Steel Druhm has been banging the drum for little known Finnish act Noumena for quite some time. Ever since stumbling on them, I’ve been a huge fan of their brand of morose, melodic death and I spin their Absence and Anatomy of Life albums all the damn time at Casa de Steelo. In fact, I think Anatomy of Life stands as one of the finest examples of melo-death ever recorded. It had all the quintessentially Finnish “dead puppy under the Christmas tree” melancholy you’ve come to expect from countrymen Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum and Rapture, mixed with the guitar wizardry of early In Flames and rounded out with haunting female vocals (and winning guest vocals from Tuomas Tuominen of Fall of the Leafe/Man-Eating Trees to boot). Because it was so good, it was highly vexatious that they went into limbo immediately after releasing it and were not heard from again for seven long years. After making me wait so long for a follow-up to that classic, I was expecting copious amounts of superb make up metal to scratch that seven year itch. While Death Walks With Me was a long time in the making and is the first to feature female vocalist Suvi Uura, all the things I loved about their sound are still there and they haven’t lost their flair for somber, beautifully emotional and downcast music. It can’t quite match the brilliance of Anatomy, but after such a lengthy layoff, this is a very impressive return to form featuring some top flight tunes guaranteed to bring Finnish gloom to your living room.
The Noumena sound isn’t arcane or revolutionary by any means. They employ many of the same elements that made the last few Omnium Gatherum albums so great. The guitars perpetually trill and overflow with rich, melodic harmonies while Antti Haapanen spews sub-basement death growls (at times almost approaching the nether regions inhabited by Mr. Chris Barnes himself). The addition of Suvi’s pristine, but haunted vocals adds an extra layer of Scandinavian grimness and the band has a knack for dropping her in at just the right moment. Opener “Handful of Dust” is much like their older material, but more rocked out, with aggressive leads and a lively, almost joyous mood (it’s Finnish, so “joyous” is entirely contextual). The fret-work of Ville Lamminaho and Tuukka Toumela is just as engaging and tasty as it was on the earlier albums and they churn out one irresistibly hooky riff after another as the song rolls along effortlessly.
The album features both straight ahead melo-death numbers like “Play Dead” and the title track, and more moody, gothy tunes where Suvi gets to shine, as on “Sleep,” “Nothing” and “Sundown.” Both styles work well and the back-and-forth breaks the album up and keeps things interesting. “Sleep” mixes in acoustic guitars and a soft mood and the way Suvi’s sad vocals play off Antti’s roars reminds of recent Black Sun Aeon material like “Solitude.” It drips with mood and emotion and it’s tailor-made for a cold winter night’s drinking and dark reflections. Beautiful and powerful all at once and expertly wrought.
Though I was impressed by almost all the songs, I really gravitated to the mid-paced, rocking churn of “Let It Run Red,” which channels the better moments of Insomnium and is full of tasty guitar harmonies. Other songs tickling my pickle include “Mysteries of Motion” with its stellar, Rapture-esque riffing and frigid feel; the richly gothic, ghostly charm of “Season of Suffocation” where Suvi is backed by forlorn riffs, ghostly saxophone and more despondency than you’d find at the average hospice; and lastly, the very Woods of Ypres-like closer, “Sundown.” This one is painfully unhappy and when Antti chants “this is my life, and I’m not good at it” as mournful cellos/violins sigh in the background, it’s enough to turn your blood to ice. Fucking dark stuff!
Of the bunch, “Only the Silent” is the sole track that failed to impress due to a rather generic approach and the lack of their usual mega-hooky riffing. While there are no songs here to equal prior classics like “Monument of Pain” or “Prey of the Tempter,” the level of writing is surprisingly high considering the long time away and it’s almost like there was no break in the band’s productivity. I was surprised by the amount of mellower material here and while I liked it all, I could have done with more outright aggression. Still, songs like the title track get points for mixing elements of black metal into the riffing.
Death Walks With Me was up against some very high expectations and for the most part, they met and exceeded them (except for the cover, which reminds me of the last Steel Druhm family camping trip). If you like any of the big names in Finnish melo-death, you’d be insane not to check this out and eagerly hunt down their back catalogue. These guys are one of the best in the business and criminally overlooked. Don’t be a criminal overlooker! Steel Druhm can’t beat the Noumena drum all by his lonesome.