An eerie feeling of tension and otherness: ISON interviewed

Imagine the feeling of walking alone on a field in the night, watching the stars while listening to environmental sounds borrowed from the cinematic world, coated in reverberated and cold but yet ethereal vocals, and you have an inch of understanding of what Daniel Änghede’s project ISON is about.

With an impressive music background in bands like Hearts of Black Science and Crippled Black Phoenix, and in true DIY spirit, Änghede started his post-rock/doom/shoegaze/ambient project in 2015 as a test to try to run a project completely on his own, from writing the songs to recording and mixing the final product. On his first three albums, Heike Langhans provided the vocals but after she left the band in 2019 Änghede continued alone and decided that the next album would be a collaborative project between him and a range of guest vocalists.

Working every day for a full year during the pandemic gave birth to ISON’s fourth album and at the end of June Aurora arrived, and it’s by far the most ambitious project Änghede ever done. Two weeks after its release we met up with Daniel in Gothenburg and had a chat about his musical background, running ISON on his own for the first time, and the hard work with Aurora. And he reveals that he will bring ISON on stage for the first time ever – fingers crossed for a full tour later.

A bedroom test project

You have quite a resume of bands already. I really liked what you did in Hearts of Black Science from the first to the last album, and I remember that Swedish media called the band “the new Swedish pop phenomenon”.
Thanks! But I never felt that we got any attention in Sweden, we never played much live here at all. But Sweden is tough in general for niche music, it was the same with Crippled Black Phoenix. CBP was quite big everywhere else in Europe and played lots of festivals, like Hellfest in France, but in Sweden it never really worked out for us.

Hearts of Black Science, Crippled Black Phoenix and ISON, and your first project Astroqueen, are all quite different music-wise. What’s your musical background?
I grew up with hard rock and death metal but started to listen to lots of different types of music later in life. When we started Hearts of Black Science it was the first time I was inspired by electronic music, and Depeche Mode influenced much of what we did. Tomas [Almgren], the second member of Hearts of Black Science, was a die-hard Depeche Mode fan and he was very much into that type of electronic music scene. I’ve never been a huge fan of the scene but it crept up on me when we worked on stuff with HoBS (laugh). But it’s always fun to try new things.

It looks like 2014 or 2015 was a turning point for you. Hearts of Black Science released their last album Signal in 2015 but hadn’t been that active for a while when it was released, and at the same time ISON started. But already the year before you released your first album with Crippled Black Phoenix.
Yeah, something happened around that time. Hearts of Black Science haven’t split up though, we’re still around, but Tomas works in the gaming industry in Stockholm and he works a lot. It’s not easy to start on something new then. I joined Crippled Black Phoenix in 2013 already and recorded White Light Generator the year after, but they had released a few albums before I joined the band. Already from the start CBP took most of my time because we released an album almost every second year and toured the years in between.

I started ISON to have a home project, something I could work with on my own when I didn’t have anything with CBP, and I decided from the start to learn how to do it all by myself, and that means everything from writing the songs to recording and mixing the music. It was a test project to see what I could do on my own but I soon realized that it was more than a side project because I love to work with music this way. In some ways it’s similar to how we did it in Hearts of Black Science – we did everything ourselves – but Tomas mixed the music and I never really learned how to do it. But ISON is my own project, even more now when Heike isn’t in the band anymore.

What’s great with ISON is that I can do it all from home and can start as soon as I leave the bed and keep on working until I fall asleep. It has been so easy to work like that during the pandemic. I had an idea on what ISON would be when I started but it has developed in a way I would never have imagined it would do.

Getting a taste for collaborative work

After ISON’s third album Inner – Space vocalist Heike Langhans called it a day and Änghede was left on his own. However, rather than ending up in full-blown panic, he decided that his next record would be a collaborative adventure. The fourth ISON album Aurora is a collaborative story between Änghede and different guest vocalists that would come to grace the album’s eight songs.

Aurora is also Änghede’s most ambitious project so far. Working almost every day a full year in isolation with the album, and during a pandemic, gave rise to moments of self-reflection, and the record should be seen as a reflection of Änghede’s inner soul expressed in different scenes, or moods, over the course of eight songs.

And he also reveals somewhat of a surprise – ISON is going live for the first time.

You released your fourth album Aurora just a few weeks ago, at the end of June, and I know you’ve said that it is by far the most ambitious project you’ve done so far.
Most definitely! I worked on the album every day for almost a whole year and have never put this much time on any production before. The pandemic also made it easier because we have been isolated and I could work from home. When Heike left the band I decided to work with different guest vocalists which actually added a lot of work but resulted in an amazing album. But I was completely drained of energy when it was finished.

I actually wrote two records during the last year. The second album is a new project called Venus Principle with me and ex-members of Crippled Black Phoenix, and it will be released in the fall.

