I’d love to one day read an insider’s perspective on why and how Scandinavian metal bands simply seem to flourish longer and better than their non-Scandinavian counterparts. I’m sure the answer lies in a nexus somewhere between the role of music education in their primary schools, the ability to provide a collegiate/university level education for free, and the support of the government for arts programs that help subsidize musicians. Now of course, that’s all possible because of the relatively low population of those countries in question, but still, there’s something else elusive here that I’m unable to articulate. Is it simply those countries’ beautiful natural landscapes that provide a sustaining current of motivation and inspiration? I think all of those aspects could help to explain why Scandinavian musicians flourish longer, but what makes them flourish better is a mystery that there might not be a tangible explanation for.
See here we have Finland’s Amorphis, a band that shot out of the gate releasing a bonafide masterpiece in 1994’s Tales from the Thousand Lakes, just their second album. It was as influential as a death metal album could be, helping to forge the melodic death metal genre and even pioneering the usage of folk melody in metal. Then there was 2009’s Skyforger, their almost-a-masterpiece of the Tomi Joutsen era that I personally felt was a few more strong melodies and hooks away from really nailing it. Still, bands rarely deliver two truly excellent albums, let alone those separated by more than a decade, and it was proof that the band’s talent was enduring. But the albums before, in between, and after those have always been a little hit and miss. Take 2013’s Circle, a fairly good album, but one that eluded my year end best of list —- its flawless gem of a single however, one “Hopeless Days”, was one of the most addictive, sublime songs of that year. You could go back through all their albums and find a song or two that really stands out, those diamonds in the rough as it were. I suspect this is a band whose minimum talent level in songwriting and performing is pretty much a bulwark against their releasing something that’s awful from start to finish.
So its simultaneously surprising and not all that surprising that their twelfth and latest album, Under the Red Cloud, is their second truly flawless masterwork —- an album so beautiful, so full of rich melodies and thoughtful harmonies that flow under and over poetic, elegiac lyrics —- that it is threatening as a serious contender for the top spot on my album of the year list. What rational explanation is there for a band to release arguably its flat out best album more than twenty years into its career? Let’s see, its football season, baseball postseason, and the start of the NBA, so we’ll use a sports metaphor: Its extremely difficult to win a championship, for any team, no matter how good they usually are. Just ask the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls from 2001-2004, only to have to wait until this past February to earn their fourth title. The only logical thing a team can do is to build what they refer to as a “post-season contender”, that is a team that does well enough in the regular season to ensure a playoff berth. Again I’ll refer to the Patriots, who since installing the seemingly infallible Tom Brady at quarterback on 9/23/01 have only missed out on reaching the playoffs two seasons out of the past fourteen. That’s insane. Its also a rather unusually dead-on analogy for the success of this album.
There are arguably no bad Amorphis albums. This isn’t a band that does anything less than solid, good, or above average. They could be seen as the New England Patriots of Finnish metal (then again, there are a lot of consistently excellent Finnish metal bands out there, so we might need to utilize more team names if this analogy really gets going), a band that consistently delivers new albums that are worth our time and attention, even if they don’t always go the distance. Just like the Patriots and their amazing run of playoff berths in the past fourteen years, Amorphis have been a prolific entity as well, twelve albums in twenty odd years is a respectable clip for a modest metal band. They’ve also been through quite a few lineup changes throughout the years, just like the Patriots, who have only retained Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick all throughout their 2001-present day reign of terror. Fans of the Patriots know that as long as their team is good enough to earn a playoff berth, they might be able to “get hot” during the playoffs and “make a run” at getting to the Superbowl and winning the championship (for you non NFL followers, they made it back to the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2011, losing both times to the New York Giants). Similarly, Amorphis’ consistent stabs at unleashing another masterpiece to their name have yielded a stunning number of almost-there releases, all until this one —- this time, the band didn’t bow out of the playoffs, they got hot and made a run towards immortality. Consider Under the Red Cloud their Vince Lombardi trophy.
