Thirty years on from their groundbreaking debut The Karelian Isthmus Finnish death metal trailblazers Amorphis continue to show the rest of the world how it’s done. After the 1-2 punch of Under the Red Cloud and Queen of Time (forever known as Queen of Bee around these parts) I think we all expected a similar tone and weight with the new album, but having now sat with new album Halo for a few weeks I think the band have taken another leap forward. Heavier, proggier, and just a bit, well…more than what came before, this feels like a definitive statement from the band, pointing to more and more distant horizons.
Truth be told, I have a bit of a complicated history with the band. My first exposure to them was 1999’s Tuonela, after they were already in their “second” phase. Digging backwards I was immediately taken with the foundational Finnish death metal of Karelian Isthmus and especially Tales From the Thousand Lakes, but as the music became more mainstream and 70s rock influenced I lost interest and moved onto other things. Even when the band supposedly righted the ship with the addition of Tomi Joutsen on 2006’s Eclipse it wasn’t enough to bring me back. But each album got a little closer, and by the time of Under the Red Cloud I was back in the fold. Continuing to weave everything from melodic death metal to prog to classic rock to melancholic doom using the Kalevala as their conceptual and lyrical foundation, Amorphis have been steadily producing fantastic rocking music that – despite my affection – just didn’t rock me hard enough to push them into my “get this in my eardrums NOW” category.
That changed with – of all things – last year’s live document Live At Helsinki Ice Hall. Here was everything blasting at 11, majestic and heavy and played with a passion that in many cases left the studio versions behind. It’s that ferociousness that I think really makes Halo stand out in the band’s catalog: it’s the album that, to me, matches the fire of the band live.
So let’s count it off: Halo opens with “Northwards” and it’s a showcase for every member, from the chugging riffs battling Joutsen’s superb harsh growls for supremacy to the gorgeous keyboards and solos and – wait – is that a flute? It is, and it rocks. The song encompasses the symphonic bombast as well as the gnarly metal and it’s a shot across the bow for best opener of 2022. “On Dark Waters” keeps the harsh vocal rolling, and ridiculously catchy choruses, the keys that emphasized Queen of Time coming to the fore, expertly mixed and produced by Jens Bogren. The songs are deceptive in their construction: a cursory listen shows very structured songs, moving from verse to chorus, etc. It’s catchy, and the riffs leave a brand on your brain. But closer listens reward, as there is a LOT going on beneath the surface, as soundscapes and assorted instrumentation lurk underneath to layer and add a fullness to the songs.
Lead single “The Moon” feels the most like where Amorphis have been coming from. It’s a strong, memorable melody and song, but it might be the one song on the album where I immediately feel like I’ve heard it before. Still, like everything else it’s nearly impossible to eschew that chorus. And that trend continues, whether it’s the more melancholic regality of “Windmane” with its snarling harsh sections or the epic swagger of “When the Gods Came.” “Seven Roads Come Together” might be even heavier in moments, but if we’re going to talk about a song on Halo that surprised me the most it has to be “War.” Extremely heavy (those double bass hits accenting the riffs are lovely) and when it shifts into the clean parts it’s as smooth and supple as a butter bath (at this point of the review I’ve probably consumed a little too much whiskey, but I kinda dig the image of a butter bath to Amorphis, so it stays). But the thing that strikes me the most is that super heavy middle section – we may never get a twisted and evil death metal paean like “The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu” again but damn if there isn’t a hint of extreme metal lurking just under the surface of the track.
Even if “War” surprised me the most, it’s not the end of the heavy fun to be had. Late track “The Wolf” is vicious and shows a band ready to step up and rip your face off…right before putting it back in place with another killer catchy chorus. And if that wasn’t enough, Amorphis triumph with their concluding song: “My Name is Night” is a beautifully fragile ballad featuring Joutsen duetting with Petronella Nettermalm and it’s sublime, recalling to my ears the best of what Opeth has been doing in their latest incarnation.
All this to say that Halo has me firmly back on the hook for Amorphis. Front to back this is a triumph for the band, and I can’t wait for the inevitable live show to display how good 30 years have been for this band.