Longtime readers may recognize the name Crimfall, as I’ve beaten the drum in their favor two times previously: 2009’s As the Path Unfolds… and 2011’s The Writ of Sword. These two records were the first two parts of a four-part cycle, for which I was very excited back in 2011. That excitement waned, however, when 2013 came and went and the band’s gifted singer, Helena Haaparanta, left the band. Crimfall then went into hibernation. They surfaced briefly with news about a new singer, a single, and the possibility of a new album back in 2014, only to fade back into the mists. In March of 2015, the band began uploading videos of the making of the third album. This continued, with pictures of different singers and guest musicians along the way—Netta Skog (Ensiferum, ex-Turisas), Emmi Silvennoinen (ex-Ensiferum), vocal choirs, and even a (slightly NSFW) picture of the reference shots which became the cover art for Amain. Hope bloomed for real again on January 1st of 2016, they announced officially that Helena had rejoined the band.
One year ago—almost exactly—the band headed off to Fascination Street Studios in Örebro to “finalize the album,” the ending to “this 5 year long battle.” They announced the album was finished on the 30th of September, 2016, but no release announcement appeared. Despite the Herculean efforts of a cast of actors the size of a DreamWorks production list, the “third album” seemed to be sitting in someone’s vault, with no label ready to release it. I had kind of assumed that there would be no third Crimfall album, until I heard that Amain would be released by Metal Blade records in “early summer.” Then, in late June, the street date was finally announced and the album was given a name. Amain was set to be released on August 25th—1 year after they finished recording, and fully 4 years after they demoed the album’s opening track “The Last Stands” in, I can only assume, the hope of securing a new record deal after being dropped by Spinefarm. Six years have passed since I wrote, “my guess is that […] the follow up [to Writ of Sword] in a couple years will be even better.” Was I right?
Every new album has resulted in a development in Crimfall‘s sound. As the Path Unfolds… eased comparisons to Nightwish, while being upbeat and folky: with a nod to Finntroll‘s Visor om slutet or Nattfödd. The follow-up, The Writ of Sword—the winter album—added the sound and feel of Moonsorrow and October Falls to the band’s tapestry. Writ‘s songs were longer, with a black metal edge and a bleak feel. As one might expect, Amain—the Spring album in the cycle1—steps away from this black metal edge, and introduces a sound that is both gentler and more taciturn, with strains of the bombast the band lost during the winter. However, if this is spring, it is a Scandinavian spring: cold and dour, with winter still licking at your heels, until the world explodes with colors and scents.2 This seasonal juxtaposition is heard in opener “The Last Stands,” which balances something akin to Ensiferum with Lumsk.
Crimfall‘s sound is well-honed and original for two reasons. First, Crimfall has two fantastic singers: Mikko and Helena. Helena is one of the most talented vocalists in metal. Her voice is full and throaty and her approach to the music is powerful and dynamic. While she doesn’t go really ‘operatic’ on Amain, she does use her dynamic voice to joik, accent songs with silsul—or the vocal trills associated with music from MENA—as well as rocking a very strong, straight ‘pop’ delivery. Her range is large—hitting some pretty high notes along the way, like on the opening track—and her voice peppers musical arrangements in a way that never detracts from them. Mikko is a dynamic screamer, who has a classic power metal delivery introduced on Amain for the first time [turns out, this is wrong; the part I’m referring to is actually a guest vocal appearance from Rob Lundgren of Aldaria – Ed.]. When Helena’s voice is combined with Mikko’s screams, growls and [the vocal backers’] harmonies, it weaves one of the best vocal tapestries in metal since Ásmegin’s unimpeachable Hin vordende sod & sø.
Second, Jakke Viitala’s compositions are fresh and adroit, using the more mournful side of Amain to great effect. These moments—”Songs of Mourn,” “Dawn without a Sun,” for example—do a great job of differentiating Crimfall from peer comparisons. And Amain outdoes itself in terms of its orchestrations. The orchestras swell, and savvy arrangements gird Viitala’s excellent sense of melody. The orchestrations, in the whole tapestry, remind me of Turisas‘ best work: detailed, cinematic, and engrossing.3 Combined, the musical and vocal talent contained on Amain are impressive. The extraordinary efforts exhibited here pay off in a sound that is unique and accessible, detailed and anthemic. Amain is a towering accomplishment.
While Amain towers, however, minor cracks in its base are just visible (er, audible?). The development of the softer side to the band’s sound introduces untested performances and ideas into the tapestry which prove hard to execute on a couple of occasions. “Far from Every Fate” is a great song on the back-half, but the young woman’s spoken voice nudges dangerously close to [Luca Turilli’s] Rhapsody [of Fire]-style “funny due to a lack of self-distance.” Similarly, “It’s a Long Road” is an epic song that borders on power metal, but the 80 seconds of guest vocalist Rob Lundgren’s cleans which start it off stumble; sounding undisciplined and flat. Such fumbles seem bizarrely out of place in an otherwise so diligently crafted and perfected work of art like Amain, and are fortunately few and far-between.
The bigger problem is that like most everything coming out of Fascination Street these days, Amain is brickwalled. It’s a “better” listen if you don’t normalize your library—thus living in the illusion of dynamics induced by loudness—but the album clearly suffers from an Industry Standard Mastering Job even then. The production, while expertly balanced and layered, obfuscates the band’s vision.4 It does not ruin the album for me—it’s very rare that production totally kills good music—but it leaves me wondering what this would have sounded like if given room to breathe.
Crimfall is Finland’s best kept secret, and I hope that Amain—which is a testament to the work ethic and genius of this gritty band—is a step toward correcting that. The fact that Crimfall never backed down speaks to the vision—and bullheadedness—of its members. Fortunately, Amain demonstrates that belief in their vision was well-founded. Aside from minor quibbles (and longstanding critiques of the music industry), I think Amain is a great addition to the Crimfall catalog. These guys are quietly creating a discography that’s rewarding to listen to from front-to-back. Listening to the three albums in a row makes me appreciate every compositional choice even more, and the subtle differences between the albums emphasize the under-appreciated vision of Crimfall.
- Though, with Wintersun having put out the flabby, piece-of-shit publicity stunt that simultaneously managed to insult the legacy of Antonio Vivaldi and the power and purpose of crowdfunding, the band have elected to not emphasize this. All of this surely proves that there is no justice in this world and that Amain was probably cursed. ↩
- But Scandinavians call that “summer,” having essentially skipped spring altogether ↩
- The kind of thing that drove Nygård to start writing stripped down records because they stressed him the fuck out. ↩
- This, of course, leads to the following questions which no one will ever deign to answer but which I can’t help but ask: Why use real violins when you’re going to rob them of their dynamic range? If you won’t master your intro track like the rest of the album—because you want the epic, lush sound, why would you master the rest of the album like that? It feels like an admission that you want it to be more dynamic—to have the lush textures of orchestras and the rumble of real bass. ↩