Here’s a quick pair of reviews from two bands making their Metal Pigeon blog debut, an unremarkable feat I know, but it does reflect something I’ve noticed about these first eight weeks of 2017. That being that most of the new music I’ve been listening to has either been from bands I’ve never reviewed, or simply bands I’ve never heard of before. It seems like “new” is quickly becoming this year’s theme, as I’ll have a handful of reviews for relatively unknown bands coming in March when a slew of new albums are released, but for now check out a bit of what February had to offer:
Battle Beast – Bringer of Pain:
For as much as we (I) go on and on about how Finland is the new center of the melo-death universe and how bands such as Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, and Amorphis are making melancholy incredibly appealing to us outsiders, its not all there is to Finnish metal. And I’m not talking about the country’s theatrical power metal vein ala Nightwish and Sonata Arctica and their forebears in Stratovarius either. There’s a third strain —- not a major one, but certainly one that’s been around long enough to warrant being identified as its own slow-growing subset, and its the sound we hear on the newest Battle Beast album, Bringer of Pain. I’m talking about this fusion of hard rock and trad metal with glam-rock roots first heard in Hanoi Rocks, The 69 Eyes (well… until recently that is when they decided they were going to be H.I.M.), Lovex, Lordi, and many others. There’s some spillover to Sweden as well, making this a partially Scandinavian phenomenon, but Finland is where it just seems to lean heavier. Normally I’m game for this vein of hard rock/metal, but I ran into a stumbling block with Battle Beast when I was first introduced to them via Dr. Metal’s Metal Meltdown show years back —- the doc was a big fan, and he promoted them often but nothing really sank in with me from what I heard on his show.
When they released 2015’s Unholy Savior, it went un-reviewed here at the blog, largely I think because I never really could figure out what the band was trying to accomplish. That’s a silly way to phrase it (they want to rock of course dammit!), but you know what I mean: One song they’re trying for epic, standing on the mountaintop power metal (“Lionheart”, “Speed and Danger”) and the next they’re writing pop-inflected cuts that felt at home on old Sandra and Berlin albums (“Touch In The Night”). I didn’t want to criticize them for being diverse, because rarely is that a negative thing, but both approaches were also quite different from the more Judas Priest-influenced straight ahead style that characterized their first two albums. In retrospect I might also have been still in full-on adoration mode for Triosphere, another Scandinavian melodic metal band with a female vocalist that had just released 2014’s Album of the Year winning The Heart of the Matter, an album that was vibrant and diverse, yet whose songs were stylistically bound together with the band’s musical and songwriting approach. In comparison, Battle Beast’s approach came across as forced and trite.
I think I was onto something there, because this same personality disorder pops up in startling ways on Bringer of Pain —- which is why I’m surprised at how I still enjoyed listening to this album despite them. It helps that the songwriting has improved in the areas that they do best. That’s a vague statement, but I hear it embodied in songs such as “Familiar Hell”, the most overtly pop-influenced song on the album and one that brings to mind a merging of Motley Crue with Roxette (practically distinct from verse to chorus!), as well as “We Will Fight” with its old-school synth lines setting that delightful 80s mood during the verses before the Warlock-esque chorus and outro riffage. Speaking of which Doro is a useful touchstone here, and vocalist Noora Louhimo channels her above all else, that raspy rock n’ roll vocal which seems born of leather, diesel fuel, and long drives across the autobahn. She exerts herself fully on “Lost In Wars”, the album’s most intriguing song with its stormy moodiness and Amorphis vocalist Tomi Joustsen’s duet guest spot alongside. There’s a few throwbacks to the Priest-driven style of Steel, as in “King For A Day” and “Bringer of Pain”, the latter of which seems to channel Painkiller almost exclusively. They’re both pretty decent rockers, but they’re distracting from the more pop-rock feel of the rest of the album (hence my psychological diagnosis for the band).
The strength of the album is indeed found in the more Roxette-ish of the cuts, namely “Straight To The Heart”, “Beyond the Burning Skies”, the aforementioned “Familiar Hell”, and the spectacular balladry of “Far From Heaven”. In short, all the songs where Louhimo is allowed to extend her femininity into her vocal performance and sharply contrast it with the brusqueness of her rock n’ roll instincts as well as the band’s knack with a gritty, catchy riff. Regarding “Far From Heaven”, you guys know I’m a sucker for ballads, particularly 80s-inspired power balladry like this, and while I get that they’re not for everyone, there’s no denying this is as awesome an ode to their glorious heyday as we’ve heard in awhile from anyone. She even gives a little R&B flair towards its final minute with improvised vocal runs, sounding all the world like Laura Branigan or Tina Turner, its an awesome moment. But here comes the personality disorder once again in “Dancing With The Beast”, a head-scratching bit of synth-pop that never really takes off on its own and just sits awkwardly adrift in the tracklisting. I’d be surprised if anyone actually enjoyed that song, and hopefully the band learns to play more to its strengths and not jump around so much stylistically on future albums. I’ll break it down in a fairly simple equation, Battle Beast at their best = Doro/Warlock + (Motley Crue x Roxette).
Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:
If you’ve already listened to the newest MSRcast, you’ll have heard my initial reaction to these guys as it was my co-host Cary who introduced me to them the night we recorded that episode. Aeternam is a four-piece from Quebec that is playing a style of metal that is commonly referred to as Oriental metal or Middle-Eastern metal, obviously more of a commentary on its sound as opposed to being solely about a band’s geographical location. As a subgenre, its small but bubbling, with leading lights Orphaned Land, Myrath, Melechesh, Khalas and Amaseffer out in front with a smattering of bands on the periphery. Typically all these bands have roots of some sort within the Middle East geographical region, but due to the difficulties of actually playing heavy music in those countries (Orphaned Land a major exception), output has been limited and most of these bands have had to relocate to Europe and North America to simply have the infrastructure to make international waves. Aeternam fall into that camp, their roots with this Oriental metal sound sourcing through vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy who was born in Morocco before emigrating to Canada. From the few interviews I’ve read, he brings the cultural influences into the songwriting process that he shares with fellow members Antoine Guertin (drums) and Maxime Boucher (bass) —- how exactly all that works in the kind of detailed minutia that I’d really love to know is still unknown to me… all songs are credited to “Aeternam”, though it seems Loudiy is the key figure here.
No matter, because the influences are pretty obvious, and more importantly, their vision is surprisingly clear. Aeternam infuse basic melo-death with Behemoth-esque brutality, a Septic Flesh-ian progressiveness to their death metal, while wrapping it up in a cinematic grandeur that you’d normally associate with Therion. What’s surprising is that they actually pull this off, because as I observed aloud in the podcast, this could’ve been a total cluster$#@&. They’re unafraid of allowing melody to drive these songs, as you’ll hear on the album opener “Damascus Gate”, whose Gothenburg verses are book ended by Arabic violin melodies and feed into a convincingly strong clean vocal chorus. Loudiy is just as strong a pure singer as he is a powerful growler, recalling both Matt Heafy and Nergal respectively, and you never get the feeling that the clean vocals are forced (if they seem to have a shade less unique character than say Orphaned Land’s Kobi Farhi, well keep in mind these guys are living in North America after all). His performance on “Sun Shield” is particularly crushing on both fronts, with growling vocals that are percussive in their syncopation, energetic in their execution and setup a satisfyingly clean vocal hook.
The stuff that really makes me keep coming back to this album however are its expansive, cinematic, and often solemn moments where the cultural folk influences outshine the metal surrounding them. On “The Keeper of Shangri-La”, tribal drums and acoustic guitars played in Arabic scales and patterns serve as the soundtrack for Loudiy’s impassioned clean vocals, singing about a long forgotten land “…in a garden of eternal bloom / Forever in silence”. Its a nice break in the tracklisting from the first three uptempo heavy songs, and it serves as a refocusing for the album before launching into the album highlight “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel”, a symphony propelled epic built around a chanting chorus. This is a gorgeous, expansive song that owes more to the musical theatrics of Dimmu Borgir or Therion than any melo-death band, and the traditional percussion and acoustic strumming that mark the mid-song bridge are an unexpected delight. Similarly, the folk instrumentation that fuses together in the lovely “Nightfall on Numidia” is recorded with precision, with thoughtful melodies at work guiding everything together towards Loudiy’s vocal duet with Moroccan vocalist Hind Fazazi. There’s actually a handful of guest vocalists all across this record, a couple people in the choir and a tenor and soprano helping throughout, and you’ll notice these little details here and there in addition to the diverse instrumentation.
This is Aeternam’s third album, their first in five years and it was time well spent, these songs apparently having gone through a long gestation period that served them well. I’m trying not to exaggerate too much here, but this really is one of the straight up most enjoyable Oriental metal albums I’ve ever heard. They actually have carved out their own lane here as well, as their drummer Antoine observed, “We’re not as brutal as Nile, not as raw as Melechesh, not as soft as Orphaned Land, and not as symphonic as Amaseffer”. You can’t help but hear some of those aforementioned bands’ elements in Ruins of Empires, if only because the shadow they exert over the subgenre is so long, but I also hear Aeternam synthesizing all these disparate influences into a cohesive central sound that honestly hasn’t been done in Oriental metal up til now. At the risk of overstating things, I think this is the genre moving forward a bit, becoming wider, more accessible and yes even more metal. When Orphaned Land’s All Is One was released, some longtime fans bemoaned the band getting a little softer, moving away from their metallic sound. Myrath is simply a non-starter for some folks because of the glossy production and prog-power clean vocals, while to others, Melechesh’s extremity is simply too much to handle. Enter Aeternam to fill the void left at the center of that triangle.
