Amorphis
Under the Red Cloud

The Beginning of Times and Circle were both solid Amorphis albums, each with a few memorable standout tracks, yet I haven’t returned to them often. Instead, when I’ve been in the mood for some of the Finns’ melancholic majesty, I’ve chosen Skyforger, which I think is the quintessential album for the band’s now-lengthy third era (by my classification, anyway; era 1 being the first three albums, and era 2 being the softer post-Elegy releases until the Pasi-Tomi switch).

I expect that to change with the release of Under the Red Cloud, their 12th studio release. This is going to get a lot of plays over the next few years as well, because it’s Amorphis at their absolute best. All of the signature elements are here: gorgeous folk melodies played with clear, singing lines atop heavier guitar; cavorting flute and pounding Hammond organs; Tomi Joutsen’s soaring, ragged-king vocals; and a progressive-rock melding of all of these elements that’s both ambitious and effortless. There’s also a much stronger focus on bigger riffs and death vocals than in years – many of the album’s songs are dominated by growls, though there’s a stirring chorus in each as well.

“Under the Red Cloud” is a rousing anthem with a clear folk melody, a melancholy vocal, simple guitar crunch backed by stately organ, and a classic Amorphis chorus. Add in a touch of growls for accent and a rapturous keyboard–driven solo, and you have the best album intro since Skyforger‘s “Sampo.” Then Amorphis switches it up in the verses for the next one, “The Four Wise Ones,” with commanding growls and no cleans. When was the last time they did a death-only song? A softer dirge-like bridge, backed by flute, soft choral voices, and a heavily distorted angelic vocal – as if bubbling up from beneath still water – keeps the mood somber, though melancholy does not mean listless.

The faster riffs and the effect of all of these textural and melodic layers working together in each track are thrilling. That layered approach really shines throughout the rest of the album – as well the band’s renewed embrace of both light and dark. I also love how the band has developed a varied palette even within this approach.

Some tracks enlist lighter instruments like flutes to help carry the main melody, but others, like “The Skull” go heavier and groovier with crashing organs. “Dark Path” kicks off with a delicate piano, but turns out to be one of the album’s darkest and most crushing tracks, with its most malevolent vocals yet.  “Death of a King,” the exotic first single, and soon to be another band-classic, pulls in Middle Eastern sitar and tribal drumming into its intro before trading them up for a whistling flute. Instant cue back to Tuonela, though that album was fairly light compared to this one so it’s the best of all worlds. “Tree of Ages” pulls both halves together – dancing folk melody and pounding, percussive riffs – for a climax that embodies the spirit of folk metal, and then somber album closer “White Night” brings in a whispery female vocal (guest Aleah Stanbridge) for a cinematic and satisfying denouement.

Although there are no significant experiments or changes to Amorphis’ sound on Under the Red Cloud, it simply shines with a renewed vigor and energy. The return of consistent death vocals is a much better showcase for the band’s versatility than on the previous two albums, but without losing any of the soaring and stirring melodies that they’ve mastered over the years. Everything has been polished to the point where I would give this, Skyforger, and Tales from the Thousand Lakes as my top 3 picks to anyone curious about Amorphis’ sound. Instant classic for the band and one of the year’s most refined releases.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
September 21st, 2015

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