Friday, September 20, 2013

Unshine - Dark Half Rising (2013)

It's hard not to be excited reading the bio of a band that is new to you. Your eyes dart around the sheet of paper, picking out all of the unique qualities that should make this album, the one that sits in front of you, a mind blowing affair. Conatined on the one page press release for Unshine, a five piece from Finland, are a plethora of words that had our tiny cold hearts aflutter. Druid metal. What that is, we could only imagine; but we were ready to find out. A beautifully conceptualized album cover, with hot and cold, bird and beast. And a concept that is different from those choking the folk world. This band, with all the best intentions, chooses to step back and tell the story of Iron Age era Belgium, waiting to be overrun by Caesar and his armies. All of the recorded history, as we've heard it before, was from perspective: that of the victors. But what Unshine have done here is to go back in time, and retrace those events from the side of the Celtic tribes, preparing for a dramatic change. Through keyboard orchestrations and guitars, "Dark Half Rising" is a war diary of a different kind.

Without hesitation, the beautiful folk melodies come to the fore on "Nadjas Wailing About Coming Of The Frost," which is a stripped down acoustic and vocal introduction. What stands out, early and throughout the album, is how important storytelling is to the arc. Even as the symphonic elements burst in with a battery of drums and screeching guitars on "The Oath To Wilderness Of Unredeemed Nature," the balance between aggression and lyrical content is a strong one. Moreover, there is a noticeable atmospheric quality that runs like a thread behind the vocals. In telling her story, singer Susanna Vesilahti can initially captivate her audience with a tone that is both enchanting and delicate. However, she rarely rises above her baseline. As a result, songs like "Arduinna" don't have the intended impact, despite a rich keyboard performance. This isn't to say the vocals are a failure, but minus a few key harmonies in the chorus, they lack the shine necessary to elevate the song. Choosing to switch gears and shift to the lower register on "Spellbinder," Vesilahti does little to help her cause. Conversely, guitarist and keyboardist Harri Hautala asserts himself here, delivering on both fronts. The breakdown portion of the track, an amalgam of keyboard tones and distorted guitar riffs, is an album highlight.

In tracks like "Defender Of His Faith," the vocal line seems almost disposable, sometimes echoed or mirrored with the dual guitar lines. With Harri and Jari Hautala providing lead and rhythm melodies, the only true need for the lead vocal is the lyrical content it provides. It's delivery is flat,  and often times one dimensional. Reverting back to a lot of the emotional tone from the first track, "Their Horses Never Touch The Ground" brings back the acoustic folk elements, now paired with crushing distortion at times. It helps to spotlight where the problem with Vesilahti's delivery lie; her voice, delicate as it is, is better suited for the quiet moments provided here, rather than the full band tilt. Her bandmates hit the ground running (no pun intended) time and time again, leaving her lagging behind. Even when things slow down to a beautiful crawl, with the rhythm section taking over, there is an imbalance. "Idyl" is rooted firmly in the drum work of Jukka Hantula and bassist Teemu Vähäkangas, nailing down the low end with each chugging stroke. Even "The Blood Of Ardennes" creates an interesting dynamic between the singer and her words. At times coated with airy effects, at other times left to her own voice, Vesilahti shines in small doses, particularly in the chorus. As a result, you get what amounts to the most complete track on the album.

But when the track times have fluctuated between three and five minutes, staying within those parameters, a nearly thirteen minute offering is intimidating and surprising. Part retelling of legend, part metal epic, it is both risky and ambitious at the same time. By and large, it works on a number of levels, clearly taking a great deal of forethought to create. The segments without vocals of any kind, the nine minute mark being a great example, boost the atmospheric quality of the music tenfold, while also opening up the door for more detailed solos. Whereas the last track was a well rounded affair, this is weighted heavily to the instrumental side. The Hautala trio do the heavy lifting with little resistance, serving up the track on a silver platter. The crackling flames of "Bone Fires," an interlude that seems to be about a deep inhale long, give way to the finale, the sweeping melody "Ategenos (At The Death Of Winter)." Having taken the story from start to finish, you do feel a sense of satisfaction having heard what is, stylistically, an amazing tale. But more than that, it almost sounds as if the band, as a whole, has held something back for this last march. You feel yourself sway with the melody, as a guitar rips off another great piece of fret work. It draws you in more than before, though it is unclear why.

Having all of the parts doesn't necessarily mean you have a successful whole. Unshine seem to have each individual piece of the puzzle locked and loaded, but the end result doesn't echo that. Musically, they haven't got far to go, with so many positives to build on. But unless there is a noticeable change in the flow and intensity of the vocals, it might be hard to move forward. It's less about the style of singing, and more about the all too even delivery the album contains. Perhaps it was a safe play, trying to provide strength through consistency. Or, from the minimalist standpoint, less was perceived to be more. But in this case, there has to be a greater participation from Vesilahti, and she has to break the shackles to deliver a powerhouse performance in the future. While their success or failure might not solely depend on that voice, the scales could certainly be tipped in one direction or the other as a result. In the modern metal scene, where competition is overflowing and brutal, you can't accept mediocrity from any of your parts. The weak link on "Dark Half Rising" might have broken the chain.


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