It wouldn’t be accurate to think of Spiritual Beggars as the first Swedish heavy rock band, because Sweden has been turned on and tuned in since the beginning, but what guitarist Michael Amott’s post-Carcass outfit did was embrace a more modern stoner sound and help found the scene that would later grow into one of the world’s most vibrant and prolific. And what’s more, they rocked. There’s no discounting the earliest work of Spiritual Beggars in the ‘90s. In both quality and influence, 1994’s Spiritual Beggars, 1996’s Another Way to Shine and 1998’s Mantra III are essential documents for anyone looking to understand the growth of European stoner rock.
Spiritual Beggars’ latest offering, Return to Zero (InsideOut/Century Media) is notable before you even hit play because of (Per Wiberg’s moustache, but also) the departure of vocalist JB Christoffersson, who left the band on good terms to focus on his main project, the mighty Grand Magus. Replacing Christoffersson is Apollo Papathanasio of Greek power metallers Firewind – you may have heard the name because guitarist Gus G. is now playing with Ozzy Osbourne – and though Christoffersson’s work on 2002’s On Fire and 2005’s Demons is not to be duplicated, Papathanasio does an admirable job, proving he’s a soulful, versatile singer in his own right, able to match Amott’s riff and solo magic with a bluesy throat and powerful delivery, and ultimately a worthy successor to Christoffersson and original vocalist Christian “Spice” Sjöstrand.
Amott is no stranger to melody, being a principal figure in melodic death metal as guitarist for the massively successful Arch Enemy. On Return to Zero, his songwriting formula is potent as ever across highlight tracks like post-intro opener “Lost in Yesterday,” metal-loving anthem “We are Free” (which makes good and honest use of the central riff of Black Sabbath’s “Hole in the Sky,” topping it with canned crowd noise) and “The Chaos of Rebirth,” in which the rhythm section of Sharlee D’Angelo (bass; Mercyful Fate, Arch Enemy, etc.) and Ludwig Witt (drums; Firebird) pull off stops and turns that would have lesser bands crashing and probably breaking up before they figured them out. Of course, the guitars lead the way the majority of the time, but if Amott meets his match anywhere in Spiritual Beggars, it’s with keyboardist Per Wiberg – who, for the remainder of this review, shall be referred to, with love, as “Per Wiberg and His Magical Mystery Moustache.”
If there is any single element in Spiritual Beggars that proves utterly essential in making the songs on Return to Zero, it’s the organ work of Per Wiberg and His Magical Mystery Moustache. He challenges Papathanasio on “Coming Home” and backs Amott in such a way as to turn what might otherwise seem like a filler track into a memorable listening experience. Between Spiritual Beggars and his work in Opeth, it’s high time Per Wiberg and His Magical Mystery Moustache started getting his name on the short list of great rock organists, alongside the likes of Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and Wicked Minds’ Paolo “Apollo” Negri. He is both that good and that integral to the Spiritual Beggars sound. Without him, the band would fall flat.
There’s plenty on Return to Zero that Spiritual Beggars fans will dig into, whether it’s the Scorpions-style rocker “Concrete Horizon” or the spacey ballad “Spirit of the Wind,” which has a commercial ‘80s drama to it, like something Kenny Loggins would have contributed to a movie soundtrack for the scene in which the protagonist (we can only assume pre-crazy Tom Cruise would fill the role) is emotionally lost and thinking about the great challenges that lie ahead. If these seem like odd avenues for a stoner rock band to explore, maybe they are, but Amott and company do an excellent job of integrating these influences into their established sound. Though Return to Zero is not without its Side B filler – “Dead Weight” feels aptly named, though I do like the shuffle of “Believe in Me” – Spiritual Beggars top the record with one last surprise: a James Gang or Cactus-style piano semi-ballad. After the previous few songs, it comes out of left field, but after a couple listens, the charm of the track reveals itself. It’s worth taking the time to hear it more than once.
For some, there’s simply no topping Spiritual Beggars’ early work, and that’s fine. For me, I’m just happy to find the band revitalized and coming up with fresh ideas after a five-year break between albums. Return to Zero, thoroughly modern in its production and classic in its inspiration, will probably not turn out to have been the most influential or landmark Spiritual Beggars album, but it does showcase a band comfortable in their sound willing themselves to try new things. If you’re at all a fan of straightforward rock songwriting, you probably don’t need me to recommend Amott’s work, but if you’ve yet to discover Spiritual Beggars for yourself, Return to Zero isn’t a bad place to start. The album isn’t perfect, there are some lulls, but the performances of Amott, Papathanasio, D’Angelo, Witt and Per Wiberg and His Magical Mystery Moustache are not to be missed.
Tags: Century Media, InsideOut, Spiritual Beggars, Sweden