Review Summary: Finding harmony between the new and the old.
If Finland held annual elections for their heavy metal scene, Amorphis would be THE contender for 2015 Presidency. The new Nightwish album was a somber disappointment, and even with the likes of upcoming Children of Bodom and Stratovarius material, Amorphis have usually raised the bar for themselves and their peers. An impressive feat, considering the band are celebrating their 25th year together with a 12th studio album. Expected lulls in quality have naturally occurred during their lifespan, with the most recent example being the time between (and following) Skyforger and The Beginning of Times. Though both were semi-competent albums, they definitely left some fans feeling under-enthused, more than anything. Then the 2013 beast that was Circle showcased a band reinvigorated. They were still doing the same spiel, but Circle delivered in a way that suggested more exciting avenues would be pursued. Now the band is ready to cast us Under the Red Cloud, and all one needs to be interested is a good look at the album art. The play of reds and blues is of significant contrast to the less saturated color schemes of previous albums, including Eclipse's warm hues and Far From the Sun's blank background. Instead, this art is curious and eye-catching, peculiar and mesmerizing. This is the forecast Amorphis have set for us.
Under the Red Cloud is a notably different affair than Circle. It's still Amorphis at their core, with a couple songs falling into otherwise familiar archetypes, but there's a distinct and permeating sense of maturation here. Elder albums Tales from the Thousand Lakes and Elegy come to mind when considering what's at work, albeit in spirit more than style. Where folk elements came to enhance those albums, oriental comes to touch up Under the Red Cloud. Amorphis don't necessarily go Orphaned Land on us, but a point like the ambient reprieve 90 seconds into "The Skull" exemplifies the kind of influence listeners can expect to notice throughout the entire album. Amorphis haven't even shied away from incorporating other subgenres (often lightly) into their music, but this is the first time in years that such an approach has felt natural; Skyforger's coy progressive tactics were merely distractions from the band's overall sound; The Beginning of Times played so casually you could almost call it pop. Under the Red Cloud makes short and effective work of dispelling any doubts, from the calm yet haunting keys that open the album to the chilling combination of dismal guitar playing with guest Aleah Stanbridge's (Trees of Eternity) vocals on album closer, "White Night."
The album is both quick and gradual in presenting its case. After treating us to relative familiarity on the first two tracks, "Bad Blood" begins the actual transition whenever Tomi isn't contrasting the instruments with his harsh vocals. Curiously, Under the Red Cloud is at its most experimental when the music is at its lightest. Thankfully, Amorphis have an established pattern for alternating the harsh and melodic, though the emphasis has always been on melody (they are melodic death metal, after all). Furthermore, blending these seemingly newfound elements into the formula works as smoothly as a mint chocolate chip milkshake.
As fresh as Under the Red Cloud is, there are still a couple moments that evoke a sense of familiarity, with "Sacrifice" practically instilling deja vu after Eclipse's "House of Sleep." It's best served as an immediate piece to compare all the superior tracks to, especially considering its preceding track, "Death of a King" does such an effective job amalgamating the new and familiar, while the subsequent "Dark Path" plays out in a Circle-esque fashion, but with less distorted grit. This brings us to Under the Red Cloud's necessary improvements to production, making the album a far smoother listening experience. Comparatively speaking, Circle was a glass of tart lemonade while Under the Red Cloud is a properly made mojito. Both serve their respective purposes, but for overall enjoyment, it's obvious which is preferred, regardless of your care for refinement.
Amorphis have finally combined best of their contemporary ingredients with the right spices and condiments to create a winning recipe. Under the Red Cloud tastes like a long-lost experience, one that creates nostalgia and subsequent refreshment because of it. Somewhere in the field of bands searching for the next big shift in style or ways to return to their roots, Amorphis have found a balance, allowing them to achieve two goals simultaneously. Whether you prefer the band's newer or older material, both parties can agree that Under the Red Cloud is a welcome collection, ripe with subtle and overt flavors to savor with each and every sip.