If we were to believe what interviews and press tell us, Swallow the Sun‘s newest triple album Songs from the North was supposed to be the band’s magnum opus — a watershed moment. Candid confession: There is no easy way to write about this album. Partially because of the large amount of material to wade through and how to be thorough in covering it; additionally because all of the hype behind this release creates an extra step in attempting to be impartial. It simply doesn’t stack up to what we’ve been fed by the hype machine; Songs from the North is very much a mixed bag that drowns in its own ambition.
I am, of course, biased in writing this: The Morning Never Came is one of my favorite death/doom albums, and the first three releases from Swallow the Sun helped to solidify the band as a potent force in the death/doom scene. I even enjoyed most of New Moon, which relied more upon its atmosphere and songwriting than heaviness. The band’s previous album, The Emerald and the Blackbird, however, sounded as if the well was running dry in terms of new ideas and originality. I guess if you’re wanting to prove yourself as a still-relevant artist, you follow the mantra of “go big or go home” — what better way to do that than release three albums simultaneously? While I can admire the ambition and the obvious amount of painstaking work that has gone into Songs from the North, ambition and execution are far different things. As the album is divided into three chapters, I felt the most appropriate way to review this was to look at the distinct parts and then reflect on Songs from the North as a whole.
Disc 1 – Business as Usual
As a whole, the first part of Songs from the North could have been better; it starts off well enough with “With You Came the Whole of the World’s Tears,” a slow burner than sets an appropriately autumnal and solemn vibe and takes an Agallochian approach in its alternating approach of acoustic breaks, soaring leads over echoing chords, and sparse verses. It’s a great opener and shows the band at their most dynamic, but that momentum is halted with “10 Silver Bullets” and “Rooms and Shadows,” both of which rely too heavily on their main riffs, rehashed from Hope, and choruses that fall flat because of weak vocal melodies. The band attempt to jump from brutality to beauty a bit too quickly, with the transitions taking place too jarringly to be really effective.
That said, the second half of the album makes up for the missteps on the first few tracks, with “Silhouettes” and “From Happiness to Dust” being the standout affairs. These two tracks bring spidery guitar melodies and a sweeping grandiosity to the forefront as the transitions from verses to choruses sound more natural, and the riffs more inspired. The former especially has a fantastic climax, complete with backing choir and an urgent tremolo-picked melody before surging headfirst into an aggressive, churning rhythm that reminds us that the Finns do still have some death metal in their veins. In general, though, the first disc picks up where The Emerald and the Blackbird left off, but it carries itself in a manner similar to Hope. A standard affair, though the unbalanced first half makes a full listen a chore.
Disc 2 – Upon Which is Earned a “You Tried!” Sticker
I wanted to like this disc so badly. Let me restate: The ambition and willingness to step “out of the circle” here is definitely admirable; the problem is that Swallow the Sun over-exert themselves by attempting to prove themselves as more than what they actually are. The music itself is perfectly passable and can be described as a densely-layered blend of gloomy acoustic rock, ambient electronica, fragile piano, and some post-rock flourishes. Immediate comparisons to Katatonia and latter-day Anathema come to mind, with the folksy tendencies of Amorphis present. All things considered, the instrumentation arrangements are well-written and really quite beautiful, and even at its most cringe-inducing — the chorus of closer “Before the Summer Dies” being the chief offender — Disc 2 is still a well-composed collection of songs on the instrumental level.
So what kills it?
Mikko Kotamäki’s vocals.
Simply put, Mikko lacks the finesse and dimensionality needed to really suit the music here; his clean vocals work best when relegated to the background, not at the forefront. Not that the vocals are tone-deaf or pitchy; they just don’t fit—Mikko’s strong Finnish accent causes all of the lyrics to be articulated with a certain harsh throatiness (the letters “s,” “t,” and “v” suffer the most here) that strives against the beauty of the music, and the vibrato on held notes feels forced and unrefined. Another fault is that Mikko has a limited vocal range and audibly struggles in higher registers, most notably on “Heart of a Cold White Land” and closer “Before the Summer Dies.”
