The Karelian Isthmus reviews
Envius on May 23rd, 2014
An Exploration of Tonal Dichotomy
In the chaotic world of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, true creativity is about as rare as a cohesive Opeth song. New bands follow tired trends and become pigeonholed before they hit their first powerchord, and the groundbreaking releases of yesterday become the blueprint for the dry replicas of tomorrow (see Hvis Lyset Tar Oss). Once in a blood moon however, a special release raises its grotesque limbs above the limits set by its contemporaries as if to say "hey, over here! I'm different than Suffocation clone #179, I promise!" In a world in which mood and structure is often superseded by a notes-per-minute fretboard wankfest, Amorphis's first full-length album is one such grotesque, and it is definitely worth paying attention to.
Released in 1992, The Karelian Isthmus seems to operate as a clear linchpin between what was and what would be, both borrowing and creating sonic space without ever appearing as a second rate imitator. The foundation of this synthesis can be found in the guitar tone(s) themselves, which fuse the 'crunchy' rhythmic tone of early Entombed or Bolt Thrower with the sharps enunciated leads of a 1980's Iron Maiden. This tonal dichotomy can be found throughout the album, creating a palpable tension between the two guitars, mirroring the eternal struggle of good and evil over the waking conscience. Both representations are given their chance to express themselves, but the memorable culminations occur when these singularities work in tandem, delivering a cohesive presentation of two opposing halves (see 3:43 of 'The Sign From the North Side' for an example of this culminating cohesion).
Rather than muddy the mood and atmosphere of the album with unnecessary fills, the drumming instead works as a solid rhythmic pulse which lock the other musical components into place. This is not to say that the drumming is either simple or repetitive, but rather that it understands its role within the larger composition and supports rather than distracts from the overarching unity. For an example of this support, re-examine the logical progression of the rhythm section throughout the track 'Misery Path.' From the slow, dirgy 4/4 cadence of the opening movement to the abrupt blastbeat section beginning at 1:23, the drumming holds perfect rhythmic harmony with the guitar phrases, not guiding but rather accompanying the riffs to their conclusion. These seemingly abrupt tempo changes can be seen throughout the wider consideration of the album as a whole, but these changes occur in a way which suggests progression and unity rather than the frustrating start/stop experience of heavy city traffic (again, I point to the structure of your basic paint-by-numbers Opeth song in an attempt to solidify this point).
In addition to the traditional guitar/bass/drum dynamic of nascent death-metal compositions, Amorphis presents themselves as pioneers in the subtle use of keyboards as an accentuation of mood without slipping into the predictable and cliche. The first and clearest example of this accentuation can be found at 2:43 of 'The Gathering.' Amorphis resolves the cyclical tension found in the first half of the song between traditional death-metal blastbeats and down tempo doom-influenced phrases by amalgamating the two on top of a steady yet audible keyboard chord. Both the low and high guitar tones lock into place above this chord, and the struggle between lead and rhythm is resolved at least temporarily. As the guitars simultaneously move up an octave the keyboards follow suit, giving the movement a feeling of a successful climb out of the abyss that had previously been presented. However, once the keyboards are removed from the equation the two guitars are immediately back at odds again, with the rhythmic low end providing power chords while the sharp lead fights to distance itself from its dirgy counterpart.
These subtle tensions and resolutions can be found throughout the album, and it is this strong song-writing more than anything else that rewards the listener for focused repeated listens. While the popularity of "cool sounds" and "insane licks" inevitably ebb and flow with the tide that is aesthetic musical taste, it is the moving parts beneath this glossy finish that truly withstand the fall of time (tm). It is obvious that Amorphis has an ear for both melody and chaotic dissonance, and they employ both ends of the continuum in their successful presentation of engaging, genre-bending death metal. Although their style can best be described as chameleonic, as they straddle the edge of multiple genres (death, black, doom, traditional), songs are still presented in a logical progression which produce rewarding musical experiences given the necessary thought and attention. Although I was originally underwhelmed by this album, it has slowly grown into something much larger in my mind, like all lasting works of art should. As a final example of Amorphis's keen use of morphing motifs to structure their songs, I suggest closing your eyes and attentively listening to 'The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu.' Note the rhythms, the patterns, and the riffs, and how they reinvent themselves by the end of the song. Although the first 20 second and final 20 seconds are essentially comprised of the same guitar riff, the movement is elevated to a frenzy of energy and vitality, emerging victoriously from a seemingly simple 4/4 Bolt Thrower throwaway.
