Amorphis is one of those bands that I can never tell whether they take themselves seriously or not. I’m thinking they do. This is a band that really wants you to know how much they love their homeland, Finland. The lyrics to Queen of Time, their 13th release, are vague in every way, but undoubtedly celebrate a romantic idea of the medieval Finnish adventurer. The music is over the top epic, with full orchestra, and a smattering of traditional folk instruments. Basically, if Skyrim was a metal band, it would be Amorphis.
Beyond talking about Kings, mountains, roads and rivers, Queen of Time seeks to make honey “metal”—yes, honey. As the title and cover-art suggest, there is a vague theme of bees and honey to this album, which can clearly lead one to conclude that Amorphis is in the pocket of big honey.
Track one, “The Bee,” is about a bee (a queen, presumably) who flies down to Finnish Hell, referred to as both Tuonela and Manala on the album. The bee finds the skull of a king, and decides to build a hive in the skull. She then “summons the others to crawl inside the chosen skull…and the honey will flow once more.” Any strange imagery like this I have to assume comes from ancient Finnish folklore. Or, these guys are just very imaginative.
This theme carries into track two, “Message in the Amber,” where the opening lines are “Your heart is eternal, like a bee in amber. The distant words in your gaze—drops of blood in honey-stream.” However, that’s the last we will hear about bees in this song. The rest of it is about crumbling castles and such, and the opening narrative is completely abandoned. In fact, we hear nothing of bees or honey for the remainder of the album, and the “queen of time” the title refers to apparently is not a queen bee, as I predicted, but rather a golden elk, which I assume is another character of ancient lore, explored in the track “The Golden Elk.”
The music itself isn’t bad. They utilize a healthy mix of both clean and death vocals on this album, and feature some guest vocals as well. There are a lot of different instruments, and some pretty epic sounds. The guitar melodies, however, are often lackluster or predictable.
The clear strength of this band is Tomi Koivusaari’s harsh vocals. I’m buying the death metal portions of the music. His cadence and rhythms are interesting as well, especially on “Heart of the Giant” where he delivers the lines, “Through a deep crack in the mountain, I slipped.” There’s just a lot of power, aggression, and confidence in how he delivers his lines, which at points makes me forget about the immensely dorky lyrics.
The clean vocals are decent. I actually think Tomi Joutsen’s accent is doing him a lot of favors. It lends his voice an interesting tone, and some much needed depth. You can hear a lot of the back of his throat, and if it sounded even slightly more nasaly, the instruments and lyrics would pull it into a power metal abyss from which it would never escape.
Here’s where we get into matters of taste. It’s my observation, (and I may offend some here) that most fans of progressive metal start out as power metal fans. There is a lot of crossover. However, there is a dorkiness to power metal that many fans abandon as they develop their pallet. I’m being seriously pretentious, I know, but even ardent fans of power metal must acknowledge that the vocals, the lyrics, the symphonic rhythms and the keyboard sounds of power metal are inherently dweeby, and I’m less interested in those components. Alas, Amorphis just is the kind of band that clings to those flavors.
My best advice for this band moving forward—throw that goddamn keyboard in the garbage. Every time I’m really buying what their selling, they come in with this dorky as sin keyboard tone that completely pulls me out of it. I can’t take you seriously when I’m envisioning some dude in a pirate suit diddling around, covering up decent guitar tones with that juvenile nonsense. Either edit your parts, fix your tone, switch to a mellotron, or abandon the keys altogether. Even a regular piano tone would be far better. But again, may just be a matter of taste. Feel free to disagree.
The earliest example of what I’m talking about is about a minute into the album. They are riffing along. It’s building up nicely. We get some atmospheric strings in the background, and then suddenly they go to the most stock riffing I can imagine, and include that dweeby keyboard tone. If you remixed this album and just dropped the keyboard entirely, it would probably move my rating up a whole point. It’s that bad.
As dated as the keyboard sounds are, there are some different things the album does that I think do lend some depth. For instance, at 4:13 of track two, “Message in the Amber,” we get some nice choral vocals. They are subdued, and possibly crowd-sourced. It lends some authentic voices to bring home the melody. These choral vocals that come back throughout the album help to build that epic, mysterious, old-world taste they clearly cherish without coming off too dorky.
