Barren Earth may be the only band I ever forgive for not giving me an audition to be their vocalist. After it was announced that Mikko Kotamäki (Swallow the Sun) was leaving the band and that they were publicly searching for a singer, I screwed up my courage and dropped them an email with some songs. Being that I am “the standard by which all should be judged” (which is why I started a blog), I was duly shocked, dismayed and offended that they never even sent me a kindly rejection letter. Nay, despite my obvious superiority over my inevitable competition and home just across the gulf of Bothnia (duty free, motherfuckers!), Barren Earth turned their tacit, Finnish backs to my email. So I’ve been working on a brutal take down of the obvious amateur they were going to replace Mikko with when the record that we now know is called On Lonely Towers came out. Unfortunately, I had to tear up the notes on which I had scribbled my not-at-all-self-aggrandizing introduction, because I have at last met my match.
Jón Aldará (of the Faroese funeral doomsters Hamferð) should be a household name after On Lonely Towers releases. While I will get into what makes Barren Earth work musically later, this just needs to be said: rarely has a vocalist been replaced in a metal band as successfully as Aldará’s takeover of the microphone o’ doom for these Finnish post-Amorpethers1. On Lonely Towers is a record dominated by one of the most unique and powerful voices that heavy metal has ever heard. Aldará’s clean tones are throaty, likely untrained, but rich and full of heart. He sings like a man whose emotions want to burst out of his chest, only to have been siphoned off via his throat just in time. His growls are brutal and raspy, and while they don’t separate him so much from his predecessor, he brings a power to the music that few vocalists will or, well, can muster.
It helps that Barren Earth has found its way again compositionally after a sophomore record that I haven’t listened to since it was released. Given the power of debut Curse of the Red River, I have a very special place in my heart for these guys; but a sophomore slump and a new vocalist could well have meant that their days of promise were over. Fortunately, On Lonely Towers is an epic record loaded to the brim with songs that show the band at its very best. Barren Earth‘s sound ca 2015 is a great combination of what reminds me of Elegy era Amorphis, with a touch of Opeth-y death riffery (which has begun to take more of a back seat compared to the earlier material), and mixed in with a healthy dose of doom that puts the overall tone of this record close to The Devil’s Resolve.
On Lonely Towers is a long record, but it bursts out the gate for the first 26 minutes with a brilliant series of tracks. These demonstrate Aldará’s vocal acuity while showing off that a few years down has sharpened the band’s riffing dramatically. “Howl” is immense, starting out with a hook that got me invested in the record immediately, and immediately evokes Amorphis in what I can only assume is Oppu Laine’s influence, before dropping into dirgey doom metal stylings. While “Frozen Processions” has a gorgeous keyboard intro and is a generally straight-forward rocker, it has a transcendent chorus when Aldará’s cleans break loose. And after the doomy “A Shapeless Derelict,” the record crests into what might be the best song on the record: “Set Alight,” a song that is simultaneously moody and noodly, and has so much going on that it crackles like bottled lightning!
The crest of “Set Alight” crashes pretty hard on the title track “On Lonely Towers,” which breaks the flow of an otherwise stellar album. At nearly 12 minutes long, it’s a song that is less than the sum of its parts. While the introduction is moody and beautiful, and the outro of the track features some excellent guitar work from axemen Perttilä and Yli-Sirniö, there’s a stretch of about 4 and a half minutes in the middle that probably should just have been edited out. Still, “Chaos of the Songs Within” picks up the flow again and closer “The Vault” features some spectacular melodic work at about the halfway mark through its 11:07 that wanders into Camel territory and makes the prog nerd in me jump for joy.
At 64 minutes, though, On Lonely Towers creaks under its own weight. Ironically, for me, the weakest link is the title track itself. When I remove that from the playlist, I think the album flows with beautiful feel and feels like a whole that is even greater than all of its individual songs: a truly cohesive record. When I listen to the album with “On Lonely Towers” included, the flow crumbles right in the middle and I have trouble picking up the pieces. And while I’m complaining: DR6. Sure, the sound isn’t horrible, but it’s pretty flat once I normalized it, and that’s always a disappointment coming from a band whose currency is their dynamic sound and their moody atmosphere.
But when all is said and done On Lonely Towers is still a mighty record from a band with new-found life in a vocalist who is truly among the most unique I have ever heard, and who leaves his own mark on Barren Earth. On Lonely Towers is a powerful, exciting return to form for Finland’s superest of super group and is neck-and-neck with other amazing records released in March in the running for Record o’ the Month.