Label: Century Media
The Finnish gloomsters Sentenced were on an upward trend in 1996, having released their breakthrough album Amok the previous year. Therefore it came as a huge shock when vocalist/bassist Taneli Jarva decided to leave the band, despite the persuasion of his bandmates and the record label. Sentenced were in a bit of a hurry to find a replacement vocalist, as a session at the Woodhouse Studio in Hagen, Germany, had already been booked, but fortunately the band found a new singer in Ville Laihiala just in time for the recordings. The resulting album, Down, was released on November 11, 1996 (on the same day as Anathema’s Eternity), and hence this is a good time to look back on it with a retrospective review.
[This review has been backdated from 2016]
Down takes the transition away from death metal that started on Amok even further. Compared to Jarva’s growly whiskey voice, Laihiala’s raspy delivery has more in common with James Hetfield of Metallica. Though the songs had not been written with his voice in mind, it suits the more rocky and melodic approach that the band was going for at the time. Laihiala’s crooning Gothic baritone wouldn’t find its way into the music of Sentenced until a few years later and as a result, his vocals on Down are a little monotonous, but they also made the band’s musical transformation smoother and more gradual.
Indeed, Sentenced started writing music with a wider palette than before, while keeping things dark and heavy. “Noose” has a bit of a grunge vibe going on, while the oriental stylings of “Crumbling Down (Give Up Hope)” wouldn’t be out of place on an Amorphis album. Acoustic guitars play a big role on “Shadegrown”, and “Ode to the End” includes a chorus with female vocals by Birgit Zacher. Songs like “Bleed”, “Keep My Grave Open”, and “Warrior of Life (Reaper Redeemer)” are probably closest to the band’s roots stylistically, and they feature guest grunts by Vorph of Samael, who had toured with Sentenced before. Due to Jarva’s departure, the bassist position was vacant when the band entered the studio, and hence lead guitarist Miika Tenkula (RIP) played double duty by handling the bass as well. Usually guitarists aren’t very creative while playing the 4-string, but Tenkula’s lines on the rocking “Bleed” are very cool and imaginative. His melodic guitar leads aren’t shabby either: the instrumental “0132” is all about his playing, and “Noose” has got one of my favorite solos of all time. Lyrically Down might just be the most suicidal and deadly of all Sentenced albums, which says a lot, considering how much rhythm guitarist Sami Lopakka wrote about death over the band’s 8-album career. The only notable exceptions are “Sun Won’t Shine” – a love song with some slightly amusing Hetfieldisms by Laihiala (“She gave me everything that I had craved-ah!”) – and the “screw you all” attitude of “I’ll Throw the First Rock.”
A big part of what makes Down such a special record is its atmosphere, which wouldn’t be the same without Waldemar Sorychta‘s production. After listening to his other productions for bands like The Gathering, I’ve noticed that the records he’s worked on sound pretty similar, for better or worse. However, Down still stands out as a unique album, as it sounds big and raw at the same time. The guitars are thick, the bass is nicely audible, Vesa Ranta’s drums are organic, and the vocals are fairly low in the mix with a lot of reverb on them, which gives them a ghostly and slightly distant feel. The sound is topped off by Sorychta’s keyboards, which enhance the dark vibe.
To me, Down is Sentenced’s masterpiece for various reasons. It feels like the perfect meeting point between the rawness of the band’s early days and the more melancholic and rock-oriented style of the later years. The mood of the record is consistent, and so is the songwriting, as there are no filler tracks at all – even the bonus track, “No Tomorrow”, doesn’t pale in comparison to the rest. For that reason it’s hard to name favorites, but my #1 has got to be “Ode to the End”, which nails the ghostly vibe I talked about earlier, followed by the apocalyptic “Crumbling Down” and the hanging anthem “Noose.” While I have a soft spot for Amok and later Sentenced albums like The Cold White Light (2002), Down is the point where stars aligned and all the pieces of the puzzle came together.
Rating: 10/10, 5 stars
1. Intro – The Gate
5. Keep My Grave Open
6. Crumbling Down (Give Up Hope)
7. Sun Won’t Shine
8. Ode to the End
10. Warrior of Life (Reaper Redeemer)
11. I’ll Throw the First Rock