Finns Kuolemanlaakso soak in their natural surroundings, deliver drama on ‘Tulijoutsen’


Photo by Susanna Honkasalo

There is enough death, doom, and dying, destruction, deviance, and decay to keep any metal fan completely filled and satisfied pretty much until the end of time. Obviously those subjects fill up a great deal of the medium, and we would have it no other way. Still, it’s always nice when a band has a different approach and pulls from other sources than what we’ve all come to expect.

Like their country mates Amorphis, Finnish doom outfit Kuolemanlaakso (which means “death valley”) concentrate on their homeland and its history, the surrounding forests and bodies of water, as well as the nation’s collection of folklore. In fact, according to the band’s bio materials, to create their new album “Tulijoutsen” (translates to “The Fire Swan”), the members actually isolated themselves in their land’s surroundings to soak up the ambiance and have that come out in the music. It makes for something a little different, and while there are dark and dangerous elements to what they do, they are inspired by other things than your run-of-the-mill death and doom bands. It’s refreshing and very much a unique perspective that you don’t get from every other band, and that gets translated into the band’s atmospheric, death-scorched music that’s equally melodic and devastating.

Kuolemanlaakso coverThe band worked on branching out their music even more than they what we heard on their debut record “Uljas Uusi Maailma” from 2012. The melodies are larger, the vocals are more expansive, and while there are more delicate moments and airier sections, they still maintain their penchant for crunch. So don’t worry that this band is going soft on you. No way. They’re just finding different ways to bring the darkness, sadness, and majesty they see before them. In addition, the new record is more of a collaboration among the members of the band, so elements of each personality in Kuolemanlaakso get a chance to come to the forefront and make a more complete, more interesting machine.

Those entities that comprise Kuolemanlaakso all bring rich experience from other bands to what they’re doing here. On vocals is Mikko Kotamäki, who you also know from Swallow the Sun, Verivala, and from his time with Barren Earth; on guitars are Kouta and Laakso (also on keys) who both are from Chaosweaver; on bass is Usva (of Nibiruan and Elenium); and behind the drums is Tierra (also of Backstabbing Bastard and Cult of Endtime). You can just hear from what’s going on during this experience how much they’ve grown as a band, and having V. Santura (of the mighty Triptykon, as well as Dark Fortress) producing the record helps them find that extra grit they need to make the music sound evil and nasty when the need arises.

Opening cut “Aarnivalkea” (named after a place of eternal fire where gold is said to be buried), is doomy and murky, with low-register singing that eventually switches over to ugly growls. The guitar work sounds like vintage, downtuned Celtic Frost horror, and the song blows up into a fury as it reaches its conclusion. “Verihaaksi” has a rather dreary tempo, staying mostly slower for its duration, which is ideal for this track. The vocals go from a death growl to a goblin-like delivery, while the guitar work drips over the whole thing, with the synth coming into the scene and adding more color and texture. “Me vaellamme yössä” follows with a serious dose of crunch, heavy, sweltering guitar work, and vicious growls that make this one menacing piece. It might sound silly to say this, but this track just sounds so Finnish, making this one of the songs that most represents what they experienced in their woodsy preparation. “Arpeni” has an interesting first half, with a composition that trades off between doom bells and a sludgy guitar lick, and that leads into a gothy section that dominates the middle section of the song. It’s compelling and melodic, with tortured growls and darkness drizzling all over, and it’s a track that just grips you and pulls you the whole way through to the closing funeral bells.

The second half of the record opens with “Musta,” that has acoustics greeting you at the gate, and that gives way to sorrowful guitar work, aggressive chugging, and filthy grit you can taste between your teeth. This feels like a fever dream at times, and it’s the song that lurks the deepest into the shadows on this album. The the most interesting piece of all lands by way of “Glastonburyn lehto” that opens with a jazzy tempo complete with finger snaps and the feeling you might be in a bar that’s a little too cool for you. Lots of people calling each other “Cat” and all. It has a chance to really sink like lead, but it doesn’t largely due to how the band sells this wacky piece, right on through to Kotamäki’s showman vocals that remind of Mike Patton at his most rubbery, as well as the synth that sets in and feels like it landed from outer space. “Tuonen tähtivyö” also feels a little different, with clean guitar work and mesmerizing synth. There is more actual singing from Kotamäki on the track, and the band goes for spacious and breezy before settling into a heavier finish, with bent doomy guitar lines and bubbling trauma. Closer “Raadot raunioilla” has an ominous start before the band launches into a chugging pace that’s designed to flatten, and the singing quickly morphs from clean to gruff growls. The song is pulverizing, sure, but it also feels weirdly inviting, like it’s drawing you into an adventure. As the song goes on, it changes from dreamy and foggy to grisly and gothic. It’s quite a capper to a record with a ton of different faces and that’s always keeping you guessing.

There are plenty of death-encrusted doom metal bands out there, so it’s hard to sift through and find the really good ones. Kuolemanlaakso is one of those groups without question. They mix the atmospheric and uncomfortable darkness as well as anyone, and they seem like they’ve really hit on something with “Tulijoutsen,” that’s now their high-water mark. Sure, these guys have responsibilities elsewhere to other bands, but I really hope they take time to explore even more of what they’re capable of unearthing with this project. Maybe next time they can spend six weeks in the middle of a lake or something, but whatever they do, it’s bound to be enthralling.

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