|Greg Northrup||11-August-2002||Amorphis - Tales from the Thousand Lakes/Elegy/My Kantele/Tuonela|
Amorphis is a Finnish group that began life playing primal death metal with superficial Finnish folk influences scattered throughout their early albums: a self titled 7" and two full lengths, The Karelian Isthmus and Privilege of Evil. The mid-90s saw a sort of creative renaissance in extreme metal, and Amorphis' intensely forward-thinking 1994 album, Tales from the Thousand Lakes was arguably one of the catalysts for this movement. The wake of this album saw increased experimentation and acceptance for other brilliant works from bands like Moonspell, Tiamat, In Flames, Opeth and Arcturus. The album had a significant progressive influence, utilizing vintage keyboards and "clean" vocals along with harsh death metal growls, an idea which was quite novel at the time. However, the best was yet to come, as Amorphis' creative development came to full fruition on their 1996 masterpiece, Elegy, a definitive step forward. The album clearly illustrated a love on the part of the band for progressive rock and folk music, further incorporating stellar keyboards, better clean vocals and an incredible sense of melodic inventiveness. The album is a perfect mixture of utterly primal heavy metal and darkly beautiful "proggy" elements, a paramount work that capitalizes on contrasts and tension between these two forces. Both albums have an underlying concept, as they are based on traditional folk tales from two important collections that are definitive Finnish cultural documents, The Kalevala and The Kanteletar.
Unfortunately, the band's continual forward progress would see them dump the death metal elements altogether on subsequent albums, opting instead for a more traditional progressive approach. A stop-gap EP, My Kantele hinted at a new direction, but albums like 1999's Tuonela and their newest Am Universum lack that primal edge that made earlier albums so great. While Tales... and Elegy saw the ambitious songwriters impassioned with a need to stretch the definitions of extreme metal, the last two albums find an Amorphis that is quite comfortable outside the bounds of genre definitions. Though the albums are certainly competent, and might even hold more appeal to a progressive rock fan, their truly visionary days are probably behind them. Tales from the Thousand Lakes and especially Elegy are both essential for those looking to explore some truly progressive and original heavy metal opuses.
Tales from the Thousand Lakes (1994)
Tales from the Thousand Lakes was actually a fairly revolutionary album when it first came out. Amorphis took the quickly stagnating basic death metal structure and injected it with a huge folky and progressive melodic ideas, including keyboards and a stand-in "clean" vocalist to contrast Tomi Koivusaari's earth shattering warbles. In retrospect, the keyboards and new vocals don't really add much to the songs, they were just kind of there as a statement, and they would not see full and proper integration until the band's next opus, Elegy. Still, the songs here simply kill, displaying an ambitious naiveté that is positively endearing. "Into Hiding" and "Castaway" open the album with a solid one-two punch of great riffs and killer melodic hooks. "Black Winter Day" is the song that everyone points to as being a highlight, and indeed it lights the way for the even more ambitious direction the band was about to take. Phenomenal. Amorphis incorporates death metal, folk music, prog as well as some doomy and gothic overtones that are eventually discarded on all the later albums. An excellent companion piece to Elegy.
Elegy is without a doubt one of the most important albums in my life, and definitely a sentimental favorite. I remember when this came out, I was pretty much listening to mediocre alterna-metal like Helmet or Stone Temple Pilots along with my Priest and Maiden albums. I was utterly flabbergasted. I had no idea that people still made music like this. This album got me into fringe extreme metal acts that were so much better than anything remotely "mainstream", and from there got me into progressive rock. In listening to this album for the first time in a couple years for this review, I can hear that this music still sounds fresh and certainly trumps the vast majority of the current "prog-metal" pack as far as creativity, originality, complexity and vision. Elegy is truly an important album.
The musical adornments that the band toyed with on their last album, Tales from the Thousand Lakes, such as keyboards and clean vocals, are fully integrated into the band's sound, thanks for full-time professionals stepping in for those roles. The arrangements as a whole are intensely more progressive, featuring extremely diverse instrumentation, vintage keys, attacking guitar parts as well as a swirling and dynamic metallic base. Much of this album is simply beautiful, paying respectful homage to 70s progressive, especially on tracks like "Orphan", "Weeper on the Shore" and "Elegy". Meanwhile, "Against Widows" and "On Rich and Poor" are total tour-de-forces, with Tomi Koivusaari's primal roar exploding out of the speakers in front of a complex and melodic guitar attack. The album is based on a book of traditional Finnish literature entitled The Kanteletar, and the band incorporates a huge amount of ethnic influences into their music, such as on the bridge of "Cares". An excellent progressive metal album that blows away all the Dream Theater clones out there. Without a doubt one of the finest ever. I have to recommend this to anyone looking for truly complex and original metal with a fully integrated "prog" feel to it.
My Kantele (1997)
My Kantele was a cool stop-gap EP that was intended to whet the by now rabid fanbase's appetite between full-length albums. My Kantele is a mix of original and cover material. The first track is an acoustic reprise of "My Kantele" from the Elegy album, which was already on my version of the album. The two original compositions on here are very good, but show Amorphis slowly leaving any connection to death metal behind them. There is a significant Pink Floyd type atmosphere in both the songs, and Koivusaari's "death" vocals are completely absent. The last two songs are covers, the first of Hawkwind's "Levitation" and the other a song by Finnish hard-rock/prog legends Kingston Wall, unequivocally exposing a few of the band's prog influences. Overall this is a worthwhile pick up for the price, and though a slight letdown from Elegy, it's after all only an EP.
Tuonela was a pretty big disappointment coming from what was then one of my favorite bands. I guess it would have been impossible for Amorphis to keep writing within the same style as Elegy, and this album sees Amorphis adopting a more traditional progressive approach, albeit retaining much of their significant folk and ethnic influences. However, the heavier edge and brilliant tension of Elegy is gone. One of the main problems with this album is the vocals, Pasi Koskinen steps in as full time vocalist and is, unfortunately, painfully inadequate. Though he sounded great on Elegy, he seems to function best merely as a counterpoint or background vocalist. His mediocre and sometimes seemingly out-of-tune lead vocals definitely put a damper on the album as a whole. The songs just aren't very memorable anymore.
Musically, this is pretty good. Again, more of a progressive rock vibe as opposed to a metallic one, but still complex and often beautiful. Nonetheless, Amorphis can no longer be considered at the forefront of extreme metallic art. They've toned down their sound and decided to pursue other avenues. For me, this is a huge let down after the metallic supernova that was Elegy, although it may be unfair to incessantly compare a band's new albums to their past achievements. I guess I wouldn't mind so much if the vocals were better and the songs were more memorable. Overall, mundane, to say the least.
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