When it comes to gorgeously macabre and melodic death/doom metal, few artists do it better than Swallow The Sun. Ever since the release of their debut LP— 2003's The Morning Never Came—the Finnish sextet have excelled at juxtaposing bleakly ferocious dirges with elegantly moody interludes and reprieves. Thus, they've always been masters of their craft, and with Moonflowers, they've outdone themselves once again. True, it's not quite as grandiose as 2019's When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light (prioritizing instead a marginal increase in accessibility and straightforwardness), but that only means that it's more instantly satisfying and replayable.
As with many 2021 releases, Moonflowers was pushed back due to the pandemic; as a result, keyboardist/backing vocalist Jaani Peuhu decided to temporarily step away from Swallow The Sun to "solely focus" on his other project, Mercury Circle, for "this release cycle." (You see, Mercury Circle's latest album, Killing Moons, was delayed until last month due to the pandemic, too.) Fortunately, though, Peuhu still appears on the record. Regarding Moonflowers' striking artwork, title, and material, guitarist Juha Raivio confesses:
"I wanted to create the cover art … myself this time, so it would stand as brutally honest for me as the music is. So, I painted the moon … with my own blood and I decorated it with the flowers I picked up and dried on the spring of 2016. [The music] just forced itself out of me during the long nights of this hope-crushing and never-ending lockdown prison. Something grew out from that void, eventually, and writing these songs made me think a lot about moonflowers that bloom at the darkest hour of the night, so that name felt right."
True to its name, starting song “Moonflowers Bloom in Misery” cleverly captures the vibe of strolling through an eerily deserted gothic landscape in the middle of the night. Ethereal tones surround dutifully plucked guitar arpeggios, marching drums, and foreboding synths as frontman Mikko Kotamaki breathily inquires: “Will you die in misery? / Wash over me / Wash over me / Will you die of a broken heart? / It tears you apart / It tears you apart.” It’s a tense prelude that—as you might expect—soon gives way to an explosion of guttural decrees and thunderous instrumentation. The band basically oscillate between these two phases for the rest of the piece, with a killer guitar solo along the way, and it’s certainly makes for one of their best album openers yet.
By and large, the remaining songs follow that symphonically savage yet sensitive template. For example, "Enemy" is even more melodically and texturally engaging, whereas closer "This House Has No Home" mixes leading singing with backing black metal shrieks and remarkably pronounced and effective dynamic shifts. At times, it's relentlessly vicious, yet it just as easily segues into lusciously dreary catharsis. Of course, "All Hallows' Grieve" earns distinction due to the compassionate presence of Oceans of Slumber singer Cammie Gilbert, just as single "Woven into Sorrow" is majorly atmospheric and "The Void" taps into post-rock coatings and a surprisingly welcoming chorus.
Moonflowers is less expansive and unpredictable than its predecessor, yes, but it's also more focused and selective. In other words, it feels more poised and urgent, as if it has a clearer purpose that needs to be delivered as economically and pointedly as possible. At the same time, though, Swallow The Sun still employ all of the trademarks that make them beloved, so they've certainly not lost anything important in their slightly stronger sense of immediacy. Either way, it's another superb journey from one of the style's top-tier modern ambassadors.