Music is a fickle thing. Sometimes you listen to something and it immediately grabs you. Sometimes it make you excited. Sometimes it evokes deep seated loathing. But the important thing is that it evokes something. A feeling, a reaction, an emotion ... even an overwhelming ennui that makes you turn it off and never listen to it again. Anything, in fact, is better than nothing at all.
The Emerald Forest And The Blackbird, the latest album from Finnish death/doom band Swallow The Sun, arrived in the post a couple of weeks ago. I've listened to it several times, and it's perplexing me.
Fundamentally, it's exactly the sort of thing I like. A mix of heavy death metal moments complementing softer, doomier sections laced with theatrics and narrative. It has a number of songs that have immediately worked their way into my subconscious like all the best mind-worms (better than ear-worms, which are often superficially catchy) and are instantly recognisable. There's even a bit of blackened death going on in tracks like Hate, Lead The Way and Hearts Wide Shut. It should all be very exciting. And this is the root of what is perplexing me.
The fact is that, while the songs are catchy, well played, and I enjoy listening to them, the album as a whole leaves me flat. A Swallow The Sun album should be crushingly depressing, or alluringly disquieting, or engagingly melodramatic, or something. But instead it feels almost easy listening. The album starts, I sing along to This Cut Is The Deepest, rock out to Hate, Lead The Way, marvel at the beautiful Cathedral Walls, feel all gothic for Labyrinth of London and get more than a little confused by April 14th. But when the album ends, life goes back to how it was before it started. There is no lasting effect.
I am wondering if, in part, this is because it failed to meet my expectations as a concept album. For a while now the common knowledge is that Emerald Forest is a concept album about a father talking to his dying child. It would certainly be a fitting topic for a Finnish doom band. But if that is the concept, then it doesn't survive beyond the end of the opening track. For sure, the opening track fits that concept very well, and is quite effective at conveying the sadness of the narrative, but then it ends. This Cut Is The Deepest, the second track, has absolutely nothing to do with the first track at all. Hate, Lead The Way, too, being blackened death with some pretty effective blackened vocals to match, is different again. In fact, the whole album is something of a mixed bag of topics and styles, sometimes jarringly so.
Perhaps the most effective track on the whole album is Cathedral Walls, the video of which I posted a while ago. The interplay between Mikko Kotamäki's verses and Anette Olzon's guest vocals on chorus makes for a haunting and engaging song. The inclusion of death growls in the middle provide a crescendo of sorts, and is probably the most satisfying track on the album.
Now, I don't want this post to be all doom and gloom. The album has some good songs on it, and I'm wondering if my somewhat apathetic reception of it is more to do with the apparent lack of cohesive concept than any failure of songwriting, musicianship or production. Having listened to it over ten times, it's obvious that it is not boring or unpleasant to listen to. It must have something about it, even if that something is an enigmatic je ne sais quoi. I'm just wondering if I need a lightbulb moment to really "get" it.
One thing I will say, in closing, is that I love the album art. It's somehow complex, yet minimalist, and the black on white is certainly unusual for a metal album. The touch of green sets it off nicely, and makes it stand out as a unique example of bucking the usual metal artwork trends.