Where to begin… jeez, alright let’s just start at the very beginning. I’m in love with the charming, almost playful skip of the intro piano lines that like a conductor usher in warm bass notes, moody guitar figures, soft and hard cymbal crashes, and finally a skeleton of the melodic motif that anchors the album’s title track (also one of the first instances I can remember that a title track starts off an album). Its worth noting straight away just how much of a yin/yang thing guitarist Esa Holopainen and keyboardist Santeri Kallio have going as the band’s primary songwriters. They’ve been essentially splitting the songwriting duties since 2006’s Eclipse (perhaps before then too, but they only started noting individual member contributions on that album onwards), and they’ve collectively done a fine job, albeit with my tastes traditionally leaning more towards Holopainen’s mainline to that Finnish melancholy that I love so much. On the new album however, their differences in songwriting palettes work in perfect synergy, Kallio’s songs are uptempo, expansive, bright even, with accessible thru lines very apparently structured around keyboard forged melodies. Meanwhile, Holopainen’s songs are a little darker, the riffs more melo-death tight, with barreling forward rhythmic assaults that at certain moments blur the lines between melo-death and black metal. Their combined efforts have never before produced such a multifaceted, diverse body of work —- every song here has its own personality, its purpose and place.
Kallio’s opening title track is certainly gorgeous, but its his gem “Bad Blood” where he really hits a new apex in his songwriting. First there’s the inventiveness of the primary melody at work, itself a constantly shifting, cascading succession of notes that acts more as a motif (that word again!) rather than a hook line. It pops up for example in the intro to the song, then as a post-chorus coda, only to wind up as an understated guitar solo, finally to wind its way out as the song’s outro… a lot to ask of a simple, snake-like melody but it holds up to the all the duress. Underneath rhythm guitars slam down slabs of heaviness in punishing riffs to complement Joutsen’s intensely gritty doom-death vocals during the verses. Of course Joutsen being the gifted clean vocalist that he is treats us to one of his trademarked soaring deliveries during the chorus, an addictive ear-wormy vocal hook that has not left my mind since first hearing it. This might be one of the most compulsively headbanging songs of 2015, one that sees Amorphis reflecting the influence of last year’s Thousand Lakes 20th anniversary tour —- they simply haven’t sounded this brutal since the mid-nineties. Its also nice that Kallio’s more stridently melodic songs can still deliver the wood, that he and Holopainen haven’t simply settled into “I’ll write the poppier stuff and you write the more metal stuff” type of dynamic. A song like “Bad Blood” is proof that you can have crushing heaviness and pop accessibility merge together, it just takes skillful songwriting.
I’m not suggesting however that Holopainen himself isn’t capable of writing something anthemic or catchy (this is the guy who wrote “House of Sleep” and “Hopeless Days” after all), as he proves on the album’s second single “Sacrifice”. As a brief aside from discussing the album, if you haven’t seen the music video for this one, scroll all the way down this review and check it out immediately (placed on this page so you won’t go to YouTube and get baited by the suggested videos bar to the right, particularly the Halloween Whopper review, that’s a detour from which you’ll never come back). Its a rare example of a metal band getting a music video right, with inspired cinematography, an interesting concept divorced from the band’s performance footage —- which itself is tastefully done and not reliant on cheap gimmicks such as flamboyant pyrotechnics and assorted light show ephemera (all of which sadly enough, marred their video for “Death of A King”). Maybe having easy access to the Finnish countryside helps considerably too. As for the song itself, “Sacrifice” is built upon jets of Sentenced-ish major-minor key alternations, with a cinematic chorus that is built upon Joustsen’s strident vocal melody. Its classic Joutsen era Amorphis, and a vivid example of why their decision to continue outsourcing their lyrics to Finnish poet/artist Pekka Kainulainen is a smart one. Consider the chorus lyric: “Come when the sun has gone away / When the warmth has gone / Take what I will give you / Accept my sacrifice”. Credit to Joutsen for keeping his translation of Kainulainen as simple and elegant as possible.
Yes, that’s right, Kainulainen writes his lyrics for Amorphis in Finnish, as poems built around a concept the band has discussed with him or perhaps something of his own inspiration. Joutsen then takes the final finished versions and has to translate them into English, essentially deconstructing a poem and then reassembling it, all while working out vocal melodies at the same time. Joutsen introduced Kainulainen to the rest of the band for 2007’s Silent Waters, where he wrote the lyrics based upon a character from the Kalevala, and continued the Kalevala based theme through Skyforger and The Beginning of Times. For the Circle album, he offered up lyrics based on an original story concerning an outsider beset by doom from birth who relies on his internal spiritual strength to persevere and survive. This shift away from the Kalevala continues on Under the Red Cloud, this time without a concept at all, making this a rare collection of standalone songs —- the only loose connection being the album title, that all these songs reflect some ominous portent of the troubled state of the world today, of living under a red cloud. Regardless of the thematic nature of the lyrics or lack thereof, Kainulainen’s lyrics are full of concrete imagery, often placing the narrator or unnamed character in some kind of physical place, rarely relying on purely metaphysical ideas. He often references nature in its most clear and absolute terms by invoking natural objects or phenomena. Its a facet of his lyricism that informs everything, a sense of a sturdy hand, that you’re listening to words that could be recited by someone sitting around a flickering campfire telling you long remembered stories.
