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It is easy to be fooled by the rather primitive nature of Amorphis' full-length debut. The album has held up extremely well over the years and still remains among their better material, though it's crushing, doomed force was extreme enough to later polarize fans of the band, as they would choose a more accessible path, straying rather far from the realm of their roots, later to realign themselves. This is some heavy shit, but it does feel mildly tame in comparison to the vibrant aggression of the Privilege of Evil EP (which, if you bought the 2003 re-issue of this album, is included here). As far as its own influences, you will hear some Bolt Thrower, some early Death, and perhaps a more upbeat alternative to the UK death and doom legends My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost.
The Karelian Isthmus features the original 'solid' lineup of the band: Tomi Koivusaari on both growls and guitars, Esa Holopainen on guitar, Olli-Pekka Laine on bass, and Jan Rechberger handling the drums and keys. Though you will hear the melodic traces of the style they would later adapt for Tales from the Thousand Lakes, these are kept rather brooding and simple as they skirt across the bulky, thuggish chords that mire the material in cavernous grooves. Keyboards are used only in a few spots, much of the album is straight forward death metal with a few slower breeches. Yes, of any Amorphis record, this is the most likely to turn your blue skies black and wreathe you in endless sorrow. While the album is named for an important tract of land connecting Finland to Russia, the lyrics here actually do not focus solely on Finnish folklore (like later albums), but also on Celtic and Arthurian legend.
"Karelia" anoints the tracklist, a brief and brazen acoustic piece that glimmers with subtle synths touching off in the background, after which "The Gathering" rapes your ears with monolithic, booming chords and frightful, lilting melodies which feel like the shift from autumn to winter, as hope and life is drained from the very earth so that slumber may commence. At :40, the track slows even more, as the 4-chord pattern crashes and the melodies descend to their natural demise. Later in the track, the beat quickens with a riff very similar to something you might hear on Death's Leprosy. "Grail's Mysteries" jams forward into an amazing groove, with a melody of oblique origins (could recount the ages of ancient Egypt just as easily as Europe). At around 2:20, the song lurches into this slow, depressing segment which is probably responsible for half the damn nation's excess suicide rate. "Warrior's Trial" follows, with yet another of the big 4-chord Paradise Lost-style riffs that graduates into Bolt Thrower's rumbling death influence and comparable melodies. "Black Embrace" feels a trifle more reserved here than the Privilege of Evil EP, but its chunky tone suits the surrounding tracks and its moshing energy alternates from molasses to momentum.
Terror, when the darkness binds your limbs
Terror, when the fear freezes your nerves
Horror, when the pain climbs up your veins
Darkness, creeping under you skin
Moment of life, when we all have to choose,
Which way to go, and for whom to sacrifice your life
"Exile of the Sons of Uisliu" creates an uplifting motion, capped by mountainous melodies before it too walks the doomed path, this time with a pre-Medieval pattern that evokes imagery of the hardship of the warrior culture. "The Lost Name of God" is another of the album's darker, depressive cuts, slowly trudging across cold plains as it slowly castigates the Christian hysteria that destroyed (or absorbed and mutated) the rich traditions of the North folk of Europe. "The Pilgrimage", renamed here from "Pilgrimage from Darkness" on the EP, is a surge of fist pumping, dire chords and steadily marching drums, and "Misery Path" is as stark, bloodied and glorious as it is...miserable. The album's native ending comes in "The Sign from the North Side", and though it rocks like a bucket of blood being slowly poured over your head, it is not one of the stronger tracks, unless of course you value the utter chugging demons it provokes. There is a re-worked version of "Vulgar Necrolatry" as a bonus track, a good song and one of the most vicious pieces of death metal the band had written.
If you know and come to expect only the more folk rock orientation of the later Amorphis works, it is highly possible that you will not derive much entertainment from The Karelian Isthmus. For an era churning out moody death like Incantation, Anathema and Paradise Lost, it fits rather well as an extension to that early 90s collection of deep, death obscura. And by the by, this album still does kick a fair share of ass. Considering that the band has recently brought back its growling and a dash of the Elegy concoction, I often wonder at the possibility of a full-on reversion into this primal, menacing nightmare, both beautiful and bleak. Not bloody likely, but at the very least, The Karelian Isthmus was the launching pad for two siblings that rank among the greatest Finnish albums ever written, metal or otherwise.
Highlights: The Gathering, Warrior's Trial, Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, The Lost Name of God