Saturday, 17 October 2015

Amorphis' 'Under the Red Cloud' - Album Review

Finland's Amorphis have been around since 1990, and have gone through quite a lot of changes since their 1992 debut album The Karelian Isthmus. Amorphis started out playing death metal, with hints of doom and folk, which made them popular in extreme metal circles. Their second album, 1994's Tales from the Thousand Lakes, is considered a bit of a classic in it's field - something that the band recently celebrated by playing the album in it's entirety live for it's 20th anniversary. Since former frontman Pasi Koskinen's arrival in 1995, the band gradually moved away from their death metal roots, instead taking a more progressive direction focusing on Koskinen's clean vocals. 2005 saw another big change for the band as Koskinen was out and current frontman Tomi Joutsen was in. The band's line-up has been the same ever since, and Amorphis' modern sound has been honed over the last ten years. Joutsen brought back the harsh vocals in a big way, and his ability to transition effortlessly between clean and harsh deliveries made him the perfect frontman for the band. 2006's Eclipse, the band's seventh album, was really the start of the Amorphis we know today. The mix of Joutsen's versatile vocals, founding member Esa Holopainen's soaring guitar leads, and Santeri Kallio's prominent keyboards are the key factors of the band's modern sound - which could be classed as a heavy brand of folk metal, with plenty of death/doom influences. Amorphis have always been influenced by Finnish folklore and music, with many of their lyrics being based around the Kalevala which is a compilation of poetry based around Finnish and Karelian folklore. The band's last album, 2013's Circle (which I never had chance to review but talked about briefly here), is probably my favourite by Amorphis. The songs on that album are so catchy that you cannot help but be drawn in. It is an album that hit me right away, and it is still one I listen to fairly often. This is possibly why I was initially disappointed with Under the Red Cloud, the band's twelfth album. The improved production from Jens Bogren impressed me right away, but the songs took a little while to sink in. Each listen has improved my opinion of it however, and now I think it will be considered as a future classic for the band. The folk elements are very prominent throughout this album, but the strong melodies the band are known for are still present; despite being a little less overt. It is worth noting that Chrigel Glanzmann (Eluveitie) provides a lot of folky instrumentation throughout this album, and this adds considerably to the overall sound

The album's title track, which gets things underway, opens with a catchy piano line from Kallio which is typical of the band's current sound. The song builds around this refrain as Holopainen's sharp lead guitar takes on the same melody and Tomi Koivusaari's rhythm guitar provides suitable crunch. Joutsen's vocals are excellent, staying mostly within his low clean range; with just a few growls unleashed for effect here and there. While the song has a very familiar feel, it does not feel boring because of it. Amorphis' sound is totally unique, and it is always good to see a band doing what they do best. An epic instrumental section later on sees some soaring guitar leads, before Kallio takes over with a fluid keyboard solo fit for a true progressive band. Him and Holopainen trade licks before a final reprise of the memorable chorus brings the song to a triumphant close. The Four Wise Ones is heavier, with some double bass drumming from Jan Rechberger, and some dense riffing from the band's two guitarists. Niclas Etelävuori's bass guitar soon takes over, and cuts through the mix with heavy precision. Joutsen's deep growls bring the doom metal element back to the fore of the song, but his use of higher screams in the choruses works well and creates some variety. While the song is heavy, it is still very memorable with plenty of big guitar and keyboard melodies. Glanzmann's folky additions also help to raise the profile of the track - especially during an ambient breakdown that features Aleah Stanbridge's (Trees of Eternity) effect-heavy vocals. Bad Blood starts out with a really catchy keyboard melody that sits well atop a crunchy guitar pattern. The verses are heavy, with a seriously infectious groove that sees Holopainen and Koivusaari lock in well together to create something meaty. The chorus is a lighter affair, with washings of atmospheric keyboard and Jousten's soaring cleans. In my opinion, he is a better harsh vocalist than he is a clean one, but I still love the tone his clean voice possesses. It has a cracked edge, but it works well in the context of the band's sound, and he is possibly the best thing to ever happen to Amorphis. The Skull is another heavy one, with washings of retro-sounding organ and Eastern-tinged guitar melodies. It is quite a progressive song, with lots of different moments throughout. The ambient instrumental section is my favourite with a bluesy guitar solo, before Kallio's piano takes over. This is one of the songs that has grown on my a lot over the multiple listens I have had of this album, but now it is a firm favourite. Death of a King was released online to generate some buzz for the album's release, and it is one of the most easily accessible songs on the album. The Eastern vibes remain, and the folky elements are pushed forward again despite the grunt-heavy verses. A typical Amorphis chorus elevates the song, and makes it very memorable and worthy addition to their canon.

Sacrifice was also released online prior to the album's release, with accompanying music video, and it is another extremely memorable and accessible song. A soaring guitar melody heralds the song's arrival, before a hypnotic, spiky verse takes over with some interesting guitar rhythms and sparse drumming. The chorus is easily the album's best though, and it is little wonder the band decided to shoot a video for this song. Holopainen also lets rip with an excellent guitar solo, showing that simpler catchy songs can also be musically interesting. This is one of my favourite songs on the album, simply for the fact that it is so memorable and enjoyable to listen to. Dark Path, with it's piano intro and harsh black metal-influenced verses, returns to the heavier end of the band's sound. This is another serious grower, but when the chorus comes in you will be hooked. Repeated listens reveal the beauty of the orchestral arrangement that surrounds the heavy verses, showing that heavy music is not without delicate moments. A chugging riff soon takes over, and sees Kallio lay down a repeating keyboard pattern as the strings swirl and rise around it. This soon drops out, and a simple piano and guitar movement takes us into a final, triumphant chorus. Enemy at the Gates sees the return of the Eastern sounds, weaved within the progressive instrumentation of this song. Etelävuori dominates with his pulsing bassline, and the verses have a strange sound about them that sounds like nothing the band have done before. The very metal chorus has some excellent harsh vocals from Joutsen, and sounds more like the band we know, but the verses are more interesting because of their unique sound. They sound more like something Orphaned Land would come up with! A keyboard solo is a late highlight of this song, and only does more to reinforce the Eastern feel. With a whistle intro, Tree of Ages returns to the classic Amorphis sound. It is a heavy song, with plenty of riffs that are straight out of the melodic death metal songbook, but interspersed with whistle-led melodic passages. While it does not capture the attention like other songs on the album, it is good to get back to more familiar territory after the strange Enemy at the Gates. It does include one of Holopainen's best solos too, as he mixes slower bluesy passages with extreme shredding to great effect. The album's closing number, White Night, is extremely impressive. It is a flat out gothic/doom metal track, with Jousten duetting with Stanbridge in a style that brings to mind bands like Draconian. The chorus is pure Amorphis however, and sees Joutsen's great clean vocals being put to good use. This song is a dense and heavy end to the album, and the duet style works well for the band. Overall, Under the Red Cloud is another great album in a run of great releases from Amorphis. While they stick to what they know most of the time, there are enough excellent songs here (and a couple of surprises) to keep things interesting. I imagine this album will be a big success for them.

The album was released on 4th September 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Sacrifice.

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