The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part Three: Sentenced
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!