Although there is a perception that music has become very disposable with some many people cherry picking songs and having random playlists etc., it’s clear that there are those that still believe in the album format. I personally suspect that this applies more to fans of what could be termed niche genres – heavy metal, jazz, folk etc. – than to those who listen to pop. In any event 2015 has been quite a year for the album as a complete piece of work, including some superb double album releases from Iron Maiden and IO Earth.
Now the bar has been raised once more with the latest offering from Finnish melodic doom metal band Swallow The Sun. Formed in 2000 by Juha Raivio (guitars) and Pasi Pasanen (drums), the pair were joined in 2001 by Mikko Kotamäki (vocals), Markus Jämsen (guitars), Matti Honkonen (bass) and Aleksi Munter (keyboards).
This line-up released debut album “The Morning Never Came” in 2003, and followed this up with three further studio albums – the more gothic tinged “Ghosts Of Loss” (2005), and “Hope” (2007) – with the vast majority of the material being penned by Raivio.
Pasanen departed before the recording of “New Moon” (2009) and was replaced by Kai Hahto, who is also a member of the band Wintersun. Swallow The Sun’s fifth studio album, titled “Emerald Forest And The Blackbird” was released in 2012.
With Hahto working with Nightwish on their excellent 2015 album “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” and the following world tour whilst that band’s regular drummer dealt with health issues, the band had to find a replacement for the follow-up to their “Emerald Forest And The Blackbird” album.
In December 2014 they posted via their Facebook page that “…Kai won’t be playing drums on the next Swallow the Sun release, or on upcoming tours. Kai’s job with Nightwish will take so much of his time, at least for the next couple of years, that we all have agreed that from now on it is better for the amazing Juuso Raatikainen to take on the drums officially. Kai is our brother, and will always be a member of Swallow the Sun, so he has not been kicked out, nor has he resigned, but now we have Juuso on board as well…”. Unusual, certainly, but a refreshing change to see such a harmonious statement rather than the often seen vitriol when band line-ups change.
The resulting release is “Songs From The North”, a huge triple album of new material lasting two and a half hours! Split into three distinct albums, the group announced them with the description “Songs from the North I continues in the vein of the albums before it – first-rate death-doom. Songs from the North II is a beautiful acoustic foray, unplugged revel in the darkness. Songs from the North III is the most extreme album, a complete ride into most horrific abyss of finely crafted, conscience-crushing funeral doom.”
Epic is a word that’s bandied around a fair bit. Indeed that is something that I’m sometimes guilty of myself when describing a longer track on an album. However in the case of “Songs From The North” it seems to be a wholly appropriate term to use.
“Songs… I” begins with the acoustic guitar introduction to the nine minute “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears”. As if the title isn’t clue enough, the first (and last) line of the song is “Saint Peter save me and send me down to Hell”. Then a densely heavy yet beautifully melodic guitar riff comes crushing in. Going back and forth between the delicate acoustic sections and the heavy, a happy happy joy joy song this is not.
“Rooms And Shadows”, another belter with fabulous growled vocals mixed in with the melodic harmony vocals underpinned by some more seriously heavy instrumentation is also found on “Songs… I”. Possibly the most gorgeous song on this record, though, is “Heartstrings Shattering” which features a wonderful guest vocal from Trees Of Eternity singer Aleah Stanbridge, although the track “Silhouettes” is yet another highlight of the first volume.
“Songs… II” is a gentler affair, but still carries the same sense of melancholy and sadness in its songs. Instrumental piano-led opener “The Womb Of Winter” leads into the acoustic guitar and tubular bells of “The Heart Of A Cold White Land” which in a way sums up the whole experience with the lyric “…this heart of a cold white land in the dark of the endless nights and the light of summer that never dies in these songs from the North…”. My favourite tracks on this record are “Autumn Fire”, “Pray For The Winds To Come” and the second instrumental track “66°50’N, 28°40’E” (which, according to Google maps, is in Salla near Finland’s eastern border with Russia).
The third disc, “Songs… III”, begins with the longest track here, the thirteen minute hymn of despair and pain that is “The Gathering Of Black Moths”. The deathly slow “7 Hours Late” follows, feeling akin to the end of time itself, and it’s fair to say that the pace has not picked up by the time we get to the highlight of the third record, the glacial “Abandoned By The Light”, in which Saint Peter makes a return to the lyrics and Kotamäki’s deathly growl intones about suffering “…the purest form of pain, my heart pulled apart by ebony horses unaware of their powers, gentle in their calmness until their eyes lit up like the fires of Hell, or was it just a reflection of mine…”.
Swallow The Sun are a truly great doom metal band that have incorporated a wide palette within their core sound. Now that winter is settling in and we are treated to rain, mist and dark skies I feel that it is the perfect time for something like “Songs From The North”. The fact that the project is on such a huge scale just makes it even better in my view. An ideal, and oddly uplifting, soundtrack to the melancholy and darkness of winter. Very impressive…
“Songs From The North I” tracklist:
1. With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears / 2. 10 Silver Bullets / 3. Rooms & Shadows / 4. Heartstrings Shattering / 5. Silhouettes / 6. Memory Of Light / 7. Lost & Catatonic / 8. From Happiness To Dust
“Songs From The North II” tracklist:
1. The Womb Of Winter / 2. The Heart Of A Cold White Land / 3. Away / 4. Pray For The Winds To Come / 5. Songs From The North / 6. 66°50’N, 28°40’E / 7. Autumn Fire / 8. Before The Summer Dies
“Songs From The North III” tracklist:
1. The Gathering Of Black Moths / 2. 7 Hours Late / 3. Empires Of Loneliness / 4. Abandoned By The Light / 5. The Clouds Prepare For Battle