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The heavy hand of forced evolution swings widely and snatches up our favourite eclectic Finnish act for a crash course in the unclassifiable. While The New Dark Age is actually much more varied and (arguably) more interesting than Kiuas' previous endeavor Reformation, the winds of change have yielded a more precarious foothold for the once well-grounded Helsinki act.
No matter how obfuscated the band's far-reaching style may become, Salovaara can always be relied on for a pliable riff set with an ear for the almighty hook. This album reminds me of Annihilator's Carnival Diablos at many junctures, and only due to the seamless emulation that Salovaara is capable of. One minute the band is banging out a more rocking variant of "Set the World on Fire" in "The Decaying Doctrine", the next they crank up the rampant brutality and deliver passages straight out of Domination-era Morbid Angel in the title track. Add all of this genre cross-pollination to Jalkanen's gritty, uncompromising snarls and the end result is certainly an interesting one.
Upon a simple surface glance, The New Dark Age's "jack of all trades, master of none" aesthetic may come off as little more than a cheap ploy at inveigling the listener while little of merit is going on underneath. Don't be so quick to dismiss Kiuas, however, as these Finns have always hinged their primary appeal upon their ability to jump from style to disparate style while clutching their power metal roots close to their pagan hearts. Despite the proclivity for a bit too lachrymose of an acoustic section during the it's waning half, The New Dark Age manages to squeeze past by merit of it's eccentricities alone.
When judged against it's eldest sibling The Spirit of Ukko, this album clearly has less of a metal heart, but also shares in '80s influence through the use of Tanskanen's great throwback style on the synths. There are more keyboards on The New Dark Age than any other Kiuas record, and they embody a menagerie of early Nightwish string sections and buzzing Sonata Arctica-esque solos. The keyboards flirt with the border of self-parody at times, taking the concept of the orchestra hit to the point of obscenity during "The War Anthem". The sincerity of the delivery helps the listener digest such ludicrousness, and the attention-hogging theatrics of Salovaara's solos and pinch harmonics are constantly there to remind the listener that Kiuas is indeed a power metal band deep down and not some sort of bizarre Finnish novelty act.
The New Dark Age is an alright-sounding record. More interesting is the fact that it was produced by Stone veteran Janne Joutsenniemi. Salovaara's guitars sound a bit too cleaned up and thin this time around. Their tone is pretty flat and lacks some of the "barely-controlled chaos" aesthetic present on both the debut and Reformation, but I suppose this should be expected since the album was produced by a bassist. As such, it goes without saying that Tuominen's subsonic, flat bass tone rumbles right under the surface, passably filling in some of the mid-range gaps left by the rather wanting distortion.
Kiuas hardly shake up the scene here like they did with The Spirit of Ukko, but The New Dark Age still defies categorization on many levels and despite being pretty average at times, it is still much more appealing than many of the countless Finnish folk/power variants that clog up the sub-genre's once-vaunted halls. Just like Throne of Chaos before them, Kiuas started at a point easily defined, but ultimately arrived at anything but.
The combination of the words "Finnish", "power" and "metal" is enough to force an involuntarily dry retch for most hardened metal fans. Couple that with the fact that this album was mixed by Mikko Karmila (Nightwish & Children of bodom) and you’d expect to be passing out the sick bags in no time.
Fortunately for Kiuas, there’s more than enough to bite their bombast to silence the flower metal critics. Though “The new dark age” is littered with Holopainen-esque keyboard widdling it’s the pounding thrash flourishes and neoclassical shredding of lone guitarist Miko Salovaara that really drive the album. From the moment the muted crunches of “The decaying doctrine” gallop through your speakers it becomes clear that this is atypical power metal (though anyone familiar with the previous two albums knew that already). Said track also contains perhaps the catchiest, most fist pumpingest, chest-beatingest chorus ever. Oddly enough the easiest comparison to draw is to Acid Bath, both in terms of vocal diversity and the occasional forays into death metal territory.
Some derivative melodies and the campfire ballad “After the storm” ensure it’s not lacking in cheese, but if Nightwish were half as ballsy as their fellow countrymen they’d be covered head to toe in testicles.
Recalling my review for Reformation, I clearly stated that Kiuas were beginning to refine their sound, becoming altogether more streamlined. On The New Dark Age Kiuas fully realize that, giving us their altogether strongest and fluent album. These guys have really found their feet amongst the metal scene, standing loud and proud above false pretenders to the throne. Striking the perfect balance between melody and aggression, Kiuas have managed to obtain a feat countrymen Children of Bodom, Kalmah and Norther have been striving to obtain their entire careers. Of course Kiuas fans will immediately be pushing the question as to whether The New Dark Age can match the greatness of debut The Spirit of Ukko or sophomore effort Reformation, and with a smile on my face I can tell you a simple yes, Kiuas have skyrocketed themselves to the Power Metal premier league, leaving many an act startled in their wake.
