The two biggest releases in the month of May, I was of course wanting to give them an ample amount of listening time before writing anything and the busy nature of the month (including concerts and one out of town trip!) lent towards the drawn out time frame from their release date till now. I’m glad I waited because I was a little high on one and not so much on the other and its been interesting to see how an extra week or so has leveled off both of those opinions with different insights that came to me later on. With as high profile as these have been I feel like I took my eye off the rest of the release radar for this month and possibly June, so if anyone has any tips on what I should be paying attention to right now please drop me a recommendation in the comments!
Amorphis – Queen of Time:
I was surprised when Amorphis announced that a new album would be landing in our laps this summer, but quickly realized that its release date would fall just under three years since the September 2015 release of Under The Red Cloud, an album that was so magnificently brilliant it took hold of my album of the year spot. I think that album had so dominated my listening time for a good half a year after first hearing it that it made it feel like it was just released last year-ish. I put the album and indeed the band on a long break after seeing them live later in April 2017, something that needs doing after so intense a period of listening to an album you’re obsessing over along with the band’s entire back catalog as a side effect of that enthusiasm. I learned that lesson way back in the early aughts with Opeth and Blackwater Park, particularly considering how soon Deliverance and Damnation and even Ghost Reveries followed —- I couldn’t so much as look at an Opeth album cover for a good long while (a few years actually). That being said I feel like I had a healthy level of anticipation for this one, optimistic that it would be a good album (remember my Amorphis as the New England Patriots of Finnish metal comparison?… no? Dammit.), but a little skeptical that they’d be able to go the distance towards a masterpiece like they did last time around. I was right on the last part, Queen of Time is certainly nowhere near the level of inspired artistry we heard on Red Cloud, and it can rightly be described as a good, even very good album, but somehow something isn’t clicking with me here and I’m having a hard time figuring out what.
One thing is clear after all these many listens, that Amorphis is clearly running with open arms towards the highly melodic side of their sound that they expanded on Red Cloud. That means ample melodies, some bordering on what can perhaps be described as sugary or at the least a little sweet, a load of Tomi Joutsen’s clean vocals, and the bulk of the songs being set in a mid-tempo groove. On “Daughter of Hate” they even balance a ferocious melo-death attack with a laid back jazzy section replete with backbeat on the percussion and that recent mistress heard operating around various parts of Scandinavia, the saxophone. I alternate between being okay with it and other times being largely annoyed by its presence, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t mind the odd bit of sax (I grew up liking INXS for starters and then there’s its star role in Queensryche’s Promised Land to consider). More than that though, I couldn’t get into the almost twee sounding melody propelling “Message In The Amber”, unfortunate because its brutal middle section is entirely worth sitting through the rest of the song for. The placement of various sections within the song seem disjointed as well, lacking anything in the way of needed transitions or cues. This songwriting dysmorphia is also evidenced on “Grain of Sand”, where we hear some good ideas but nothing ever gels or coalesces into a greater whole. There’s something just generally frustrating about how songs like “Wrong Direction” and “The Golden Elk” turned out, because you get the feeling that they could have been excellent had they just locked in on a few things. I love the Arabic strings towards the end of the latter, but they came in far too late and probably should’ve been used more throughout the song, as they are now they strike me as an afterthought.
But more often than not, Amorphis flash that brilliance we’ve all fallen in love with, be it on the synth dressed “The Bee” with its lurching, punching Jousten growled verses that stomps and beats its chest emphatically. It’s status as the best song on the album might be challenged by “Heart of the Giant”, an energetic song with a surprising rhythmically structured chorus that seems to swoop in from out of nowhere. Similarly, “Pyres On the Coast” drives a rumbling buildup to a swiftly moving orchestral motif that arrives without warning but is compulsively re-listenable. And I’m of course a fan of the duet here featuring one Anneke van Giersbergen on “Amongst Stars”, although it does by virtue of her vocal tone skirt near that saccharine territory I was talking about before. She’s just such a great foil to Joutsen though that it hardly matters, particularly when the chorus she’s belting out is as lovely as this. The folky whistles on this song I believe might come from Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann which is a cool little detail, and the addition of them makes it sound like a lost track to van Giersbergen’s collaboration with Arjen in The Gentle Storm. This was a Santeri Kallio penned tune, a perfect example of his preferred songwriting approach with largely uptempo songs built around his bright, harmonious keyboard melodies. He and founding guitarist Esa Holopainen once again split the songwriting duties fairly evenly, with Holopainen’s contributions coming in on the heavier end (a distinction that really was magnified on Red Cloud). I could attempt to draw some kind of conclusion that it seems like my tastes fell more in line with Kallio’s songs on this album, but it was the other way around last time so I’m not sure if there’s anything to really learn from that.
