In my review of Negura Bunget’s Masiestrit, I ran down a list of possible reasons why bands choose to re-record earlier material. In that case, the new version was well-justified, being a reimagining of lesser-known material with much higher production values. In the case of the newest Amorphis release, Magic & Mayhem – Tales from the Early Years, the reason is less obvious. As a tool to introduce the current line-up it is useless; this incarnation of the band is already well-established through three stellar albums. As a showcase for lesser-known early material it is ill-conceived, as most of the tracks here are already quite well known to the band’s fans. As a celebration of their 20th anniversary, it is fairly suitable, albeit far less than essential even for even the most hardcore of Amorphis zealots.
By design, Magic & Mayhem is a bit of a head-scratcher. Both the order (random) and choice of songs are odd. Nine of these 13 tracks are taken from Tales from the Thousand Lakes or Elegy, hardly little-known albums and also hardly the so-called “early years” of the band. Only three tracks, “Exile of the Sons of Uisliu,” “Sign from the North Side” and “Vulgar Necrolatry” represent debut The Karelian Isthmus, and all three make the best use of the re-recording. On these, current vocalist Tomi Joutsen reveals his immeasurable value as a pure death metal growler, and the robust, lush production is certainly an improvement over the original album.
The re-recordings of tracks from Tales or Elegy, however, are a different story. For the former, the crisper production here takes away from the homogenous feel that so aided the folk-tinged melodies of the original. “Black Winter Day” in particular (which I will acknowledge bias towards by stating that the original is one of my favorite songs, ever), lacks the intangible passion that made it a classic in 1994. Joutsen seems unsure in his aping of the subtle chorus, while he should be using his pipes and just bellowing out the words as he does best. As for the Elegy tracks, the new versions are (almost) completely unnecessary. Amorphis in the post-millennium largely molds their sound after the 1996 classic, and as such, most of these tunes end up sounding nearly identical to the originals, with the only difference of note being between Joutsen’s clean vocals and those of then-singer Pasi Koskinen. Despite this, the new version of “My Kantele” is a success, combining both the original and the acoustic reprise versions to create a fresh new take on the song.
To reiterate something said in that opening note: these are great songs, many of which are eternally entrenched in the legacy of 90s heavy metal. For the most part, however, these are not the versions that should be ultimately revered. Nor is this the proper arena in which to hear them. Tales from the Thousand Lakes and Elegy are not only the two best albums of Amorphis’ career, they are two gold standards of the era, and they deserve to be heard in their entirety, with the fervor captured during the original sessions. There are many ways that the band’s 20th anniversary could have been done better: more songs from The Karelian Isthmus or the early EPs, some robust reissues, a monstrous live album, or even a huge Amorphis “anthology” with lots of it all together. As it stands Magic & Mayhem – Tales from the Early Years is basically a good introduction to this era for lazy-ass fans.
Do your music collection a serious favor and just go buy the original albums. Like now.