Released: 2010, Peaceville Records
I reviewed Barren Earth’s EP in November of last year, and I concluded by saying “OUR TWILIGHT promises much of what we can expect from this band, and if people’s expectations are slightly higher than normal because of the sheer quality and calibre of the personnel behind this band, well, so be it. I’m confident that they can deliver…” The full-length album has been on constant rotation on my playlist for more than a week now, and I have to say that they do deliver, unquestionably: THE CURSE OF THE RED RIVER is a remarkably good album and well worth anyone’s money.
In case you haven’t heard of this Finnish supergroup, they count among their ranks two ex-members of Amorphis, the current vocalist of Swallow the Sun, the drummer for Moonsorrow and one of their live/session members, and Sami Yli-Sirniö of Kreator. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that this is a star-studded line-up. This may work a little to their disadvantage given that expectations will be unhealthily steep for Barren Earth, but they collectively have experience, skill, and quality in bucketloads…and it shows!
The album as a whole follows in very much the same vein as the EP, however, the dark-light dynamics so beloved by Opeth is very much more significant, as is the influence of My Dying Bride and Forest of Shadows and Amorphis and Sentenced, all bound together with the unmistakeable Swallow the Sun framework of sound: plaintive lead lines interlaced with massive growling guitar riffs and thunderous rhythm backing. Barren Earth are not as structurally ambitious nor as overtly progressive as Opeth at their self-indulgent best, but the fantastic Swallow the Sun riff-style mixed with a teeny bit of Cathedral c. 1995 and Paradise Lost doom really works to glorify melancholia and darkness and depression, in the best traditions of Sentenced and My Dying Bride. Certainly one of the best exponents of the ‘beauty and the beast’ genre currently playing their trade today, and all without resorting to female operatic vocals or pretentious overblown ‘orchestral’ interludes, and certainly without sacrificing the almighty Riff at the heathen altar of so-called gothic metal.
Mikko Kotamaki is the voice of Barren Earth, and he sounds better on THE CURSE OF THE RED RIVER than he did on Swallow the Sun’s latest album NEW MOON. The new vocal approach he employed on NEW MOON didn’t sit too well with me, but his heart-felt growls on RED RIVER are intense and thoroughly convincing, and also slightly more intelligible than on the EP. His clean vocals are legendary among fans of the genre, and again, the gentle, unassuming, restrained delivery really does remind one of Jonas Renkse of Katatonia, as well as a slightly less dramatic Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride. Make no mistake about it though, Kotamaki really does have a distinctive voice all of his own that he imparts upon Swallow the Sun and Barren Earth alike. Undeniably one of the highlights of the album.
Only a slightly extended version of ‘Our Twilight’ survives from the EP on to the full-length, although the vibe of ‘Floodred’ lives on in parts of the first song and title track, ‘The Curse of The Red River’. Olli-Pekka Laine, formerly of the legendary Amorphis, is credited with writing a lot of the material, although the other members do chip in with ideas and arrangements. The great thing about Barren Earth is that although its constituent members are drawn from many other musical styles – Kreator? Moonsorrow? Amorphis? – they have the opportunity to express themselves in ways outside of what they may be allowed to do in their main bands. For example, Sami Yli-Sirniö is credited with coming up with the bulk of the guitar solos, which are in themselves quite different from what he plays in Kreator, but he also comes up with the vocal lines for Mikko. For such talented musicians, Barren Earth offers them a chance to cut loose from the restrictions of their parent band and express their musicality in another forum.
And express it they do. Besides Mikko’s vocals, I have to mention the basswork by Olli-Pekka Laine which is simply superb. On the quieter passages, it is especially noticeable, a warm round bass sound with just the tiniest hint of overdrive to bring into the picture the distinct emotion of an electric bass in the most skilled of hands. The bass lines are simple, uncomplicated, but thoroughly appropriate to what the rest of the band is playing at the time. Glorious.
The guitar team of Janne Perttilä and Sami Yli-Sirniö works well enough – I’m not enough of a guitar nerd to be able to tell who is playing what. The solos by Sami (I think) are pretty good in a restrained sort of way, and acoustic guitar passages and picked clean chords are dropped into the mix here and there. In fact, the same sort of variety is shown by the pianoman Kasper Mårtenson, who ranges from typical synth backing stuff to spacey sound effects, dropping in a weird wah-infused Hammond organ sound a couple of times; but more frequently he is to be found playing good old-fashioned piano backing to the acoustic guitars when the band enters its softer moods. He is ever-present, and none of his parts are after-thoughts; he is an integral member of the band.
This album drags on a little as the songs do tend to flow into one another towards the last third of the album, but it’s not a major problem if you’re following the complexities of what each element is doing. I’m also not completely blown away by the rhythm guitar tone, it could be a little bit more aggressive and have more presence. Beyond these minor niggles, this is a superb death/doom/melodic metal album, as you’d expect!