It has finally come to pass. A metal band fell so in deeply love with their own music that they just had to release a TRIPLE album. Not a three part conceptual piece stretching over several years, mind you, but three (3) full albums dropped at once for fans to have a righteously extended soak in. I suppose it’s no surprise it was Swallow the Sun that broke down the gates of self-restraint. Their releases have always been long-winded treatises on sadness and even their Plague of Butterflies “EP” ran over an hour. Songs of the North I, II, and III collectively run over two and a half hours (153+ minutes), and that’s obviously a lot of plodding Finnish doom/death for the average bloke to slog through. When you realize Pink Floyd‘s legendary double album The Wall ran a scant 81 minutes, the sheer insanity of the thing becomes clear. Somehow the Herculean task of reviewing this fell to me, and before I set off into the endless northern freeze, I think it’s essential to develop the context in which to view this elephantine monstrosity. Had the band dropped these discs over the course of several years, one could logically assume they wanted you to consider each installment as a separate but related piece of music capable of standing on its own merits (see Vanden Plas). By releasing all three at once, the obvious assumption is that this was intended to be experienced in all its mammoth entirety. For better or worse, that’s the prism through which this monsterwork will be vivisected.
The first thing that jumps out at the listener is the strange track sequencing. The first and longest disc is what could be considered classic Swallow the Sun: sad, mid-tempo doom/death. The second disc is entirely composed of melancholy, somewhat folksy goth-rock with a lot of Anathema, Ghost Brigade and Tiamat influences, and not one iota of harsh vocals or heavy riffage. The final disc is hugely ponderous, funeral doomesque material with much less regard for accessibility or memorability. With the music segregated thusly, it’s easy for the listener to play by individual preference, but it makes listening to the collection as a whole a pretty disjointed experience.
The traditionally flavored material is all good with a few great moments. “Rooms and Shadows” is an interesting blend of Insomnium, Amorphis and Tiamat and it grabs the listener from the start. The Amorphis vibe is especially strong and sounds like something off Am Universum at times. Mikko Kotamäki distinguishes himself here with great clean singing alongside the uber guttural death roars. “Lost and Catatonic” recalls Brave Murder Day era Katatonia with a brilliant mix of deathly and clean vocals on what is a haunting example of bleak, but rocking melo-death. “From Happiness to Dust” brings out the mid-period Anathema tricks with its stripped down, bare bones presentation and tragically sad emotional palette. “Heartstrings Shattering” also commands attention by borrowing effectively from the goth-infused beauty of Draconian Times era Paradise Lost. The result is a sad, introspective piece with exquisitely somber, reflective guitar work and downcast clean vocals.
Despite the considerable strength of the opening platter, it’s the second disc where things really take off and fly. It’s here the band departs from the doom/death genre entirely for an extended exploration of sad goth and indie/alt-rock, borrowing extensively from the likes of Anathema, Tiamat and the mellower side of acts like Agalloch and Black Sun Aeon. It’s a beautiful journey from start to finish and it may be one of the best albums of the year. “Heart of a Cold White Land” is a chillingly morose gem with gorgeous acoustic guitar work and perfectly glum vocals from Mikko, It’s like a more mellow Ghost Brigade mixed with A Swarm of the Sun and it will haunt your dreams. “Away” is dreamy, hypnotic Anathema worship, and “Pray for the Winds to Come” is a sad, reflective tune with fragile guitars and frail vocals. It’s folksy and downbeat but gorgeous and perfect for watching the snow fall. As the disc winds out wistfully with “Before the Summer Dies,” you’re left in a state of shock that this bittersweet emotional voyage happened in the midst of a crushing death doom project. There are no weak moments on this disc and the entire run-time is a depressive delight.
After two impressive discs, the collective gets dragged downward by the final act which is almost uniformly plodding, mega-heavy funeral doom. It’s well executed and generally more listenable than much of the genre, but the sheer length of the songs and the fact they comes at the ass end of an already humongous listening session (an hour and forty minutes) makes it a mighty tough river to ford. Opener “Gathering of the Black Moths” is particularly merciless at thirteen minutes, and despite some effective and gripping moments (especially Mikko’s insane screaming), it’s a lot to wade through. While only “7 Hours Late” feels like a complete bust, the songs here are just not as captivating as a whole and if you came through gates I and II first, fatigue will cut your legs out from under you. Only parts of each song really resonated with me, with “Abandoned by the Light” being the best of the bunch.
Musically speaking, there’s obviously a cosmic ass-ton to dwell on here, but the biggest impression is made by Mikko. He was already a respected vocalist for his back catalog and work with Barren Earth and Kuolemanlaakso, but Songs of the North is his magnum opus. The sheer variety of vocal styles he utilizes is breathtaking and his clean singing across discs I and especially II is phenomenal. Add to that one of the best cavernous death roars in the industry and you truly have something special in a front man. Markus Jamsen and Juha Raivio also impress with a large collection of crushing doom riffs and an even more shocking collection of gentle goth-tinged harmonies. Along with the exceptional keyboards of Aleski Munter, they weave all sorts of sad, despairing webs over the epic length of the three discs. Munter’s piano segments are particularly poignant, especially on “The Womb of Winter.” Under the pressure to create so much music all at once, it’s hard to imagine any band could have done much better than these chaps did and they should be proud of themselves.
You really have to hand it to Swallow the Sun for attempting such an ambitious project and doing such a good job with it. The sheer volume of material here is so great, absorbing it becomes a daunting prospect few will have the patience and intestinal fortitude for, and that’s a shame because much of the material is good and some is truly great. But that’s the curse of the triple album – the artist gives so much, but in this age of instant gratification and attention deficits, it ultimately becomes too much for most to assimilate. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though, since the extended journey Swallow the Sun painstakingly laid out for you is one well worth taking. Mileage will certainly vary and most will simply poach the parts they like and create their own playlist, but that doesn’t in any way lessen the achievement here, which is significant and impressive.
Editor’s Note: Although this package includes three complete CDs of music, Century Media is selling it for $13.00. You can argue the merits of a triple album all day long but the band/label is certainly giving the listener a massive amount of music for the price of a standard album. A bargain is a bargain.