Thursday, July 31, 2008

Album Review: Moonsorrow - "Viides luku - Hävitetty"

Moonsorrow - Viides luku - Hävitetty

Artist: Moonsorrow (Finland)
Album Title: Viides luku - Hävitetty
Label: Spikefarm Records (Finland) / Unruly Sounds (U.S.)
Released: 2007

This "review" is one that I have been putting off for a long time. As much as I want to talk about this album to anyone who cares enough to listen (which is very few people in my social circles), words fail me when it comes to writing a review of it. But because this is my favorite metal CD, I feel that I really should at least attempt to discuss it here.

For those who need an introduction, Moonsorrow is one of the more prominent and acclaimed pagan metal bands in the world. They have gained a relatively large fanbase due to the unflagging high quality of their output. With five albums, a re-issued full-length demo, and a very long EP released since 2001, Moonsorrow has given us plenty to listen to, and all of it, especially from their sophomore album Voimasta Ja Kunniasta forward, is well worth checking out. That album and its three subsequent follow-ups are all worthy of finding their way on lists of "best metal albums," yet, in my opinion, it is their fifth album, Viides Luku - Hävitetty (aka V: Hävitetty or Chapter Five: Ravaged), that manages to top not only their previous offerings but possibly every pagan metal album ever recorded. It is certainly my easy number one album pick of 2007.

Despite their (nonsensical) English band name, Moonsorrow has written all of their songs in their native Finnish since at least their 1999 demo Tämä Ikuinen Talvi. This is no exception on V: Hävitetty, but, fortunately for non-Finnish speakers like myself, the booklet includes excellent English translations of the lyrics. In this case, Moonsorrow has departed from the usual warrior themes and instead spins a tale of isolation and apocalyptic ruin at the end of things, an appropriate theme for these dark days. Also appropriate is the fact that the band has shed much of its folk metal sound, which I think would have been distracting on an album with this kind of concept. Instead, V: Hävitetty is crushingly epic black metal, though they have not lost their sense of melody, and there are still a few folk moments, with accordion, mouth harp, and mandolin. It is not very technical or progressive, despite the very long track lengths, but instead flows very organically and tastefully throughout its 56 minute length.

The album takes a few minutes to gather steam, as the sound of a storm and a crumbling glacier, accompanied by acoustic guitar and some dark synth tones, eases the listener into the proper mood. The bass and drums enter after a couple minutes, followed by some clean choir singing, which makes up the initial piece, "Jäästä Syntynyt (Born of Ice)." There are only two tracks on the album, the first one being 30 minutes long and the second being about 26 minutes long. However, the first track actually consists of two pieces of music, the first five minutes or so being "Jäästä Syntynyt" and the rest being "Varjojen Virta (Stream of Shadows)." The intensity really builds over the first few minutes of "Varjojen Virta," but once Ville Sorvali begins with his trademark snarling vocals, any worries about Moonsorrow losing their edge are put to rest. If anything, the band is sharper and tighter than ever before. And while the previous album, Verisäkeet, allowed itself to lose momentum by having extended lulls between songs (really, was having a few minutes of nature sounds between every song really necessary?), V: Hävitetty manages to stay interesting throughout. There are softer moments on the album, such as at about 16 minutes into the first track and at the beginning of the second track, but most of the time V: Hävitetty is just huge in sound and in atmosphere. I know I overuse the word "epic," but that is the most appropriate word I can think of for the album.

By the time the first track ends, and one is able to catch his or her breath after the incredible and bombastic final several minutes of "Varjojen Virta,"one might feel that there is no way the second track, "Tuleen Ajettu Maa (A Land Driven Into the Fire)," can possibly top it. However, "Tuleen Ajettu Maa" is, in my opinion, one of the greatest epic metal songs ever. It begins, innocuously enough, with the sound of a crackling fire, followed by what sounds like a shaman drum and some chanting. After a few minutes, the song itself begins, and from then on there's really nothing stopping the momentum until the final few minutes, when the song fades into the sound of snowfall and a distant rumble of thunder. "Tuleen Ajettu Maa" has a really great hook that is used quite often, holding the song together and causing it to sound much shorter than its 26-minute length. Like the first track, "Tuleen Ajettu Maa" unfolds quite organically and satisfyingly.

Despite the length of the tracks, V: Hävitetty is an easy album for me to recommend to any fan of extreme metal. The songwriting is top-notch, and the musicianship, while not being technical or flashy, is tight and tastefully executed. Those who dislike black metal because of the blastbeats should find drummer Marko Tarvonen's work refreshing, as he only occasionally employs them. The keyboards add a lot of atmosphere to the album (you'll hear those female choir sounds throughout), yet they are not overbearing, unless you're one of those people who doesn't like any use of keyboards whatsoever. If you don't like harsh vocals, well, then you might have a serious problem with the album, because most of the vocals are in that fashion, though there are many clean choir-style vocals and a brief moment of clean lead vocals provided by guitarist Henri Sorvali.

V: Hävitetty is an album that has managed to divide Moonsorrow fans, though it seems most have warmed up to it after repeated listens. It didn't make a big impact on me the first time I listened to it, but it was definitely one that grew on me. Though some have lamented the increase in black metal elements and the disappearance of most of the folk sound, I really think that the heavier musical style is perfect for the theme Moonsorrow was tackling with this album, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they have abandoned their earlier sound (though, based on their EP, Tulimyrsky, released a few months ago, those fears may not be altogether unfounded). However, it seems to me that Moonsorrow is carving their own unique path and are distancing themselves musically from the many bands that have taken inspiration from their earlier works. If V: Hävitetty represents the progression of Moonsorrow, then I welcome progress. They haven't disappointed me yet.

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