After transforming the surly roots of The Karelian Isthmus into the dreary, downtrodden mystique of Tales from the Thousand Lakes, one had to ponder just what Amorphis would do to top themselves. It hardly seemed possible, and yet in 1996, they produced one of the most impressive offerings I have ever heard within the loose confines that comprise the metal genre... transcending that genre, in fact, into a myriad of possibilities that marks one of the most fascinating metamorphoses I have heard from a musical entity. Clearly the band had a deep love for not only the folklore of their nation, but a wealth of older musical influences from afar...a passion betrayed by the use of the moog on the previous album. But this is taken to new heights with Elegy...a masterwork of inescapable, diverse songwriting upon which every song is un fucking real, timeless and memorable, and strangely uplifting, though the echoes of the bands doomed past still poke their ugly, haunting noses through the mix.
Elegy is flawless, beautiful, and more complex than you might expect. Even my least favorite track on the album (which, coincidentally, would become its 'single' EP namesake) is brilliant. You could randomly select a dozen other, stagnant death metal bands from the mid 90s and pick their brains for weeks and they would not come up with something this impressive. And it all starts with the acquisition of Pasi Koskinen, whose nasal but infectious tones work in both clean and aggressive growling formats, married well to both reference Koivusaari's previous work and direct the band towards a new direction. Yes, the purists got all their panties in a bunch when this album arrived, because the clean vocals were no longer the simple curiosity they explored on Tales of the Thousand Lakes, but a crucial factor in this record's effectiveness. While Kim Rantala replaced Kasper Mårtenson here on the keys, organs and accordion, he too manages to streamline the transition.
"Better Unborn" may seem a subtle indoctrination into the moments that await, but in fact it makes for the perfect setting of the stage. The organ-driven tones suddenly sprout a mystic guitar rhythm, and we are treated to a full range of Pasi's vocal stylings, impressive in their clarity and brutal potential. The wah-wah of the guitars creates a folk-funk paradise over the scintillating synthesizers, as the bass steadily climbs towards each chorus crash. And then, the elfin dance that is "Against Widows" begins, humppa-like bass lines flogging each graceful step before the track explodes into a glorious surge of melody and grunting, followed with an insanely awesome verse. The heights to which this track ascends are barely containable within the human heart, as it simultaneously pulls at the strings of joy and sorrow. "The Orphan" offers you a breather, as a proggish synth rings out over the flanged, soothing acoustics, and Pasi turns in the best clean vocal performance of his career, as he belts out the gorgeous narrative of birds: The dove�s heart is cold as it pecks the village rick/But I�m colder still as I drink the icy water. When the track hits the 2:40 mark, it creates a percussive low end below the writhing guitar melody and sweltering choir synth, before the bluesy conclusion of the bridge.
As if to apologize for the sultry nature of the previous track, "On Rich and Poor" simply explodes directly onto the map, with a series of leaden melodies so fucking brilliant that they send shivers up my spine. If you cannot feel that melody after :20, then I really question whether your ears work, because it's one of the most stunning guitar lines I've ever heard, a powerful charge that seamlessly bears the weight of the growling vocal. Speaking of stunning, the way the dual bridge melody at 2:00 transforms back into that original tour de force will steal your breath away. "My Kantele" follows, and you likely all know this one, an electric ballad with enough swagger to tap your mug, horn, or lady once, twice, thrice until sodden or spent. I prefer this heavier version of the song, but if somehow can't stand the grunting on this track, you will be taken care of later. "Cares" is another scorcher, with a slamming chug rhythm that undercuts its looping, amazing melody in a way reminiscent of late 80s King Diamond. Alas, the synths are once again an escalating, incredible presence, and the rhythm created alongside the growling at :50 is another of those spine-chillers. The song takes some very interesting turns, with glimmering, astral polka and even surviving a brief techno fill as it soars to its mountainous summit and searing, funky lead.
Drag my cares away, carry off my griefs
For no horse can draw, no iron-shod jerk
Without the shaft-bow shaking off
The cares of this skinny one, the sorrows of this black bird
Lyrics and music do not often work together this well, do they? Again, Amorphis are able to transform an ancient script into a series of relevant diatribes that conjure not only history, but scenery and emotion that almost any listenere can relate to. "Song of the Troubled One" allows Rantals some room to work his various synth sounds into another tribute to majesty, as the funky guitars return behind a burning lead, and the band once again crafts one of the greatest melodies in the history of metal music after 2:00. Yeah. I don't even believe in angels, but I have to admit shit like this could only be written by such divine agents, because it is just that pretty. "Weeper on the Shore" is another folksy, flowing ballad, complete with growling, circular swinging synth lines, and a fucking killer melody shared between synth and axe at 1:00. "Elegy" itself is the dopest creation this side of the galaxy, with a mesmerizing piano pattern that gracefully ascends to its climactic, doomed mid-section, well worth the 7+ minutes of the composition. Now when I say doom, I mean 3:15 of "Elegy" is what DOOM should fucking sound like. Eternal, crushing like the weight of a thousand suns as they lower you into your casket with careful, burning hands. This is excellence on par with the best of anything Candlemass or Paradise Lost have ever written.
This is actually the climax of the album, but Amorphis still have a few goodies in mind for you, beginning with the Hawkwind-like space-folk psychedelics of the instrumental "Relief", and then the acoustic vocal version of "My Kantele". It goes without saying that both are extremely song, and while I myself might favor the heavier vocals with "My Kantele", I am sure there are a great many in the audience that prefer its mellow counterpart. And thus, we have it arrived at the end of nearly an hour of balanced, unflinching, unforgettable songwriting. It must be time to press repeat!
Elegy is like a vortex where psychedelia, history and melodic death metal were fused into an expression so natural that you wonder how its components were ever separate to begin with. Every note is so carefully gathered into its overarching rhythm, that with a fine-tooth I could not comb over this album and find a single awkward selection. Certainly this is not the type of album we had grown accustomed to by the year of 1996, and while it's not the only career defining masterpiece of this year (Samael's pendulous, cosmic, drum machined masterpiece Passage is comparable), its originality, grace and grasp of superb, memorable craftsmanship has given me 15 straight years of enjoyment with no signs of ever ending. Yes, I still shiver when I think of how much impact this album had on me as I entered the third decade of my life, and I still blush when sharing it with someone new for the first time. It's like taking someone's virginity...they have heard music before, but not quite like this, and you need to ease them in to. Unless you like it rough, then just blast "On Rich and Poor" in their face until they relent their bad taste.
Highlights: In the 60s, man landed on the Moon. In the 70s...um, disco?! In the 80s, The Wall came down. In the 90s, Amorphis listened to disco, then wrote Elegy, and then even the Moon was worshipping it. Buy a copy for yourself, and every person you know.
Verdict: Epic Win [10/10 to the 10th power] (softer the side of a grove)