Album: Under the Red Cloud
Label: Nuclear Blast
Amorphis hasn’t been exactly amorphous in recent years, as the band seems to have adopted an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality since Tomi Joutsen became the vocalist on Eclipse in 2006. This doesn’t mean their music has become bad or boring, but I don’t think the recent releases have lived up to the high standards set by Skyforger (2009), which I consider to be the band’s crowning achievement. I loved The Beginning of Times (2011) at first, but in hindsight it sounds tired and includes way too much filler. I still enjoy Circle (2013) and I like the fresh ideas producer Peter Tägtgren brought to the table, but after hearing the bonus tracks I realized the album could’ve been more daring, as some great and interesting songs got rejected in favor of more typical Amorphis tunes.
I was excited to hear that the 12th Amorphis album would be produced by Jens Bogren, because I love the work he has done with bands like Opeth, Katatonia, and Paradise Lost. His productions and mixes are pleasant to the ears and include all kinds of interesting subtleties you may not notice on first listen. I’d also heard that he’s a determined guy who makes bands work hard, so I was curious to see what he could do with Amorphis. However, after seven years of fandom I also tried to remain realistic, as I knew the band wouldn’t make drastic changes to its sound overnight. The album came out on September 4th, 2015, and nearly everyone at Musicalypse has been listening to it ever since.
Listen to the album here:
As expected, Under the Red Cloud isn’t a radical stylistic departure, but it’s evident that working with Bogren has helped Amorphis shake up their formula. Stylistically, the album is like a mixture of Elegy (1996) and Circle, with some new tricks thrown in for good measure. It’s got the progressive feel, oriental influences, and the 50:50 ratio of clean vocals and growls that defined Elegy, as well as elements that were first introduced on Circle, such as Tomi Joutsen’s black metal screaming and the church organ. The latter two ingredients can be heard in “The Four Wise Ones,” which has the distinction of being the first modern Amorphis song not to include Joutsen’s clean voice: instead, the melodic vocals in the middle of the song are handled by guest singer Aleah Stanbridge (Trees of Eternity). The fantastic “Dark Path” leads the listener into black metal territory as well, but the song goes through various changes and constantly keeps you on your toes.
“Bad Blood” – not a Taylor Swift cover, mind you – is an instant hit, with kickass riffing that sounds atypically modern for Amorphis. “The Skull” includes thrashy shouting by Joutsen in the pre-chorus, and the use of tambourine in the verses brings to mind “First Doom” from Tales from the Thousand Lakes (1994). The lead single “Death of a King” is a brilliant tune that includes electric sitar, percussion by Martin Lopez (Soen, ex-Opeth), flute by Chrigel Glanzmann (Eluveitie), a danceable beat, and one of the catchiest Amorphis choruses ever. If this song doesn’t get stuck in your head, nothing will! The video track “Sacrifice,” on the other hand, is the weak link of the album, although I have to admit that Esa Holopainen’s shred guitar solo is cool. It feels like the song was added as the obligatory radio-friendly track to please the record label, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amid the heavier and more complex songs. You can see the music video over here:
The album reaches its peak at the end: “Enemy at the Gates” turns the Amorphis formula upside down, as the eerie, Opeth-y verses are sung clean, while the chorus is growled. There’s also room for a brilliant synth solo by Santeri Kallio, played with a patch that reminds me of Kim Rantala’s leads on Elegy. “White Night” is my personal favorite song and one of the most epic Amorphis album closers ever: it’s got ethereal verses featuring Stanbridge’s whispery voice, oriental riffs with growling, as well as a soaring chorus with some of Joutsen’s best clean singing ever captured on tape – what’s there not to like?
It’s ironic that Under the Red Cloud is more cohesive than the previous two records, because it’s the first non-conceptual Amorphis album in over a decade. However, in a way this makes it the spiritual successor of Tales… and Elegy, because those two classics are collections of separate stories as well. Although the lyrics aren’t based on the Kalevala this time around, the band’s “spiritual mentor,” Pekka Kainulainen, has done a great job capturing the essence and imagery of Finnish mythology.
At this point it’s pointless to expect another experiment like Am Universum (2001) from Amorphis, but Under the Red Cloud proves that the band is still capable of successfully going beyond its comfort zone. The production is pure ear candy, several songs are potential classics, and the variety – both within and between the songs – and guest performances keep the material interesting. The progressive and bold approach makes this an album you can’t shrug off as just another Amorphis release. Under the Red Cloud is by far the strongest Amorphis record since Skyforger and a worthy album of the year candidate.
If you’re not convinced yet, here’s what some of the rest of the staff thought:
“I was torn, because Amorphis and Iron Maiden released albums on the same day. By the simple principle of alphabetical order, I put on Amorphis first. In order to explain to you how great this album is, let me say this: I’ve never really been big into Amorphis, but Iron Maiden has drastically changed my life, and yet, Under the Red Cloud was so good that I didn’t want to stop listening to it so I could hear the latest Iron Maiden album. I concur – it’s definitely a nominee for best album of the year! I give it 10/10.” – Bear W. (Editor in Chief)
“Amorphis was among the first metal bands I ever got into, and served as the first initiation on my way towards folk metal (the gateway theory does work, indeed). With this background, and Elegy and Skyforger being my all-time favorites from the band, I greeted Under the Red Cloud with nearly unexpected glee. It combines the elements I love in Joutsen-era and the earlier days, and I have to say, digging the past has never felt so refreshing as it feels on this album. “Death of a King,” my new favorite dance floor tune, promised plenty, and the rest certainly delivered those promises. Under the Red Cloud is a diverse, rough, and raw, yet beautiful piece of art, presenting Amorphis at their very best. There is something untamed and deeply ethereal in Finnish folklore, but at the same time it’s very tangible, very earthy, and Amorphis knows how to dig up those roots.” – Lene L. (Senior Photographer/Journalist)
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
1. Under the Red Cloud
2. The Four Wise Ones
3. Bad Blood
4. The Skull
5. Death of a King
7. Dark Path
8. Enemy at the Gates
9. Tree of Ages
10. White Night