Review of Tenebrosum by Windfaerer

Band: Windfaerer
Album: Tenebrosum
Release Date: 22 September 2015
Record Label: Hammerheart Records (will re-issue in January)
Buy on CD ($12) or digital ($7) from: Bandcamp

Tenebrosum by Windfaerer

At the end of every year I like to give my album review writers the chance to write about not their favorite album of the year but instead the one they think was the most overlooked and deserving of more attention. The albums don’t have to be from the local scene like most of the reviews on DCHM and the choice is totally up to them. Buzzo Jr’s was posted here yesterday but today is Tal’s pick for the 2015 album that deserves more attention.

For a while now I’ve preferred metal music that’s slower and sadder than the norm, and sometimes haunting or ethereal rather than heavy. But there’s still a part of me that longs for epic grandeur, as my 2013 review of Echoes Of Battle by Caladan Brood goes to show, and this year I found myself drawn to a similarly dark and epic album: Tenebrosum by New Jersey’s Windfaerer.

I first heard Windfaerer on Lightfox177’s Youtube channel, a treasure trove of ambient and atmospheric metal, so I expected something either ethereal or desolate. I could hardly believe my ears as the commanding riffs at the start of “Celestial Supremacy,” which is the first song on the album, thundered out of my headphones. It does have a cascading atmospheric guitar sound to it, but it also has energetic groove more like the melodeathy end of the folk/Viking metal spectrum. I would put this song on while working on my novel, but then end up headbanging too hard to get any writing done. And it only amps up more, as a minute and a half in, the drums go wild and the guitars become a white-noise wall of sound punctuated by distorted wah’s, and then roaring vocals summon the darkness. A keening violin cuts through the chaos. Then during the chorus the song expands to epic grandeur, as you can just make out the vocalist roaring, “This is the legend we have forged.”

Comparisons to Summoning and Caladan Brood are inevitable, and warranted, as far as the epic parts are concerned. In addition, the style of the violin melodies recalls Maryland folk metal band Isenmor, especially in the parts where the violin soars on flights of fancy over a frenzied black metal barrage. Could this be a distinctive flavor of U.S. East Coast folk metal? The band describes themselves as “an extreme aural entity inspired by black metal and folkloric atmospheres…an homage to ancestral travels and an essence beyond our grasp,” defying location in a single genre or tradition.

Drawn in by “Celestial Supremacy,” I went on to listen to the rest of the album. The second song, “Finisterra,” features an irresistibly groovy and headbangable riff, and an instrumental segment that starts as a dreamy clean passage with gently flowing violin, and then morphs into a soaring solo over tremolo-y atmospheric guitar.

The first two songs are so captivating that they overshadow the third song. “Tales of Oblivion” has a slower feel, in spite of its blast beats and buzzsaw riffage, due to the slow melody and drawn out vocals, though it does have a fast and then furious passage in the middle. There isn’t as much captivating groove or melody to this song though. “Santería,” meanwhile, is a wild dance of violin over hammering riffs and frenetic blasts of drumming. It’s a relatively short, fast and heavy instrumental. It segues smoothly into “The Everlasting,” which features sweeping violin over the now expected barrage of drums and guitar, while the vocalist roars grandly, “These wounds will last forever, like stars carved in the sky / The heavens bleed the sorrows of mankind.” Cascades of tremolo guitar are surmounted by an achingly beautiful violin melody, and then the song closes with a clean guitar passage, contrasting with the godlike wrath of the vocals in between.

“Morir en el olvido” begins with a catchy riff and then violin melody, which underpin the song even once the darker vocals, blast beats and buzzsaw guitar come in. It’s another groovy headbangable one with its abundance of melodic riffage. “The Outer Darkness,” the last song on the album, is a last assault of frenzied guitar, drums and violin all together, as though all the forces of darkness were battering at the gates. This is not the anthropomorphic darkness of a demonic figure, however, but the inanimate forces of nature and the cosmos around us:

I am the expansiveness of planets
I am the disinterested force of storms

This plane is hostile
Here there is nothingness
I am the outer darkness

After a more moderate section with a meandering, proggy violin solo, like a pleasant jaunt through the far reaches of the galaxy, our ultimate smallness catches up with us, as the song and album end with a last barrage of instruments and vocals that conjures up the howling of the void.

In contrast to most other epic bands, Windfaerer’s subject matter on Tenebrosum doesn’t include any heroes or mighty deeds. Instead they sing of “sagas of seclusion,” “bleak words that have failed me” and being “washed away like sand at shore, slowly erased from time.” Even “Celestial Supremacy” with its references to legends and quests seems to be more about the fruitlessness of such endeavors, and ends with the voyagers leaving earth behind, perhaps forever. Heroic epics are about remembering; Tenebrosum is about oblivion, being forgotten and disappearing. It is actually anti-epic – or perhaps an epic paean to the immense cosmos that overwhelms all human attempts to write our names in the sand, as it were.

But hey, at least we get to listen to something as soul-stirring as this album during the time we do have here.

Review of Maryland Folk Fest

Metal Chris here. In the past I’ve written all the concert reviews on DCHM and usually I shoot all of the live photos as well. For this post we’re trying something new as long time DCHM album reviewer Tal went to the first Maryland Folk Fest last weekend and put together this review. I wasn’t able to attend so I had to ask for photos from those who attended, so big thanks to Tigran Kapinos and the Dogs And Day Drinkers photographer Aubreii Dove for letting us use their images in this post. And as usual, you can read more of Tal’s writing on his blog In My Winter Castle. Now, on to this in depth review and recap of Maryland Folk Fest!

