originally written by Juho Mikkonen
If someone was to write a book about metal bands and their bad experiences with record labels, that someone would have to be prepared to compile a whole anthology. Almost every orchestra would probably have a tale to tell and not one label would be spared from their fair share of flak. For the average Joe, however, these ostensibly small incidences and glitches can offer an interesting narrative or two, but for the musicians in question, it may be almost a matter of life and death. If you need a case in point, look no further than Finland’s Ikuinen Kaamos.
Having just released their highly acclaimed sophomore full-length, Fall of Icons, through Maddening Media, the progressive death metal quintet may seem to be past all cynicism concerning their ventures with the late Descent Procutions. Still, it was less than two years ago when Ikuinen Kaamos was struggling with the Dutch label, which appeared to be on a roll at the time; its roster was packed with talents like Be’lakor and Gorath. After unleashing a superb debut, The Forlorn, in 2006, Ikuinen Kaamos immediately commenced sketching the follow-up, and before the next year was over, the instalment christened as Epilogue was ready to see the light of day. We all know by now that this never happened. The band’s second guitarist and sole founding member, Jarno Ruuskanen reminisces as to how the whole fiasco came about.
“Indeed, we recorded our second full-length at the end of 2007. The album was supposed to be released in early 2008. It was, however, repeatedly delayed by the label. Finally, after a year of waiting, the company stated that it didn’t have the money to release the record. We didn’t want to try and find another label anymore, so we decided to take three songs and release them as a free download EP called Closure. The intention of that was to make an apology for all the people who had been waiting for the album to come out for too long. We just wanted to move on and record a whole new album.”
According to the guitarist, the band didn’t see the storm coming and – apart from somewhat-lazy promotion – Descent Productions actually handled the release of The Forlorn without any extra wrinkles. The Dutch firm is no more, which has left some people concerned about the future availability of the band’s firstborn. But Ruuskanen reveals that Maddening Media has taken the distribution of the album under its wings and that there are even hopes of a vinyl version at some point. Overall, the partnership with the German label appears to be working also for the band’s benefit, with effective worldwide distribution being one of the many positives in the equation. Still, the way Ruuskanen describes the first steps of the new liaison suggests that the Descent case gave the five-piece a palpable lesson about castles in the sky.
“The owner of Maddening Media, Philip Breuer, contacted us, because he had heard our Closure EP. He was really impressed with our music. We started talking about the future and possibly joining forces. At first, we were a bit aloof, because we had had a bad experience with the last label. We didn’t want to make hasty decisions. We soon learned that the label [Maddening Media] was run in a very professional manner. They really care about their artists and give you plenty of freedom. We’re really happy with how they operate and hope that we can continue with them in future.”
Understandably, the minds of the band members aren’t currently focused on label policies and past disenchantments, because, as already mentioned, their impatiently anticipated second album, Fall of Icons, was finally released a few months ago. As the outfit’s other guitar wizard, Juhani Mikkonen [Ed. No relation to the author of this piece], says, their latest piece of work ? showcasing a new level of the band’s skill and vision ? has received almost nothing but praise and high ratings, and although some older fans may have been disappointed with Fall of Icons, the disc has undoubtedly garnered Ikuinen Kaamos a horde of fresh devotees. Essentially, you would also expect that Fall of Icons is an oeuvre that satisfies the ambitions of its creator — even if Mikkonen is careful to preserve the stereotype of a Finn with an allergy for superlatives while trying to come up with a few good words to depict the latest opus of Ikuinen Kaamos.
“At least the end result is better sound-wise, and from a technical standpoint it took us more time than ever before to make the album. At first, the idea was that we don’t rush the recording process, but it went so far that we had to kick up the pace to get the album done according to the schedule. Musically, I’d say that the record is a continuation from Closure.”
It should be pointed out that the ghost of Closure and, thus, Epilogue is still present on Fall of Icons. Although consisting mainly of completely new material, Ruuskanen tells us that “Statues” is actually an Epilogue leftover that went through a facelift before finding its place as the second track. Apparently, Ikuinen Kaamos aren’t about to waste good compositions, and hence they have also remade the one remaining Epilogue track, “The Art of Letting Go,” which will be recorded for the band’s third album, due in 2011.
Compositionally, Fall of Icons represents the most refined and focused music this act has ever written. When compared to The Forlorn, it shouldn’t be hard to perceive that the almost transition-free epics flow more naturally than ever before, serving as praxis for the theory that extremely complex music doesn’t need to be plagued with awkward edginess. By no means does this take anything away from the challenge that Fall of Icons poses for its listener; while being more effortless in their execution, the songs on the new album simply take more time to click than those on The Forlorn. For the band, this is just natural evolution.
“Our intention is, of course. to try and develop into better musicians and to become better as a band. We challenge ourselves in new ways in our compositions, and, thusly, the album as a whole grows challenging for the listener, mainly due to song lengths and its diversity. Between the debut and the sophomore release, we didn’t make any agreements about stylistic changes. The most important thing has always been making songs that we like. Our debut may contain more certain kind of consistency, and maybe it sort of supports the story that goes through the whole album, where as on the new record the songs are more like individual pieces of work,” Mikkonen contemplates.
