Remember when Tom Cruise got cast as The Last Samurai in 2003? Some people on the Internet really do, and take time out of what must be a rich and fulfilling life to vomit up prose so salty it gives Dutch licorice a run for its money. Naturally it’s made into a sociopolitical issue, but I’m going to leave that alone because I’m not a fifth-rate hack who feels compelled to use the metal blog I write for as a soapbox to spew typo-laden opinions on contemporary politics and the like. Anyway, Mr. Cruise remained The Last Samurai for about a year, because in 2004 Finnish Samurai metal band Whispered came into existence. Twelve years on they’re still alive and kicking, releasing their third full-length Metsutan: Songs of the Void. This is great for those upset by the 2003 Last Samurai, because if a remake is commissioned Hollywood can finally fix the most grievous error in that film: the lack of a Finnish samurai metal soundtrack.
Like pirates, samurais didn’t have a rich tradition of musical metal in their history, so samurai metal is more fun and attention-grabbing than usefully descriptive. Whispered play catchy melodic death metal a la Children of Bodom mixed with Japanese music that, in my admittedly limited experience with Eastern culture, reminds me of the soundtrack to Asura’s Wrath. Because this is Finnish melo-death, you’ll hear plenty of riffs and melodies that call Mors Principium Est to mind, along with a whole whack of blast beats. The Eastern stylings of Wintersun’s Time I also make an appearance, particularly the interplay between the guitars and traditional-sounding Eastern instruments and the more mid-paced and ponderous moments. The whole thing is wrapped in the over-the-top stylings of power metal, which means Whispered is free to embrace the grandiosity that would accompany the soundtrack to a massive cinematic battle without having it sounds out of place, arbitrary, or forced.
“Sakura Omen” is a good example of what Whispered does right. It mixes the high-energy chugging of newer Children of Bodom with melodies that alternate between sounding Finnish and Japanese, succeeding mightily at both. Much of closing epic “Bloodred Shores of Enoshima” sounds like unreleased highlights of Time I mixed with Finnish melo-death and Continental symphonic bits. Everything is integrated well, it wastes no time, and ends Metsutan on an epic and triumphant note. The interplay between guitars and Japanese instrumentation in “Tsukiakari” is gorgeous, and its eight minutes flies by as a result. The chorus riff in “Kensei” sounds like Children of Bodom visits-the-Orient-core, and I say this as a compliment; say what you will about Laiho and his merry crew, but it’s hard to deny that they’ve got a knack for hooks. The surprisingly effective breakdown-ish bit uses Japanese chanting in the background wonderfully before leading into an excellent solo and a downright rhapsodic bridge.
There’s not much of Metsutan that warrants complaint. The production reminds of the last Mors Principium Est record: a bit loud, clean, and pristine. Melodic death metal works well enough when framed like this, so the somewhat compressed production wasn’t an issue here. For whatever reason parts of “Exile of the Floating World” remind me of a circus, and while it’s good it definitely pales in comparison to the other material here. I found myself wishing there was more of “Victory Grounds Nothing” and its Wintersun-isms; in less than three and a half minutes, it packs a wonderfully cheesy voiceover bit, powerful clean vocal driven chorus, an impressive solo, and a soundtrack-like interlude into a tight and efficient structure that could have added a couple extra minutes and still been great. “Warriors of Yama” is a three minute interlude, but it’s actually good enough to be enjoyed a la carte. Intro track “Chi No Odori” isn’t as good, but manages to set up the addictive “Strike!” and Metsutan as a whole perfectly.
I’ll fully admit to grabbing Metsutan because I thought it would be hilarious instead of good, but I’m happy to admit that I was way off the mark there. Do Whispered come across as gimmicky? Absolutely; look at the band picture, which one could be forgiven for thinking is a promotional still for an upcoming fighting game. Is this more gimmicky than obnoxious blasphemy, sci-fi and horror obsessions, or Viking shtick? I think not; Metsutan is the sound of a band embracing their sound and idea instead of distancing themselves from it with hipster aloofness, avoiding what Roger Scruton calls pre-emptive kitsch. This isn’t a sophisticated parody of “[insert a theme] metal” that consciously tries to be so ridiculous that it suggests a deeper meaning or parody; this is quality melodic death metal that wants to entertain and invigorate us. In this, Whispered succeeds.