[29 January 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The metal section has always been the most misunderstood of the various categories in your local record store. While everyone hangs around the new releases, the top sellers, and the large, all-inclusive “pop/rock” section, occasionally drifting towards the country, blues, folk, and jazz, there sit the metal shelves, ignored by most, save for the odd hardcore fan looking for the latest Scandinavian masterwork (only to scoff in disbelief when it’s not there), people in their thirties and forties looking for remastered reissues of the great bands of their teen past, or junior high kids flipping through the Mudvayne and Papa Roach selections. There seems to be an unspoken agreement between the metal crowd and the mainstream folks: don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you. Sadly, just as any narrow-minded metal kid would be missing out on something as cool as Dungen’s Ta Det Lugnt over in the pop/rock section, those who purposely avoid metal are in turn missing out on some music that they might find, to their amazement, is actually quite lovely.
Formed by lead guitarist Tchort in 1990, and resurrected in 1998 after his stint with black metal legends Emperor, Norway’s Green Carnation has provided audiences with the kind of ambitious, far-reaching music that prog fans crave, incorporating such sounds as doom, death, and power metal, yet at the same time, have shown tremendous skill at crafting memorable melodies that complement the overall scope of the music, without sounding either too forced or too pop-oriented. The 2005 album The Quiet Offspring was a rather underrated gem, lauded by critics, but largely ignored by many, an edgy, yet affable record that displayed the sextet’s great versatility, with melodic numbers sitting alongside more aggressive, epic fare. Never ones for wasting time, the band have now released their fifth album in five years, and not only does Acoustic Verses let us know right away what we should expect in its title alone, but it’s an experiment that turns out to be a resounding success.
All too often, especially in recent years, hard rock and metal bands taking the acoustic route is either a recipe for disaster or merely a source of turgid, lazily arranged songs that hide behind the all-too used descriptions of “stripped down” and “returning to their roots”, when in fact the simplified, unamplified arrangements often show us just how musically limited many guitar bands are (case in point: Godsmack’s well-meaning, but failed experiment The Other Side). For all the lame Jar of Flies imitations, though, there have been several acoustic departures by metal artists that renew our hope in the “unplugged” format. As for Green Carnation, Tchort doesn’t hide the fact that he had not touched an acoustic guitar in more than a dozen years prior to writing for Acoustic Verses, but as the album shows, he and his bandmates were more than up for the challenge.
Although the overall tone of the new album remains steeped in progressive metal, it’s tempting to call this folk music, its laid back, organic feel is a direct contradiction to the band’s normally ear-splitting sound. That said, the mood of the music remains the same, those dour doom elements creeping in, songs veering off onto serpentine, art rock tangents. “Sweet Leaf” might bear the same title as the Black Sabbath classic, but instead of being a lunkheaded tribute to weed, it takes a more metaphorical route, a thinly-veiled, yet touching dialogue from parent to child (“How can I be your guardian angel when you are away?”), with tenor-voiced lead singer Kjetil Nordhus and baritone-throated bassist Roger Sordal exchanging verses, underscored by layers of acoustic guitars, strings, Rhodes piano, and a stately marching beat by drummer Tommy Jackson. The Celtic-tinged “Alone” is based on the Poe poem of the same name, while the melancholy “The Burden is Mine…Alone”, with Nordhus’s genuinely affecting performance, achieves a Jeff Buckely-esque level of tender-voiced beauty. Although acoustic guitars dominate, it’s not a fully un-amplified record, as electric bass is present, and stylish electronic touches like mellotron, ebow, and theremin are all put to effective use.
The startling centerpiece “9-29-045” offers an inspired combination of the quieter acoustic sound with the band’s progressive tendencies; divided in three movements, the 15 minute suite veers from haunting melodies to moments of space rock that hint at Pink Floyd, as Sordal’s enigmatic lyrics hint at themes of domestic violence. It’s during this song that Green Carnation best display their skill; while many other bands would have taken a much more theatrical approach, the band shows incredible discipline. Instead of tidal waves of emotional outbursts, we get more effective squalls and undertows, saving the lengthy track from bombastic self-indulgence, making the song all the more convincing in the process.
Like Antimatter’s Planetary Confinement, Anathema’s A Natural Disaster, and Opeth’s Damnation, Acoustic Verses is yet another understated, cleaner-sounding record by a metal act that fully deserves to reach an audience much broader than just the band’s loyal fanbase. A couple steps across the aisle to the metal section is all it takes to be introduced to a side of modern metal that is not all power chords, blastbeats, and cookie monster vocals, one capable of genuine, aching beauty.