Wednesday, September 20, 2006

the main character

dark tranquillity - 'character'

released: january 25, 2005
century media

songs: 1. the new build 2. through smudged lenses 3. out of nothing 4. the endless feed 5. lost to apathy 6. mind matters 7. one thought 8. dry run 9. am i 1? 10. senses tied 11. my negation

If you want to quickly define this band, you could do far worse than calling them the thinking man's quintessential metal band. In the last decade they have proven themselves to be quite far ahead of mostly everyone else, and consistently so. There is a sense of purpose, of meaning, at every Dark Tranquillity release. Not that there's anything (thematically) wrong with demons or drugs or death, to namecheck just a few examples of overused topics, but Dark Tranquillity go at it the hard way, and you get chaos theory, philosophy, art, psychology and if you read one of their obviously fascinated-with-language-like lyric sheets you will get an idea without me going on about it. The hardest thing about this approach is that you come across as horribly po-faced if the music itself doesn't match up to it.

It should come as no surprise, if you have paid attention these last few years, that 'Character', once again, more than matches the quality of their lyrical concept. More like another refining step than a departure from 'Damage Done', the album's main change is in the sound itself - it's huge. So huge you get the feeling Niklas Sundin and Martin Henriksson have made a few clones of themselves to help out with the guitarwork. Martin Brändström's electronic work is also remarkable and much more present than before, giving highlight songs like 'Lost To Apathy' or 'The New Build' a whole new dimension. Finally there is that roar, that unmistakable vocal presence of the great Mikael Stanne.

Powerful, amazingly written and produced, oozing class from every pore, the only niggle that you can pick at 'Character' is that Dark Tranquillity haven't really done that quantum leap in evolution that 'Projector' hinted at. For all the greatness of 'Character', there is the feeling that, given the skyrocketing talent available here, they could go a bit further. Despite the more proeminent use of electronics, it's pretty much a Dark Tranquillity album still. by no means stagnating (not by a long shot), the Swedes have nevertheless towering standards to meet. Still, 'Character' has just what its title suggests and it is obviously essential.

the good: huge sound, powerful compositions, untouchable musicianship on every level
the bad: given the talent involved, it could be more adventurous

Monday, September 18, 2006


sentenced - 'the funeral album'

released: april 2003
century media

songs: 1. may today become the day 2. ever-frost 3. we are but falling leaves 4. her last 5 minutes 5. where waters fall frozen 6. despair-ridden hearts 7. vengeance is mine 8. a long way to nowhere 9. consider us dead 10. lower the flags 11. drain me 12. karu 13. end of the road

Now that the long-awaited DVD 'Buried Alive', containing a host of extras and the entire farewell concert of this illustrious Finnish band (on which, according to reports, there are several shots of yours truly in the front row...), is finally upon us, it's worth remembering their final album, relevant in the context of their influential career.

The two short instrumentals present in this record, the savage 'Where Waters Fall Frozen' and the soft acoustic 'Karu', are perhaps the best symbolic summary of Sentenced's musical career, particularly after the change of vocalist, after the album 'Amok'. Since then, their tales of sadness, sorrow and bitterness bled out through a dynamic and modern rock/metal framework, filled with harmonies but also brutal riffs, a duality that has maintained the levels of intensity and depth very high for a decade now, particularly for those lucky enough to have seen them live.

Sentenced are also, and most essentially, one of the very few bands of the last few years able to not take themselves too seriously, something that is crucial within a genre that can easily fall into silly melodrama. For each suicidal line, there is always a dab of self-deprecating black humour to spice things up. In this final album, their integrity shines through - realizing this musical format could hardly be further developed without going into a repetition of what has already been done, the five members have decided to end the band, calmly and sensibly, giving it the right to a worthy funeral.

Of course, all this 'final' ambient around the album doesn't hurt its promotion at all. But one listen is enough to understand that this isn't a gimmick. The five Finns left their souls in these thirteen songs, down to the the smallest details, like the elegant design of the booklet, consisting of quotes from Finnish poets accompanied by staggeringly beautiful photographs. The music itself shows that, from the more immediately memorable songs like 'May Today Become The Day' or the first single 'Ever-Frost', to the usual hate manifestos like 'Vengeance Is Mine' (a sort of 21st century version of 'I'll Throw The First Rock'), this is the most balanced and complete album of their career. the touch of genius comes from the profoundly touching 'Her Last 5 Minutes' and 'We Are But Fallen Leaves', which are sung and played with a conviction that goes as far as making you worry about the actual possibility of any of those lyrics having a background of truth.

