(The fourth album by Finland’s Barren Earth was releasd by Century Media on March 30, and TheMadIsraeli gives it a very positive review here.)
What IS metal exactly? Or rather, what is metal as expressed on a metaphysical level? I’ve always felt that metal is consistently the expression of the beauty, the angst, and maybe the anger that come with the nihilistic realities of life. This powerful music exists as a product of man’s attempts to transcend the complacent, but also to lash out at those who are comfortable with the mundane, or even worse, who seek to enslave or oppress others to maintain their mundane complacency and to satisfy their own whims. In a sense, life should ultimately be beautiful, and the truest anger and despair is directed at that which seeks to prevent, snuff out, or degrade that beauty however nebulous it may be.
Barren Earth have always been a band who’ve followed very intensely in the footsteps of one of my musical heroes, Dan Swanö. Their music is dedicated to a nihilistic fusion of past, present, and future metallic complexity and bite, ’70s progressive melodic ambitions, and a sense of despair and anger that seems timeless, future-bound forevermore.
These guys often get incorrectly compared to Opeth. I’d wager that some people just hear ’70s vibes, deep, feral death growls, and acoustic/distorted guitar layering and throw that label at anything that fits those criteria. To me, Opeth tried to fuse lush, almost folk-sy phrasing and melody with metallic heft, added to the sounds of bands like Rainbow, Camel (often cited by Mikael as one of Opeth’s biggest influences), and others you might think of. Their sound is a heavy but otherwise literal translation of a bygone era into the present, or it was until it circled back onto itself as reflected in their most recent albums.
Dan Swanö’s experimentation on his 1998 masterpiece, Moontower, along with his work in Witherscape, establish something more forward-thinking, and Barren Earth are definitely in that school of thought. It’s the attempt to bring melodic, crushing, and morose death metal to bear, adorned with the ’70s prog movement’s sense of lyrical melodic phrasing and some proper instrumental flourish such as Hammond keyboards, flutes (yes), and other touches. It’s not a transcription of a bygone era with modern sound; it’s modernity usurping the ancient and absorbing it into its consciousness.
Complex Of Cages is the most engaging melancholic melodic death metal (better label than melodic doomdeath IMO) album to be released since In Mourning’s The Weight Of Oceans. I often think of the album as essentially a doomier take on bands like Into Eternity or Edge Of Sanity. The same emotive heft is there, the hooks resting on dark twisting melodies with a hint of soulful blackness to them. The guitars gnaw and tear with angular idiosyncracy in the riff department, with an equal measure of tragic agony conveyed by expressive, pronounced lead themes. The consistent use of acoustic steel string guitars to add a bit of ancient forest ethos is a welcome trend on this record as well. It adds an impressive amount of vibe to an album already dense with emotion.
The vocals of Jón Aldará are the absolute supreme icing on the frigid cake, though. Demonic, agonized roars that rival those of Christian Älvestam or Dan Swanö meet a soaring clean voice that is like a deeper-toned version of Roy Khan, Kamelot’s former vocalist. His tonal combination is the definitive nail in the coffin that personifies the emotive qualities of this band. He’s a way better fit than Mikko Kotamäki was by a mile. If the last album, On Lonely Towers, didn’t sell you on that fact, Complex Of Cages should.
Definitely a contender for one of this year’s overall best. An essential masterwork in anger and melancholy conveyed with esoteric mysticism and might.