In keeping with my approach for the blog in 2023 to stay away from the reviews treadmill (for the most part) and let my intuition as a metal fan guide how and what I write on this site for a change, I’ve walked into the new year uncertain of what I was going to discuss next here. I waited for inspiration to strike really, listening to mostly sports talk radio, podcasts, and random non-metal music in the gaps in between. Recently, while driving to work on a cold morning, I felt the out of nowhere urge to jam some Charon, the oft-forgotten Finnish goth metal band whose sound was largely inspired and tied to that of fellow countrymen Sentenced (incidentally, the last band I profiled for this series many years ago). I pulled up Spotify’s “This is Charon” playlist and let it rip.
It struck me while sitting there in traffic jamming to these songs that this was a band that no one ever really talked about anymore, a thought that saddened me. Charon might have got caught in the shadow of Sentenced, and understandably so, but they put out a handful of pretty strong gothic metal records of their own, and more importantly, their presence in the international metal landscape helped to solidify this sound as distinctly Finnish, related yet quite different from goth metal godfathers Type O Negative. So in keeping with the still relatively short-lived tradition of this series, I’m presenting below ten cuts from Charon in chronological order to serve as a convincing introduction or gentle reminder that this band is worth checking out, remembering, and celebrating.
“4 Seasons Rush” (from 2000’s Tearstained)
Charon’s sophomore album Tearstained was the beginning of Charon as we all grew to love them, that’s not meant to be a slight on their debut, 1998’s Sorrowburn, but that album was their transition from the band’s early death metal roots (much like their peers in Sentenced) in that they were finding their footing, trying to figure out how to write for melodic vocals while still retaining some minor vestiges of their extreme roots. On this album, they had a better idea of how to write for the deep, gravelly singing voice of JP Leppäluoto, who himself was allowed to have a greater runway for his vocal melodies — his impact being immediately felt on the album’s best song, “4 Seasons Rush”, an emotional onslaught of a tune crafted with tension building and release in mind. JP affects an almost warbling, uncentered approach in the verses here, as if leaning towards overdramatic pastiche, only to roar back with his raw and real anguished vocal in that ultra powerful chorus. That chilling cello that serves as an unnerving segue outro from the refrain is one of the more unexpected yet inspired moments in the band’s catalog.
“As We Die” (from 2000’s Tearstained)
I think it’d be fair to call Tearstained a relatively uneven album — frankly there were moments where you felt like some songs needed a longer bake, but it did have a handful of strong tunes and “As We Die” was top of mind for me when considering the record as a whole. And while it wasn’t as inventive as “4 Seasons Rush”, it was a sublime slice of goth-rock/metal (whatever you think it deserves to be tagged as), built on a steady rhythm and purposeful chord progression to let JP’s vocal delivery carry the load. It’s really the depressive lyrics that pull you in here, talking about lovelorn despondency and just general malaise. Charon eschewed the sardonic word play of Sentenced or the unabashed romanticism of HIM on the lyrical front, instead working with a blunt directness in their lyrical approach that cut straight to the heart.
“Bitter Joy” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
I love the downward rhythmic tumble in the chorus of this overlooked gem from the band’s 2002’s gothic masterpiece Downhearted, all set up with a rather straightforward groove based riff sequence with weird synth effects thrown in for texture (surprisingly effective too). My favorite minor detail here is how JP’s vocals careen right through the ending of the pre-chorus with the lyric “My heart is all for open – for you two” and when the rest of the band crash back in a full second later, that impact is so damn satisfying in a visceral way. So much of really good gothic metal is about riding a feeling and emphasizing the punctuation marks whenever they come. That’s why a song such as “Bitter Joy” with it’s relatively simple, uncomplicated riff sequences can still impact you in a massive way via subtle details such as timing and intention.
“Craving” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
A slice of quintessential Finnish gothic metal, and one of the songs that exemplify JP as one of the genre’s best most expressive vocalists (dare I say even better than Sentenced’s Ville Laihiala from a purely technical standpoint), from the clarity of his enunciation to the utter outpouring of emotion heard in his voice during this excellent chorus. Founding guitarist Jasse von Hast was on a songwriting tear across Downhearted, penning three of it’s most stellar songs, splitting the writing duties with fellow guitarist Pasi Sipilä. While Sipilä has kept a low profile since Charon ended in 2005, von Hast went on to form the death-doom outfit Tomb of Finland where he’s continued his creative streak as a songwriter in delivering some pretty great records (we covered them on our podcast this past year). For both guys however, their songwriting work in Charon tends to get overlooked, with most of the band’s accolades going to JP (deservedly so, don’t get me wrong). Together they knocked out one of the finest gothic metal albums ever written here, and deserve to be acknowledged for it.