Being Sentenced, the end, in whatever form, has always been the main theme, but the last songs of this record seem to allude even more clearly to the end of the band, particularly 'Consider Us Dead' or the song that closes in the best possible way the recording career of a band that will not be forgotten easily - there really is no better way to say goodbye than with 'End Of The Road', the best song the band has ever written, with church bells, choirs and a downward spiral of melancholy-dripping guitars finishing it all, a chilling mix of bitterness and hope, in which Ville Laihiala asks it wasn't all that bad, was it now?.

No, no it wasn't. It was some of the best things we've had in our stereos in the last decade, and we only have to thank them for that.

May they rest in peace.

the good: a true goodbye record, with heart, soul and memorable, varied songs

the bad: it's the end

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the crack of doom

yob - 'the illusion of motion'

released: october 19th, 2004
running time: 50'00"
metal blade records

songs: 1.ball of molten lead 2.exorcism of the host 3.doom #2 4.the illusion of motion

Under this mysterious three letter name resided one of the brightest prospects of doom metal, a band that had slowly but surely captivating several factions of the more unconventional musical circles. 'The Illusion Of Motion' is their third album, released in 2004.

What is great about Yob is that they manage to create something new out of a concatenation of clear influences. The development and dynamics of the huge songs (the last track clocks in at 26 minutes) bring to mind, if you can quite imagine that, Neurosis jamming with Sleep. There are hazier, more stoner parts in the vein of Electric Wizard or Burning witch, and the rockier moments owe some dues to Black Sabbath and, more contemporarily, to High On Fire. If you're at all into this kind of music, I expect you to be drooling already, and for good measure.

When a lot of bands struggle to write consistently interesting songs over the 4 minute mark, Yob effortlessly build 15 minute and more monoliths during which never once the idea of skipping crosses your mind. There is indeed some Sleep-like repetition of riffs, but the alternation of clean (sounding like, erm, Dave Mustaine, but trust me, it works) and gruff vocals sets the tone for the tempo changes as well. Even if they never turn into a speed metal band, they do go from crawling slow doooooom to rockier moments, without ever losing the almighty crushing power.

Unlike many other doom bands, they don't just rely on the humming heaviness. Even on the first listens, the remarkable simple-sounding complexity will be apparent - on opener 'Ball Of Molten Lead' they sound like Pink Floyd circa 'Dark Side Of The Moon' mixed with Rush and, again, Neurosis. This, coupled with the very long songs and drawn out compositions, makes it a rather hard album to get into. But if you stick with it the rewards are immense. Since then, Yob have released their fourth album 'The Unreal Never Lived', which manages to top this one, and tragically disbanded.

Prog doom, anyone? whatever you call it, it rocks.

the good: it's doom, jim, but not as we know it - a surprisingly fresh take on a rather limiting genre, mixing crushing-but-grooving slow heaviness with prog rock techicalities
the bad: 4 songs in 50 minutes require a stern attention span and it's everything but an immediate record

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

do the black stomp

ajattara - 'kuolema'

released: may 2003
playing time: 33'43"

songs: 1.antakaa elää 2.surman henki 3.haureus 4.huoran alla 5.ikiyössä 6.musta leski 7.sielun särkijä 8.kituvan kiitos 9.helvetissä on syntisen taivas 10.rauhassa

Their new album 'Äpäre' is just out, but before I review it in a couple of weeks I think it's worth it to look back to 'Kuolema', this Finnish band's finest hour so far. Ajattara were originally a side project of Pasi Koskinen, the former vocalist for Amorphis. Before you draw any conclusions, the sole similarity between the two bands (including Pasi's vocal performance) is the usage of ancient Finnish history as their lyrical theme. Even so, the focus here is on much darker topics thereof.

Ajattara is a bit like Pasi's evil twin spewing out all the bad blood. Although Pasi (who goes by the name of Ruoja here) was still in Amorphis when this came out, it's understandable why he felt safe enough to dedicate himself 100% to Ajattara shortly after. Initially a very basic band, the sophistication both in composition and sound has grown over the years, and 'Kuolema' is a mighty slab of heaviness that stands very well on its own merits.

