Monday, April 22, 2013

Amorphis - Circle (2013)

The mark of a truly great band is a signature sound; a constant tone or structure that allows you to separate them from all others. While many, perhaps most, bands struggle to define themselves in such a clear manner, Finnish veterans Amorphis have mastered it. Each and every track over the last eight years and five albums - since vocalist Tomi Joutsen became the frontman - has boasted a similar sound; an undeniable element that lets you know beyond the shadow of a doubt within the first measure that you are listening to Amorphis. There is never any doubt of confusion to be had. The riffs, the keyboards, the drums, the bass, the vocals. They all come together in a way that is hard enough to establish, and seemingly impossible to duplicate. And while other bands have come and gone, this six piece has adapted and changed to stay alive. This is not to say they've sold out their ideals to stay viable; but they have grown together, and grown apart. With nearly twenty five years bearing this name, it stands to reason that "Circle" continues a long line of greatness, without ever losing sight of where it all began.

Within the first few seconds of "Shades Of Gray," thanks to a series of dense chugging exercises, you are well aware that you have landed smack in the middle of an Amorphis classic. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen growls his way through the opening verse, over a sea of massive guitars and airy keyboards. But that stark contrast between his raspy screams and his clean vocals remain key here, giving glimpses at both sides of the coin in close succession. Never short on infectious melodies, lead guitarist Esa Holopainen delivers a sizable dose throughout, but most notably in the bridge. His work stands out from many other guitarists in the genre, thanks to the structure and tone of songs like "Mission." While the drum beats seem stripped down to the point of simplification, Holopainen crafts some masterful melodies that keep the momentum rising. This is bolstered by the pulsing bass line, a driving force that allows for a strictly clean vocal delivery to be both enjoyable and effective. And there is no more indicative track than "The Wanderer," a track that bridges the gap between the last three albums in one fell swoop. Hidden under the growl-free vocal lines is a sweeping soundscape that would be a challenge for the most experiences producer or engineer to balance. Yet it comes through with balance and clarity, and a booming drum sound that might be the hammer on the head of the nail.

The slightly more whimsical opening to "Narrowpath" breathes a puff of folk inspirations into the album, without swaying too far from center. It is the rhythm section, consisting of bassist Niclas Etelävuori and drummer Jan Rechberger, shine brightly here, forming a foundation that is as rock solid as any in modern melodic metal. But the combination of two guitars and a darting, perfectly produced keyboard proves to be a force. Without knowing it, you have gone through three straight tracks that were melody heavy, going away from the heavy growls and dense guitars you may have expected. And while "Hopeless Days" takes care of one of those two necessities, Joutsen remains focused on the sublime, his booming voice carrying for seconds after each word. But this is more than just a soothing, crooning vocal performance. The instrumental comes unchained, each member delivering a memorable chunk. Dual guitars, with Holopainen backed by Tomi Koivusaari, form a growing wall of sound, anchoring keyboardist Santeri Kallio in his flowing, sometimes oddly timed progressions. There seems to be a common thread between this track and the next, "Nightbird's Song." Though there are similarities in the melody aspect, the vocals return with a grinding vengeance. Joutsen breaks out the signature growl that has converted many a bystander into a dedicated fan. He isn't alone; a wicked guitar lead, high speed and higher energy, accompanies him throughout.

Oddly enough, it might be "Into The Abyss" that provides the most memorable moments, and some of the most definitive Amorphis moments, on the album. Buried in the seventh slot on the album, it might not garner the attention it deserves, but the drumming alone should be enough to open to some eyes and ears. Rechberger lays down a tremendous beat here, which becomes the base for everything else to stand on. A contrasting guitar battle ensues, and Joutsen wails his way through one of his most powerful performances to date. And his intensity is matched, every step of the way, by his comrades. Rather than fade through the final third of the album, things continue to grow, as is evident in the opening to "Enchanted By The Moon," which sees a great combination of booming kick drums and flowing guitar melodies. That mood changes quickly and often, as a devastating set of growls gives way to smooth crooning from verse to chorus. The breakdown portion here is astonishing, slow and deliberate, flanked by a great keyboard presence. And much like the opening track was an immediately recognizable Amorphis effort, the closing track echoes that sentiment. Lyrically, "A New Day" is exactly what the title suggests; the sun will rise again, as Joutsen sings, and a new day will indeed come. Whetehr or not this is a symbolic tone or not remains to be seen. But it could be said that this is a nod to the past, while acknowledging that the future is here now. The beauty of the bridge section can't be denied, and moves to a well defined end.

It is always impressive to watch a band grow and develop over a long and successful career. But for Amorphis,  the growth over nearly a quarter of a century in existence has been remarkable. Members have changed, styles have evolved, and the name has become synonymous with everything good in modern metal. They've found themselves in a comfortable groove; a safe place that they have carved out for themselves in the eight years since Joutsen took the mic. Yet they haven't sat back to rest on their laurels. They continue to move forward without ever letting go of what came before. Despite the somewhat significant name, "Circle" is not the end of a long journey, coming home. It marks the beginning, once again, for the next stage in the band's history. They give you everything you've come to expect, and a whole lot more, without selling themselves out for a bigger piece of the pie. It seems impossible to imagine not getting a new Amorphis album every two years; and with albums this strong, hopefully we have many more to come before it's over.


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