Earlier this year, Paganfest America announced that their gigantic folk metal tour would not be happening in 2015. Folk metal fans all over North America were distraught – and Sarah Stepanik, fiddler and vocalist of Sekengard, decided to do something about it. With the help of other local metalheads, she pulled together this mini-festival of East Coast folk metal (and folk metal-ish) bands at Metro Gallery in Baltimore on Saturday, August 22nd. And Maryland Folk Fest was phenomenal.

Maryland Folk Fest

Metro Gallery seemed like a small place to hold a festival, but then again maybe they weren’t expecting a huge turnout, and Metro Gallery’s capacity is 240 (which sounds like it’d be jam-packed!). At the peak of the festival, the place was comfortably full – there was enough room that you weren’t right up against your neighbor, but there wasn’t much empty space, either.

When I went in, I handed my ID to the guy at the door and said half-jokingly, “Don’t judge me” — because the name and photo on my ID don’t match my look nowadays (although this was the last time dealing with that because I received the legal document changing my name two days after the show). He said, “No judging here. This is a Safer Space.” And he pointed to a sign in the window (I think it was this one). So that was awesome. While I feel pretty comfortable as an LGBT person in the DC area metal scene, it was still nice to know that respect and decency are codified in the venue’s policy.

I got into the venue about 6:45; I thought I was late, but the show wasn’t actually starting till 7. There were maybe 30 or 40 people there then. I figured most of them were band members and their significant others.

Around 7, Heimdall, a band from Lynchburg, VA got started. I haven’t had any spare brain cells for months, so I didn’t have a chance to check out the bands I didn’t know ahead of time, and so I knew nothing about these guys before the show. They played a fast and furious mix of thrash and death metal, with vocals ranging from a Black Dahlia Murder-esque scream to low growls, some thundering thrash riffs and some groovy or churning death metal parts. They looked very young, and rather 80’s/thrashy, with battle vests and wavy chest length hair. There were maybe 50 people standing around during their set. This was definitely not a thrash crowd — the floor was practically still. There was no pit nor even any vigorous headbanging, just a few bobbing heads. Then again, the singer didn’t ask for a pit; based on later events, people might have obliged if he had. He didn’t really interact with the crowd at all, just growled the names of songs, but I have no idea what he said. The band seemed tight and professional though, and sounded good. If I were into thrash or traditional death metal, I would follow them. I was not sure why they were on the bill, though, since the only folk things about them seemed to be their band name and rune-ish looking logo.

Heimdall at Maryland Folk Fest

Heimdall at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

Heimdall at Maryland Folk Fest

Heimdall at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

Isenmor was the first of the four bands on the bill that I was familiar with ahead of time. Isenmor was just formed about a year ago in the lovely, tiny town of Savage, MD, and released an EP this past June, which I recently reviewed for DC Heavy Metal. At the fest, they played all the original songs from their EP (though not in order), a cover of Eluveitie‘s “Havoc,” and some new original songs. At least one of these new songs, “Furor Teutonicus,” I’d heard them play last month when they were supposed to open for California’s Helsott at Cafe 611 and unexpectedly got to play a long set when Helsott walked out. This time at Metro Gallery, the sound for Isenmor was clearer, so I was able to get a better feel for the song. It started with a furious barrage of buzzing notes on the two violins, and kept up the fast pace with a volley of harsh vocals. The song I enjoyed most, though, was my favorite from the EP, “So Willingly Deceived” — even though they seemed a little out of synch at first, and the violins sounded a bit out of tune at the end. It’s a slow song, but very grand and melodic. The crowd had grown, and there was a five-person pit during one of the new songs. But the fun was short-lived, because someone got hurt, possibly broke a leg and had be helped out of the pit (and I later found out she was taken away in an ambulance). That put a damper on the moshing for a while. Toward the end of the set, Nick called for a circle pit during “Death is a Fine Companion,” and one started up again, this time with a few more people – maybe seven :P Isenmor made a big finish, and the crowd cheered enthusiastically. They’d be a hard act to follow, I thought.

Isenmor at Maryland Folk Fest

Isenmor at Maryland Folk Fest by Luna Rose Photography

Isenmor at Maryland Folk Fest

Isenmor at Maryland Folk Fest by Luna Rose Photography

The next band on the bill was Dogs And Day Drinkers, hailing from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I’ve seen this band numerous times over the past few years, and they’ve really come far. They seem to have finally hit their stride and found their sound, maybe partly due to their new vocalist, who seems to have a stronger voice than their previous singer. At times the band sounds like early A Sound Of Thunder — the charging heavy metal riffs, the powerful female vocals. But Ashley Marie’s voice isn’t exactly same as that of Nina Osegueda of A Sound Of Thunder (of course); Ashley’s voice has more edge to it, and the band’s overall sound is more straight-ahead heavy metal than A Sound Of Thunder ever was. One thing they do share are blazing guitar solos, although Dan Wise’s are more shred and not bluesy like those by A Sound Of Thunder guitarist Josh Schwartz. The band played a new song that they’d never played before, which Ashley said that people wouldn’t like, but it was actually was one of their best songs. It started off with a very “Barracuda”-like riff and then got more creative. Another song was introduced as “that one folk metal song we wrote one time,” and it had a much more epic, Viking-metal sound. They closed with “Battle Hymn,” whose chorus (“We march, we die, leave the bodies where they lie”) has been getting stuck in my head the last few times I’ve seen the band. The floor emptied a bit during their set, with a lot of people sitting down, which was unfortunate since they’re getting pretty good.