Add these faults to the fact that the lyrics are riddled with just about every stereotype you could squeeze in about autumn and winter in Finland — I dare you to count the number of times you hear about winds, ravens, falling leaves, setting suns, nighttime, and snow — and what beauty is in the music gets crapped on by the band’s desire to demonstrate that they’re capable of more than being “just” a metal band. The problem is that they already have within the rest of their discography, and the forging of new paths feels belabored and overcalculated.
Despite these flaws, some genuinely good ideas are at work: “Womb of Winter” moves from darkness to light and back again; “Away,” instrumentally, drips with serenity and harmony upon harmony, and “66°50’N, 28°40’E” layers upon itself endlessly with modulated, delayed guitars and a descending arpeggio that drives the song into a wintry glow before a red-hot lead guitar pierces through.
Had the vocals been better executed, I would have been more generous to this disc, but the vocals intrude on the music so much that it’s hard to separate the two.
Disc 3 – (Sort of) Sweet Redemption
Disclaimer: This isn’t funeral doom per se, though the press releases would have you believe so. (I’d also argue that if you’ve not really heard funeral doom, you’d think this is funeral doom.) Sure, it’s menacingly slow, there are no clean vocals, and the riffs are appropriately weighty, but the third disc of Songs from the North is heavily — alarmingly — reliant on full orchestration and keys to get its point across, and even its heaviest moments fall just short of approaching bands such as Evoken and Ahab. If anything, this is heavily symphonic death/doom.
Genre nitpicking aside, this is by far the strongest disc of the three that constitute Songs from the North. The rhythm section sticks mainly to gain-saturated throbs of low-tuned guitars with occasional flourishes of eerie, minor-key leads, providing an open canvas for the rest of the sound. There are no real riffs here – not what we’re used to from the band, at least — though the band make do conjuring an appropriately gloomy and dreadful atmosphere.
The bread and butter of this album, though, is the orchestration. Surging cellos, violins, and brass sections exude an air of majesty and regalness, all while adding an ominous undercurrent and providing a direction for the sparse, echoing drums and Mikko’s dry, gutteral growls. “Empires of Loneliness” is a highlight as it moves through various spoken word passages and haunting leads before unleashing the most terrifyingly beautiful climax on the entire three-album collection. Similarly, “Abandoned by the Light” sees a break in the dirge as an extended piano break is introduced, and the last two tracks sound like a darker, beefed-up The Morning Never Came.
Disc 3 is absolutely the darkest, angriest work ever from Swallow the Sun — though still offering glimpses of light every so often — and the weaknesses on Discs 1 and 2 are eclipsed by the overwhelming power at work on Disc 3. There’s a sense of foreboding here that we haven’t seen since the early days, and it’s refreshing, to say the least. Closing track “The Clouds Prepare for Battle” is one of the most satisfying album closers they’ve penned, period, and blends the symphonic and choral motif of the album with piercing black metal screams and chiming clean guitars to wrap up the entirety of the album into one stunning track that ends the album with apocalyptic tension.
The Long and Short of It All
Songs from the North is not a total waste of a release, but as a whole, it is most definitely bloated and overwrought. It is not the grand, genre-changing masterpiece that the hype would have you believe, nor is it a drop in the bucket. The band could have easily trimmed some fat from each of the three discs, or, even better, picked select cuts from each disc to release (shock!) one album that encompassed all three styles and would have easily been the most diverse and accomplished effort of their career, even if it bumped up against the 80 minutes allotted to a CD. Instead, we’re left with a backloaded first disc, a second disc that is heavily marred by an amateur vocal performance, and a third disc that, while excellent, isn’t quite what it says it is.
I’m calling it what it is: A musical disappointment, probably the biggest in 2015. Good riffs, and some good songs? Absolutely. But not impervious to criticism, despite the band’s claims that this is somehow a gift from them to us lowly listeners. Songs from the North is proof that shooting for the stars doesn’t mean you’ll hit the mark; and when you don’t, you can’t expect people to grovel at your feet for trying.