But, alas, as soon as this section is done, we go back to a dated, dorky sound with the flute. To be clear, I love flute in my metal, but the melodies are just too predictable. They remind me of Nightwish or something from 20 years ago. I like traditional instruments, but use them in a more subtle or imaginative way. I don’t like a shanty song popping up in the middle of my prog death. I have the same problem with a lot of the guitar riffs. They are often too predictable, simplistic, or dorky. They are not pushing the envelope with the guitars.
Another nice surprise comes up at 2:00 in “Daughter of Hate.” You guessed it, saxophone, the instrument that is taking the metal world by storm. I’m not being sarcastic, here. I love saxophone in my metal. It should feel out of place with all these Scandinavian sounds, and yet, it doesn’t. It’s awesome. This track also showcases some really great death vocals, with some excellent range and diverse inflection. The choral vocals come in to back them up, and it works. At 4:40 we get a spoken word section in Finnish that roughly translates to “When the sky is dark again and the wind brings the passages of the steps, I look forward to the moon outside the shadows. First came corpses. They flicked over the passageway. The old wife is speechless. Your word is the whisper.” Another nice environment-enhancing surprise. Successful track overall.
Track five, “Wrong Direction,” is aptly named. Not only is the music forgettable at best, the lyrics are literally about a dude who just went the wrong direction and got lost. Five minutes of poppy complaining about losing one’s bearings. We do get some interesting digitized vocals at 3:13, but otherwise the song is a complete miss for me.
“Heart of the Giant” begins with the same predictable riffing we should expect at this point. I feel like I’ve heard this intro on every viking metal album ever. At the two minute mark, they abandon their roots and do some interesting things with the vocal melodies. I like the cleans and the harsh vocals here, and how they play off each other. We also get some nicely subtle choral voices in the background. This track makes it clear how much potential this band has if they cared to do a little more experimentation, and editing.
“Amongst Stars,” is the clear choice for a single, and choose it they did. The track heavily features one of my favorite female vocalists, Anneke van Giersbergen of The Gathering. You may remember her as one of two redeemable contributors on the Ayreon album 01011001, along with Jonas Renske. Anneke does a fine job on this track, and I like the interplay between her and Joutsen. The contrast of Koivusaari’s death vocals really emphasizes her voice, and makes the song. As usual, it’s on the verge of being too dorky. The lyrics are very sappy, and oddly feminine, only emphasized by Anneke’s vocals. It reminds me of a plastic lunchbox with a unicorn on it. But then it gets oddly adult with the mention of “golden streams.” MAGA, baby!
Speaking of questionable lyrics, we have to talk about “Pyres on the Coast.” This is literally a song about salmon and eagles tipping off some villagers that marauders are coming. I can’t tell whether the speaker is scared or supremely confident as he proclaims “we know they are coming” over and over again. I’m just going to assume this is derived directly from an old Finnish tale, because it’s pretty silly. Plus, “salmon” and “eagle” are oddly specific for the anthropomorphized lookouts. Still, lucky they were on your side. I can only imagine which animal spies the attackers may have. It’s getting pretty Narnia up in here.
The silliness of “Pyres on the Coast” is a fine illustration of Queen of Time’s downfall. The artists clearly had a vision and the talent to achieve it, their vision is just plain sillier than I prefer. Santeri Kallio laid down those keyboard solos, and everyone was like, “yeah, this works.” The lyrics are goofy, and fail to maintain a clearly sought after concept. The epic portions wander too far into power metal territory, while the guitars yet remain predictable and stale.
It’s clear to me that Amophis are first and foremost a group of buddies who are very passionate about Finland, and don’t care to evolve their sound, and that’s fine. It wouldn’t even bother me if there weren’t moments of immense talent and interesting combinations of sounds sporadically placed throughout Queen of Time. If there was nothing redeemable, I could forget it and move on, but this band could easily be the next Insomnium if their tastes drifted that direction. But I suppose 13 releases in, that’s not likely to happen.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Daughter of Hate”
RELEASE DATE: 5/18/18
FOR FANS OF: Insomnium, Eluveite