Kicking off the festivities "The Decaying Doctrine" smashes you in the face, thrashy riffage is the name of the game here, and with one of the catchier choruses these guys put to paper, you'll be singing this for weeks. Kiuas have really stepped up to the challenge on the chorus side of The New Dark Age; every song is nigh on a sing-along anthem, definitely one of the stronger sides of this album. "Conqueror" is quite possibly my favorite Kiuas track, which is a pretty bold statement but it strikes the perfect balance of some of their sickest, filthiest riffing ever and a fucking grade A chorus. A highlight as always, shredder Mikko Salovaara never fails to dazzle; just when you thought he couldn't get better he manages to step up his game yet again, a true guitar wizard. The previously mentioned "Conqueror" features some impressive guitar work, especially the build up part to the chorus. "Kiuas War Anthem" is a trademark Kiuas track, with all the usual recipes for greatness simmered to a perfect taste. The title track is fucking insane; I was absolutely floored by the ever impressive sticks work courtesy of Markku Näreneva, rolling across your speakers ascending into some wild blast-beats. The guitar solo to "The New Dark Age" is another point of interest when harmonized.
Singer Ilja Jalkanen is as awesome as ever, and in The New Dark Age he really makes his presence felt. Be it his signature snarl, the raging Death Growls on display in "To Excel And Ascend", or soothing and hitting higher notes in the beautiful ballad "After the Storm" where his vocals are complemented by truly classy female vocals and some of the most tasteful guitar playing I've heard in ages. A great track to sit by the fire with good company. "Of Sacrifice, Loss and Reward" calls back to mind the youthful exuberance of The Spirit of Ukko, a guaranteed highlight, although the bizarre chorus riff takes a few spins to fully appreciate. Atte Tanskanen's delicious keys really illuminate the later moments of "Of Sacrifice...", bridging into a crushing outro. "The Summoning" is downright bad-ass! The opening riff hits like a fucking hammer slamming into a solid groove, with some awesome keyboard overtones this wouldn't sound out of place on a Symphony X or Adagio record. I love the sound of the drum kit here, a great example of my preferred drum sound. I really have to mention how impressive the keys are in this track, especially on the lead up to the guitar solo again springing to mind Underworld-era Adagio. Album closer "The Wanderer's Lamentation" puts everything on display in The New Dark Age together for a fiery finale, initiated with brilliant acoustic guitars, similar to "After the Strom"; we're suddenly besieged by a blinder of a chorus, rolling riffs intact. Jumping between beautiful acoustics and that crushing Kiuas sound, we're left on a very high note.
To name standout tracks would be to name every one of them. I guess you're wondering why this album didn't receive the elusive 5/5. Well I really believe Kiuas can do better next time around. The New Dark Age is a sound of a band who has really hit their stride, confident, proud and above all still heavy as hell; Kiuas are a force to be reckoned with and a measuring stick to all future acts from Finland trying to strike that balance between aggression and melody. Essential Listening
Originally written for www.metalcrypt.com
Nowadays, I just cannot stand generic Metal bands like All That Remains and Trivium. Why? Because I've just heard it all before. It feels like I'm struggling to find any unique bands nowadays. Thank God this band exist. Diversity and unity in music are things that can come in many different forms in Metal today, yet no band gives them to you quite like the young Finnish lads, Kiuas do. I originally checked out this band purely because they were playing at a gig I’d be attending, but really, I never thought this album would be nearly as good as it is. From the opening seconds of the first track, Kiuas take you on an epic and powerful journey, mixing elements of black, death, power, NWOBHM and thrash Metal in the process. This is The New Dark Age.
The New Dark Age opens with ‘The Decaying Doctrine’, and wow, it surely kicks things off with a bang! The speedy opening riff instantly slaps you in the face and grabs your attention; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. The rest of the band comes in, while vocalist Ilja Jalkanen comes in with some odd vocals reminiscent of Black Metal. Fear not though, as the proper verse comes in with his usual singing voice. Seriously, this guy is a fantastic singer; his voice in incredibly powerful, yet has this rough edge that stops it from becoming too melodic and/or annoying. The song’s good, until the chorus comes in, where it reaches a new level totally. As soon as I heard the line “Fire rains down from the heavens/pouring down on those too weak to learn” I was totally sold on Kiuas. It’s powerful, catchy, epic...it’s just an undeniably great chorus. Now you’re probably thinking what are the other choruses on this album like, right? Do not worry, as nearly every song has a chorus just as powerful as the one found on the tremendous opening track.