Furthermore, the age-old question about the process of songwriting and composition –especially in music of such a progressive nature– is truly of interest . Besides the usual cocktail of blood, sweat and tears, the songwriting process needs elements that seem paradoxical to one another. On the other hand, progressiveness necessitates forward-thinking, creative and even revolutionary approaches to the art of crafting songs, and it does so by definition. Then again, even if you only build these long, wandering compositions and use nothing but linear song structures where drifting riffs slowly burgeon into songs, you’re not completely free. Put simply, you still must take something from A to B, and you’ve got to plan how you’re going to do that. So, which one comes first ? unrestrained creativity or strict orderliness ? when forging such intricate and complex pieces of music? For example, “Apart,” the 16-minute mammoth which brings Fall of Icons to its breathtaking end?
“It depends on the composer, how you see the big picture and how you work on your ideas. Our music is based on guitar riffs, and, for my own part, I could say that at the early stages of writing a song I can’t really predict how it will turn out. Sometimes it’s easy to say, which parts are intros and which parts something you put at the end of the song, but the end result as a whole can be something that takes even its creator by surprise,” Mikkonen explains.
Ruuskanen adds, “’Apart’ was the outcome of hard work and pain. After Closure, I didn’t really know what kind of music I would like to write, so I started experimenting and experimenting. During one year, I wrote probably ten different versions of “Apart.” My composing started to be a little too analytic and, to be honest, constrained. At the end of the day, I realized that the first version of the song was already perfect. “Apart” is undoubtedly the best and the most difficult song I’ve ever written. In a way, it was beneficial to go through that painful process. At the moment, writing songs feels rewarding and I’m sure that I can continue on the same road, opened by ‘Apart.’
“So far, Jarno and I have been the chefs who bring food to the table for the others, so to speak. Practically, it’s been homemade demos with all the arrangements perfected so that the structure of the songs and especially the guitar melodies are easy to catch. Other instruments are left more open for the musician’s own interpretation and vision to shine through,” Mikkonen concludes the question about keeping a balance between order and chaos.
Ikuinen Kaamos is also one those bands that put a great deal of effort into lyric writing. The Forlorn was an emotionally intense theme album, portraying a story about the last days of a man on a guilt-trip for killing his family already decades ago. According to the band’s singer, Risto Herranen, the new album doesn’t carry a structural motif of same magnitude, although all the songs fall under the same banner, Fall of Icons, and although there is, in fact, some kind on thematic continuity between two songs, “Condemned” and “In Ruins.”
“Every song on the album tells a story about losing something important and valuable. This loss is not always an outright woeful thing, and, instead, a couple of the songs depict how the main character conceives that the thing he used to cherish was actually harmful. So, in a way you could think that Fall of Icons is a theme album,” Herranen elucidates.
In its lyrics, Ikuinen Kaamos constructs an eloquent illustration of a worldview replete with cynicism, frustration and sentiments of hopelessness and futility. For example, the song “Statues” incorporates blunt statements: “Again words are futile, not a thing will be changed” and “By the end we had accomplished nothing”. As a substance of cognitive orientation, this kind of faceless despair has been a common denominator for many artists, writers and philosophers for centuries and even millennia; a true Weltanschauung if you will. Herranen insists that the image of a comfortless world, delivered by his writings, do stem from personal experience and from almost sempiternal artistic tradition alike, but at the same time it should not be taken as a solid conceptualisation of who he is as a person.
“Jarno (Ruuskanen) wrote all the lyrics for The Forlorn, but when I joined the band he made me responsible for crafting the lyrics. I’ve penned everything for both Fall of Icons and Epilogue, which we never released. I base my writing mainly on my personal experiences and convictions. I’ve always thought that you’ll achieve the most effective emotional tension, if you give something from yourself. Of course there’s also fiction, depending on the song. I scavenge influence from wherever I can find it, not just from philosophy or literature. Movies and even videogames can arouse inspiration to write. For example, the Hellraiser movies have inspired me to write more than a line or two.
“I write about hopelessness and futility partly because of the simple fact that they are suitable subject matters for our style of music. Actually, I’m not a particularly despondent or cynical guy, even though you might think so based on my lyrics. However, I’m not implying that I write like this, because you’re supposed to have dark lyrics in metal. Sometimes, the mankind and being a human makes me feel distressed and frustrated, and it’s easy to pour that in your lyrics. “Statues” is about how hatred and violence are seemingly fixed but at the same time pointless components of the mankind. The last line you picked from the song encloses an idea that no matter if you spend your whole life hating some person or a group of people, you still wouldn’t have achieved anything.”
Ikuinen Kaamos is a very peculiar band in the sense that it was established in 1997 as a more or less pure black metal act, recording two demos during 1997-98. Ruuskanen, the only founding member left, says that he hasn’t heard the early recordings in ten years or so and that he doesn’t even have copies of them anymore. That leaves him with little to remember of the said tapes, excluding a handful of riffs and an abysmal production job. Soon after these sessions, Ruuskanen felt like he’d had enough of metal music and Ikuinen Kaamos was put to sleep. After a few years’ break, something happened and the well-preserved corpse of Ikuinen Kaamos was dug from the crypt and recreated with a newfound enthusiasm.
