After several decades it would be completely forgivable for any band to ease their foot on the peddle as it were, but then again Amorphis are no ordinary band. It is well documented how they weathered a substantial transition in style through the 90’s from death metal with the classic Tales From The Thousand Lakes (Relapse) into a much more melodic entity with Elegy (Relapse) two years later.
Continuing with this broader style ever since belies a subtle but definite experimental streak throughout with tinkering within a core sound that they have not always gotten the credit for. As keyboard player and one of the band’s stalwarts, Santeri Kallio has been a part of that evolution, he gives his thoughts on their changes to the present day:
“We had the times when the albums started to change, like the transition from Elegy to Tuonela (Relapse) we had these strong experiments in the past and they didn’t always turn out so well but it was great times and we found new dimensions. Nowadays we like to take these experiments a little bit more carefully, not like changing the whole overall picture, but we still like to experiment a lot, but maybe with a minor touch.”
With this notion toward experimentation within their song craft in mind, latest album Queen Of Time (Nuclear Blast) sees not only a work that more than lives up to the finest in their catalogue but also represents perhaps the biggest shift in approach and bolstering of their sound for quite some time. The core elements we expect from contemporary Amorphis, namely the balance between bombastic, towering melodies and Scandinavian death metal heaviness with both folklore tales and folk instrumentation and even the occasional dabble of prog. But from the huge success of Under The Red Cloud (Nuclear Blast), the first with producer Jens Borgren, this feels like its upped the ante, and very notable is the increased use of orchestration and choir vocals, and how they feel more instrumental to the sound and shine outright as opposed to simply amplifying. As Santeri explains, Borgren’s role in this movement was the key:
“We knew Jens Borgren wanted to top the success of Under The Red Cloud, as it was the first album that we did together so we knew he was going to put all the effort in so we had a pretty good starting point. We really didn’t want to put out a mediocre album after the Red Cloud because then people would think these guys just got lucky. I think we paid more attention to the overall compositions and the structures of the songs, especially keeping in focus that we have to deliver something new, fresh and interesting and emotional and atmospheric without lising the fact that we need to still sound like Amorphis.”
In particular it was Borgren that brought the new approach to choirs and orchestrations (always a part of Amorphis’ sound but not as bold and in this manner before), and as Santeri mentions, any reservations the band may have had with this suggestion were put to bed once it began to come together:
“With the orchestrations you have to be really careful not to sound like symphonic death metal or symphonic power metal. The orchestrations Jens and the orchestrator came up with were really nicely done, they are not over the top and they are not running through every song; there is a place for them. Also I like how the choirs participate on the songs, not just doing the basic (does impression of a choir), and listening more now they actually support the dynamics of the song. I really like the choirs and I never really would have thought they would have worked with us. When Jens proposed it and rehearsing and he would emulate how the choirs would sing was kind of a funny situation, everyone was like “this guy’s going mad”, but obviously he wasn’t”
This new, complex approach to orchestral elements sounds may not sound like a huge departure for the band, and as mentioned, otherwise the mechanics of the band’s sound remain in tact. But hearing the likes of “Message In The Amber” and “Wrong Direction” and it shows how more vivid and thoughtful these parts have become. When asked if this approach will continue in future, Santeri doesn’t rule anything out, but suggests that this kind of discussion doesn’t normally happen:
“I would like to think the cinematic approach that I think we achieved, basically by accident as we didn’t plan it (will return), but its way too early to say anything. When we did the Red Cloud we then did 200 odd shows and I really hope we can achieve the same or nearly the same with this album. Plus the fact that we don’t really plan anything in a musical way, we don’t talk on the bus like ‘next album we will do old school death metal’, we just create songs and atmospheres and then in the rehearsal space we start to get the picture together.”
