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The Karelian Isthmus (1992)

Released in November 1992, The Karelian Isthmus is the first full-length from the Finnish death metal band, Amorphis. In fact, it ended up being the only 'pure' record of this style that they ever made. Like a lot of bands of this era, they were quick to abandon the harsher sounds of underground metal within a relatively short time. Nonetheless, their brief stay in this darker realm produced some solid material.

The Karelian Isthmus was recorded at Studio Sunlight, so it certainly shares some similarities with the Swedish sound of the early '90s. The production is cleaner than that of the Privilege of Evil E.P. but still retains a bit of an edge, for sure. That wouldn't be lost until the following release. Skogsberg did a good job with this, as the sound suits the music about as well as could be asked, even if the aforementioned E.P. had a more raw, underground feeling.

The songwriting is inconsistent, at times. There are a lot of great doom riffs thrown in, and it is during these slower parts that the band manages to create a dark, epic atmosphere. Songs such as "The Gathering" and "The Lost Name of God" are good examples of this and probably the best songs on here. "Vulgar Necrolatry" is another one of the better tracks, and it is here where one can really compare The Karelian Isthmus with its predecessor, since this is a re-recording. Come to think of it, the double bass is a little less annoying on the L.P. version. Speaking of which, this technique is utilized too much and is too high in the mix. It only serves to obscure things during the faster sections. It's bad enough that most of the blasting parts are generic and seem interchangeable, but one cannot even get a full grasp on the riffs due to the irritating bass drums.

There is definitely no evil feeling conveyed by any of this, as was found on previous songs like "Privilege of Evil". Still, the slower riffs do well to create a sense of dread and impending doom. The more melodic parts are hit and miss, sometimes working within the context of a song and occasionally failing, miserably. The bits inspired by Iron Maiden definitely needed to be removed before actually recording a full-length, as they do not fit at all.

Overall, The Karelian Isthmus is not a classic album, but it is well worth a listen. The best parts are quite good, even if the rest often runs together. There is nothing here that is just awful or difficult to tolerate, as with Tales from the Thousand Lakes. Had Amorphis stuck with this style, they might have done a better job down the line, but these kids were merely passing through the underground on their way to something else. At any rate, fans of old school Swedish and Finnish death metal will likely appreciate at least some parts of this.
(14 Oct. 2013)

Tales From the Thousand Lakes (1994)

Amorphis released their sophomore album in September 1994. Recorded one year earlier, again at Studio Sunlight, Tales from the Thousand Lakes is pretty much unlike anything else that was being done at the time. While their first effort mixed in a fair amount of pure death metal alongside the doom riffs and melodic bits, there is very little of that here. What one can expect to find here is an album that blends influences from death metal, doom and folk music, as well as some other things of which I am likely ignorant.

I should absolutely hate this record, but I suppose a bit of nostalgia clouds my opinion. Tales from the Thousand Lakes was my introduction to this Finnish band. After some concert, I was riding in the back of my friend's car and very tired, just looking up through the window and gazing at the moon while the cassette played. The windows were open, so the cold air was blowing on me and the whole thing was sort of relaxing. 

At its best moments, this album is quite atmospheric. While intros are often pointless filler, "Thousand Lakes" features a somber piano that sort of sets the tone for what is to come. The feeling is sort of peaceful and cold, yet a little gloomy at the same time. This atmosphere is accentuated by riffs that follow. 

"Into Hiding" starts with fairly slow, doom riffs. This is quite similar to what was found on their first album, The Karelian Isthmus. The song does speed up, and it's worth noting that the production is heavy, yet cushioned in a sense. It's not as abrasive as on the previous album, being kind of blunt rather than sharp. Again, this works well with the peaceful feeling that permeates this record. This is very melodic and epic in nature. Unfortunately, the song is nearly ruined by the clean vocal passage, which is difficult to tolerate. It is totally out of place and the guy sounds as if he is trying to channel Axl Rose. The main riffs of the song seem to be thrash-oriented, with a lot of power chords in the background. The keyboard is used sparingly, adding the effect of some '70s progressive rock sound, near the end.

The melodies on this album do seem inspired by traditional folk music, almost having a medieval vibe to them. "The Castaway" slowly builds up, getting catchier as it goes along. The riffs are almost hypnotic and trance-like. This is somewhat difficult to describe, though I believe the band was called progressive death/doom, around this time, for whatever that is worth. The rhythm guitars maintain some sort of ominous feeling, as the lead produced the hypnotic melodies. It all slows down, nearer to the end, leaving only the keyboards, drums and a distant lead 'solo'. This leads into a very memorable melody which words fail to do justice to.

"First Doom" has a slightly darker feel, filled with the type of epic riffs that were common in early Swedish death metal (as well as the first album from Amorphis). I read that the band had already 'matured' so much by this point that they felt odd to put the harsh vocals on this record. It was as if they were somehow beyond that. I, for one, am quite glad that they waited until the next album to abandon this vocal style, as it would have ruined this classic. The closing riffs seem to be drenched in sorrow, though not in a terribly overt manner.

The next song was popular enough to get its own E.P. a short time later. "Black Winter Day" starts out with a keyboard, and has a slightly up-tempo feel, compared to the previous song. It's still very epic and does well to take the listener beyond the real world, into the realm depicted on the album cover. Again, there's brief use of clean vocals on this song that may take some getting used to. There's a decent keyboard melody that then gives way to a lead solo, which is preferable.

"Drowned Maid" seems to pick the pace up a bit, with an added sense of urgency. It gives the feeling of taking some lengthy journey, which is the same throughout the entire album. The music is very memorable and interesting, never boring for even a moment. The tale is sort of bleak, however. While not bearing an oppressive sound, there are still strains of sorrow present here. It ends with the sound of the waves crashing against the shore, where the maid's blood has been offered.

"In the Beginning" flows directly from this, with one of the more depressing riffs on the album. It also opens with a trade off of clean and harsh vocals. The lead melody is truly epic and sort of miserable, yet peaceful at the same time. The song speeds up, though never getting intense. This song preserves the atmosphere that has been created already and adds to it, greatly.

The down-tempo feeling is ever-present in the opening riffs of "Forgotten Sunrise". It continues building, until exploding with a funereal spirit, accompanied by the sound of an organ (or some effect, created by the keyboard). There are some more uplifting moments,serving as peaks to contrast the deep valleys, but even these are obscured by clouds. Despite all of this, there is still a peaceful feeling that pervades all else. It is like the peace one would find from drowning in freezing cold water. As the song slowly fades, you begin to prepare for the end.

"To Father's Cabin" begins with epic thrash riffs and keyboards that blend together, seamlessly. This one might as well be an instrumental, as there is only a single verse that is spoken in a clean and distant voice. This one seems to be dominated by the melodies, giving more or a build-up for the final piece. It cannot be overstated that the riffs are all very memorable, remaining in your brain long after the record is over.

The final song, "Magic and Mayhem", starts out with a slow riff that is both somber and exquisite. This then flows into something that is heavier and kind of harsh. There is almost a dark quality to this, though the strange keyboard effects prevent it from going too far in this direction. The thrashy riffs are joined by more epic chords, in the background. It all ends in a chaotic eruption of riffs and more strange effects.

Tales From the Thousand Lakes is a solid album for anyone that might be looking for something more atmospheric and moody. It is absolutely not for death metal purists, or even fans of classic death/doom, for that matter. It is an acquired taste, more or less, and I severely doubt that I would have even given it a chance if not for the manner in which I was introduced to it and whatever mental associations that were created. The occasional clean vocals are utterly wretched, the keyboards are over-the-top and too much of a contrast the riffs below, and yet there is enough worthwhile material on here to at least attempt to tolerate its shortcomings.
(4 Aug. 2009)

Black Winter Day (1995)

In January 1995, Amorphis followed up on the success of Tales From the Thousand Lakes with the Black Winter Day E.P. In a way, it seemed that their musical transition had already been decided upon. This release would serve as an epitaph for the early period of Amorphis. After this, they would continue to 'progress' toward something quite far from their roots.

It begins with the song "Black Winter Day". This is the same version as found on the L.P. For me, this song didn't stick out so much as to deserve its own E.P. All of the songs on Tales From the Thousand Lakes were quite consistent, so any one of them would have sufficed. At any rate, this was the song that they felt best represented that album, apparently.

"Folk of the North" is a somber instrumental that begins with a piano. It is sooned joined by the guitars, bass and drums. Much like the material on the last full-length, this has a peaceful atmosphere and wouldn't have been out of place among those songs, really.

The next song is "Moon and Sun", which is a bit more straight-forward. There is still some utilization of the keyboard, though it is implemented in creating a darker feeling than on other songs. The guitar riffs possess the same epic nature as is found on the two previous albums, causing one to wonder whether or not this was a leftover track. Judging by the lyrics, it would appear so. If it was passed up, my guess is that this decision was based more of time constraints rather than quality, as this is a very good song.

"Moon and Sun Pt. II: North's Son" starts with an eerie keyboard effect, though the song is a bit more uptempo than its predecessor, once it actually begins. As with the last one, the vocals are all done in the death metal style, being deep and almost more reminiscent of The Karelian Isthmus than Tales From the Thousand Lakes. The speed has increased a bit, as well. During the latter half of the song, the pace slows down and nothing is left but a piano and the drums. This hearkens back to the intro from the last album. Once the guitars return, the pace picks up, slightly, as the song finishes out.

Black Winter Day is a fitting manner to say goodbye to the first era of Amorphis and to begin the new one with a clean slate; i.e. no leftover songs from the past. The material here is just as good as anything found on the previous full-length, which is easily noticed due to the inclusion of a song from that L.P. For people such as myself, this is also a good point at which to close the book on this band, as they subsequently transformed into something quite different.
(7 Aug. 2009)

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