[8 April 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Metal supergroups form so often that whenever a new band featuring members of other well-known acts is announced, it’s mostly greeted by message board denizens and Blabbermouth readers with a collective yawn. Interestingly, though, when Finland’s Barren Earth came out with their debut EP last year, their lineup was interesting enough to perk a few ears up and get people thinking to themselves, “You know, this just might work”. Keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson and bassist Olli-Pekka Laine are formerly of Finnish folk metal greats Amorphis and played on the seminal 1994 album Tales From the Thousand Lakes. Guitarist Janne Perttilä and drummer Marko Tarvonen are also members of pagan/black metal stalwarts Moonsorrow. Guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö has been a member of the great German thrash band Kreator for the past nine years. Most notably, vocalist Mikko Kotamäki is known by many as the talented vocalist for the excellent melancholic doom band Swallow the Sun. In the eyes of many people, this isn’t exactly an all-star line-up on the same level as Them Crooked Vultures or Bloodbath, but as they’ve proven on the EP and now their first full-length album, this is clearly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, something we rarely see in a supergroup.
If there’s a dominant style that Barren Earth draws from, it’s that of Amorphis. More specifically, the early incarnation of Amorphis, back when Mårtenson and Laine were members, as opposed to the much more streamlined, mainstream-friendly version of today. In other words, doomy, atmospheric metal heavily influenced by progressive rock, occasionally dipping into the more subdued, folk-tinged acoustic fare. Of course, it’s certainly not the most original sound in this day and age, as Opeth has taken that formula and ran with it for the past 16 years, and from the stately pace of the record’s nine songs and the way that Kotamäki alternates between guttural roars and quieter, more cleanly sung passages, Opeth will definitely spring to mind as this album goes on. However, to the band’s credit, the songs are so good, so concisely written and fluidly performed, that Curse of the Red River slowly, subtly sees Barren Earth forging their own identity.
The album wastes no time in getting the prog going in earnest, as the title track gorgeously interweaves mellotron, towering doom riffs, haunting melodies, acoustic touches (including flute), and a spellbinding solo break over the course of nearly eight minutes. The Slavic melodies of Amorphis surface most obviously on the 6/8 lilt of “Forlorn Waves”, Kotamäki delivering an effective, textured performance. “The Leer” and “Our Twilight” expertly alternate between muscular upbeat riffs and well-timed melodic choruses and solos, while the dominant synths of “The Ritual of Dawn” are enough to draw comparisons to the likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The classic progressive rock element is pulled off especially well on “Ere All Perish”. Contemplative, acoustic passages are juxtaposed with verses that sound positively crushing, followed by a lavish synth solo by Mårtenson.
“Deserted Morrows” caps off Curse of the Red River on a brooding note. The song is gradually taken over by majestic, mournful guitar melodies as Kotamäki delivers one of the most charismatic, theatrical vocal performances we’ve ever heard from him on record. In a genre where the latest trends are exploited constantly by record labels, these five veteran musicians avoid gimmickry in favor of good, solid melodic metal, and in so doing have come through with a first album that actually exceeds expectations. Some of them might not be quitting their current bands anytime soon, but this is one project that simply begs for a proper tour and even a follow-up. Our fingers are crossed.