Under the Red Cloud marks the 12th studio album from Finland’s grandfathers of extreme metal, the band’s sixth LP with Tomi Joutsen as vocalist and his 10th year in the band. The string of Tomi’s six records started with 2006’s Eclipse and had an absolutely epic beginning. Eclipse, Silent Waters and Skyforger showed the band’s new found drive and energy, reclaiming some of their death metal heritage, while veering further into what Nuclear Blast has fittingly labeled ‘melancholy rock.’ Unfortunately, Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™ is a fickle mistress, and The Beginning of Times and Circle were both records that were good, but lacked the urgency of that initial trilogy. These records saw the band pushing into newer territory—heavy Jethro Tull influences bled through on the former, while Circle developed some of the band’s folky elements in cool ways. Neither album gripped me. But when Amorphis releases an album, it’s hard for me not to get excited, and upon seeing the cover art for Under the Red Cloud, all that warm anticipation came back. And fortunately, they didn’t disappoint.
Under the Red Cloud is a return to form for Amorphis, and the most cohesive album the band has released since 2009’s Skyforger. Clocking in at 50 minutes, it’s made of ten thematically cohesive tracks. The album isn’t a story though. Instead, the lyrics (written, as always, by Pekka Kainulainen) are conceptually foreboding; about living under a red cloud in troubled times. The music matches this feel, and while I wouldn’t say the album is necessarily so much heavier than previous records, it may have been influenced by the 20th Anniversary of Tales from the Thousand Lakes, because the band has certainly produced the most growl-heavy material of the Joutsen-era.
You wouldn’t notice that on the opening title track, however. “Under the Red Cloud” starts with an atmospheric piano bolstered by throbbing bass and a clean guitar in harmonic minor before merging into prime Amorphis territory: a chunky, groovy riff with Tomi’s cleans augmenting the sound perfectly. This format—the classic hard rock song-writing—is the stamp with which the band’s newer material has largely been pressed. “Sacrifice” is similar, breaking in with a “House of Sleep” intro, and a heavy, syncopated verse before giving way to a hooky chorus and a slick guitar melody. “Bad Blood” features Tomi’s growl in the verse, but it’s heavy on the groove and light on the melody before giving way to an epic chorus and beautiful bridge.
Amorphis isn’t afraid of their death metal side here. Between “The Four Wise Ones” and “Death of a King,” every single track starts with growls, and the former doesn’t feature any clean vocals from Joutsen at all—instead there’s a short bridge with a haunting, effected vocal line that evokes Elegy. “The Four Wise Ones” and “The Dark Path” both feature crescendos with a ’90s black metal feel—wet with keys and a trem-picked melodies—only undermined by Rechberger’s refusal to use blast beats and Tomi’s growls. The death-laden material works well, though moments like the verse in “Bad Blood” or “Death of a King,” which is one of the singles from Under the Red Cloud, are places where I would have chosen clean vocals rather than growls.
There is a danger, however, in Amorphis‘s modern sound, in that it’s pretty easy to fall into a rut. A fairly close listen to Under the Red Cloud reveals that the songs pretty much all follow the same structure, which when the band isn’t producing their sharpest writing can become repetitive. When the album hits its stride, though, it’s an extremely well-crafted record. From “Sacrifice” to “White Night” is a stretch of pure enjoyment—each song flowing into the next, while peaking on the final two tracks. “Tree of Ages” features a folky Celtic theme that has been stuck in my head since the first time I heard it, and “White Night” is a moody track that closes the album out with a surge.
Under the Red Cloud is a very good album and a return to form. The record simply sounds like Amorphis; the band has developed a sound that bridges the gap between their old material and the new—with plenty of moments on here that remind me of Elegy and Tuonela with sitar (“Death of a King”) or bong water keyboard solos (“Enemy at the Gates”). And it’s incredible how the band’s riffing can still be so idiosyncratic. “The Skull” and “Enemy at the Gate” have riffs you only hear in Amorphis and Barren Earth; and after 12 records they still pull them off without feeling like they’re ripping themselves off. Consistency is a virtue for big bands if they’re any good, but I think there are hints on UtRC that Amorphis could get more adventurous going forward, and I hope they do. Until that time, though, I’ll be sitting here enjoying these tunes under the red clouds.