Amorphis, Tuonela (1999)
I’m not even gonna feign impartiality on this one. I love this album, and that’s why we’re ending the week with it. Finland’s Amorphis released Tuonela in 1999 on Relapse Records. It was their fourth full-length, and like the preceding 1996 outing, Elegy — which was a landmark in a discography that continues to grow — it stepped away from the deathly beginnings of their earliest works in 1992’s debut LP, The Karelian Isthmus, 1993’s Privilege of Evil EP and 1994’s sophomore outing, Tales from the Thousand Lakes, which for many is the standard by which the rest of their catalog is measured. Many, but not me. I love Tuonela like I’ve loved few records in my life. It’s my ultimate springtime album, and as we move this coming week into May, I can’t help but return to it once again to pay seasonal homage.
The last decade or so — really since 2006’s Eclipse; we’ll get there — has found Amorphis settled into a blend of nuanced folk-informed progressive rock and death metal, and while in large part the model they’ve been following has been based on Elegy, from where I sit, Tuonela hit the stylistic meld better. It doesn’t go as far into melodic heavy rock as either of the two subsequent albums, 2001’s also-stellar Am Universum and 2003’s somewhat meandering Far from the Sun — the highlight of which was an acoustic bonus track of the title-cut — but Tuonela songs like opener “The Way,” “Divinity,” “Morning Star,” wistful-but-still-rocking closer “Summer’s End” and the one-into-the-next pair of “Tuonela” and “Greed” at the heart of the offering are absolute standouts in their energy and execution, driven by memorable songwriting and what was then a course of progression that proceeded across everything Amorphis released. If inclined, one could chart Amorphis‘ growth from one record into the following with little trouble; from their raw beginnings, they became a band of wide melodic range and progressive mentality. The classic heavy rock organ added to “Morning Star” and “Shining” for example, or the nuanced push of the riff to “Nightfall” and the later choppy swirl of “Withered” — all of these feed into a linear, very-much-of-the-CD-era 46-minute flow that, for me, distinguishes Tuonela not only as a collection of great songs, but also a fluid and complete work best appreciated in its front-to-back entirety.
I’m not sure I can emphasize how much of an impact Tuonela had on me personally when I first heard it. I was recently asked by Sander van den Driesche of the site Echoes and Dust to list three of the records that most affected me, and I put Tuonela on that list. A teenager at the time, I’d never heard anything like “Greed” — so heavy, so extreme with its death growls, and yet still psychedelic, traditional in its songwriting, and, perhaps most pivotal, it had that sitar. That sitar. It was the moment at which the Beatles fan and the headbanger in me reconciled, found the middle ground between them, and wanted to explore it further. I won’t take anything away from what Amorphis — at the time comprised of vocalist Pasi Koskinen, guitarists Esa Holopainen (lead) and Tomi Koivusaari (rhythm, also sitar), bassist Olli-Pekka Laine and drummer Pekka Kasari, plus keys from Santeri Kallio — accomplished on cuts like “Rusty Moon,” with the guest flute from Sakari Kukko, whose sax also adds to “Nightfall” and the title-track earlier, or on the moody “Summer’s End” at the finish, but I still get chills when I hear “Greed” in spring. At this point, I don’t even remember where that association comes from. I just know the season has arrived when it’s time to put on Amorphis. And so it is.
Amorphis had a dramatic shift alluded to above that led to 2006’s Eclipse, which marked the end of the tenure of Pasi Koskinen — who was also in heavy rockers Mannhai and can currently be found in extremists Ajattara, whose new album, Lupaus, is out next month on Svart Records — as they brought in new frontman Tomi Joutsen in 2004. Joutsen has been with them ever since, and his arrival would seem to have coincided with a decision on the part of Holopainen, Koivusaari and company to develop along the clearer path of melodic and progressive death metal. In revisiting Tuonela, I also took the opportunity to dig into — and purchase the tour edition of — the latest Amorphis full-length, 2015’s Under the Red Cloud (they’re currently on Nuclear Blast and have been since Far from the Sun), and after 2013’s Circle, 2011’s The Beginning of Times, 2009’s Skyforger and 2007’s Silent Waters, plus a steady stream of compilations, EPs, splits and live albums, they’ve pretty much nailed it. They just finished a US tour with fellow Finns Swallow the Sun. I wish I’d gone to see them. It’s been more than a decade since I caught their show at B.B. King’s in New York, when Joutsen was new to the lineup. It was a Sunday. I’d flown back from SXSW in Texas the same day. They opened with “Greed.” It was glorious.
