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Sadness blooms by moonlight. - 86%

hells_unicorn, January 13th, 2022
Written based on this version: 2021, 2CD, Century Media Records (Limited edition, Mediabook)

Though no sensible person seeks after tragedy, it can often provide the inspiration for some of the greatest works of art that the world has known. The doom metal movement, in all its various permutations, has often proved to be the most adept at turning the ugliest truth of existence, namely memento mori, into a structure of beauty cloaked in agony. Among the northern European death/doom scene, this concept often focuses upon a more particular mode of calamity, specifically the death of a loved one, and though a latter day entry to said scene, Finland’s Swallow The Sun has been at the forefront of providing an accessible gateway into the woe-steeped dirges of love now lost. Led by guitarist, composer and founder Juha Raivio, himself no stranger to the affliction of mortality, this expansive ensemble of six had embarked upon yet another highly ambitious opus of auditory woe in Moonflowers, an eight song portfolio of sadness with a dense atmosphere and a highly dynamic character.

Following two years after the highly acclaimed When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light, an album inspired by the untimely passing of vocalist Aleah Starbridge, this studio offering draws from the same aforementioned tragic circumstance and functions as a de facto continuation/sequel of sorts. Building off of a slow drifting, minimalist skeleton of lamenting chords, the sound at work here bears a strong resemblance to the symphonic and post-rock driven character of melodic death outfits Eternal Tears Of Sorrow and Insomnium, with a particularly dream-like atmosphere that dovetails a tad more with the Finnish melodeath sound of this band’s mid-2000s contemporaries rather than the murkier old school death metal trappings typical to the 90s death/doom outfits hailing from England and Sweden. Nevertheless, the dank rage of the contrasting brutal elements with the dreary Gothic balladry conforms itself sufficiently to the example of the older guard, specifically that of Katatonia and October Tide.

The genuine character of this album’s sentimental nature is heavily bolstered by the instrumentation that adorns it. While the two-dimensional expressions of rage and serenity are heavily reliant upon the shifting dynamics of the guitars, bass and drums, the latter is bolstered superbly by a mixture of synthesized atmospheric additives courtesy of Jaani Peuhu and Raivio’s keyboard input and the live string group Trio NOX providing real violin, viola and cello parts to inject a mildly symphonic flavor into what is already a dense arrangement. Likewise, the jagged edges of vocalist Mikko Kotamaki’s deep growls is tempered by one of the smoothest baritone croons this side of the metal spectrum, further defining the borders of this musical exposition of opposites. It should likewise be noted that both Raivio and somewhat newer second guitarist Juha Raiha are not wholly averse to dabbling in more technically advanced territory from time to time, though the bulk of their interplay dances between a spacey post-rock flavor and a dank, sludgy stomp.

Despite strictly adhering to the principles of death/doom, each song revels in its own unique take on mixing a depressive gloss with a beautiful melodic contour. On the dreamier side of the equation and definitely drawing heavily from the same idea well that Insomnium frequents stands a series of longer offerings in “Woven Into Sorrow” and “The Fight Of Your Life” that all but cry out Aleah Starbridge’s name with teary eyes while weaving a picturesque assortment of acoustic and smooth orchestral motives, flirting with what one might call death/doom’s version of a power ballad. By contrast, the largely aggressive and simpler performance put on via “Enemy” and the somewhat swifter and busier epic “Keep Your Heart Safe From Me” afford the band’s metallic end some needed time in the moonlight. But where this album truly shines is when things are either brought to an absolute fever pitch as one the agitated blasts and shorter respites of album closer “This House Has No Home” and the highly infectious and closest thing that this style could get to a banger “The Void”.

As with most continuation of a work of unbridled greatness, this album doesn’t quite capture the same level of brilliance as its immediate predecessor, but it gets about as close as one could have hoped. The only area where it arguably outclasses When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light is in the ambitiousness of the arrangement, which is underscored by this album coming with a second CD containing all eight studio songs rearranged into a classical, instrumental format that further conveys this album’s sorrowful source of inspiration. In a sense, Raivio and the rest of Swallow The Sun have outdone themselves here, though ultimately their 2019 album holds the edge in terms of how concentrated and effectively the looming ghost of the recent past has been communicated. Nevertheless, a fine offering that is sure to appeal equally to old guard fans of death/doom and also melodeath trustees who don’t mind their favorite style played at a considerably slower pace.

Originally written for Sonic Perspectives (www.sonicperspectives.com)