‘Conqueror’ continues in the same vein, although it has a more uplifting feel. I really love the riff in the bridge before the chorus. ‘Kiuas War Anthem’ is the third track, but it’s different from the two previous songs, as the catchy, somewhat epic feel usually found in the chorus is present in the verses, while the chorus is heavier and a lot less catchy. In fact, it's one of the heaviest songs Kiuas have ever recorded. Have I mentioned the guitar solos yet? The first comparison I thought of when I heard Mikko Salovaara’s solos was Joe Satriani. Mikko goes absolutely wild all over his guitar (tapping most notes); surprisingly it never feels wank-ish and gives us some wicked, Metal-riffic solos. He does do some un-shredded, more melodic solos too (see the end of ‘Black Rose Withered’), which are a nice change. The title track is the fourth song, and Kiuas continue to impress with their fantastic songwriting.
Speaking of the title track, the lyrics on the album are superb. Those familiar with previous Kiuas albums would be surprised reading this, as the lyrics found on say, The Spirit Of Ukko were somewhat bland, but on The New Dark Age things have improved big time. They're no longer based off of Pagan themes - here they’re loosely based around the concept of the world declining. An no, it’s not some environment/global warming BS, it’s well thought-out stuff that doesn't force itself upon you. Take the chorus from the title track – “Born into this world of chaos/rising up from the grey, grey masses/amidst the mayhem we must all find our place/I know my way just read the smile on my face…”, it just works. Not all of the lyrics are based around that topic though. The song ‘Black Rose Withered’ seems to be about love, and even though it’s quite a basic lyrical topic, they just pull it off so fluently. For example, the chorus goes: “Black Rose, where is your heart of stone/maybe the winter, for you was too cold”. What’s so great about that is any other band would write something like “Was the winter too cold for you?” for the second line, but Kiuas literally take it one step further, with the totally awesome “Maybe the winter, for you was too cold” line.
So, what is so diverse about this album? For one, every single track is different from the rest. For example, every chorus is catchy, but unlike say, DragonForce’s Inhuman Rampage where while every chorus is catchy, you can only remember one chorus from the album (that obviously being ‘Through The Fire And Flames’), every chorus on The New Dark Age is different, so they’re all memorable. Songs range in lengths (from 4 to 7 minutes), and there’s even a ballad (‘After The Storm’). But the real diverse thing about this album is the general sound. Throughout the album Kiuas combines elements from most subgenres of Heavy Metal, making the album sound really nothing like anything I’ve heard before. The choruses are like a mixture of power Metal and NWOBHM (see every song), there are some blast beats and death growls from death Metal (see the title track and ‘To Excel And Ascend’), heavy riffs that remind me of thrash (see ‘To Excel and Ascend’ and ‘Kiuas War Anthem’) and even some black Metal-ish vocals (see ‘The Decaying Doctrine’). The combination of styles works phenomenally, as the general sound is totally unique, yet it’s still easy to get into if you like Metal (because of the actual styles present).
And of course, instrumentally this is top notch. Vocals are near perfect, Ilja Jalkanen is like a rough Bruce Dickinson (not anything like on Fear Of The Dark though); he has a good range (check the high notes on ‘After The Storm’), sings different styles (ie growling, snarling) and has this incredible power in his voice. As already mentioned, the guitar work is very good, but something else that stands out is the keyboard work. Keyboardist Atte Tanskanen does a fantastic job, from harmonizing with Mikko at the right times, to a few solos (which unlike CoB and others, aren’t trying to compete with the guitarist), to holding down some keys for a few seconds in some choruses, which adds to the epic feel of them. The bass on this album follows the guitar most of the time, but that's good, because it makes every riff seem appropriately heavier, and during the solos he adopts more of a rhythm guitar role too, which works well considering this band only have one guitarist. On The Spirit Of Ukko I disliked the drumming at points, because drummer, Markku Näreneva got overpowering with his double-bass use and technicality. He’s toned things down on The New Dark Age, going for less speed but more of a powerful groove, even though there's less craziness here, his beats and fills the most interesting yet. He still uses the double bass, but it's always used appropriately and is never once relied upon. This album definitely delivers instrumentally.
So, why doesn’t this get a perfect score? It’s close, but I can’t consider it due to the album not ending very strongly. Firstly, the track 'Of Scarifice Loss And Reward' is a filler, but it's such good quality it's not hard to ignore. The thing I can;t ignore is the last track, ‘The Wanderer’s Lamentation’ - it's a very weak song (tries to be progressive but winds up being boring, and an annoying, forced chorus doesn't help), so it being put on last leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth when the album ends. The penultimate track, ‘The Summoning’ is awesome (epic with the chanting in the final chorus and things) – they should have just left ‘The Wanderer’s Lamentation’ off and let that end the album. Also, at 55 minutes spread over 10 songs (average track length 5:30), the album does start to drag at the end, but I totally blame ‘The Wanderer’s Lamentation’ for that, as not only is it a bad track; it goes on for nearly 7 minutes.
