By now we all know Tuomas Saukkonen is a force of nature. He’s Finland’s metal juggernaut as surely as Rogga Johansson is Sweden’s, and over the decades he’s created some brilliant music with Before the Dawn, Black Sun Aeon and Dawn of Solace. Several years ago and for reasons unknown, he folded all his bands and started fresh with Wolfheart. He played all the instruments on 2013s Winterborn debut and though good, it was so much like his past projects, I questioned why he folded them in the first place. Now he’s back with Shadow World, backed by a full band and offering a more fully realized vision of what the new entity is about. There’s an increased black metal influence alongside the traditional melo-death style Tuomas is known for, and all the expected nods to fellow countrymen Amorphis and Insomnium are here as well. The album itself however, is perplexingly opaque. Although it contains beautiful moments, amazing playing and interesting ideas, these don’t often come together into cohesive and memorable songs. It has a very comfortable and familiar sound, but something somewhere is definitely missing.
Things begin quite well with the very Amorphis-esque keys of “Aeon of Cold.” Before long, things leap into furious blackened trems and blastbeats, and from there the tempo varies between angry oppression and somber introspection. Of note is the riff at 1:58, which is so simple yet grandiose, it validates why I’ve been following this man’s career so closely. The song is aided greatly by the gorgeous solo-work of Mika Lammassaari (Eternal Tears of Sorrow) which oozes emotion and provides a glimpse of what Wolfheart can be when everything clicks together.
“Zero Gravity” is another strong entry, mixing the classic Black Sun Aeon sound with Insomnium and dazzling with compelling harmonies and spectacular solos. The chorus has genuine heft and gravitas, but I can’t help but think it would pop so much more with clean vocals rather than Tuomas’s death roars. Still, this is the kind of music we expect from the man – heavy but tasteful and classy.
Things remain good throughout, but there’s a noticeable drop off in quality after the opening one-two punch. Tracks like “Storm Centre” and “Last of All Winters” have excellent moments where the mix of black metal, folk and traditional Finnish melo-death is near perfect, but there’s always a palpable feeling that we’ve heard this before in one of Tuomas’ defunct projects. This feeling permeates much of Shadow World, and while no song is outright bad, few jump out and seize the love bone. Numbers like “Abyss” and “Resistance” also feel a bit like leftovers from a Before the Dawn recording session. Closer “Veri” is the longest song at just over eight minutes and the only one that shakes things up by adopting a slower, doom-centric approach. The change of pace is a good one, though it comes late in the game, and the song is quite beautifully rendered. However, there’s nothing there that compels me to hear it again and again.
And that’s the big problem here: many of the songs are enjoyable while on but leave little or no lasting impression. You can appreciate the musicianship but things feel overly familiar, and aside from the first few songs, the album lacks the hooks to keep drawing you back. While the overall quality of the music may partially offset this problem for some, many of the tracks feel like they’re lacking whatever is intrinsically essential for repeat plays.
That’s quite a shame too because musically, Shadow World has a lot going for it. The contribution from Mika is huge and his weeping leads and gorgeous solos demand the listener’s attention whenever they appear. Along with some well placed piano, they provide a measure of grandeur and beauty reminiscent of vintage Amorphis. Vocally, Tuomas sticks exclusively to his death roars and while they’re good, there are several moments where clean vocals would make a huge difference, if for no other reason than providing contrast.
This is a slightly richer, more diverse platter of songs than Winterborn, but the problems that surfaced there are still present here. I’ll always be a fan of Tuomas’ writing, but so far, Wolfheart has yet to find their legs and run with the pack like they should. I get the feeling when they do, it’ll be a howling success, but for now, something is holding them back and I hope it won’t result in any chewing off of limbs. Good, but should be better.