around them, where they are and get thoughts and feelings from those. Then they do their own thing based on what they feel and experience."
Blabbermouth: From a songwriting perspective, what were you trying to accomplish on the third album?
Anton: "For me, it's difficult to make a difference between the albums. I don't know where one ends and another starts. To give you an example, I was thinking of the third album back in 2018, at the end of the year when we were just finishing the second album. When it was done, I instantly knew, 'Okay, the new album will be cyberpunk influenced.' The same thing happened again with 'Dark Connection'. I already knew before the third album was finished, I know things about the fourth album already and I can't wait to start working on those things. To me, it's a bunch of songs that need to be on this small, round disc called CD. Nowadays, you upload them to Spotify, the record label uploads them. Not many people listen to the physical format anymore. I just think, 'We need ten songs because that's how the business goes.' To me, it's a continuum without stopping. People have adapted to this kind of formula. When you make an album, everyone expects in metal and rock, okay, it sounds the same, production and sound-wise from beginning to end. But in my mind, why does it have to be so? I understand it may be easier, but what if other songs could have outrageously different sounds with guitars, drums and bass. Like in pop music, they do that. They use a lot of electronic backgrounds, programmed instruments. The first song can be totally different sounding than the second song of the album of the pop artist, But in metal and rock, it's always the same. It's not a bad thing, but I'm trying to think outside the box. It's all related to this thing: What does the third BEAST IN BLACK bring to the previous ones? To me, it's a continuum of songs. Let's see what we will accomplish with this. I hope with touring, we will know better. So far, I can say that this is the first time we have a clear, really strong profile, this cyberpunk profile starting from promo pictures, music videos, album cover art and the songs themselves. That is something we did differently compared to the first and second albums. It's not a concept album, but it circles around the cyberpunk themes. In addition, there are songs about Berserk, the Japanese anime character. That's been present on all albums so far."
Blabbermouth: There is a noticeable element of "pop" within BEAST IN BLACK's sound. It's somewhat of a dirty word in the metal scene, but you've clearly embraced it. Where do you draw the line regarding pop's influence on your sound?
Anton: "There are no limitations. I've always considered heavy metal as the richest and most liberating genre there is in the whole existence of music. You can go from the softest whisper, the slowest melody and the most ambient kind of a soundscape into fast and aggressive, loud, high-screaming and even growled vocals. All that is acceptable in heavy metal. All those dynamics are acceptable. Try to find another genre where you can have as much variety as in heavy metal…it's hard to do. That's why I don't bother if we're getting too close to pop, Eurobeat or symphonic or traditional metal or hard rock. That is heavy metal to me. That's the absolute musical freedom."
Blabbermouth: Do you think people underestimate how hard it is to write a good, compact three-and-a-half-minute song the way that you do?
Anton: "It's easy to write a simple song, but it's not so easy to write a simple, but catchy, but not irritating song. Anyone can write two bars of a super-simple melody, repeat it and use another simple part to put it together. You have a song that is simple and catchy. But does it resonate with the listener? Does it have emotions? Does it have meaning in the lyrics? Does it have any uplifting parts in the music? Does the chorus lift up? Or does it stick to your mind and irritate you? Simplicity is a double-edged sword. I've seen that happen. After the millennium, what started to happen in the pop scene was these irritating elements, melodies and sounds, they started to appear more and more. I didn't like it that much. It's a cheap way of trying to be catchy. In the '80s, they were catchy and in the '90s, they were catchy, but there was some essence in the music. Maybe not so much in the lyrics if you think about the Eurobeat, that's total nonsense, but it's innocent."
Blabbermouth: Are you always thinking a step ahead? Does this go back to when you were in BATTLE BEAST? Have you always had a plan in place?
Anton: "I think I have to be. Not just me, but our bass player is close to these things in planning our future. We look pretty much ahead. Just to give you an example: The music video, the first single, 'Moonlight Rendezvous', we started to work on in the spring of 2020. It took almost one-and-a-half years to make it. Of course, the reasons are we don't have a gazillion of Euros and I don't have all the time I want to have exclusively for the music. I have to do the album at the same time in the studio, write the lyrics and produce the stuff, but simultaneously, we were working on the music. The director, Katri Ilona Koppanen, she was fantastic. She took the challenge — she had never directed. It was her directorial debut. It was something really exciting that we were doing. We didn't know how it was going to turn out, but we believed in it. It takes time, indeed. Even now we have ideas and plans for a few years ahead what we want to accomplish artistically and business-wise."
Blabbermouth: Was this the idea when you left BATTLE BEAST and started BEAST IN BLACK? To build a band up incrementally and do things right?
Anton: "Actually, I already had that idea in BATTLE BEAST. That was the band I formed. Unfortunately, the internet is full of all kinds of misinformation. I was 13 years old when I started to compose and practice guitar seriously, then, I think it was 2005 or 2006 when I came up with the name BATTLE BEAST. By the way, I think no one knows where the name came from. I never mentioned it in any interview, but it came like a thunderbolt from the sky when I was watching 'He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe'. There's characters called Beast Man and Battle Cat: BATTLE BEAST'. I came up with the name and I already knew, I want to do this kind of music, write the lyrics and combine the synthesizer elements. On the first album I wasn't producing, it was Nino Laurenne, who produced the first BATTLE BEAST [2011's 'Steel']. We had different views of how to make the end result sound, but then the second BATTLE BEAST album [2013's 'Battle Beast'] was the first album I produced. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought, 'Okay, I have to do it my own way to have total control and to make the vision as close as possible to what I have in mind.' Then came the third album [2015's 'Unholy Savior'] and during that period, I had struggles within the band. I thought, 'Hey, this is my thing. I want to continue writing the songs my way and to have the artistic freedom. It was why I formed the band in the first place.' When you are 16, 17 years old or something like that, you are not the smartest person business-wise if you are so deep into the art and writing. I made a lot of mistakes, but then I realized the other side of the coin, just focusing on the art side. But in BEAST IN BLACK, I still have the same kind of artistic ambition. Nothing has changed. But now I am a bit more experienced on the business side. Just a tiny bit. [Laughs] I think it's necessary to have control for the right reasons. To be able to compose and write, that is what I want most in life. If the world announces tomorrow that never again in human history, there will never be any more shows, I will be happy as long as I can compose. That was the thing I always had in BATTLE BEAST and BEAST IN BLACK. In that sense, it hasn't changed."