In 1550, a woman from the Swedish island of Öland was executed as a witch – for allegedly using black magic to try to raise a man from the dead. It was the first such killing in Sweden but foreshadowed many to come, during the country’s largest witch hunt. During what was known as The Great Noise of 1668-76, 300 people, mostly women, were put to death.
More than 450 years later, a band from neighbouring Denmark has immortalised the story of one of those unfortunate women, Lasses Birgitta, on the last track on their eighth album, which is due out this week.
Volbeat’s Servant of the Mind deals with devils, ancient religion and hauntings, but all with a melodic metal-meets-psychobilly sound, which has earned them more than three billion streams and nine No.1s on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Airplay chart – a record for a band not from North America.
Volbeat are a big deal at home, where, as in the rest of Scandinavia, metal is a large part of the musical heritage. All seven of the band’s previous albums have gold status in Denmark and in 2018 they played to 48,000 people at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium – the biggest show with a native band headlining that Denmark had seen until post-punk band The Minds of 99 played a euphoric post-pandemic blow-out there in September.
This popularity is surprising on the evidence of the witch-burning saga Lasse’s Birgitta, opening, as it does, with gothic ominousness before going headlong into Metallicaesque thrash.
Tolling bells and a rainstorm close both the track and the album.
Volbeat’s frontman Michael Poulsen has proved his ability to be inspired by a good story in the past. Previous album Rewind Replay Rebound (2019) opened with Last Day Under the Sun, which used the story of Johnny Cash, deep in the grip of drug addiction, suicidally crawling into the Nickajack Cave in Tennessee one day in 1967 and having a spiritual epiphany.
The Awakening of Bonnie Parker, meanwhile, dealt with the story of Bonnie and Clyde and the former’s film star aspirations (“Colombia Pictures wants me soon/I was born for the stars”).
Lest any of this sounds too high concept, tracks like the rockabilly Elvis send-up Pelvis on Fire and the psychobilly of Sorry Sack of Bones, from their 2019 album, don’t require much depth of thought and verge on cheesiness.
Indeed, the band’s sound is hardly uniformly brutal. Earlier in the year, Volbeat released two singles that were billed as a “double-barrelled blast of summer tunes” for a dawning post-lockdown age. Wait A Minute My Girl, another 1950s rock ‘n’ roll pastiche, lifted “My heart beats so, it scares me to death” straight from All Shook Up. The rock ballad Dagen Før (The Day Before) emphasised dark days being left behind and featured Danish lyrics and vocals from Stine Bramsen of perky Danish pop band Alphabeat, whose energetic single Fascination was a hit across Europe in 2008.
These singles prove that if you wanted to describe Volbeat with just one word, it would have to be “eclectic”.
On Servant of the Mind, the levity of those summer singles sits alongside more weighty moments like Lasse’s Birgitta and The Sacred Stones, as well as the bombast of the two other album singles, Becoming and Shotgun Blues, both with instantly memorable, totally anthemic choruses carried by Poulsen’s impressively powerful voice. They go straight for the jugular of rock radio.
Volbeat’s sound has translated well to the UK. Rewind Replay Rebound reached No.7 in the album charts, and in June Volbeat will perform, third on the bill, on the Sunday of the Download festival, as well as playing a special intimate show at the O2 Academy Islington in May.
While the mainstream charts remain largely resistant to European rock, particularly bands that dare occasionally to sing in their own tongue, Volbeat’s no-nonsense bombast, which is without language, has cut through.
Volbeat in five songs
Maybellene I hofteholder (2008)
This pop-punk, noirish, fictional story of a stripper (the title means ‘Maybellene in suspenders’) from 2008’s puzzlingly titled Guitar Gangsters and Cadillac Blood went to No.5 in Denmark.
Lola Montez (2013)
This fan favourite is another of Michael Poulsen’s history-inspired songs, telling the tale of the Irish-born courtesan and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria in the late 1840s. She masqueraded as a genuine Spanish dancer and her sensual spider dance made her famous.
The Devil’s Bleeding Crown (Live from Telia Parken) (2016)
This dramatic opener to 2016 LP Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie, with thrashy riffs and operatic vocals, was how Volbeat kicked off their historic 2018 concert in Copenhagen, during which they welcomed fellow Dane Lars Ulrich, of major influence Metallica, on stage for a rendition of the classic Enter Sandman.
For Evigt (2016)
An anthemic track with Danish language choruses sung by frontman of Danish rock band Magtens Korridorer (The Corridors of Power) and sometime University of Copenhagen microbiologist, Johan Olsen, “Forever” is Volbeat’s biggest hit, reaching No.3 in the Danish charts.
Fourth single from Servant of the Mind, this track encapsulates Volbeat’s winning balance of weighty metal riffs and melodic choruses. The anthemic “And with the devil’s exit, oh baby/ The flames went higher and higher” is sure to be sung enthusiastically by crowds during Volbeat’s 2022 dates.