Thursday, May 3, 2012

Swallow the Sun weaves vibrant textures through the Emerald Forest

Mikko Kotamäki once told me the trick to pulling off a harsh vocal style is to make sure you're not pushing out too much.

I wonder how he manages to avoid that, then. When he unleashes his trademark guttural roar, it hits with the force of 10 men. It's the type of growl that echoes off the walls and rings all the way to the deepest recesses of a concert hall. And it's an asset that serves him well on Emerald Forest and the Blackbird, the fifth album from the renowned Finnish doom metal outfit.

Swallow the Sun has entranced its listeners by summoning forth layers upon layers of agony, and burying its fans under the crushing force of Juha Raivio's guitar riffs. But do not think they are all slam and bang. One of the Blackbird's key strengths lies in its ability contrast softer passages with ones much more sinister and heavy.  Check the very first track or a pitch-perfect example of this.

The title track opens the album with some slow, doomy chord progressions accented by enchanting keyboard melodies. The stage is set for Kotamäki's thickly accented speaking voice, which informs us he is going to be reciting a story of some sort:

"Sleep my child, lay down your head and leave this pain,
I'll read you these last pages of the tale"

Kotamäki continues in his eerie lower register, with accompaniment by a ghostly female aria. Meanwhile, the guitar falls silent to give us a chance to soak this all in.

It's precisely at that moment that get blindsided by an intense blast of death/doom metal guitar work, while Kotamäki's vocals are so bleak and oppressive they could literally swallow the light of the sun and devour it whole. His story focuses on two lovers who become eternally separated from one another under the green glow of an emerald forest. The climax delivers the prolific bombast of 90s style black metal riffage, complete with blasting double bass and a sense that you've lost a part of yourself you'll never get back.

With Emerald Forest and the Blackbird, Swallow the Sun once again demonstrate they know how to play with our emotions. As always, there is heavy helping of gothic elements. There are themes anger, despair, lovers being separated, and the like. There are whispers of hardened hearts who bear no forgiveness. And the lyrics are filled with eloquent nature references - being trapped in a dark forest, haunted by the ghosts of winter, and bathed in the summer rain. All pretty much par for the course in doom metal.

And yet one of the key elements that make Swallow the Sun unique is the way Raivio's winding guitar leads play off of and complement Kotamäki's voice.

The closer, "Night Will Forgive Us," is a prime example. Some of Juha's best leads are heard here, while Kotamäki spells out one of the darkest messages on the album - that our wounds never truly heal, and stay with us in some shape or form all through life.

The band also does a great job of presenting a sense of variety. "Hate, Lead the Way!" sounds like the name of a Children of Bodom song, and perhaps it's no coincidence that the shrill, raspy vocals are somewhat reminiscent of Alexi Liaho. This is one of the few tracks on the album that stays aggressive throughout, while still keeping true to the sonic nature of the rest of the album.

Then you have "This Cut is the Deepest," which features all clean vocals. It's a very lush, atmospheric track with a catchy chorus. Mikko's spoken word rasp is accented perfectly by Juha's guitar and the clashing of Kai Hahto's cymbals.

Without a doubt, one of my favorite tracks on the album is "Labyrinth of London," a no holds barred song telling the story of Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of London. The spitfire riffing truly breathes life into the dark and gritty nature of the subject matter.  Midway through, there is a spoken word sample of London by William Blake, which gives it a "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" type feel. We are then treated to one of Juha's most majestic and powerful solos, while bells toll in the background.

I wish we got to hear them sound like this more often.

"Cathedral Walls," another of the album's highlights, features guest vocals from Anette Olzon of Nightwish. The piece opens with a sweet, winding, Opethy guitar lead. Kotamäki begins with some heartfelt vocals, and there is some subdued piano which leads into Olzon's wispy chorus. All parties involved do an admirable job, although the transition from the heavy passage back into Olzon's final stanza is rather abrupt.

At this point in their career, you basically know what you're getting with a Swallow the Sun record. That said, Emerald Forest and the Blackbird is another solid entry into their catalog, and perhaps even slightly mellower than some of their previous work. The Opeth, Katatonia, and My Dying Bride similarities continue to shine through, though perhaps if you appreciate bands like Agalloch and Dissection for their attention to nature you may well appreciate this also. Personally, I find they begin to drone on after a while, although there are several choice cuts to be found here. At any rate, its' a record that will provide you with plenty of new details to discover each time you load it up.

Score: 83/100

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