This was a dicey proposition from the press release alone. The exact wording that left me feeling uneasy was “it is a concept album made up of one epic 40-minute song”. What the heck? Did the Insomnium guys get confused and show up to Moonsorrow’s rehearsal space, shrug their shoulders and say “Screw it!”? This was such uncharted territory for a band who despite delivering consistently cohesive albums on a sonic and lyrical level (in aesthetic values at the least), is not exactly known for writing full blown, narrative-driven concept albums. Insomnium has always operated in a broad, expansive thematic field, their lyrical subject matter able to deftly shift between plainly written outpourings of introverted despair or the usage of folk allegory and natural imagery to communicate an intensely personal feeling. Their best album, 2011’s One For Sorrow, was a shifting, undulating collection of light and shade, moods and temperaments across a collection of songs about the memory of loss and the ache of loneliness. But this new album Winter’s Gate, their seventh overall, is based on a short story by vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen about a band of vikings that set out to discover a fabled island west of Ireland as winter approaches. Word is that Sevänen actually won a few literary awards for the original Finnish version of the short story, so its got some literary academia cred behind it. But even the finest storytelling won’t amount to much in the context of a metal album if the music doesn’t pull you in, let alone a singular forty minute track… and on that note, a bit of clarity is needed.
I’m not sure how all of you are consuming this album, but I got two copies —- somehow I landed a promo invite for this album thanks to a kind PR rep despite not being a regular for Century Media releases, and then my deluxe edition book arrived in the mail. So here’s the thing, on the physical edition of Winter’s Gate you get the album as one track at 40:02 in length, no cuts or segmentation at all —- yeeesh. However, on the promo copy, the album is divided up into chapters (titled “Winter’s Gate Pt. 1” and onwards through seven). This was curious, so I did some looking around and it turns out that perhaps the band or label was forced to make some cuts for the digital release of this album, and I wonder if its due to track length limitations on these various platforms such as iTunes or Spotify (perhaps caching such a long song is a problem?). Notice that audiobooks sold over iTunes are heavily segmented, even massive ones like The Silmarillion or the Game of Thrones stuff (maybe I’m way off on that theory, just speculating). What’s clear is that the band preferred to have this album consumed as one long, singular track ala Crimson by Edge of Sanity, their admitted inspiration for its structure (and perhaps not coincidentally, Dan Swano handles the mixing of this album!).
As for myself, faced with two options in listening experiences, I opted for convenience’s sake and went with the segmented digital copy. Firstly it would help me because often times in reviewing I’ll play the album straight through, and then go through it again in reverse order just to see if my opinion isn’t being strongly influenced by the first couple tracks (a long standing practice that isn’t talked about much publicly was/is to front load an album with what’s considered the best material and thus get the over burdened rock/metal press to peg glowing reviews, however skewed —- see Sepultura’s Roots). Anyway, that being the case, you might find it frustrating that I refer to particular sections of “Winter’s Gate” by the chapter instead of marking the time that you’d find in the 40:02 single player. I apologize in advance for that, but I do actually wish they’d sliced this up on the physical release a bit. I get why they chose not to, but if I only had the physical copy to play or rip to my laptop, it’d be a frustrating thing for me to get to my favorite chapter of the album, or a particularly awesome moment I really wanted to hear right then. That is a criticism I’m leveling at the band right away, because I applaud ambition (even if a forty minute song on paper sounds dreadful) and I love the guts it took to do something daring like this album when it could so easily backfire —- but a little detail like slicing the piece into skip-able sections shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to low attention spans in the iPod age, but simply as a considerate feature for your passionate fans.
I’m happy to say that all my fears about what this album could have sounded like are allayed, and in fact, Winter’s Gate might just be Insomnium’s most gripping, powerful piece of music to date. It’d be pure speculation to suggest that it was a purposeful internal reaction to the somewhat mixed reception of 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun, but it sounds like a band having a sense of urgency about their art. That idea of urgency is most vividly heard in the increase of raw brutality that streaks across the album like that bear’s paws across Leo’s back in The Revenant, barreling at us in the form of harsher, more guttural vocals by Sevänen, and a surprising second wave of Norwegian black metal injection that courses through much of this material. That particular facet begins straight away, where blastbeats and furious tremolo riffing combine in a violent musical bed over which more traditional Insomnium-esque lead guitar melodies spiral upon at a slightly slower tempo. In other words, its a merging of Finnish melo-death mournful melody and Norwegian black metal hypnosis into something truly unique, and you’ve never heard Insomnium sound this heavy or impactful before. Its a satisfying combo, particularly when they add in flourishes of Gothenburg, or let’s be more specific, Jesper Stromblad-ian speed-picking riff flurries as a just-as-frenetic yet lighter shade to the black metal furor. My first playthrough of the album had me grinning like an idiot only a few minutes in “Winter’s Gate Pt. 2”.
