Whenever Tuomas Saukkonen releases something there’s a certain amount of buzz in the filthy underbelly of metal. When he had Before the Dawn and Black Sun Aeon running simultaneously, he released a staggering amount of high-quality melo-death steeped in Finland’s biggest export – melancholy. After folding both well-regarded acts and creating Wolfheart, things seemed to take a few steps backward quality-wise. While all the elements that made Tuomas a distinctive musician and composer were still present, it felt like something was missing. Winterborn was good, but unremarkable, and follow-up Shadow World was more of the same – well performed but often forgettable melo-death with blackened edges. As a huge fan of the man’s older work, I kept hoping something would click to make the material come to life for me, but it was not to be. Tyhjyys is his third album under the Wolfheart banner, and once again it’s full of classy, elegant melo-death, but much of it still suffers from a baffling disconnect which leaves me out in the cold, cruel winter wind.
As with the prior outings, there’s no denying the presence of quality music and excellent moments of sadboy death. Instrumental opener “Shores of the Lake Simple” is elegant, classy and somber. The playing is first-rate and the mood suits the wintry landscapes of its birthplace. It sets the mood well, but it isn’t the kind of musical piece you remember once it concludes. “Boneyard” picks up the intensity considerably with a blackened death frolic full of blastbeats and trem-riffage. It definitely packs a punch but it isn’t particularly memorable and the occasional metalcore influences are more troubling than helpful.
The balance of Tyhyys features plenty of Tuomas’ classic riffing and patented sense of gloom, but these are mostly trapped in average to below-average attempts at the very melo-death style he helped establish. Take “World on Fire” for example: it’s aggressive death metal with some genuinely sweet leads and melodic touches, but something keeps it from making a real impression and demanding replay. The same can be said for “The Rift,” which alternates between stomping old school death and what sounds like Solution .45 outtakes. It won’t make you turn it off, but it won’t make you turn it on either.
There are some legitimate winners here though, like the downtrodden but beautiful tapestry of “The Flood.” Here the mood is rife with sadness and the guitar-work reinforces it with every depressive note. It’s a glum gem and I wish the rest of Tyhjyys was its equal. Also worthwhile is the very Amorphis-like “Dead White” and the sullen doom/death of the closing title track. It’s these successes that ultimately make the album a frustrating experience because it’s just so inconsistent.
Tuomas once again handles all the vocals, which are limited to death croaks as they have been on all the Wolfheart platters. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this act to his past projects which always featured clean vocals, but the absence of vocal diversity is noticeable and problematic. If a verse or two of forlorn singing drifted through upper echelon works like “The Flood” it would take things to the next level. This is actually born out when the gruff backing vocals come in at 4:13. If these were more pronounced and melodic, it would make a big difference. As it stands, the vocals are sometimes little more than present, neither helping or hurting the songs. Eternal Tears of Sorrow‘s Mika Lammassaari returns to handle lead guitar and together with Tuomas, he crafts some beautiful, guitar-driven music. He’s a fluid, emotional player and he compliments the bleak riffing style Tuomas specializes in. It’s just a pity so many of the songs end up little more than collections of interesting guitar-work.
Tyhyys sounds like something the band put a great deal of time and effort into, but a lot of it lacks that special something that makes music memorable. It’s fine for background but too little of it grabs you and demands your undivided attention. Since attention grabbing music is what I want and have come to expect from Mr. Saukkonen, this is a miss. Whether it was the Riddle of Steel, Excalibur or the Grail, something crucial was lost in the fires of rebirth and has yet to be recovered. I’m not giving up hope on these guys though. It’s all I have.