Iceland has been very active when it comes to the Progressive Rock genre in the recent years. It could be said that Ring of Gyges is one of the bands that represent this wave of the Icelandic Prog very well. Formed in 2013, the quintet released an EP titled “Ramblings of Madmen” in 2015 and a single “Witchcraft” in 2016, before launching their debut full-length release “Beyond the Night Sky” in November last year.
Vocalist and guitarist Helgi Jónsson told us about the band’s beginnings, new album, the Icelandic Prog scene, and more.
Let’s start from your early music beginnings. How did your musical career begin? When did you start playing? Which groups have been your favorites as a young man? Please tell us something more about your early life.
I come from a musical family, my dad plays bass and my parents raised me with their old vinyl records; Queen, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, that kind of stuff. I started learning classical guitar when I was a kid, probably around 9 or 10 years old, though I wasn’t really interested in that kind of music. I grew up in the countryside and the music school I went to wasn’t very good so the only proper tutoring I was getting at the time was from my dad, who taught me my first chords on the guitar (the power chords were particularly interesting to me!). When I was 13 I scraped together some money out of birthday cards and bought my very first electric guitar and amplifier, both shitty no-name brands, but I was ecstatic. I quickly formed a band with two of my schoolmates. We were mostly playing covers but I wrote one original song as well. Later on, my parents gave me an American Fender Stratocaster as a confirmation present, which remains to this day my favorite guitar and a good portion of our album was recorded with it. In high school I started to really get into prog, Rush, Dream Theater and Focus were some early favorites, but Blackwater Park by Opeth is probably the album that really sealed the deal for me on this whole prog metal thing.
How did you go about forming Ring of Gyges? Who was the most influential when the band started its musical journey?
When I was nineteen I moved to the ‘big city’ of Reykjavík to start university, and started recording some demos on my computer with the intention of starting a prog metal band. I posted one of those demos (that later became the song ‘Pillars of Creation’ from our debut EP) to a Facebook group for musicians in Reykjavík and asked if anyone was willing to start a band with me. Guðjón and Einar were the first ones to respond and we met up in a filthy practice space in an industrial area in Kópavogur and had our first rehearsal. Later on we had our first bass player, Kiddi, and our keyboardist, Gísli, joined somewhere along the way. The Ring of Gyges was forged.
In the beginning, did you have some “fixed” tempo in composing songs or everything was a product of jamming, improvising?
In the beginning I wrote all the demos from start to finish, and the guys learned them and made some slight alterations along the way. So almost all the music and lyrics on our debut EP, Ramblings of Madmen, was written by me, save for one instrumental piano piece by our keyboardist Gísli. We’ve always been a very democratic band though, and right now we write together a lot more.
How would you describe Ring of Gyges’ music on your own?
Describing music is a pretty futile task, so here’s a bunch of adjectives: Adventurous, epic, silly, emotional, fun.
Your debut full-length album, Beyond the Night Sky, is a follow-up to 2015’s EP Ramblings of Madmen and 2016’s single Witchcraft. Have you felt any pressure while working on Beyond the Night Sky because of that?
Not really. The only pressure we felt was from ourselves. Ramblings is still a pretty unknown album, we only released 100 copies of it and I’ve very rarely come across anyone that has listened to it that wasn’t a buddy of mine. So the only pressure we felt was from our own struggle to top ourselves, to improve our songwriting and make something better than our previous work. But maybe it was a good thing too, we felt like we had complete freedom to do whatever we wanted without worrying about betraying anyone’s expectations.
What has changed for Ring of Gyges when it comes to writing new music — Beyond the Night Sky in particular?
Like I mentioned earlier, we’re writing a lot more as a band nowadays and everyone’s contributing something to the writing process. Overall I think there’s been some shift in influences, Beyond has a more refined sound to it than our previous stuff, but I still feel like it carries our musical DNA from our previous stuff. On this record we’re experimenting a lot more with odd-time signature and general music theory wankery. It certainly sounds more progressive, which is I think the result of us progressing as a band.
You pay attention to atmospheric and ambient elements in your music. How important it is for the structure of your songs?
Hugely important. I feel like it’s necessary to have some calm and atmospheric parts in between so the powerful parts have more of an impact. If you’re at full throttle entire time it eventually starts sounding more or less the same, we like to structure our songs so as to make it a little journey from starts to finish, with some ups and downs, valleys and mountains, that kind of stuff. It just keeps things interesting for us, and hopefully the listener as well. When we’re in the studio we love to experiment with different sounds and creating layered soundscapes, that’s one of my favorite parts of studio work. For example at one point during recording we set up two of our amps in a church, which of course has a huge natural reverb, and split the signal between the two amps with a stereo delay pedal and a tremolo so the sound was alternating between the amps. We used room mics to capture the natural reverb of the church. That sound can be heard during the solo in the intro of the track ‘Dusk’.
How do you see the Icelandic progressive rock scene? There has been many, many great bands coming from Iceland in the recent years. It seems that you guys love prog over there.
In the 70’s there were some pretty awesome prog bands, like Þursaflokkurinn and of course Trúbrot whose album Lifun remains an absolute classic in Icelandic music history. When we first got started however, I think we were pretty much the only active prog band in Iceland, save from maybe Agent Fresco (who are incredible by the way). Maybe I’m wrong though. We’ve been active for over four years though and in that time there’s been a lot of cool new bands cropping up that I think fit into the prog genre, Future Figment is a great example and we’ve played a few shows with that band. I think Iceland has one of the largest numbers of bands-per-capita in the world, probably due to the fact that it’s a frozen wasteland for a good part of the year and sheer boredom really gets your creative juices flowing. The Icelandic prog scene is a tiny one but it seems to be getting bigger year by year.
Do you guys consider yourselves a part of any specific cultural movement, however peripheral?
Not really, at least I don’t see it that way. I’m not sure we have a similar sound to any other Icelandic band, we’re mostly inspired by foreign bands anyway. As an artist it’s hard to realize you’re a part of any specific movement, especially when you’re currently making the art. Maybe historians will classify us as part of some movement later down the road, but right now I don’t think we’re part of any movement, at least not consciously.
Are you also involved in any other projects or bands beside Ring of Gyges?
Yes, I have a solo project simply named Helgi Jóns, which is somewhat calmer than Ring of Gyges and more jazzy/folky and kind of in line of Steven Wilson/Damnation era Opeth. I have two songs on Bandcamp under the name Helgi Jóns. I’m currently based in Stockholm and I’ve found some excellent musicians to play that stuff with me. The other guys also have other projects, Guðjón has another prog band named UMÆ and also plays with the post-rock group Vára. Einar drums for a thrash metal band named Chronolium.
So, what comes next for Ring of Gyges?
Right now we’re not quite sure. We’re far from done and I’m currently writing new material for our next album. We’d love to tour around Europe with out album, but right now we’re unsigned and don’t have any management. We hope that changes soon though. I’m really serious about music and if we get lucky we’ll make this a full-time job. If you’d like to stay updated about live shows you can like our Facebook page!