Live albums are a dicey bag. Not every band has the capabilities to produce something classic along the lines of Live After Death or Alive in Athens, and most certainly not from the funeral doom genre. On top of that, to make your first album after a seven-year absence a live album that’s three-quarters new material? That’s some rather gutsy planning right there, and Finland’s Skepticism threw down the white cotton gloves with their fifth album (and first live recording) Ordeal, recording their album in front of a live studio audience.
Gentle clapping, Eero Pöyry’s somber keyboard melodies, and a cymbal splash here and there opens “You,” before guitars finally make an appearance two minutes into the proceedings, with Jani Kekarainen and session guitarist Timo Sitomaniemi providing simple riffs and sparse melodies. Heavy and foreboding enough, but when Matti growls cavernously over the keyboards and guitars, you start to asphyxiate from the crushing sorrow brought forth by the slow drumming, sparse keyboard melodies, and the occasional clean guitar break. It does drag on a bit, but you have to commend the band for taking a very adventurous leap in recording this live, even if it reveals some shortcomings in the actual structure of the songs themselves.
“Shortcomings?” you’re probably wondering to yourself. Let me explain… when I was younger, whenever I would hear a song off of a studio album I enjoyed, I would always wonder how it would sound live. Ordeal makes me crave what a studio version of this album would produce because, as good as it sounds production-wise, it reveals some major shortfalls, especially in the last two songs. First off, and I know this band has never truly had one since their first “7,” but the lack of a bass player really hurts them in a live setting. They got away with it in the studio, because Kekarainen can layer guitars over each other to fill out the sound. As a live band, though, the lack of bottom end shows, especially since the last two songs are live recordings of “Pouring” (from 1995’s awesome Stormcrowfleet) and “The March and the Stream” (from 1998’s Lead and Aether), and they are rather thin compared to their studio brethren. The other problem with Ordeal is that the album doesn’t really begin to find its proper processional march until the fourth track, “March Incomplete,” where the glacial pace, somber melodies, and the sheer atmosphere finally come together to rival their earlier work or my current “go-to” Funeral album. In fact, from that song until “Closing Music,” the strides made are quite beautiful, save for the weird guitar gallop in the beginning of “The Road.”
Going back to the production, it sounds very clean and pristine, and that’s both a benefit and a hindrance. It truly does sound like it was recorded in a concert hall, where Lasse Pelkonen’s toms sound thunderous and full, and Pöyry’s keyboards swell dynamically. But that clean sound ends up dwarfing both the guitars and Matti’s guttural howls significantly. Part of the charm of Skepticism‘s earlier output was that their recordings were produced horribly, with Stormcrowfleet sounding like it was recorded in my old dorm bathroom, but they still felt ominous because of the production and the mastering. When you clean it up, as good as it sounds, it feels like the mystique is gone a bit, and that hurts the overall vibe of the album.
I will say that Ordeal grew on me bit by bit. It was a brave attempt at something that most metal bands wouldn’t even think of trying, and Skepticism should be commended for having the cojones to do this. It makes me wonder if Thergothon would make their second album live if they were to reunite as well.