Let’s nail something home right from the jump: Amidst the ever-expanding ranks of heavy metal groups currently and constantly competing for collective ears, Amorphis ranks at or very near the top with regard to those that work the hardest at…well, nearly everything a person might associate with being a professional band in 2018.
That’s not meant to lessen the efforts other present-day bands undertake that bring new meaning to the phrase “do it yourself,” where “it” literally refers to “all things,” but given the position Amorphis has labored decades to cultivate, you will not find another group of representatives that strive harder to achieve a level of success that perpetuates, “Hello, Amorphis is what I do for a living.”
Crucial point of fact No. 1: Jens Bogren of Fascination Street Studios is a damn genius, and all bands on a similar path to heavy metal righteousness should seek out a (not-so) secret additional member who starts ironing out the details for the next record’s new accoutrements while the band is out on the road visiting five different cities inside any given week.
As it was with Under the Red Sun, Bogren’s general approach here is governed by equilibrium, as Queen of Time represents a masterclass in balance—light and dark, warmth and hostility, beauty and beast, with equal attention given to all players without any one element over-staying its welcome. Beautiful symmetry, seamless transitions, and an altogether wonderful vibrancy across the board that shores up Queen of Time magnificently. Furthermore, although he’s not directly credited for this record’s chief divergence from its predecessor—the broad use of orchestral and choral elements—he is absolutely responsible for making them work to Amorphis’ advantage.
Let’s create a distinction right here and now: there is a difference between “orchestral” and “symphonic” as it relates to metal. The latter has long since been entrenched in the power and black metal communities and very often beats you over the head with synthetic strings and horns to the point where your face will be unrecognizable by loved ones when they arrive to identify the body. Conversely, the former is always authentic, never born from a keyboard, and is best used for augmentation that doesn’t steal the show. The orchestral elements throughout Queen of Time are woven into the fabric so well that their inclusion feels as logical as the guitars. Where many bands seem to think strings and choirs should be used strictly as a counterbalance to heaviness, Amorphis mostly use them to strengthen Queen of Time’s density and darkness, and the results are stunning.
Crucial point of fact No. 2: Under the Red Cloud is absolutely great—Queen of Time could very well end up ranking higher.
That statement is purposely vague because more time with the record is clearly needed, but…
Here’s something you’re likely aware of that demands recapping: Much like your favorite horror movies, fantasy novels and preferred pizza joints, there’s a notable, specific and established formula afoot, and anyone who’s followed Amorphis for the last decade has a pretty good idea of what to expect when new material is announced. Luckily, this particular formula belongs to this band alone, and it’s something they’ve refined and perfected across the deathly days of Karelian Isthmus to the melodic period of Tales to the proggy/psychedelic stretch of Elegy to the oft-misinterpreted 1999-2003 rock years and directly into the Joutsenozoic Era that began in 2006 and continues on today. Subsequently, expect the expected, and be glad of it, because the expected as it relates to Amorphis is generally pretty damn great, particularly of late.
That’s the good news. The bad news is if you didn’t like Amorphis in 2015, you probably won’t be swayed in 2018. Continue trying, though, for sure, because your ears are possibly busted-ass pieces of junk. Just don’t go walking into Queen of Time hoping to hear a re-envisioned band regurgitating whatever happens to be metal’s current flavor of the month.
Under the Red Cloud was particularly successful because it found the band reconnecting with the same adventurous spirit that opted to introduce moog and tie-dyed psych elements into death metal back in the 90s. Clearly, it didn’t exactly jump down a different trail compared to its Joutsen-era predecessors, but the band’s more proggy, folksy face returned with greater intensity, and with it came a renewed sense of vitality that asserted the HOOK with aggression.
Queen of Time picks up where UtRC left off in that regard, but with perhaps an additional achievement unlocked for delivering even more moments that make the heart swell to the point of eruption—moments that make a strong case for generating the following absurd statement: just how much you’re going to love this record matters less than how much it’s going to love you, and buddy, Queen of Time is gonna wrap itself around you tighter than a pet reticulated python that knows you have chickens in your pants. Or…something a lot more snuggly and sentimental than that.
