[Cover artwork by Jean-Emmanuel “Valnoir” Simoulin]
Comfort is an underrated and often unexpected trait of heavy metal that’s largely eclipsed by the conventional “brutal,” “crushing,” “razored,” “evil” et al. that largely dominates the lexicon of windfall descriptors within our realm. It’s unfair to say comfort is outright unwelcome, of course, but the majority of us would likely not expect to hear a band such as, say, Autopsy claim it as one of their objectives for a record like Mental Funeral. Comfort is for softness, and it’s predisposed to diametrically oppose intrepidness, which is basically kryptonite to metal bands bent on exploration, growth, and goals that include blowing away, dismembering, squashing or fast-tracking listeners straight to some interpretation of Hell.
A bit more regarding that Amorphis sense of comfort: I very recently lost someone quite close to my heart to a non covid-related illness amidst an already harrowing pandemic stretch and subsequently found myself crushed under the weight of emotions that commonly go hand-in-hand with such a colossally unfortunate event. I found it weirdly difficult to accept outside help as grief swirled about like a tangled storm, opting instead to shut myself in and simply allow suffering’s forceful arrows to overwhelm the crux of my heart. The only music I could stomach was the nostalgic time warp of an old Tears for Fears record, plus a stack of ambient works mostly charged with painting some sense of order to the backdrop of my loose existence.
Then one night I came across the video for “The Moon” and decided to make a jump. The promo for Halo had already dropped, but I was grossly unprepared for mining new music, so my encounter with “The Moon” felt very fresh.
The song launches in a very familiar modern Amorphis kind of way that quickly sets up a bit of dark, meditative atmosphere, and then a terrifically warm bit of melodic fret-play with a vigorously strummed acoustic in tow washes over the speakers around the 20-second mark. It was precisely this precipitous moment I experienced the curative power of a genuine comfort unique to Amorphis, and a sympathetic energy felt as if it suddenly wrapped around my heart. Being familiar with the band’s approach to the trilogy’s overarching theme—the Kalevala, parsed out once again by multimedia artist Pekka Kainulainen and painstakingly fit to the song structures by Joutsen—I knew the song itself was steeped in Finnish folklore related to the earliest existence of earth and the arrival of the first people, but the lyrics also come across as rather…malleable.
“On this towering mountain
Your love even higher above
If you bow to the eye of stone
You’ll hear a distant song
A story carried by the restless wind
You’re the moon
You are my light
You’re the moon
My guiding light”
There I stood on my mountain of woe, thinking about the reeling energy of my recently departed loved one and how I could never hope to embrace their corporeal form on this earth again, when suddenly this stirring little song called to mind the significance of light and energy as an inextinguishable beacon with the strength to impact the ebb and flow of life for anyone fortunate enough to be linked to said force. Yes, these sorts of things have a way of coming across as cliché, but in that moment, and anchored by that familiar warmth of Esa’s melodic play and Joutsen’s potent voice, “The Moon” became a very welcome balm to my obliterated heart.
Halo is packed with moments where this sort of comforting warmth beams like a welcoming hearthstone. It crops up around corners on nearly every song, and it takes center stage for “The Moon,” at the core of the wonderful “Seven Roads Come Together,” through the whole of the absurdly catchy title track, and certainly with the album’s quiet and poignant closer. Anyone who’s been a part of this trilogy’s journey (and honestly, most all of the Joutsen-era records) will likely receive this news with open arms, but it’s also the sort of thing one could picture some fans attaching a “too familiar” criticism to. Full disclosure: Halo does sound like an extremely logical conclusion to this Bogren-produced ode to the Kalevala, so anyone hoping to experience a significant shift in overall approach will need to adjust expectations. However, this doesn’t mean this record sounds like replica of what preceded it. Much the same way Queen of Time found interesting ways to distinguish itself from Under the Red Cloud, Halo finds clever ways of setting itself apart.
