Starting off as a purely black metal project by the two Sorvali cousins, Henri and Ville, Finnish heathens Moonsorrow gradually expanded their sound to include folk and doom influences – resulting in one of the most truly progressive acts in metal today. Known for their extensive song structures, Moonsorrow are masters of the art of composition – making half-hour tracks pass with no dip in interest. Often unfairly generalized as folk metal, they are frequently lumped in with the up tempo jigs of bands like Korpiklaani and Heidevolk, but are far more insightful and interesting than any of that ilk. In truth, their unique sound is rooted in black metal, but exudes a maturity that elevates them beyond any particular categorization. It is often agreed that the band have no bad albums, due to the sheer quality of their songwriting prowess, but here at The Metal Observer we will attempt to rank all their full-length studio efforts from the least amazing, to the mind-blowingly phenomenal. Things are gonna get grim…
Honorable Mention: Tulimyrsky (2008)
Before the main events, it would be criminal to overlook the band’s 2008 EP which, at 68 minutes, is easily the longest EP in this writer’s knowledge. Tulimyrsky (Firestorm) consists of two covers (Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and Merciless’s “Back To North”) which are simultaneously faithful to the original and unique in their newly blackened sound. Also on offer are two re-recordings of old demo tracks, of which “Taistelu Pohjolasta” is an absolutely furious highlight; and the 28-minute title-track which flows like a symphony. There are three clear acts to this piece, plus an overture and finale, capped with narration and a story to boot. The whole affair is epic in the true sense of the word, and ends in triumphant fashion leaving the listener satisfyingly exhausted. As far as EPs go, this is one of the biggest and best.
Best track: Tulimyrsky
7. Suden Uni (2001)
After the ‘finding their feet’ days of the demos like Metsä and Tämä Ikuinen Talvi, a real injection of pagan folk music found its way onto Moonsorrow’s debut LP. Excluding the wistful instrumental “Tuulen Koti, Aaltojen Koti” and the title-track outro, the album barely makes up 40 minutes – the Finns’ shortest with most tracks averaging less than seven minutes. This shows how much their composition skill has grown over the years. Even so, the short sharp blasts of “Köyliönjärven Jäällä” and “Pakanajuhla”, with their addictive melodies, are sure to please anyone looking for a quick dose of blackened pagan metal. The broadened “1065: Aika” is where we hear hints of the songwriting direction Moonsorrow would take, but most impressive is how they make one of the shortest songs in their catalogue, “Ukkosenjumalan Poika”, sound just as voluminous as the longest. Unsurprisingly, it’s still a live staple. An impressive debut, but nowhere near the heights the band would grow towards.
Best track: Ukkosenjumalan Poika
6. Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassaa (2011)
Moonsorrow began to gradually blacken their sound after exploring their more melodic side from ’01 – ’04. After some stellar releases in this style (which we’ll get to later), there was a four year gap before the band dropped Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassaa (As Shadows We Walk In The Land Of The Dead). This record continues to divide fans – garnering negativity from those who find it a little too depressing. After all, it is the story of a group of shapeless figures who wander a post-apocalyptic Earth in desperation, eventually whittling down to one solitary character who dies face down in the water. Lovely stuff. This narrative is beautifully told by the four monolithic tracks, the most effective of which must be the monstrous finale “Kuolleiden Maa”. As the final chorus recurs the very theme that opened the album, Ville lets out a horrifying scream that’s so guttural you can audibly hear him cough as it tails off. Dedication! Each track bleeds into the other by the use of interludes which consist primarily of heavy breathing and footsteps…until the last one, “Kuolleille”, catches you off guard…I won’t spoil it! Still stooped in grandeur, VKKM is a harrowing, doom-laden endeavour which takes effort to sit through, but is ultimately very rewarding if you allow it to swallow you.
Best track: Muinaiset
5. Voimasta Ja Kunniasta (2001)
Sounding basically like an extension of Suden Uni (after all, they were released the same year), Voimasta Ja Kunniasta introduced more grandiose elements. The keyboard symphonics are more impressive and blend very well with the metal core; the lyrics are heavily rooted in viking culture; and it includes a recurring theme which bookends the album – something Moonsorrow grow increasingly fond of. The motif in intro “Tyven” is reprised at the start of the anthemic “Sankarihauta”, and again as the final notes of the album fade away with the wind – its a truly beautiful moment. This album birthed some live favourites, such as the previously-mentioned “Sankarihauta”, and the majestic “Sankaritarina” – which is still a frequent live show closing number due to its sing-along factor. Other tracks tend to get overlooked, but carry their own gravitas due to their progressive structures and sense of climax – especially true of the steady climb to ferocity that is “Kylän Päässä”. A brilliant album that is breathtaking at its best moments, and sees the Finns expanding their sound to truly epic proportions.
Best track: Kylän päässä
4. Kivenkantaja (2003)
I read a review of this record somewhere that described it as ‘Moonsorrow meets Yes’ – and there are points where I heartily agree! The progressive songwriting has been upped one more level, and the use of synths is at an all-time high. Kivenkantaja is probably the closest to folk metal the quintet have ever sounded – with an abundance of grandiose symphonics often taking the helm, and their characteristic choral singing being a mainstay of the album. Hell, even the promotional photos from 2003 have the band clad in chainmail, brandishing swords and shields! The opener (and subsequent fan favourite) “Raunioilla” opens with clean singing and is awash with lavish melodies, making it one of the greatest songs in Moonsorrow’s arsenal (but the synths at the end are a little silly, you can’t deny that!). Elsewhere, take heed of the glorious tunes of triumph laced throughout “Jumalten Kaupunki”, or the menacing crawl of the title-track. It’s undoubtedly heavy, but bright and glittering at the same time, and perhaps the Finn’s most accessible record to date.
