The Finnish death/doom masters, Swallow the Sun, released a brilliant mammoth of an album, Songs from the North I, II, & III by the end of last year, garnering praise from both critics and fans alike for their ballsy effort amidst the golden age of online streaming and a single-driven music industry. Needless to say, we were curious to see how this all comes together in a live format when the band announced a tour on their home soil, and Lene L. hopped on the opportunity at Klubi in Tampere on January 8th, 2016. Here’s her take on how it went down!
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Quite a few years have passed since the last time I had had the chance to see Swallow the Sun live; the previous time was in Nummirock 2010, so a rematch was pretty much mandatory after all that time. There will always be those who find doom metal, and especially shows from that genre, to be boring, but StS has always been a treat whenever I’ve had the opportunity to catch them on stage. True, there might not be a lot of shenanigans going on, but then again, their appeal lies in other kinds of things, so there’s not much use in judging them by the same standards as, for instance, folk metal or thrash shows.
Unfortunately, we missed the opener, Hanging Garden, but from what I know, they most likely fit the bill with their melodic doom. With regard to the venue, there might not be a lot of places in Finland that’d be more suitable for a band like Swallow the Sun – small and intimate Klubi with its pillars and heavy, deep red velvet curtains hiding the round-fronted stage before the show more or less hand-crafts the right atmosphere. There’s always a little bit more character in venues that are built into old buildings, don’t you think?
The front of the stage was filled with smoke leaking from behind the curtain a couple minutes before the intro even started playing, and if we leave the music the DJ was playing out of the picture, the crowd was surprisingly quiet. Makes one wonder if we’ve been away from doom shows for a touch too long, but it’s a drastic difference compared to the normal metal show, where the occasional shouts and enthusiastic stirring starts sometimes a good ten minutes before showtime. Speaking of the intro, I was happy with the choice to use “The Womb of Winter” from Songs from the North II it’s a beautiful and haunting instrumental piece, and a good way to set the mood for what’s to come.
The set appeared to be the same they had played on the European tour during November and December, with no changes whatsoever. With the setlist being naturally heavy on the new material, the audience seemed a bit stiff at times, and not just compared to other kinds of bands. However, when it was time for “Hope” and “New Moon,” people lightened up notably. Two songs from Emerald Forest and the Blackbird early on in the set seemed to spark a bit more enthusiasm than the newest songs, but it could be (and probably is) just the material not being too familiar to the audience yet. Songs from the North I, II & III is one hell of a package to dig into, so undoubtedly it will take more time than any normal length album. It’s still hard to tell if the current picks from the triple album will stay in the set when given more time, but I personally wouldn’t mind them trying out the new material with a wider scope.
While Swallow the Sun has never been big on the speech front, sticking more with pure necessities and occasional notifications rather than crowd-pleasing elements (and that’s quite all right), there was an amusing moment or two during the hour and a half. Early in on the set, someone who was clearly psyched to see the band after a while announced his will to hear “Descending Winters,” to which singer Mikko Kotamäki simply replied with a small chuckle and calmly noting, “My, aren’t you people hasty.” The band clearly seemed to enjoy themselves on stage; we even spotted the keyboard player, Aleksi Munter, (whose stage face is usually quite notoriously grumpy) smiling, and firmly believe that is a strong indicator of fun times. What with other visual elements, a ton of smoke wasn’t much of a surprise, even if there was a tad bit more than I remember seeing at their past shows. Then again, it does suit the atmosphere well. However, I have mixed feelings on the lights. The generous flashing lights do fit in with certain songs in the set, but sometimes less could be more, at least right in front of the stage. On the other hand, the use of colour was mostly spot on.
The setlist itself was well built, no matter the reception; starting with new stuff, a couple of older live hits here and there, and ending the set with “Abandoned by the Light,” which is one of the heaviest choices you can imagine for their live show. The encore was all the more interesting with not one but three acoustic numbers off Songs from the North II, though they ended the night with long-time favourites “Descending Winters” and “Swallow (Horror pt. 1).” In a way, I hate to admit that these two crowd pleasers, along with other old material, were quite possibly the best moments in the set, mostly because of the audience getting more into it. Other than those, the crowd (myself included) seemed to enjoy the acoustic part of the set. Especially “The Heart of a Cold White Land” was a joy to hear live, and left at least myself feeling like there would definitely be a calling for a whole set of acoustic Swallow the Sun. What with the title track “Songs from the North” being as good as it was performed by just the band, it would be a nice addition to the show to have a guest female vocalist singing the Finnish choruses someday.
It might just be that the experience with Swallow the Sun shows solely depends on the audience – the band delivers it every time as solid as they can, without much for flaws in the playing, and with as much packed feeling as a band like them ever can put into it. But what really sets the shows apart is the way the crowd reacts to it – it’s a hit or miss, frankly speaking, and the audience at Klubi didn’t quite reach the heights I’ve seen at StS shows. At its best, the crowd really lives and breathes the songs with the band, resulting in a neck-crushing wheel trip into the depths of gloom, beauty, and despair. It’s a wonderful, primitive feeling when you get to let loose in a packed club with this band – way different from folk metal and other purely fun-time shows, yet nonetheless rewarding, and I hope I can catch some of those gigs sometime in the future.
As a conclusion, not that much has changed since 2010. A hefty bunch of new songs, the band members have less hair, but in the end, the basic elements of their shows haven’t really changed. Only time will tell how the audience will take the new songs into set; I wouldn’t judge too hastily after only a couple of shows in Finland since the release of the new album, but all-in-all, Swallow the Sun is still a solid pick for a heavier night out, if you know how to make the most out of it.
1. 10 Silver Bullets
2. Rooms and Shadows
3. Hate, Lead the Way!
4. Cathedral Walls
6. New Moon
7. Lost & Catatonic
8. Abandoned by the Light
1. Pray for the Winds to Come
2. Songs from the North
3. The Heart of a Cold White Land
4. Descending Winters
5. Swallow (Horror Pt. 1)