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Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue...
The old Victorian wedding rhyme describes Tales from the Thousand Lakes better than you'd expect. There indeed is something old, new and borrowed on the album, and while it splits opinions much more than necessary, it still definitely is one of the ten best-known Finnish metal albums of the 90s. It also is one of the ovarall best albums from anywhere from the 90s, but reaching that conclusion requires both understanding and knowledge of the subject matter and origins of the songs, and setting the rules of the competition in a slightly skewed way.
Tales from the Thousand Lakes was truly original -or new, as mentioned in the rhyme- at the time it was released. And it wasn't original only for the world around, it was a completely new thing for the band itself, as well. The transition from their excellent Karelian Isthmus era death metal to this new death/doom hybrid was already a rather innovative thing on the band's own part, and while it perhaps wasn't really that much ahead of its times in that respect, the fact that they blended in a hefty dose of folkish tunes tips the scales, and there's no avoiding the fact that the album was revolutionary in its own way. The final ingredient, the adding of many facets of 70s prog rock into the music, especially in in the keyboard work, turned Tales from the Thousand Lakes into something new and truly original.
The odd thing about anything successfully progressive is the way it turns from progressive and innovative to everyday business and nothing special in people's minds within a decade or two. It's natural, of course, since anything useful and usable the progressive and avant-garde bands manage to come up with will be copied by others, and will turn from rare caviar to a can of tuna that most people take for granted. For every progressive idea that gets approved by the mainstream, there are a thousand acts that will discover nothing that turns into a musical staple food for the majority. And the folk/death/doom blend from Tales from the Thousand Lakes is one of those staples nowadays. Obviously, it does not sound that progressive any more, but that's because its progression was no of the "funky time signature blended with wanking 'til it bleeds" kind, but of more subtle and innovative kind.
Of course, the "folk" part in the pile is not merry fiddling, mead drinking or a stupid accordeon, either, but almost hidden melodies with hints of a certain kind of Finnish folklore, the poetic and epic qualities of Kalevala, and that something the kinds of Burzum have unsuccessfully tried to create when composing their silly ambient works. That part of the music is, by default, dependent on the way the listener experiences and interprets it on a personal level, and also tied to the audience's cultural background; in finding the true spirit of Tales from the Thousand Lakes, being a Finn, knowing the kind of folk tunes included on the album and the works of Jean Sibelius, and generally just knowing the stories Amorphis took from the Kalevala, is definitely not a hindrance. Deep within, this is not an easy album to understand, even if the superficial, purely technical and musical levels seem easy to follow.
While the concept and songwriting on Tales from the Thousand Lakes is new, many aspects of the album are less than revolutionary -or old, as in the rhyme- and the teeth of time have not exactly been too kind to it.
The part that gets mentioned almost too often is the production. It reeks of the old-fashioned and the unpolished, and not in a good way. It already sounded old-fashioned when the album was released, and while the injections of 70s prog rock are easy to understand on the musical level, using an aged and vacuum-tube-analogue sounding production certainly downplays the metal part of the mixture a bit. The target has probably been an atmosphere that has a bit of the feel of an ancient dusty tome, perhaps a snapshot of an old-fashioned black-and-white documentary movies, and a painted natural scenery, but unfortunately, the result is less than perfect, and has grown truly old quicker than would have been necessary. The sound is flat, for the lack of a better word, coarse and occasionally powerless, and gives too much space for the proggy parts, at the cost of the metal's bulk. There is fidelity, with every single instrument completely audible throughout, but it comes at a cost.
The worst offenders on the album are the keyboard sounds, varying from artificial sounding Hammond, through early 80s pop synth and a crappy synth flute, to something not-to-be-named. They take the album back in time a whole decade, and a more careful process in the choosing of the sounds for the keyboards would have made a great difference. Not much better are the high tenor clean parts performed by Ville Tuomi, a necessary attachment to the band until the later arrival of Tomi Joutsen, the incredible jack-of-all-trades. Tuomi's voice is instantly recognizable, but it also has a character that doesn't suit the whole quite as well as Joutsen's later interpretations of the same songs. His surprisingly powerful and soaring parts have been mixed into the songs in a peculiar way, and seem to be detached from the rest of the soundscape, as if they were just an afterthought, and not a part of the original plan.
