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So I’m told Waltari is supposed to be an “experimental” metal band. Regardless of the truth of that statement, I have reason to believe this is the second symphonic death metal album released. Compared to what I think the first is ("Immense, Intense, Suspense" by Phlebotomized) the symphonic presence is much greater, but its’ integration into the death metal content of this album is much less advanced. As a result, we see plenty of straight-ahead (by the standards of Waltari) death metal and straight-ahead symphonic western classical, and a few tracks that are simply just wacky towards the end, but the amount of material where the symphony orchestra in question (Avanti!) plays in tandem with Waltari is actually fairly limited.
I’ve also heard that Waltari’s actual divergences into extreme metal are somewhat limited – for this, they imported a vocalist from Amorphis to provide death growls – Tomi Koivusaari has a reasonable (if not particularly strong) growl on here, but it’s not very dynamic. Fortunately for him, other vocalists handle that need by using entirely different styles – Kärtsy Hatakka brings in his weird, nasally, heavily accented spoken word (as well as some normal clean singing), while Eeva-Kaarina Vilke is drafted from somewhere in Finland to provide the obligatory female operatic vocals. They’re actually a fairly charismatic bunch – the arrangements on this album definitely place in them in an order that enhances their various strengths and methodologies.
In general, the songs do a relatively good job of making the various metal/classical/wacky fusions interesting and reasonably complex (although “Move”, the hip-hop flavored track might be kind of an outlier), but when separated from each other, these individual elements don’t fare so well. The death metal sections are the least affected by this – they’re played straight, played competently, and manage to incorporate some ideas that, if rearranged, could fit into the other ‘sections’ of this album. Their main flaw is that they aren’t particularly ambitious. The classical sections suffer from the opposite problem – they are simply overextended. Case in point – “Completely Alone” is the longest track on this album, and its ‘core’ is a progression that begins in the middle and repeats several times, with minor variations developing as it continues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is surrounded by several minutes of unrelated material, and (most importantly) the transitions between each part of the song are awkward at best. The strongest parts of this album are when Waltari and Avanti! are playing together (which seems to be true of many other symphonic metal albums), so I’m not sure why they weaken when sundered.
Needless to say, I’ve given the ‘symphonic metal’ question a lot of thought over the last few years, primarily because of its popularity from the 1990s onwards. Were I feeling jaded, I would say it’s the result of metal musicians looking to what is considered art music in Western traditions and, in an attempt to secure greater legitimacy, trying to imitate it. Sometimes, this just results in more ambitious songwriting – in others, a symphony orchestra just gets to eat for a few days. Compared to earlier attempts at this genre, Waltari reaches higher peaks (even if many of them abstain from being death metal, or even proper classical music), but the limited integration holds much of this album’s content back from what it could be.
Highlights: “A Sign”, “The Struggle For Life and Death of ‘Knowledge’ “, “The Top”
Note: Mildly revised from the the version on my blog at http://invisiblesandwichtm.wordpress.com
In the history of rock there have been many attempts to create an album or a symphony of some kind with both metal (or rock) and classical music. Mostly those attempts fall flat. Usually they remain average at best, like Deep Purple's Concerto for the Group and Orchestra. There are entertaining gimmicks, such as Apocalyptica. Some are downright embarrassing, such as Metallica's S&M, that leaves an eerie aftertaste of rich dudes creating an album of recycled covers of themselves with over 50 professional musicians, only because they can afford to pay enough money for it. There also are the varied rock operas and musicals, but they usually stay humbly in rock and do not even try to intrude the classical side.
Waltari's attempt, the Death Metal Symphony In Deep C, chooses a totally different approach. The metal on this strange album is equal in importance to the classical parts, and the concept carries the whole much farther than any other such work that I've ever heard of. The simple idea behind the success: the orchestra and Waltari rarely play simultaneously, and thereby avoid the cruel trap of volume competition this kind of productions too often suffer from. The quieter classical parts are handled by the orchestra and Waltari deals with the metal, and the extreme contrast is what makes the whole so exquisite.
It is also notable that all the music of the symphony has been written for this purpose alone. Attempts to turn old songs into orchestrated pieces are fortunately not there, and the results of this ambitious approach reward the listener. The qualitative difference of making new and original music for the orchestra-band combo, and just adding a symphony orchestra to the background or making it play the band's oldies, is astronomical. An orchestra is meant to play music written for it, not covers of a genre that's fundamentally alien to it.