Truth is, I could go on. About this band, about this record. I haven’t written much about them on this site in years past, but they’re a group who’ve greatly influenced the direction of my musical taste and for that I’ll always be happy to return to Tuonela as we move out of the winter dread and into the time of new life that invariably follows.
As ever, I hope you enjoy.
While we’re reminiscing, the photo of me just to the right here was taken last weekend by Jens Wassmuth at this year’s Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, the Netherlands. If you missed the coverage of the fest, it’s all here and thanks if you did get to check any of it out or if you decide to do so.
Now, if you’re someone who’s followed this site for any amount of time you’ll know I’m loathe to post pictures of myself. It simply doesn’t happen. I could tell you the exact last time I did it, but I don’t want to, because that’s how much I don’t like to see pics of me around this place. I’ll take all the album covers in the world (preferably those sans cartoon tits) before a shot of my ugly mug. Just how it goes.
I’m on the left there, watching Warning on the Main Stage, and you can also see the esteemed Falk-Hagen Bernshausen on the right. The reason I’ve put this picture here is because of the t-shirt I’m wearing. He didn’t know it at the time, but Jens captured a special moment for me in taking this shot. I wore that Brant Bjork and the Bros. shirt on my honeymoon in 2005 to Rome, and there are all kinds of proto-selfies of The Patient Mrs. and I to prove it.
As time passed, the shirt no longer fit me and I basically haven’t been able to wear it since until recently. It was one of several special shirts — an Anathema shirt for A Fine Day to Exit that I’ve had since college, a Neurosis shirt for The Eye of Every Storm that I bought at their 2004 Philly show that never fit me until now — that I brought with me to Roadburn this year, sort of as a personal landmark.
I’ve struggled with weight issues my entire life and I expect I’ll continue to for as long as I live. Even putting it in those terms undersells my past and current history of body dysmorphia, disordered eating, persistent self-loathing, and so on. However, since Dec. 2015, I’ve lost 168 pounds (as of this morning’s weigh-in) — more than half my body weight when I started out — and bringing these shirts to Roadburn was my small way of celebrating that effort with myself.
It’s not the kind of allowance I often let myself make. I’ve no doubt that at some point I’ll gain every single one of the pounds I’ve lost back, which is why I get sad when people say things like, “You look awesome now,” or get uncomfortable when someone wants to talk about it, but wearing these shirts was a rare kind of celebration for me, and I’m honored to have that moment captured by someone so talented and kind as Jens, even if he was just responding to Andy from Clamfight on Thee Facebooks being a smartass and saying someone should take my picture in the photo pit. So thanks to Jens for that. That’s what’s up with that picture.
Crazy times this week, getting back to work and back into the swing of life in general post-Roadburn. Still a lot to catch up on at work, which if I’m 100 percent honest, I’m somewhat less motivated toward since finding out the job ends in June. As a temp/contract worker, I’ve basically been on a year-long job interview. Bummer to know that, in the end, I flubbed it. So it goes.
Still, one presses on with tasks at hand. Speaking of, here’s what’s in my notes for around these parts next week, subject to change as always:
Mon.: Sun Blood Stories review, Soldati video premiere & big announcement from Bison Machine.
Tue.: L.M.I. review/track premiere, new-ish Ides of Gemini video and Lords of Beacon House announcement.
Wed.: Blackout review/track premiere, maybe a video premiere for The Riven.
Thu.: Samsara Blues Experiment review.
Fri.: Six Dumb Questions and album stream of the new From Oceans to Autumn.
Busy enough, I think. I’ve gotten a few kind comments on bringing back the Six Dumb Questions features, and I think I’m going to continue that at least for the time being, so look out for more in the weeks and months ahead.
I’ve also started slating releases for the next Quarterly Review, which will be in June. It’ll be here before you (or I) know it, to be sure.
In the meantime, I’d like to wrap up this week by saying thank you again for reading. Last weekend being Roadburn, this is a special time of year for me and if you’ve been a part of it at all, I cannot properly express how deeply I appreciate that. Thank you. There are days where I feel like I have nothing else to offer but this. Really. So to have you be involved is humbling in a way that I find continually dumbfounding and humbling.
Much love. All the love.
Have a great and safe weekend, and please check out the forum and the radio stream.