A couple of years back I reviewed the sophomore album from Finland’s Oceanwake. I commended their compelling fusion of sheer power with delicate atmospherics and it made my year-end list. They’ve now returned with Earthen and the scope is huger than ever. Comprising just two tracks of over 20 minutes apiece, I feared drone and repetition had taken hold. The succeeding album to the one with which I discover a good band is always a dicey affair as I have expectations as to quality and style. And so it was with trepidation that I clicked play…
…but I am delighted to report that my fears were unfounded. Earthen is recognizably still Oceanwake but it hikes the moody, atmospheric qualities from Sunless. It’s more expansive — almost progressive — and is simultaneously more subtle and denser. The compositions are not wanting for layers and depth as the bass is pleasingly audible and three or four guitar melodies harmonize or counter-point. This is especially apparent in the quieter passages, whereas the heavier bits focus on beefing up the leading riffs. Demystifying these layers is a legitimately joyous task as the melodies are amazingly evocative. Indeed, the vocal range used is also broader than before. The guttural growls are as savage as ever but a raspier timbre is also used occasionally which makes for pleasing variation. The cleans are also strengthened by the greater use of backing chants, conferring grandiosity but also addressing their prior lack of depth. The upshot is that Earthen is an improvement on Sunless which was itself great.
The two tracks balance well too. The second half of Earthen on “In Amidst the Silent Thrones” is stompier and destructive with longer passages of hard-hitting riffs. Just 30 seconds pass before you’re first struck and particular ideas are used as a refrain throughout, both in the quieter melodies and heavy riffs. This results in a more immediately engaging listen than “Storm Sermon” as it’s faster and recognizable moments recur. But on balance I prefer the opener. It’s the more measured, never ranging far from an emotive interlude and only using a few, very deliberate leads. Yet its music is the best I’ve heard this year thus far: it traverses moods, textures, and riffs but is paced perfectly. At no point do I feel that any part overstays its welcome yet neither is its run fragmented.
Musically there’s very little to fault. The greatest criticisms I have regard Earthen‘s production. The bizarre and frustrating decision was taken to downgrade a dynamic range of 8 previously to 4 here. Extended periods of heaviness (granted, these are few) are consequently ear-ringing after a couple of minutes. In the plentiful quieter and moodier passages, this limited range is similarly negative as an expanded soundstage would allow real contrasts in sound and finer detailing. Bands with loud and quiet elements are those which would benefit most obviously from good dynamics and so it’s true here. There’s also weird fuzz on the clean guitars. It’s much too obvious to be accidental and beyond lending an aura of distance, it’s perhaps utilized with too heavy a hand. However, the bass is more audible this time and the mix is always clear. It’s very satisfying to be able to pick out individual layers in the denser compositions.
So while there are production problems Earthen is otherwise a consummate improvement over Sunless. I truly am a sucker for dynamic song-writing comprising heavy and lighter passages but it’s rarely executed so well as here. And while the mood shifts the mournfulness, dejection and… well… DOOM of the genre is never forgotten. This is the first great record of the year that I’ve heard and it will feature in my writing again come December.