Dogs And Day Drinkers at Maryland Folk Fest

Dogs And Day Drinkers at Maryland Folk Fest by Luna Rose Photography

Dogs And Day Drinkers at Maryland Folk Fest

Dogs And Day Drinkers at Maryland Folk Fest by Luna Rose Photography

Next up was another band I had never heard of before, Yonder Realm from Long Island. They reminded me of Eluveitie at first, with a strong death metal flavor to their sound under the folky touches of keyboard and violin and a similar style of harsh vocals, but they also sometimes used lower growls (surprisingly low for the willowy vocalist) or core-y choruses. Their recordings feature a flute as well, which adds to the Eluveitie vibe. Live, they were quite heavy on the guitars, and the keyboard (and I think also a backing track of other folky instruments) was drowned out by the guitars at first. This was fixed after the second song, but then the keyboard was kind of loud and overwhelmed the rest of the band, making the guitars just background noise. The whole band sounded their best when keyboardist Dana Lengel switched to the violin — at that point the acoustic violin balanced nicely with with the other, electric strings. In keeping with the two following bands, the vocalist/guitarist Jesse McGunnigle was a bit of a jokester — he said one song was about “eating all the bitches” (when actually it was called “Pillars of Creation”) and later joked about the fact that there were two “Realm” bands on the bill: “We’re thinking of changing our name to Yonder Aether, or maybe Realm Realm.” The last song they played, “Moonbeam Road,” was very cool, with a dreamy atmospheric beginning before going into epic melodic riffs and then a frenzied fast section in the middle. I was very impressed with the band, and picked up both their album and EP.

Yonder Realm at Maryland Folk Fest

Yonder Realm at Maryland Folk Fest by Luna Rose Photography

Yonder Realm at Maryland Folk Fest

Yonder Realm at Maryland Folk Fest by Luna Rose Photography

Sekengard was in the second slot, but probably played the longest, and liveliest, set of the night. They started off with a polka and invited the crowd to dance — so we obliged! They had the most energetic crowd, with lots of dancing and moshing, and about tied with Isenmor for size of crowd. I believe they also played everything from their recent EP, again not in order though. In addition, vocalist/violinist Sarah Stepanik sang “Where did You Sleep Last Night,” which she introduced as an Appalachian folk song that was covered by Nirvana, and I realized that she can really sing! She started out with a sweet voice, but pretty soon she was belting and snarling the words, giving the song quite a creepy feel. The instruments gradually built up while she was singing, and the band launched right into “Striped Paladin” after the Appalachian song. In between other songs, mandolin and guitar player Dan Paytas made us groan with bad jokes. Sekengard ended with their “two craziest songs,” inviting the crowd to mosh. First was “Howling of the Fen,” so I guessed that “Time Flies When You’re Having Rum,” a song originally performed by Dan and Sarah’s other band Pirates For Sail, was going to be the last one, and so I saved myself for that one (I had already taken a blow to the ribs that knocked the wind out of me early in the set, so I didn’t want to push myself too hard). I was right, and the floor went wild with dancing, spinning and moshing for this rousing and fast-paced song. I think we ended the song with a jig line, and the crowd was wildly appreciative when the band finished.

Sekengard at Maryland Folk Fest

Sekengard at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

Sekengard at Maryland Folk Fest

Sekengard at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

Sekengard at Maryland Folk Fest

Sekengard at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

I can’t remember if this happened before or after Sekengard’s set, but in further silliness that night, Sarah introduced us to the Maryland folk scene’s signature drink: When you combine Sekengard and Isenmor, you get — Isengard. And Sekengard sells shot glasses and Isenmor sells pint glasses, so if you fill one with spiced rum and the other with dark beer, and drop the first into the second, you get — “Taking the Hobbit to Isengard.”

Closing out the night was the other “Realm” band, Aether Realm from North Carolina. Like Yonder Realm, they have a melodeath-ish sound, but theirs is somewhere between Ensiferum and Amon Amarth. I think their time might have been shorter than planned, as they only played about five songs. They were heavy and brutal to rival the first band, and unlike the other bands, turned off the stage lights so they were in darkness, lit only by colorful flashes of light like constant rainbow lightning, which heightened the atmosphere. They started with the single they released this spring, “The Chariot,” which has a catchy melody and chorus. For “Swamp Witch,” they had a guest vocalist, Stormblood of Distoriam, who did even more extreme harsh vocals – lower and growlier – making it even more brutal (video footage of that song is posted here). Aether Realm vocalist/bassist Vincent “Jake” Jones opined that Distoriam ought to have been on the lineup. Another impressive song was “One Chosen By the Gods,” which was very dramatic. It was a massively heavy show, but didn’t show off their melodic side well since it was so loud and distorted that the melodies were mostly lost. The crowd thinned considerably during their set (it was after midnight), but there were still a solid fifty or so people for them, including the other bands. They had Jon Teachey from Wilderun filling in on drums because their drummer had family obligations, but with the noisy sound, I couldn’t hear any difference. Jake said that after a show in September, they were going to take a break from performing for a while since they want to concentrate on writing another album.

Aether Realm at Maryland Folk Fest

Aether Realm at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

Aether Realm at Maryland Folk Fest

Aether Realm at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

Aether Realm at Maryland Folk Fest

Aether Realm at Maryland Folk Fest by Tigran Kapinos

With six bands including two unknowns, I had worried there might be some duds or dull moments during the evening, but such a thing never happened. Some sound issues aside, every band delivered an excellent, captivating performance. Before Aether Realm’s set, Sarah gave a little speech thanking everyone, especially the rest of her band and local promoter Bobbie Dickerson, and promised that this will possibly, no, definitely happen again next year. If folk fest were to become a Maryland tradition (à la our other yearly metal festival), this was an awesome start. At least from a fan’s perspective, this first Maryland Folk Fest was an unequivocal success. There is very little I would change — maybe only things I would add, like a food vendor (although that’s perhaps not necessary with all the excellent options outside, and it’s good to support local businesses), and vendors selling folk related stuff. The biggest question of course is, what will next year’s line-up be?

