Swallow the Sun – Moonflowers Review

There hasn’t been much positivity coming from the Swallow the Sun camp these last few years. The tragic passing of guitarist Juha Raivio’s partner and Trees of Eternity collaborator Aleah Stanbridge led to a grief-driven release from Raivio’s Hallatar project as well as the dour When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light from this group. Years pass and pain diminishes, but based on what we get on Moonflowers, it seems Mr. Raivio is still struggling to get back to the light. Written during the forced isolation and uncertainty of the COVID outbreak in 2020, Moonflowers is all about the crushing of one’s hopes and an inescapable sense of self-disappointment. The minimalist cover art was done by Raivio using his own blood, as if to emphasize just how personal the material and the pain are to him. It definitely comes across over the 52 minutes of funereal introspection offered here, and few will emerge from a focused listen without feeling saturated in 50 shades of grey ennui. Can Swallow the Sun make that experience one you want to endure and return to?

Not necessarily at first. Moonflowers is the textbook Swallow the Sun album in that it’s not an immediate experience. Mired in their grim, goth-meets-doom-death sound, everything is bleaker than everything else, and aside from the cover art, there’s very little in the way of color to be found in these ash-filled barrens. The material isn’t very heavy and it’s rarely aggressive, relying on extended passages of Katatonia-ish, A Swarm of the Sun-esque weepy sadboi fare, punctuated by outbursts of doom-death for dramatic effect. Songs like “Moonflowers Bloom in Misery” and the lengthy “Woven Into Sorrow” are beautiful in their austere depiction of despair, and the pain that flowed into the writing is palpable. Album highlight “All Hallow’s Grieve” brings Oceans of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert in for a painfully poignant duet with Mikko Kotamäki that will have you wiping at imaginary dust in your eyes. It’s the tear-jerking emotional center of the album and it’s impossible to hear and not reflect back on the loss of Aleah Stanbridge.

Other highlights include the more direct, “accessible” mope-rock of “Enemy” and “The Void” where the band get as close as they likely ever will to casually enjoyable music (which isn’t very). However, some songs don’t get where they’re going with as much success. “Keep Your Heart Safe from Me” is heavier and more urgent at times, shimmering darkly with hints of Ghost Brigade. When the death roars hit they make an impact crater, but it’s way too long at nearly 8 minutes and the clock watching starts around the fifth minute. The same issues infect “The Fight of Your Life” despite nods to Anathema, A Swarm of the Sun, and oddly enough, Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity.” And while the introduction of scorching black metal in closer “This House Has No Name” is unexpected and jarring after marinating in so much abject mourning, it isn’t that memorable of a song to wrap up with. Even some of the better tracks like “Woven Into Sorrow” drag by the end. Tighten a few of these numbers up and you have a much better overall experience.

As with every Swallow the Sun outing, Mikko Kotamäki’s versatile vocals guide the listener through the haze of despair. His clean, plaintive vocals are the near-perfect vehicle for the massively depressive lyrics Raivio crafted. You can feel the hurt in his delivery and when he switches to his death roars, it’s like a tidal wave of raw emotion cascading down Mt. Doom. These death vocals are used sparingly, and perhaps too much so.1 They also lack the raw, primal power they had on platters like The Morning Never Came and Hope. They do still supply a crucial dose of intensity though, which a lot of the music here can be accused of lacking. Juha Raivio and Juho Räihä once again do their best to drag the listener down with all manner of stark, gothy noodling and doomy trilling. They achieve moments of beauty and emotion, though a lot of their playing centers around Katatonia-meets-The Cure minimalism.

Definitely a mood album, Moonflowers requires the listener be in a very specific state of mind for it to work its depressive magic.2 It’s a wee bit less memorable and consistent than When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light, and might not lend itself to frequent replays, and I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool sadman. It does grow with repeated listens though and it will make for a soul-annihilating spin on a dark winter’s night. Moonflowers bloom in the dark of night, and this platter resides in perpetual grey. I sincerely hope Mr. Raivio can find a different path for himself and feel the warmth of the sun again someday.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Century Media
Website: facebook.com/swallowthesun
Releases Worldwide: November 19th, 2021

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Which is the inverse situation from Khemmis, oddly enough.
  2. A second disc includes instrumental versions of the songs with strings and orchestration.
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