Finland’s Barren Earth started as the bastard child of Amorphis and Swallow the Sun. Their first record, Curse of the Red River sounded like Opeth played by Tuonela-era Amorphis, and the follow-up—The Devil’s Resolve—was similar, if not as good. Barren Earth really came into their own on their 2015’s On Lonely Towers. That record introduced new singer—who they coincidentally share with the astounding Hamferð—Jón Aldará and helped to refine their sound even further. They took a distinct step away from the Åkerfeldtian sound they had crafted earlier on, putting their cards in the epic and doom-y; a sound which they supported perfectly with Jon’s addition to the band. I, of course, celebrate Barren Earth’s entire discography, and I’ll be frank: A Complex of Cages features these Finnish-Faroe melodic deathers still obviously at the top of their game.
A Complex of Cages doesn’t break open Barren Earth’s sound to be something dashingly new. Rather, it shows these Faroe-Finns rocking out mid-paced death riffs, offsetting it with cleaner parts and littering the heaviest sections with borderline orchestral black metal. All of this is built on the sturdy base of Amorphis riffs that permeate nearly every song on the album. “Further Down,” for example, features the kind of winding guitar melodies—counterpoint to the vocals—characteristic of Elegy-era Amorphis. Epic “Solitude Path” is like a Moomin-esque “To Tame a Land,” and in my notes I started short-handing these moments as “Tuonela-melodies.” The band leans heavily on the use of harmonic minor, like many bands from Norden, but there is a specific kind of musical phrasing to these tracks that is uniquely Barren Earth’s.
With this base—a combination of a unique voice and harmonic minor—the band litters the songs with a ton of ideas. Folky acoustics, like on “Ruby,” with an Åkerfeldtian feel on “Dysphoria.” “Spire” features almost OSDM riffing, while “Scattersprey” starts with a 6/8 swing only to end up with wet, keyboard soaked blasts. The material is sneaky progressive at times—the main verse in “Zeal” is in 7/4, while the interlude after the chorus grinds like late-Vomitory.
All of this, of course, is held together by the incredible vocal performance of Jón Aldará. His delivery is dynamic and varied—moving between breathy, dramatic cleans on “Further Down,” to vicious growls on “Dysphoria.” His voice is the thing which takes the riffing and songs over the edge. He has great range, and he evokes emotion without ever feeling melodramatic. They harmonized a lot of his material this time, as well, often giving the main vocal line a single harmony—evoking those classic Amorphis harmonies. Put together, his vocal performance reminds me of Trim from King Goat or a Candelmassian drama; epic, dynamic, and the perfect focus for the album. Barren Earth’s music is far more dynamic than the aforementioned doomsters, but Jón’s voice makes this album excellent. I think he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite vocalists in metal.
Generally speaking, A Complex of Cages sounds pretty good; I had hoped to get the vinyl version for review, to help the band avoid the paragraph about brickwalling and Industry Standard Mastering™, but I’ve listened to the album through a variety of speakers and while one can knit pick, I didn’t find it as fatiguing as its predecessor. And I need to give a shout out to V. Santura’s production, which managed to maintain surprisingly good drum sound for its DR6 master. The biggest knock against A Complex of Cages is that it’s a bit too long. The track that I could most do without is “Solitude Path,” which clocks in at 10+ minutes and reeks of bong water and patchouli. While none of the component parts are bad—in fact, I love the way the song recapitulates the intro at the end, but in a heavier form—it takes 5 minutes to get going and it breaks my immersion. My Angry Metal Attention Deficit Disorder (AMADD) may be the problem, it breaks immersion and is the place where I’m most likely to stop the record.
The final test of whether a record is good comes when the final notes of the last track die out and you are left in silence. If you reach to re-start the thing, then you know that you’re listening to something special. A Complex of Changes always gets me to press play again. The epic melodeath that Barren Earth purveys may be perfectly crafted just for me, of course, but I think that A Complex of Cages is excellent because it balances drama, melody, intensity with artful composition and skill. The addition of Jón Aldára pushed this band from great to excellent, and A Complex of Cages is another hour of beautiful, intense and thoughtful music that will surely excite fans of older Amorphis and melodic death more broadly.