Welcome to day 22 of my ‘Album of the Year 2015’ Top 30 countdown. No great long intro today, just a reminder to check out my picks from 30 down to 10, all of which are linked at the bottom of this post.
‘Under The Red Cloud’
I mean, who doesn’t love a dose of folk-tinged heavy and melodic metal anthems?! I certainly do and given that few bands produce this kind of music so well means that unless Amorphis released an out-of-character rubbish record, this was always destined to feature somewhere in my list. The fact that ‘Under The Red Cloud’ could be the Finn’s strongest record since 1999’s ‘Tuonela’ (my personal favourite) meant that their inclusion had to break into this years’ top ten.
I wrote a full, in-depth review of this album around the time of it’s release. It can be read in full here. However, to quote a small passage from it: ‘As is the Amorphis way, the record is a little deceiving. Listen superficially and you’re confronted with ten tracks of well-crafted heavy rock/metal with big choruses, the gruff-meets-clean vocal approach of Tomi Joutsen and those archetypal folk-inspired embellishments. It’s a powerful set of melodic and instantly engaging heavy songs that delivers plenty of head-nodding fodder to get the blood really pumping. However, if you’re prepared to listen more carefully, ‘Under The Red Cloud’ can be even more rewarding. Do so, and that initial simplicity and apparent economy of song writing within the compositions give way to something entirely different. Amorphis, comprised of vocalist Tomi Joutsen, guitarists Tomi Koivusaari and Esa Holopainen, keyboardist Santeri Kallio, bassist Niclas Etalövuori and drummer Jan Rechberger are a more complex band than many give them credit for and this record demonstrates this comprehensively.’
It’s no word of a lie to say two things about ‘Under The Red Cloud’: Firstly, there is not a weak track amongst the ten on offer on this record and secondly, in spite of the instant hit of gratification that it delivers, the music just gets better with each and every listen, to the point where you press play and within a few moments of the opening title track, that broad grin returns bigger and goofier than the last time.
If the opener is a bona-fide anthem, then ‘The Four Wise Ones’ is nothing short of a full-on metal monster; it has the riffs, it has the almost exclusive gruff vocals that actually sound savage and yet, at it’s heart, it also has a soft, almost whimsical Celtic-sounding folk melody that helps to soften the edges and create the kind of addictive listening experience that Amorphis have honed and become ever-more famous over their twelve studio releases to date.
The other nice touch about this album is that it quietly nods in the direction of past sounds. From the black/death metal overtones of the ‘Tales Of A thousand Lakes’-era ‘Dark Path’ to ‘Sacrifice’ with its more modern anthemic and up-tempo framework, via more overtly progressive numbers such as ‘Enemy At The Gates’, there’s definitely a rich variety within the compositions that draws upon all of the knowledge and experience of this talented sextet. Add in those decadent Middle Eastern and traditional Finnish folk sounds and ‘Under The Red Cloud’ quickly becomes an irresistible listen and easily one of the band’s best yet.
Throughout their career, Amorphis have been one of those bands that have achieved something rather special. Theirs is an approach and a sound that has evolved over the years from more of a dark/death metal blueprint, to the self-titled ‘melancholic rock’ that dominates their more current output. And yet, the evolution of the sextet has been entirely natural, extremely smooth and, in spite of a few surprises here and there along the way, the Finns have always created instantly recognisable music; there’s never any doubt when you listen to an Amorphis record, be it ‘Tales From A Thousand Lakes’ or ‘Am Universam’, that you’re listening to Amorphis.
Personally-speaking, I’ve been a fan ever since I discovered their 1999 release, ‘Tuonela’. It wasn’t love at first listen but it has become a firm favourite within my collection. From the simple and effective artwork, right through to the dark, brooding and immensely powerful, folk-tinged musical output, it ticks almost all of the boxes for me. If truth be told, ‘Tuonela’ remains my favourite within the entire 11-disc back catalogue despite some real gems of songs found littered throughout their extensive discography.
As an aside, I had the pleasure of meeting the band during my first ever press trip to the Nuclear Blast headquarters around the release of ‘Silent Waters’ in 2007. It was a weekend I’ll never forget, largely because the guys were so damn nice and also, in direct opposition to their generally dark musical output, very funny and light-hearted. But I digress…
I’m now presented with album number 12, the ominously-titled ‘Under The Red Cloud’ with its striking stylised front-cover artwork. And, in a year that has been dominated by bands releasing the strongest material of their careers, the trend arguably continues here. I mean, if this record isn’t their best, it’s very very close.
