AMORPHIS might just have had their strongest run ever the last few years, beginning with Tomi Joutsen's baptism on “Eclipse”. That eclectic splurge of crunchy catchiness, followed by the dark and wooded travails of “Silent Waters”, left some space for a rather more epic and life-affirming piece with the rich sound of “Skyforger”. The band has managed to develop their sound with more focus than ever before, and with expectations of similar excellence I was awaiting yet more pleasant surprises from “The Beginning Of Times”.
After spending what must have been considerable time musing over cuts from their early material to re-record for “Magic & Mayhem“, AMORPHIS made the decision not to bring the feral trudge of “Tales From The Thousand Lakes“ with them into 2011, continuing to channel the atmospheric sound born of “Against Widows” and further brilliances recorded for albums such as “Tuonela“. With a noticeable dearth of progression compared to the small but satisfying leaps I've grown comfortable with. Now I wouldn't call it a disappointment. But this record fails to prove the same meticulous maturation of sound as its predecessors.
I have to be honest, everything about the record sounds good. From the tender opening piano strains of “Battle For Light” (no thunderous growl ala “Silent Waters” opens this album) and its exultant guitar melodies, it's all magic, and a bit less mayhem. The production is just fine with a good bassy sound and a noble guitar tone, even if the vocals aren't quite as strikingly front-and-centre as on other recent efforts.
The whole band sounds tight alongside the obligatory, wistful Folk instruments. Melodies straight out of the wilderness sound awesome over the chugging riffs of “Three Words”, and “Reformation” is just plain lovely. The melody for “My Enemy” is one of those you can go 'whoah-oaaah!!' to at concerts, while also including some thumping, slow Death Metal portions. Esa's work on “The Beginning Of Times” is bristling with thick, rocking rhythms and guitars awash with delay, as on “Skyforger”.
Tomi Joutsen sounds incredible of course. For me he's the best thing that's happened to AMORPHIS since the first three records and no joke. Totally strident in the chorus for “You I Need”, utterly compelling in the heroic wails of “Song Of The Sage”, I can barely say a word against him. He still lets off awesome, throaty growls here on tracks like “Crack In A Stone” - for me he occupies a throne amongst melodic bands as a vocalist who sounds bestial as fuck when he wants to, carrying a little bit of the early '90s Finnish Death Metal zeitgeist with him onto albums bereft of any other trace of that era.
The songwriting is arguably perfect, if not always striking. “Mermaid”, “You I Need” and “Song Of The Sage” (the latter two filling the roles of “Silver Bride” and “Sky Is Mine” respectively it seems) are unbelievably catchy and defy the skip button from falling beneath my tobacco-yellowed forefinger. If there's one criticism that can't be levelled at these Finnish chart-toppers, it's that they haven't put their decades of songwriting experience to excellent use here. However, I find myself far less compelled to return to them than their aforementioned equivalents. The same goes for the epic, pounding, atmospheric, catchy, powerful closing title track - it is all those things, but you won't remember it like the thudding meisterwerk “Sampo”. That said, I can't pick tracks I'd like struck from the album, even if it does feel long at nearly an hour (including the bonus song).
AMORPHIS suffer a little from diminishing returns in the less marked developments in their songwriting, and the lengthiness of the album, and holding this up against its immediate predecessor will cast something of a shadow on it. But so ends another pointless review. If you like this band as much as me, you want this record. It's among their weaker ones, but from a band that carry their pedigree as confidently as AMORPHIS do it's hardly a huge lull in quality.
(Online December 17, 2011)