[Cover artwork by Metastazis]
Most of us have been around the game long enough to recognize that a modest amount of caution may be advised when approaching solo albums from metal artists. Yes, they’ve often yielded splendid results when said artist fully splits from a band to venture on their own—Ozzy, Dio, King Diamond, Ihsahn and the like—but the footpath gets a little more tricky when the justification is rooted in cravings to “explore music that normally wouldn’t fit” within the scope of an artist’s regular mealticket band. It is during these circumstances where snap judgements often condemn records to collect dust until time and maturity eventually concede investigation under a mellowed and nearly voyeuristic lens. Geoff Tate’s eponymous curveball back in 2002? Not very well received by a number of fans at the time, but that record somehow turned out to be better than much of what he did with Queensrÿche in the later years (who could’ve guessed.) Iommi’s Seventh Star? Not deserving of the Black Sabbath moniker back in ’86, despite the label’s insistence, but an interesting look at some of Iommi’s rock influences when consuming the man’s full body of work in the modern age. Quorthon’s masterfully titled Album album? Okay, still rather dull, but it survives as a homely and surprisingly warm grunge curiosity 25+ years later.
By and large, however, news of solo records from metal artists leave us wishing for something as splendid and toppling as Bruce Dickinson’s The Chemical Wedding (fairly rare), and hoping we won’t have to endure anything quite as indefensible as Jeff Walker und die Flüffers’ Welcome to Carcass Cuntry (unfortunately, not rare enough). With Silver Lake, the first solo venture from Amorphis lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, we are mercifully treated to something a hell of a lot closer to the former, both in terms of overall quality and in the way that the record represents a departure from his primary venture without, you know, putting a cowboy hat on David Vincent. Yee haw.
Those familiar with Holopainen will perhaps expect Silver Lake to deliver a lighter version of his mainstay, and that’s a very fair surface interpretation of this record in that one listen without any knowledge of its background would likely find most any fan of Amorphis pinning a connection based on Esa’s guitar style alone. His is a wonderfully warm, melodic approach that’s never too flashy, while holding an almost ludicrous level of charm, which is very wisely chosen to fuel the very heart of this record. Holopainen cites Mark Knopfler as a paramount influence, and similar to that particular sorcerer of the fretboard, Holopainen’s play delivers countless measures where the guitar melody is pieced together so impeccably that it sounds as if the notes and the person who set them loose have been inseparable friends since childhood. There’s a deceptively straightforward elegance to the playing, too, and leads are often curiously brief, yet they always find ways to sing and hook just as effectively as a memorable chorus.
The record wastes precisely zero minutes before Holopainen charms the listener with his knack for penning a warm and engaging composition, as the opening instrumental title track sweeps in with a pristine sense of melodic familiarity that sets the bar rather high right from the gate. However, those expecting this to be some sort of “Esa Holopainen Show” that pushes gratuitous noodling and feats of velocity and dexterity probably ain’t terribly familiar with the track record of the man in charge. Holopainen remains, first and foremost, a traditional songwriter, so the songs all underscore a fairly straightforward verse / chorus / bridge-based method that also gives ample spotlight opportunity for all manner of engaging elements. Keyboards, for example, play a prominent role throughout the record, adding a sort of late-era Pink Floyd vibe at times, splashing organ into the corners of many of the songs, or even recalling the Moog runs of early Amorphis on “In Her Solitude” and “Alkusointu.”
It’s only taken approximately 800 words to make the following crucial point: The stack of guest vocalists on this record is of course one of its central incentives. Knowing pretty much from the jump that he didn’t want to sing, Holopainen equipped the remaining eight songs with vocalists who share his penchant for warm melody, and true to his altruistic method of songcrafting, each cut sounds as if Esa had the individual vocalist in mind while penning their respective songs. Jonas Renske (Katatonia) sounds incredible, and he’s an impeccable match for the two moodier, more acoustic numbers: “Sentiment” and the sweeping closer, “Apprentice.” Anneke Van Giersbergen and Holopainen are certainly far from strangers, and she is once again pitch-perfect for “Fading Moon,” a song that’s only out-popped by “Ray of Light” and the extremely felicitous and flying voice of Einar Solberg (Leprous).
There are also heavier numbers here that further connect the Amorphis dots: A calculable appearance from Tomi Joutsen paired with orchestral elements gives “In Her Solitude” a strong Queen of Time b-side spirit (and also flashes a fricken sweet keyboard solo), and “Promising Sun” flexes a slightly more modern edge that suits Björn Strid (Soilwork) entirely, even if his delivery now travels surprisingly close to the voice of the great Jeff Scott Soto.
The final two guests are likely strangers to a significant portion of us over here on the western end of planet, but both have made a significant impact in Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries. The lead single and debut video for “Storm” highlights Håkan Hemlinand, vocalist of pop / rock duo Nordman, and his raspy delivery is a great match for the song’s charged rocker vibe and Holopainen’s distinct regard for Mark Knopfler’s fret elegance. And landing a spoken word contribution from none other than Vesa-Matti Loiri—best known as the lovable and slightly repulsive scamp Uuno Turhapuro—for the fantastic “Alkusointu” (“Overture”) was a big enough deal that Esa matched the voice to some of his most adventurous songwriting on the record. “Alkusointu” has a fairly heavy vibe, but it’s slower paced and has a fantastical element that’s further accented by Loiri’s deep resonance that recalls a crowned Christopher Lee. The song additionally showcases a slam dunk use of a fiery sax solo (that’s just gotta be Sakari Kukko, the same individual who guested on 1999’s Tuonela), and the record’s longest Moog lead.
Ultimately, Silver Lake is precisely the sort of solo record many of us would hope to hear from Esa Holopainen: adventurous enough to feel distinct from his mainstay, but not far enough removed to rouse suspicions that he’s lost his amorous entanglement with melody, riffing and lifting listeners into the firmament with his unique form of warm, exhilarating composition. Admittedly, the album does feel a bit quick, clocking in at a notably tidy 37 minutes, but it’s always best to leave the audience hoping for more, and Silver Lake absolutely does that in spades.
Finland: Now the land of a thousand and one lakes that anyone with good sense should hope to visit.
- Silver Lake [3:04] – instrumental
- Sentiment [3:46] – Jonas Renkse (Katatonia)
- Storm [4:14] – Håkan Hemlinand (Nordman)
- Ray of Light [3:31] – Einar Solberg (Leprous)
- Alkusointu [4:43] – Vesa-Matti Loiri
- In Her Solitude [4:48] – Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis)
- Promising Sun [4:17] – Björn Strid (Soilwork)
- Fading Moon [4:28] – Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-Vuur, ex-The Gathering)
- Apprentice [4:31] – Jonas Renkse