Thursday, January 26, 2012

Swallow The Sun - Emerald Forest And The Blackbird (2012)

Swallow The Sun is a band that needs no introduction. If you have perused this site once or twice, or even listened to one of our 30+ podcasts, you are certainly familiar with the band, their catalog, and the months of anticipation that we have endured before the release of their new album, "Emerald Forest And The Blackbird." Boasting some of the most well rounded and profound song structure to date, along with an album cover that will haunt you in your dreams, this Finnish death/doom band may have outdone themselves... again.

The level of storytelling has seen a dramatic improvement, with the opening track serving as the prologue to the story. Contrast is the name of the game, with soft female vocals teaming up with keys and orchestrated strings. But, just as perfectly, the signature screams and growls of frontman Mikko Kotamaki crush all traces of beauty. The sheer density of the guitars will overwhelm you at times, but as they fade out to reveal clean guitar tones, it is easy to forget the brutal thrashing you just survived. "This Cut Is The Deepest," not to be confused with the 1967 Cat Stevens song of a similar name, starts with completely clean vocals, something that may seem out of sorts. The use of atmospheric keyboards ties together the verse and chorus, which sees a more melodic musical approach as well. Even as the track fades out into a haunting haze, you are waiting for the hammer to drop.

That hammer sees plenty of work on the more dynamic and straightforward "Hate, Lead The Way!" This is Swallow The Sun in their deathly glory, with Kotamaki screeching his way through verse after verse. Guitars shred and rip through it all, with drums crashing from all angles. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser in the live setting, with plenty to pump your fist to, with each rib shaking drum fill inducing incremental bouts of whiplash.  The cohesion in the track is what remains the most impressive, with a flow from piece to piece at all times. The first single, "Cathedral Walls," is a collaboration with Nightwish's own Anette Olzon, and may be the greatest display of evolution a band of this genre could show. Olzon's voice takes a starring role, opposite the clean vocals of Kotamaki in the early stages. The tone is somber, but in a very subtle way, choosing to tell the story through understated and minimal guitar and bass work. Light synthesizers well devilish growls to the fold at the half way mark, with rolling double kicks and sizzling cymbals dominating the mix. But as Olzon reenters, they strike a perfect balance between profound and pummeling, switching back and forth between the two at will.

By now, it is clear that this isn't a standard outing for Swallow The Sun. There is a new take on melody to be found here, with passages in "Hearts Wide Shut" sure to pull on your emotional strings. But, rather than replace the old with the new, they transition from one to the other and back again, turning the black and white into a shade of gray. And while it may take some getting used to, the process won't take long. In fact, "Silent Towers" might prove to be the most accessible song by the band to date. Don't misunderstand me here, this isn't a radio rock song. But there is definitely a noticeable use of more easily identifiable melodies and structure. Hell, clocking in at four minutes, it is certainly the shortest song on the album. The forth part in the "Horror" series, "Labyrinth Of London," does not stray from the path. Following in the footsteps of the previous installments, including "Don't Fall Asleep" and "Lights On The Lake," this is a heavy handed composition, ripe with keyboards and heavy guitars riffs. The melodic passages are accents to the distortion, making both sides of the coin more profound. A spoken word portion, layered on top of clean guitars, is ominous but revealing. Even the solo section is inspired, with the ringing of bells furthering the richness of sound.

The track "Of Death And Corruption" is exactly what you have come to expect at this point, with a jarring set of distorted guitars cutting through the air. Kotamaki's clean singing has so much depth, so much weight to each syllable, creating a chilling tale. And as eerily soothing as it is, it can be equally frightening when he unleashes the growls of hell. The use of clean piano tones, however sparse, is the perfect compliment. But this track is the heaviest piece of work you will find, with an devastating blast of guitars and drums taking you to new heights... or new depths. The air is heavy with sorrow in the opening stages of "April 14th," with funeral organs blaring out. A light piano and spoken verses take the track to darker places, only to be shattered by the explosion of guitars and drums. The album concludes with the aptly titled "Night Will Forgive Us," an acoustic tinged piece that takes the beauty and beast analogy to a new place. To think that a band so heavy is capable of such powerful songwriting and emotional investment is astonishing.

There are those people who, as fans of a band, hope that said band will simply remake their favorite album, over and over again. Metallica fans wish exactly that every day. But in the case of the new wave of metal, evolution is necessary to stay ahead of the pack. And no, it isn't always a bad thing. Swallow The Sun are still the death/doom titans you know and love. What they have done is simply inject a breath of fresh air into the formula, adding another layer to the mix. If you remove the melodies, you would still have enough of the classic sound to fill an entire album. Add them together, and you have something much more fulfilling. "Emerald Forest And The Blackbird" could be the next step to reinventing the genre.


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