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An Exploration of Tonal Dichotomy - 90%

Envius, May 23rd, 2014

In the chaotic world of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, true creativity is about as rare as a cohesive Opeth song. New bands follow tired trends and become pigeonholed before they hit their first powerchord, and the groundbreaking releases of yesterday become the blueprint for the dry replicas of tomorrow (see Hvis Lyset Tar Oss). Once in a blood moon however, a special release raises its grotesque limbs above the limits set by its contemporaries as if to say "hey, over here! I'm different than Suffocation clone #179, I promise!" In a world in which mood and structure is often superseded by a notes-per-minute fretboard wankfest, Amorphis's first full-length album is one such grotesque, and it is definitely worth paying attention to.

Released in 1992, The Karelian Isthmus seems to operate as a clear linchpin between what was and what would be, both borrowing and creating sonic space without ever appearing as a second rate imitator. The foundation of this synthesis can be found in the guitar tone(s) themselves, which fuse the 'crunchy' rhythmic tone of early Entombed or Bolt Thrower with the sharps enunciated leads of a 1980's Iron Maiden. This tonal dichotomy can be found throughout the album, creating a palpable tension between the two guitars, mirroring the eternal struggle of good and evil over the waking conscience. Both representations are given their chance to express themselves, but the memorable culminations occur when these singularities work in tandem, delivering a cohesive presentation of two opposing halves (see 3:43 of 'The Sign From the North Side' for an example of this culminating cohesion).

Rather than muddy the mood and atmosphere of the album with unnecessary fills, the drumming instead works as a solid rhythmic pulse which lock the other musical components into place. This is not to say that the drumming is either simple or repetitive, but rather that it understands its role within the larger composition and supports rather than distracts from the overarching unity. For an example of this support, re-examine the logical progression of the rhythm section throughout the track 'Misery Path.' From the slow, dirgy 4/4 cadence of the opening movement to the abrupt blastbeat section beginning at 1:23, the drumming holds perfect rhythmic harmony with the guitar phrases, not guiding but rather accompanying the riffs to their conclusion. These seemingly abrupt tempo changes can be seen throughout the wider consideration of the album as a whole, but these changes occur in a way which suggests progression and unity rather than the frustrating start/stop experience of heavy city traffic (again, I point to the structure of your basic paint-by-numbers Opeth song in an attempt to solidify this point).

In addition to the traditional guitar/bass/drum dynamic of nascent death-metal compositions, Amorphis presents themselves as pioneers in the subtle use of keyboards as an accentuation of mood without slipping into the predictable and cliche. The first and clearest example of this accentuation can be found at 2:43 of 'The Gathering.' Amorphis resolves the cyclical tension found in the first half of the song between traditional death-metal blastbeats and down tempo doom-influenced phrases by amalgamating the two on top of a steady yet audible keyboard chord. Both the low and high guitar tones lock into place above this chord, and the struggle between lead and rhythm is resolved at least temporarily. As the guitars simultaneously move up an octave the keyboards follow suit, giving the movement a feeling of a successful climb out of the abyss that had previously been presented. However, once the keyboards are removed from the equation the two guitars are immediately back at odds again, with the rhythmic low end providing power chords while the sharp lead fights to distance itself from its dirgy counterpart.

These subtle tensions and resolutions can be found throughout the album, and it is this strong song-writing more than anything else that rewards the listener for focused repeated listens. While the popularity of "cool sounds" and "insane licks" inevitably ebb and flow with the tide that is aesthetic musical taste, it is the moving parts beneath this glossy finish that truly withstand the fall of time (tm). It is obvious that Amorphis has an ear for both melody and chaotic dissonance, and they employ both ends of the continuum in their successful presentation of engaging, genre-bending death metal. Although their style can best be described as chameleonic, as they straddle the edge of multiple genres (death, black, doom, traditional), songs are still presented in a logical progression which produce rewarding musical experiences given the necessary thought and attention. Although I was originally underwhelmed by this album, it has slowly grown into something much larger in my mind, like all lasting works of art should. As a final example of Amorphis's keen use of morphing motifs to structure their songs, I suggest closing your eyes and attentively listening to 'The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu.' Note the rhythms, the patterns, and the riffs, and how they reinvent themselves by the end of the song. Although the first 20 second and final 20 seconds are essentially comprised of the same guitar riff, the movement is elevated to a frenzy of energy and vitality, emerging victoriously from a seemingly simple 4/4 Bolt Thrower throwaway.

Although it seems as if I am gushing endlessly about how amazing this album is, it is not without its superficial flaws. There are points in the album where the dualistic guitars operate alone, without either tension or support provided by the other. Many bands and many albums present themselves perfectly fine with only one guitar at all times, but given the importance Amorphis places on the interplay between their contrasting guitar tones, the moments in which one guitar is absent is clearly and often immediately felt. An aesthetic thinness seems to pervade these passages in question, and these moments seem both dull and uninteresting in comparison. Structurally these seemingly underwhelming passages make sense however, as they often pave the way for clear culminations of spirit and power when the guitars are reunited. Given this was likely the effect Amorphis was going for I cannot rightfully critique their choice beyond a simple aesthetic preference, but personally these are the moments in which the album is in danger of slipping into "background music" to my subconscious mind instead of the well structured work I know it is. At this point in time I am not intimately familiar with more contemporary Amorphis releases beyond cursory listens at parties and other gatherings, but it is my general understanding that they fail to match both the honesty and originality of this album. But that's a discussion for another day.