Although it seems as if I am gushing endlessly about how amazing this album is, it is not without its superficial flaws. There are points in the album where the dualistic guitars operate alone, without either tension or support provided by the other. Many bands and many albums present themselves perfectly fine with only one guitar at all times, but given the importance Amorphis places on the interplay between their contrasting guitar tones, the moments in which one guitar is absent is clearly and often immediately felt. An aesthetic thinness seems to pervade these passages in question, and these moments seem both dull and uninteresting in comparison. Structurally these seemingly underwhelming passages make sense however, as they often pave the way for clear culminations of spirit and power when the guitars are reunited. Given this was likely the effect Amorphis was going for I cannot rightfully critique their choice beyond a simple aesthetic preference, but personally these are the moments in which the album is in danger of slipping into "background music" to my subconscious mind instead of the well structured work I know it is. At this point in time I am not intimately familiar with more contemporary Amorphis releases beyond cursory listens at parties and other gatherings, but it is my general understanding that they fail to match both the honesty and originality of this album. But that's a discussion for another day.
GuitarNick on March 8th, 2013
I am a new member to Amorphis' legacy. At first I listened to some of their new songs. I can't say I was disappointed because I really dug some of their recent work. But then again I found out about The Karelian Isthmus. The thing is that although I listen to many tons of metal, I do not listen to black or death except some specific bands (for example, Rotting Christ) or songs. Somehow yet, I was truly absorbed by this album.
At first I heard the intro, "Karelia", and then the great, the epic, the one and only "The Gathering". For a new death metal listener, I must say they impressed me. I was taken aback and listened to this song over and over again. It was just a matter of time for me to discover the rest of the songs, which are great, too.
Their dark, abysmal, and unbearable heavy riffs combined with the slow tempo drumming and the original and brutal vocals are just perfect. A slow demonic music for the fans of this kind. It also gets fast with the nice drumming and picking, but still it doesn't go far from death metal. That's a lot to ask, but they made it. The epic melodies blend excellently with the darkness of their music. You really can't help but be mesmerized by their gloomy excellency. Their ancient-sounding melodies take you back in time where Scandinavian warriors were chanting the great hymn of Karelia in the frozen battlefields. At least that's what I like to think, although many of the songs talk about Celtic mythology (like "Exile of the Sons of Uisliu"). There's not even a single solo throughout the album, but that's very usual for bands of that kind.
In any event, the one thing that you gotta admit about this album is its novelty. Considering the year of publication one can understand that they did their own unique thing, meaning that they accomplished something that even today's black or death bands can't: originality. It seems common today to listen to songs such as "Black Embrace", but it really isn't. Of course, the vocals have much to do with it. The brutality and the growls come out so naturally it's like Koivusaari didn't even try.
Regarding the lyrical themes, it is just what it needed to be. Dark themes talking about wars and, strangely enough, Celtic mythology rather than Scandinavia and religion. "Grail's Mysteries"' lyrics are very special in their own way, depicting a coronation of an ancient king of Cornwall, a man grown to be a king, grown to be a wild boar. It's like you're there! Moreover, they definitely put some thought in "Lost Name of God" and "Misery Path", proving that they ain't just some angry guys screwing around.
In general, the whole album flows easily. The auditor feels like he's travelling on a drakkar, watching all of these mythological stories and epic battle scenes unfold in front of him. It surely has cohesion as a whole effort while much care seems to have been given to the continuity of the songs, meaning that if it weren't for the gaps you wouldn't precisely understand where a song ends and where the next begins.
A special album not to be missed by the fans of the genre. Place it in your stereo, turn it up, and dive into the battlefields! Only one question is not answered yet: what happened to the old good Amoprhis? In the beginning of my review I stressed that the new Amorphis are nice, but I truly wish that we could have more of this. What can I say, those are Amorphis' mysteries! Even Tales from 1000 Lakes isn't like Karelian Isthmus. A one of a kind!
OzzyApu on September 25th, 2011
Amorphis’ debut, one of the old schoolers, is that kind of album we all wanted to make when we were in our teens. The kind of album that would help us fit into whatever genre we were going for. Amorphis’ call at the time was death metal, and while they certainly hit their mark, the despondent, OSDM twist not only makes this the band’s heaviest album, but also an eerie beckoning of one’s inner primal malevolence.
All of this album’s traits can be summed up by “The Pilgrimage”: doomy, crunchy, punchy, rugged, and straightforwardly deep. The atmosphere is what helps The Karelian Isthmus stand out from mundane death metal (in general). The atmosphere can be forgetful because, speaking for the whole album, it can be forgettable. This is because there’s no instant gratification like on later Amorphis albums – no absolute hook. The songs here, while enjoyable, must be appreciated riff by riff, section by section. There’s hardly any easy listening song, even if everything here is pretty clear-cut in composition and execution. The Karelian Isthmus has many peers that accomplish what Amorphis is trying to do here, and even more, making this particular debut less appealing on the surface. Nonetheless, the subtlety works on and off, meaning that you could like or dislike this album at any given moment. Rounding it to other albums, it’s a more worthwhile effort than Edge Of Sanity’s debut and a less aggressive / more epic Harmony Corruption by Napalm Death.
