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Whether art imitates life or life imitates art, there is one profound difference between the two. In life, it’s a good advice to stick to a winning formula once you have found and perfected it, but try to do so in art, and soon enough you’ll be accused of stagnancy, lack of creativity or selling out. But how to evolve from a state of virtual perfection without compromising your best assets and alienating those that you have just managed to impress?
Amorphis have been facing this dilemma for a while now. The trilogy of Eclipse, Silent Waters and Skyforger (2006-2009) is one of the most consistently flawless sequences of albums in metal, but with the deserved success grew the pressure on the band not to rest on its laurels but to move on and diversify. The first answer was The Beginning Of Times (2011), another formidable album with a more progressive approach to it, but the complex, lengthy opus took even long-time fans a while to get into and was quickly dismissed as “more of the same again” by less patient occasional listeners. Nevertheless it featured some of Amorphis’ most brilliant compositions and its only notable shortcoming in my ears was the relatively subdued role of the guitars, especially compared to Skyforger. Awaiting the new album, Circle, I therefore rejoiced upon reading that producer Peter Tägtgren, working with Amorphis for the first time, had made it his priority to keep the guitars heavy and upfront.
The first song immediately confirms this statement. “Shades Of Gray” is the most brutal opener on an Amorphis album since “Weaving the Incantation”, and by the time Tomi Joutsen unleashes his first massive “RRRAAAIII”, you’re willing to believe that this might just be the band’s heaviest longplayer to date. The song was already played live on tour last December, a tasty appetizer that raised high expectations for the album itself. It is followed by “Mission”, which starts much more softly, with Niclas Etelävuori playing a beautiful bass melody over music-box style keyboards and subtle acoustic guitars. The main riff is classic Amorphis, and composer Esa Holopainen also adds a playful guitar solo towards the end, something he denied himself on most of his own songs on the previous album. Well done.
So far, so good… yet, the next song is the first indication that Circle perhaps isn’t the new pinnacle of Amorphis’ achievements after all. “The Wanderer” has a pleasing melody, but it lacks excitement and stays on the same low intensity level from beginning to end. I cannot be the only one who would have expected that missing extra kick to be delivered with the final chorus, but all we get is a modulation – Amorphis’ favorite compositional device since the days of Karelian Isthmus and a perfectly legitimate one at that, but on Circle, for the first time, I feel like I’m hearing it a little bit too often and at the expense of other means of embellishment. “Narrow Path” has a bit of the same problem – it’s an uptempo folk beauty in the grand tradition of “Brother Moon” and “Song Of The Sage”, but unlike those two, without that additional power boost towards the end. However, the only actual weakness of this song is the chorus, which falls strangely flat after the promising verse. The way Tomi sings “here´s my future” makes me hope he isn’t alluding to his own future as a vocalist. Apart from that it’s an excellent song and one of my favorites on the album, not least so because of Sakari Kukko’s masterful flute.
“Hopeless Days” was released as a single a few weeks in advance of the album and surprised by not sounding like the typical Amorphis radio single at all. With its rumbling bass and aggressive guitars, it was an exemplary introduction to Tägtgrens productive input, and the riff underlying the keyboard solo even harkens back to the twenty-year-old “Exile Of The Sons Of Uisliu“. One strange thing though – in case of the last four longplayers, the first single always sounded a bit lame at first listening but grew on me in the context of the full album. This time I’m experiencing a reverse effect. Nothing against the song as such, but the fourth one in a row with clean vocals throughout (apart from the barely traceable background growls in the verse of “Narrow Path”) on what was supposed to be the heaviest Amorphis album, like, ever? And all of that clean stuff happens within one octave, as if the sexy lower third of Tomi’s vocal range had never existed. What the f…….
….ucking hell, now we’re talking! “Nightbird's Song” kicks ass like no tomorrow, period. Tomi Koivusaari may not be the most prolific songwriter in the band, but when he gets down to it, he means business. (We’re talking about the man who gave us “My Enemy” on the last album.) As for his namesake, Mr. Joutsen not only delivers his absolutely meanest death growls to date, but alternates them with unheard-before black metal screams with a license to kill. If you need a reason for buying this album, look no further. “Into The Abyss” returns to the clean-only scheme, but with a more interesting melody. The most prominent feature of this song is its 7/4 verse riff that keeps the listener hooked from the first bar. The short but sweet keyboard solo is followed by an exquisite Gilmour-style guitar solo which cements this track’s position among my favorites on Circle. “Enchanted By The Moon” corroborates my notion that the second half of the album is stronger than the first and treats us with one final round of serious death metal. This is the Amorphis we love – brutal yet melodic and not afraid to try out new things, such as the patiently drawn-out, slow and stately outro.
The closer is one of the songs keyboarder Santeri Kallio went to church for – the mighty organ of Helsinki’s Paavalinkirkko is heard on a few other tracks as well, but most prominently on “A New Day”. Its solemnity is countered by a funny, 1980s-style synth break about halfway through the song. The latter half contains more ear candy from Sakari Kukko and rounds the album off in style, except that in my opinion it should have been kept instrumental. The reprise of the chorus sounds forced and is an awkward reminder of the weak spot of this otherwise fine album: the lackluster delivery (and, by Amorphis standards, unoriginal melodies) of most choruses, and more generally, the failure to use the full potential of Tomi Joutsen’s amazing voice. Whatever happened to his powerful harsh-but-melodic vocals that accounted for so much of the glory of his first three albums with Amorphis? And while his clean voice is undeniably awesome, it rarely unfolds its full splendour here. Maybe the lyrics are to blame – judging from what I can figure out by ear, the concept story of a fictitious character’s spiritual rebirth seems to remain pretty superficial for the most part and nobody could be blamed for singing lines like “he laughs at himself, now it’s easy to let go” with less passion than, for example, “I forge my wisdom into an arc surrounding all”.
Don’t get me wrong, though – to criticize Amorphis is complaining on the highest level. These guys know how to write and arrange great songs and there is plenty of things I like about Circle, such as the prominence of the guitars and the variety of wind instruments from flute to pipe organ. A few more smashers like “Nightbird’s Song” next time, and the sky shall again be theirs.
1. Shades Of Gray
3. The Wanderer
4. Narrow Path
5. Hopeless Days
6. Nightbird's Song
7. Into The Abyss
8. Enchanted By The Moon
9. A New Day