In conclusion, this album is absolutely superb. It’s incredibly unique. Every song is different. The instrumentation is top notch. The lyrics rule. The choruses are some of the best I’ve ever heard. I could go on all day about why this is awesome, but I think I’ve said enough here. Be sure to check this out.
Alas, the time has come to face the truth: Kiuas isn’t the novel, innovative power metal band some of us, me included, thought it to be. Of course the Finnish act’s first album The Spirit of Ukko had been unique, somewhat bewildering. But its follower Reformation, while still pretty strong, was already far less spectacular; however it had most probably been some kind of a rushed release, given it had been issued twelve months only after its illustrious predecessor. And now? The guys had two more years to think about their new opus The New Dark Age, so the same excuse can no longer apply. Kiuas is simply running lower and lower on steam with each of their albums – and that’s all.
The fact the band has get rid of any original, foreign (i.e. non power metal related) musical element over the years is simply stunning, considering these various influences the first album was filled with was its main, if not its only strength. While lots of bands just go more complicated, or keep on adding overdubs over overdubs album after album, Kiuas just goes simpler and simpler, and not in a good way. At least the guys have now become pretty easy to classify: they play some aggressive, guitar-driven power metal with medium-pitched vocals, backed by the occasional touch of icy keyboards. The problem is, they now do very little to distinguish themselves from their numberless fellows playing the same kind of music. If the riffs and guitar solos may be reminiscent of recent Symphony X, let’s admit Symphony X just does it better. All the more that here the technicality isn’t exactly what I’d call breathtaking, while coming to this war-and-paganism gimmick it’s already been beaten to death long ago, and the least that can be said is the lyricist doesn’t particularly care for subtlety - Our secret is simple / We're simply better by far / We stand armed and wait for the sign... - seriously... Come on!
Of course the production doesn’t make anything better given it sounds, as on the preceding album, quite clear, so the defects become even more obvious. Take for instance this drummer doing little more than setting itself on automatic double-bassing mode while endlessly hitting his snare like a lobotomized monkey: hey, Kiuas drumming lines used to be NOT monotonous, for instance by incorporating tiny hints of blastbeats amongst others (traces of that remain on the title track, but that’s pretty much everything). The line-up hasn’t changed, so what could possibly justify this drastic impoverishment of the rhythmic section? The vocals don’t get really better as, if the vocalist at least still shows his distinctive fierce, slightly raspy style which enables him to easily keep on standing above all the castrated Andre Matos impersonators, his performance nonetheless sounds far less surprising than on the debut – when he seemed to try to borrow lines from every (clean) vocal style which has been in use since the 70’s. The keyboardist’s biggest merit is to remain discrete. The bass is all but present, but this has been the same on every Kiuas release so far anyway. And when coming from a once innovative band the only “innovations” here seem to consist in a few seconds of oriental-sounding guitars which only sound out of place on an otherwise vulgar song like To Excel and Ascend (ascend, you said? descend is the word), as well as the backing female voice on the unbearably mellow and unimaginative acoustic ballad After the Storm, one can all but certify of the decay of one of the most promising bands of the year 2005.
The only moment where the former Kiuas spirit seems to rise again is the less generic Black Rose Withered, the sequel of Thorns of a Black Rose, this song from the debut album, from which it actually borrows so much the new song sounds more like a partial re-writing of the original than like a genuine, brand new tune. And considering the original might be the best song the act ever released, the new track, while being probably the most interesting here, can’t nonetheless hold a candle to it. And, then? The aforementioned insipid ballad, another trickling, whining as well as uselessly pompous track to close the album, and the rest filled with these pretty bland, pedestrian war anthems all lead by those ill-digested, vaguely neoclassical, Symphony-X-fashion riffs as well as this omnipresent, idiotic snare drum. Even the choruses, though supposed to have each of us waving his sword in the wind I guess, sound so unimaginative they fail in raising any enthusiasm – Of Sacrifice, Loss and Reward may be the exception, and it’s the tune they chose as their single, what a surprise.
Why still a decent mark, then? Maybe just because this recording is, all remarks aside, undoubtedly still releasing a lot of energy – even if it’s for the most part ill-dispensed energy.
Highlights: Black Rose Withered; Of Sacrifice, Loss and Reward