Aside from changes in song writing approach, 2017 also saw a shift within their ranks, a rarity for the band who have otherwise maintained a solid line up for a considerable time. The departure of bassist Niclas Etelävuori was an unexpected one, but one that they resolved with seeming ease with the return of Olli- Pekka Lane to the fold. Santeri gives his thoughts on the whole ordeal:
“Niklas gave a pretty big statement which you can probably find, but from my point of view it was a brutal situation because we didn’t have any fights, there wasn’t any bad blood and he actually wanted to continue with the band but he was demanding specific business changes and decisions, about firing these people and these people. We are a very democratic band as you can imagine as we have been together for 28 years, we like to vote, we are from Finland, we like to vote. Everyone has the same amount of power and we decided we weren’t going to fire anyone, we were happy, working like hell, getting beer and everything is going better than ever.”
“So then he left and we were like, fuck, because we didn’t have any fights and everything was cool. Of course we had a tiny crisis because we were out on a tour, he quite and then we had two weeks before we had to perform in Russia on the Eclipse (Nuclear Blast). Luckily we ran through a couple of ideas on how to handle this, we knew Olli, we knew he was still active, composing and a great guy, a great performer and bassist so we called him asking if he could do the rest of the shows. It didn’t take to explain after the last show we had like two days before we started rehearsing the new album.”
Fortunately for Amorphis, Lane agreed to rejoin. Having been a part of the band before hand in an earlier period of time and still active with Barren Earth to this day, Santeri notes how he considers themselves to be really lucky with this development:
“We were lucky, and old friend, still a friend but an old member, great player and composer, all that stuff at this point and timetable. Its hard to find a guy who is at your age group and you know he isn’t going to go crazy or this ego won’t get in the way, he’s not an alcoholic and he comes when you have a meeting, he doesn’t disappear in the woods.”
Aside from this upheaval, Amorphis have managed to retain their current line up for a considerable amount of time, and even the return of Lane means that the vibe hasn’t had to change too much. A rarity in this day and age for bands to stay in such a way, Santeri discusses the importance of being able to keep their line up mostly in tact all this time.
“I think it’s the key. Its key to try to do things without worrying about making huge mistakes. I think actually if you do have a lot of line up changes you do go in the wrong direction, suddenly without noticing, and you see it all the time when bands have line up changes. I’m not saying it goes worse but it changes. I think it’s a key element for us to keep making good solid albums and to trust the process.”
One other stand out aspect of Queen Of Time is the presence of Anneke Van Giersbergen on ‘Amongst Stars’; a presence that shouldn’t be strange to anyone in the metal community but yet a first on an Amorphis record (she did make an appearance on the An Evening With Friends (Nuclear Blast) live release). Santeri is quick to praise her contribution and to how it developed the final product:
“She has such a personal and characteristic voice it made quite a difference, because there was a session singer first who sung the whole song, then it was sent to Anneke and getting it back was the first time we heard the final vocal arrangement, and it sounded pretty good already, the session singer was a heavy metal style singer; but when it came back from Anneke we were like “holy shit”, she changed the whole thing and brought some personal characteristic of hers in to song and it built up the atmosphere, totally different to how any of us would have done.”
Queen Of Time is an album of firsts and new ventures for Amorphis and it is a remarkable feat for a band so far into their career to still produce such tentative approaches. But us metal fans are also a nostalgic bunch at times, and with lengthy careers come anniversaries. When, rather excitedly, asked about the possibility of commemorative Skyforger (Nuclear Blast) shows to mark its ten years next year, Santeri doesn’t rule out the possibility, but suggests that such events aren’t overly calculated:
“We have done anniversary shows before, and from my personal perspective I’m totally sure we will do a Skyforger tour at some point, but I’m not sure its going to happen in 2019 because I’d like to think we are totally busy with Queen Of Time. We don’t have a need to stop presenting Queen Of Time in 2019, I think we can easily do two years. It might be the 11th or 12th anniversary, we first have to tour Queen as much as possible.”
Santeri explains that he is a fan of such shows, and of course they have not been opposed to such shows before, but also suggests that they don’t have to rely on such shows with their current material, and truth be told, Amorphis are still making waves and producing some of the greatest works in their catalogue even to this day. How many bands in a 28 year and growing career can really say that?