SWALLOW THE SUN – Songs from the North I, II & III
When genres evolve, how certain bands respond to such change depends on their willingness to adapt. But one factor is certain; the decline in presence of major labels over the years has helped artists utilize the full extent of their creativity, even should their success remain at a national level. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to continually notice the “purist” mentality implied by certain genres being challenged, thus allowing artists to be embraced for presenting their work as intended.
In the case of Finnish death metal sextet, Swallow the Sun, the band doesn’t hold back on integrating a gentler, more tender element to a genre that is otherwise harsh and unsettling for many casual listeners. Their much-anticipated follow-up, Songs from the North I-III, is by no means an exception. It is a very well-balanced showcase of serenity and brutality, enlightening listeners that their experiences are not only understood, but taken to heart. [columns] [column size=”1/3″]
Album Title: Songs from the North I, II & III
Release Date: 13 November 2015
Playing Time: 02:33:49
Label: Century Media Records
A hybrid of clean and down-tuned guitar textures defines volume I. I was immediately taken at how the lyrics matched the intensity of the instrumentation. Vocalist Mikko Kodamäki aptly demonstrates a unique delivery, where even his most guttural vocals maintain a degree of composure. He supplements this harshness by including an abundance of singing parts, opening a dimension of melody that adds much-deserved clout to the band’s identity. The initial tracks for this volume are sufficient tone setters, while later tracks either progress from or expand upon certain themes. “With You Came the Whole of the World’s Tears” stood out for me not just for its riffing and pacing, but by how well the lyrical content complements the instrumentation. The opening lines are advice for keeping a solid composure, knowing full well that heartbreak is on the horizon. At the chorus, Kodamäki follows a guttural “My heart fed to the sirens/My soul fed to the wolves” with standard singing, suggesting that after enduring intense emotional pain, he becomes grounded upon recognizing it as simple life experience. The harmonized lead melody at this phase is sufficiently nuanced, and very much acts as a second vocal during the pre-chorus. “Heart Strings Shattering” also stuck out in much the same way. Here, Kodamäki effectively encapsulates a state of mind that mutates into being increasingly bleak and detached, the physical body of which becomes a ghost. The clean parts have a more involved presence, and guest singer Aleah cleverly words a normally healing experience with a nightmarish contrast. On this song’s chorus, the guttural vocals sound more stationary as if to openly admit defeat. I like how the final track for this volume, “Happiness to Dust,” plays like a straightforward summation of its content. The lyrics resemble a formal note for the purpose of parting ways, but with personal touches that make it seem beyond the other’s comprehension. Kodamäki’s broken but firm stance in the lyrics makes the song all the more poignant, bringing this volume full-circle.
If I had ever heard of a move so daring, it would be for a death metal band to comprise an entire album of clean songs. In fact, this quality is what defines Volume II. However, by no means does it make this volume alien or watered down. While acoustic tracks such as “The Heart of a Cold White Land” and “Pray for the Winds to Come” are generally uplifting and positive, the rockier “Autumn Fire” and “Before the Summer Dies” entice fans of alternative music, namely dreampop and shoegaze. I actually found this volume to be the best of the three, as it showcases the greatest potential for bringing in new audience. Another factor that solidifies such a notion would be the condensed length and streamlined structure of the tracks, making them easier to digest and ultimately memorable. On the contrary, Volume III is recommended for traditional death metal fans. While there is still plenty of stylistic melody on offer, there is no singing; only guttural growls. “7 Hours Late,” which centers on the guilt for not being present during a loved one’s final moments, is probably one of the most depressing and poignant songs I’ve heard. The tempo is slowed to a trudging crawl, with much rhythmic focus on prominently reverberated snares. Just listening to the lines, “These rooms of shadows/Echoes on these walls/This Empire of loneliness,” I could relate to times of being consumed by tremendous guilt. The title of the track to follow is derived from the previous song’s line, “Empire of Loneliness.” It continues thematically, Kodamäki returning to his past as a child and casting away the nurturing forces of light, hope and promise. The context is depicted extremely well, not only for its vivid imagery, but by its relatable perspective of trauma lingering from a death-based nightmare. The final volume ends with a hellish closer “The Clouds Prepare for Battle,” which emits a pounding, stone cold vibe. I like how the snare drums pace with each string bend, almost acting like a barrier against the light. Kodamäki feels the full extent of accumulated pain, being devoid of not only fear and sadness, but feelings in general. Interestingly, this type of execution is effective in ending at the lowest of the low. The fulfillment the listener feels is still satisfactory, knowing that they are not alone in such walks of life.
Overall, Songs of the North I-III is more than enough to slake the appetite of longtime Swallow the Sun fans. Although I had just gotten into this band, their level of authenticity stretches beyond comprehension. Even after listening to all three volumes, I’m still curious as to what drives the band to present such a sincere display of a troubled mind at work. This might as well be their most explorative and honest work to date, unifying both old and new audiences in their appreciation for fine art.