Review of Land Of The Setting Sun by Isenmor

Band: Isenmor
Album: Land of the Setting Sun
Release Date: 21 June 2015
Buy CD ($7) or digital ($5) from: Bandcamp

Land of the Setting Sun by Isenmor

Folk metal is starting to get a foothold in our area. European folk bands have been coming through on their tours for years but we’re starting to see some local folk metal bands pop up. DCHM writer Tal has put together this thorough review of the debut release by one of these bands, Isenmor. You can stream a few tracks at the bottom of this post and listen while you read. You can also check out Tal’s blog In My Winter Castle for more of his writing.

Isenmor, of Savage, Maryland, is the second folk metal band to spring up in the greater DC area in recent years (after Baltimore’s Sekengard). On June 21, Isenmor released a surprisingly mature debut EP (considering that the band was formed a little over a year prior) titled Land of the Setting Sun.

The album title refers to the band’s “Vinlandic” identity. What grounds could a band in the “New World” have for performing European folk music? Well, the Vikings once sailed west into the setting sun and explored the place we now call North America; they called it Vinland. Isenmor takes their inspiration from this to perform Old World music mixed with modern metal, using Viking and Germanic themes. The band’s name, Isenmor, means “iron wasteland” in Old English, and according to vocalist and violinist Nick Schneider, refers to the aftermath of battle, with broken and discarded weapons strewn all about. And I guess that’s fitting since the first two songs on the EP are about the results of battle – death, and the funeral pyre. The lyrics draw on a mix of Germanic and Norse inspirations — while they sing about Wodan and Donar instead of their Norse counterparts Odin and Thor, they also quote from the Viking poem Hávamál (“cattle die, kinsmen die…”). Their sound, meanwhile, is dominated by the two violins (and a viola, according to the credits), which weave folky melodies with English and Celtic inspirations.

The violin-playing is probably the most proficient and appealing part of the EP. The rest of it is enthusiastic and interesting enough, but can’t help sounding a bit amateurish — there’s an unpolished feel to the clean vocals, and a kind of fuzzy sound to the guitars. Of course, this is the self-produced first release of a new band, so an unrefined sound can be forgiven. And some of the roughness may also be purposeful, such as the sawing and scraping of the violin in many parts – a sound which I actually find not unpleasant. Korpiklaani has a similarly scratchy sound to the violin on their first album, Spirit of the Forest, and it gives that album a coarse, earthy feel, which seems fitting for the genre. It makes it really feel like folk, the music of the people.

It took me a few listens to get into Isenmor’s album, possibly partly due to the unpolished sound, but now I love this release. Beneath the violins, there’s a good deal of black metal sound and influence — waves of atmospheric, tremolo-y guitar, screamed vocals delivered at high speed by Nick Schneider. That isn’t all, though; there are also chugging death metal riffs in “Land of the Setting Sun,” thick, heavy-hearted doomy guitar in “So Willingly Deceived,” and furious riffage à la Swedish melodeath in “The Old Mead Hall.” The vocals on the album are also highly varied — besides the screamed vocals, there are also clean vocals by several different band members, grandiose choruses sung by almost the whole band together, and raspy harsh vocals done by Tim Regan (who is also the guitarist). The album begins aggressively, with an energetic violin melody, blastbeats, and an extended scream starting the furious first song, “Death is a Fine Companion,” but most of the album goes at a much slower pace.

My favorite song is one of the slow ones, actually: “So Willingly Deceived,” which is about the conversion of the heathens to Christianity. I have to admit, I probably connected to this song so strongly because it reminded me of the Saxon Stories books by Bernard Cornwell, whose protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is a Saxon lord in 9th century England who resists being converted to Christianity. That connection made the sorrowful keyboard and violin melody especially poignant, the verses praising the pagan gods more grandiose, and the anguish of the verses about those who were “willingly deceived” more real. The melody and vocals are underpinned by doomy guitar, long distorted tones during the verses and disconsolate chugging during the violin bridges, which heightens the sense of nostalgia. I really like the clean vocals in this song, which are performed by Nick — while he sounds untrained, he has a commanding voice which further reminds me of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The lyrics of the song take surprisingly pointed (for folk metal) jabs at Christianity with lines like “You gladly pledge yourselves/ to a tyrant’s bastard son” and “a poorly conceived lie/ of a coward’s paradise.” Along with the first two songs, this song gives the album a decidedly serious feel, so much so that the drinking song that follows it, “The Old Mead Hall,” sounds a bit silly (it is a fun song, though).

After the five original songs on Land of the Setting Sun are two covers drawn from among the best international folk metal bands out there. The first one, a cover of Eluveitie’s “Havoc,” is enjoyable if not novel – it basically sounds like a rough-hewn version of the original. The warmer and simpler sound of the violins in Isenmor’s version, as opposed to the violin, tin whistle, and hurdy-gurdy that Eluveitie use for the furious folk barrages of the song, gives the cover a homelier sound than the tight, clear sound of the original.

