[Cover artwork by Tuomas A. Laitinen]
Let us consider for a moment the notion of change and how the majority of living creatures prefer to avoid it in favor of steadfast routine swaddled in comfort. The avoidance of significant change, mind you—we all embrace variation in smaller doses in an effort to ensure the relentless endurance of time remains interesting. But substantial changes in our immediate environment? No bueno, friendo. Grant us the mercy of a slooooowwwww metamorphosis, oh Great One, so as to temper the suffering and discomfort transformation so often begets.
But let’s be blunt: Most individuals familiar with funeral doom don’t exactly equate the genre to wild innovation and variation. This world is deliberately slow, sepulchral and largely despairing by design, with variation generally reserved for the corners, and many fans frankly need the root characteristics to be accounted for when that unique mood strikes. Stray too far in any other direction and you’ve suddenly slipped out of the darkness and into any number of related realms that might include death/doom, “avant-garde doom” or…sure, why not, nautik doom.
And then there’s Skepticism…
Traveling alongside fellow Finlanders Thergothon in the early 90s as pioneers of an extreme form of primeval doom/death packed to the rafters with crumbling gloom, these goth-sloths paved the way for funeral doom with a handful of releases that still stand today as glacial tour de forces used to gauge the advantage of all that’s very slowly chased since. And despite the fact that indifferent bystanders might scarcely notice a difference between records, choosing to dismiss it all as little more than “slow…painfully slow…,” Skepticism has certainly not whiled away the years resting on their laurels. The creeping doomsday flecked with a Cimmerian milieu that was Stormcrowfleet (1995) gradually evolved into something much more cathedralesque with 1998’s seminal Lead and Aether, and the shift from the still greater eccentricity of 2003’s Farmakon into what many consider to be one of the true pinnacles of innovative funeral doom, 2008’s Alloy, was even more extravagant.
Now, with a fittingly agonizing 13-year interval and only a single live recording to interrupt that hulking stretch (2015’s Turku performance, Ordeal), Skepticism has finally returned with the cordially titled Companion, their fifth full-length served to celebrate precisely 30 years (!!!) of gloriously decelerated life. And as suggested by the opening of this particular endeavor, changes are of course afoot. Aye, Companion would likely continue to sound as ponderous and downcast as ever to the detached passerby, but this is by far the most innovative work the band has done to date, thanks largely to further experimentations in pacing and the manner in which the songs are structured. It’s different enough, in fact, that initial pass-throughs could potentially raise a brow or two… Please don’t let that run you off into the woods.
First off, the general course put into motion with Alloy abides: a funereal domain realized through a surprisingly clean approach that remains earthen enough to leave clay under the nails, and it’s executed alongside an equally surprising choice to keep the songs relatively short (by funeral doom standards). However, Companion takes the creativity in song structure to another level, where the lion-share of cuts offer a seemingly perpetual amount of switchbacks that include some of the most spirited (flippin’ speed metal, compared to Stormcrowfleet) stretches Skepticism has done to date. Everything remains offset by the characteristic “Ent lumbering through Fangorn” deliberateness we know and love about the band, and it all still feels gradual and perhaps even gentle at times, with just one instrument—often the guitar—suddenly increasing the step or aggression with the rest of the players perhaps not heeding at first. This gives some of the transitions a unique sort of loose ’n’ free impression that almost makes one wonder if it’s actually being pulled off. It is, of course, and in a terrifically unique and shrewd sort of way, but the full experience of Companion sometimes gives the impression of seeing an enticing painting from a distance that becomes increasingly more Jean Metzinger / Le Goûter the closer you get; blocks and twists and sudden changes in shade are nevertheless fit together in a manner that comes about quite congruent when taken as a whole.
If forced to pick a single trait that serves to differentiate Companion from the rest of the Skepticism catalog, it would likely be MAJESTY. True, this element has often lurked these halls, thanks to Eero Pöyry’s splendid church organ presence, but here the grandeur is golden in the spirit of, say, While Heaven Wept, which is rather significant. And lo and behold, the album doesn’t exactly beat around the bush to establish said majesty, as the opening “Calla”—a song that relates a warm reacquaintance to visiting a valley of calla lilies—quickly submerges the listener in a halcyon glow of soaring keys and one of the album’s more spirited stretches.
