An album title like North From Here is fairly direct in its message: start somewhere and then head north, but first you need that starting point. In the case of Sentenced, that place of origin is central Finland. More specifically, the cities of Oulu (which sits near the northern tip of Bothnian Bay) and Muhos (just a little bit east of there). This isn’t nice, “balmy” southern Finland ‒ both cities sit nearly 400 miles north of Helsinki ‒ this is the center of the country. It’s at about the same latitude as central Iceland and north of Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s barely south of the Arctic Circle. It’s friggin’ cold there.
And that’s the starting point. From there you’re only going north. Into the frigid blackness. Into lands that should not ‒ but unfortunately probably will ‒ thaw. Into areas as cold as those Lands of Always Winter to which we’ll probably never venture in book form. The aurorae on the cover should have been an easy hint, sure, but it’s still worth emphasizing just how Edge of The World the origin point for this band was, and after a more typical Finnish death metal sound on their rollicking debut Shadows of the Past, Sentenced fully embraced their location on their sophomore effort.
1993’s North From Here is one of the best of a short list of early melodic death metal albums that were a mite closer to black metal in their frigid rawness. If something like Necrophobic’s classic The Nocturnal Silence sits close to death metal but is still a bit on the blackened side of the fence, then their not-too-distant neighbors on the other side included the likes of early At the Gates and even early Amon Amarth (go listen to Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds if you doubt it). North From Here even shares that great youthful energy with the former’s The Red in the Sky is Ours in that it is a mite rickety and slightly unhinged at times (although admittedly less rickety, unhinged, or downright strange than ATG’s accidental classic).
Most important, however, is that coldness that guitarists Sami Lopakka and Miika Tenkula managed to inject into every riff without losing either death metal heft or overall melodicism. This is absolutely Death Metal That Is Melodic, but it comes from a time before melodeath solidified into a much sleeker and commercial sound in the later 90s.
It’s also more violent than much of what would popularize the melodeath tag in later years. After a rather pretty intro, “My Sky Is Darker Than Thine” unleashes a barrage of barely-contained tremolo lines that are as sharp, frozen, and painful as [pick any icicle-to-the-eye-socket movie death]. The riffs, punchy drumming of Vesa Ranta, and extremely active bass all feel rather separated in the mix, adding to the harshness. The vocals of then-bassist/vocalist Taneli Jarva have a shredded throat quality that only emphasizes the feeling that this music comes from some unforgiving place. (This was before Ville Laihiala joined up and started butt-crooning his suicide jams. It should be mentioned that I quite enjoy those butt-crooned suicide jams.)
Another aspect of this record that cannot be ignored: it is busy. Even on the more focused songs Sentenced is often constantly shifting the overall mood, melody, rhythm, and/or tempo, carrying a sometimes dizzying technicality without ever sounding like “tech” metal. It’s yet another trait that emphasizes brutality-of-a-different sort, but it likely came from youthful enthusiasm as much as a calculated desire to exhaust the listener. Much of “Fields of Blood, Harvester of Hate,” for example, sounds like what Atheist might have been had they been from A Very Cold Place, all wild soloing, bass countermelody, and catchy riffs. But like a lot of the album, it finds plenty of time to do those frosty, triple-harmonized tremolo lines (again, the bass is always involved). The juxtaposition of such overtly brash sections with the harrowing and grim material is a bit startling on first listen, but soon the band’s abilities ‒ not to mention the fact that every part simply kicks ass ‒ glues it all together. A track like “Awaiting the Winter Frost” takes it a step further by placing the tremolo lines right on top of the catchier riffs. Get in the Polaris, idiots, we’re going to a glacier party.
Despite the album occasionally sounding like really killer riff salad, Sentenced had a confidence here that few bands possess at such a stage, and North From Here seems to grow more sure of itself as it goes on. Or perhaps one just gets more used to the album’s rough edges and unrelenting nature as it proceeds. Whatever the case, it’s impossible to ignore the closing duo of “The Northern Lights” and “Epic.” Both use all of the tools the band established on the preceding songs, but the former includes a rather nice clean section that helps the ensuing punch be that much more successful (and ups the narrative quality), while the latter is the most desperate and haunting song on the album, absolutely earning its title and giving the record a nice finish. Okay, that fade out isn’t exactly optimal, but it does add to the feeling that this wicked heavy metal was being made by guys that hadn’t quite figured it out yet.
Just think back to how many of yours and mine and your friends’ and that dude at the record store’s favorite records came from bands that thankfully hadn’t figured it all out yet. North From Here is a slice in time from an ever-shifting career, and much more of a Getting There Album than a Got There Album. As such, it belongs in such hallowed company with albums as diverse and sometimes weird as Gothic, Eternity, Clouds, To Mega Therion, the aforementioned Red in the Sky is Ours, and a zillion other greats. Like most of those, it has the occasionally awkward moment that adds so much more to the overall charm than any extra bit of refinement might have.
North From Here is an album of its time and place in all the best ways possible. It’s also that rare album that was never quite replicated, even among its closest (and coldest) relatives. Sentenced would never again return to this sound, but neither would anyone else; not exactly anyway. That’s as good a reason as any to return to this frozen gem. That, and providing a fitting soundtrack to getting snowed in during a brutal late winter storm. Dress appropriately.