Review Summary: A phenomenal return to form.
Comeback albums are always a tough call for any well-established band; whether following up a long hiatus or a long string of low-quality material, caution is usually advised when approaching these records. 2013 has proven to be the "year of the comeback album" so far, considering we've seen the return of Daft Punk, Queensryche, Black Sabbath, and Voivod, among others. Now it appears that Finnish quintet Children of Bodom have chosen to throw their hats in the ring as well and create their own return to form. However, it's probably safe to say that many detractors could remain skeptical about this album... and on the surface, one could totally see that being the case.
If you initially looked at Halo of Blood with a large deal of skepticism, I don't blame you at all. After creating numerous highly-celebrated melodic death metal albums around the late 90s and early 2000s, the band decided that the chugging speed metal aspect of 2003's Hate Crew Deathroll should become the focal point for their next few records. What followed were one alright album and two absolute stinkers, as well as the fan backlash received for these efforts (I use "efforts" lightly). The black metal influence was gone and the classical influence was mostly erased. The replacement? Uninspired thrash music laced with a few tiny glimpses of the band's old melodic death metal sound. So... yeah; naturally, people hated it. Now in 2013 we have new material by the group; does it soar or does it stagnate?
Honestly, it's the band's best album since Hatebreeder.
As bold as the statement above seems, this offering is just that good. Musically, the album goes for a combination of their debut release Something Wild and Hate Crew Deathroll, in that the album is a combination of the black metal-influenced melodic death metal of the former and the heavier, thrashier sounds of the latter. The musicianship itself goes back to the band's glory days, especially in terms of how prominent keyboardist Janne Wirman is when compared to the last few albums. This goes right back to the dark eerie atmosphere of their first few albums while injecting a modernized sound in terms of production and the guitar tone. What makes this album work, however, is how focused the entire product is. There's no more directionless jamming and boring guitar-noodling present here, just a nice energized heavy metal assault. The first song "Waste of Skin" makes this clear from the get go; this is traditional Bodom with a fantastic mid-tempo melodic line kicking things off. Frontman Alexi Laiho's vocals are as strong as ever, mixing loud shouts with black metal screeching and the occasional death grunt, switching between each with ease. However, while the first track is a great pacesetter, the biggest highlight comes right after it; the title track is just insane. Sounding more like the lovechild of Emperor and Naglfar than a Children of Bodom song, the track takes the black metal influence found on Something Wild and takes it to an entirely new level. Everything's in place; the demented melodic riff, the swift blastbeat drumming, the speedy tremolo picking, all that good stuff. This song essentially defines what makes this album so great: the atmosphere.
One of the things that made the band's last few albums so uninspired was the lack of any defining atmosphere and overall sound. The listener couldn't get invested because everything sounded so dry and isolated; there was no room in the production and overall experience to breathe. This has been completely turned around with Halo of Blood. Despite being a giant riff-fest, this album really takes time to let you enter the musical world it creates. This is perhaps best demonstrated with the sprawling ballad (you heard right, a Children of Bodom ballad) "Dead Man's Hand On You." Starting with an exceptionally mellow and melancholic guitar/piano line, Alexi's whispered vocals are enough to send chills down one's spine as he illustrates a cold, bleak lyrical picture. The climactic chorus's beauty is just overwhelming, the keyboards creating a very expansive sound as the doom metal tempo let's you take in Alexi's passionate screaming. Stuff like this is what makes the album work; however, there's always room for thrashing your neck off. "Your Days Are Numbered" barges through with a riff that's eerily similar to the title track of Hatebreeder... that is, until a melodic line speeds up the tempo and eases up the guitar heaviness. There are some very unexpected moments on here as well; for instance, the beginning of "One Bottle and a Knee Deep" verges on progressive territory with its swift tempo changes and technical instrumental work. Then "Damaged Beyond Repair" goes for a lumbering groove metal tempo that sounds like something from Cowboys From Hell-era Pantera, with "Psycho Holiday" specifically coming to mind. All of this (and more) adds to a wealth of diverse moments from Children of Bodom, and really pays off.
The only gripe (and it is quite minor) is that some songs like "Transference" and "All Twisted" aren't quite as adventurous as other tunes on the record, but they're still well composed and worth playing. Plus, they serve as good familiar Bodom numbers in between the record's best moments. Halo of Blood is a complete surprise, being even more than just a return to form. This isn't just a record; it's a comeback in the best sense of the word. The comebacks released by other artists this year have been somewhat hit-or-miss, but Halo of Blood hits the nail on the head. Absolutely wonderful.