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Amorphis’ debut, one of the old schoolers, is that kind of album we all wanted to make when we were in our teens. The kind of album that would help us fit into whatever genre we were going for. Amorphis’ call at the time was death metal, and while they certainly hit their mark, the despondent, OSDM twist not only makes this the band’s heaviest album, but also an eerie beckoning of one’s inner primal malevolence.
All of this album’s traits can be summed up by “The Pilgrimage”: doomy, crunchy, punchy, rugged, and straightforwardly deep. The atmosphere is what helps The Karelian Isthmus stand out from mundane death metal (in general). The atmosphere can be forgetful because, speaking for the whole album, it can be forgettable. This is because there’s no instant gratification like on later Amorphis albums – no absolute hook. The songs here, while enjoyable, must be appreciated riff by riff, section by section. There’s hardly any easy listening song, even if everything here is pretty clear-cut in composition and execution. The Karelian Isthmus has many peers that accomplish what Amorphis is trying to do here, and even more, making this particular debut less appealing on the surface. Nonetheless, the subtlety works on and off, meaning that you could like or dislike this album at any given moment. Rounding it to other albums, it’s a more worthwhile effort than Edge Of Sanity’s debut and a less aggressive / more epic Harmony Corruption by Napalm Death.
Pertaining to the sound, it’s typically some synth support (rarely upfront keyboard melodies) and a dual attack of cryptic riffs and (a hair of folk) leads. Again, there are rare occurs of guitars yielding to keys, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue for those looking for fat, edible death metal. Nothing’s technical, nothing’s progressive – only Koivusaari doing relaxed growls like a baked beast while playing wretched, primeval riffs with an even more ancient tone. There’s an identity that goes with the controlled disorder in riffs such as these. Holopainen’s harmonies are akin to Iron Maiden’s, but far less upbeat. These leads bask in dismal gloom. It’s a blend that’s the sweet icing on a despicable cake. Among the churning riffs and the burly bass, Rechberger does blast beats, standard fills, double bass assaults, and consistent smacks on a kit with a plastic snare and little clutter. It’s a kit that doesn’t ring all over the place, but thanks to the mixing it isn’t buried, either.
For fans that got into Amorphis through the melodic death gateway (Tales From The Thousand Lakes) this was a hard release to pass up. For some like me, this album may have been a little harder to digest since it falls into death metal territory. Death metal that’s melodic, but still death metal, and unlike Tales…, there are no sappy keys, no clean singing, and no chorus hooks. Going into this means you want riffs first and foremost, and with the scale-venturing “Exile Of The Sons Of Uisliu”, the grave “The Pilgrimage”, and the brooding “Black Embrace”, there’s no sign of defeat.