Kalmah - Swampsong

Year of Release: 2003
Label: Century Media
Catalog Number: 8178-2
Format: CD
Total Time: 42:27:00

Okay, let me state something right at the outset - when I started on this reviewing journey, I was ready to say, without hesitation, that I don't think Finland's Kalmah are a progressive rock band, not even progressive metal, but that I was going to review this anyway. Now, well, I'm not so sure we can say it's not progressive in some way so definitively.

If you judge the band by the screechy death vocals of Pekka Kokko, then you'd have a hard time believing me. And if you listened to this once, all that would be heard is the insistent thunder of the instrumentation - and on the surface, one might even suggest that all the songs sound the same. But forget that, and forget the vocals, because they aren't what are of interest here. If you listen closely to what's happening instrumentally, lo and behold, I do think we can say progressive metal, given some of the symphonic touches: the wild and furtive guitar leads, the keyboard parts, and the underlying feel of the release. It's heavy to be sure, but it's aggressively heavy symphonic progressive death metal. Whew, that's a mouthful. But, you know, it's pretty damn good stuff.

See, the good thing is, those vocals are set back in the mix just enough that, without too much trouble, you can relegate them to just another instrumental element. It helps that you can't tell a word he's singing at all. Hey, Pekka isn't a bad vocalist, as this style goes, but ? just not my cuppa. The effect of his vocals is as if he were the teacher in the Peanuts, only more demonic sounding.

The album artwork alone will tell you that this isn't a calm pastoral or wimpy new age release, either. Kalmah mean business?

Here's the selling point? or selling points. What we get is some really great lead guitar work from Antti Kokko, as he offers up some sinewy guitar licks and some neat, screaming leads that drive this thing forward. Pekka Kokko joins in on rhythm guitar. Sure, drummer Janne Kusmin is propelling the whole juggernaut, and he seems to be mostly bashing the crap out of his drums - Neil Peart or Carl Palmer he is not, you might think. But, damn if he isn't doing that bashing rather dynamically when you get deep into the mix. And let us not forget to mention Timo Lehtinen on bass and Pasi Hiltula on keyboards, some more fantastic stuff there, especially the keyboards which are right there in the mix, not some element affixed to a bruised and bloody hip?

Juggernaut isn't a word I throw about lightly, by the way, as this album verily marches along, stomping its way across the killing fields of your mind. Kalmah mean business indeed. "Tordah" grinds and chugs darkly, before Antti explodes with a rippling flurry of notes.

So yes, I'd have to say, when the band aren't constrained by having the vocals take the lead, we get some pretty great stuff. Sure, some parts lapse into standard bashing, but something better seems to emerge from it. Just to be fair, however, an example of what works a little bit better vocally is "Moon Of My Nights"? I guess this might qualify as the "ballad." Pekka sings gruffly, making it both consistent with the rest of the album and that you're not going to get a wimpy, syrupy ballad, especially since we can gather from the lyrics that the object of the protagonist's affection is dead. It wouldn't be death metal if she were prancing and romping through the green meadows while spring flowers bloomed, now would it?

The opening to "The Third, The Magical" is a pretty nifty, classically influenced, intro, featuring keyboards and guitars. The chorus however seems fairly generic; though they are singing "The third, the magical/A way to believe I'm born again" they might just as well be singing "mumble mumble goes marching on?" and in that sounds like I've heard it before. A much darker Blind Guardian or Jag Panzer maybe? It's that kind of "warriors-soldiers-in-unison" chorus, only more hellishly delivered. "A Man With Mystery" - a tale about a committed yet disgruntled logger -- is a little uninspired, but it's a misstep in another wise instrumentally interesting release.

It's a shame the vocals are buried, because the lyrics of some of the tracks make for an interesting read. It's doubly interesting, given that Pekka is the lyricist. The first track, "Heroes To Us," for example, takes on the "incursion" by the "western world" into the middle-east, and in a rather cynical - though probably accurate - manner. "Burbot's Revenge" contrasts the burbot's struggle to free himself from being entangled in a fishing net sunk below an icy surface, while above, the fisherman struggles to free his catch, and his net, from being entangled below the icy surface. I don't know what a burbot is, but we can suppose any other kind of marine life in this drama - whale, tuna, etc. Oddly enough, the main rhythm of "Burbot's Revenge," during the "chorus," made me think of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (all that's needed is USC's marching band and ? well, not all that's needed, but?). Oh, it doesn't complete the rhythm of "Tusk," just the first duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duhs of it; it's just a tone, even though the guitar parts are wild and woolly ? ha ha, tusk, mammoth, woolly?

Sorry, got carried away there.

I'd say Kalmah would be a great instrumental dark prog metal band if they'd just either eschew the death vocals or ? I mean, it'd sound great even with a gruff vocalist like Hansi Kursch or the like. Not advocating the ouster of Pekka, just suggesting that he do more of the kind of singing as on "Moon Of My Nights" is all. Not that they want to be a pop band with hummable lyrics, but unfortunately, while things are great while you're listening, nothing sticks (except that echo of "Tusk" in "Burbot's Revenge"). It's a blur? a memory. As great as some of those elements are then, this album doesn't live up to what could be its potential. If they wanted shift genre's at least.

Heroes To Us (5:10) / Burbot's Revenge (4:23) / Cloned Insanity (4:11) / The Third, The Magical (5:26) / Bird of Ill Omen (4:49) / Doubtful About It All (4:45) / Tordah (4:03) / Man With Mystery (4:48) / Moon Of My Nights (6:12)

Timo Lehtinen - bass
Janne Kusmin - drums
Pasi Hiltula - keyboards
Pekka Kokko - vocals, rhythm guitar
Antti Kokko - lead guitar

Swamplord (2001)
They Will Return (2002)
Swampsong (2003)

Genre: Death-Black Metal

Origin FI

Added: May 16th 2004
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website: www.kalmah.com
Hits: 921
Language: english


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