Review Summary: An album that somehow gives us very little with so much
Executing a concept album is not so much a science as it is an art – there is no formula for creating the perfect piece. As such, there is a certain finesse required to turn an idea into music, especially if you wish to extend that idea to cover an entire album. There aren’t many concept albums out there – metal concept albums, specifically – that transcribe their inspiration into aural form with this artistic finesse, so it is a daring path to take, especially if your band isn’t intent on making the album different from your previous work. Swallow the Sun, on Emerald Forest and the Blackbird
, attempt to defy the odds and write a concept album that takes their trademark melodic death/doom metal sound and transcribes it into an ode from a father to his dying child; an exploration of the transition from life to death, and what it means to leave this world behind. Precarious stuff, yes, especially when taken with a heightened sense of melodrama that Swallow the Sun have shown us they are fully capable of using. One must be careful at this point, because the line between pretentiously melodramatic and emotionally lifeless is a thin one.
Sadly for Swallow the Sun, they have misjudged just how narrow this margin was. Rather than erring on the side of over-emotion, they have stumbled into the realm of stagnation. The riffs feel like all of the band’s b-sides from the past four albums mashed into one, with the occasional melody taking flight above the fetid pool of unmemorable riffs. The superb production placed on them may be deceiving, because beneath the thundering production of the chords and the soaring keyboards lies, well, not much of anything worth mention. The catchiness of “Hate, Lead the Way” is fun until you realize that it has almost zero complexity, especially when looked at in relation to what the band has done in their back catalogue. Even still, just taking the album for what it is, things don’t look much brighter. The level of emotion expected in an album with a concept that carries such weight as this one should be astronomical, but there is little on Emerald Forest and the Blackbird
to make the listener care about what the record is about. Aside from the wayward spoken-word passage to cue the listener into what is going on, almost nothing reflects the concept. “Labyrinth of London (Horror Pt. IV)” appears to have no connection to the concept whatsoever, and even the more sincere numbers like “This Cut is the Deepest” harbor counterfeit despondency.
Much like their previous album New Moon
, however, it is hard to cast aside the value of the album. There are melodic licks that are infinitely pleasing and the occasional guitar solo to churn the aura of stagnation around. While the album never comes across as utilizing either its doom metal or melodic death metal elements to their fullest, it does offer a bit of both worlds. The slow pace allows for songs to swell and recede, while the melodies offer a quick fix when the instruments don’t seem to go anywhere. The vocals of Mikko Kotamäki have always been arguably the band’s strongest asset, allowing for the use of deep growls, harsh rasps and relatively good, emotive cleans; a talent who is utilized quite frequently to give the album some much-needed life. There is a lot here that is decent to good, but precious little that rises above that. The keyboards wash much of the riffing, but are rarely worth praise; the bass is there, it just does nothing. Unfortunately, with such lofty aims given the fact that this is, at its core, an album that is built around a defined concept, Swallow the Sun achieve little.
The thing about Emerald Forest and the Blackbird
, though, is that it has no logical direction and no cohesive force, despite its strong and intriguing concept. Its sound is logical given the band’s direction, continuing along with the more mellow and less heavy tendencies of New Moon
. There are pockets of ferocity, but for the most part it is easy to call Emerald Forest and the Blackbird
a benign record – certainly not like The Morning Never Came
or Ghost of Loss
in terms of their disconsolate heaviness. There are equal levels of singing and screaming, equal parts boredom and engagement – an album that goes in determined but comes out unsure. What Emerald Forest and the Blackbird
needs is a more dedicated fruition of its concept, one that is unwavering and firm in its emotional output and is able to consume the listener throughout its runtime. This record simply doesn’t do that. A story about a father consoling his dying child could be captivating to the point that it’s moving, but here the listener doesn’t care about what is happening in the story by the time the halfway point rolls around. So as a concept album this looks rather dismal, and even as a “normal” record it leaves a lot to be desired. A couple memorable riffs and good vocals aren’t enough to carry around the amount of dead weight that is being dragged in its wake. Juha Raivio, guitarist and songwriter for the band, proclaimed so boldly in his description of the album “These are songs from the limbo, notes of sorrow, hate, love, darkness and light. The tale of Emerald Forest And The Blackbird.” If only it were so.