(In the longest review we’ve ever published, DGR assesses the mammoth new three-disc album by Finland’s Swallow the Sun.)
We’ve had this disc for a bit. I know we’re late on this, but I hope to make it up you guys by essentially deep-diving and excavating this album, as there’s a ton going on with Songs From The North I, II & II that deserves to be highlighted.
I have become one with this album. It is inside me, and I am inside it. At this point, I consider myself the Jacques Cousteau of album reviewers — minus the whole being French, deep-sea diving, and talented part, but still. I believe the analogy holds on its own merits. I have stared into the abyss through the eyes of this album and asked if there was anything worth saving, and still my heart said, “No”.
Songs From The North is an album that a lot of folks have been approaching with equal measures of dread and excitement. A huge cause of this is obviously down to the fact that the up-front description of Songs From The North was essentially this: doom metal band from Finland decides to release a triple-album — as in, not one disc, or two discs, but three separate platters of music.
It’s a prevailing opinion amongst a lot of music listeners that the double-album is incredibly difficult to pull off, often associated with the territory of ’70s prog bands with access to the sort of mind-altering substances capable of inspiring enough material to create a double album, or their modern-day compatriots who follow in their footsteps. Occasionally we have a different kind of band attempting it; the most recent group with a similar sort of “big label status” to make a splash with one was Soilwork, and they initially won out because the music contained within The Living Infinite was actually pretty good and filled with the occasional surprises, long after the name Soilwork had become a frustrating hallmark of the word “consistency”.
So, I can see why people would be worried with Swallow The Sun releasing a three-disc album — but there are some things you need to keep in mind about Swallow The Sun and the Songs From The North release:
Swallow The Sun have been around for a while now, with their first releases hitting in the early 2000s, and during that time they have maintained a fairly consistent lineup, with the pilot of the drum kit being the only often-rotating position. However, despite having what appears to be an insanely stable lineup, Swallow The Sun have taken on a variety of forms, basically amassing across their now six full-length releases a three-headed chimera of material.
The initial sticker-shock for Songs From The North may be huge, but you have to bear this in mind. Their chimera has had them taking on three forms: what is now the current Swallow The Sun, the sort of melancholic doom band with a tendency for dramatics but rarely going into epic-length songs; the clean-sung and mournful Swallow The Sun; and the proper funeral-procession doom Swallow The Sun that was strongly hinted at in their earlier material like The Morning Never Came and Ghosts Of Loss, with their glacial pace (and the “Plague Of Butterflies” release that landed in between Hope and New Moon).
You could often imagine Swallow The Sun as feeling like these three heads were at war with each other. In some ways, this came to a head on Emerald Forest And The Blackbird, a hell of a collection of singles but difficult to tie together thematically. Songs From The North sounds like the band recognized this and decided to either go big or go home — and they gave all three aspects of their career a chance to breathe and fully expose themselves. So although the idea of three (!) discs may be daunting, it’s worth recognizing that the album only encompasses 21 songs, not some insane number that the idea of a triple album might have initially provoked (you have to give Swallow The Sun credit — they did a hell of a job keeping that hidden for a while, just to let folks stand there for three months with mouths agape at the idea).
And so with three discs comes one hell of an album review. It’s hard to come up with an approach for something like this, because Swallow The Sun have done something interesting with Songs From The North. Each section of this release is very different tonally, bearing out my earlier statement about the band’s career — so it’s hard to just do one solid review of everything present. That would have felt like the writer’s equivalent of dropping a lead block on the reader’s head, which I have been informed is just not a polite thing to do to people. And besides, I’m not one for brute force; I prefer the slow suffocation of many words, and so I’ll try my best to split Songs From The North into its three different sections.
The three discs play with themes of gloom, beauty, and despair, and the music within each tends to match up to those specific endeavors, yet at times it feels like Songs From The North is coming from a different place than what is present on the surface. There is the “modern Swallow The Sun sounding” release, displaying their penchant for dramatic-sounding song titles; the second is the clean-sung and mostly acoustic work; and the third is the absolutely crushing funeral procession that the band haven’t broken out in some time; they hinted at it throughout much of their career, of course, but disc three sees a whole record made of songs played at the pace of their Plague Of Butterflies single, with only five tracks covering a hefty fifty minutes. We’ll likely be using the disc number and the full album title interchangeably.
The idea of a listener comfort zone is always one that has weighed in the back in my head when I’m doing album reviews. I bring this up in part because I am admittedly one of those people who never really likes the first lead-off single for a new album by a band I enjoy, as part of my brain initially goes into old-man mode and starts screaming, “I don’t like change!” The comfort zone is the spot that, to me, represents where the band are slowly introducing new ideas while at the same time still sounding enough like the band that I enjoy for me not to get too spooked by a radical shift in sound.
In some ways, disc one of Songs From The North is the representative comfort zone for its first couple of songs, as opening track “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears” (see? dramatic song title and all) is very much an expansion of where Swallow The Sun have been heading for the last few albums and could have just as easily been an opening track on New Moon, as it could have on Hope or Emerald Forest. It is a nine-minute dirge (8:59) — most of the tracks on Songs From The North disc one are around the seven-minute mark — which begins with the world crashing down around the band, an admittedly familiar approach for Swallow The Sun. You even get a little bit of opening narration — a move with which Swallow The Sun are intimately familiar.
It’s become more prominent in the latter half of the band’s career, but Swallow The Sun are fans of laying out general scenery before completely drenching the world around you in depression, like a calm rain. It’s a familiar format, no doubt, especially as the keyboard work goes into full bombast during each movement downward. It’s one heavy, load bearing combination of notes after the other, used for general ambience on top of each slow, labored snare hit.
One of the things that initially stood out for disc one was that the keyboard work actually remains pretty light for the first few songs, with the grand movements being reserved specifically for “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears”. They come into play much more during the back part of disc one — “Silhouettes” — and on seeing huge introductions with the usage of some hefty church bells, adding to the funeral-like procession that much of the overarching narrative of Songs From The North wallows in. But save for a few ethereal bits, their presence is pretty reserved on disc one.
“With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears” also is something of a return to the well creatively for Swallow The Sun. As mentioned above, with its dramatic song title and opening narration, “With You” can actually feel a tad overtly familiar. Given that it is the opening song on the album, it’s something of a forgivable sin, since the song is very much Swallow The Sun doing what they know best.
The opening narrative bits cover some familiar ground; though the song itself is a tad vague lyrically, the opening line (as well as some of the music on Disc 3) hint at a much darker undercurrent overall to this album. “With You” opens with vocalist Mikko Kotamäki asking St. Peter, “Saint Peter, save me and send me down to hell/For I will find her there, where moonlight catches her scarlet hair/Where she sings, and black ravens circle above her in the burning air”, before the song truly sets in with its full crawl.
Even if you were to just walk it back one album, to Emerald Forest And The Blackbird, you would note that the opening track on that disc began with similar themes of loss, although in a differing situation. Still, the black bird symbolism — which the gentlemen of Swallow The Sun get a ton of mileage out of on Songs From The North, especially throughout disc one — lies heavy when referencing ravens circling above the aforementioned woman in hell. These themes run deep throughout Songs From The North and some of the biggest reoccurring ones happen when you reach Disc 3. ”
“With You”, however, sees all three vocal styles that Swallow The Sun have used to full extent, although the clean singing is fairly minor. I’ve had the impression over the years that as clean singing has become more prominent in Swallow The Sun’s sound, people haven’t really taken to it. For those people, “With You” includes very little of it and mostly sees Mikko using that death growl of his to the fullest. And again, considering how much material there is on this album, you won’t really be left wanting for much of any style of vocal delivery by the time the album reaches its final crescendo.
The following two songs, “10 Silver Bullets” and “Rooms And Shadows”, are both tied up in my brain, mostly because both songs have an air of, “Who knew Swallow The Sun would write a groove-heavy guitar riff like this?” Both songs feel like they were done in the vein of “Hate, Lead The Way” and make Swallow The Sun actually sound like a death metal band in comparison to the usual doom trudge.
That both are back-to-back leads to some odd pacing issues, but both songs are probably what could be considered the straightforward rockers of the album. Both songs could actually be treated like previews of the third disc, where songs are seemingly based on one solid riff, as opposed to the usual multiple-movement treatment.
“10 Silver Bullets” and “Rooms” are both faster moving songs and have their subtle differences, but with the two coming in succession, they come across as a fifteen-minute solid block of headbanging in between two of the moodiest songs in the first half of Songs From The North. The man guitar section of “10 Silver Bullets” is a little more groove-based, moving in solid, blocky note changes and “Rooms And Shadows” opens with a more percussive and chugging guitar section.
The main rhythm guitar section after the opening verse of “10 Silver Bullets”, alongside the cymbal catch and sudden stops, is almost neck-snapping. It’s the sort of headbang that is entirely subconscious, and you find yourself engaged in forward momentum way too late to stop. It’s a heavy and, dare I say, brutal section of that song. When it comes to “Rooms And Shadows:, it can often feel like another side of the same coin that includes “10 Silver Bullets”.
As mentioned before, the two seem tied together by more than just an overarching concept, and although “Rooms And Shadows” is a little more narrative-heavy, the two songs both have the head-nodding quotient of Songs From The North filled. You even get the cathedral bells that have slowly infected the whole three-disc run throughout those two songs, at certain points just to punctuate the extra heavy sections.
While I will attempt my damndest (and likely fail) not to dissect every single song on Songs From The North (there’s a lot of interesting stuff in between Swallow The Sun being Swallow The Sun), some attention needs to be paid to “Heartstrings Shattering” — which some of you may recognize as being one of the songs for which Swallow The Sun made a lyric video. “Heartstrings Shattering” is in some ways one of the best of these Songs From The North, but by the same token “Heartstrings Shattering” is also the most Swallow The Sun song on Songs From The North.
“Heartstrings” is a pretty melancholy and straightforward ethereal doom number, featuring guest vocals by singer Aleah of Trees Of Eternity, as she handles the main chorus. It is one of the most “cold” songs on Songs From The North, as if it was written with a frozen hand. The song itself has a huge block of clean singing and rotates between that and a hefty death growl with agility.
Swallow The Sun are a band who really found a sound a few years back, and it seems that since then each album has been an iteration on it. With songs like “Heartstrings Shattering” you can really hear the band calling back to material that they were playing on Hope, as well as songs like “Lights On The Lake Horror Pt. III” from New Moon. It is the band as they are most within their comfort zone, which means if you’ve been following the group, then you know not to expect any surprises, as the boundaries within which they play are very familiar to you.
However, that familiarity also breeds the ability to just do what they do best, and that’s what “Heartstrings Shattering” is. It’s not the most original thing out there, but the execution is almost flawless and the song is a jaw-dropper. It also has one of the cruelest lines every uttered in lyrical form and it is basically the entirety of Aleah’s appearance within the song; the words, “So that it could suffer longer/Like I did in your arms” have so much subtle venom within them that even though they’re delivered in a beautiful and mournfully sung melody, they still have the capability to suck the wind out of us like a spaceship that has suddenly had a door ripped off. If those words were ever uttered to you, beautiful in their melancholy and all, it would not be shocking to hear that one’s heartstrings would literally shatter as well.
It is actually in the back half that the keyboard and synth work return in full force, although one of the things that consistently sticks out is the usage of bells throughout all of Songs From The North. They’ve long been a staple of the Swallow The Sun sound, but they feel as if they’ve been entwined with the band this time around, as if the album is defined by a constant overwhelming sense of gloom and the reproach of cathedral bells. They seem purposefully placed throughout the songs to summon the listener’s attention, to bring us back to the scenes that Swallow The Sun paints — although I’m sure more often than not they’re making the end of different measures. I know they tend to punctuate every four or so in some songs, and “Silhouettes” is one where that seemed to present itself the most.
“Silhouettes” is one of the more oppressive songs to appear on Songs From The North, foreshadowing future songs with a bleak atmosphere. “Silhouettes” opens heavy and moves quickly, the beneficiary of wall-of-death growls, one of the shorter track times on disc one with a swaying guitar part that collapses quickly into ambient keyboards and clean guitar when needed — but even that is mostly crushed each time the anguished chorus comes back in, cued by the words, “But I shall return, I will haunt her in her dreams”.
The song really takes shape at about three minutes and twenty seconds in, with a furious double-bass roll that is likely one of the fastest, if not the fastest, things that happens on this disc. You could argue that “Silhouettes” is Swallow The Sun breaking out every weapon that they have, as the song is just absolutely packed. While the first songs on Songs From The North wallow, “Silhouettes” really throws its weight around, so when the band even break out a brass horn section to trumpet defeat from the high heavens, it fits perfectly.
There is actually another two-fer pair of songs at the end of disc one, and although they’re both relentlessly heavy, they also have a shift in tone that tips the listener off to what is upcoming for disc 2. The two songs at the end, “Lost and Catatonic” and “From Happiness To Dust”, are another pair like “10 Silver Bullets” and “Rooms And Shadows”, two songs that feel like two takes on the same song style.
“Lost And Catatonic” is most notable because it is one of the mostly clean sung songs on disc one, hamming up the gloomy aspect with its seemingly many choruses; and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t own up to the fact that, even with the somewhat thick accent, the phrase, “We are lost, and catatonic” is one that is constantly hummed for me while I’ve been working on this disc. Just writing the song title has brought the melody back to my head.
If anyone needs an example of infectious melodies for the future, “Lost And Catatonic” does a damned good job of it — even if I personally am still falling in love with “Heartstrings Shattering” over and over. “Lost And Catatonic” also has a punchy opening, with a simple five to six quick chugs on the guitar to feel like the drums of war. Swallow The Sun uses that throughout the song as one of its main motifs in between some very sparse guitar work and whispered vocals. It is a dynamic track that sees the full range of the band’s abilities, although more spaced-out than what was present in “Silhouettes”.
It also contains another reference to “Bury My Heart”, which brings it back around to two songs before in “Heartstrings Shattering”, when Aleah utters the same words to begin her singing part. If you needed any further examples of how, despite its pretty chorus, “Lost And Catatonic” is a miserable song, you have to bare in mind that the whole track is pretty much formatted around the words that open the song: “Failure, Victim, Nothing, Bleeding, Losing, Everything” — and they are repeated over and over, with some of the doomiest key work behind it.
“From Happiness To Dust” isn’t as overwhelmingly heavy as sections of “Lost And Catatonic” are, but it feels like it is intertwined with the latter song, simply because of the way one closes and the other fades in. There’s almost no gap between the two so, as the key work slowly builds up for “From Happiness” right after the close of “Lost”; it sounds more like the themes of its predecessor are being extended outwards.
What “From Happiness” does differently from its sibling, though, is that it starts to transition from the relentless crushing of Disc One, containing a huge swath of clean-sung melodies, although not exclusively, because the closing passages of “From Happiness” see the death growls return in finest form, and everything goes grandiose for a brief moment in what might be considered melo-doom passages.
It’s a cold and snowy song, perfect for blizzard-like conditions viewed from the confines of one’s home but it’s not as despair-heavy as what comes to define Part One up to that point. It is also the song that has a bookending quality in terms of song close-outs — although it certainly hints that there is more to Songs From The North than simply this one disc.
If we were to reach into Songs From The North and pull disc one out on its own, then it would probably be one of the strongest Swallow The Sun releases out there. It isn’t the best one, but it is certainly more focused than the band’s last release was — no matter how much I enjoyed it. However, Disc One also feels like it belongs as part of a greater whole, and so considering this first part simply on its own means that there are some musical threads that never really resolve themselves; the way the back half of the disc tapers off into silence hints that there is something more.
“From Happiness To Dust” doesn’t end conclusively; it fades out with a quiet string piece. It’s a beautiful closing, but it serves more as a neat bow to end the song’s eight-and-a-half-minute run than it does the whole of disc one. And it is more difficult to separate the discs from each other because Swallow The Sun have actually managed to thematically tie these albums together, despite the three very different takes on their overall sound.
As Songs From The North transitions from its gloomy and anguished first batch of songs, so do we in terms of both mood and instrumentation. Songs From The North disc 2 is an entirely clean-sung and almost completely acoustic album. It contains six songs and two instrumental tracks and serves in part as a change of pace between one and three, but also as the literal centerpiece of the Songs From The North triplet of albums.
It is here on disc two that the words “Songs From The North” are actually uttered, which illuminates a bright beacon of importance on the music within. It’s not complicated or overtly dramatic, but it does contain what feels like a quest to convey the album’s identity.
Obviously, Songs From The North is a massively dense collection of work. But on top of its dramatics, its tales of love and loss, its mournful reproaches and cruelty inflicted, Songs From The North is trying to capture an identity of what it means to be “from the North”. Oftentimes, Swallow The Sun are portraying characters in their music, and these protagonists often serve as allegories for the desolation and the despair that the band are trying to convey.
Also, though, these are tales that are common to people from their region. Swallow The Sun have always had a folk element in their music; it sounds as if it draws from the well spring of older days, in the 1800s when most countries were settled as farmsteads and medical technology wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now. So these tales of loss often feel like they belong to people from long ago, when such events were much more common.
There’s a constant undercurrent of misery that inhabits these stories. Even during the calmer and more “beautiful” numbers, Swallow The Sun can be depressing on a whole other level. The atmosphere can at times be oppressive, and so disc two offers us our solace from that — although, to be sure, the band still spend the disc wallowing in their melancholy.
The opening song of disc 2, for instance, is a six-minute instrumental number consisting mostly of piano as it transitions us away from Disc 1’s “Lost And Catatonic”/”From Happiness To Dust” two-fer and into disc 2’s “The Heart Of A Cold White Land”. Disc 2 does manage to keep itself mostly compact in comparison to its siblings, with its numbers staying between the four- and six-minute range.
Instrumentals are often something that I have had a hell of a time critiquing during my writings on the internet. Most of the time I tend to just acknowledge them and let people know what they sound like and then move on, without really diving into them too much. It’s part of the reason why I have difficulties reviewing an album that is entirely instrumental, like a Cloudkicker or Paul Wardingham release.
Sometimes, the songs are all about the mood they convey and may be simply written, and other times there is a wall of stuff happening in them, and I, as a rube who only played percussion for a handful of years, really don’t have much to offer. I always worry that people reading the “DGR discusses instrumentals section” really only walk away with the idea of “this song is good” and ‘this song not so good”.
I use this preface because there are two instrumental pieces on Songs From The North part 2 — “The Womb Of Winter” and “66°50’N, 28°40’E”, which clock in at three minutes and thirty seconds, and six minutes and forty some-odd seconds, respectively. Even though they occupy slots one and six of the eight songs available on Disc two, the two of them feel tied together, quietly echoing each other, but also serving similar purposes on this release.
“The Womb (not throat — don’t get jumpy, Opeth fans) of Winter” almost consists entirely of a handful of piano notes, over and over again. It is a minimalistic and sparse song, which is surprising given the amount of grandiosity the keys had just a few songs ago, but the song being as quiet as it is serves a purpose, signaling the shift in mood and tone. It is also an effective track for what it feels like much of Songs From The North disc two wants you to do, which is to drift and relax.
You could treat “Womb of Winter”‘s simple opening segments – before it drops into a quiet melody halfway into the song, and then returns to it in the end to close the song out — much like the bells that the band often invokes, the slow, processional steps forward. Even with the small melody in the middle, which is genuinely beautiful, the song is still incredibly sparse.
That the song closes with the howling of wolves makes the statement that disc two is very much about time and place, more so than being overwhelming on the listener front. With a set of headphones on, it’s easy to imagine that you’d get lost in your own thoughts during the three-and-a-half-minute duration of “The Womb Of Winter”.
Disc two’s running theme is supposed to be beauty, but more often than not it is incredibly pensive, which given the gloom that defined the first disc and the utter misery coming in the third, fits in well with the overarching theme of Songs From The North as the biggest expulsion of sadness Swallow The Sun have mustered to date. It also shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that Disc two is also very guitar- and piano-centric; it is Swallow The Sun as stripped-down as they could get themselves.
While I’m sure some of you were placing bets on whether or not I would continue to prove that I, too, can read a track list with the best of them, I want to derail a bit and cover the second, much longer instrumental, “66°50’N, 28°40’E” — which actually comes after the “Songs From The North” song (side note, the words “songs”, “from, and “north” have lost all meaning here, the word the” never had any, and if I start thinking about it I might be prone to having another existential crisis ala my Napalm Death review this year). I’ve often joked about how most melodic doom albums are required to have at least one song that consists of soft guitar, piano, and rain – and “66°50’N, 28°40’E” is probably the closest Swallow The Sun allow themselves to get on Songs From The North, especially since they break the rule slightly with some light drumming.
Clocking in at an epic — for Disc two standards — six minutes and forty two seconds, “66°50’N, 28°40’E” is all guitar melodies and ambient key work. It is actually longer than the songs featuring the full Swallow The Sun roster, vocals and all, on disc two — making it a hidden centerpiece, like a pillar to prop disc two up. There’s not so much rain, but Swallow The Sun are beings of snow and ice, and “66°50’N, 28°40’E” is very evocative of that weather. I wouldn’t be lying, though, if I said that the opening melody of “66°50’N, 28°40’E” is hypnotic. It’s a gorgeous little piece that spills over into a variety of different note progressions, but that opening segment where the drumming is quietly mixed into its own little corner, like the listener is underwater, slowly fading in — it is a magical moment for Songs From The North.
The song is absolutely a playground for the guitars and keys to do their masterwork, coming up with little pieces and motifs that sometimes are so good that I wish they could’ve been transposed into full songs on their own. Each quiet little guitar solo is another notch in the album’s belt, and the one closer to the end of the song where everything goes “electric” for a bit is one of the best on the album. “66°50’N, 28°40’E” is the best closer that the “Songs From The North” song could’ve asked for, and the song itself could’ve borne the title in its own right, and it would have made sense. It’s lying in the back few songs on disc two is the perfect placement; like its compatriot “Womb of Winter” at the top of the disc, it keeps the listener in their own catatonic state. It is one of the songs from Disc two that I go back to time and time again — no lyrics to grab you, but some beautiful melodies that leave you in a dreamlike state for the last two songs on part two.
A lot of where I feel disc two is going to be make-or-break for people is where you fall on vocalist Mikko’s singing voice. While we’ve at times written somewhat jokingly under the banner of “No Clean Singing”, Swallow The Sun are one of the bands where I get a little grognardy. I’m okay with his singing voice, at times finding it competent-to-good, but singing is a polarizing thing for people. My standards tend to be a goddamned mess, so most of the time I prefer to compromise and say that I absolutely love his screaming, growling, and yelling, but his singing voice is not my favorite. He’s good and fits in with what Swallow The Sun are doing, but oftentimes the best moments are when he is paired with somebody else to sing with him and the two combine to form something great. There are a small handful of moments across Songs From The North part two where it does feel like he’s straining a bit.
It is also a more recent thing that his voice has become more prominent as a singer as well, with the band using it more often each album release. I’ve always felt that they really stumbled onto something with the clean-and-growled combination on “The Justice Of Suffering” from 2006’s Hope — which featured Jonas Renske of Katatonia fame on clean vocals — and since then it seems that Swallow The Sun have been more confident in working clean singing into their overall sound. So, it’s not too surprising that it makes up much of disc two, being representative of one of the three directions in which the band have headed. Plus, although I imagine it would be hilarious, it probably would’ve sounded strange to have somebody using their deepest bellows from the nether realms over an acoustic guitar.
If somebody wants to make that dream happen. though, be sure to let us know.
Walking back a bit, “Heart Of A Cold White Land” is the first song on Songs From The North disc two that has full lyrical accompaniment. As mentioned above, it is also the one that contains the words “Songs From The North” uttered in it, in a line that states. “And the light of the summer that never dies in these songs from the north” — though there is actually an aforementioned “Songs From The North” song as well. Swallow The Sun are clearly putting a lot of the heart of Songs From The North in disc two, as it is the one that obviously lies at the center of the three-piece. Bu it also feels the most tied-together — though we as listeners are probably most prone to relaxing during it and zoning out.
If you look at the artwork for Songs From The North, you’ll note that the very top of its triangle contains a compass, with the N clearly marked and the other three directions marked by crucifixes. So the cathedral bells slowly working their way back into “Heart Of A Cold White Land” feels like the most obvious move. They stay relatively quiet in the song, but like much of “Heart Of A Cold White Land”, they build. The whole song starts out with sparse accompaniment before slowly adding more instrumentation, a backing cello piece quietly working its way in a little bit into verse two of the song. I actually enjoy the lower-voiced, backing vocal in the song a lot. Especially in the moments where it is contrasting with the actual sung melodies — it fills out the song as it becomes more prominent before the full band finds it way in at the end, including muted drumming and some fairly restrained piano melodies. The combined string section, though, does give “Heart Of A Cold White Land” a pretty ending.
“Away” is one of the songs that comes to mind when I mentioned the clean vocals straining a bit; the opening lines come across a little frail and seems a little thin. It is, however, the song that gave me the impression that Swallow The Sun intended to make part two a meditative experience, as there is a strong echo effect on guitar and the chorus consisting of a repeated “away away away” takes on a mantra-like quality. Without peeling the curtain back too much, when we were initially deciding on how to review Songs From The North (before I took on the entire thing, because I’m a crazy person), I joked with the other writers of the site that Disc two consisted of a bunch of very pretty acoustic pieces, two instrumental interludes (that would later grow on me), and an Enya-esque section. The chorus of “Away” is where that joke came from, although it is obviously a little unfair.
There’s something spiritualistic to “Away” as a whole, although the overall melodies of the song aren’t as strong as most on Songs From The North part two. For instance, I can more easily recall the opening guitar lines to “Pray For The Winds To Come” than I can much of “Away”, barring its hypnotic chorus. “Pray For The Winds to Come”, though, is one of the moments where disc two works. Things tone down a bit and become more sullen in “Pray”, with most of the instrumentation in the song being fairly quiet outside of the prominent acoustic guitar. I’d even hazard to say that “Pray” has a bit of a folk element to it, especially as there is a quiet and softly sung vocal line that follows the guitar closer to the end of the song. It is certainly one of the stronger songs on disc two.
Which brings us to “Songs From The North” — the actual song — and it feels like it would be a fool’s errand to review this album and not talk about this song. Were it not for its following friend, the instrumental “66°50’N, 28°40’E” that we spoke about at length above, “Songs From The North” would likely be the champion of album two. Though now it is the tag team champ, as it and its follower make for a fantastic pairing in the backstretch of disc two. At a little over five minutes and fifteen seconds, it is the third shortest song on the second album. It also features musician Kaisa Vala on accompanying vocals in a call-and-response dynamic with Mikko. She actually sings her part entirely in Finnish (which made the first few listens of this disc real fun) in response to the character Mikko plays, as he addresses a Mother North in the song.
Google Translate kicks the whole thing back as a giant hilarious mess that looks similar to me slamming my face into the keyboard, but the actual vocal lines are beautifully sung and continue the folk element that Swallow The Sun seem to be drawing from for much of disc two. “Songs From The North” is one of the slower moving songs, but if you love the male/female pairings that Swallow The Sun have been writing since New Moon, then this is the song for you (though “Songs From The North” is probably closer to “Cathedral Walls” than it is a song like “Lights On The Lake (Horror Pt. III)”. It’s a beautiful meditation on a very cold subject, which is one of those things that these melodic and melancholic doom bands seem to be best at. There is also another call-out at the end of the song to the idea of burying one’s heart. It’s a very ethereal piece of music that spills over into an amazing instrumental, and the two are the best songs on album two by far.
“Autumn Fire”, however, suffers a bit for not starting too strong. It actually feels a bit like a sibling to “Away” in a couple of different aspects — including a prominent echo-effect-heavy guitar melody that defines its chorus section. “Autumn Fire” starts with counting as well, which is a personal bitch of mine as I’ve never been the hugest fan of counting during songs — you can imagine the special hell I was in during A Perfect Circle’s song “Crimes” from Thirteenth Step. Actually, for a bit I had the two songs running at the same time in my head as the drum rhythm of that song and the guitar melody from “Autumn Fire” seemed to move at about the same pace.
While the band were addressing Mother North in the title song on part two, “Autumn Fire” features multiple references to Father Winter. On a surface level, if you hadn’t guessed that part of the identity of Swallow The Sun lies in the fact that they are from an often cold and snowy place then, there would be no helping you now. “Autumn Fire” does pick up a bit, but it feels like it moves in the same ways that “Away” does, doing a similar song and dance, although the sections where the band really picks up for the chorus work a lot better than they do on “Away”. It does feature some amazing imagery, though. The line where Father Winter is brought up has a line before it describing the general scenery of fall as it fades into winter, portrayed as, “Cathedrals of trees, where the altars are burning/The smoke of October leaves” before once again the band pays heed to their hidden mantra of being a black bird, in this case acting as crows.
“Before The Summer Dies” marks our transition out of Songs From The North Disc 2. It actually starts off with a full band, in comparison to the rest of the songs in disc two, where each one slowly assembles itself — this one is organically a full group from the get-go. It’s about average length with the rest of Songs From The North disc two, so there isn’t too much foreshadowing of what disc three will be like — unlike how I felt about disc one’s closing section. It does feature a little bit more vocal straining, but “Before The Summer Dies” more than makes up for it because it has some really good key and guitar melodies.
The super-quiet and fading vocals of the chorus of “Before The Summer Dies” take on an almost lullaby aspect, providing listeners another opportunity to get lost in the soundscape that the band are painting. It echoes “66°50’N, 28°40’E” in some of its melodies but it also has some more strong imagery — with the main refrain of the song being “We Are The Children Of The Setting Sun”. It also does get a little bit heavy for the bridge of the song, which actually made it feel a little like part of a Barren Earth song, but that could just be the acoustic guitar and the keyboard work combining to make it feel like ’70s prog-rock for a moment. Considering that most of the song is subdued, that one heavy bit toward the end sticks out and could be the one hint of just how dark things are going to get for disc three, but “Before The Summer Dies” is an excellent sun setting on the time spent with Songs From The North disc 2.
It is actually really easy to get lost in Songs From The North disc 2. The album dubs itself “beauty’, but it often seems more meditative than one might initially expect, though its two instrumentals certainly do their best to earn that title. Because we’re coming off of Part 1’s heavy hitting, the nature of disc 2 often feels more relaxed. With the two instrumentals as long as they are, it often gives listeners a chance to just drift in their own thoughts for a while. There are some absolutely gorgeous moments on it.
I expect, though, that disc 2 could likely be the most polarizing for the reasons that are dotted throughout my earlier paragraphs. Some of the melodies are a little strange, and sometimes the songs feel strangely sparse — which at the same time is frustrating, because that is what they should be. Likewise, a lot of the extent of personal enjoyment is going to depend on how you’ve felt about Swallow The Sun’s clean-sung material in the past, because this is a collection of that en-masse. While there is a lot of heart tied up in Songs From The North part 2, it is also the one that I feel suffers a bit simply by being packed in between disc one’s pretty solid Swallow The Sun release and the behemoth that is part 3.
Part 2 is meditative and slow-going, it’s the chance to be pensive and reflect on past actions, and it is the one that draws the most from folk traditions. The title song can run on its own and it is the song that is the most woven into and called out to from the collection in this section of the album. But, it’s the one that I felt works best as part of the full-album run as opposed to being sought out on its own. It’s perfect as that breather in between everything else, but I imagine a lot of metalheads are going to be prone to jump straight to “Gathering Of Black Moths” if they are crunched for time.
The one time I had the opportunity to see Swallow The Sun live was with Kreator and a handful of local bands as part of an off-date from their tour with Accept. It was a strange bill and made even more weird with it just being Kreator and Swallow The Sun for the Sacramento show. Kreator even brought their giant stage set-up consisting of the Phantom Antichrist artwork blown up huge. I remember it being on a Monday and sparsely attended, but the show had a ping-ponging quality to it, as the local bands varied in style between the sort of stoner-rock you might associate with acts like Red Fang and beer-fueled thrash, and then Swallow The Sun took the stage and proceed to play a set consisting of what seemed to be the most glacially paced music possible.
That experience is somewhat similar to what it is like making a run through Songs From The North and reaching disc 3. That is where the true processional funeral hymns lie. Disc 3, I imagine, is going to have a lot of words dedicated to it simply because it only consists of five songs, yet takes close to fifty minutes to hear by itself, about nine minutes longer than disc two and eight shorter than disc one — but the fact that that fifty-one minutes is in FIVE songs is enough to provide sticker shock.
The opening song having a 13:00 next to its description should do that, too. Swallow The Sun have attempted song-writing like this before, with “Plague Of Butterflies” clocking in at seventeen minutes, but that song was intended to feel like multiple songs; it had movements. Songs From The North 3’s five songs don’t have movements, so to speak; their one dynamic is slow and anguished, and each song is a different demonstration of how to accomplish that end-goal.
This is Swallow The Sun pulling a full My Dying Bride with The Barghest O’ Whitby — which saw release more than three years ago but sticks out in my mind as another epic-length doom song. Disc 3 for Swallow The Sun is the true test of the group as a doom band — whether they can pull off truly stretching their music out and exploring just how heavy they can get. This is where the band take on the pace of bands like Worship, Inborn Suffering, and Void Of Silence.
Disc three will likely be the trigger for a million arguments over whether it is truly “funeral doom” or if the song lengths make that a false pretense. Without feeling like a broken record stuck hard in a groove of back masking tape just repeating the words doom over and over, Disc 3 is as crawling and slow as Swallow The Sun have ever gotten, and it is what has slowly become the hidden highlight for Songs From The North.
“The Gathering Of Black Moths”, our welcoming ambassador to disc three, starts off HEAVY. There probably isn’t another moment on Songs From The North that reverses polarity more than the difference between closer “Before The Summer Dies” from album two and the opening of “Gathering Of Black Moths”. It is relentlessly oppressive, basically opening up with the world not crashing around you as a listener, but on top of you. And where disc two was entirely clean sung, disc three makes it clear from its opening notes that there will be no clean vocals in sight; in fact, it basically razes the idea from your brain like a cleansing fire and then salts the earth as it goes walking out. “And hell followed with” disc three of Songs From The North. The opening lines of the song are “Hell Is Here” stretched out over about twenty seconds of music.
I’m not kidding when I say there is literally a moment in “The Gathering Of Black Moths” that just consists of one snare hit, then a bell ringing. That is how slow this song moves. The mood of Songs From The North has quickly shifted to be less about beauty and melody to being more about utter misery to the Nth degree. The opening segments of the song are monolithic guitar chugs, a martial “dun-dun-dun” that moves with a goliath-like quality to them. After the initial quieting down where it is just drummer and keyboardist, the song does however feature one of my favorite moments, when the full band come back in, the keys take on an aura of being the most twisted brass and string orchestra section out there, and Mikko just yells (with the vocals doubled over) one of the lowest, most bellowing death growls Swallow The Sun have done to date. It’s like watching a sinkhole open up and devour a city, like it came from the Earth itself.
The funny part about that moment, and why I zero in on it so much, is I feel like a huge part of why Songs From The North disc three is so fresh in my mind is because a large chunk of it is composed of moments like that. I imagine them sitting around a chart, with the song being worked on in the center of it, and one of the band members behaving like a football coach and pointing to it, going, “And you see right here? Here? I want you to roar. Roar like it is coming straight from hell, from the bowels of the earth! We’re all just going to lean really hard on our instruments to back it up” — and that happens all of the time across disc three. Just absolute soul-crushing despair marked by deathly bellows. Then I imagine them high-fiving and going, “Yeah! That was a great idea!” I also tend to write my Finnish melodic doom bands like characters in a bad ’80s action movie, so maybe people shouldn’t be taking everything I say to heart?
“Gathering Of Black Moths” continues to get even heavier as it strides across the world. The whole song seems to stretch out across the horizon and so far into the doom genre that by a metric definition you can see why people call this funeral doom. It is the heaviest procession of sound Swallow The Sun have created so far. They even break out some slow-moving and miserable narration during “Gathering”, something that they use to fuller effect two songs later in “Empires Of Loneliness”. “Gathering Of Black Moths” is one of those songs that basically define every song that follows it — it is your introduction and tutorial about how things are going to be moving on Songs From The North disc three. By the time the crushing double-bass roll comes in at around the seven-minute mark, the song has not only flattened a city, it is now grinding the concrete and rebar that constructed it into a fine powder.
“7 Hours Late” seems to have its opening built around that moment I joked about earlier, with an ambient keyboard section lending itself to a massive roar and some depressing subject matter. It’s a couple of minutes shorter than “The Gathering Of Black Moths” but moves at about the same pace — pretty much all the songs do on disc three, so you find yourself either having more room to dig around in each song or getting just as easily lost. This is doom not for the faint of heart. The defining characteristics lie either in the story they tell or in a handful of key moments, as each song, much like “7 Hours Late”, stretches itself into the void.
Disc three is an album of overwhelming atmosphere that needs to be taken in as one run, with maybe two of the songs being good for solo runs. They are songs meant to bleed into each other, so it creates a situation in which you either eat that whole fifty-minute steak at once or not at all. “7 Hours Late” does pick up a tiny bit at the end, but in that case it is probably still the slowest song by even disc one standards.
Apropos of interrupting the whole flow of this review/deep dive/uncalled-for-dissection, I do believe a small shoutout needs to be made to drummer Juuso Raatikainen because he’s the unsung hero of Songs From The North. Absent for almost a whole second disc, he keeps a solid backline going throughout the first album and then is somehow able to keep track of where the heck he is at in the glacially moving third chapter. As someone who has sat behind the kit for a little while, I was never able to keep track of where the hell I was in longer, slower songs; I imagine that it is probably the hardest thing in the world to try and keep yourself to just what fits the song, which in the case of part 3 is often just a simple cymbal-and-snare combo, one hitting and then the other happening measures down the line.
In Disc 1, he’s often keeping up with the guitars and bass section, making every riff on that album that isn’t just an overwhelming combination of sustained chords come off very rhythmic — which is partially why I focused on the two song pairs on disc one earlier on — but still, considering that the theme within the third disc is absolute restraint on the drum front, you still have to give him a small hand for the labored effort put into the fifty-plus minutes comprising that record.
Despite my love for “The Gathering Of Black Moths”, the highlight of disc three has to be its center song (the third track, even), “Empires Of Loneliness”. Coming in at eleven minutes, it’s a slightly faster and more dynamic song than the two preceding it — but it also contains a fully narrated story, including the section that provided one of my opening gags way back at the top of this review (remember that? about two days ago?). “Empires Of Loneliness” still moves slower, but there are some hefty mid-paced sections that recreate the “world crashing around you” scenarios of the opening song.
“Empires Of Loneliness” deals heavily with death, and the music behind it reflects that. In its beginning moments it feels as if “Empires” is going to be another track like the two that lead into it, a monster that is moving slowly enough to carve out valleys and ravines, but it seems that Swallow The Sun recognized this and changed it up a bit. Yes, its opening minutes are more “goliath bestriding the Earth” style doom, but the guitar parts are defined by a sudden stop every few measures before things build into a relentlessly heavy section backed by one of the hardest-hitting double-bass drum rolls on the album. It’s not the fastest moving, but each hit has the velocity of a depth charge.
They repeat that bit multiple times throughout the song, but the mid-section of the song is where Swallow The Sun really crank the dramatics up to high gear, complete with a full-blown narrative passage describing an encounter with a ghostly butterfly. I wish I could quote the whole section, but instead, my favorite passage reads as follows:
Is there sill anything worth reaching for?
…and my heart said no
Any light or goodness in you worth holding on to?
…and my heart said no
Then the band shatter everything — heartstrings, instruments, the world. It kicks into one of the faster moments on Songs From The North — with a heavy and melodramatic section of guitars and keys at full bombast. Where “The Gathering Of Black Moths” defines much of Songs From The North part three, “Empires Of Loneliness” is the foundation that this disc was built upon. In all seriousness, the last moments of “Empires” after that narrative section may be some of the best music Swallow The Sun created on Songs From The North.
“Abandoned By The Light” — which wins my personal award for most dramatic song title on the album (“With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears” coming a close second) — is almost a grind song by disc three standards. At a sparse eight minutes and forty-eight seconds, you almost find yourself wondering what you’re going to do with all that extra listening time. “Abandoned By The Light” sees Swallow The Sun returning to the crushing opening sections, where the first few lines of each song are so labored that it is as if you’re hiking with a car strapped to your back.
“Abandoned” also features a passage that features the return of the almost-black-metal high screams that haven’t really been seen since New Moon. They appear about two and a half minutes into the track, with the song’s protagonist describing utter misery in the form of hallucinations — some actual proper gore buried within the mount of misery Swallow The Sun have constructed, with their main character crying out, “Please, save me Saint Peter!”. It’s almost the exact opposite of the address made at the opening of the album, where Swallow The Sun wanted to be sent down to hell. It’s in the last few minutes of the song that the band finally utter that they are “Abandoned by the light”, but the Sisyphean hell they drag their character through makes it more like they are abandoned by everything, not just light.
The last song of the epic-length disc three bears an epic title of its own. Whereas “Abandoned” took the crown for most dramatic, “The Clouds Prepare For Battle” gets the trophy for most epic-sounding. Another “short” song at about nine minutes, “The Clouds Prepare For Battle” doesn’t build up to being huge or fast; it starts at huge and mid-tempo and keeps its building-sized feet planted there for much of the song.
Here, the band are taking up the spectre of death that has been haunting them across all three discs, and becoming him. When they utter the words, “I have no more fear in me, nor tears to resist/I rise above you and take your throne/…of fear”, they are portraying a character who has been absolutely haunted, and “The Clouds Prepare For Battle” is where he finally gives in. It is the dramatic crescendo of Songs From The North, not only of disc three but of the whole album. It describes what the song is musically — utter destruction.
The choir that appears in the song adds to its grandiose nature, making the forthcoming storm feel like it is a world-ending battle. The quiet piano section quickly gives way to another wall of fire, much as the narration in “Empires Of Loneliness”‘ did, and the whole song remains a devastating mass of sound during its back five minutes. Between “Abandoned” and “Clouds”, Swallow The Sun get some serious mileage out of the high shrieks in the album’s last two songs.
It makes sense, then, that after all is said and done, disc three ends with just the howling of the wind. After fifty minutes you have listened to a world-flattening destroyer. What else is left to make any noise? The only thing that survives after disc three is the same thing that has come to define much of Songs From The North — the wind and the cold.
If Songs From The North could be summarized in a few words, they would be “grand” and “ambitious”. Obviously, the sticker shock of seeing three discs in one release is enough to take people aback, but Swallow The Sun are playing with big ideas here, essentially taking every facet of their sound and breaking each out into its own segment and giving it the fullest time to breathe. If anything, you are certainly getting the MOST Swallow The Sun you can get. Creating a triple album is an insanely difficult task, and Swallow The Sun’s success in keeping it interesting is a huge plus in their book.
Yet big releases like this tend to be burdened with the expectation that “it needs to be absolutely amazing or it’s a no-go”. While charting high, Songs From The North is probably closer to the biggest possible gift the band could have offered their fan base than anything else. It is Swallow The Sun doing what they do best, in every aspect. It’s not breaking new ground too often, but there are songs on here that are absolutely some of the best this band have ever done, interspersed within a great collection of music overall. Songs From The North, as a whole, is the sort of idea that a band could hang their career on — it’s every part of the Swallow The Sun sound brought to its fullest potential, explored and played out on the grandest scale possible.
If Swallow The Sun, all of a sudden, were to become a grind band for their next album, all you could really manage would be a bemused shrug at the out-of-nowhere turn, because it is really, really difficult to tell where they could go from here. They have made their densest album yet, packing all of what they have been into Songs From The North’s three discs. It is an album that does take a jack-of-all-trades approach and it works more often than it doesn’t, and when Swallow The Sun truly excel it is those moments which convince you that Songs From The North is absolutely worth every minute.
As a whole run, the experience is a dynamic ride, bouncing from a solid batch of music, to pensive, to outright oppressive, and as an exploration of everything that is Swallow The Sun, Songs From The North is fantastic.
Songs From the North I, II & III is out now on the Century Media label.