Winter is approaching.
The naïve optimism of summer has once again been brusquely flattened by the icy whoosh of nature’s progress, as autumn’s serene winding down morphs inexorably into winter’s cold, dark languor. For those of us in the north of Europe, the next few months promise to be long, hard and bereft of light and cheer. A suitable soundtrack is required, and Finland’s Swallow The Sun have generously provided it. Not just their sixth studio album but also a self-evidently definitive musical statement, *Songs From The *North comprises two and a half hours of diverse, daring and unerringly majestic doom metal: 21 songs spread across three discs (or five, if you’re a vinyl diehard) that explore every corner of the band’s increasingly adventurous sound with remarkably consistent and enchanting results. If you thought Iron Maiden were being a little extravagant with their 92-minute new album, the sheer girth of Swallow The Sun’s magnum opus may strike you as a preposterous and, fittingly perhaps, none-more-epic folly.
“I thought the same thing!” laughs vocalist Mikko Kotamaki. “I never thought we’d do that, I must admit. Juha [Raivio, guitarist and principal songwriter] mentioned he had this idea maybe three years ago. He said, ‘I want to do a triple album!’ We said, ‘What the fuck? Why would you wanna do that?’ Ha ha! Then maybe one year later it started to sound like a good idea. We’re known for some pretty epic stuff so it fits our style, I think. The way the music business is today, we are in times of Spotify and shit like that and people treat music like eating a fucking Big Mac, so we wanted to do something more real. Not just one or two songs that you put out when you feel like it. Basically this is a big middle finger to the Spotify generation.”
Best enjoyed in its colossal, despondent entirety – although when was the last time you had 150 minutes to spare? – Songs From The North amounts to the most compelling evidence yet that 2015 has been a uniquely brilliant year for melodic and funeral doom. Albums from the likes of Shape Of Despair, My Dying Bride, Ahab, Scepticism and Tyranny have all tapped skilfully into a prevailing mood of melancholy and disquiet, but Swallow The Sun have seemingly trumped their peers with a triple album that covers a vast amount of musical ground while never straying from a righteously miserable path. Divided into three distinct parts, Songs… is both a comprehensive exploration of STS’s subtly inventive approach and a wildly evocative journey through sorrow’s many shades and shadows. The Finns’ most loyal admirers will, of course, cheerfully surrender to the album’s morose enormity, but in an age where short attention spans are an enervating inevitability, will many people have the time or inclination to consume such an opulent banquet of bad times?
“I don’t think so, but at least we’re trying!” Mikko snorts. “I don’t think many people will have time to sit down for two and a half hours and just listen, but you never know. Maybe this will inspire people to calm down and fucking pay attention to the music! You know, I didn’t really enjoy the recording because it took so fucking long, but I think it’s brilliant that we can do so much on one album. There’s acoustic stuff and there’s funeral doom and then the first album is like the follow-up to our last album [2012’s Emerald Forest And The Blackbird]. I think it works this way and all three albums still sound like Swallow The Sun, you know? There’s a song on our second album called Gloom, Beauty And Despair, and I think those three words represent the new album as well.”
Since releasing their acclaimed debut album, The Morning Never Came, in 2002, Swallow The Sun have steadily established themselves as second only to My Dying Bride in the melancholic Euro-doom firmament, a burgeoning progressive streak enabling them to lure in fans from a broader spectrum of taste. Music this slow and morose has limited commercial potential, of course, but an album as sonically all-encompassing and emotionally dense as Songs… both echoes modern society’s underlying discomfort and offers an antidote to music’s frequent reliance on the vacuous and the throwaway. Aside from the audacity required to release a triple album, STS’s most admirable trait is their sincerity; for all their grandiloquence, songs like the devastating funeral march of 7 Hours Late and the elegant sweep of Heartstrings Shattering are as raw and real as can be.
“Maybe it’s still the whole fucking shitty economy thing, making everyone feel like shit,” muses Mikko with a wry chuckle. “People are pissed off. I’m pissed off this year, too. Juha writes all the lyrics and this is a very fucking personal album for him. He’s been having a rough time over the last few years, so there’s something from real life in the lyrics, too. He’s one of my best friends so of course I can relate to his feelings as well. For us, a lot of this feeling comes from nature. It’s fucking dark all the time where we live, especially during the winter. It’s a cliché, but of course that affects you. It’s a pretty rough place to live sometimes. If you live in Spain in the sun and get some good blow from Morocco every day, your music isn’t gonna sound that fucking dark, is it?”
If nothing else, the size and depth of Songs From The North suggests that Swallow The Sun are a band driven by big ideas and outrageous creative ambitions. Whether or not you will be drawn to such an elaborate and imposing body of work depends on your true reasons for listening to heavy music in the first place. The Spotify generation that demands immediate gratification and regards music as a never-ending jukebox set permanently to ’shuffle’ will see little value in such a lengthy and absorbing expression of sadness, but there remains a loyal and dedicated audience for whom this kind of deep, dark and demanding music provides invaluable catharsis and a sense that sorrow is as much a unifying force as it is an act of insular reflection.
“Yeah, I think that’s true. I hope our music does that for many people,” Mikko states. “Back in the day we got a pretty fucked-up email from a fan. He said he had just seen his girlfriend drown a couple of days earlier. He also said that our music really helped him at that time. Obviously it’s not nice that anyone has to watch someone they love die, but if we can help out in that situation then that’s a really good thing and I’m very proud of that. Maybe there is some hope in our music after all.”
*SONGS FROM THE NORTH* IS RELEASED ON NOVEMBER 13 VIA CENTURY MEDIA