Review Summary: Lost and catatonic
If there was to be an award for the most ambitious offering of the year, there is little doubt that Songs From the North
would be a finalist. It is, after all, a triple
LP that encompasses a sizeable breadth of melancholic tunes. It is forgivable to be a bit apprehensive about an album that aims to do three totally different things while making each piece good enough to be befitting of the decision to smash them together and release it all at once, but given the talent Swallow the Sun possess there is certainly the ability present to pull it off. The question, then, is whether or not there is the vision to do so. The answer is not exactly as cut and dry as I had originally hoped it would be, because while the band’s initial descriptions of Songs From the North’s
three movements are indeed accurate, I remain unconvinced that there is enough vision here to warrant a release of such staggering scope.
Take, for instance, the acoustic album sandwiched in the middle of Songs From the North’s
heavier recordings. “Heart of a Cold White Land” resonates with a real, tangible melancholy, yet it sits among a collection of tracks that as a whole fail to capture the wonder this song produces. The delicate singing and playful acoustic guitars are simple, effective, and realized, but the emotion invoked is uneven at best. The instrumental “66°50'N, 28°40'E” is another piece that rings true with the promised “beautifully acoustic” façade, but as a whole the record lingers somewhere between pretension and dreariness. “Away” muddles in too many different shades of gray, while “Pray for the Winds to Come” has ambition but shoots itself in the foot with poor lyrics and a lack of heartfelt emotion, two symptoms which become a scourge throughout the album’s second movement.
The inconsistency of Songs From the North
and its general inability to captivate means that instead of being a cohesive unit like a triple LP should, it fragments and becomes a collection of overall decent tracks that do not ever bother to become more than the sum of their individual parts. It is not until things take a turn towards the heaving chords of the final LP that interest in the record rises above nominal. Invoking crushing, lethargic doom in the vein of Evoken or Skepticism mixed with Ghosts of Loss
-era Swallow the Sun finally jump-starts what has been, to this point, a rather dreary event. To those enamored with Swallow the Sun’s back catalogue, the third iteration of this record feels most like home, although the tempo has been lowered to a funeral doom crawl at times.
The piece of Songs From the North
that Swallow the Sun claimed had “respect for [the band’s] traditions” is more akin to “respect for the band’s more recent traditions”, as the album’s first LP hearkens back toward the dirges of New Moon
or Emerald Forest and the Blackbird
rather than their more distant past. It remains similarly bland as their last LP, with riffing that is not necessarily bad but does little to catch your attention, instead relying on vocal melodies to produce atmosphere and drive songs forward. Looking onward to the funeral doom LP things become reversed, and that is a large part of why it is without any semblance of doubt the piece of the album that keeps everything afloat. “Gathering of the Black Moths” uses synths to give highlights to the darkness of the guitars, and the vocals oscillate between mammoth bellows and shrieking wails. Within the first track, there is more to remember than in the previous sixteen.
The soulless chorus to “Lost & Catatonic” does a disservice to the track’s bombastic, obscenely heavy introduction, and also proves a point about the inconsistencies of Songs From the North
. There are times during the first two records when all is in complete synergy, yet before this machine can go anywhere the key is violently turned and all comes to a sputtering halt. The synths constantly add atmosphere when the guitars leave a void by retreating to mundane chords, and the harsh vocals are always picking up slack for the cleans when they go flat. No wonder, then, that the album’s simplest sector proves to be its backbone. Dissonant melodies become more memorable than the more complex songwriting of Songs From the North’s
first part, and the oscillation between dejected heaviness and wandering calm provides contrast that the acoustic second LP failed to provide through its one-dimensional approach.
Being candid, Swallow the Sun should have released this as three separate albums. The connection between the three pieces is frail, and given the relative lack of direction this is not a surprise. The album’s strengths are numerous, yet scattered, and its weaknesses are unfortunately a lot more concentrated. It is important to stress that not a lot of this is bad
per se, it is just not invigorating enough to keep a listener sitting down in concentration for nearly three hours. The albums can be listened to individually and you can be fairly content, especially with the funeral doom album, but as a triple LP I am left a bit confused. There are a lot of genuinely good ideas floating around this album, and I’ve no doubt that Swallow the Sun possess more than enough talent to put those good ideas to work for them. That leads us again back to central question posed earlier: is there enough vision on Songs From the North
to warrant a triple LP presenting an exposé on three different genres? That answer, sadly, leans more towards no.