Approaching the release of Amorphis‘ 12th studio album, my anticipation would best be described as skeptical optimism. That wouldn’t be the result of uncertainty in what Under the Red Cloud would offer. Rather, it’s because I thought I knew what to expect. Don’t get me wrong, Amorphis is one of the greatest melodic death metal bands in history. There is always optimism and excitement over a new album, almost by default. But over the past half decade or so, they have fallen into a bit of a trend. Each release has still been deservedly met with high praise, however it was time to expand on their sound. With Under the Red Cloud, Amorphis does exactly that in exactly the right ways.
When looking at Amorphis’ history, it’s best broken into two definitive halves — The pre- and post- Tomi Joutsen years. Following his arrival in 2005, Amorphis released three melodic death metal masterpieces in Eclipse (2006), Silent Waters (2007), and Skyforger (2009). The subsequent albums, The Beginning of Times (2011) and Circle (2013), were both well received, yet have not held up as well as the preceding albums, resulting from obvious stylistic similarities. So, many have been ready, and expectant, for a bit of a change. And here we are. At its core Under the Red Cloud maintains that same style we have grown to obsess over throughout the past decade. But it’s a certain willingness to regularly layer new dimensions over this version of melodic death metal both within and between tracks that make this release so definitive.
To start from the beginning, the opening title-track immediately grabs its audience with ease in a way that only new Amorphis could. Maybe not the most unique, but the classic melodic opening and gorgeous guitar leads are instantly captivating. And once Tomi joins in with his clean vocals, the sound takes off. This is a track that covers everything we’ve ever enjoyed about Amorphis’ sound. Heavy at times, strategically delicate at times, and powerful throughout, it’s classic Amorphis. It’s a brilliant introduction, giving us everything we’ve ever loved about Amorphis, before moving into the more creative and complex moments of Under the Red Cloud.
One defining feature you notice early on is the darkened weight that is consistently present within the 10 tracks (12 including the bonus tracks). As soon as we break into “The Four Wise Ones”, for example, we are met with furious tremolo picking and a galloping cadence, offering a powerful form of aggression. Supplementing this style is Tomi’s incredibly diverse vocal performance, on this track and the album as a whole. Going from his recognizable deep growls, to higher pitched barks, and frequented clean singing (with a fascinating flange effect in one instance), it certainly adds to the album’s dynamic to say the least. The implementation of these heavier moments on, say, “Bad Blood”, “Enemy at the Gates”, and “Dark Path”, gives the songs, and album, some appropriately applied attitude.
As we advance through the album, we also see their folk influences surface in new, intricate ways. Of course, folk has always served some form of roll in Amorphis’ music, but with Under the Red Cloud, it’s an element that comes to the forefront more confidently, giving each song an added bit of intrigue. For example, just when the album seems to settle into a routine during the likes of “The Skull”, we’re immediately met with the introductory twangs of “Death of a King”. Along similar lines, “Tree of Ages”, one of my personal favorites, opens with a beautiful use of wind instruments before breaking into some of the more aggressive bars on the album. From the instrumental creativity to Aleah Stanbridge’s beautiful backing vocals, Amorphis’ folk background soars to new height from start to finish in Under the Red Cloud.
These aforementioned influences are just the beginning. Looking at Under the Red Cloud from a more encompassing viewpoint, we see an album that possibly delivers more than any other under Toni Joutsen. It’s an ambitious record that seeks exploration of various weights and tempos from start to finish. But it’s an ambition that pays off. All the transitions from one stylistic influence to another are seamless, especially within individual songs. It all comes together to paint a picture of absolute clarity for the overall album. Each song is its own story, crafted in its own form. While the album as a whole may be less conceptual than past Amorphis works, everything still ties together with addicting effortlessness.
From musical style to song structure, it’s everything we’ve ever appreciated about Amorphis with an appropriate amount of experimentation to impressively advance their sound to new heights. And it’s come at just the right time. It’s Amorphis in their purest form, but delivered with more creativity than anything we’ve heard in years. Like every Amorphis album, the quality is undeniable, but how it holds up over time will define how it lines up against the greats. That said, I am convinced Under the Red Cloud has the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the best melodic death metal albums of all time. Time will tell.
“Ein Bier… bitte.”