Before the Dawn
Stormbringers

I generally like to think myself a pretty positive kind of guy – or at least, I try not to add any more negativity to the world than what already exists (and I think we can all certainly agree, it’s already too much). To date, I can only recall one album review I’ve ever done that was negative and, to be honest, I didn’t feel great about it. I still don’t! The only reason I could justify spending any of my energy ragging on an album i didn’t like, was because it was by a band I once really enjoyed (Lost Society)- one that seemed to strip all the fun out of the music they once made in lieu of some weird aggro-dad, second-rate American Groove Metal thing a whole bunch of bands had done before them, only worse. It was sad! And yet, here I go again, putting that album on blast and once again, I’m not having fun doing it! But as the old saying goes, it’s not your enemies that hurt you the worst – it’s the ones you love.

I am, and have been, a pretty big fan of the Tuomas Saukkonen universe of music (which is a vast and ever-growing world). From the chest-pounding might of Wolfheart, to the somber, introspective melancholy of Dawn of Solace, the guy’s instantly-recognizable sound has lent itself to some fantastic work over his illustrious 20+ year career. But it all started with a little doom-y, gothic-y Melodeath act called Before the Dawn which, for what it’s worth, really kind of established the “Tuomas Saukkonen sound.” From the guitar tone, to the bellowing, growling vocals, to the rich balance of dark and lightness that has always been the hallmark of his work, it all pretty much started and developed here – in fact, the earliest releases saw BTD as a Saukonnen solo act, until the first full-length in My Darkness that saw the entire group form, including guitarist Panu Willman, and later bassist Lars Einkind, both of whom I mention only because they both provided the band’s clean vocals that, paired with Saukonnen’s signature growls, always made for a dynamic and complimentary combination that only elevated the band’s sound through the years.

 

Fast-forward after a decade of the project laying dormant while Tuomas concentrated on all of his other projects, the band not only announced their return, but the addition of a new vocalist in Paavo Laapotti, who gained a bit of notoriety by becoming a bona-fide finalist in Finland’s version of The Voice, where he brought the likes of Iron Maiden, Dio, even Slipknot to a national television audience (and international social media audience) to show the rest of the world just how much better life in Finland apparently is. And on that stage, he sounded pretty good! Seemed like maybe he’d be a good fit for Before the Dawn‘s rebirth. Then came the first single, “Downhearted,” and, while I wasn’t necessarily blown away by his addition to the mix, it didn’t really give me pause to think there may be a problem, either. Perhaps the fact that the track itself showed a band with a renewed sense of vigor helped, but I left thinking, “OK, cool, I guess? Lets see where this goes.”

Friends… I don’t really like where it went.

Before I get too down on Laapotti’s performance, let me be clear – I don’t think he’s a bad vocalist. There is plenty of evidence available to show he’s a talented dude! But here, with Before the Dawn? I just don’t think it works. And that stinks, because this is a reformation I REALLY wanted to love. Take third track “Reveries” as a good example of how frustrating an album can be; it attacks you with a really good intro, with fantastic riffs and military-like drumming that build up to an awesome release that sounds like the best parts of BTD and Wolfheart coming together for a potentially epic combination. Then comes the trademark melancholic break of drums, bass and subtle synth that you know is building to some clean vocals – which they do, but man… I kinda wish they hadn’t. There’s a weirdly grating, nasal-y quality going on here that just doesn’t sit right. It’s like laying down on what you assume must be a normal bed, only to find the mattress stuffed with shrapnel – there’s no softness or subtlety in the delivery, it’s all sharp, unfinished edges, topped with an itchy blanket that offers little warmth or comfort. Then come his harsh vocals which, admittedly, are certainly a damned-side better than the cleans but… they’re also not as good as Saukkonen’s. They’re not bad, but you know there’s a better option being left on the bench, and it just doesn’t sit well. It doesn’t matter how solid the guitar work is, or being reminded how good a drummer Saukonnen also is on top of everything else he does well, I just can’t get over the vocal shortcomings.

And unfortunately, it doesn’t get a whole lot better anywhere else on the album. Even on the previously mentioned “Downhearted,” which at first a year ago I met with a vague indifference towards the vocals, I’ve now been so soured on them that the flaws are standing out even more. It seems the band tried to give Laapotti a chance to make a mark with a big ol’ building “YEAAAAHHHHH!” introducing the track, but instead it just falls flat, almost like he’s trying too hard to control his voice instead of just letting it fly.

Again, the rest of the band provide plenty of work that I should be enjoying a whole lot more than I am, but then comes another melancholic stretch with his cleans that take three perfectly balanced tires with fresh treads, and render them useless by stabbing the fourth tire and running the car on its rim. There are a few moments where his gutturals try their best to save the day, like on “Chains” where, if you’re not paying especially close attention, his growls don’t sound far off from Saukkonen’s own, and even the cleans on the chorus seem a little less strained (though I suspect maybe they’re just buried a bit beneath the huge instrumentals, and also balanced out with a growling harmony), but when the cleans are left to their own devices again, I’m back to square one wondering how anyone in that studio heard the final mix and said “yep, that works!”

To further cement the point about the vocals, by far the best track on the album is “Divided,” where the band opts to mostly keep with the harsher vocal deliveries, only busting out the cleans near the end of the track where they’re again less pronounced, being balanced once more with a growling underbelly and soaring guitar melodies that mask their bite (unfortunately we’re also introduced to Laapotti’s attempt at a higher-register harsh vocal, which also DOES NOT work). All the layers certainly mask the harsh reality of the cleans, but it’s like accidentally adding vinegar to cake frosting – you can add all the butter and sugar you want to try and negate the effects, but you can never fully hide it.

To a certain extent, there’s a linguistic pitfall that isn’t helping Laapotti’s performance. There’s a lot of really hard “R’s” and over-enunciation going on that certainly isn’t unheard of when Fins sing in English, which only makes it harder to find that smooth delivery that’s missing here. I’ll say it again, Paavo Laapotti is a talented singer. And I know I was not very kind to him here, but this isn’t anywhere near, like, Chris Barns-levels of embarrassment on display – it just isn’t on par with where the rest of the band is operating, and they drag the whole thing down a bit.  Maybe he’s better suited for a Power Metal setting, or maybe he just needs more time to work with Before the Dawn to sand down the edges of his voice and find a better mix. I dunno. But on Stormbringers? His vocals just ain’t it. If all you want is to hear some very Tuomas Saukkonen-riffs and melodies, you’ll find them aplenty here, but the reunion is let down by one component – and like a NASA rocket hurdling into space, all it takes is one piece to make the whole thing come to a bad ending. Let’s hope they can clean it up for another go-around next time.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
July 3rd, 2023

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