Amorphis — Elegy (1996)
Musically, a Free-Wheeling, Don’t-Give-A-Fuck Record
. . . What is this?
I previously said in my “MDM Before Slaughter” article that I went ahead and skipped Amorphis’ famous Tales From The Thousand Lakes record for two big reasons: 1) I didn’t like it very much and I hate writing negative reviews when it can be avoided, and 2) because I could conclude fairly easily that the record was a more significant moment in folk metal than melodic death metal that it wasn’t an album that desperately needed to be covered in a series of reviews focusing on MDM specifically, even if Amorphis had started life as a somewhat typical European death metal act who then embraced melody.
Reader and friend Leeroy Lewin (@wasnowhynot on twitter) had no real qualms with that, but did suggest that I may have some interest in this record, Elegy, from the MDM historical perspective. Frankly I’m not sure if the same thing couldn’t be said about this as Tales, but the fact of the matter is that unlike Tales, this a record I had a rolicking good time listening to and I just want to catalogue its existence briefly if I may, especially since it seems to have gotten a pretty negative reception from the one-track-mind, heavy-or-nothing US extreme metal community in its time. (This article, “Justify Your Shitty Taste,” from Decibel magazine, a significant, not-at-all obscure metal journalism outlet in the US, is the second google result for the album.)
Elegy touches on moments of a contemporary MDM sound, but it is still primarily a folk metal record, with extremely simplistic root/five chord vamps and simplistic linear folk melodies. As we’ve studied with In Flames, there is a significant amount of crossover here, with the melodic inspiration for MDM coming not just from the more modernist NWOBHM record, but as well pulling from melodic and harmonic structures from both folk and classical music.
What makes Elegy fascinating in comparison to Tales plays into a pet-peeve of mind and the exact angle I would’ve taken to eviscerate Tales: folk instrumentation on hard-rock records is . . . weird. I think that, even at its best, the blending of folk instrumentation with heavy electrics sounds a little forced, usually because in the process of producing a record, it is. A good example is that Dropkick Murphy’s song that’s been all over the place in commercials and such. The accordion on that song fits really well into that mix, but even with the production being top-notch, the fact that there’s an accordion on the recording just sounds . . . gimmicky! Now, I can already hear you thinking “Durante, that’s a ridiculously personal take.” You’re correct, which is why I skipped Tales in the first place.
But Tales is a particularly bad example. Flutes sit alongside guitar riffs, and both of them sound equally polite and boring. I don’t know why it is this bothers me so much. “So you just don’t like folk-metal then?” For the most part no, but you know what I do like? I like when folk-metal or other related sounds use the folk instrumentation sparingly, and I like it the most when the concept of “folk-metal” is executed by having your guitars and bass play the folky melodies and chord progressions. To me, this is the exact #1 reason that Bathory’s Viking Metal albums work and work so well, by presenting a neo-folk that is being played on modern instruments.
I’m not sure why Amorphis decided to adopt this approach for Elegy, but it’s such an audible and massive improvement right from the word go. This record is teeming with heavy metal excitement because the recording is no longer constrained by how many different elements need to fit inside of it. It’s loud. The production kinda reminds me of 90’s Blind Guardian records. The other thing that’s different as I see it: it’s just a lot of fun because of the completely unrestrained nature of it. Also instead of just the ultra-low death growls, the record features a very talented clean singer by the name of Pasi Koskinen. Like most metal fans I have strong preferences over what sort of unclean vocals I like, and the ultra-low Florida-style death metal growl has never been it, at least as the primary sound. For me, the record still suffers when that low growl fills the mix, such as at the beginning of “My Kantele.”
Adding to the fun: this record has a completely shameless 70’s vibe, something that I’m always down for when blended with a more modern approach. (They said, giving a dirty look in the general direction of Norwegian hard rock band Audrey Horne, a band not nearly weird enough to earn that name.) There are tons of moments on this record where that classic Jon Lord/Motoi Sakuraba rock organ sound is screeching its way through the mix via Amorphis keyboardist Kim Rantala, accompanied by wah-wah guitar courtesy of, I believe, lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, that, plus 70’s prog-esque moments like the beginning of “The Orphan” where clean guitar chords with a phaser (maybe the most 70’s guitar effect you can use) are accompanied by smooth buttery synth leads, much closer in timbre and composition to say, Rick Wakeman than to Jordan Rudess. Adding to that 70’s vibe is that, much like, the hard rock bands of the 70’s, “hard” wasn’t the only objective. Opener “Better Unborn” has a generally relaxed and groovy vibe before being followed by the stomping folk-metal grooves of “Against Widows” (the easy highlight track of the album in my opinion) before being followed by the largely balladic “Orphan” and then the contemporary MDM banger “Of Rich and Poor,” the track closest to anything covered in this review series so far.
