On their sixth album, the Finnish metal greats remember to provide a little substance underneath all the flash.
Over the last ten years, Children of Bodom has become one of the most beloved metal bands Finland has ever produced. Led by flashy lead guitarist/vocalist Alexi Laiho, the band has earned credibility in the metal community by doing things the old fashioned way, building a strong, ultra-devoted fanbase from the ground up with a steady stream of albums and constant touring. In fact, Children of Bodom's underground popularity has now grown to the point that savvy major label bands include them on North American package tours, as their major drawing power provides a big boost to ticket sales. Whether on Slayer's Unholy Alliance Tour in 2005, or Megadeth's Gigantour this spring, fans of the energetic Finns show up in full force, plundering the merch tables, sporting t-shirts adorned with the trademark grim reaper artwork that appears on every album cover, and passionately chanting, "Bo-dom! Bo-dom!"
However, while Bodom's North American popularity has risen greatly in the last four years thanks to the increased exposure of high profile tours and major label distribution, their musical output has taken a bit of a downward turn at the same time. Bursting onto the scene with a frenetic hybrid of intense melodic death metal, speed-riddled thrash metal, and flamboyant power metal, the band's mish-mash of a signature sound was identifiable from the get-go, Laiho growling like a Norwegian black metaler while trading intricate lead solos with keyboardist Janne Wirman. Starting with 2003's Hate Crew Deathroll, though, the reliance on keyboard melodies and tight thrash riffs was downplayed in favor a more aggressive, crunchier guitar-dominated sound. The album was a massive success, the band's breakthrough record, and deservedly so, but metal fans being as stodgy as they tend to be (according to many, the longer a band goes on, the better their old stuff becomes and the less relevant the new material gets), grumbles of dissent could be heard beneath the cheers and accolades, which only got louder in the wake of 2005's Are You Dead Yet?, a slickly-produced yet hookless, often plodding effort that rang disturbingly hollow. Additionally, Laiho's soloing style, while technically dazzling, has always lacked the expressive qualities of peers Michael Amott (Arch Enemy) and Gus G. (Firewind), and the fewer memorable songs there are to back up those solos, the more Bodom resembles one long Guitar World-pandering toss-off.
So with the release of their sixth studio full-length, in spite of all the success in Europe and North America, Laiho and Children of Bodom still have plenty to prove, and to their great credit, they've come through with their finest album in a good five years. Considerably faster than Are You Dead Yet?, but even darker in tone, and with Wirman's synths sounding slightly more prominent, Blooddrunk will go a long way towards winning back those who thought Bodom had run out of ideas. Laiho's compositions often come off as sounding like they were written by a guitar geek with a major case of ADD, the arrangements sounding chaotic (as opposed to the more focused aggression of Arch Enemy), the frantically performed songs rarely clocking in at more than four minutes, and while nothing has changed on the new disc, the actual songs, when given some time to grow on the listener, turn out to have remarkable staying power.
We hear the band's renewed energy instantly in the opening seconds of "Hellhounds on My Trail", which kicks off with the classic Bodom intro of sharp, staccato thrash picking and keyboard stabs, the song kicking off into double-time verses highlighted by frenetic guitar/synth melodies which quickly shift into slower, more stately choruses. It's great to hear Laiho and Wirman feeding off each other as well as they do here; Wirman never gets enough credit for his work, as his ability to match Laiho's melodies and solos note for note is remarkable. The chugging "Blooddrunk", meanwhile, focuses on the muscular riffs of Laiho and rhythm guitarist Roope Latvala, the hardcore gang chorus silly, but effective, certain to become a live favorite. Conversely, "Lobodomy", the cleverest song title in a goofy running gag of each album containing a song with the word "Bodom" in it, goes for a much more gothic tone, Wirman's cascading synths adding appropriate atmosphere underneath Laiho's pinch squeals. "Smile Pretty for the Devil" and "Tie My Rope" both contain some of Laiho's catchiest riffing in years, "Banned from Heaven" is an effective mid-tempo respite from all the speed-fueled insanity, and the final minute of "Roadkill Morning" launches into a fabulous, Iron Maiden-esque coda that caps off the album nicely.
Like Arch Enemy and In Flames, Children of Bodom are at their best when focusing on their strengths, and not altering the formula too much. All those Bodom-chanting fans want the same thing: speed, energy, slick melodies, and sick solos, and they'll be thrilled to learn that, predictable as it is, Blooddrunk delivers on all levels. We'll hear plenty of more groundbreaking albums in 2008, but we won't hear as many as genuinely satisfying as this one.