The A’s Have It: Amorphis, Arckanum, and Austin Wintory
I’ve been feeling a bit scatter brained lately. I’m blaming it on the always rude and unappreciated onset of the Houston summer, a tawdry mixture of Finnish sauna, exhaust fumes, and short tempers. You may remember last summer I ranted about this in one blog entry (I guess you’ll have to get used to it being a yearly thing), and I talked about how the shift in temperatures made me push away moody and melancholy music for something more upbeat and positive, like classic hard rock and trad metal, something you could loosely nod your head to as you drank a cold beverage outside as your forehead did a nice job of mimicking the condensation on your beer can. That was all well and good, a nice mental exercise to help make the passage of three to four nearly intolerable months, well, tolerable… and as ridiculous as it sounds, I’d been purposefully trying to listen to stuff like that recently, but I think its time to admit that its falling on (my) deaf ears.
The stuff that’s really been connecting with me lately is in fact wintery dark, morose, bleak, and of course melancholic — and I’ve just decided to be okay with that. Better to write about stuff that’s resonating with me for whatever reason than force feed everyone some half-hearted take on the NEW ANVIL RECORD! So, first off, the new Amorphis album, Circle, is really striking a chord with me in a big way, and the I’ll be honest, I was one of those people who thought Amorphis got better when current vocalist Tomi Joutsen joined the band on 2003’s Eclipse. Okay, I loved Tales From A Thousand Lakes and Elegy, but then began the band’s strange, murky, experimental era, and I simply couldn’t zero in on any of those records. When Joutsen debuted on the “House of Sleep” single, I felt the band got some fire back. Coupled with the fact that there was also stronger emphasis on more rock based songwriting, Joustsen’s ability to deliver incredible melodic and emotional vocals resulted in a far more comfortable fit than Pasi Koskinen’s vocals ever could.
On Circle, Amorphis follow up what has been a relatively consistent streak of good dark melodic hard rock/metal albums with a new collection of songs that border on great. There’s the absolutely crushingly heavy opener, “Shades of Grey”, which alternates Joutsen’s excellent screaming vocal laden verses with one of the album’s best choruses. Then there’s my personal favorite in “Hopeless Days”, a song which is built on undulating, shifting percussive rhythms that build up to a heavy, surging, and emotional chorus that’s underpinned by beautiful, tinkling piano. It’s an ear pleasing juxtaposition over which Joutsen delivers his best vocal to date, pouring out tons of emotion into the chorus lyric: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”. This album finds the band at a songwriting high, delivering quite possibly the most well crafted songs in their long career. Its not just about songs being catchy or hook laden, there’s a real sense of artistry that abounds, whether in the flute bird calls in the blistering near black metal of “Nightbird’s Song”, or the dramatic guitar sweeps of “Narrowpath”, in which upbeat Celtic harmonies play alongside moody, downcast Finnish bleakness. Speaking of guitar, Esa Holopainen is on fire all over the album, dishing out beautiful solos, interludes, and really inspired lead harmonies.
Amorphis took me by surprise, not in that I don’t expect good work from them, but in that I’ve been listening to the album nonstop in a way that I haven’t since I heard Elegy. But if that was a surprise then I’d have to say my enthusiasm for the latest Arckanum offering, Fenris Kindir, is coming as a total shock. This is without a doubt, the best black metal out in 2013 (I know, I know… Darkthrone, but is The Underground Resistance really black metal?), as well as the most immersive listening experience of the year. For those who don’t know, Arckanum has been essentially a one man solo project of Johan Lahger, and he’s made a lengthy go it in releasing albums since the mid nineties. I’ll confess, I’ve been unmoved by this project for the most part, despite being exposed to the past few years of releases… and as is the usual way these things go, I have no explanation for why those previous albums didn’t affect me yet the new one does — but there you go. There’s nothing accessible or commercial about this recording, its pure blistering black metal done in a nod to an old school style, with very little in the way of vibrant melodies.
But it makes up for that with its sheer depth in ambient noise, all of which is purposeful in depicting the story of the mythological Odin-killing monsterous wolf. There’s distant tortured voices, a constant wash of feedback, and seemingly inhuman, guttural sounds all over the place. And really only just over half of the album is comprised of actual songs, the rest being a mix of intro/outro/interlude tracks, which may sound annoying, but everything blends into one another for an uninterrupted listening experience. Okay, maybe I’m throwing around the term “experience” too often for what is still at its core brutal and straightforward black metal. But there’s some rather good riffs on display and an overall intensity that is quite the perfect tonic for dealing with overheating summer induced rage. The best moment is on “Angrbða”, a relentlessly fast, brutal, and punishing slice of black metal that opens with an insane sounding tortured female voice shrieking in the distance… only to have (I’m assuming) the same crazed female come back in for a truly bizarre, yet appealing guest vocal midway through. Might be shortlisted for song of the year methinks.
Finally, something that was bound to happen… the first discussion of a non-metal-related album of music on The Metal Pigeon. Stick with me on this, because if you haven’t treated yourself to the sheer beauty and wonder that is composer Austin Wintory’s epic soundtrack for the PS3 downloadable gaming oddity called Journey, then you’re missing out on something really great. I actually don’t own a PS3, but thanks to YouTube I’ve been able to see the game played, and what I saw was a rather inspired and inventive take on merging gaming into pure visual/interactive art. It was IGN’s Game of the Year for 2012, a huge accomplishment for a small, independent developer overtaking such major heavyweights as Halo 4 for example. Well, I won’t launch into gaming talk here, but suffice it to say the very idea of Journey has a built in metal spirit — to me anyway. You wander alone at first, in this beautiful, desolate, epic landscape, always trying to get to this incredibly huge mountain that looms in the distance, and as you go through your “journey”, other players meet you in your world (or their world) and you can potentially aid one another onwards in your quest. Its an elegant visual metaphor for life, solitude, togetherness, and entropy.
Any soundtrack accompanying such an endeavor would have to be just as thoughtful, and trust me fellow metal fans, this stuff will be right up your street. Gorgeously swelling strings, solo cello and violin, brass and woodwinds and also some mighty thundering timpani led percussion. Its a dark, moody, and mysterious sounding work, and a complete one at that — you’ll find yourself listening to it uninterrupted from front to back. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was the first video game soundtrack to ever be nominated for a Grammy Award (it lost out to Trent Reznor, of all people, who did the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack). I’ve always been interested in games that have a relationship with metal, be it soundtrack wise or just in terms of feel. The PS2 game “Shadow of the Colossus” for example really was black metal personified into an epic game where you, a solitary hero named Wander had to venture out into a bleak, harsh, and desolate world to hunt down mighty giant “Colossi”, and defeat those mighty forces by yourself. Tell me that isn’t black metal. Journey then, in its own uniquely ambient way, as a game and soundtrack, seem to reflect some of the deeper virtues that I find within metal as an art. Life as an epic, mighty, yet ultimately doomed quest — its a bleak picture when regarding the destination, but the journey itself is the point, not the end. Didn’t Maiden once say something about not worrying about wasted years?