Pertaining to the sound, it’s typically some synth support (rarely upfront keyboard melodies) and a dual attack of cryptic riffs and (a hair of folk) leads. Again, there are rare occurrances of guitars yielding to keys, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue for those looking for fat, edible death metal. Nothing’s technical, nothing’s progressive – only Koivusaari doing relaxed growls like a baked beast while playing wretched, primeval riffs with an even more ancient tone. There’s an identity that goes with the controlled disorder in riffs such as these. Holopainen’s harmonies are akin to Iron Maiden’s, but far less upbeat. These leads bask in dismal gloom. It’s a blend that’s the sweet icing on a despicable cake. Among the churning riffs and the burly bass, Rechberger does blast beats, standard fills, double bass assaults, and consistent smacks on a kit with a plastic snare and little clutter. It’s a kit that doesn’t ring all over the place, but thanks to the mixing it isn’t buried, either.
For fans that got into Amorphis through the melodic death gateway (Tales From The Thousand Lakes) this was a hard release to pass up. For some like me, this album may have been a little harder to digest since it falls into death metal territory. Death metal that’s melodic, but still death metal, and unlike Tales…, there are no sappy keys, no clean singing, and no chorus hooks. Going into this means you want riffs first and foremost, and with the scale-venturing “Exile Of The Sons Of Uisliu”, the grave “The Pilgrimage”, and the brooding “Black Embrace”, there’s no sign of defeat.
kluseba on March 27th, 2011
The signs were already there...
So this is how it all started. Amorphis deliver a very good death metal album with this first strike but there are already signs everywhere to announce us that this band would go further and be able to do something greater in the future. I think that the situation of Therion is quite comparable. Sometimes I think that those brilliant bands have always had many ideas of genius but they had no budget and no fan base to realize them so that they started with something simple and popular to get a little base.
There are already some epic passages, some progressive changes in style, some dome passages in between fast and more aggressive death metal parts that show us the diversity of the band's compositions. This is way more than simple melodic death metal; it's a visionary and courageous record. The album is maybe not as consistent and epic as Therion's "Beyond Sanctorum" but it's not quite far away from that quality either. The album has a constant dark and epic atmosphere and there is no bad song on the whole album even if there is not a song in particular that I could point out as a true highlight either. What I really like about this record is that the growls don't bury the music as it is the case for many ordinary death metal bands. The growls are rather smooth and atmospheric and underline the surprising musical diversity. Even in their humble beginnings, Amorphis simply was like no other band.
Maybe I should mention the atmospheric and epic introduction "Karelia" that leads to the highly diversified and dark "The gathering" that grows more and more on me and that is a really progressive track. The somewhat eerie and slow doom track "The last name of god" shows us the dark side of the band in a very good way. "The exile of the sons of Uisliu" is maybe a good example for the atmospheric part of the band and takes a look at the future style of the band. I really like the howling wind sounds in the middle part and how the band gets this rather short track into a deeply atmospheric killer song.
Let me finally underline you that in comparison to any of those ordinary death metal farts out there, this album would be worth a rating of ninety percent or maybe slightly above but as the band put out so many other great records, I have to slow my enthusiasm a little bit down and try to be objective in regard to the band's future works. If you like progressive death metal and atmospheric doom metal and you would like to see those quite opposite styles united then let me tell you that this epic album here is made for you. This is a great and promising debut album and makes me more and more admire the diversity of old death metal that sadly got lost with bands like Children of Bodom nowadays.
autothrall on January 3rd, 2010
Legs spread wide, birthing a legend
It is easy to be fooled by the rather primitive nature of Amorphis' full-length debut. The album has held up extremely well over the years and still remains among their better material, though it's crushing, doomed force was extreme enough to later polarize fans of the band, as they would choose a more accessible path, straying rather far from the realm of their roots, later to realign themselves. This is some heavy shit, but it does feel mildly tame in comparison to the vibrant aggression of the Privilege of Evil EP (which, if you bought the 2003 re-issue of this album, is included here). As far as its own influences, you will hear some Bolt Thrower, some early Death, and perhaps a more upbeat alternative to the UK death and doom legends My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost.