While on many other such works (S&M by Metallica springs to mind, can't help it) metal or rock overwhelms the acoustic instruments and thereby wastes excellent classical talent by turning the whole orchestra into an additional instrument that could well be replaced by a synth, Waltari's Kärtsy has composed a real symphony. For the first 6 minutes, Waltari stays silent and the orchestra plays something ambient in the vein of the later symphonies by Jean Sibelius in the early 20th century (google that, if you're interested), and creates a relaxed but ominously expecting mood. The band really kicks in at around 7:40, and turns the whole thing around with death metal. It's not especially furious death metal, but good, thrashy death metal anyway, and considering the ambience of the preceding minutes, the contrast adrenalizes the experience. The effect is repeated many times over during the symphony's 55 minutes, and works every time. Almost sleepy classical music turns into metal, every time effectively, and surprisingly seamlessly. The change emphazises the difference between the styles. The necessarily heavy-handed orchestration by Riku Niemi is truly excellent, and the sounds of Waltari's death metal and the classical playing of Avanti! fit together unexpectedly well, seldom overlapping but supporting the whole as equals. The truly unbelievable part of the symphony is the smoothness and seamlessness of the whole. The orchestration, recording and mixing has been done so well that it is virtually impossible to find any errors in the flow of music. That is remarkable, since the symphony is a fusion of death/thrash metal and classical music, and those can be considered practical opposites in the musical spectrum.
The guest vocalists, Timo Koivusaari and Eeva-Kaarina Vilke, do an excellent job. Listening first to this and Nightwish afterwards really makes you blush for Tarja Turunen's work. Don't get this wrong, Tarja is a very good singer (and yes, currently studies to become a real opera singer), for Nightwish and hardrock in general that is, but a true classical opera voice is really something else. Vilke's alto is a voice in the way classical composers meant it to be, and in sheer power and beauty it simply crushes every "metal classical" lady vocalist there is. Kärtsy's vocals, on the other hand, are once again quite the opposite, and lend an extra jagged edge to the mixture, including growls, rap, shrieks and sometimes his trademark Muppet Show style of singing.
What about Waltari? They deliver their heaviest performance to the date on this album, even if it only covers about a third of the length of the symphony. For a few minutes, at around 50:00 into the album, they lapse back into the basic Waltari techno/disco/metal/whatever style they occasionally preferred on their preceding works, but otherwise they stay in thrash and death. They do solid work, as should be expected on such an album, and their contribution is professional and much heavier metal than usual for them.
The stories classical operas usually try to tell are either of the long-winded kind, where being strangled to death means that you still get to sing a boring aria of another twenty minutes, or extremely psychedelic and frolicking idiocy, such as most of Mozart's works. This one is neither, there is an underlying cyberpunkish story that's both interesting and almost logical. While the work is called a symphony, it is closer to opera in several ways, and the fact that there's a story is one of them. Symphony is a better name for this, however, as "rock opera" has a cheesy undertone to it.
What are the downsides of this beautiful symphony? Well, the extra track in the end, Ready for the Rock'n'Roll, is one. It is a useless and absurd addition to a work of art, and spoils the mood and rapes the whole of this solid work. When the symphony ends, stop the CD player. The reasons for its annoying existence remain obscure, but it sounds like an encore of the live performances. Leaving it out would have gained another 3% in the rating. The multimedia part on the CD is another, but must be forgiven. The album is nine years old, and the nowadays pitiful graphics and menus were state of the art at the time. Back then the web was still in its infancy, and the MHzs have increased gazillionfold since.
On the whole, this oddity of an album definitely surpasses it's oddity status. It will probably remain virtually alone in its subgenre for a long time, since such projects with extremely costly resource needs are rare. It is also unlikely that such ventures appeal to classical musicians on a larger scale. The undeniable divisions of cultural life are real, and will inhibit this kind of undertakings, no matter how sweet the possibilities appear. This time, there's audible dedication on the classical crowd's behalf, and that is bound to remain extremely rare.
The third downside? I didn't get to see it live. I was sitting at home, 11 km away at the time, and every single performance was sold out. Oh, the cruelty of this mortal world...