Best track: Raunioilla
3. Verisäkeet (2005)
The dawn of Verisäkeet in 2005 pinpoints the moment Moonsorrow started to gradually blacken their sound again. This was in no way a backwards step. With the reversion to a black metal core came the inclusion, and subsequent mutation, of other genre characteristics: doom, prog, extreme etc. The folk elements, such as the iconic mouth harp, are still present, but significantly darkened – becoming a sad, distant memory. The first half of opener “Karhunkynsi” is the folkiest of the lot, but laced with menace which eventually explodes into all-out black metal fury. This is where the Finns began to really nail the use of recurring themes as a songwriting technique. So many are recapitulated and developed appropriately, resulting in some truly moving moments that stay with the listener – the sorrowful keyboard melody in “Jotunheim” is a fantastic example. The incredibly bleak “Pimeä” is a masterclass in concise, but expansive, composition – and features one of Ville’s most harrowing performances (check out the 2:12 mark…it’s almost frightening). Each piece is linked by tranquil ambience – providing much-needed respite from the chaos that surrounds them – culminating in the acoustic closer “Kaiku”, which is beautiful in its sincerity. Ominous, brooding, grim, but undeniably beautiful – Verisäkeet was the dawn of a new era for Moonsorrow…or more like the dusk…
Best track: Pimeä
2. Jumalten Aika (2016)
Jumalten Aika (The Age Of Gods) was critically acclaimed almost everywhere when it dropped after an agonizing five year wait, and for perfectly good reason. A monumental progressive black metal album, effectively sprinkled with faint folk elements and an atmosphere akin to a shamanic swamp. The production quality on this record is bizarre; treble-heavy guitars, distant vocals, and an almost inaudible snare drum give it a unique flavour. That’s not to say the wall of sound isn’t still massive – of course not, it’s huge! The choral vocals come into their own here, not only perfectly mixed, but utilised to mind-blowing effect. Ville’s bass is also at its most expressive, even carrying the main melody in some sections. Opening with faint wind, birds croaking and tribal percussion ensures the listener is engulfed in atmosphere – before exploding into the title track with one of the most addictive themes the band have composed. Every track is a highlight in its own way, even the troll-like march of single “Suden Tunti” which, despite its brevity, is perfect when heard in context of the album. “Ihmisen Aika” (The Age Of Man) rounds off the journey in excellent fashion, as the sounds of nature are replaced by the hammering of steel on steel. “Mimisbrunn” will have those clad in corpsepaint down to the nearest forest during its furious blast-beat outro complete with faint orchestral accents. But the jewel in this LP’s crown must be the Godly “Ruttolehto”. Featuring Korpiklaani’s Jonne Jarvela, it’s a 15-minute compositional mega-structure which (and I don’t make this statement lightly) is the best song in the Finns’ entire catalogue. Just listen to that serene folk section, which crescendos to a gloriously theatrical climax – then tears into a ferocious blast-beat segment. Unspeakably beautiful. Jumalten Aika is irresistibly epic, but I realize I’ve rambled on for too long about this, so I’ll shut up or else there won’t be room for…
Best track: Ruttolehto
1. Viides Luku – Hävitetty (2007)
…this. The pinnacle of Moonsorrow’s achievements. The concorde of epic black metal. This album is what makes the ability to hear truly a gift. If 2005’s incredible Verisäkeet was simply a turning point – then this two-track masterpiece is the culmination of a career devoted to the art of musical composition. I won’t make some bullshit claim that they make 30-minute songs feel like only five – because that’s not the point. These two behemoths really feel like colossal journeys through devastated landscapes, and veritably earn their extended length. Hävitetty means ‘ravaged’ – and that’s exactly what this record does to you; it ravages your mind, heart and soul, leaving you utterly engulfed in misery. A crackling fire signals the commencement of this mammoth voyage which only truly ‘kicks in’ after the 6-minute mark. However, not a second feels wasted as the atmosphere is so perfectly constructed by this point. The folk influences are diluted, but not eliminated. They remain as melancholic interludes to the maelstrom of blackness that surrounds them. There are recurring themes to the max, ideas which are developed progressively, and an overarching storytelling characteristic. The production is perfect. Drums are drenched in reverb, leads wail in the distance, choirs add a layer of bombast, and Ville’s throat-ripping screams are so emotionally-charged they’re irresistible. The ritualistic chanting that opens Tuleen Ajettu Maa is eerie, the choir at the 8:30 mark is glorious, the furious blast-beat section at the 13:10 mark is sheer majesty in musical form, and, and, and…there’s just too much. It’s overwhelming, and even thinking about particular moments is enough to move me to tears. Every time I hear Hävitetty, I notice something new – another layer I’d previously failed to notice, which gives it 100% replay value. I have to grab the CD and listen to it again right now, because even talking about it is satisfyingly exhausting. Your turn now. You won’t be disappointed.
Best track: Just listen to the whole damn thing! What are you waiting for?
Moonsorrow are so much an entity of their own, musically. They defy any genre conventions and it feels like they just let their songs flow naturally wherever they may go. And that makes their sound, while complex, so organic and accessible. A black metal band at heart, but with their sprawling tentacles invading the parameters of many a sub-genre, I officially dub them God metal. If you’re new to the fantastic Finns, then I hope this serves as a useful guide to what you want to get out of this marvellous quintet. However, if you’re already a fan, then you are among the blessed ones. Hail to Moonsorrow – the kings of epic heathen metal. Long may they reign.