And it was right around that time where we are treated to our first tastes of a more recognizable, classic Insomnium sound (approximately 8:43 for you folks with the single track), with guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala abruptly shifting away from a staggeringly brutal passage into a flowing, beautifully written, lilting open chord sequenced solo over chiming acoustic guitar. We also get our first dose of Friman’s excellent clean vocals, suitably downcast in tone but still built on tuneful melodies and helped along by his perfect enunciation that pairs well with only the slightest tinge of an accent. This chapter ends with swirling, long guitar sustains, like leaves stirred up by gusts of autumnal winds, quietly falling into a hush from which rises “Winter’s Gate Pt.3” (at the 12:52 mark). This section really reminded me of Porcupine Tree, not only for the syncopated rhythm section with playfully bouncy bass and dancing guitar lines, but for the paintbrush strokes of keyboard generated atmospherics that move in and out of audible range like waves lapping a shoreline. Vanhala has mentioned in interviews to referring to this chapter’s guitar solo as his “Dire Straits moment”, and its easy to hear why he’s characterizing it as such. It caps off an overall lovely 5:52 minutes of delicate musicality largely built upon progressive rock touchstones and dynamics (I say delicate because even Sevänen’s harsh vocals are a little more subdued when he comes back in towards the end).
Its not only a welcome musical interlude that is engaging and oddly comforting, but it sets up my favorite moment of the album in “Winter’s Gate Pt.4” (begins at the 18:45 mark). Friman has steadily been growing in confidence as a clean vocalist since his work on One For Sorrow, with his largest leaps marking some of Shadows of a Dying Sun’s finest moments (“Lose To Night”), and on this particular chapter he fully realizes his potential. His clean vocals during this section range from Mikael Akerfeldt earthiness in the beginning of the chapter (“Still I bear the flowers…”) to near Pink Floydian epic layering towards the chapter’s emotional crescendo (“I walk with my head down…”). Listen to this chapter with headphones, because there’s some impressive acoustic guitar work going on underneath all the heavy layers of riffs and aggressive vocals that absolutely needs to be heard. I also love the sombre, twilight conjuring use of piano to mark the beginning of “Winter’s Gate Pt.5”, as the instrument is an Insomnium staple at this point and it’d be strange not to hear it. What it introduces is the march towards some of the most dark, intensely heavy music the band has ever done —- cue up 29:36 where a classic Insomnium bittersweet melody unfurls into a blisteringly fierce section, Sevänen’s vocals delving down into previously unheard death-doom territory over tremolo riff sequences.
By the time we reach the concluding “Winter’s Gate Pt.7”, we’re somehow still not ready for the sheer violence that the band plunges you ear first in (specifically at the 34:31 mark), with Sevänen’s vocals exhanging guttural death-metal for the coarse, wind-strained harsh black metal barking more associated with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson. If you’re following along with the lyrics and the storyline in general, this is around the time when it all hits the fan for our viking friends, but even if you’re not, the urgency and sense of madness conveyed by this awesome, eye-opening sequence is certainly heart pounding. The guitar work is inspired and tremendous, and the implementation of tremolo riffing isn’t a gimmick, it really does have a way of getting your hackles up as a listener —- funny how so many black metal bands never learned that tremolo picked passages work best when used alongside tempo accelerations and shifts and counterpoints… a melo-death band from Finland seems to understand that intuitively. If you want another example of tremolo passages being used in non-black metal music to powerful effect, check out Sweden’s own Falconer on their Armod album.
Something we should consider on the guitar front is Vanhala’s longer period of time within the lineup, he is in fact a co-songwriter all through the album, contributing to the music alongside Friman and Sevänen. Friman used to handle most of the music by himself, but he seemed stretched thin in spots for Shadows with some notable exceptions. I wonder if Vanhala’s integration in the music writing was the catalyst for injecting some much needed change with the way the guitar riffs and passages were envisioned and written (Vanhala is the primary songwriter for Omnium Gatherum whose music is considerably more uptempo and frenetic than Insomnium’s… well, until now perhaps). I’m absolutely thrilled that Insomnium pulled off the improbable here, and dare I suggest that they’ve made one of the most complete albums of the year. Its nicely concise, something I think the band needed after spending a decade in 55 minute plus territory through most of their albums, and despite the single track on the physical release being a significant flaw, the music here is strong enough to lock in most attention spans. Insomnium are a rather smart, intellectual bunch (check their bios), so credit to them for realizing that they had to shake things up somehow, even if that meant doing so in the riskiest way possible.
So remember a few years ago when I introduced a much trumpeted on-going series called The Metal Pigeon Recommends? No…? Well don’t feel bad. The premiere edition focusing on Falconer came out in October of 2013, and it wouldn’t be until nearly a year later in August of 2014 when I’d get the second edition out, focusing on the Scorpions post-1993 career. In my on-going effort to take a break from the new release review treadmill, it was well past time to bring this feature back to the blog. And though two years late, I’m happy to release the third iteration of this rather blog-defining feature, this time focusing on Finnish goth metal legends Sentenced. Now’s a good time to post that quote of myself from the series debut explaining this whole concept in the first place:
This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration and motivation in writing this blog, that being the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them.
