“We’re no longer 18-year-old metalheads,” declares Esa Holopainen, founder and lead guitarist of cult Finnish band Amorphis. This is clearly apparent when you peruse the band’s impressive 12 albums, stretched over 25 years. Amorphis’ flourishing sound, from heavy folk with Eastern influences to melancholic melodic rock, put the small Nordic country on the map for progressive metal.
Their latest album Under The Red Cloud is a natural musical successor to their previous award-winning record Circle, which captured the attention of prog and metal fans in 2013.
“Usually when we start writing new material, we never look back at what we’ve done previously,” says Holopainen. “We didn’t look back at Circle before writing music for this new album because we wanted to do something fresh and new.”
The combination of heavy melodic riffs, crashing drums and upbeat guitar solos is still present in the band’s music, but Under The Red Cloud continues to take their sound deeper into prog territory, an indication of the band’s vast influences and skills.
“We always try to include different ideas in our songs and there are lots of influences, from folk music to 70s prog,” Holopainen explains. “Those are the elements and styles that influence us and when you hear the album, it’s obvious that these influences are reflected in our music. I guess we’ve always had a progressive streak and we never want to take the easy route when we’re composing.”
Our lyricist believes in an apocalyptic world and that something big is going to happen one day.
Under The Red Cloud’s title track begins with a dramatic piano intro, giving a glimpse of the album’s persistent intensity, before soaring into softer yet energetic songs such as Sacrifice and Enemy At The Gates. White Night concludes the record in typical Amorphis fashion by combining Eastern guitar segments with pounding double bass drumming.
The band are joined by several guests, including Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann on flute for tracks The Four Wise Ones, Death Of A King and Tree Of Ages, and Opeth’s Martin Lopez, whose recognisable drumming style brings life to the song Death Of A King.
“We used to tour with Opeth so we know the guys quite well,” Holopainen says. “Martin is now in the band Soen, which is a fantastic group. He lives in Stockholm and that’s where our drum recordings take place so we called him and asked if he wanted to do some percussion work on the album. Martin brought a lot to our new sound.”
Having previously worked with Hypocrisy guitarist Peter Tägtgren on Circle, Amorphis instead chose to work with Opeth, Paradise Lost and Katatonia producer Jens Bogren on the new album.
“One of the main decisions we made with Under The Red Cloud was to have a new producer. Peter Tägtgren was very busy at the time when we started writing again so we didn’t even ask for him. Jens Bogren was an obvious choice as we love the work he’s done with other prog bands. We sent him some of our demos and asked if he’d be interested in working with us. It made me feel very optimistic about the new album. We worked very hard and Jens’ methods in the studio are very disciplined and hard-working. Basically, he makes you play like hell!”
The album’s release coincides with the 20th anniversary of Tales From The Thousand Lakes, Amorphis’ popular concept album based on the epic poem The Kalevala, which is one of the building blocks of the Finnish language, literature and national identity. Featuring clean vocals from Ville Tuomi for the very first time, Tales From The Thousand Lakes marked an important musical transition from the band’s heavier origins.
“There are people who still consider Tales From The Thousand Lakes to be our most important album,” Holopainen says. “This is partly why we’ve been doing anniversary shows across Europe where we play the whole album. It’s been great fun to see people’s reactions. We always try to play a couple of songs from our earlier repertoire at shows because we haven’t forgotten our roots.
“However, despite the fact that it was an important era for us, that is our past and history. Different music inspires us today. I think that’s what has kept Amorphis alive for so long because we still enjoy touring and making music. As a musician, I feel you need to make new music and progress constantly.
“In my opinion there are two albums that stand out of the Amorphis discography. This is Elegy, the album that came after Tales From The Thousand Lakes, because it was our breakthrough album – it allowed us to tour more all over the world, and it’s when we started to work as a real band. The other important album is Eclipse because this was the first album we did with Tomi Joutsen on vocals and this was an important turning point.”
Through powerful clear and growling vocals, Joutsen’s performance on Under The Red Cloud channels Amorphis’ aggressive resonance while taking the listener on an intense emotional journey.
“This album includes more growling vocals,” Holopainen tells us. “The growls come when they come, and on this album the growls seemed to be most effective for particular songs. However, we understand that when there’s no need for more aggressive vocals then it’s best to leave them out, otherwise the song just sounds hilarious. We can’t do Cannibal Corpse-type vocals on the whole album – it would just sound like a joke.”
Asked about the album’s theme and the meaning behind the title, the guitarist says it all comes down to Amorphis’ self-proclaimed ghost member, Finnish poet Pekka Kainulainen.
“The name Under The Red Cloud comes from our lyrics. Pekka’s belief is that we’re living under a red cloud, which could be described as dramatic prediction for the future. He believes in an apocalyptic world and that something big is going to happen to change the world.
Jen Bogren’s methods in the studio are very disciplined and hard-working. Basically, he makes you play like hell!
“This is the fourth album we’ve worked on with Pekka. Usually he tells us his ideas and themes, and then we give him free range as to what he wants to write about. It’s interesting for us, as the music writers, to be aware of the direction he’s taking so we can know what kind of dramatic and emotional aspects to bring to the music.
“First of all he writes all of his lyrics, stories and poems in Finnish, then we have a translator who works with Tomi, and then we have a vocal producer with whom Tomi arranges the lyrics. Of course, this is probably the hardest and longest way to write lyrics.”
Under The Red Cloud’s cover boasts bold red, gold and blue colours, cornered by symmetrical seasonal symbols, with a mysterious slithering figure at the centre of the image. It’s a vibrant reflection of the album’s contrast between the dark lyrical themes and dynamic music. French artist Jean-Emmanuel ‘Valnoir’ Simoulin captured the band’s vision with this stunning design.
“Valnoir’s image for the cover is exactly what we were looking for and I really love his art,” Holopainen says. “It represents Amorphis really well, especially the symmetrical elements and theme. The image is of the four wise men in the picture and the different seasons that are featured in our lyrics, but we mainly gave him free rein as we wanted him to be inspired by the lyrics we sent him. It’s not your usual metal album cover and that’s what we love about it.”
Years of working together means Amorphis can now compose music separately before recording new songs. Holopainen explains: “When I compose songs, I make a demo at home using keyboards, guitars, bass and drum programming. This is how we do things nowadays. We don’t go to rehearse and jam together any more – all of the composers send rough demos to each member of the band and then we go to the rehearsal space just before recording.”
Away from the studio, Holopainen says: “I like touring more today than I used to do because you just go with the flow, and I enjoy the time we have to read books and have fun with friends. The stress level is a lot higher during the recording process, even though I still enjoy the writing aspect. Everything is fun, basically.”
Except, perhaps, for photography sessions. “Photo sessions are one of the things we hate the most,” Holopainen reveals. “We feel so stupid because we hate changing clothes and having to pose for a picture. What we represent today is more mature than before. We don’t look the same as we did 20 years ago. This new album reflects the image that Amorphis represents today.”
Under The Red Cloud is out now via Nuclear Blast. See www.amorphis.net for more info.