That pacing continues as the folk ballad “My Kantele” is then followed by the almost modern-metalcore-ish groove-metal intro to “Cares,” before that song breaks down once again into Yes keyboards and wah-wah guitar, before then cutting into what I can only describe as something akin to psychedelic surf music with a string keyboard patch laying the mood while one of the guitarists plays ska upstrokes, then there’s a chorus in between that and something that feels like an attempt at a contemporary techno beat. I can’t make this up. “Cares” was definitely my favorite song on the record aside from “Against Widows” so far. Much of the back half ultimately continues in an upbeat fashion until the balladic “Elegy” and a return to an acoustic arrangement of “My Kantele.”
Why Must “Metal” Always Be “Heavy?”
Returning to an earlier point, it was about the mid-80’s when the thrash-metal underground permanently steered metal into “all hard, all the time,” rather than heavy metal being a collection of bands whose hard-rocking material simply happened to rock harder than their peers. After the death of the power ballad following the end of hair metal, for the most part, it became the overwhelming trend that heavy bands simply did not write songs that were not exclusively heavy. I realize what I’m saying sounds fairly obvious, but think of it this way: if Black Sabbath had formed in the 90’s, they never would have written “Changes,” and to me that would be a great loss. Thankfully, the majority does not represent the totality, and there were bands like Amorphis (and many of the bands in the melodic death metal movement) who still believed in some degree of contrast, texture, and listening to music that isn’t heavy metal.
Songs of Light, Words of Darkness
Unlike many of the record I’ve covered in this series, Elegy is not a record I’ve been listening to for years, so deeper forms of analysis in some ways escape me. (Part of why this one has, once again, taken so long, sorry.) Certainly part of that is not totally being able to digest the lyrics. Elegy can be seen in some ways as a “sequel” to Tales, as that record was based on the Kalevala, an epic poem by Elias Lonnrot that defies summary here, given that it entails, among other things, the birth of all creation. It suffices to say that the Kalevala has had a greater impact on the development of the Finnish national identity than any singular work of American literature has had on our own, partially because it was based on the existing folklore of Finnish culture in much the same manner as, say, Wagner’s “ring cycle” operas were based on German folklore or the Eddas that are used as a source for Norse mythology. What I’m trying to communicate here is that the significance of the lyrics on that record likely escape me not just because I am not Finnish, but also because we Americans lack any similar culture defining work of mythology except . . . oh god, ours is The Bible isn’t it? Jesus Christ, no wonder we’re so fucked. In any case, while Tales was based on the Kalevala, which is an epic narrative, Elegy is based off of the Kanteletar, a more scattered collection of poetry by the same writer, Lonnrot, a work which is described as having similar impact on Finnish culture as the Kalevala. Perhaps the influence of these works on Amorphis would be described by Finnish writers as cursory, that is to say, perhaps these albums are not themselves “deep” representations of their source material, but I think it’s fair to say that there are possibly allegorical or political implications to some of the lyrics on either Tales or Elegy that escape me as an American, especially one whose understanding of Finnish folklore is significantly more limited than their understanding of, say, Norse mythology.
With all that context, I do take issue with, sadly enough, the lyrical content of the lead single, and my favorite musical arrangement on the record, “Against Widows” which is, sadly, pretty much a direct representation of its title.
The Devils weds a widow
Death another’s leftovers
Better to lie on a willows
Rest on alder boughs
Then upon a widow’s bed
On a used woman’s pillow
Sweeter the side of a fence
Then a widow’s flank
It’s hard to see the message of these words as anything other than cruel and objectifying.