My introduction to the band came in the form of 2002’s stunning The Cold White Light, an album I had on repeat for the better part of that year while I sought to revisit their older catalog album by album. They were unique to many ears, certainly to mine, a frayed-edges take on metallic hard rock with melancholy flowing through its veins —- the dirtier, darker, far more troubled cousin to their countrymen of H.I.M. whose goth-rock was just beginning to make females across Europe collectively swoon. Goth rock/metal as a concept wasn’t new to me, I had enjoyed a little Type O Negative and was totally mesmerized by The Cult. Sentenced were tagged as goth largely because they made music concerned with the darkness associated with loneliness, mortality, the fragility of life, and whether there was simply any meaning to it all. But those universal topics were put through a distinctively Finnish filter, both musically and lyrically, and you can bet that meant melancholy in huge doses, even when their lyrics were purposefully humorous or tongue-in-cheek (see “Excuse Me While I Kill Myself” for starters). Their album artwork and photography in their album liner notes also mirrored the tone of their music, all shots of desolate Scandinavian landscapes, lonely places with scant vegetation, and ice, lots of ice set against a backdrop of grey-blue skies. To an American living in the ecstatically bright city of Houston, Texas, Sentenced were fascinating just from their imagery alone.
I want to clarify something for everyone before we start: I got into this band when they were well into their goth-metal era, having long abandoned their death metal roots of 1992’s Shadows of the Past and 1993’s North From Here. For the purposes of this article, I’m only going to be discussing the band’s 1996-onwards output, or more pointedly those albums with Ville Laihiala as vocalist, his rough and slurred baritone spurring a schismatic shift in their sound. With all due respect to those earlier works and the difficult 1995 transition album Amok, those records never commanded my attention the way their goth-metal approach did (I can appreciate them academically, with a metal historian’s perspective, but they don’t strike a chord emotionally). With that in mind, and in keeping with the format of these Recommends features, I’ve picked out ten Sentenced songs that I personally love and that have meant something to me (listed in order of their release date). I know that you die-hards out there will likely scoff at how few cuts from Down and Frozen ended up here, but as much as I love those albums I personally feel that the band only got better and better as they forged ahead. Now, bow your heads…
“Noose” (from 1996’s Down)
This was the dawn of that schismatic shift in sound I was mentioning up above, the first proper song on Laihiala’s debut as lead vocalist. He comes in over a confident series of crunchy, fuzzy riffs, with a voice all his own, full of rich character and glorious imperfections. Its not that he is a native Finnish speaker trying his best to deliver lyrics written in English —- the Finnish power metal scene was full of bands like that —- instead, its that his delivery is one part drunken bellowing, one part syrupy sweet vocal melody, and two parts full-on don’t give a $%^# attitude. I haven’t been able to dig up any old interviews with the band explaining how they came to settle on Laihiala’s voice as the perfect fit for the band, but I would love to get a glimpse into what their thought process was, because it was a gutsy move. When I introduce Sentenced to friends, nearly all of them have balked at the suggestion simply due to not liking Laihiala’s vocal style alone. And I get it, he’s a love it or leave it proposition, but seriously, his vocals are such a perfect fit for the grim yet wry lyric, “Yeah, I think I’ll put my head / into the Noose and let it all go…and so I will”. This was the spectacular highlight off an otherwise good album, one that saw main songwriter/lead guitarist Miika Tenkula and fellow guitarist/primary lyricist Sami Lopakka take their first run at becoming the dominant songwriting tandem they’d ultimately become.
“Farewell” (from 1998’s Frozen)
I think it could be argued that Frozen wasn’t as compelling overall as Down, the latter seeming to benefit its songwriters with the excitement of writing for a new voice and in a new style. But for all Frozen’s flaws, its spotty highlights shined bright, the most stirring of these being the oddly upbeat sounding, propulsive rocker “Farewell”. I say odd because the lyrics read as a suicide note, a theme that was explored later on this album in “The Suicider”, these two songs being seedlings for greater exploration on the theme on the next few albums. I’ve always found “Farewell” of particular interest because it was Laihiala’s first credit as a solo lyric writer (he had two co-lyricist credits on Down alongside Lopakka), and it suggests two things —- first, that Laihiala quickly took to the band’s penchant for all things depressing and despairing, and that Lopakka wasn’t territorial or over-protective of his role as chief lyricist… if the new guy had something good, he’d be all too happy to roll with it. And “Farewell” certainly was something good, Laihiala’s vocal melody leading the way alongside Tenkula’s almost jangly, Cure-like guitar patterns during the refrain. It was a lighter song, the beginning of something new for Sentenced, where they’d keep the heavy, dirty riffs for the verses and allow a chorus with a strong melody the space to soar.
