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Album Review: AMORPHIS Halo

8.5 Reviewer
Score

2018's Queen of Time was a remarkable album in its own right, let alone for being Amorphis' thirteenth LP in nearly thirty years. Then again, the Finnish progressive death metal sextet is anything but ordinary, so fans should expect nothing less than excellence from them. In that sense, Halo is a worthy follow-up since it clearly picks up from where the last one left off (with plenty of the instrumental and melodic bells and whistles still intact). That said, it's doesn't pack quite as much of a diverse and hypnotic punch, choosing instead to chart a more boxed-in path with fewer overtly fetching moments. While that results in a slightly disappointing experience at first, thankfully, the record reveals many trademark gems once it completely sinks in.

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Interestingly, the band considers Halo to be the finale of a trilogy that began with 2015's Under The Red Cloud and—obviously—continued with Queen of Time. That's certainly true musically, yet as guitarist Esa Holopainen rightly clarifies, this one "is a little bit heavier and more progressive but also organic compared to its predecessor." Likewise, vocalist Tomi Joutsen calls it "more stripped down." Once again, legendary producer Jens Bogren (Spiritbox, Soilwork, Enslaved) returns, as does lyricist Pekka Kainulainen.

Of that latter's sustained involvement, Joutsen mentions: "It is a slow process of translating archaic Finnish poetry into English and adapting it our progressive rhythms. Fortunately, Pekka does everything on time and with great care." Thematically, Kainulainen explains, Halo is "filled with adventurous tales about the mythical North tens of thousands of years ago. The lyrics tell of an ancient time when man wandered to these abandoned boreal frontiers after the ice age." For sure, those who come to Halo looking for epic storytelling won't be let down, either.

While the collection doesn't exactly reach newfound levels of brutality, it does contain some of Amorphis' most directly fierce pieces in quite some time. "On the Dark Waters," for instance, is decorated by elegant storybook accents (strings, keyboards, sitar, and a clean chorus) yet it's also predominantly relentless in terms of demonic singing and gravelly guitar work. The same goes for "A New Land" and "Seven Roads Come Together," both of which have instances of divine ornamentation that complement—rather than supersede—their dexterously vicious cores.

On the other hand, the group's knack for soothingly engaging vocals and densely vibrant transitions is on full display. Opener "Northwards" can't match the ingeniously mesmeric and multifaceted "The Bee" from Queen of Time (not that it necessarily needs to); however, it approaches the same sort of heroic scale and enticing back-and-forth synergy between rough and calm passages. (There's even some background choral chanting to enhance the spectacle). Later, "The Moon" is decidedly accessible without feeling cheap and easy, and "When the Gods Came"—as well as "Halo" and "The Wolf"—is ripe with sing-along hooks and dazzling timbres.

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As outstanding as those tracks are, the clear highlight of the album is closer "My Name is Night." Basically, it's a gorgeous piano and acoustic guitar duet between Joutsen and Paatos' Petronella Nettermalm (whose silky tenderness offsets his fuller tone superbly and does wonders for the woeful verses that she handles alone). Of course, the arrangement ebbs and flows around them exquisitely, too, with a modest yet impactful electric guitar solo halfway in and a haunting fadeaway at the end that leaves you in awe.

Halo is the least exploratory and immediately gratifying LP of the aforementioned trilogy, but that doesn't mean it's unsuccessful. On the contrary, it's bursting with catchy vocals (both guttural and not), intriguing lyricism, and resourceful instrumentation, so it lives up to just about everything admirers anticipate from Amorphis. It's just that the prior two records reached such flamboyantly compelling and striving heights that Halo can't help but seem a bit muted and safe by comparison. Even so, it's a terrific journey and an unmistakable sign of Amorphis' continued supremacy.

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