SWALLOW THE SUN – Moonflowers

SWALLOW THE SUN – Moonflowers

As much as I love and respect this brilliant Finnish melodic doom/death ensemble I found their last "When The Shadow Is Forced Into The Light"²⁰¹⁹ disappointing as if the weight of anguish they had gone through, especially their founding guitarist, crushed their ability to craft memorable hooks and bind them to cascading old Peaceville style riffery. It was still emotional and the final track (Never Left) even gave me the pleasant familiar warmth of their past work but I awaited the follow up with both hope and dread. Well, I’m happy to report that, while my dread was not entirely unfounded, I can easily put "Moonflowers", out November 19th, next to "New Moon"²⁰⁰⁹ or "Hope"²⁰⁰⁷ with both aspects of the band’s sound: the delicate and the brutal very well balanced while serving their most emotional dish to date.

I have a confession to make: I do not believe in soulmates and all the romantic love propaganda bound tightly around it. Countless books, poems, movies and personal stories fuel the global conspiracy which seeks to undermine what Carcass’ Jeffrey Walker dubbed "various degrees of lust" in "316 L Grade Surgical Steel" to the benefit of dissemination of an unproven myth: there is that one special person for you AND you should be able to find him or her. Meanwhile, writers, labels, publishing companies, movie directors and stars rake in billions of dollars or euros in service to a great lie while worshipping at the altar of the mighty gods, Romeo and Juliet, two teenagers who couldn’t live apart from each other so they committed a double suicide in hopes to at least be two starlights in the nightsky. In truth, we do love and are loved in return with many partners (one at a time, that is) throughout our lives even if some with just one, but, again, to borrow from Walker, there’s no true love, but various degrees of emotional attachment as we attract potential mating partners, mate, have offspring, some marry, divorce, rinse repeat ad nauseam or, simplier, until death do us part. Ergo: William Shakespeare and his ilk sold us a Cupidian delusion, likely inspired by the ancient Sophoclesian concept of the ineffable fate which, in turn, inspires our lowest and highest insticts in our helpless abandon to its inescapable will.

Having confidently asserted the above, when I look at what I get to glimpse of what the tragically departed South African singer, Julia Liane "Aleah Starbridge" Stanbridge and Swallow The Sun’s founding guitarist and main songwriter, Juha Raivio (who is 3 years older than me) apparently had together, when I look at The One they once were and on some level still are, I have doubts in my sarcastic convictions about romantic love of starcrossed lovers whose mutual belonging had been written in the stars before the world began. Besides, the two have delivered abundant quadriple proof to contradict my cynicism, whether personally, starting at the collectively funded death/doom project Trees Of Eternity on its only offspring, the brilliant "Hour Of The Nightingale"²⁰¹⁶, or by posthumous inspiration continued (after Aleah’s death from cancer) on Hallatar’s "No Stars Upon The Bridge"²⁰¹⁷ and Swallow The Sun’s own "When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light", where the band’s sound was significantly altered and defanged and, finally, these here, brand new outing, "Moonflowers", out on November 19th, one which, thanfully, brings back some of the aggression while also further progressing into more gothic waters for a beautiful, deeply emotional and very good if flawed effort.

My journey with Swallow The Sun (STS), who as of 2018 have been Raivio, founding bassist Matti Honkonen, founding vocalist Mikko Kotamäki, Juuso Raatikainen (drums) and Juho Räihä (guitars), started with their fantastic debut "The Morning Never Came"²⁰⁰³ which shook the doom/death genre for me more than anything since the Peaceville Trinity (Anathema, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost) which they unashamedly emulated while already fairly original, and, while I missed "Ghosts Of Loss"²⁰⁰⁵ (because I had heard the debut 3 years after it was released), I loved "Hope"²⁰⁰⁷ even more and I consider the closing "Doomed To Walk The Earth" one of my all time favorite metal songs to date, although "Plague Of Butterflies" EP²⁰⁰⁸ threw me off a bit. On the other hand, ,"New Moon"²⁰⁰⁹ was fantastic but "Emerald Forest And The Blackbird"²⁰¹¹ (interestingly, a very brutal record) had its strong moments but, overall, was the first album where the magic was beginning to wear off for me. However, what they have done on the subsequent triple (!) album Songs From The North I, II & III"²⁰¹⁵ was world class in every way and it showed they could play anything and sound good playing it for arguably their magnum opus, but, while I liked "When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light" I can’t say that I loved it as it had come at a significant debrutalization in service of sadness entachanted in cleft and note, whereby I hoped they would get more "old STS" on their next album.

