Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Review: Amorphis, "Eclipse"

The evolution of Amorphis, for me, has been one of the most disappointing musical turns in recent memory. I was a latecomer to the band, only discovering them with "Elegy," an album that completely blew me away. It was exactly the kind of music I was searching for at the time, melodic and moody, yet still satisfyingly heavy. But things started to unravel from there, and instead of becoming one of my favorite bands, they fell off my radar with progressively weaker albums, culminating in the snooze-inducing "Far From the Sun," which, to my ears, is almost unlistenable.

So I didn't have very high expectations for "Eclipse" despite some of the return to glory hype that I was hearing about it. I don't quite know if it's a return to glory (and of course there are some fans who would argue they never fell from grace), but the record is surprisingly enjoyable. New vocalist Tomi Joutsen seems to have injected a little new energy into Amorphis, not to mention bringing back the death vocals, albeit in a minor role. One of the things I loved about "Elegy" was the interplay of clean and death vocals, and it's nice to hear it again at least a couple of times here. Joutsen's voice is a good fit with the style of the album, with the clean vocals having a bit more of a modern rock sound than his predecessor Pasi Koskinen.

As they have frequently before, Amorphis turns their attention to Finnish mythology for inspiration, taking the story of Kullervo from the epic "Kalevala" as the concept for the album. Kullervo is a tragic figure, somewhat akin to Oedipus in Greek mythology. His father is killed by his brother Untamo, who then sells Kullervo as a slave. When he escapes slavery, he finds his family alive, but his sister missing. He later, unkowingly, meets and seduces his sister, who kills herself out of shame. Out of revenge, Kullervo kills Untamo and his family and later kills himself.

OK, this is about music, not Finnish mythology, but I explain the story so that I could say that the music on this album is very fitting for such a dark and twisted tale. It's overall somber and melancholy, but with occasional roars of anger and rage. At times, I am reminded of "Elegy," but at others, it's a much more ethereal and moody, occasionally reminding me a little of fellow Finns Sentenced or some of Opeth's mellower work.

The album opens solid with "Two Moons," showing the band locked into a groove and announcing to the world there's a new vocalist in the mix. The goth influence starts to come in on "House of Sleep," which mixes a commercial-sounding opening with a verse and chorus that evokes Sentenced. We welcome the death vocals back into the fold with the third track "Leaves Scar," which opens with a folky, acoustic intro leading into a nice heavy riff and the first Amorphis growls in a long time. "Perkele (The God of Fire)" provides the heaviest track on the album, showcasing the death vocals more than any other. It's certainly not as heavy as anything from "Tales from the Thousand Lakes," but it does approach "Elegy." On the other end of the spectrum, but equally impressive, is "The Smoke," which opens with a surprisingly upbeat acoustic strum and a guitar lick that reminds me of one of the few electric licks on Opeth's "Damnation." The brief death vocal bits on the song are used to perfection and provide a great punctuation on the clean vocals.

Fans looking for the more complex structures of the band will appreciate "Born From Fire," a mid-tempo number with some cool layered guitar themes and nice slower interludes. There are also plenty of folk and traditional influences throughout the album to appreciate. You won't really find any big epic numbers on this album like you might expect for the style of music. Most check in around 3 1/2-4 minutes, with only the final track, "Empty Opening," reaching the 7 1/2-minute mark (and then, two of that is tacked on silence).

"Eclipse" marks a return to a heavier form of music for Amorphis while maintaining the atmospheric, ethereal sounds they've experimented with on the past few albums. Fans of those records may be a little disappointed with what is, in some ways, a step back toward an older style, but there's enough experimentation here to keep it fresh. I personally like the record better each time I listen to it, as I discover some new small touch that I missed the last time through. For the first time in a long time, this album has made me look forward to what Amorphis will do in the future.

Get "Eclipse."

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