Amorphis have been on quite the tear since acquiring Tomi Joutsen; it is now the third album with this new singer, yet another quality effort which aspires to (but doesn't quite reach) the level of some of their classics (Tales from the Thousand Lakes, Elegy). At the same time, it leaves behind none of the melodic progressive folk/rock aesthetic which the band has been pushing since Tuonela. Skyforger is a happy medium between all walks of the band's career with the exception of their early death & doom.
Joutsen has always had the range to fill the shoes of Pasi Koskinen, but it does seem the band is intent to focus on his clean style, to which he adheres the Finnish gothic radio rock influence of his other band (Sinisthra). He meshes well with the compositions of Skyforger as he did Eclipse and Silent Waters, but I do wish the band would use more growls. I realize they've long sinced moved on from that as their modus operandi, but some of the melodies on this album would have sounded superior with drawn out gutturals over them (think the title track of Elegy). At any rate, the rest of the band is in fine form. The guitars conjure folkish melodies over simple chord patterns and the pianos & acoustics are tastefully implemented. It's Amorphis.
The 10 tracks here are fairly consistent in quality. "Sampo" initiates the album with a stream of twisting, catchy guitars while Joutsen cants some soothing melodies. There are a few breaks in the song with orchestration/flute, but they create a tasteful counterpart to the rocking. It's actually a pretty complex tune and Joutsen does break out the growls later in the track. "Silver Bride" uses a pretty safe melodic structure, and the verses feel 'meh' but the bridge and chorus become quite fetching. "From the Heaven of My Heart" (ugh) begins with some piano balladry, but picks up into a familiar rocking territory. The opening to "Sky is Mine" is very reminiscent of some of the band's Tuonela material, but it's the catchiest track (thus far) on this album, with a memorable chorus. "Majestic Beast" is a heavier track, with growls used as the primary vocals...man WHAT A DIFFERENCE! If only the band has gone this route on more of the tunes. Needless to say, this one brings you right back to their glory days, before they return to safe mode with "My Sun". "Highest Star" is another of those tracks teasing ballad status before it begins to rage, some of the middle segments are quite excellent. "Skyforger" and "Course of Fate" are likewise heavier tracks, emotionally powerful even with the cleans. The album ends on a great note with "From Here I Rose", one of its strongest pieces, again the growl vocals really kick ass.
Skyforger is certainly a strong effort. I really enjoyed its predecessor, Silent Waters, but I think once this gets past the first few tracks, it is every bit the equal. The production is top notch and the performances are superb all around. I can imagine this will be a great album for the autumn when I'm doing scenic drives in New Hampshire and Maine; like many of their previous works, it creates a harmonic confluence with the natural world, and the folklore of Finland's history. The lyrics are poetic and true to the band's past. A few of the early tracks could have used some more growling, it would have created a beautiful atmosphere to counter and enrich the melodies. At least we get this in "Majestic Beast" and a few of the others. Growls are not a bad thing. If someone so much as suggests that they are, shoot them. Either way, I am far from disappointed with the 9th full-length from Finland's sons.
Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (No shape for loneliness)