Album Title: Halo
Label: Atomic Fire Records
Date of Release: 11 February 2022
My love affair with Amorphis began back before the turn of the Millennium, not long after they released ‘Tuonela’. This is still one of those albums that I revere and listen to on a rather frequent basis. However, even so, I have to consider the fact that 2015’s ‘Under The Red Cloud’ and 2018’s ‘Queen Of Time’ both may surpass their 1999 offering, being such fantastic albums from start to finish. Stylistically relatively different, the reintroduction of gruff vocals and a harsher melodic death metal edge to compliment the folk-infused melodies were always ingredients that were highly likely to find favour with me. Regardless, I think it’s fair to say that Amorphis are one of the most enduring bands within metal circles, always tweaking with their sound, but never failing to deliver some potent, high-quality music in the process. It’s this staggering consistency which is most impressive; instead of pining for the output of their early years, here I am suggesting that the Finns are getting better with time.
All of this preamble means that the sextet have created something of a rod for their own backs. If they release an album that doesn’t quite live up to past endeavours, fans will be disappointed and critics (don’t you just hate them?!) will sink their teeth in. But it’s a thankless, almost impossible task to keep writing and recording music that matches or surpasses all that has gone before. In essence, it’s a no-win situation. Mind you, this is Amorphis, so if any band was to be up for the challenge, it is them.
Since releasing ‘Queen Of Time’, the band has moved from Nuclear Blast to Atomic Fire Records. Reading a few quotes sprinkled within the press release provided by their new label, the talented gents seem keen to point out that they consider ‘Halo’ to be more ‘progressive’ than other recent endeavours. To me, that’s always a welcome revelation as I am a sucker for well-written and well-delivered progressive music, be it heavy or not.
The fact that it has taken so long to publish this review should tell you a little about the struggles I have had when formulating my thoughts on ‘Halo’. Writer’s block and internal wrangles are not fun. There is no denying that once again, the musicianship and ability of the band is not in question; this is yet another thoroughly professional and enjoyable ride into the world of Kalevala, via the lyrical talents of Pekka Kainulainen. But, try as I might, I’ve not warmed to the content in the same way as the last two and others within their ever-growing back catalogue. I feel mealy mouthed even contemplating such feedback, but I have to be honest and speak as I find.
Let me make it clear that ‘Halo’ is still head and shoulders above great swathes of albums that I have heard of late and will continue to hear as the year goes by. But when Amorphis have set the bar so high in the past, it can only result in a little disappointment when I don’t feel the same connection. And the reason for this, I believe, rests in the fact that there are less songs that I’d colloquially refer to as ‘bangers’. Some of the songs are hugely anthemic and full of power, with strong hooks, and melodies. But for my money, there are less of these on ‘Halo’, with a greater emphasis on those progressive elements, especially as the influences from the 70s loom large across several tracks.
‘Halo’ kicks off with ‘Northwards’ and it’s right out of the gate that I feel torn. It’s a fantastic song, of that there’s no doubt, with much to enjoy about it, including an immediate nod towards a more organic, progressive feel. The opening moments are darkly cinematic, brooding in feel. From there, it erupts in instantly recognisable fashion, with a driving tempo and energetic demeanour. The guitar riffs courtesy of Esa Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari that join vocalist Tomi Joutsen’s gruff bark are satisfyingly chunky, whilst the drums of Jan Rechberger and the bass of Olli-Pekka Laine provide a strong, interesting backbone. However, I struggle just a touch with the chorus that feels a little undercooked and the bold, 70s prog synths courtesy of Santeri Kallio are a little too pronounced if I’m honest. The quieter section that sees Joutsen croon mellifluously and with emotion is great, as is the introduction of choral vocals to offer another layer to an already multi-faceted track. I have tried to love the song, but I am yet to have that epiphany.
The same cannot be said for a handful of other songs that I have taken to my heart almost immediately. First off, there’s ‘On The Dark Waters’ that begins with an intro that’s reminiscent of Amorphis of yesteryear. The groove and lead guitar melodies on top are delightful, whilst the keys feel less intrusive. The chorus is a thing of real beauty though; Joutsen belts out some fabulously stirring clean vocals that are actually quite sad, whilst the irresistible hooks take effect from the outset. When I spoke about ‘bangers’ earlier, this is without doubt the first such song on ‘Halo’, even taking into account the striking Middle Eastern sounding passage around the midway point.
Other highlights on ‘Halo’ include the likes of ‘The Moon’, an epic track that features an uplifting, majestic chorus whilst also offering a more introspective vibe, wonderfully engaging guitar tones, and occasional ethereal female vocals. There is a definite progressive feel that I really like within this composition too; for me, this is the sound of Amorphis at their melodic and arresting best, easily producing one of the strongest listening experiences on the entire album.
‘A New Land’ is another personal favourite; more of a shorter, more straightforward composition with great energy and another melodic chorus topped off with one of Joutsen’s finest performances in my humble opinion. It is a track that once again emphasises those Middle Eastern flourishes that Amorphis favour, and the whole thing just works.
I love the ‘Tuonela’-like intro to ‘Seven Roads Come Together’, as well as the interplay between guitars and keys that makes the track almost dance at times. The shifts in tempo and intensity are noteworthy too, meaning it’s one of the most dramatic-sounding songs on the album. And who could resist the cinematic trappings of the final sequence?
Naturally, the title track is another of those immediate ‘bangers’, a full-throttle assault to begin with that cleverly juxtaposed by elegant melodies to create a captivating composition. The verses introduce a female voice to duet subtly with Joutsen, whilst the chorus thunders through the speakers with nicely tempered metallic aggression.
To be honest, it’s rather difficult to criticise that much on ‘Halo’ because there isn’t much about which I can be critical. At the end of the day, it’s a very solid, occasionally brilliant album that is more than worthy of standing beside others within the Finn’s back catalogue. However, sometimes the final piece in the puzzle with an album is how it make you feel as a listener. On that score, despite some very good songs, plenty of professionalism, and lots to enjoy, the overall feel of ‘Halo’ for me personally, falls just a little short of the bar that the sextet set with ‘Queen Of Time’. With that disc, I couldn’t wait to press play again. With ‘Halo’, I really enjoy large chunks of the album, but I don’t get that same level of excitement and rush of adrenaline when I listen. Not quite anyway.
The Score of Much Metal: 87%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
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