Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages – Album Review

Cover

Artist: Barren Earth

Album Title: A Complex of Cages

Label: Century Media Records

Date Of Release: 30 March 2018

Barren Earth have come an awfully long way since their debut, ‘Curse of the Red River’, back in 2010. Then, theirs was an extreme death/doom metal blueprint tinged with progressive elements and a modicum of melody. Nowadays, as evidenced by the band’s fourth album, ‘A Complex of Cages’, their output is markedly different.

What’s perhaps most surprising however, is the fact that whilst the music has altered over the intervening years, the clientele has remained relatively constant. In fact, the only line-up casualties in the past decade or so have been in behind the mic stand and in the ivories department. Lead vocalist, Mikko Kotamäki of Swallow The Sun fame, departed around 2013, to be replaced the following year by Jón Aldará (Hamferð), whilst keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson (ex-Amorphis, Turisas (live)) has recently been superseded by Antti Myllynen . Otherwise, the core quartet of guitarists Janne Perttilä and Sami Yli-Sirniö (Kreator), bassist Olli-Pekka Laine (Amorphis) and drummer Marko Tarvonen (Moonsorrow, October Sky and Thy Serpent) remains untouched. Therefore, in the context of extreme metal, the pedigree is undeniably highly impressive to say the least – I’m sure many of you will agree.

And the great thing is, the end product is as good as you might hope it would be, possibly even better. That’s not always the case when big names join forces, as egos get in the way, as do musical differences, work schedules and sometimes even geography. But like a fine wine, Barren Earth just get better with age.

I’m surprised I’m saying this too, because if I’m honest, it was Mikko Kotamäki that was the big draw for me. It was his inclusion that led me to try out this new Finnish band and his performances that kept me interested. And yet, I have to say that ‘A Complex of Cages’ is Barren Earth’s best creation to date. It helps that Faroese vocalist Jón Aldará is a more than able replacement and puts in a commanding performance behind the microphone. But overall, I just feel that this is the most mature, smooth and accomplished record that the sextet has ever recorded. It is the reason that I have, in the space of the last few weeks, gone from an interested observer to full-on fan of Barren Earth. People might compare this record with the output of Opeth, but that’d be lazy and arguably inaccurate because this is, in my opinion, better than just about anything Opeth has delivered. There, I said it.

And, whilst I have been well aware of the slowly changing output of Barren Earth, it still came as a bit of a surprise to note just how much the extreme element of the band’s material has reduced. I would suggest that it is close to a 50/50 split in terms of extremity versus something altogether less harsh and abrasive. If we’re talking vocals, I’d go even further and suggest that it is more like a 60/40 split in favour of clean, more mellifluous singing from Aldará over his more savage, deep growls.

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More importantly however, is the way in which the sextet transition between the heavy and not-so-heavy material; it is executed so effortlessly and so smoothly that occasionally, you don’t even notice the point at which the music changed direction and focus. One minute we’re being treated to some all-out death metal extremity and then, in the blink of an eye, we’re in much more relaxed surroundings embellished with folk and progressive leanings, bordering on the psychedelic occasionally.

At all times therefore, I find the music on ‘A Complex of Cages’ to be deep, rich and thoroughly engaging. There are very few moments that don’t offer something intriguing, challenging or just plain beautiful.

The opening composition, ‘The Living Fortress’ kicks things off magnificently. After a brief intro that employs a variety of voices whispering and shouting the album’s title above some odd keyboard sounds, we’re treated to a chunky riff that’s full of power and intent, that then flows into something that it both heavy and properly progressive in tone and delivery. In the blink of an eye, in march some acoustic guitars as Aldará beguiles with his clean timbre for the first time. The chorus is nicely memorable, with a strong melody and surrounding it is plenty of variety, from a whimsical minimalist interlude with folk leanings, to cheeky 70s rock riffs. I’m a huge fan of the rhythmic section of drummer Marko Tarvonen and bassist Olli-Pekka Laine too, who lay down the foundations with plenty of brute force and subtle panache.

Credit must go to new keys man Antti Myllynen, who bathes the track in lush tones and textures throughout, occasionally stealing the spotlight when the song demands it. In fact, Myllynen is one of the big strengths of ‘A Complex of Cages’, adept at creating the kinds of sophisticated atmospheres that compliment and enhance the music overall.

‘Ruby’, a shorter track, is no less impactful, featuring more killer riffs from guitarists Janne Perttilä and Sami Yli-Sirniö and a gorgeous Amorphis-reminiscent chorus that just grows and grows the more I listen. If I’m not mistaken, we then get a reprise of sorts of the ‘Ruby’ melodies within ‘Dysphoria’. It took a while for the penny to drop such is the subtlety at play, but having now done so, I think this is a masterstroke, a demonstration of the immense talents of Barren Earth collectively.

Elsewhere, the ten-minute epic ‘Solitide Pith’ shows Barren Earth at their most overtly progressive and ambitious. Within it, there are definite Eastern melodies and textures at play, not to mention a huge dose of psychedelic sounds reminiscent of a bygone era courtesy of Myllynen. The track also benefits from a clever use of varied tempos, inspired individual instrumental prowess and some of the most immediate and insidious melodies anywhere on the album. Together, all these elements create a formidable composition, one of my favourites within the nine.

The heavily folk-tinged ‘Scatterprey’ will be nectar to the ears of Amorphis fans whilst retaining a solid Barren Earth identity, whilst ‘Zeal’ which contains arguably the most pronounced musical juxtapositions on ‘A Complex of Cages’. It begins in dark, dramatic fashion with an elongated keyboard and hushed vocal introduction full of intrigue and suspense. We’re then transported into slow, crushing doom metal territory before, quick as a flash, the band go on an all-out brutal death metal assault. It is the heaviest and most overtly aggressive passage on the album, only to be replaced at the death by the most immediately beautiful and euphoric melodic outro, made all the more impressive thanks to the bold contrasts that preceded it.

When music is this powerful, engrossing and intelligent, it is hard not to get swept up and immersed in it. With ‘A Complex of Cages’, Barren Earth have easily unleashed their greatest album to date, the near-perfect blend of beauty and brutality, where every glorious twist and turn delivers something to delight and inspire the listener. If you want your metal to be extreme but also nuanced, sophisticated and elaborate, look no further than this rather brilliant record.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

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Kino – Radio Voltaire
Borealis – The Offering
W.E.T. – Earthrage
Auri – Auri
Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse

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