First and foremost, the actual recording process was pretty different this time around. The band was unable to travel to Bogren’s studio in Sweden, and Jens wasn’t allowed to set foot in Finland, so similar to most everything having to do with the last two years, the end result is representative of loads of remote work getting sewn together as someone from 500 miles away shouts over a phone. How great an effect this had on the record’s overall sound is unknown, but one thing certainly does stand out when compared to the two previous endeavors: Halo is more riff-centric, and it re-establishes a heavier footprint for Amorphis. The second half of “A New Land,” for example, and the second half of the record in general, starting with “When the Gods Came,” continuing with “War” (which features one of the record’s gnarliest riffs just after its 4-minute mark), and jumping into the opening tromp of “The Wolf.” These moments give Halo a more armor-plated and heroic spirit that’s not only ideally suited for abetting your everyday battles, it offers an ideal offset to all the elegance that shares the journey.
Balance is a key element here, and Halo is also a bit sneakier with its embellishments. Every bit of mildness woven into those warm choruses gets compensated with a perfectly placed lion’s roar, and nearly every lead from Esa is coupled with something interesting flying from the fingertips of keyboardist Santeri Kallio. Furthermore, we still get the orchestration that took center stage for much of Queen of Time, but it’s more understated here, and it gets a darker shading when attached to this sort of “occult choral element” that crops up now and again.
Jan Rechberger’s drumming also seems more adventurous on this record, but similar to Holopainen’s soloing, it’s never unduly flashy and mostly pings the radar after repeated listens. Throughout “Windmane,” for example, where his aggressive approach blends seamlessly with a more tribal percussive element that gives the song further depth. And similarly, I know I’ve heard plenty of Olli-Pekka Laine’s bass on previous Amorphis records, but his presence on Halo feels more direct and innovative. In particular, the embellishment he mingles into the absurdly warm opener “Northwards” just as the song goes quiet around 3:00 is just wonderful.
1996’s Elegy makes a notable and perhaps surprising impression on this record, so those who loved the way that particular record underscored Middle Eastern elements—including generous use of sitar—will be pleased to hear such features in full force again. It crops up throughout “Seven Roads Come Together” and the harder edged “A New Land,” and it gives the wonderfully inviting “On the Dark Waters” an extra level of liveliness as the song scoots across the speakers like an X-34 landspeeder out for desert joyride… In Finland… On that largely neglected and extremely clandestine desert hidden away in Lapland: Mööseknüückleohkka. These throwback accompaniments are a bit more reigned in for Halo, though, so it feels a less frantic and not as tie-dyed compared to Elegy.
As far as leveling criticisms are concerned, as mentioned earlier it stands to reason that a faction of listeners will quickly deem Halo a little too “by the numbers modern Amorphis” amidst initial pass-throughs. This is to be expected when taking the release in on its surface, as the three records that comprise the trilogy are certainly kindred spirits, and the Joutsen era of the band has spent the better part of the last fifteen years honing a sound that’s unmistakably theirs. However, repeated listens will definitely open up the record more, and before too long a wealth of crafty little distinctions will begin to set Halo apart—any of the adornments already mentioned above, plus unexpected electronic elements in “The Wolf,” a little stronger 70’s feel (the hammond organ presence is persistent), and some fairly extensive but still subtle vocal accompaniment, this time from Petronella Nettermalm of Swedish rock band Paatos.
In short, Halo is a logical conclusion to a trilogy of albums that explores the Kalevala in a way that is unique to Amorphis alone, and it does so by striking a wonderful balance between dark & light / heavy & atmospheric / stripped & embroidered. It’s a record that certainly feels custom-built for a big, detonating live show, which is where Amorphis prefers to shine, and any fan that gives these songs a little extra time to properly open up is sure to be rewarded with yet another gem that’s likely to have a very durable shelf life.
As far as what might come next, one can only guess. A smart bet would be not to expect anything that strays too far from the current formula. But it might be fun to hear Amorphis do something along the lines of Insomnium’s amazing Winter’s Gate from 2016—a more sprawling composition that allows for longer stretches of experimentation and atmosphere. Whatever rumbles down the chute moving forward, it’s safe to say a great many of us will be very ready to take that journey. And on a personal note, I owe a deep thank you to the band for inadvertently throwing a unique life preserver my direction amidst a notably difficult time. Music is a genuine blessing for us all, but it’s particularly potent when the ideal bit of sorcery lands right when the darkness feels its most overwhelming.