“Calla” also represents the album’s most straightforward cut, soaring for the welkin right from the jump and never really returning to the ground until its curtain finally drops. From there, though, things get decidedly more progressive and several shades more experimental. The ensuing “The Intertwined” lays down the record’s the most avant-garde approach by interspersing a Bathory-esque acoustic strum with a steady regimen of oppressive heaviness offset by an oddly playful sashay that eventually gets picked up by what sounds like a bass towards the song’s close. Relevant note: Skepticism has never actually featured a bass guitar, opting instead to allow the keys / organ to help fill out the bottom end. So, hey, there’s a moment on Companion where it sounds as if someone’s picked up a bass, but perhaps it’s simply Jani Kekarainen’s guitar played through an octave pedal.
“The March of the Four” follows, and it’s the closest connection to Skepticism’s past, dispensing 10 minutes of classic funereal suffering augmented by loads of huge, cavernous church organ, Matti Tilaeus’ intensely deep and gravelly roar, and flares of highly emotive fret-play. Shortly after the song’s halfway point, Kekarainen begins riffing faster, leaving his associates behind for a moment and swarming over the keys before the entirety eventually returns to a crowning explosion of golden grandeur right at the 6:45 mark.
The to-and-fro’ing continues with what has to be considered the most aggressive song the band has accomplished thus far. “The Passage” jumps from the gate with peeved riffing interspersed with Lasse Pelkonen’s slow, tribal drumming and veiled grim chanting to shadow the mood even further. A devastating strut arrives directly at 2:30, and then the remainder of the cut bends back and forth between combativeness—usually at the hands of Kekarainen’s riffing or some unexpectedly hostile drumming—and that very gratifying strut widened through Pöyry’s swift organ / synthesizer interplay.
Any residual fury ends there, however, the very moment “The Inevitable” kicks in. This is Companion’s prettiest expanse of glacial majesty, with delicate acoustic guitars flickering alongside melodic fret-runs and huge swaths of atmospheric keys throwing platinum beams of fading sunlight across formerly tempestuous clouds. And lastly, “The Swan and the Raven” typifies a consummate closer in that it encapsulates the core essence of Companion in one fairly tidy (8:22) epilogue. Deep, heavy keyboard strings and Pelkonen’s leaden drumming dominate the overall stride, with unusually clean fretwork sneaking in alongside and ushering in a series of crescendos that, following a peculiar moment of tussling just before the midpoint, eventually reaches an immensely epic, melodic and harmonious pinnacle just as the song breaches the 6:45 mark. And all the while, Matti Tilaeus’ ever-intensifying glottal rumble asserts the funereal nucleus. In short, it’s a very effective / affective conclusion to a uniquely intricate 48 minutes of unconventional extreme doom.
Coming full circle, as the ever wise Leto Atreides, duke of House Atreides and ruler of Caladan once said: “I’ll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing them to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”
It’s interesting that nested here within a metal off-shoot considered to have some of the most rigorous root prerequisites, a band largely responsible for shaping funeral doom at its crux has managed to evolve so much with each subsequent release. Sure, Skepticism is notably…unhurried with releases, so the changes have a way of feeling befittingly slow, but throw Companion on immediately following Stormcrowfleet and the shift is mightily significant, without depicting an entirely new band altogether. And oddly enough, literally the only thing that hasn’t changed with regard to this band is the members themselves (outside of a different vocalist for their very first 7”), which is quite remarkable above and beyond in this day and age. [Editor’s note: the band updated us with more info concerning their early membership: “Matti was already our vocalist on the debut 7” release. Eero played guitar on the debut release and we also got a bass player who left the band soon after the release. Our friend Jukka Korpihete helped us and acted as a session bass player on Stormcrowfleet.”]
Are the changes afoot with Companion sweeping enough to spin heads? Maybe a bit at first, if you’re a funeral freak simply hoping for impossibly slow and dejected doom; the sheer majesty stirring the songs’ edges here belies that, emphatically. But the record remains resolutely “Skepticism,” and with that assurance comes an armored funereal essence that’s virtually resolute at this stage. However, should any level of hesitation arise at first blush, a bit of patience ascribed to a band that’s endured three decades as a textbook definition of the term really isn’t too much to ask… And that patience will in all probability reap tremendous reward with Companion.