When Amorphis’s sixth album Far From the Sun was finally released in North America, nearly a year after coming out in Europe, the timing could not have been worse. Pasi Koskinen, the Finnish band’s lead vocalist since 1996, decided to leave the band in mid-August, leaving Amorphis without a lead singer, with a snazzy new US release to promote. With metal on the upswing in North America, and considering just how difficult it is for metal bands to replace distinctive singers, this is hardly the way for a band to go about trying to capitalize on the genre’s burgeoning popularity.
Veterans of the Scandinavian metal scene, Amorphis carved their own distinctive niche during that initial explosion of talent in the northern European countries of Sweden, Finland, and Norway in the early 1990s, thanks to the influential Tales From the Thousand Lakes. A highly ambitious record, it toned down the turgid, dense black metal sounds of the band’s early material, placing more emphasis on a decidedly progressive rock sound (primarily in the keyboard melodies), and drawing inspiration from a book of Finnish poetry, as well as plenty of fascinating melodies and song structures that drew heavily from the traditional folk music of their native country. Coupled with the guttural death metal growl of guitarist/vocalist Tom Koivusaari, the album proved to be one of the most unique and challenging metal records that decade. After Koskinen was recruited to handle vocal duties, Amorphis continued to experiment, using more melodic, “clean” vocals on subsequent releases, as well as trying out a more hard rock sound influenced by the likes of Jethro Tull and Deep Purple, and even daring to incorporate jazz elements and even saxophone solos (a very bizarre thing to do for a metal band) on the 2001 album Am Universum.
After the extremes of Am Universum, one that polarized listeners, even alienating some, it came as a bit of a relief that Amorphis had returned to a more straightforward sound on Far From the Sun. Granted, that shift towards more middle-of-the-road hard rock pales in comparison to the sheer majesty of Tales From the Thousand Lakes, the band settles into a very comfy 1970s groove, its hook-laden tracks proving to be both a very pleasant surprise, not to mention a mighty fine swan song for Koskinen.
The band might still draw heavily on Nordic folklore and mysticism in the lyrical subject matter, but the musical influence is most heavily influenced by the organ-driven rock of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, best exemplified by fun swing of “Killing Goodness”, which carries on in a charmingly retro, shaggy-haired, bellbottomed way, keyboardist Santeri Kallio having fun delivering his synth arpeggios, drummer Jan Rechberger cruising with a great Ian Paice style beat, that ride cymbal of his carrying the entire song. Both “Day of Your Beliefs” and the propulsive “Planetary Misfortune” are led by memorable, Middle Eastern style hooks, echoing the more ambitious moments on Rainbow’s classic Rising album, while the single “Evil Inside” centers around a Hammond organ riff, the clunky addition of Koskinen’s processed vocals during the verses redeemed by an oddly catchy chorus. Elsewhere, the atmospheric “Ethereal Solitude” possesses the same kind of Pink Floyd sound that Anathema put to use with great effect on their most recent album, while the Lapland folk sound creeps in yet again on the standout track “Higher Ground”, the band blending acoustic instrumentation and heavy riffs and lead fills brilliantly.
What fans will be most interested in are the whopping six bonus tracks that are present on the US release, highlighted by the very strong, accessible “Shining Turns to Grey”, the weirdly contagious synthesizer licks of “Darkrooms”, and a most surprising acoustic rendition of the album’s title track, which sounds much more poignant than the electric version. The album is not without its flaws, as “God of Deception” stumbles, “Dreams of the Damned” is a bland ballad, and “Smithereens” contains a cheesy homage to The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Weber, not Iron Maiden) but overall, it’s a welcome return to form by the veteran band. Amorphis have vowed to soldier on, as every good metal band does, and that they should, because after a couple of missteps, Far From the Sun has them sounding like they’re back on track again.