Ruuskanen elaborates on the subject: “The first years of the band led me to lose all my interest in metal. Then, I mostly listened to pop or rock music. I also got really excited about progressive stuff. After many years of not listening to metal, I happened to revisit Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, which led me to unearth my old metal collection, and, eventually, I fell in love with the whole genre again. I started composing again, and I got new songs ready pretty quickly. I asked one of my friends to play drums and we recorded the So Rose the Dreadful Ghost (2003) demo with him, just the two of us. When I revived the band, I had no particular aspirations. Playing music and writing songs just felt like a rewarding hobby to me. I would’ve never believed that it would lead us to record two full-lengths.”
The reincarnation of Ikuinen Kaamos is a whole different beast than its original formation. There’s little to remind us that this used to be a black metal outfit, when cyclic tremolo picking has been replaced with serpentine fretboard acrobatics and when, instead of capitalizing on atmosphere through repetition, dozens of riffs and their variations create a labyrinthine network of complex arrangements. Still, as Mikkonen admits, there are hints of black metal’s power, assertiveness and even raw energy in Ikuinen Kaamos’ work, but at the same time, he maintains that these attributes are inherent in any kind of quality metal music. Also, Mikkonen claims that the band’s transformation into a progressive death/black unit was anything but preconceived:
“The stylistic change was nothing self-conscious. It [progressive death/black] is just a tag that has followed us since our latest work. I could imagine that we would switch styles in future. One album is always an independent chapter. We don’t want to make two records that are too close to each other. Of course, stylistic unsteadiness always stems from how the compositional responsibilities are divided between me and Jarno. We just always work on and think about the material, that one of us has been developing.”
With their ten-minute mini-epics, mellow acoustics, progressive interludes and interplay of clean vocals, deep growls and excruciating shrieks, Ikuinen Kaamos inhabit an ecosystem dominated by a merciless alpha-male. We’re talking about Opeth, of course, the band that has monopolized all the trademarks of the style, from the combination of groovy riff patterns and staccato tsunamis to cultivating blatant rip-offs of classic 70’s/80’s prog rock. Consequently, it’s no wonder that also the reunited Ikuinen Kaamos has been partly living in the shadow of everyone’s favorite Swedes. Mikkonen does admit that Opeth serves as an important influence for the band’s work but also hints that metal journalists could and should update their arsenals of reference.
”Yes, every member of our band has been spinning Opeth albums quite considerably, so it’s not a big stunner if you can hear it in our music. However, it’s not been our purpose to make material of the same ilk. It was expected that there would be some Opeth comparisons with the new album, as well, because they have been there since The Forlorn. However, what I didn’t expect was that there were so plenty of them, as you can see if you read the reviews or comments from the internet. It’s been almost a miracle if the Big O hasn’t made an appearance in an article about us, so, yeah, that reference has been a bit too dominating and actually reached a certain level of comedy already.”
Unlike the aforementioned leader of the pack and its many scions, the members of Ikuinen Kaamos are not shy in admitting that, primarily, they play in a metal band. Whereas most of the other so-called progressive death metal acts recycle and re-recycle their Floyds and Camels, the Finnish five-piece leans more towards classic metal. Although both guitarists emphasize that they draw influence from wherever they can find it ? from the deep vortex that is progressive rock to the grunge bands of the 90’s ? it’s not surprising that one of the most relevant sources of their inspiration lies in the tradition, set by the likes of Metallica, Emperor, Bathory, Anathema, Katatonia, and, of course, Opeth. In a time when progressive death metal has, to a certain extent, become a synonym for rehashed prog rock performed with down-tuned guitars and blast-happy percussionists, this should not be taken for granted.
Another anomaly in the history of Ikuinen Kaamos is the fact that the band has never played a single gig. Mikkonen explains that playing live hasn’t really been within the realms of possibility before, because there hasn’t been a steady line-up. Nowadays, the outfit consists of five members, thus forming a complete quintet, willing and competent enough to deliver the band’s complex and challenging material on stage. A live set is currently in the making, and the next step for Mikkonen would be to gain experience of playing live through small, sporadic concerts.
For the moment, though, Ikuinen Kaamos remains as one of the best kept secrets of the genre. With two staggering and truly innovative full-lengths under their belts, it’s almost unjust how little recognition the band has received ? despite the lauding reviews and ever-growing mob of dedicated fans. The vocalist finds logic for this travesty:
“I believe that us not playing gigs has a lot to do with it. Hard touring is the best way to spread the word and, hopefully, we’ll be able to do it soon. Of course, the modest promotion has something to do with it, too. At the end of the day, word of mouth is a relatively slow method to gain popularity.”
Well, as the old Finnish adage goes: haste breeds only obnoxious little assholes. It’s probably safe to say that Ikuinen Kaamos is not one of them. So, maybe the time has finally come to stop flying under the radar.