I feel like I spend a lot of time discussing and reviewing musical projects helmed by Tuomas Saukkonen. Not that I’m complaining mind you, since I love the guy’s take on doomy, melodic death metal. I’m a big fan of his Before the Dawn and Black Sun Aeon ensembles, and both released very successful albums in 2011. With so much recent high-quality output, I was surprised to see another Before the Dawn opus arrive so soon in 2012. The cynical part of my brain worried Tuomas couldn’t keep up this kind of pace for long, and eventually the material was going to suffer. Add to that, the fractious period Before the Dawn went through following the release of their excellent Deathstar Rising album, which saw vocalist Lars Eikind and drummer Atte Palokangas exit stage left. Sounds like a recipe for a letdown, doesn’t it? Sadly, Rise of the Phoenix is a let down of sorts and takes the band in a new direction style-wise. This is by far, the heaviest Before the Dawn release to date, and it seems they channeled a lot of personal frustration and rage into the music. Gone are those super-hooky choruses that made ditties like “Deadsong” and “Deathstar Rising” so addicting. In their place is an increased black metal influence and a step up in overall brutality. That’s not to say the old sound is gone. The melancholy “my wife just drowned in the frozen lake” vibe Finnish bands do so well is still there and as grim as ever; it’s just merged with a much angrier feel. Still, Tuomas is a great song writer/musician and even his lesser works are better than a lot of what’s out there in metal land.
After a brief intro, listeners are greeted with the most typically Before the Dawn track on offer, “Pitch-Black Universe.” It packs that familiar riffing style Tuomas has perfected over the years, and those slippery, graceful leads by Juho Raiha that always sound so damn cool. The interplay between them is great and the song expertly walks the line between melodic and heavy. Tuomas’s death roars are solid and lend extra weight to the proceedings. The title track is way heavier, with blast beats and a blackened flavor. It’s one of the fastest songs BTD has done, but still maintains a melodic sensibility due to well-timed trilling leads. The real standout IMHO is the blackened and beautiful “Throne of Ice” (which could be on Black Sun Aeon‘s Routa album), which showcases the band at their best and covers a lot of moods. The sadness of “Closure” and the epic-ness and trem-riffing of “Eclipse” are also rock-solid.
However, some of the tracks aren’t among BTD’s finest and feel a bit uninspired. “Cross to Bear” has fairly basic chugging riffs, and while it features some cool melancholy riffing in the classic Amorphis style, it’s still nothing great. “Perfect Storm” has great guitar-work but doesn’t come together as a great song. Likewise, “Fallen World” feels right on the cusp of filler, but gets saved by some successful leads. As much as I wish I could say otherwise, the absence of Lars on vocals hurts things alot too. Over the course of Before the Dawn‘s evolution, the trade offs between Lars and Tuomas played an increasingly important role. With Tuomas carrying the full vocal weight, he’s a bit exposed as a one dimensional grunter and things start to feel too samey after a while.
The choruses in particular suffer, since Lars often handled those with his crystal clear pipes. With him gone, the choruses are far less impactful and memorable. To compensate, they place melodic leads over the choruses and use them as the hook. On some songs it works quite well (“Pitch-Black Universe,” “Phoenix Rising”) but it just isn’t the same without Lars. Consequently, on my first listen to this, I felt underwhelmed and no song jumped out at me. While repeated listens allowed the material to open up, the accessibility factor is way down.
I have no complaints whatsoever about the guitar work. Tuomas and Juho sound amazing and they work extremely well together. Juho’s fluid leads and soloing have been a favorite of mine since he joined BTD, and he continues to impress here. Tuomas himself continues to craft top-notch melodic riffs that always bear that distinctive BTD sound. Pick any song and you’ll be greeted with first-rate fretting (check out the righteous, Insomnium-esque lead at 3:39 of “Throne of Ice”).
Rise of the Phoenix is the start of a new chapter for Before the Dawn and I hate to judge it too harshly. However, there’s no denying the drop off from their past few albums. There’s still tons of good material here and a few outstanding moments to be heard. While I hope BTD re-incorporates clean vocals in the future, they’ve shown that outstanding guitar-work can, at least partially, offset their absence.