“The River” (from 2000’s Crimson)
Sentenced delivered their first masterpiece in Crimson, a confident, hook-packed refinement of their goth-metal sound helped along by the best production quality they’d ever had. And to emphasize as much, the band was finally delivering softer, slower tempo songs that were able to burn with the smoldering intensity found in their faster, heavier counterparts. On “The River”, Tenkula demonstrates his ability to communicate with as few notes as possible, the clean plucked electric guitar pattern serving as a start to finish motif that is sombre, reflective, and full of regret. Lopakka occasionally joins in with a series of crunchy, gritted-teeth open chord blasts, while Laihiala gives one of his many truly awesome vocal performances. He’s the perfect voice for the narrator in “The River”, one who’s caught in the grip of alcohol addiction, reflecting on his situation during “Yet another morning / that feels like this /Yet another life’s bitter kiss”. There are a lot of songs in rock and metal that talk about addiction, but rarely do they ever come across so helpless and resigned, as Lopakka’s lyrics manage in the refrain: “What can I do now except continue / and open a bottle once more / What can I do now except see this through / and float with the stream, off the shore / see where the river will take me”.
When I listen to this song today, I can’t help but think of the tragic nature of Miika Tenkula’s passing in 2009. He was only 34, and while the official cause of death was never publicly released (I’ve read claims varying from a heart attack to kidney and liver failure from alcohol poisoning), it didn’t seem to come as a surprise to anyone in the Finnish metal scene. Sentenced were known for their predilection towards the bottle and in reveling in that particular aspect of their “Finnish-ness”, and I suspect its what largely led Lopakka to develop his hatred of touring, that the one hour on stage was awesome but filling the rest of the travel time was an exercise in self-destruction for nearly everyone in the band. The guys have been quiet about Tenkula’s death, and while I would think its out of respect for his family, I suspect a lot of it has to do with how Tenkula’s remaining years reportedly were spent. The band went into 2005’s The Funeral Album with the intention of it being their swansong, that the band had run its course and they wanted to go out on their terms. I’m sure everyone agreed to this, but while four of the five band members went on to other projects, Tenkula languished —- he had gotten noticeably heavier by the time the band filmed their farewell show on the Buried Alive DVD. Its not for me to start rumors, but quietly I’ve wondered whether he was simply depressed over the band ending and drank until his heart stopped working. He released no new music, there was no news of forthcoming projects. Life for Tenkula seemed to come to a halt —- unfortunately, we’ll never really know.
“Killing Me Killing You” (from 2000’s Crimson)
I had a massive internal debate about whether or not to order this list in chronological order as I have, or in order of what song I think an interested newcomer to Sentenced should try first. If I went with the latter, “Killing Me Killing You” would’ve been at the very top, without the slightest hesitation. This is the finest song Sentenced ever recorded, with Tenkula’s most elegant, all-encompassing, downright perfect melody distilled into a gorgeous piano line that he knew was so good, it starts off the song naked alongside Laihiala’s crooning vocal. Lopakka wisely wrote his lyrics to match the piano melody, and while the explosive and ultra-hooky chorus tends to get all the attention, I find the true heart of the song lies in its verses. These sections speak to a theme that is often at the heart of many goth rock/metal bands, the idea of lost romance or a romance going astray. Sentenced put their spin on this by talking about a romance being poisoned: “Baby, have you seen, there is a snake in our paradise / A serpent that’s wriggling between us / and freezing our feelings to ice”. But our narrator isn’t certain, and during the second verse he asks aloud in a heart-wrenching lyric: “Darling, do you feel, there is a storm coming our way / The burning light between us is already starting to fade”. Lyrical imagery tends to work best when its impressionistic —- you don’t need Laihiala to sing-tell you that storms bring wind, and winds can blow out candles, but its that unspoken imagery that your brain is processing in the background, making that lyric ache so much.
