Review Summary: Grief, the cold and the dark in audio form. Finland does it again.
If you were to take a sample population of metalheads and ask them to think of dark music, inevitably a large portion of them will conjure images of snowcapped mountains, fjords and burning churches. As it turns out, the neighbours of the good folks in Helvete country have also been affected by the climate in their respective areas. It is no secret, the Nordic countries have often been on the forefront of creating some of the darkest music in a genre well known for its aggression, ferocity and chaotic nature. Norwegian Black Metal, Swedish Death metal and so on and so forth. The latest in this long line of sounds no-one new they needed until their minds were usurped by it, is Thall. Thall is a take on metal spearheaded by Swedish boys Vildhjarta
only a little over a decade ago, that combines the rhythmic sensibilities and low tunings of the mathier side of djent with the atmosphere of black metal and the tempo and feel of Death-Doom... oh, and programmable whammy pedals.
Atlas, is the band that just added the flavours of Finnish stoicism, language, folk music and traditions to that mix in what is now my favourite album ever. No, thats not hyperbole, this is, in my opinion, the best music is going to get in a while. Over the course of Ukko, Atlas explores grief in a uniquely mythological way, crafting a saga that plunges into the depths of despair and climbs mountains of madness to look at every facet of what seems to be the loss of a father figure through the eyes of a young man. This is supported by explanations posted by the band themselves on their music videos, writing
"The album name UKKO honors the father figure of the band who passed away less than a year ago; a devastating tragedy for its members." and "This is our way of honoring those we've loved and lost. The upcoming album is a blend of something ancient combined with a cold and harsh perspective of these stray modern days."
And there really is no better way to describe it, the album, despite containing some of the fresher sounds in metal, awakens some primal feelings in me. The album opens with the sound of wind and the crackle of snow, as the band members sing acapella in finnish, asking for a storm and describing a hundred wolves giving birth. Meanwhile as this harmonised passage repeats the track seems to rise skyward, almost like a soul leaving the body. This track seems almost like a final farewell from this figure that is mourned throughout the album. Atlas then immediately plunge us into agonising grief and fury on Synti.
The first riff is pummeling, and immediately shows that Atlas mean business, the song seems to describe an apocalypse brought on by the same wolves from before, and as black fire rains from the sky the riff tears into ones eardrums in such an effective. Buster Odeholm, who at this point has become the warden of Thall did a perfect job with the production on this album. To be able to produce something so cleanly and still maintain the atmospheres present on the record is a feat that should be applauded, and the album would not be the same without it. Odeholm shows again that he knows when to pull out all stops to secure clarity, like in the absolute monolith of a death march that is the opening to Ukko, and when to pull back and allow the emotion to shine through in imperfections, as on the folky lament that is Lehto, which conjures images of the sapmi folk singing songs around a fire in a Lavvu once the day is done.
Ukko consistently takes us from being crushed underneath the weight of the world that the grief-stricken character now seems to have to carry on his shoulders to wide soundscapes where he almost seems to lament to the sky. As on Taivanraanta (Finnish for Horizon) where the verses describe how nature beats down on a group of people under a "pale grey sky" while in the absolutely beautiful post-chorus our character screams for the snow to bury him. On Veri (Blood) we are greeted with our first hints of acceptance, as our character seems to realise that the universal lot in life is to die alone, subject to the ocean that is life, and that fighting it is futile. On the closer, which I have to add contends for one of the best songs I have ever heard, it seems we finally reach full acceptance, and our character finally lets go of needing the departed by his side, asking the Northflower to burn bright, and only for it to linger in dreams.
But Ukko is able to tell this story so effectively not only because of the production, riffage and lyrics. A shoutout has to fall upon what is the real mvp of the listening experience, at least in my opinion, the vocal work. 3 of Atlas' members share vocal duties, guitarists Tuomas Kurikka and Leevi Luoto, as well as main vocalist Patrik Nuorteva. Nuorteva has a very unique vocal style that complements the story being told perfectly, he has an incredibly beefy growl that still allows for alot of enunciation, but thats not to overshadow the beautiful clean singing, which is almost always beautifully harmonised with three voices and includes beautiful bass and baritone singing, which is often overlooked in favour of tenor and falsetto belts in metal, but is used to great effect on Ukko, including throat-singing at times, which only adds to the nordic folkiness of the feel.
Ukko is a perfectly crafted experience from start to finish. A coming of age story spurred on by the throes of grief, which mirrors Atlas own state right now. This is the best that music is going to get for a while, and it would be very upsetting if this record does not catapult Atlas to fame. Tell your loved ones that you love them, you never know when they might leave you alone, grieving in the cold and the dark.