With that out of the way though, the poetic influence, even in the composition of the above, the worst lyric, shines through and brings a serious amount of linguistic beauty to a genre in heavy metal that is often sorely lacking in it, and something that is a feature of many of my favorite melodic death metal records, one of the reasons this series of reviews was given birth. Thematically, many songs here, most really, speak in broad enough strokes that their intentions are fairly well understood, like the opener, “Better Unborn,” whose title about says it all.
If I’d died a three-night-old
Been lost in my swaddling hand
I’d have needed but a span of doth
A span more of wood,
But a cubit of good earth
Two words from the priest
Three verses from the cantor
One clang from the bell
“Orphan” rings with similar clarity.
The calloo’s spirits are low [. . .]
But the orphan’s are lower
Walking down the village street.
The sparrow’s belly is chill [. . .]
But my belly is more chill [. . .]
The dove’s heart is cold [. . .]
But I’m colder still
As I drink the icy water.
Somewhat contrary to the rest of the record, “Of Rich and Poor” defies the clarity of its to this set of eyes. I can partially understand the subtext, but not totally solve the metaphorical puzzle, so to speak.
At the time we lived
Without the sunshine
Who had covered up our sun
And who had hidden our moon?
One thing that becomes clear is that though the music and arrangements on the record ring somewhat joyously for a downtuned mid-90’s metal record, the lyrical subject matter is, unsurprisingly, much more grim, something stated somewhat directly by “My Kantele.”
So it will not play, will not rejoice at all
Music will not play to please
Give off the right sort of joy
For it was fashioned from cares
Moulded from sorrow.
The back half of the record after “My Kantele” is defined by these “Cares” as goes the title of the next track, stories of various characters and, more specifically often than their sadness or their depression, their worries, their anxiety, such as the King from the final verse of “Song of The Troubled One.”
The sea-swell rumbles
And the winds it blows
And the king hears it
From five miles away
From six directions
From seven back woods
From eight heaths away.
The final lyric on the record, the title track, brings these woeful tales full circle, as the narrator mourns their lost beloved, with easily the most somber musical accompaniment on the record, something of an odd-time-signature ballad.
In the soil she’s mouldering
Under the sand my sweet one
Beneath the grass my treasure
The one I grieve for.
With, once again, the caveat that additional, subtextual meaning to the title of this track could be lost on me, the album proper closes on the instrumental “Relief,” seems to demonstrate a self-awareness of downtrodden nature of the title track and brings us one last rollicking folk metal stomper in contrast to the previous ballad. It’s all of the shredding and wild keyboard textures from the rest of the album unencumbered by sad lyrics or emotional vocalization.
To end things, the band comes back around on an acoustic reprisal of “My Kantele,” once again emphasizing this song as something of a centerpiece on the record outside the title track, fitting given its primary message that Elegy was inspired by what one can only assume from the reading available here that the Kanteletar is a work primarily inspired by the troubles of previous generations of Finnish people, carried on in lyric through generations, remembered through their immortalization in text. Even without an understanding of the history that went into the source text, an ultimate sincerity and sadness (somewhat contradictory to the free-spirited nature of the music itself, ultimately,) is expressed here that indicates the depths and significance of their origin, making this reprisal of “My Kantele” a truly fitting ender.
I think I’ve made it clear enough that this is a really great record, great enough that it even kinda makes me want to revisit Tales from The Thousand Lakes. Much like many of my favorite European metal records, namely Twilight of The Gods by Bathory or Colony by In Flames, it matches great, rocking, catchy music to really intelligent and often beautifully composed lyricism informed by history and culture, making it come off not just as a great record capturing its singular moment, but also a reflection of the past before it, the sort of statement that, even without a study of the history that informs it, leaves one with at least an impression, and inkling of an understanding of the culture that birthed it. As well, even without that context, tracks like “Against Widows,” “Of Rich and Poor,” and “Cares” ultimately just slap too hard for even the most willfully-ignorant to ignore. I hadn’t mentioned it since it’s not really important, but my only real criticism is that I’m not a huge fan of the rhythm guitar tone, but given my peculiar tastes, that probably means that you, presuming you are the more typical metal listener, will enjoy it greatly. Give this album a listen, hopefully multiple. It’s become clear to me that even my repeated listens aren’t quite enough.