Its stunning then to realize that Amorphis write their music first, long before the completion of Kainulainen’s lyrics —- this means that when Joutsen receives them, he has to translate them to English all while keeping an ear open for vocal melody development. On one hand I suppose it could be relatively easier than it sounds, given that he has fleshed out songs and melodies to work with already, but what if the translation isn’t allowing for a string of consonants that will work with the established rhythm or piano or guitar melody? That would mean both he and the band go back to the drawing board, reconfigure parts of the music in order to make everything fit and sound as smooth and intuitive as we hear on the finished album. The thing is, if you’re using translations of lyrics, there’s only so far you can alter words or phrases before the ideas that Kainulainen posited in Finnish get lost in translation. I imagine Joutsen has some leeway but still has to ensure that the original spirit and intent is still intact, that when we hear such a visceral lyric such as “From a distance the crack of thunder / And the red cloud swallowed the sky”, it is as close to what the author intended as possible. Realizing the difficulty of that makes me appreciate all the scattered isolated moments where the music seems to shift in anticipation of a narrative or tonal shift in the lyrics, such as at the 2:16 mark on “The Four Wise Ones”, where a furious battery of melo-death riffs and often near black metal vocals from Joutsen give pause for breathy, soothing female vocals by Aleah Stanbridge. That’s her again on “White Night”, where her co-lead vocal is mesmerizing in its own right.
If “Bad Blood” and “Sacrifice” are my two ultimate favorites from an album full of wonderful songs, then “Tree of Life” is a very close third. Its the closest they’ve leaned towards pure folk-metal in a long time, and some may think that its flute melodies owe more to latter day bands of that style (which is not totally off base, Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann is all over the album providing flute and tin whistle, particularly on this song), but it sounds completely like Amorphis to me, with that rush of keyboards and guitars working in tandem in the small instrumental bridge that builds up to that explosive chorus —- what a beautiful melody. Joutsen’s melo-death vocals during the verses here are crisp and enunciated, almost like jagged peaks of a mountain, rising and falling with sharpness and precise angles. Holopainen’s lead guitars here are elegant, confident and full of emotion, and Tomi Koivursaari lays down awesome riff after awesome riff, and that’s not just on this song, but the whole album. These two shine like few guitar tandems in metal ever get to, check out their high water mark on “Death of a King” where they utilize sitar-like effects in sparse patterns as an accent to their conventional guitar tones, all arranged together in glorious open chord sequences that shimmer and pop. They sometimes selflessly pattern their runs to reinforce Kallio’s keyboards, such as on his dramatic, tension raising crescendos on “Enemy At the Gates”, an effect that practically amounts to a orchestra style wave of sound. And perhaps Jan Rechberger could tutor Nicko McBrain a bit in how to get creative with percussion patterns, fills and accents —- his work all across the album is mesmerizing.
Normally in reviews I tend to group together my discussion of the good stuff separate from my discussion of the not so good stuff, but its all good stuff here (to use the least colorful adjective imaginable). I was discussing this album with my MSRcast co-host Cary during our recording of a soon to be released episode and we both agreed that it seemed like Amorphis finally struck upon the perfect balance of utilizing Joutsen’s brusque, near-obsidian melo-death growls and his soaring, almost quasi-baritone like clean vocals. We also seemed of the same mindset in thinking that it just sounds like the melodies are flowing easier this time around, nothing on this album seems forced… perhaps another hint of influence from the Thousand Lakes anniversary tour, recalling those easy melodies of that distant classic and that era of the band in general. I think there’s some honest truth to that but to solely pin it on a nostalgic visitation of a prior era is misguided and inaccurate —- Under the Red Cloud is built upon its immediate predecessors, seemingly a distillation of only the purest elements that they’ve been brewing since Eclipse: gorgeous, Finnish-style melancholy in the form of crystalline melodies, a reinvigorated take on aggressive, extreme metal after a few albums of what was largely rock, and the daring to expand elements of their sound when needed. I’ll say it again, that front to finish, this might be the most fully realized and best album Amorphis has ever written and recorded, and I know I’m risking sacrilege at the very idea, but seriously, take a listen, a good long listen.