Indeed, in a way, "Moonflowers" picks up right where its predecessor left off and could rightly be called "When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light II" because the songs have been written in a similar vein, almost all at approximately the same pace, mournful dirges of piano and forte but with a little more emphasis on the former. However, thanfully, my hopes were met in the significant rebrutalizing of the material whereby much of it sounds more like classic STS, and, more importantly, with better, catchier melodies. I had known the two stellar compositions, "Woven Into Sorrow" and "Enemy" from the videos and loved them from the start but, in the context of the whole album they sound even more magnifiscent. The former is a total and utter triumph of Kotamäki’s singing prowess where he is comparable to Paradise Lost’s Nicholas Arthur Holmes at the high and lower registers (with a vocal melody somewhat recalling Queensrÿche’s "Silent Lucidity") and is varied, progressive and beautiful enough even without the latter brutal guitars and growls, yet you’ll still love it when they come with that "classic SDS vibe" while the delicate proggy and whispered ending echoes Insomnium, and "Enemy", which recalls Paradise Lost not just in the title of the song but also in absolutely stunning melodiscism, plus, again, vocal master Kotamäki’s range, additionally strikes with a brutal growled part not heard of since the debut and, for all these reasons is my favorite next to…right, "This House Has No Home". That track is pure unadulterated black/death/doom epopeia, and I mean THIS black metal beats anything of the similar sort attempted on "Emerald Forest…" or "New Moon" and almost touches "Doomed To Walk The Earth" in quality, scope and CLIMATE, especially since it, too, is a closer. Finally, there is "The Void" with a chorus so devastatingly beautiful that it might as well have been handed down by God from heaven by his angels one of whom, Archangel Gabriel (whose name means "power of God") is even asked to "lay your eyes on me/lay me down to the hallowed ground so I could find the island sky", so my allusion is likely not without some merit. Everytime I hear this chorus it breaks my heart which is a testimony to the awesome power "Moonflowers" has over the listener.

A separate, although, of course, driven by the music, issue is the concept and the lyrics. If Juha Raivio had sung them all the album’s already high emotional quotient would have gone through the roof but his heart would have likely exploded, what with his frank confession that he hated where the album took him and what it did to him and he, therefore, had a hate relationship with it as a human being but a love relationship as an artist. Suffice it that he painted the moon on the cover with his own blood. To briefly describe the journey Juha’s bloody "Moonflowers" will take you on, first imagine like you’re going to die of a broken heart and soul (Moonflowers Bloom In Misery) then that you can’t trust yourself (Enemy) or anyone with you (Keep Your Heart Safe From Me) because of such excruciating grief that you feel one with it as much as you were with your tragically dearly departed beloved (Woven Into Sorrow, All Hallow’s Grief) and so that you begin to have suicidal thoughts and tendencies which you would like carried out by powerful spiritual entities (The Void) but then you finally allow a possibility of hanging on (The Fight Of Your Life) though that tears you up inside as much as your broken will to keep going and just end the dual misery (This House Has No Home). I have one enemy who has done me much evil but I don’t wish that kind of fate even upon him.

Although anything on "Moonflowers" towers about anything on its 2019 predecessor (except for "Nothing Left"), roughly 40% of the album is what I call progressive funeral doom rock, which is to say that compositions get dominated with depressive progressive Pink Floydian rock, which, in of itself, is, of course, top shelf but when we have four tracks back to back in the same mood mind can’t help but wonder off. It is good when it’s a SPICE and not the dish and results vary. While the aforementioned "The Void" and the emotionally interrogative "Keep Your Heart Safe From Me" (of which at length later) have enough variation to counterbalance that spice with growls, heaviness, ebbs and flows and the like, there are some moments where I feel STS went a little to the right of gothic metal, especially the Oceans Of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert-abundantly assisted "All Hallows’ Grieve" where the heaviness and brutality are kept at a minimum without sufficient catchiness and progression in return which reminds me of Theatre Of Tragedy, as much as I love "Aegis"¹⁹⁹⁸, or where the progression stands in the way of doom/death which seems to beg for airtime (The Fight Of Your Life) Kotamäki’s clean vocal enunciation so close to Katatonia’s Jonas Petter Renkse on "Night Is The New Day"²⁰⁰⁹ (as is the music) I suspected a cameo appearance, the track’s somewhat heavy chorus echoing Anathema’s "Far Away" while the aggression is only in the growls and in the excellent doomy guitars at the end which, sadly is not exhausted to its full potential giving off an impression of one dimensionality. It’s not like STS can’t balance the elements as the aforementioned "Keep Your Heart Safe From Me" abundantly proves, with, on one hand, some of Kotamäki’s cleans recalling none other than David "Gahan" Callcott of Depeche Mode fame atop of a Marillionic guitarwork, and, on the other hand, a double chorus the second of which strongly recalls My Dying Bride’s "Tired Of Tears" as well as the heavy and brutal riffing strongly reminiscent of the old Opeth as if to prepare the mind for the final track’s onslaught. STS has always referenced Anathema, Katatonia or Opeth but I do hope they aren’t on their way to become a stricte progressive rock act as that would be a waste of excellent doom/death metal as it was/is in all three cases but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, besides, given this album’s superiority to its predecessor, there is no reason to panic yet.

X-men Professor Charles Xavier once said in "Days Of Future Past"²⁰¹⁴ that being human is taking in all the pain you can without breaking, and if so then "Moonflowers" is both the journey and the instruction manual how to achieve that without either going insane, killing yourself or having both happen to you in a rapid succession while seemingly, to borrow from Katatonia’s "Departer" (one of the favorite vehicles for my personal grief) watching from the sidelines. I doubt there will be another record this year to pull your emotional strings with such mournful and beautiful melodies and light and dark ratio so do yourself a favor, tough guy or girl, dim the lights put on "Moonflowers" through your headphones and just let go of all that you’ve bound up inside over the years for a perfect catharsis.