The second cover is Ensiferum’s “In My Sword I Trust.” I was initially disappointed in this choice of cover song. It’s not that Isenmor did a bad job; but I don’t like this song or the album it’s from, 2012’s Unsung Heroes, in general. It’s just not up to the high standard and unique style of previous Ensiferum. (This year’s One Man Army redeemed Ensiferum, in my opinion, but I digress…) While “In My Sword I Trust” isn’t a good song for Ensiferum, it is pretty decent as a generic folk metal song, and Isenmor actually sounds really good playing it. Like the rest of the album, it took me a few listens to get into, but now I actually enjoy their rendition of it, certainly more than the original. Isenmor’s violin sounds much more strident playing the melody than the keyboard in the original – especially when both Nick and Miles are playing. The vocals are a bit gruffer, and after the solo (which is carried by the violin rather than the guitar in Isenmor’s cover), when the guitar and growled vocals hammer down on us, the band actually sounds pretty brutal. While not as polished in technique or recording quality, Isenmor’s cover is a lot more interesting than when Ensiferum plays this song.

And that’s not all. You get more than your money’s worth and then some with this EP, as the two covers are followed by acoustic versions of “Pyre” and “So Willingly Deceived.” I won’t deceive you; when I first picked up this album, I groaned inwardly upon seeing two acoustic versions, figuring they wouldn’t hold my interest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They’re not boring, seeing as the violin melodies, which are a key element of the music, are still there, and with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums added to that, the acoustic songs are even a bit heavy in their own right. The acoustic songs give us more of a chance to appreciate the violins and hear the lyrics a bit better, and so they actually enhanced my appreciation of the metal versions. My opinion here is helped, of course, by the fact that I enjoy just plain folk music as well as folk metal, but I’m pretty sure that most folk metal fans are in the same Viking longship with me there.

Last but not least, the album is further enhanced by the artwork. The cover, showing a small silhouette of a helmeted man with a spear standing on a crag before the sea, in front of a turbulent dark orange sky that dominates the picture, is an oil painting by 19th century Norwegian painter Knud Andreassen Baade, “Scene from the era of Norwegian Sagas.” The CD is printed with “The Ride of the Valkyrs,” an illustration by John Charles Dollman from an early 20th century book of Norse mythology, showing Valkyries in their winged helmets riding horses that seem to leap over the viewer, the gray color and muscular figures making them look like statues. It was pretty clever of the band to use some great public domain artwork for their album – it looks very professional, and really cool to boot, and also fits the nostalgic, history-oriented tone of their album. They should put that cover image on a T-shirt, because I, for one, would give them money for it.

All in all, Isenmor is off to a very strong start with this EP. I’m excited to see where they go — at a live show in Frederick on July 11, they played some new songs which seem to indicate they’re charging full speed ahead with faster and heavier songs. This bodes very well for the folk metal scene in the DC area, as does the Maryland Folk Fest happening at Metro Gallery on August 22, featuring Isenmor, Sekengard, and other folk metal bands from up and down the east coast. We’re becoming a bastion for folk metal, and with Land of the Setting Sun, Isenmor joins the front ranks of this fledgling scene.

Review of Tales From The Thousand Lakes by Amorphis

Band: Amorphis
Album: Tales From The Thousand Lakes
Release Date: 1 September 1994
Record Label: Relapse Records
Performing at Maryland Deathfest XIII: 9:50 Sunday at Edison Lot B

Cover of Tales From The Thousand Lakes by Amorphis

Amorphis is the headliner for the final day of this year’s Maryland Deathfest. While we usually try to review albums by bands playing MDF that people might not know yet, this is an exception because Amorphis will actually be playing this entire album as their set at MDF. Tales from the Thousand Lakes is based on the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, and it just so happens DCHM writer Tal is a Finn with a knack for historical context. You (hopefully) already know the great songs on this classic metal album, but here Tal does an excellent job explaining the back story and how it relates to the music as well. You can read more of Tal’s writing on his blog In My Winter Castle. So continue to get ready for Maryland Deathfest XIII with us (this year’s MDF Survival Guide should be up Monday!) and don’t forget to check out the tunes at the end of the post as well!

During their set headlining the Edison Lot on Sunday, May 24, Amorphis will be playing the entirety of their influential album Tales from the Thousand Lakes. This exclusive appearance will also be their first U.S. performance since a one-off show with Nightwish in 2012; they haven’t actually toured the U.S. since 2008. Having missed them at Tuska Fest in Helsinki, Finland in 2011, I’m glad for another chance to see them live.

Released in 1994, Tales from the Thousand Lakes was Amorphis’s second full-length album and was a game changer for death metal, bringing more melodic and doomy elements into the genre. I owe a hitherto unacknowledged debt of gratitude to Amorphis and this album, seeing as my favorite genre is melodic death/doom. Yet my exposure to Amorphis has been fairly sporadic. When the mood strikes me for something sad, beautiful and heavy that will lift me up by dragging me down, I usually reach for Insomnium or Swallow The Sun, or perhaps Doom:VS or Katatonia’s Brave Murder Day if I really want to bring on the moping. Amorphis never really occurred to me as that sort of band. The Amorphis I’d heard was that of “Silent Waters” or “House of Sleep” – melodic and beautiful to be sure, and heavy, but more in a rock than a death metal way, and sad to a point, but not quite as mournful or gloomy as the lovely misery that I craved.

