[Click play above to stream Greenleaf’s Rise Above the Meadow in full. It’s out Feb. 26 on Napalm Records.]
Swedish heavy rockers Greenleaf make their debut on Napalm Records with their sixth full-length, Rise Above the Meadow, and push deeper into a new era of the band along the way. That era began with their last album, 2014’s Trails and Passes (review here), which marked changes in lineup and overall approach both, introducing vocalist Arvid Jonsson and drummer Sebastian Olsson alongside founding guitarist/songwriter Tommi Holappa (also Dozer) and founding bassist Bengt Bäcke, while moving away from the complex arrangements of 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) in favor of a more stripped down, stage-ready sound.
They toured hard for Trails and Passes, said goodbye to Small Stone Records after more than a decade with the label, replaced Bäcke with Holappa‘s Dozer bandmate Johan Rockner — Hans Fröhlich has since taken the role — and the nine tracks/43 minutes of the Karl Daniel Lidén-produced Rise Above the Meadow reaps the reward of all these many shifts and hours on stage. No longer is a Greenleaf record just about the personnel involved or the kind of classic boogie they proffered on 2007’s Agents of Ahriman (vinyl reissue review here), but it’s about how much Greenleaf stand on their own, about the identity they’re claiming as theirs, the strength of the material with which they’re doing so and the memorable performances they deliver within that. Rise Above the Meadow, as a title, may refer to any number of things (the line is in the lyrics to “A Million Fireflies”), but it is accurate nonetheless in describing the motion Greenleaf make by means of its songs — they’re pulling themselves up to a new level in dynamic and progression, and establishing themselves, here, today, as one of Europe’s finest heavy rock bands.
If that feels like a long time coming, it has been. Greenleaf made their full-length debut in 2001 with Revolution Rock (discussed here) following their 2000 self-titled EP, signed to Small Stone for 2003’s Secret Alphabets, and the years since have found the band trading off as a part-time entity as Holappa shifted back and forth between Greenleaf and Dozer. The fact that Rise Above the Meadow is Greenleaf‘s third album in four years despite copious lineup changes should give some hint at where current priorities lie (though Dozer are, ostensibly, active in terms of playing shows), and as the driving force in terms of songwriting, Holappa brings due energy for the occasion of Greenleaf‘s ascent, but the performance of Jonsson throughout these tracks isn’t to be understated. The singer seemed almost tentative by comparison on some of the last album’s tracks, but here he bursts to life, self-harmonizing on opener “A Million Fireflies” and soulfully pushing his voice on “Howl,” doing both on centerpiece “Carry out the Ribbons” while also presiding over “You’re Gonna be My Ruin” with an appropriately subdued take, tailoring his approach seamlessly to where Holappa steers the music and bridging a gap between the depth of arrangement in Nest of Vipers and Trails and Passes.
Most of all, he charismatically makes the songs his own and matches the level of his performance and chemistry with the band with an undeniable frontman presence that offers an initial assault of hooks in the opening salvo of “A Million Fireflies,” “Funeral Pyre” and “Howl,” a trio of cuts that push forward with infectious drive. Propelled by Olsson‘s drums and the steady low end of Rockner, there are times where one might recall Dozer‘s studio glories, but ultimately, Greenleaf prove second to nobody in executing these tracks, and the momentum they build as each huge ending of “A Million Fireflies,” “Funeral Pyre” and “Howl” feeds into the album’s next chapter continues forth into the stomp-and-shuffle of “Golden Throne,” on which Greenleaf are all the more in their own right.
The shortest cut on Rise Above the Meadow, “Golden Throne” rests on a per-beat kick and unmitigated swing and boasts headphone-worthy layering in its chorus so much as it rests at all, but it’s a signal of a shift into another stage of the proceedings, as “Carry out the Ribbons” and “Levitate and Bow (Pt. 1 and 2)” flesh out further, the former with a mid-paced drive that stops before its pre-chorus as if to announce “you’re gonna want to pay attention to this” and lets Jonsson effectively twist along with the sleek rhythm in Olsson‘s drums and Holappa‘s guitar in the hook itself, repeated not in a rush at the end and not in an explosion of adrenaline, but classy and a fitting transition into “Levitate and Bow (Pt. 1 and 2),” the longest song included at 7:26 and a linear build along that span that starts quiet but tense before unveiling a mellotron-backed singalong chorus and kicking into its full-tone thrust just past the halfway mark, the lyrics and lines about getting stoned tying the two parts of the song together before a false ending brings back the “Pt. 2” chorus again and underlines just how far Greenleaf have come since the start of the track and how easily they’ve made the changes that have gotten them there.
Both “You’re Gonna be My Ruin” and “Tyrant’s Tongue” are shorter, on either side of three and a half minutes, but provide choice showcases for Holappa‘s songwriting and Jonsson‘s vocals alike, the latter reviving some of the uptempo vibe of the earliest cuts en route to closer “Pilgrims,” which despite a more atmospheric take still brims with the energy the entire band has put into the whole of the record, trading between loud and quiet verses and instrumental stretches until finally it takes off as it’s been threatening to do all along in its second half and gives Rise Above the Meadow the raucous, vibrant conclusion it has well earned. For longtime followers, Rise Above the Meadow is essentially the sophomore outing behind the second debut that was Trails and Passes — and saying a band’s sixth album sounds like their second should be a tipoff to the kind of energy I’m talking about — but whether it’s one’s first experience with them or not, it unquestionably learns from what they accomplished before and the dynamic they’ve built on the road the last few years as they’ve become more of a touring act. They’re not a side-project, no longer a secondary consideration, and Greenleaf prove they’re ready to shine all throughout Rise Above the Meadow. They wind up doing precisely that. Early to call it, but I’m calling it: One of 2016’s best in heavy rock.Borlange, Greenleaf, Greenleaf Rise Above the Meadow, Napalm Records, Rise Above the Meadow, Sweden