Barren Earth: 'The Devil's Resolve' – CD Review

I've professed my love of Finnish metal many times on this site, especially those bands which explore dark fantasy, ancient myths and occult lore, and occasionally with instruments most audiences wouldn't normally associate with heavy metal, like bagpipes or cellos (Apocalyptica, nudge nudge), so I'm surprised I let Finland's progressive death-metal supergroup Barren Earth slip past me for nearly three years. Founded in 2007, the quartet was formed from members of well-established bands like Amorphis, Kreator, Moonsorrow and Chaosbreed, and their 2010 album Curse of the Red River garnered them "Newcomer of the Year" award at the 2011 Finnish Music Expo. They first brought their sound to North American shores the same year during the Finnish Metal Tour, sharing the stage with bands like Finntroll and Ensiferum, and now they're back in the spotlight with their second full-length release The Devil's Resolve – which takes their concept of dark fantasy storytelling to an even grander (and heavier) musical stage. Read on for a full review...

While I did loosely label Barren Earth a prog/death metal unit, that doesn't really begin to describe the diverse range of styles and textures brought to bear on this record. The cross-pollination of extreme metal, folk, jazz, blues and hard rock is breathtaking, and I'm surprised the band hasn't gained a higher profile by now. When I went back to catch up with Curse of the Red River, I heard the first real evidence of the band's musical diversity, but for me the sound felt a little bit too scattered and hard to pin down. With The Devil's Resolve, the band seems to have found the proper focus and balance to tie those many-colored musical threads together.

The opening track "Passing of the Crimson Shadows" is supremely spooky, calling to mind some of Opeth's earlier material and Steven Wilson's Porcupine Tree, although vocalist Mikko Kotamäki (Swallow the Sun) has a lighter, thinner melodic tone... that is, until his furious demon growls kick in. The scope of the music grows gradually with each passage of the song, through an intricate middle section built on alternating thrash/death riffs and some pensive acoustic breaks. None of these parts overstay their welcome, unlike so many self-indulgent prog bands when they get caught on a particularly infectious groove. "The Rains Begin" is a more contemplative track, accented with piano and '70s rock organ, and the melodies are strongly reminiscent of Amorphis (which is very good company to keep). As its title suggests, "Vintage Warlords" has a more massive impact, opening with a martial beat and becoming darker and more threatening as it chugs to the midpoint, offering a mellow break of vocal harmonies and acoustic layers before circling back to an evil, monolithic climax.

Those bagpipes I mentioned earlier? They mark the opening of "As it is Written," an über-cool track that sweeps in on huge waves of cosmic guitar chords (in the mode of Mastodon), but with sweet keyboard accents that call to mind vintage Italian prog-rock and a perfect blend of piano and power chords that kicks off the break. This is definitely my favorite cut on the album, and stands well among its Scandinavian brethren. "The Dead Exiles" is a doom-filled, nightmarish wall of sound much like "Warlords," and features some of the lowest clean vocal harmonies I've heard in this genre – definitely horror soundtrack material, with no mellow breaks to ease the tension this time. "Oriental Pyre" whips up a storm of intricate polyrhythmic riffage with a touch of Mellotron strings for flavor, as low spoken chants open the dark passage for the heaviest death vocals on the album, as well as some of the eeriest lead guitar passages. "White Fields" is mainly a grim mid-tempo chugger, but occasionally gives way to light but still edgy melodic vocal interludes (and some chilling spoken-word bits). "Where All Stories End" brings the album to a close, but with less of the energy and scope of the material that came before it, so it's a little bit anticlimactic.

It's always exciting to hear any band corral such a diverse range of styles beneath the banner of metal, but Barren Earth are especially refreshing, since they avoid rehashing the work of acts like Opeth, Katatonia and Amorphis and instead dig down deeper to the musical roots of a dozen different genres – everything from folk and jazz to '70s trip-out rock and modern extreme metal – and forge a new material of dark beauty. For a sweet sample, check out this moody performance video for "The Rains Begin"...