Tales from the Thousand Lakes doesn’t really plumb the depths of doom, either – after all, it’s based on Finland’s “national epic,” the Kalevala, so it has more of a magical and mystical vibe than a funeral one. Magic and mysticism with heavy, distorted guitars and death growls, that is – but that’s pretty suitable, seeing as Finland is not only the land of the midnight sun, but also of black winter days. The Kalevala is not the happiest of epics, either. The central hero, Väinämöinen, doesn’t get the girl, nor the magical item that he seeks, and basically leaves the world in disgust at the end of the story. However, he does leave his people with his greatest legacy, the kantele — a type of zither whose delicate, melancholy notes are the perfect accompaniment for extolling one’s sorrows in song, as Finnish folk songs are wont to do.

As one of the first metal albums devoted to the Kalevala, Tales from the Thousand Lakes was also among the founding albums of the folk metal genre. The Kalevala is a collection of folk songs gathered by the doctor and scholar Elias Lönnrot from the Karelia region, and the best-known version was published in 1849. His work (and others’ around the same period) not only preserved a vast body of folklore that was quickly being lost as newer entertainments gained ground, but was also intended to fuel Finnish nationalism, laying the groundwork for Finland’s struggle for independence from Russia. The epic tells of the creation of the world from a duck egg; the birth of the shaman Väinämöinen, who creates trees and other forms of life; his struggle with various adversaries, most notably Louhi, a witch who rules the northerly land of Pohjola; his constantly thwarted quests for a wife (“Drowned Maid” tells of Aino, sister of Väinämöinen’s enemy Joukahainen, who drowns herself rather than marry Väinämöinen); and of course, his creation of the kantele. Some other notables are the smith Ilmarinen, who forges the mysterious magical Sampo; the mischievous Lemminkäinen, who gets in so much trouble that he has to be brought back from the dead at least once (“Into Hiding” is about Lemminkäinen’s escape from Louhi’s clutches); and the miserable Kullervo, who is separated from his family and eventually commits suicide after realizing he seduced his long-lost sister.

Amorphis directly excerpts parts of the Kalevala, from the 1989 translation by Keith Bosley, as lyrics for most of the songs on Tales from the Thousand Lakes. For instance, “Black Winter Day” is the Maiden of the North telling of her sorrow as she must leave Pohjola to wed the smith Ilmarinen. The bride’s sorrow is a common theme in Finnish folk music, as she is separated from her family and will see them again only rarely, and must leave behind carefree childhood for the burdens of adulthood. It makes for a great doomy song. “This is how the lucky feel / How the blessed think / Like daybreak in spring / The sun on a spring morning,” the maiden begins. And yet, she cannot feel happy.

But how do I feel
In my gloomy depths?
A black winter day
No, darker than that
Gloomier than an autumn night

For someone who doesn’t know the origins of the lyrics, it seems like a song about depression – I should feel happy, yet I can’t. As a feeling that many metalheads can relate to, this may be part of the appeal of this song, which is probably the most popular one from the album, and certainly my personal favorite. Another part of the song’s appeal is surely the confluence of melody and heaviness, doom and death metal, in this song. A melody that is at once mournful and bright swirls around the listener, underpinning the whole song, and contrasting with the low growled vocals and drearily plodding guitars and drums, like the maiden dragging her feet as she walks to Ilmarinen’s sled, unable to feel happy on what should be a joyous occasion.

The album pioneered the use of such melodic and doomy elements in death metal, laying the groundwork for a whole new subgenre of metal. Tales from the Thousand Lakes was one of the first death metal albums to use a keyboard or synthesizer so extensively, and it’s very effective in creating a magical and haunting atmosphere. The album starts off with a keyboard intro that sets the doomy and melancholy mood, and then adds some synthesized voices, tinkling sounds and bells that give a sense of mystery and grandeur. While keyboards are featured in all of the songs, they come to prominence in a few places. In the middle of “Drowned Maid,” they add orchestral feel and drama. And in the second half of “Magic and Mayhem,” there’s a chiptune-like segment that seems out of place at first, it’s so antithetical to death metal and at odds with the alternating doomy or buzzsaw riffs that preceded it, but when it’s played over the death metal riffs and harsh vocals for a few seconds at the end of the song, it works well, adding an extra bit of frenzy.

Many of the songs feature shifts in tempo and mood. This is most apparent in the song “Forgotten Sunrise,” which goes from a melancholy doomy intro, to a more energetic and melodic sound, then a low and churning death metal sound once the vocals begin, followed by a psychedelic synth segment in the middle, and then continuing to alternate upbeat melodic parts and low churning parts till the end. Considering that they were doing something brand new at the time, mixing melody, doom and other influences into death metal, it’s not surprising that they jump from one sound to another. There’s a sort of swirling, mystical sound to the doomier guitars and the keyboards that ties the whole album together. The song “The Castaway,” which tells of Väinämöinen floating on the sea after being defeated by Joukahainen, is dominated by this sound. The rising and falling lead guitar and keyboard evoke the surging of waters of the sea, as well as the circling of the eagle who comes to rescue him. Although later bands combining death and doom plunged heavily in the direction of melancholy, Amorphis’s foray in this direction remains unique in its exploration of mystery and magic.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Tales from the Thousand Lakes, which is no doubt why Amorphis is playing the entire album at MDF – they embarked on a short tour doing the same last December. On the band’s website, Esa Holopainen (lead guitar) remarks, “The years have flown by, and it feels great to notice that the tooth of time has not diminished the value of the album, nor the popularity of its songs when performed live. ‘Black Winter Day,’ ‘The Castaway,’ ‘Into Hiding’ and ‘In The Beginning’ are still part of almost every Amorphis gig. Although we have played these songs hundreds of times, it is still as exciting as ever to see the joy in people’s faces and the sheer emotion evoked by, for example, the piano intro of ‘Black Winter Day.’”

Clearly, just as the epic it’s based on stands out in my country’s history, so Tales from the Thousand Lakes holds a special place not just in the history of metal, but also the hearts of the band and their fans. Don’t miss these ten songs, brought together as an epic in the book of heavy metal, at this year’s MDF.

Black Winter Day:

Drowned Maid:

The Castaway (live):

Review of Generation Of Vipers by Yesterday’s Saints

Band: Yesterday’s Saints
Album: Generation Of Vipers
Release Date: 3 February 2015
Buy digital ($10) or CD ($15) on Bandcamp: Here

Cover of Generation Of Vipers by Yesterday's Saints

Northern Virginia based Yesterday’s Saints have been hard at work crafting their highly anticipated debut album and today it is finally released! I won’t get too into the album here, I’ll leave that to DCHM writer Tal’s review below. You can read more of Tal’s writing on his blog In My Winter Castle but first be sure to read about Generation Of Vipers and be sure to check out the video at the bottom of the review too.

At risk of understating it, Generation of Vipers is much grander than your average death metal album. The album is built on a death metal base – rumbling bass, jackhammer guitars, low growled vocals – but it makes many flights of fancy outside the usual confines of that genre, including soaring clean vocals, furious thrash or power metal guitars at times, and spacey and doomy passages.

This reflects and develops the grandiose theme of the album – the story of Satan and the origins of humanity and the universe. Satan is of course commonplace in metal music, but this album tells his story in the vein of Milton or Dante – grand in scope, postulating about the origins of the universe and mankind, and tragic in its focus, from Satan’s fall from heaven to the ongoing corrupt nature of man. It’s not so much heretical and subversive as philosophical and poetic.

The album starts off in medias res (in the middle of the story) with the battle between Satan and the archangel Michael. The hammering opening of the first track, “Fall of the Ancients,” sets the tone for the thundering and brutal death metal base of this album, but we quickly hear what else is in store, as the song shifts to a more groovy and melodic vibe, but without losing the brutality. Combined with the low growls, it’s rather reminiscent of Dethklok. But then the vocals change, too, to soaring clean vocals as Matt Rice sings, “To trouble holy rests heaven casts thee out/
Of god you were made be free,” and then more aggressive vocals with a touch of harshness before going back to low growls. I’m guessing the low, demonic vocals portray Satan, while the more aggressive clean parts are the angel Michael. It’s a pretty cool song in terms of narrative; and the guitars, at turns pounding, furious and epic, and the contrasting vocals forcefully depict the battle.

The second song, “Origen Adamantius,” brings us to the chronological start of the story, with Satan deciding to challenge God. This song features one of the more unusual elements of the album – medieval-sounding chants in Latin (“Ego aeutem venio ad te,” meaning “I am coming for you,” and “Domine Agnus Dei,” meaning “Lamb of God”). Religious music and sounds (such as church bells) aren’t unknown in metal music (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” anyone?), but in this case rather than being used ironically or to create a somber mood, they add to the theatricality of the song and album. This song also has its Dethklok moments, especially with lyrics like, “First raise an army, to help me seize/ the throne of God so easy to see/ violence, warfare, powerful machines.”

Then we have “The Recruitment,” which as one might guess, tells of Satan recruiting angels to fight with him against God. As a fan of the melodic and epic, of course I’m drawn to those parts of the album, and my favorite part on the whole album is actually the chorus to “The Recruitment”: “On the eve of destruction, follow me to battle/ as gods we will reign, high in the North.” The way the clean vocals soar above the drums and guitars truly elevate the song to epic levels. The vocals here make the song for me – especially the contrast between those clean vocals and the growls and thundering guitars.

After that, there’s a change of pace with the nostalgic piano and strings interlude “A Priori” (meaning “As it was before”) and the doomy “Sangreale,” which tells of Eve being seduced by Satan to father Cain. The slowdown is very sudden after the raging energy of “The Recruitment”; it feels like we suddenly skipped over a part of the story. We did – that part was told in the first song – but it still feels like a reprise or segue is necessary here. “Sangreale” is notable for the vocal tone which is different from the entire rest of the album (think Matt Barlow, formerly of Iced Earth, if he were to sing doom vocals). Although slower, the heavy parts are still driving and headbangable.

This is followed by two songs about Cain (in Christian mythology, supposedly the first-born son of Adam and Eve and the murderer of his younger brother, Abel), which are dominated by clean vocals and have a power metal feel even in some of the guitar parts. Song number 6, “Cain’s Agony,” features frequent changes in style and tempo, from the pounding, racing beginning, to a suddenly slower, almost spacy section, to churning guitars with blast drumming and twisted shrieks, and then furious riffs with grandiose clean vocals, before more shrieks and then growls. It has plenty of fast and groovy headbangable moments.

After that the album branches out to cover the plight of humanity as a whole, which the album postulates are descendants of Cain and thereby of Satan. I find this part of the album less gripping than the first part which dealt specifically with the story of Satan and then Cain. There is still a proliferation of grandiose clean vocals and demonic growls, groovy headbangable riffs and death metal thunder, which makes for enjoyable listening, but it doesn’t have the epic pull of the first half of the album.

As I’ve mentioned, this album reminds me of Dethklok in a number of ways, which I think bears talking more about. Yesterday’s Saints is perhaps a tad more in the direction of traditional death metal than Dethklok, but they both share a mix of traditional death metal thunder and demonic low growled vocals with more epic-sounding melodic flair. The rolling rhythm of the vocal lines and the brutal directness of the lyrics in some places of the album is also very reminiscent of Nathan Explosion’s handiwork. With Dethklok, this comes off as friendly mockery of metal’s obsession with being “brutal.” With this Yesterday’s Saints album, it adds to the album’s theatricality. Even the death metal parts are a rarified version of the genre itself. The brutality is as much an act as the grandiosity.

