Blending Portuguese culture and Lusitanian mythology, Moonspell have been enchanting fans in Portugal and around the world for over 15 years. A few days before a special concert which will revisit their debut album Wolfheart, Portugal Daily View looks back on the career of the country’s most successful and acclaimed heavy metal band.
By Patrícia Raimundo
Back in the late 1980s, in the homeland of fado, a group of friends who lived in the outskirts of Lisbon and was into heavy metal music decided to get to work. With the publication of the DarkenessZine – a veritable rarity of a fanzine which only the most die-hard metal fans have the honour of having, stored away somewhere in their attic – they started meandering through underground metal before deciding to set up their own band. Having come up with the name Morbid God, it was under this name that they recorded “Serpent Angel”, their debut single which first brought them to public attention.
The song was included in the double-vinyl compilation The Birth of a Tragedy, which showcased new Portuguese metal bands published by an independent record label, and ended up working as as a demo that travelled the world. Fernando Ribeiro, lead singer, songwriter and the only remaining original member in the band, recalls the feeling of those days, when marketing was still an elusive concept.
We were an active part of the underground scene that grew steadily over time, supported only by our passion for metal and by the desire to share it with people from all over the world. To spread music demos around the world was like raising our voices and saying ‘I’m here!’. Those were the more exciting days of my young life. To receive tapes from Poland, Mexico or Germany was an incredible experience. I can imagine it was the same feeling for a foreigner who received a tape from Portugal”.
A worldwide magic spell
Almost unknowingly, the band was laying down the foundations for a solid – and unrivalled – international career within the Portuguese heavy metal scene. In 1994 they recorded Under the Moonspell for French record label Adipocere, something they were doubly proud of achieving. Besides marking Moonspell‘s debut on vinyl, the EP was also one of the first to be available as a CD for a heavy metal band in Portugal.
When we started touring abroad and from the moment we signed our first record deals with foreign record labels, we knew we couldn’t learn anything useful in this industry in Portugal regarding mentality, status, opportunity and professionalism”, Fernando Ribeiro recalls.
And he was right. Without any true heavy metal tradition, the Portuguese music industry in the early 1990s was not very interested in underground music genres. Back then, and in many ways even now, Portuguese record labels are not very open-minded towards alternative bands, and it is difficult to organise tours rather than regular ad-hoc gigs. Travelling abroad, finding out what was going on in the rest of the world and seizing every opportunity that came their way was something that made sense to Fernando Ribeiro’s band. In 1995, Moonspell signed with German metal label Century and launched Wolfheart, their first CD album that went on to become a cult recording for their fans and those who love sounds blending folk and black metal.
Heavy metal Portugal
Despite being signed to foreign record labels as well as recording and gigging mainly outside Portugal, the band never forgot their roots. On the contrary, Moonspell have always strived to retain some sort of “Portugality”.
It was important to make a difference and we used our national culture, our poets, our history, our artistic characteristics, our idiosyncrasies. Combining these with gothic heavy metal was very attractive to the audience, and in the epic and melancholic characteristics of our nation we found the element that allowed us to stand out with our lyrics and music”, Fernando Ribeiro says.
“Trebaruna” and “Ataegina”, from the Wolfheart album, are the perfect example of this. Both tracks were inspired by two goddesses from Lusitanian mythology and are sung in Portuguese. “Alma Mater”, from the same album, and one of Moonspell’s iconic tracks follows the same pattern but is mainly sung in English. However, references to Portuguese culture are present in the band’s nine albums and they include excerpts from Portuguese poems – during gigs, thousands of fans around the world sing along the words of “Opium”, which took inspiration from renowned poet Fernando Pessoa. In addition, the band also use some Portuguese guitar chords and many other elements from Portuguese culture.
Moonspell have mainly resorted to English lyrics so as to facilitate communication with the audience, but Fernando Ribeiro has never experienced any resistance from foreign fans to tracks written and sung in Portuguese.
If it made a difference, it was a positive one. We have always felt and thought that our music, more than international, is universal, as well as the style we fit in”.
And judging from the solid fan base the band has garnered around the world and the crowds that show up at their gigs, the message seems to resonate.
During all these years, foreign fans have shown the most diverse expressions, from wearing the Portuguese national football jersey and supporting the Portuguese team, to choosing Fernando Pessoa as the subject of their dissertations and studies. There are many fans that come to Portugal to see us in our natural habitat, to experience the places which have inspired us, to find out more about the references in our songs. When we are performing abroad, we often see a Portuguese flag in the middle of the audience and it is, in the majority of cases, being held by a foreigner”, Fernando Ribeiro says.
Life on the road: ambassadors for Portuguese food and wine
The international profile the band has developed over the last 15 years means they spend most of their time abroad. When they go on tour or when they leave “Inferno” (Hell) – their recording studio located in the outskirts of Lisbon – to record in other countries, Mike Gaspar, Pedro Paixão, Ricardo Amorim and Fernando Ribeiro always take with them a bit of Portugal. Portuguese wine is their main travel companion and they like to take a selection of wines, olive oil, records, books and other Portuguese products to give their friends abroad.
When we stay somewhere more than 30 days, we take with us products like sausages, salt, sugar, coffee… It’s not a question of other countries not having good products, but a question of comfort, a taste from our homeland. One of my best birthday presents was a Portuguese stew in Dortmund, Germany!”
It is not “short-sighted provincialism”, but an attempt to curb homesickness, a common condition affecting those who spend time on the road, Fernando Ribeiro says. “Over time, we started realising we could also be comfortable abroad and that each country has its qualities”.
On 31 October, Moonspell will perform all the songs from their Wolfheart album in a one-off concert in Almada, Portugal. This homecoming gig revisiting one of their first albums is like Halloween candy to Portuguese fans used to seeing Moonspell performing abroad rather than in Portugal. This is a discrepancy that the band tries to address, but which Fernando Ribeiro sees as natural.
We always want balance and we work hard to get things in Portugal that are much easier to have in Germany, for instance. But there are no regrets. After all, if we don’t perform a thousand times a year in Portugal, that keeps our concerts valuable, it makes them special”.
Photos by Edgar Keats