The Karelian Isthmus features the original 'solid' lineup of the band: Tomi Koivusaari on both growls and guitars, Esa Holopainen on guitar, Olli-Pekka Laine on bass, and Jan Rechberger handling the drums and keys. Though you will hear the melodic traces of the style they would later adapt for Tales from the Thousand Lakes, these are kept rather brooding and simple as they skirt across the bulky, thuggish chords that mire the material in cavernous grooves. Keyboards are used only in a few spots, much of the album is straight forward death metal with a few slower breeches. Yes, of any Amorphis record, this is the most likely to turn your blue skies black and wreathe you in endless sorrow. While the album is named for an important tract of land connecting Finland to Russia, the lyrics here actually do not focus solely on Finnish folklore (like later albums), but also on Celtic and Arthurian legend.
"Karelia" anoints the tracklist, a brief and brazen acoustic piece that glimmers with subtle synths touching off in the background, after which "The Gathering" rapes your ears with monolithic, booming chords and frightful, lilting melodies which feel like the shift from autumn to winter, as hope and life is drained from the very earth so that slumber may commence. At :40, the track slows even more, as the 4-chord pattern crashes and the melodies descend to their natural demise. Later in the track, the beat quickens with a riff very similar to something you might hear on Death's Leprosy. "Grail's Mysteries" jams forward into an amazing groove, with a melody of oblique origins (could recount the ages of ancient Egypt just as easily as Europe). At around 2:20, the song lurches into this slow, depressing segment which is probably responsible for half the damn nation's excess suicide rate. "Warrior's Trial" follows, with yet another of the big 4-chord Paradise Lost-style riffs that graduates into Bolt Thrower's rumbling death influence and comparable melodies. "Black Embrace" feels a trifle more reserved here than the Privilege of Evil EP, but its chunky tone suits the surrounding tracks and its moshing energy alternates from molasses to momentum.
Terror, when the darkness binds your limbs
Terror, when the fear freezes your nerves
Horror, when the pain climbs up your veins
Darkness, creeping under you skin
Moment of life, when we all have to choose,
Which way to go, and for whom to sacrifice your life
"Exile of the Sons of Uisliu" creates an uplifting motion, capped by mountainous melodies before it too walks the doomed path, this time with a pre-Medieval pattern that evokes imagery of the hardship of the warrior culture. "The Lost Name of God" is another of the album's darker, depressive cuts, slowly trudging across cold plains as it slowly castigates the Christian hysteria that destroyed (or absorbed and mutated) the rich traditions of the North folk of Europe. "The Pilgrimage", renamed here from "Pilgrimage from Darkness" on the EP, is a surge of fist pumping, dire chords and steadily marching drums, and "Misery Path" is as stark, bloodied and glorious as it is...miserable. The album's native ending comes in "The Sign from the North Side", and though it rocks like a bucket of blood being slowly poured over your head, it is not one of the stronger tracks, unless of course you value the utter chugging demons it provokes. There is a re-worked version of "Vulgar Necrolatry" as a bonus track, a good song and one of the most vicious pieces of death metal the band had written.
If you know and come to expect only the more folk rock orientation of the later Amorphis works, it is highly possible that you will not derive much entertainment from The Karelian Isthmus. For an era churning out moody death like Incantation, Anathema and Paradise Lost, it fits rather well as an extension to that early 90s collection of deep, death obscura. And by the by, this album still does kick a fair share of ass. Considering that the band has recently brought back its growling and a dash of the Elegy concoction, I often wonder at the possibility of a full-on reversion into this primal, menacing nightmare, both beautiful and bleak. Not bloody likely, but at the very least, The Karelian Isthmus was the launching pad for two siblings that rank among the greatest Finnish albums ever written, metal or otherwise.
Highlights: The Gathering, Warrior's Trial, Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, The Lost Name of God
Empyreal on June 5th, 2009
Has an epic quality about it.
Amorphis are one of those Death Metal bands from the early 90s who seemed to get fed up with the style not too long after, changing into a more progressive and mellow style. This, their debut, was their only Death Metal album, featuring a focus on heavy riffs and a generally mystical, evil atmosphere.
Even back in their early days, Amorphis were classy. You get this really white-collared, uppity, pretentious sort of air from this music, like they were afraid to really get their hands dirty and go full out intense and visceral. It doesn't affect the quality therein, however, as The Karelian Isthmus is still a fine album in its own right. The main feature here is the guitar, which churns out a multitude of chunky, melodic and hypnotic riffage that definitely leans toward Death Metal of a rather epic, mystical variety - certainly a surprise for those expecting something like what the band is producing now, I think. The vocals are a deep, ominous grunt that doesn't really add to the music, but is certainly not bad at all. Most all of these songs are midpaced and heavy on atmosphere, and they usually blend together in a homogeneous manner. The leads are fairly laid back and epic, never really jumping up to kick ass, but always entertaining at the very least.
I still don't know if I like this the way some others do, as it is still just a little too complacent for my taste, but it is definitely the best album of the first three Amorphis ones by a lot. With songs like "The Gathering," the bleak journey of "Warrior's Trail" and the heavy "Sign from the North Side," this is definitely a pretty damn worthwhile album, although I do find that it becomes boring at times. Worthy if you're a fan of midpaced, lightweight Death Metal.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com
Razakel on May 14th, 2009
Paving the Warriors Trail
When most death metal bands released their debut album in the early ‘90s, it usually sounded like a Morbid Angel or Obituary copy, but not for these Finnish teens. The Karelian Isthmus is the debut album from the, now legendary, Amorphis. With this album, Amorphis offered a slower, melodic, and more epic approach to death metal than the American scene or their fellow Scandinavian kin at the time (Unleashed, Entombed). Despite the members’ young age, the sound is already mature and established; planting firm roots for future evolution.
Amorphis elegantly open with a Celtic sounding acoustic intro, before the slow paced, towering riff of The Gathering. From listening to the melodious, yet crushing riffs, it becomes clear that Amorphis expanded upon the music of this album for their 1994 groundbreaker, Tales From The Thousand Lakes. From here on, the songs vary in pace with a few up-tempo moments (Misery Path), but mostly a doomy, mid pace. Consistency remains throughout the album, but some songs manage to shine more than others such as the epic instrumentation of The Lost Name of God, or the ominous, heavy-ass-hell closer, A Sign From The North Side. However each song has something of value, which Amorphis would expand upon later while developing their sound.
One aspect that Amorphis have always excelled in is creating simple, yet catchy and diverse riffs. This album is simply full of them. There’s also some great melodies such as the instrumental break midway through The Pilgrimage. These melodies would become a bigger focus on later Amorphis albums, but are still used soundly here. The vocals are, more or less, your standard Scandinavian death metal grunt, but something about the production really appeals to me. They sound more effortless and guttural than what is common. The drums showcase great diversity, changing speed along with the rest of the music, and I especially love the light blasts that compliment the cheesy keyboards in The Pilgrimage. Just great. The music isn’t the only epic feature on The Karelian Isthmus. The lyrics also deal with grand battles and Celtic and Finnish mythology. Keep in mind that this is 1993, before folk metal bands were literally around every corner. My point is, it was original.
This album is a great foundation for Amorphis’ long and bold career. Listening to this is interesting because you can notice pieces of the music that the band never abandoned, only worked on. If you’re craving some old school, epic death metal and, for some reason, are not already familiar with this monster, make a point of checking it out.
failsafeman on March 25th, 2005
This album has already been well covered by previous reviewers, so I'll keep this pretty short. Amorphis do a fine job on this album, and manage to whip out some good melodies, sometimes rather Egyptian/eastern sounding, while still being quite brutal. They generally stay in the slow to midpaced range, and are even kind of doomy at times. The guitars have some cool harmonized parts now and then, which are great and not over done like certain *other* death metal bands. The guitars aren't always just playing together, either, as they sometimes play different but interconnecting parts. Though nothing they play is overly technical, the song structures are pretty progressive, and the riffs are plentiful. In parts the atmosphere they create is really powerful, making one think of abandoned wastelands, the mouldering remains of huge battles, and the like. There are still some good headbanging moments, though, so don't think this is just a snoozefest. The only thing really missing are some nice shredding guitar solos, which at the right moment really would have added something, but the meldoic lead parts are fine. The production is nice, and though the bass could be a little louder, it's actually audible unlike many other death metal releases of the time.
Like I said above, none of the musicians are really virtuosos (virtuosi?), but they're all competent and the songwriting makes up for any perceived lack of talent. Any fan of death metal ought to be able to get into this one pretty quick. This is melodic death metal the way it should be, with the "death metal" part still intact.
The Karelian Isthmus track list
|6||Exile of the Sons of Uisliu||03:46|
|7||The Lost Name of God||05:34|
|10||Sign from the North Side||04:57|
|11||Vulgar Necrolatry (Abhorrence cover)||04:22|
The Karelian Isthmus lineup
|Tomi Koivusaari||Vocals, Guitars (electric, acoustic)|
|Esa Holopainen||Guitars (electric, 12-string acoustic), Lyrics (tracks 1-4, 8-10)|
|Jan Rechberger||Drums, Keyboards|