“Little Angel” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
Here it is, the band’s apex moment, a song that not only rocketed to nearly the top of the Finnish singles chart but remains one of the subgenre’s most compelling songs ever penned. This was another von Hast penned song, and it’s a credit to his versatility as a writer that someone so rooted in extreme metal is capable of crafting a song this entrenched in gothic angst and glorious drama. It’s not just that “Little Angel” is memorable, it’s about how and why it’s so memorable (and no its not because of the very brooding and suggestive music video, check it out). This is one of those songs that legitimately has three separate hooks, each uniquely addictive for reasons unto themselves. The verse is based on a synth groove and JP’s solitary compelling vocal melody, and it focuses your attention on the pseudo-maniacal lyrics with clever poetic framing (“Pain… / Fire…”). The sudden drop into the chorus with guitars crashing in is purposefully jarring, but the clever twist here is that they only deliver this chorus by itself at first, segueing right into another verse before adding a little guitar color towards the end to differentiate this go round in your mind — and then that downright epic, aching lead guitar motif rips through your heart, revealing itself as the true melodic hook after the chorus. A post chorus for the ages then.
“Desire You” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
Another von Hast classic on Downhearted, this power ballad was built on a pulsing bass line and gentle, floaty chord sequences, supporting a beautiful duet with JP’s gravelly accented vocals paired against the dark wine colored tones of frequent Charon collaborator Jenny Heinonen. The push and pull within this song is what has made it so compelling to me over the years, being one of those growers on the album that I didn’t appreciate upon release but have come to love since then. That being the juxtaposing dynamics between hushed quietude and a layered blanket of riffs — an effect that gives emotional weight to the build up and a cathartic release of tension. The lyrics here are spare, devoid of flowery diction, a seemingly deliberate choice that worked incredibly well given the context. Charon were never recognized as a particularly literate band, JP and company choosing to write lyrics that were more blunt than most of their goth rock/metal peers, but they knew how make it feel natural and even purposeful.
“In Trust Of No One” (from 2003’s The Dying Daylights)
There’s only one song on this list here from 2003’s The Dying Daylights, and that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this album as a whole, because I think it’s a solid record for the most part, but it had the misfortune of being sandwiched between Downhearted and Songs for the Sinners and that’s left it looking a little more underwhelming in comparison. There’s some really fantastic material on the album though, “Religious/Delicious”, “If”, “Every Failure” to mention a few, but “In Trust Of No One” is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of memorability. One of the band’s most uptempo, rock n’ roll injected tunes, Sipilä builds this around an Iron Maiden inspired circular lead motif that sort of sets the tempo and the tone throughout. I love the rhythm guitar shading on the pre-chorus, a deliberately simple chord progression that fills in so much sound and injects so much vivid color into that space. Not gonna avoid it, this was their most Sentenced sounding moment, it could’ve easily passed as one of that band’s tunes. I won’t hold it against them though, a great song is a great song.
“Colder” (from 2005’s Songs for the Sinners)
My favorite cut from Songs for the Sinners, the band’s 2005 swansong, “Colder” reigns supreme not only as one of the band’s greatest ever tunes, but a sterling example of just how powerful music in this stylistic vein could be when executed to its fullest. Little touches like guest vocalist Jenny Heinonen’s beautiful melodies as a recurring motif and her harmonized backing vocal add a lush depth to JP’s lines in the verse sections, giving this song a distinct character all it’s own (particularly in that Charon chose to avoid the beauty and the beast vocal archetype that was really popular around this time). I love the complexity heard in Sipilä’s lead melody during the post-chorus sequence, adding a bit of intensity right after an already passionately delivered chorus. This is also the band’s finest set of lyrics, vague and mysterious in intent yet still full of concrete and direct imagery that grounds it. There’s something magnetic about this song, one of those songs you replay over and over again when you first hear it, and even years later when you’re revisiting it.
“Deep Water” (from 2005’s Songs for the Sinners)
Following directly after “Colder” on the tracklist, “Deep Waters” always stuck with me due to the little details that popped up throughout, the repeating clean guitar that chimed up below that crunchy riff, the offset silence in the post chorus outro, and of course that downright awesome lead guitar melody that was the song’s true hook, hidden away behind one of JP’s more theatrical vocal performances on a Charon song, kinda akin to the stuff he’s been doing lately in his career in various different avenues (dude is a celebrity on Finnish television as a theatrical singer). For a large part of his time in Charon, he stuck to a gothic rock/metal mode, and we really didn’t get a chance to hear just how versatile of a singer he was until stuff like Northern Kings and Raskasta Joulua. This song was a brief glimpse at where he’d end up, and one of the many gorgeous slices of ache on Songs for the Sinners.
“House of the Silent” (from 2005’s Songs for the Sinners)
One of the band’s most lengthy and complex tracks ever (relatively speaking of course, this is a band that usually sat in the three to four minute range), it was also one of their most mournfully beautiful. Charon spent more time speaking about lovelorn anguish than pondering on the meaning of existence, but here they seem to merge the two, speaking about a “silent house where the love in bloom died”. By the end of the song, we’re not entirely certain either way whether JP was singing about the end of a relationship or the end of a life, so intertwined is the imagery of both in these lyrics. The depth of this storytelling occurs within the guitar interplay of Sipilä and then new guitarist Lauri Tuohimaa, who both go wild on the instrumental bridge with a gorgeous melodic motif and inspired soloing all around it. That their playing ushers along the fade out towards the end seems fitting, the final song on the final album of a band that was going to call it a day, albeit unknowingly at the time.