As is the Amorphis way, the record is a little deceiving. Listen superficially and you’re confronted with ten tracks of well-crafted heavy rock/metal with big choruses, the gruff-meets-clean vocal approach of Tomi Joutsen and those archetypal folk-inspired embellishments. It’s a powerful set of melodic and instantly engaging heavy songs that delivers plenty of head-nodding fodder to get the blood really pumping. And, frankly, what’s not to like about that?
However, if you’re prepared to listen more carefully, ‘Under The Red Cloud’ can be even more rewarding. Do so, and that initial simplicity and apparent economy of song writing within the compositions give way to something entirely different. Amorphis, comprised of vocalist Tomi Joutsen, guitarists Tomi Koivusaari and Esa Holopainen, keyboardist Santeri Kallio, bassist Niclas Etalövuori and drummer Jan Rechberger are a more complex band than many give them credit for and this record demonstrates this comprehensively.
The title track opens the record in relatively quiet fashion with a piano melody that’s overlaid with some subtle and expressive guitar work. However, the track builds and it’s not long before it blasts into life and blossoms into a bona fide anthem. The chorus is huge and there’s a smattering of Joutsen’s gruff vocals in and amongst an otherwise clean, vibrant and soulful delivery which is full of dynamism fitting the sonic landscapes perfectly.
The follow-up ‘The Four Wise Ones’, on the other hand, is a full-on metal behemoth. The vocals are exclusively gruff and the chunky riffing and dark overtones are a joy to listen to. In fact, the intensity of it sends shivers down my spine frequently, particularly the opening staccato riff and deep, almost inaudible growls that gives way to a chugging, stomping tempo. It’s during this track that the first big hints at Amorphis’ folk influences emerge too, acting as a lovely counterpoint to the metal onslaught elsewhere in the song.
With an album as strong as this, it’s impossible to mention every composition individually. Suffice to say that every song has something within it to delight the listener.
‘Bad Blood’ features another immense chorus and some of Joutsen’s most passionate and expansive vocals on the record as well as some interesting guitar and keyboard effects that provide something a little different. ‘The Skull’ benefits from a simple but effective melody influenced by the Middle East, a chorus that has a waltz-like tempo and a quiet mid-section where the guitars sing and a beautifully-played piano adds further depth and sophistication.
The aforementioned Middle Eastern inspired melodies are taken up a level on one of the most prominent tracks, namely ‘Death Of A King’. A sitar adds authenticity and is a striking addition to the more standard metal instrumentation that accompanies it. This track also has more of a progressive feel to it by virtue of the way in which it flows from one idea to another, culminating in a sprawling chorus that is currently my favourite on the record, stopping me dead every time I hear it.
Elsewhere, ‘Sacrifice’ is an up-tempo blood-pumping, catchy anthem that’s ubiquitous latter-day Amorphis. The moody ‘Dark Path’ displays more of an old-school Amorphis feel to it, toying as it does with hints of black metal in the verses. And ‘Enemy At The Gates’ pulls together the progressive elements, the folk influences and the hook-laden choruses, wrapping it up in a track that feels epic despite it’s relatively short five-minute length.
‘Tree Of Ages’ really goes to town with the folk melodies and authentic instrumentation and, in something of a twist, the album is closed by ‘White Night’ which features soft and breathy female vocals to great effect alongside another catchy uplifting chorus to send us on our way.
Well, what do you know? As it turns out, mentioning every track wasn’t impossible! In fact, I found it more impossible to miss any out in this review, thereby further underlining the strength and consistency of the record.
A review of an Amorphis record wouldn’t be complete without touching on the lyrics. I’m not in possession of them so I can’t comment with certainty, but it’s a safe bet that, in keeping with every record up until now, the lyrical content focuses upon the traditional Finnish epic story of Kalevala. If that’s indeed the case, then the folk embellishments fit the subject matter perfectly.
So, in summary, what is there left to say that hasn’t been said about ‘Under The Red Cloud’ already? It’s a near flawless record that does what great music should do – it transports me to another place away from the humdrum and the mundane, it envelops me in its warm embrace and it makes me smile, enriching my life every time I immerse myself in it.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here: