(DGR reviews the superb second album by Finland’s Wolfheart.)
There exists a temptation when writing reviews to try and come up with a narrative and attach it to each album. It’s been a way of doing things for a long time, and to be honest, I’ve struggled with trying to come up with one for Wolfheart’s newly released album Shadow World and the two-year gap between it and its predecessor.
The temptation lay in trying to paint the two albums as fraternal twins, discs that share a lot of DNA but actually are opposing and contrasting with each other in a lot of their elements. If you were to glance at the cover art for Shadow World and the cover art for Wolfheart’s 2013 debut Winterborn, you’d almost immediately notice the red-and-orange, warmer aesthetic of Shadow World pulling a first-lesson-of-art-class contrast with the prominent blue and cold themes of Winterborn. However, the music within doesn’t bear out the difference, and actually shares some similarities in terms of number of songs and track times with its older sibling.
So, I suggest we try to take a different tack and explain what Shadow World is.
Shadow World is the newest album by Wolfheart, a project founded by prolific musician Tuomas Saukkonen a couple years ago. As noted, Wolfheart’s first release was an album called Winterborn — a disc that was supposed to be the consolidation of all the bands Tuomas had been a part of prior to Wolfheart’s founding. In fact, he actually deep-sixed all of his projects up to that point (humorously enough, right after Before The Dawn put out an album entitled Rise Of The Phoenix — we saw how that played out), and as a result, Winterborn carried with it a lot of strains in its DNA from those other bands, including a continuation of the song “Routa” — appropriately titled “Part 2” — which had been on the earlier Black Sun Aeon disc bearing the same name.
However, that is still a lot of organic mass to try to bury in the hope that one day nature would reconstitute it into a new tree, and Wolfheart’s debut had a huge labor ahead of it to try – the task of shedding a lot of the past — and in large part it succeeded: Winterborn was a hell of a melodic doom disc. It was moody, at times cold and beautiful, and felt like the perfect continuation to everything Tuomas had been building in his previous handful of bands.
Shadow World is a different beast, as Wolfheart has changed from a solo act into what is now a full band, and this time it has a different kind of challenge: It has to show that Winterborn wasn’t a one-time feat. It is also the first time that Wolfheart have been truly free to explore however and wherever they want, and so Wolfheart come off a little more fiery this time around — but they’re also making a valiant attempt to prove with Shadow World that the band really can stand on its own without retreading its past.
A few of the things you’ll notice right off the bat with Shadow World – apart from realizing that it’s not a handful of different covers of the One Kill Wonder-era Haunted song — is that the piano makes a bold claim for being one of the more important instruments present on this disc. Whole motifs of the album are designed around the melancholic piano openers that Wolfheart have composed. In addition, the album moves along at a pretty speedy clip.
The latter is probably the most immediately notable feature of the new album, because the first four songs on Shadow World just seem to move, especially considering the pyrotechnic drums of opening song “Aeon Of Cold”, as it receives an armament’s worth of explosive blasts and super-fast riffing to kick the song into high gear. Even with half its songs stretching into the nigh-six-minute range and beyond, Shadow World feels brisk, and the opening of “Aeon Of Cold”, as well as the album’s generally high-tempo pace, contribute significantly to that feeling.
The breath between “Aeon” and its follower “Zero Gravity” is almost nil. The first real change of pace comes around song four, “Last Of All Winters”, with its side-to-side headbang-worthy guitar riff and folk-inspired lead melodies. While Saukkonen as the founding member is up-front-and-center in Wolfheart, his roar dominating every song, it wouldn’t be too shocking to hear that Mika Lammassaari was contributing a bit to the lead writing, as his recent time in Eternal Tears Of Sorrow seems to be causing that band’s penchant for frigid melancholy to bleed over into the Wolfheart formula right around the periphery.
If there were to be an argument made for what stands as the centerpiece of Shadow World, it would probably be the song “Nemesis”. While it isn’t the longest song on the disc — closer “Veri” takes that honor – “Nemesis” almost reaches the seven-minute mark, moving it into Homerian epic status, considering the aforementioned pace at which Shadow World generally moves.
“Nemesis” also feels like the combination of all the elements that make up the album. It has piano; the fast, blistering guitar-and-drum combo; and the heavy, thudding midsections. Basically, everything that is slowly drip-fed and introduced throughout the opening four songs on Shadow World combine into one massive track, and even though “Nemesis” has all of those awesome things combined with its cold atmosphere, one of the best parts about “Nemesis” is how it ends: It’s a strange thing to write, but the closing bit of “Nemesis” has one of the heaviest riffs present on Shadow World. As it crashes its way into the song after a quick-build, it’s hard not to give into its downbeat-focused rhythm and headbang along with it.
It is one of those few songs where you feel the need to headbang by instinct, not because you’ve listened to it so much that you can choreograph headbanging to it like a dance — the moment it kicks in, it is like you automatically have felt it in your bones for years. It really sends home one of the best songs present on Shadow World.
If one were to play the sheer numbers game and raffle off some stats, seeing that Shadow World comes in at a little over forty-six minutes would probably give the impression that this is a pretty average-length disc. What the numbers don’t tell you is that much of the music on Shadow World feels like part of a larger composition, with its piano interludes and how some of the songs recall earlier tracks, and as a result those forty-six minutes seem to fly by. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the disc running only to find myself having come back around to the closing, crashing chords of “Nemesis” again. Even with the quiet closing of “Veri”, the fact that “Aeon Of Cold” opens with a piano piece written in a similar style makes it feel like the two songs are bookending the whole adventure.
Wolfheart is one of the best new acts out there, a convergence of multiple projects into one that sees a group of talented musicians reaching new potential, and Shadow World is the latest evidence of that. It’s probably going to be a little frustrating for fans like me, given that these guys will still probably need to build a case for themselves with many listeners, but Shadow World is the sort of disc with which you gain new fans — especially those who follow the sort of ethereal/melodic-doom sect that crashed head-on into melodeath and birthed us bands like Insomnium. Shadow World has a cold and frigid atmosphere, but the disc is explosive and passionate, filled to the brim with differing leads and influences that all combine into an expert lesson in melodeath/doom.