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You know the old metal cliché: “I like their early stuff”. Or to put it another way, when was the last time you heard someone say, “I prefer their more recent stuff”? Rarely happens. Very rarely. And I’m certainly not talking about just AMORPHIS here. Although these guys certainly take the cake. In fact they baked the damn thing. The new stuff does the job, but the early stuff is where it’s at alright. And this is the album that saw them crowned before they were kings, only to get lost on the way to the coronation. Sad really.
‘Tales from the Thousand Lakes’ is something almost special, and not just for its time. Although it was certainly a landmark release of sorts for a 1993 album. Here’s why. The lyrics are mostly adapted from a traditional Finnish national poem. There’s a mix of metaphors and mythology that throws up everything from heroes to hens. But it starts working even before the words turn up with the opening instrumental title track. It’s by keyboardist Kasper Martenson. He wasn’t in the band for very long, but chipped in this reverent but grand opener that you just know the average metal head skips when they shouldn’t. Track 2 is the one they’re in a hurry to get two. It’s called into “Into Hiding”, and really it’s just layered been-done riffing until the vocals turn up and things turn doom/death deep. And a calculated smattering of clean vocals add that little something that's smart with a twist.
“The Castaway” recounts an eagle’s journey with the same game of clichéd opening riffs before the vocals inject something sorely needed. The problem with this one though is that it’s written by the whole band and it shows. There are hooks that work, and hooks that are out of work. But since they were in the same place at the same time, you get this. It’s not the last time it happens. “First Doom” is the exact opposite with words and music by lead axeman Holopainen. Despite the name, we’re not rely in doom territory on this one. But it is a good example of the can’t-help-myself prog meanderings that would eventually cost the band a lot more than studio time.
“Black Winter Day” is another Martenson tune that gives you every reason to get excited before a Moog turns up on the scene. You can tell it’s a good song every time the vocals or guitar (or both) are centre stage, but the Moog’s going nowhere in a hurry. “Drowned Maid” is strictly speaking the least heavy track on the album, but still manages to keep the tempo and intensity up to remind you this is metal you’re listening to. And the growling vocals actually bring a sad and powerful dignity to lyrics about a hen that drowned. The end result is the album classic track from start to finish.
“In The Beginning” pulls off the doom title and music act in a single stroke. It’s all there; indecisive riffs, lyrics lamenting something or another, and a burst of spirit for a kind of chorus. This is another one the old school fans jump straight to. The band’s even nice enough to throw in a crummy Moog outro to give you time to reach for the skip button to walk in on another Holopainen solo effort. It’s a death metal meets retro rock piece called “Forgotten Sunrise”. Prog overkill does exactly that though, and everything about what follows is a lesson in the golden rule that 50% of a killer track still leaves you with 50% trash. Which sort of sums up the rest of the release. In fact I’m going to go one further and say exactly the same thing about the half-inspired, half-asleep-at-the-wheel “Black Winter Day” EP (which is invariably released as a bonus track edition of this album).
So that’s AMORPHIS playing the doom/death game back when they were young, mean sounding, and from a place no one could find on the map. A decade or so later their business card says prog and nothing but. I’m a fan of prog, I really am, but only when it’s a language – not an excuse.