As you said, for the first time ISON is a solo project after Heike left the band. How has it affected the project?
What I’m most happy about is how well it panned out with different guest vocalists on the record, I didn’t know what to expect. I just gave them a few guidelines, like a few words about the songs and what type of mood or atmosphere I wanted to come out of it, and gave them the freedom to write what they wanted to. And I got vocals back to mix (laugh).

Some people think that it was part of some mastermind plan to find a new permanent vocalist for ISON, but it wasn’t, I didn’t even know what would come out of it. And everyone on the record did such great jobs that it wouldn’t be possible for me to pick one vocalist. It’s more interesting for me to have different vocalists because it will add different dimensions or moods to the music.

I would love to continue to collaborate with guest vocalists in the future as well and have a few I really would like to work with, like Emma Ruth Rundle. I know it would be an awesome collaboration, but I haven’t asked her yet. If I’m allowed to think big, why not Lana Del Rey (laugh).

But you don’t miss having someone to work with you, just to get feedback on your ideas?
But my girlfriend is my toughest critic today (laugh), especially on Aurora on which I’ve been isolated while working with the record. Even as a solo artist you usually get feedback from other people, but it hasn’t really been possible to meet anyone the last year or share ideas the same way I’m used to. Feedback is necessary because you tend to get blind when you’ve worked on something for two weeks. That’s when you need someone you can ask, “Is this song as great as I think it is?”.

I like to do it all by myself, except for mastering the record. Karl Daniel Lidén mastered the record and we have worked together for a long time, he mastered the last Hearts of Black Science album and some stuff with Crippled Black Phoenix, and I just love his productions. He also sends me feedback at times, like “Hey, the bass isn’t fat enough”, and then I’ll change the mix a bit.

Other than that, not much changed from the original mix, it rarely does anymore. I’ve learned how to do the mix really well by now and that’s a great feeling because I don’t need to rely on anyone but me.

It feels like your albums, or EP’s depending on how you see it, are concept albums or part of a concept series when you consider the album titles. Cosmic Drone, Andromeda Skyline, Inner – Space, and Aurora have something in common. Do you think of albums in terms of concepts?
First, to kill off the discussion concerning albums or EP’s once and for all: they’re all albums. They all have the length of albums even if some records only have five songs. I know there’s some sort of nerd discussion about albums and EP’s but I say they’re all albums (laugh). The problem, I guess, is that I called the first two albums for EP’s (laugh).

I actually don’t start with a concept but after two or three songs there’s usually some sort of common theme, and I can understand that people want to see it as concepts then. But it isn’t my intention. The last thing I always do is to come up with song titles and a name for the album, it’s nothing I have in mind at the start of a new album.

[This is the point where Daniel’s girlfriend Jenny breaks in and points out, to a surprised Daniel, that he already had the song titles and the album title ready before he sent it to the guest vocalists on Aurora]

Aurora is very much about me and my inner soul because it has only been me and the music together in isolation for a whole year, and that triggers self-reflection. It’s also the first time I wrote the lyrics, or the start of the lyrics, Heike did all that before.

As I understand it you have never brought ISON on stage yet. Do you have a plan to start playing live?
It’s just about to change. I’ve been offered to do a show I can’t say no to, but I can’t tell you when and where, it’s still a secret. But it means that I have to start working on the live performance and think about how I want to perform my music on stage. Would it be best to bring one vocalist for all songs or should I try to get a few vocalists from the album and do it with me? I don’t know yet, but it’s something that I think about quite much at the moment. It probably comes down to money in the end.

But is it just a one-off gig or have you considered doing a full tour later?
That thought is very much alive and if I can get a full tour to work out I’ll do it. I’m quite sure that when I’ve started to play live I don’t want to stop because it’s so much fun to do it. The problem is that I’ve never really thought about it before, not until I got this offer. I’ve only had this minor ambition to do it sometime, I often start thinking about it when I work on something in the studio and get this feeling, “This song would be awesome to do live if I had a band”, but I don’t have a band. It’s how far I’ve thought about it before.

I know I wouldn’t do live shows just to earn money but I can’t lose too much money on touring either. If there was a budget for it I would probably tour with all the vocalists on Aurora, but that is hardly going to happen (laugh).

I guess you’re quite tired after releasing Aurora, but is anything happening with ISON during 2021?
Yeah, I’m dead tired at the moment. You know, as a DIY artist, after releasing a record, you need to handle all the administration that comes with it. I don’t know how many albums I’ve posted the last weeks; quite many of them ended up in Germany actually. But now it’s almost over.

But I’ve started to think about what’s next although I haven’t decided what it would be yet. I have this idea about doing a completely ambient record, but it always ends up in me putting on layer after layer and then it becomes something else in the end (laugh). I just can’t stop! But it feels like I’m going to start on a new record quite soon already. Let’s wait and see how I feel after the summer holiday.

Photographer: Krichan Wihlborg
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.