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What a strange bunch, this band, never very content to stick with one style until they settled into some kind of depressive heavy metal by their fourth album. You could very well listen to their first three records, loving one, hating another and being ambivalent to a third. It doesn't exactly make for something one can be fanatical about. Indeed, the gloomrockin of the later albums never worked very well for me, the debut was adequately heavy and featured nice riffs but nothing more, and the transitional "Amok" just left me scratching my head in perplexity.
What about "North From Here" then? My first exposure to Sentenced, this came to me at a time when I was first becoming acquainted with the soudns of metal that wasn't strictly heavy or thrash. Death metal was a new and fascinating beast, black metal a vague spectre at the edge of perception. I wanted metal that was dizzyingly technical, full of tempo changes, complex yet adhering to some vague idea of beauty that I had in my head. It's safe to say that "North from Here" knocked me flat from the very first note, and indeed, it was just the sort of metal album I was searching for at the time. The vocals were something new, with their snarly high-toned rasp, sounding much angrier than fellow Finns Amorphis, with whom I was already somewhat familiar. Indeed, I had this crazy idea that the two Finnish bands had some kind of rivalry going on, probably fueled by the "thousand fakes" comment in the lyrics to one of these songs. I knew about contemporaneous works by Death, but while I enjoyed their restrained melodic approach, they didn't have what this album has got in spades.
What is it that this album has got, then? Well, it is brash, as much metal ought to be. The compositions seems a little wild, especially in retrospect, as though the band had been practising their instruments excessively since that debut record and wanted to cram as many high-flying ideas into each song as possible. Often we ought to be a little wary of bands that hurl so many twists and turns at us, and indeed, Sentenced themselves would later criticise this album for a lack of cohesion and structure, yet I find myself so attracted to what the band was trying to do here that a certain amount of abruptness and clutteredness is tolerable here and even welcome. Besides, it's really not so random and crazed as all that; you will still hear recurring passages; some of these songs even include choruses, though seldom (if at all) will they repeat more than once. All I can say is that if you're looking for the pop hooks of later Sentenced, or the unhurried trudge and big, repetitive riffs of their younger days, neither are very much in evidence here, and while there's more than a hint of the un-hinged artist in some of these songs, there's an undeniable charm to what's going on. The reason for this, I think, is that the band sound as if they are playing their hearts out. Really, this couldn't be further from the dry and clinical nature of plenty of modern technical death metal, both in terms of sound production and musical delivery. When melodies surface with stark clarity, they are creative and often rather dark. Plenty of sections will induce enthusiastic headbanging, and whatever one can say about structure, it really sounds as if the band are working together with a seamless and unbeatable chemistry and that they believed, for a time at least, that they had crafted songs to take the metal world by storm. The lyrics, too, are far from the morose alcoholic haze of later recordings, preferring instead to deliver, with considerable conviction, variations on the tried and true themes of battle, bloodshed and the harsh Finnish winter in an age when the proud heathen still believed he could cleanse the north of christian lies.
The album opens with some strange, bending lead guitar melody, and right away anyone previously familiar with "Shadows of the Past" would have had to ask in perplexity whether this was really the same band. Everything about this beast is different. Not only has the complexity increased exponentially, the vocals taken on an altogether higher, angrier character and the sound been designed to bring out the sharp biting quality of those guitars, but the loping pup that gave us "Shadows..." has suddenly grown up to be a bounding lupus that can outrun its contemporaries. The heavy marching tempos that usually constitute verses here ought to induce purposeful movement in the listener, and the blasting moments will have an audience frantically trying to keep up with some very intense picking with their guitars, real or imagined. The rhythm section is hardly neglected, either, bass dancing with a compelling low and clear tone and drums...ah, the drums...don't they sound nice and booming? I love this kind of clarity in percussion when what's being played is interesting, and here there's no disappointment. Rolling double bass, crashing cymbals, interesting fills all over the place and a few neat timing tricks that keep me focussed on what this man is doing behind the kit. It's a sterling performance, and along with the unique guitarwork, makes me wish that Sentenced had found their niche here and refined their craft a little more.
I'll admit, then, that the album does tend to lose one at times, particularly during lengthy speed sections where the sharpness of the guitar sound, combined with playing that concentrates on the high end of the fretboard, leads to a sort of blurry catatonia, at least in this listener. However, I don't find my attention wandering that often, and usually I'm marvelling at the precision and enthusiasm I think I can detect coming from my speakers. "Capture of Fire" is an obvious standout, being actually a very well-structured piece of music with plenty of recurring themes, and at least four colossal riffs, each more captivating than the last. After each verse the band throws itself into a manic section where I swear that both guitars, while playing melodically, are trying to emulate the sound of a pneumatic drill, they're going at it with such forceful heaviness and speed. Tasteful keyboards spice things up just a little bit, especially at the song's conclusion, and in fact they are used in a similar way sporadically throughout the recording, sounding particularly effective when combined with ominous clean guitar.
Other highlights can certainly be found. "Fields of Blood" seems particularly furious and includes several thrumming repetitive rhythms that will ensnare your neck like a noose. I particularly enjoy the little bass breaks, during which drums and guitars will hammer away simplistically while Taneli Jarva plays a kind of propulsive melody on his instrument. "Epic" truly lives up to its name, being a rather complex and dizzying composition played mostly at incredible speed (they certainly never played this fast before, and sure as hell never will again) until a huge, bombastic melody creeps in around the half-way mark accompanied by slower percussion brimming with huge fills, cymbal slashes and stomping double bass. I could also mention "Awaiting the Winter Frost", which begins very auspiciously with a sweeping clean guitar/bass section with airy synth backing, which perfectly sets the stage for a song that simply howls with pent-up fury and is memorable throughout its many twists and turns, which is truthfully not something that can be said for the entire album, despite the fact that I've actually singled out much of it for praise here.
It's simply mind-boggling to consider how much the band must have worked to refine their craft to this degree of tightness and complexity. It's almost as though they wanted to be the Coroner of death metal, but thought they could inject a fine helping of grandiose melody into the mix. Mostly, they succeeded rather well. I've heard people criticise the solos, and indeed they aren't so memorable in themselves, but I think they add a certain charm to things, since these compositions seem so necessarily regimented that a little spontanaiety is certainly called for, which the wild and seemingly random flurries of notes wailing and searing their way through the mix at certain points do provide. The solos are concise bursts of energy that never really outlive their welcome, and are not much like the restrained melodic metal tributes found on later albums. The whole mixture of "North from Here" is just so different from what was happening in neighbouring Sweden at the same time, when bands like Dark Tranquillity were giving birth to a style that would later be praised and reviled all over the world as "melodic death metal", with all the misapprehensions and unfortunate associations that would result when the style moved so far away from its death metal roots, yet this material is unflinchingly consonant with old heavy metal and thrash sounds, only filtered through a sort of maniacal death metal frenzy that makes it so much colder and harsher than its contemporaries in Gothenberg. There's a lot going on here, and while at first you'll find yourself only intrigued by certain parts, certain arresting, threatening melodies and majestic riffs, you'll want to look long and hard at this little gem so that you can penetrate all the secrets it has to offer.