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Time was I was a big fan of these guys. Couldn't help but have mixed expectations for this latest though when a) the previous album was one of the band's most consistent, quality records to date and b) the band stated in their studio diary that "you find it harder to come up with ideas as you get older". Although I appreciate their frankness, I couldn't help but fear that this latest record might lack quite the sparkling gothic whimsy and creativity of its predecessor. Mixed expectations become mixed reactions, as this new work of grunting Finnish melody swings wide of the mark too much to provide a worthy sequel to Children of the Dark Water.
First things first, this album has 'Swan Saivo' on it, as brilliant a piece of gothic power metal as they ever crafted, swimming in earwig melodies and big hooks. There's quite a bit to get through before that mind. The thickly atmospheric and melody-driven sound of recent efforts is appropriated once again here, the glimmering synths of Tarot vet Janne Tolsa merged into brutish, simplistic rhythm guitars and competent, crashing drums.
The album proceeds in a spotty fashion, unable to really hit its stride until right at the end. In fact it starts out pretty weak - no ripping 'Sweet Lilith of my Dreams' or epic 'Angelheart, Ravenheart (Act II: Children of the Dark Waters)' here. Beside the majority of its uninteresting bulk, 'Dark Alliance' is in fact pretty reminiscent of something Insomnium or maybe Omnium Gatherum would do, at least in the verses - fair enough you might say, as Eternal Tears of Sorrow have long been overtaken by those bands in the popularity stakes. Outside of some predictable melodies however, 'Legion of Beast' raises the stakes in tense melodic death metal and passionately rasped vocals, and raises the question why it wasn't used to open the album. The middle of Saivon Lapsi then wanders along presenting some great material, and some that is completely forgettable. The acoustic instrumental 'Kuura' is a very fine piece of atmospheric work, and 'Dance of December' hearkens to earlier days of gothic drama akin to something from the excellent A Virgin and a Whore, but it would be a lesser track from that record if anything. Here, it is one of the better songs. 'The Day' features bursts of great, somewhat neoclassical leads, killer solos and some big hooks that recall days of glory. But throughout, it is usually hard to enjoy all of one song, which makes for a somewhat sexually frustrating experience.
I think I've got to the bottom of why this is. The record has a funny habit of the clean vocals either detracting from decent songs, or improving otherwise dull ones. Jarmo Kylmanen's great vocals remain, but in a lot of songs he's left with fairly uninteresting material - or he himself hasn't bothered too much with the vocal lines, either one. In the otherwise great 'The Day', he fails to impress, but he really only comes into his own with the otherwise mediocre 'Beneath the Frozen Leaves' and 'Blood Stained Sea', which really has a cracking chorus. The great video track 'Swan Saivo' and Kylmanen's "big moment" 'Sound of Silence' (thankfully, not yet another cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, but instead a fairly unremarkable bit of gothy cooing from Kylmanen and Miriam Renvag) are the major exceptions to the rule. One brill, the other crap.
That song 'Swan Saivo' only deepens the mystery - suddenly the synths are cooler, the vocals bigger and manlier, the leads utterly inspiring - why has this not been the case throughout? Fuck if I know but, readers, y'must at least download this song from iTunes or wherever if you can unashamedly enjoy slightly sweetened Finnish pop metal. The album plays out with another installment of the 'Angelheart, Ravenheart' saga. Exciting, naturally, since the first part was a triumphant mammoth and the second an eerie journey through titular dark waters. Well, 'Act III: Saivon Lapsi' opens slow and moody and stays that way - crescendos and symphonies rumble during the song's peaks, and all-round it does make for a pretty atmospheric and efficacious climax. And all three parts in a row would probably sound pretty damn good.
Somewhere in this record, if you took vocal hooks and melodies from some songs and cut-and-pasted them into others in place of their own, trimmed off a couple other songs entirely and put 'Swan Saivo' somewhere up front, you've got a shorter, harder-hitting album. As it is though, the Finnish lads find themselves bogged down by dull areas that insist on infesting between glimpses of inspiration, and all but the most uncritical or green of pop metal listeners will probably find this a disappointing listen sans the last couple of songs.