That doesn’t mean the album isn’t a solid chunk of death metal, though. If you’re looking for something to pummel your eardrums with the fury of hell, this album will probably satisfy you – as long as you can tolerate a lot of clean vocals and some other epic flights. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the epic and melodic metal music that I usually listen to, but there’s enough raise it out of just straightforward death metal.

Tackling the epic tale of the Prince of Darkness and the origins of humanity and the universe is a monumental task. Through a mix of brutality and grandeur, Yesterday’s Saints manages to convey the demonic, rebellious, seductive and destructive aspects of the figure of Satan, the myth that purports to explain these traits in humanity itself. I’m less convinced by the story of the universe, but I’m still willing to headbang along to it.

The Recruitment:

Review Of The Lesser Key Of Solomon by A Sound Of Thunder

Band: A Sound Of Thunder
Album: The Lesser Key Of Solomon
Release Date: 9 September 2014
Buy digital ($4) or CD ($10) on Bandcamp: Here

Cover of The Lesser Key Of Solomon by A Sound Of Thunder

Northern Virginia based A Sound Of Thunder, a band with classic metal elements that does not like it when I call them a power metal band, has put out their fourth full length album in as many years. The band funded this album via Kickstarter back in November of last year and it’s finally available to the masses. The album review below is by Tal and if you like his writing you can also find his blog here. There’s a kick ass animated video for their song “Udoroth” below and be sure to come out to Empire in Springfield this Friday, Sept 19th, for their album release show (details here).

I’ll confess, I tend to obsess over A Sound Of Thunder’s fast, heavy, thundering songs – like their theme song “A Sound of Thunder,” or “Walls,” which generally shakes the walls when they play it live. But listening to this album, I had to admit I’ve been living in a fantasy world; raging heavy metal in the vein of Accept really doesn’t define A Sound Of Thunder. They’re much more varied and complicated than that, from bluesy musings to heavy riffs, with lyrics that are more than just a fist-pump chorus.

So while I was initially disappointed that there’s only one thundering song on this album – the first song, “Udoroth” – I was able to enjoy the album a lot more once I realized the fault in my perception. Not that “Udoroth” isn’t a great song, with its charging classic guitar riffs and Nina’s powerful vocals – sometimes belting out high notes, sometimes venturing into a lower throaty sound, and gracing us with a few harsh screams and high wails. It does, however, set a tone that’s not representative of the album.

In stark contrast to their energetic 2013 release Time’s Arrow, most of the new album actually hearkens back to A Sound Of Thunder’s first full-length, Metal Renaissance. In particular, Nina’s jazzy vocal stylings on songs such as “Fortuneteller” and “House of Bones” on The Lesser Key of Solomon remind me of songs like “Flesh and Blood” or “The Buried Truth” from Metal Renaissance, as does the overall slower pace of the album. Of course, Nina’s vocals and the band as a whole sound more polished, developed and mature on the new album than on their debut, but the stylistic resemblance is strong.

And not unlike their previous work, The Lesser Key of Solomon focuses heavily on storytelling, which comes through particularly strongly with the clear vocals and more relaxed pace. Even the trudgingly heavy “Master of Pain” is brought above the standard serial killer fare with lines like “The horror of your actions/ Has torn your soul in two,” which hint at underlying story. But the peak of the album is the nine and a half minute epic “Elijah.” Most of the story is told through Nina’s evocative lyrics, including parts delivered in a vicious shriek for the evil “mother” character, but the climactic part of the story is told as much through music as through words. When the mother’s dark secret is revealed, tension builds as the bass begins to gallop; then the guitar paints the narrator’s agony and determination as she decides what to do. A tense instrumental interlude follows, then launches into heart-pounding adrenaline as the climactic moment arrives. Frantic guitaring depicts a chase scene, and then soars into epic riffs, perhaps depicting escape and or the inferno that ensues. Nina’s vocal line rises epically too as she proclaims the rise of a veritable army of ghost girls to take their vengeance on their “mother.” It’s a hair-raising experience, all right. Check out the lyric video at the bottom of this post to experience it for yourself.

Almost as haunting is “The Boy Who Could Fly.” It begins with acoustic guitar and dreary vocals that seem at first to depict a lost love, the references to a boy flying away hinting that this may be Wendy longing for Peter Pan. It sounds like a nostalgic romantic song, almost pop-like in its simple sentiments and the catchy vocal line of the chorus – until I listened more closely to the lyrics and caught the twist at the end of the song, when we find out what really happened to Peter Pan. Suddenly the sad beauty of the song is completely turned on its head. Moments like this bring a new level of interest to these songs that aren’t necessarily catchy on the first listen. They’re worth savoring and listening closely.

Unfortunately, the last third of the album suffers from the same problem as Metal Renaissance – after all those slow songs, it’s hard to pay attention by the end of the record. The last two tracks, “One Empty Grave” and “House of Bones” seem like they might have interesting stories, but I never seem to be able to keep my mind on them by the time we get there. Just one more well-placed thundering song would probably have done wonders for keeping me “fighting till the end.”

It took me a few listens and an adjustment in perspective, but I gotta admit, The Lesser Key of Solomon is a solid album. It isn’t the skull-crushing record that “Udoroth” may have promised, but it’s still an intriguing journey into the band’s darker fantasies, and amply shows off their talents.