The title means 'death', in case you were wondering, and it quite fits the overall feel. The mid-tempo black/death stomp lends itself well to the general malaise fumes hovering around these compositions - Pasi knows well that you don't have to speed up all the time. Aided by the excellent near-military drumming, most of the time he's happy to grind your face into the ground with sheer weight, like the crushing 'Huoran Alla' (erm, 'Under The Whore'). A song like 'Ikiyössä' is as fast as it gets, really. The sick feel is enriched by the hatred with which Pasi spits his vocals out. Forget anything he's done in Amorphis - here it's either near-black vocals or creepy chanting, and the lyrics are as nasty as they can get. They're all in Finnish, so either you understand the language and get creeped out by their content, or you don't and the alien feel creeps you out anyway. A special word of note for the keyboards - despite only being at the forefront in opener 'Antakaa Elää', they're used splendidly for atmosphere throughout, and would constitute a good example for some of the cheesier black metal bands on how to use this instrument properly.

Comparable to the more grinding moments of Aura Noir or to a darker, less folk version of Finntroll, 'Kuolema' is a great underrated gem. Despite its lack of tempo changes, it'll appeal to those who like the blacker side of metal.

the good: pounding mid-tempo songs, truly evil feel, great use of keyboards
the bad: lack of tempo changes

Monday, September 04, 2006

the last highway

johnny cash - 'american v - a hundred highways'

released: july 4, 2006
running time: 42'53"
american recordings

songs: 1. help me 2. god's gonna cut you down 3. like the 309 4. if you could read my mind 5. further on up the road 6. on the evening train 7. i came to believe 8. love's been good to me 9. a legend in my time 10. rose of my heart 11. four strong winds 12. i'm free from the chain gang now

For all the musically questionable projects which he has been involved with, for at least one thing Rick Rubin must be given an enormous amount of credit for, and that is the revitalization of Johnny Cash. Rubin picked up a rather forgotten and time-misplaced Cash and helped him forge what are arguably the best albums of his career. For someone with Johnny Cash's historical musical past, this re-invention, this diving deep into americana and traditional music, speckled with some impeccably chosen rock covers that exposed cash to an entirely new audience and made him almost universal, is a monumental task worthy of only the greatest musicians ever. 'A Hundred Highways' is the final chapter in this 5-album (plus one boxset) saga, and it arrives posthumously after the sad passing of the great man in black.

First of all, dispel any of the habitual cashing in notions usually associated with posthumous records. Particularly after the passing of his wife, June Carter, this music was all Cash lived for, and he started recording 'A Hundred Highways' the very day after finishing 'American IV - The Man Comes Around'. His special friendship with Rubin is also more than evident to avoid any stupid remark about this release. True, Cash did not live long enough to oversee the final production of the record, but it's not like there was much to add or strip away anyway.

'A Hundred Highways' is the less flashy album of Johnny Cash's career. It's not like the american recordings albums have been huge fireworks and circus displays anyway, but there's no Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails cover, no Fiona Apple or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy guesting, no frills. The covers are mostly traditional and/or spiritual songs, as well as a Gordon Lightfoot and a Bruce Springsteen number. The overall tone is of confession and rest, of a man trying to come to peace with his life, his close mortality, his losses and mistakes. Cash's failing health is very clear here - you can hear his breath going out on him on several occasions. However, and unlike what could be expected, this does not inspire a weak image. On the contrary. Take 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', where he alternates between a failing voice and sometimes goes back to his booming of old - the effect is deeply impressive, as Cash seems to incarnate that very same wrathful god he sings about.

Despite the general final-sounding feel of this record, easy also to interpret from most of the songs (the last song he ever wrote, 'Like The 309', talks about loading his coffin on the train - my box on the 309, a similar theme to the Hank Williams cover 'On The Evening Train', where it's the wife's coffin), some of the songs are genuinely moving and hopeful, as if Johnny is giving us a final wink, like the aforementioned Gordon Lightfoot song, 'If You Could Read My Mind', Springsteen's 'Further On (Up The Road)', with the line one sunny morning we'll rise, i know, and i'll meet you further on up the road, 'Love's Been Good To Me' as a clear allusion to June, or the closing 'I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now', where Johnny echoes for one final time the words like a bird in a tree i got my liberty.

I hope he did.

the good: an elegiac, confessional and very human ending to one of the most important musicians of the 20th century
the bad: the occasional quavering and overall voice/guitar minimalism will not appeal to everyone, even johnny's fans