You’ve heard “The Bee,” which does a wonderful job as an opener that sets the stage and reminds the listener why the full admission price will be worth it—it’s bright, approachable and catchy in a very Amorphis sort of way, and its infectiousness is quickly surpassed the moment it closes and the bracing keyboard riff at the heart of “Message in the Amber” follows. Boom, the spell is cast.
From that point forward, every song offers some sort of Amorphis calling card that makes the entire exploration urgently rewarding. The sort of Hindustani rock veneer that permeated Elegy is present once again, particularly by the time you get to the epic “The Heart of the Giant,” and especially throughout the wonderfully uplifting “Grain of Sand,” and an equal measure of brilliance gets offered up on “We Accursed,” which finds Tomi’s booming voice exploding all around a proggy guitar/keyboard battle at its midpoint that marks the song as a serious contender for one of the most exilherating songs the band has penned in 25 years.
“Wrong Direction” is the second song released as a teaser, and it’s an interesting choice because the bulk of the record feels a little more focused on Tomi’s harsher vocals, but this cut is 99% clean and Queen of Time’s most graceful rocker. What makes it stand out particularly well is the manner in which it demonstrates yet another way Amorphis is capable of never losing sight of heaviness—the song starts off with a wonderfully smooth bass-line (welcome back to the fold, Olli-Pekka Laine) that eventually drifts into a light and folky center-point, but then Jan Rechberger smashes through the door with those wonderfully heavy-handed drums of doom.
Sealing the deal and giving Queen of Time the last bit of panache crucial for longevity is this year’s guest list. Inclusion of previously unexplored orchestral elements aside, we hear various pipes and whistles from Chrigel Glanzmann (Eluveitie) once again that add the requisite stretches of Finnish folk elegance; dark & moody sax from Jørgen Munkeby (Shining, Altaar) sweeten “Daughter of Hate”; and faint hints of perfectly appropriate throat-singing from Albert Kuvezin pepper “The Bee.”
But the belle of this year’s ball is clearly Anneke van Giersbergen (Vuur), whose wonderful voice accompanies Tomi on “Amongst Stars,” a cut that has the heart of ten thousand lions and sounds like the most fitting attendant for The Crowning of Aragorn you’d ever want to hear for the rest of your life. Anneke sings along with the tune’s folky elements so freely and gracefully, and then Esa Holopainen splits the sky with a lead that’s epic and lifting enough to force the listener to take flight. By the time Tomi’s belting out “RISE! RISE! RISE” toward the closing moments, new levels of gratifying exhaustion will be realized. Indeed, “Amongst Stars” is Queen of Time’s most suitable closer, but instead of the gloomier-faced “Pyres On the Coast” feeling unnecessary, it has more of an ending credits impression that gives the listener some added minutes to reflect and fully appreciate the greatness they just experienced.
If you think it’s at all possible to walk away from heaping this much praise on a single album without feeling like a radical zealot, you’re mistaken. It’s a worthy cross to bear when the end product is this good, though. The modern interpretation of Amorphis is clearly operating at the top of their game, and Queen of Time proves that the band continues to find ways to do things extremely right. These guys create records that resemble soundtracks to movies you’d love to see, filled with songs you’d kill to witness live, and that’s key during an age when the music industry appears to sneer at virtually all metal bands that attempt to make “being a band” their life.
Here’s a grim reality about preeminent, pro metal bands and sold-out arena gigs, though: Sabbath is done, Slayer is done, Motörhead is done, and who really knows how much more time we’ll get from the likes of Priest, Maiden, et al. Sizable gigs of that ilk under warm summer nights where inhibitions get loosened by a bit too much drink and people end up locking arms and howling amidst friends to the songs they love—that’s the vital stuff that fuels memories until the very end, and a band like Amorphis is positioned to ensure that the looming “death of the arena bands” remains at bay for a good while longer.
In truth, that’s probably Queen of Time’s greatest asset—it represents the most ideal embodiment of all this band’s strengths in a one-hour journey that’s custom-built for kicking your ass in the most epic way from a huge stage. The only thing that’s left to do is make sure we buy the damn record and get out to see them as often as we can. This is a two-way street, after all, and Queen of Time is proof enough that these guys are more than willing to hold up their end of the bargain.
Amorphis is already justifiably big, but this sort of consistency confirms that they’ve arrived at that next elite level.