AMORPHIS: TALES FROM THE THOUSAND LAKES (1993)
1) Thousand Lakes; 2) Into Hiding; 3) The Castaway; 4) First Doom; 5) Black Winter Day; 6) Drowned Maid; 7) In The Beginning; 8) Forgotten Sunrise; 9) To Father's Cabin; 10) Magic And Mayhem; 11*) Folk Of The North; 12*) Moon And Sun; 13*) Moon And Sun Part II; 14*) Light My Fire.
On this record, the Finns made a bet for something bigger — going from generic death metal to something that could, in all honesty, be called «progressive death metal». But have no fear! This does not, by any means, imply that they simply started omitting breaks between compositions. On the contrary — the emphasis is on making the whole thing slightly more palatable to general audiences by smoothing out the excesses of the «death» approach, and adding diversity.
Formally, the changes are embodied in the addition of a new member, Kasper Mårtenson on keyboards, whose presence influences almost every song and who also contributes one of the band's trustiest live standards ('Black Winter Day'). Another shift is reflected in the credits: primary growler Tomi Koivusaari has all but withdrawn from compositional work, leaving most of the songwriting to lead guitarist Esa Holopainen — resulting in a much more melodic sound overall. Finally, the band even adds a bit of clean vocals (delivered by guest star Ville Tuomi), although clearly as an «experiment» (what do you know, they told us there is this bizarre thing called «singing» and we just wanted to try it out — no idea if it will catch on — probably just a passing fad, but who knows...).
It all works. Suddenly, the riffs start becoming memorable and even impressive! 'Magic And Mayhem', for instance, begins like a progressive anthem, with a romantic lead guitar line backed by snowy organ — then pushes into Sabbath territory with a monster riff that sounds as if it came straight off Sabotage — then, two minutes into the song, shifts gears once again into a more thrashy direction, and then, before it all ends, still has enough space to insert a bizarre synth solo that almost seems to be coming from the acid house planet.
Neither there nor anywhere else do Mårtenson's keyboards ever become aggressively annoying — a usual misstep with metal keyboardists, who tend to spoil the fun by either engaging in boring and lifeless solos or dissolving the heavy guitar crunch in a chemical atmosphere of Yamaha Magic and Mystery. Kasper uses his instruments to lay down concise, melodic lines, and he always knows when to fade away into the deep background or even completely shut down to let the guitars take over. Check out 'The Castaway', for instance, where, once the main riff sets in, the keyboards are buried deep, adding an extra dimension but never overwhelming everything.
If anything, the difference is felt if you simply play the first five seconds of each song — where every song used to begin with a crashing power chord, the band now adds melodic guitar intros ('Castaway'), melodic twin piano/synth intros ('Black Winter Day'), or just plunges straightahead into «chugging» riffage ('To Father's Cabin'). The result is a record which, while still heavily monotonous in tone, has no intention of passing itself off as an overlong musical joke, so typical of over-the-top genres of which death metal is clearly one. Whether it really suits the spirit of the Kalevala, from whose stories most of the lyrics are drawn, is for everyone to decide, although it is likely that most of Amorphis' fans outside of Finland have no idea of what the Kalevala even is — here is a great chance to find out. Thumbs up.
The CD edition also adds four bonus tracks from the Black Winter Day EP which came out two years later: the two-part 'Moon And Sun' is an okay epic, much in the vein of the album itself, but the real clinker is, of course, the death metal version of the Doors' 'Light My Fire', growling vocals included. I must say, though, that, other than the vocals, the song lends itself pretty well to death metal interpretation.