Sunday, November 25, 2012

Swallow the Sun - Emerald Forest and the Blackbird

Just like their brothers in Eternal Tears of Sorrow, Swallow the Sun has always been one of the most melodic death metal bands out there. For some reason, Swallow the Sun never really got the attention they deserved from the majority of metalheads out there. Their major breakthrough album, Hope, got the attention of all of Europe and much of the people here in the states where I am. Hope’s follow-up, New Moon, didn’t prove to be as successful as far as attention and sales though; but the album received generally positive feedback from the critics. When Emerald Forest and the Blackbird was released, it was like the whole world completely forgot about the new Arch Enemy album and wouldn’t stop talking about “this amazing Finnish melodic death album”. Almost every webzine, magazine, reviewing site, metal blog (now including myself), and metal news source that I’ve looked at have reviewed this album. Well, I can at least somewhat understand how the immense hype for this album was possibly created, because well…look at the goddamn artwork! Just seeing the artwork on the ad I saw on the internet made me check it out (and of course my pre-existing love for Swallow the Sun); that and the slightly over-mentioned and over-hyped fact that Anette Olzon (Nightwish vocalist at the time) makes a momentary guest appearance on the fourth track.

One aspect that I keep coming across again and again about what people say about this album; in this case the people that had a more critical opinion towards it, is the trendiness. I’m going to be honest right off the bat, I love this album, it’s amazing, but I also know that there are several trends that Swallow the Sun have chosen to partake in (whatever the reason was). This is something that’s popped up very recently, there are suddenly A LOT of people that absolutely BASH any death metal or black metal album that has a lot of orchestral and symphonic elements. What the fuck happened? Last I heard, it was cool to have tons of epic keyboards and symphonies in your music. But when I read several reviews on newer albums like Scar Symmetry’s The Unseen Empire, Wintersun’s Time 1 (that pisses me off), Ex Deo’s Caligvla, Dimmu Borgir’s Abrahadabra, Epicloud by the Devin Townsend Project, and Stones Grow Her Name by Sonata Arctica, for EVERY single one, the PRIMARY reason for most of the criticism is one or more of the following: “too many keyboards”, “too digital”, “too dependent on symphonic and orchestral elements”, “the fact that there’s a real orchestra instead of keyboards is made too big of a deal”, or something like that. I guess I’m way behind everyone and what’s “in” and what’s “out-of-style”.

There’s always a risk that metal bands take when using an excess amount of keyboards and symphonies in their music, and that’s cheesiness. It’s just WAY too fucking easy to unintentionally compose and arrange the symphonic parts in a way that sounds really hokey and cheesy. In some cases, it’s on purpose, but it sounds cool (i.e. Epicloud). But there are some bands that have recently figured out how to have that epic sound created by the symphonies without the cheesiness (like Wintersun, Ex Deo, Septicflesh, etc.). Except the mood that the orchestras and keyboards in Swallow the Sun creates is much different than most other bands. Instead of the mood being a really epic, powerful, and upbeat one, the mood that the keyboards in Swallow the Sun’s music creates is one of deep emotion, tenseness, sorrow, and pain. And to be honest, it’s one of the most beautiful moods I’ve ever heard a melodic death album create. My evidence to back this up: the first track (also the title track) when the heavy guitars and the agonizing growls and screams come in with undeniable intensity and edginess. Swallow the Sun has always had this quality about them in their music, but now that I’ve heard Emerald Forest and the Blackbird, I now know that they have truly mastered it. Bands such as Katatonia, Eternal Tears of Sorrow, and Agalloch are among some of the other metal bands that have mastered the depressive sound without going full-on raw black metal like Xasthur and Woods of Desolation.

The vocals in Emerald Forest and the Blackbird are particularly interesting because you hear every vocal style that has been used throughout the band’s career. You can hear the extremely deep, mouth-watering growls and the tranquilizing singing from Ghosts of Loss and The Morning Never Came, the nasty screams from Hope, and the high-pitched shrieks from New Moon (although every album had its fair share of that BEAUTIFUL singing). Going back and using all of those different vocal styles helps create a vast number of possibilities for more original-sounding material (see, recycling isn’t always bad, it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be completely new). The deep growls aren’t NEARLY as deep and powerful as the growls in Ghosts of Loss and The Morning Never Came. If they were to bring those exact same-sounding growls back to be used in this record, the power of the overall sound would have skyrocketed. But, since they haven’t, the extremely powerful, but not QUITE as deep growls that we hear in Emerald Forest (that’s what I’m going to call that album from now on) are what we’re going to have to live with; and don’t get the impression that I’m saying the growls on Emerald Forest aren’t anything short of demonic.

Now that I’ve listened to Emerald Forest more than three dozen times, I can now say that this is Swallow the Sun’s most melodic album to date. This moving in a much more melodic and less death metally direction is another one of these so-called trends. Since the newest releases by melodic death and progressive death bands like In Flames, Opeth, Amorphis, Scar Symmetry, and Wintersun (not really much to work with) are much farther from a pure melodic death sound than their earlier works, people are pointing fingers at Swallow the Sun and considering them part of this trend because, seemingly out of pure fucking coincidence, this is their most melodic album to date. For me, since they still hold that extremely gothic doomy sound, the vibe of Emerald Forest seems to fit Swallow the Sun very comfortably.

Oh, but how could I write a review on this album and not mention the major guest-appearance!? Anette Olzon, at the time, frontwoman of the biggest symphonic metal band ever, Nightwish (well, it actually seems to be a tie between them and Apocalyptica, but you get the picture). Yes, I do think that Anette’s voice is beautiful and unique, but it’s obvious to everyone that the reason Swallow the Sun has made such a big motherfucking deal about her guest appearance (it’s mentioned in every single press release the band and their label made on the album before and on its release) is publicity and sales increase. OH FUCK, THEY’RE SELL-OUTS! Yeah, you can fuck off now, because that’s not the case. Because although this helped boost album sales and attractiveness as well as the artwork, Anette’s singing truly does add in an outside touch that helps further the beauty of the ballad-like song that she’s on. It’s actually really surprising how much of a positive effect Anette’s voice has on that one song. But seriously, the significance of it is over-exaggerated and was over-mentioned to the point where it was beyond obvious that they were taking advantage of her fame and using it as a marketing tool to boost sales. Why not make it a cameo appearance and have it secretly mentioned in the liner notes? Like when Suicide Silence had Frank Mullen of Suffocation on one of the tracks from The Black Crown.

Emerald Forest and the Blackbird is Swallow the Sun’s best album to date. Thanks to excess marketing, advertising, and a guest-appearance from one of metal’s most loved (and most hated) female singers, this album and the band have acclaimed well-deserved and much-overdue success and attention. Not only to fans of doom metal, gothic metal, and melodic death, but to any fans of emotional, melodic, and dark music is who I would give out high recommendations for this album (and band). Swallow the Sun achieve many obstacles, including completely mastering several things that they have been doing for their entire career. The only question left is: what’s next? I can’t possibly begin thinking of possible directions that the next album will go that would make it better than Emerald Forest. I would give Emerald Forest and the Blackbird 18/20.