Amorphis in 2015 are doing a great job keeping themselves from getting bored, but only fleetingly succeed in turning that internal drive into external enthusiasm.
Amorphis is a band of subtle changes. It no doubt irks them to no end that they are probably most famous for a pair of seminal death metal albums over 20 years ago -- 1992’s The Karelian Isthmus and 1994’s Tales from the Thousand Lakes -- while in their continuing evolution over the past two decades that early mix of melodic death and doom metal is an alchemy that they have never entirely returned to.
Over the course of 11 studio albums and three separate singers, Amorphis have only periodically dabbled in the “cookie monster” styling of their early singing, which makes Under the Red Cloud the band’s most comprehensive reappraisal of clean vocals to date. Tomi Joutsen was brought on board back in 2005 specifically for his eagerness to juggle contrasting vocals, but by and large in the decade since fans have had to contend with mostly cleanly sung vocals with the occasional death growl thrown in – usually on the bridge or chorus – for shading purposes.
Under the Red Cloud hardly goes all-in on the heavy stuff (it’s fairly mellow and melodic, for the most part) but on tracks like “The Four Wise Ones” and “Tree of Ages” Joutsen is permitted to flip the script, using his gruffer voice as primary, with the cleaner intonations saved for the choruses. The former is one of Amorphis’s straight up heaviest tracks in years, while the latter is an almost twee bit of folk metal that employs Joutsen’s death metal vocals as a tempering tool, a balm to keep the track from getting a little too Tolkien for its own good.
Once again making use of honorary band member Pekka Kainulainen to pen lyrics (though he doesn’t actually play any instruments on the album), Under the Red Cloud marks the second Amorphis album in a row that isn’t based on the Finnish national epic, Kalevala; the general theme(s) per guitarist and founding member Esa Holopainen: “Pekka describes things like natural phenomena, seasons and the human mind like we’ve done in the past with the Kalevala stories. They are attempts to gain advice from higher powers”. So, mythological in tone if not necessarily text.
While this is one of the more versatile Amorphis albums in recent memory, it also represents the band’s heaviest dalliance with the aforementioned folk metal, the band even bringing in Chrigel Glanzmann from esteemed folksters Eluveitie to play flute on three tracks, including “The Four Wise Ones” and “Tree of Ages”. Guest singer Aleah Stanbridge (Trees of Eternity) scores a trio of appearances as well, including a spotlight turn on album closer “White Night”. Both this song and “Death of a King” boast a Middle Mastern flair in the guitar arrangements, further proof that Amorphis are increasingly showing burnout when it comes to recycling Finnish nationalism album after album.
While versatility is the album’s strong point, it’s also its Achilles heel: so much focus is placed on weaving a pattern of interlocking songs that the songs themselves often come off as afterthoughts. “Bad Blood” could just as easily be a Katatonia outtake, and “Tree of Ages” could be the work of any generic folk metal band on the Napalm Records roster circa 2005. The latter is the only flat out weak tune on the album, though, so as a whole the LP congeals fairly well even if it lends itself poorly to cherry picked mixtape fodder.
Under the Red Cloud represents enough of an about turn to keep existing fans interested, but the folk and exotic elements are probably insufficient in and of themselves to draw in many new converts. Amorphis, in 2015, is a legacy metal band doing a great job keeping themselves from getting bored, even as they have more fleeting success in turning that internal drive into external enthusiasm.