Part of the appeal of “Killing Me Killing You” to many fans is in how they were introduced to the song. Some through the album I’m sure, but a lot of us first saw its music video (somehow, way back before YouTube). Its one of the finest metal videos of the past twenty years, beautifully shot with a thoughtfully artistic concept. Dare I suggest that the slow-motioned shots at 1:56 of Laihiala singing atop that frigid dockside platform, wind whipping his hair in his face as the band hammers out the song in the background are the most iconic images of Sentenced… ever? I could go on and on about it, but I figure its a good time to bring in another perspective, this belonging to the late David Gold of the Sentenced-influenced Canadian band Woods of Ypres. Gold was an active participant on the Woods of Ypres Official Forum at Ultimate Metal, and in searching through his posts shortly after his passing, I came across the following post in a thread called “The Music Video that Changed Your Life!“. His choice of course was “Killing Me Killing You”, and he really said it all:
“I was 19 years old and had grown up on a steady diet of Metallica, Pantera and Slayer while living in Northern Ontario, Canada before I saw this video for the first time on the Much Music’s (Canada’s MTV before we had MTV) one and only metal show, the 30 minute a week program called “LOUD” which aired at 11:30 on Saturday night when “derds” as we were called, would most certainly be at home watching television, as I was. I believe this to be the first time I saw a video from a Finnish metal band and the one that “changed my life”. Being a Northern kid, I could identify with parts of the video such as the Finnish landscape, the woods, the frozen beach in the winter, and that cold blue of not only the sky but often seemingly of the air itself, and SENTENCED were metal, which I also thought I had figured out by then, but this band was more than what I had become familiar with and it was everything new about them to me that blew my mind. They were tall, long haired Finns, wearing all black, playing metal with piano and powerful, convincing clean singing. It was dark, classy, professional, a cleaner and more serious image of metal than the one I had known, seemingly focused on the atmosphere, the feeling the meaning, the message as the song itself rather than flashes of speed or displays of heaviness within its separate parts. It flowed. I felt it was to be taken more seriously and consumed on a deeper level that everything else I had known prior. The darkness, the cold, the class, the song writing, it was the metal that was all of what I wanted to aspire to become.
– David Gold / Woods of Ypres
Cross My Heart And Hope To Die (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
I consider the last three Sentenced albums to be amazing in their own particular ways, but its The Cold White Light that ranks as my personal favorite among them all. Maybe its slightly due to it being my introduction to the band, an album that I bought at one of the few record stores that had a decent metal section without hearing a second of it beforehand simply due to thinking the cover looked cool and different. The intro track aside, “Cross My Heart and Hope To Die” was the first shot across the bow, my first taste of this band that would soon become an obsession and what an introduction it was. Though drummer Vesa Ranta doesn’t get mentioned often for his (rather solid) musicianship, he was an integral part of what defined Sentenced, and here he stands by laying down thunderous, booming, almost tribal tom hits during the second verse. He shares the spotlight with Tenkula, whose sparse, fluid melodic clean plucked patterns etch emotional motifs that hang in the air and make the entire song pulse and breathe. Laihiala’s vocals are yearning and full of emotive inflection, and if he strains at times to finish a run of syllables without a breath, it only adds to the desperation of the narration. How can a song be about something so grim and dark such as contemplating suicide —- yet sound so full of life? That dichotomy was the essence of the band’s brilliance.
No One There (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
I would’ve linked the music video for “No One There” above, because alongside “Killing Me Killing You” it is one of the most well-executed metal videos in recent memory. My only gripe with it is that the music video was set to the single edit of the song, which cuts out an astonishing minute and a half plus from the song, and not just instrumental parts either —- a whole verse section is missing. The full length version of this song is absolutely essential to getting its complete experience, but I highly urge you to check out the video itself after you’ve listened to the song. Its depiction of an older aged couple dealing with daily existence is powerful imagery when juxtaposed with specific lyrics in the song, “It freezes my heart, my desperate heart / To think we both will die alone”. Taken on its own, it’d be an oversimplification to call this song depressing —- sure it can be, but its lyrics are contemplative and speculative about a topic we’ve all thought about but feel its too taboo to talk about. Its a credit to the songwriting here that we get a chorus that doesn’t repeat a single line, which is not only a rarity in modern songwriting but particularly astonishing in this instance because the chorus spans seven lines of lyrics. There’s the primary chorus, and a mirroring secondary chorus set to distinctively different lyrics all while acting as an outro bridge. My favorite detail is the piano melody underneath that is exposed as the guitars fade, leaving it to close out the song in solitary fashion —- in a clever way mirroring the isolation of the narrator. Amazing stuff.
Guilt and Regret (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
Sentenced blurred the line between the idea of the “rocker” and the ballad (/blatant Scorpions reference), with songs like “No One There” and “Killing Me Killing You” treading the territories of both. Their songwriting approach didn’t shy away from utilizing non-metal instruments such as the piano, and few used to it such captivating effect in creating downcast, melancholic laments. Similarly, “Guilt and Regret” is a quasi-ballad built on a captivating vocal melody and a supporting piano line underneath. Guitars crash in for the refrain and for the furious, anguished guitar solo that follows, but the musical highlight comes during the mid-song bridge at the 2:10 mark, where a head-spinningly gorgeous acoustic guitar solo is ushered out. I found this moment so hypnotically beautiful, I remember rewinding it a dozen or so times after first hearing it —- and its not just that the acoustic guitar melody is so lovely, so full of ache and emotion that lyrics can’t convey, but that its helped along to the finish line by a perfectly complemented rush of electric guitar with a flourish all its own. I love that moment, and I love this song. Its lyrics are admittedly odd and some might say ham-handed, with a narrator citing guilt and regret as his “inbred brothers” with whom he buries their “little sister Hope”. Ham-handed or not, its the gloomiest song about a hangover ever.