Of course, it's not very far fetched to ask if the post-Karelian Isthmus Amorphis ever really intended to be purely metal. Considering the developments that took place after this album, and especially starting with Tuonela, somehow betray a band that was mildly fed up with the confines of the genre, and definitely expanded to the direction of rock. So, what if Tales from the Thousand Lakes is metal because metal is the medium they were used to, and provided a suitable platform and tool set to convey the ideas they had and wanted to express? This is perhaps far-fetched and silly in the case of this particular album, of course, but if you spend an hour analyzing the complete career of the band, it's difficult to avoid the possibility that, post-Privilege of Evil, they never paid too much attention to any intentional metal purity, but rather played it because it served the songs, and provided the things they needed to make their music; if metalness got in the way of their compositions, they were willing to ditch the metal and compose on with other means.
In any case, the keyboard melodies and certain guitar parts are obviously influenced by the progressive rock of earlier decades. Someone with more knowledge of that era might perhaps tell if actual recycling takes place; it seems unlikely, though, since the 70s prog rockers had little in the way of metal to use as a context, and fitting a melody that reeks of unwashed hippies needs plenty of pummeling before it fits a fundamentally metal song.
There's plenty of stuff copied and emulated -or borrowed, in the context of our stupid rhyme- on the album.
The atmosphere and emotions of Kalevala were defined by a few famous Finnish artists in the late 19th century. Jean Sibelius composed his Karelia Suite, a set of orchestral pieces worth a metalhead's time, and defined something essential, epic, and perhaps heroically fairytalesque in his music. Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted his most famous Kalevala themed works, and if a pure silent picture can be found in a metal song's sonic form, Tales from the Thousand Lakes has a bit of Aino drowning herself, a dash of the heroes in a boat defending the fabled Sampo against the evil woman from the far North, and a bearded smith forging his bride of silver... all incidentally turned into individual song themes later in the band's career, and all famous poems in the national epic. That elusive something is in the mood and atmosphere of the album, and it's perhaps the most inherently Finnish aspect of this piece of art, a condensed essence of something national, an almost spiritual thing. If you've never smelled the fresh leaves of a birch in a smoke sauna next to a chilly lake in the silence and twilight of a midsummer night, you probably lack something necessary to appreciate all the aspects of the atmosphere.
Some of the borrowed things are more straightforward and obvious, of course. "Magic and Mayhem", the song that has been one of the band's most successful national calling cards during the first half of their career, starts with a guitar melody that essentially recreates an old folk tune, "Tein minä pillin pajupuusta", a song about a humble shepherd boy who fashions a crude flute out of a branch he cuts from a willow. The other loans from the national chest of tunes are not quite as obvious, but they are there.
So what is the blue part on the album? Besides the cover art?
Nothing, really; no blues here. Unless you count the final emotion as a "blue" feeling. The Finnish depressive mentality, the main reason for the massive numbers of suicides and alcoholism in the country, finds a new expression in these songs. The melancholy, distictly different from the Slavic kind, is there. There's the feeling of the autumn eventually crushing the hope of summer, the falling leaves, the eternal twilight of the winters, and the cold of the north, all blended into the stories of great deeds, permeating through the whole album. It would perhaps be better described as a "blue and white" emotion, because Tales from the Thousand Lakes wears the national colours proudly. If someone says that the album is one of the best Finnish metal albums ever, the part to be stressed in the analysis is the word "Finnish". The nationalistic character of the music shares some of the passive-aggressive mentality of the nation, probably unintentionally. It still might make the album a bit more inaccessible to foreigners, even if the metal crowd everywhere is probably much more receptive to this part of the emotional spectrum than the listeners of other forms of music. The same depression has lately surfaced in the works of Viikate, and the early works of the now popular Kotiteollisuus were essentially fueled with it; both bands are unfortunately even less accessible to outsiders, because they use the Finnish language.
Tales from the Thousand Lakes is a mighty fine album, even if it suffers from premature aging and some questionable choices that amount to mere details in the big picture. However, when listening to it for the first time, especially if you're young and a foreigner, you should remember that it's not as accessible as it at first claims to be. There are many more layers under the surface, and understanding them is a huge task; most will never find their way to the innermost chambers, because those vistas spring from the depths of ancient tales that shaped a nation, evade analysis like reflections of the opposite shore on the surface of a forest lake, and work their magic in the soul. It's still worth a try, even if it might take years to accomplish. There's guaranteed to be enough food for the soul underneath the skin.