Monday, January 4, 2010

Amorphis - Tuonela (1999)

Sometimes it is possible to have simply too much of a good idea, and Tuonela is an album that feels guilty of that flaw. On the surface, it seems a natural progression from the cleaner side of Elegy. People seemed to like that album, now let's see how far we can take this direction. Where that masterpiece still had its share of the heavier guitars and a steady use of the growled vocals, Tuonela has very little, focusing instead on the cleaner, progressive rock aspects that the band had been exploring and transforming them into morose but shining anthems. When I first heard this, 3 years after salivating myself into dessication over its predecessor, I was pretty satisfied, having expected them to travel this path. But over the years since, a lot of the lustre has flaked off its gorgeous, minimal skin. Tracks that might have once had me nodding along to their semi-catchy chorus have now become tired, and I often struggle to listen to it in its entirety.

Amorphis continued their practice of swapping out their keyboard player on each successive album. They are performed here by Santeri Kallio, but used to much the same effect. Otherwise, the lineup here is that of Elegy, and Pasi continues to sharpen his cleaner, bitter vocals. This is a 90% 'safe' record, that is to say, if you seek out the beautiful balance of growling death and doom with the progressive/folk elements, you're only getting it on one song. He might growl out certain words or phrases in other tracks, but this is the only one where they are prominent. That song also happens to be one of the best of the album, "Greed", which saunters forward at a bouncing, chugging pace before coalescing into the huge rock & roll groove ala Jimmy Page. Of the cleaner fare, album opener "The Way" has some very memorable picking patterns that blaze over the somber bass line, ever shifting into a hypnotic chorus ala Koskinen.

"Withered..." has a similar feel to "The Way", a driving psychedelic stream of mystical guitar rhythms and a vocal bridge akin to something Simon le Bon might produce. "Rusty Moon" has some excellent, trilling flutes courtesy of Sakari Kukko (who also performs sax on a few tunes here). "Shining" has a great guitar line to it which flows through the verse like the frost melting off a drumlin on an early spring morning. "Summer's End" is very moody and gothic as it drives like a family of R. tarandus fennicus against a setting season, the balance of life and death to be tested in the near endless cold ahead. "Divinity" was one of the more popular tracks on the album, with a decent chorus and occasional grunt, though it's not my favorite here.

Someday fire wipes the rain
Fears are frozen tears whisper
Things that no one hears
Cry now, cry now for me again
Tomorrows pride and pain

Those are all pretty good, but the rest of the tracks don't do a lot for me. "Morning Star" is groovy and scintillating, but doesn't ever develop a catchy sequence of notes. "Nightfall" feels busy and funky, and the saxophone works when it appears, but again I leave the track wondering where the payoff is. The title track "Tuonela" itself is perhaps my least favorite, a bluesy dirge which flushed right back out the ears through which it entered, even the use of the sax here feels a drag.

Despite my mixed feelings towards this album, I don't really intend to come across as completely negative. Certainly there are good tracks, and the mix of Tuonela is one of the best the band has had in their career. Perfectly balanced instrumentation, from the pumping bass, guitar melodies and tight drumming to the non-intrusions of the flute and saxophone. It has a great depth to it, but not all of the songs offer enough meat on the bone. I like that they've continued their lyrical approach into this morphing medium of sound, but I just never get the urge to play through it all, whereas with the last two albums I would not pass a drop of their whiskey. It's not the worst of the Amorphis albums; no, that is still several years out...

Alas, I suppose if you were ever 'turned off' by the growling excess of prior days, Tuonela was a godsend. But the blood of Ukko is not storming through this album in all its glory as it was before, and the result is something understandably less inspirational.

Highlights: The Way, Greed, Withered..., Shining

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (on ground that bears no seed)

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