You Are The One (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
Sentenced didn’t write love songs, or at least they didn’t until they produced this underrated gem from The Cold White Light. Lighter in tone than anything else they’ve ever done, it was an open window into the pure romanticism that would sometimes course underneath the layers of grim bleakness and despair that characterized their music. Written largely in major keys, its lighter feel is heard in Tenkula’s clean plucked melodic figures that float upwards, and particularly the chiming, lilting acoustic guitars that ring throughout the bridge, giving way to an almost alternative rock guitar fueled chorus. Its a strange mix-up for Sentenced that really works, largely because Laihiala’s vocals remain as rough around the edges as ever, despite him attempting to deliver his best soft-hearted croon. This is also one among a number of songs on this album where Tenkula really gets to demonstrate just how amazing he was when it came to delivering guitar solos. He just seemed to have a knack for writing clear, lucid, flowing solos with strong melodic thru-lines, check the 2:28 mark here for proof —- one melodic figure leads into another before the band kicks in behind him and he explodes into a flurry of semi-technicality with an unexpected finish at its end. Incredibly underrrated as a guitarist, Tenkula was a master of transforming raw emotion into lyrical figures and solos, and this album is full of them.
Drain Me (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)
Finally we arrive at the swansong, The Funeral Album, which the band wrote and released with the full intention of it being their last statement, and indeed it comes across that way with head nods to their death metal past (“Where Waters Fall Frozen”), and a tracklist concluding eulogy that comments on the end of the band’s career in metaphorical terms and ends with an emotional instrumental passage. I do love this album quite a bit, though it isn’t as strong song to song as The Cold White Light —- its high points are incredible however, and “Drain Me” is chief among them. Its actually one of their most accessible moments, built on a strong melodic guitar hookline that’s ushered along by fuzzy-heavy riffs and a chorus underscored by a restrained lead melody that later breaks out into a wild, careening solo. Laihiala is actually the sole songwriter here, one of a handful of solo-penned songs by him throughout Sentenced’s discography and its barely disguised sexual lyrics foreshadow the more direct, hard-rock approach he’d further explore in his other band Poisonblack. I’ve never been wild on the lyrics of “Drain Me”, coming across as vaguely misogynistic (I guess it all depends on perspective) —- but I suppose you have to give Laihiala credit for keeping things vague enough to match Sentenced’s general lyrical tone. It’d be hypocritical for me to rebuff it for that reason alone, after all Appetite For Destruction is one of my all-time favorite albums, and also with a melody and hook this strong, I’d simply be lying to myself.
We Are But Falling Leaves (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)
The ballad of The Funeral Album, “We Are But Falling Leaves” is also its most richly poetic lyrical moment, with Lopakka likening the passage of time to the seasons (“Think of your lifetime as one year / Look autumn is here / Getting colder, the winter’s impending”) and our own lives as falling, autumnal leaves (“We are but falling leaves in the air hovering down / On our way we are spinning around”). Instrumentation kept to a minimum during the verses, coming in full force during the refrain to hit like a sledgehammer, the song’s most remarkable musical moment is Tenkula’s guitar solo at the 2:30 mark, with a string of isolated clean notes giving way to one of his most emotional, expressive solos ever. The natural imagery of this song reminds me of something I’ve neglected to talk about, that being drummer Vesa Ranta’s stunning photography that filled the liner notes of both The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. If you follow him on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see more examples of what I’m talking about, but Ranta is a master of capturing the natural beauty of the Finnish countryside, its often rich and bountiful landscapes and its sometimes desolate and barren locales as well. The liner notes/booklets of both albums were incredibly fascinating to look at simply because of his photographs and the overall art direction that they inspired —- and others took notice, as I observed awhile back when I deciphered the influence of Sentenced on their countrymen in Insomnium.
Its promising that Insomnium is one of the few carrying that influence down the line, because Poisonblack is over, Charon has disbanded, Wood of Ypres ended tragically… bands in this vein are growing few and far between. There’s still Vesa Ranta’s sometimes incredible The Man Eating Tree, who have produced a number of fine singles, and of course Amorphis is still releasing amazing new music, though they don’t quite cross completely over into the darkened musical and lyrical realms that Sentenced so completely inhabited. The fact is that there’s a void in Sentenced’s place, something further emphasized by Tenkula’s untimely passing, and maybe there will always be a void. No band so embodied this particular vein of metal or gothic metal (whatever you want to label it) so fully and passionately. Though they were around in demo form since 1990, they really only started to burn as bright as they did during their 1995-2005 run with Laihiala on vocals, a lineup combination that seemed to bring out the best in Lopakka and Tenkula as songwriters. It was a quick burn though, and I still felt that they had a few more great albums in them. I wish the band was still around, and more than that I wish Miika Tenkula was still alive and making new music, but all that we can do is remember his work and try to let others in on one of metal’s finest secrets. Sentenced is dead, long live Sentenced!