What has become clear to me however is that I just don’t find this album as addictive as I was hoping for, to take that full on plunge back into Amorphis’ world once again. It reminds me so much of their 2013 Circle album in that light, where a few songs really stood out and I’d listen to them repeatedly, but the album itself was a trying experience. I think Queen of Time is a stronger album than that one, but only because they’re really running with this whole extreme melodicism thing which is right up my power metal street. I’m not getting down on the band as a result of this however, nor on myself; it was always going to be a tall order to follow up Red Cloud, and I knew that going in. And besides, who can tell what album is going to trigger that kind of intense reaction in any of us? For all I know someone may experience this album as their Amorphis masterpiece and think Red Cloud was a misstep (they’re wrong of course…). Going back to that Patriots analogy for a second, that team made it back to the Super Bowl yet again this past February and seemed likely to cruise to another championship, only to lose to the Eagles and their upstart second string quarterback Nick Foles. So close yet so far and all that. Its hard to win a title, just look at how challenging its been for Lebron James who’s only won 3 out of the how many trips to the NBA Finals? If there’s any band that can deliver another masterpiece at some point in the future its Amorphis, whose discography is void of anything I’d call bad or terrible. Each new album has at least yielded a small handful of classics to throw onto the old playlist, and that’s something to be grateful for as a fan (as a Rockets fan, trust me you gotta find small victories). I’ll be seeing the band live in October, and you better believe I’ll be all in at that show.
At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself:
This might seem stupidly arbitrary, but I had a good feeling about this newest At The Gates album when I saw the title. Look at it, it practically screams early-90s At The Gates pretension, cue The Red In The Sky Is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness. When I was first getting introduced to melo-death, those album titles were thrown my way like life preservers by magazines, the scant metal websites around back then and the few metalheads I knew who were already in the know about such things. Those titles were mystical to me, just like Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin At Dusk, or Darkthrone’s A Blaze In the Northern Sky. I love a lengthy, vague, somewhat mystical album title. Maybe this was me just grabbing for something to be excited about, because I was already on shaky ground confidence wise considering how non-existent my relationship to their 2014 comeback album At War With Reality has been since I first reviewed it. To put it bluntly, I don’t think I listened to it again after finishing writing that review, I just never felt the urge to go back to it. For the purposes of putting this new album in context, I did go back and give it a once over, and my feelings largely remained the same as what I put down in my original review —- there were some decent songs, a few really awesome riffs, and a whole lotta paint by numbers At The Gates… it was the sound of a band trying to sound like what it thought it was supposed to sound like to everyone else. It wouldn’t have been half as glaring had Carcass not had their own glorious return just a year prior with Surgical Steel, a record that was as confident, thoroughly of the moment, and also as forward looking as a comeback album could possibly be. It was such a phenomenal record that five years on Carcass have yet to follow it up, and though I’m sure that At The Gates were proud of At War With Reality, I’m glad they’re not letting it be the last word on a storied career.
On To Drink From The Night Itself, At The Gates once again return to the spirit of a band trying to explore the internal limits of their sound. This is an audience challenging album, often times working at tempos that aren’t the breakneck pace of most of At War With Reality or Slaughter of the Soul, some of the most intriguing songs finding other ways than solely speed to project intensity. Take “A Stare Bound In Stone”, an early album highlight where circular riff sequences create a sense of hypnosis, new guitarist Jonas Stålhammar and band vet Martin Larsson playing in mechanical lockstep. The abrupt mid-song lone guitar led drop-out begins a passage of waves and waves of tremolo infused riffing that crash down. My personal favorite is “Palace of Lepers”, particularly for its euphoric, syrupy sweet classic melo-death riff payoff around the three minute mark, and that they let it carry on through the fade out is a nice detail. I could see how a song like “Daggers of Black Haze” might strike some as too slow or meandering seeming, but I think the melody they’re coaxing in that primary riff motif is interesting in its own right, and again with the beautiful mid-song transition (this time at the 2:33 mark), a little classic Gothenburg Scandinavian folk in that acoustic sounding sequence. There’s a real sense of the band attempting to morph or shape the limits of the At The Gates stylistic boundaries, as on “The Colours of the Beast” which is unlike anything we’ve heard them attempt, a staggeringly powerful lumbering riff based monster that rattles the interior cabin of your car if you’re like me listening to it a near full blast.
Of course there’s the lone exception to all this new freshness, that being the title track turned music video, and I’ll say right up front that its a fun, adrenaline rocketing tune, the kind of thing that At The Gates is identified with. The only complaint might be that its a little too close to “Blinded By Fear”, as in really frigging close (that riff is just one or two minor adjustments from being a carbon copy —- guitarists help me out here!). The jarring dichotomy between it and the rest of the songs is precisely why the album speaks to the band’s growth here. The former is a slice of past glories more in keeping with At War With Reality, and everything else is a bit of a strange journey into unknown places with only the slightest of head nods to the ancient past of their first two albums. When I listen to “Labyrinth of Tombs” and its interweaving guitar motifs or “Seas of Starvation” with its rumbling bass riffing and epic, elegiac guitar fragments, I hear a side of the band that I’d never expected (the string section blast at the end of “The Mirror Black” being another whoa moment). I will say that there are some production issues going on here that crop up more in some songs than others, particularly with how muffled the drum sound seems to get whenever everything else is pouring on top of it. Tomas Lindberg, as fine of form in gravelly voice as he ever is also gets a little cramped in the mix, with guitars taking a bite out of his fierceness in some critical spots. I am surprised at just how little I noticed Anders Björler’s absence, with the new guy fitting in remarkably well, not surprising I guess given Anders comments on why he decided to leave in the first place. For the rest of the band, they’ve found their footing after a long reunion process, and it finally feels like they’re really, really back.