Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers – Album Review
Artist: Swallow The Sun
Album Title: Moonflowers
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 19 November 2021
My love affair with Swallow The Sun goes back many years. In fact, I can trace my history with the band right back to their debut album, ‘The Morning Never Came’ that they released in 2003. Over the years, I have interviewed the Finns a couple of times or more, sat in their tour bus, and even hung out with them in the press tent at Bloodstock Open Air. Their humour, warmth, and sense of fun was initially a surprise simply based on assumptions made about them because of the music they played. The tagline ‘gloom, beauty and despair’ summed up their sonic output perfectly, remaining entirely apt throughout their career. Whether it was a one-song epic EP, or a monumental three-disc album, you could always recognise this band’s music and their ability to caress one minute and then tear you apart the next.
Their 2015 triple album, ‘Songs From The North I, II & III’ was wonderful but, with hindsight, it was just a little too much; too many songs, too much music, too long. It has meant that it doesn’t get as many rotations in my playlist as it probably should. For some reason, despite hearing it, I never reviewed the 2019 follow-up, ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’. I don’t know why, because it was another better-than-solid release that sat at a much more manageable 52 minutes, full of the same crushing heaviness and poignant melody that we’ve all come to expect and love. ‘Moonflowers’ therefore, offers me the opportunity to get back on the horse, so to speak, and delve deeply into the sombre world of Swallow The Sun once more. And do you know what? Their world might be sombre, but it can be a stunning place to be.
Never ones to shy away from drawing upon personal experiences, it would appear that ‘Moonflowers’ takes things to a whole new level. Guitarist and principal songwriter Juha Raivio won’t go into the details of the events that gave birth to this record but of the album, he reveals the following:
“I know well that I should not say this, but I deeply hate this album. I hate where it takes me, how it makes me feel, and what it stands for me. I wish it wouldn’t. But for all its honesty, I got no option than also [to] love it. That is all that matters to me with the music anyway. It doesn’t matter how
it makes me feel, as long as it does.”
When you then find out that the artwork is comprised of dried flowers collected by Raivio as well as his own blood, you realise just how personal this release truly is. This isn’t abstract agony or metaphorical misery, this is real. And as you listen to ‘Moonflowers’, this does become abundantly clear, perhaps more than any other record in their history.
The album opens with ‘Moonflowers Bloom In Misery’, but before I talk about the music itself, mention has to be made of the production which is arguably the most powerful, and assured of the Finns’ career to date. Produced by guitarist Juho Räihä and David Castillo in their separate studios, the album was then mixed by Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios. Together they have created something truly special. This opening track begins quietly, solemnly, before exploding into naked brutality but at each stage, the music is afforded the clarity and warmth to make it a beautiful listening experience. Even when vocalist Mikko Kotamäki switches from clean to throat-tearing screams and growls, accompanied by massive riffs, thunderous rhythms from drummer Juuso Raatikainen and bassist Matti Honkonen, the sense of melody and beauty is never lost, with the fragile strings continuing their gorgeous lament at the heart of the song. Those familiar with Swallow The Sun will be familiar with the drama that the clashes between quiet and savage material creates. But even so, this opening song is incredible; so poignant, so heartbreaking, but also so full of sad anger.
One of my favourite songs from the very beginning was ‘Enemy’, and this remains to the present day. It begins in confrontational fashion, but soon settles into that slow-to-mid-tempo that the band are so comfortable with, allowing them to lace the doom/death hybrid with emotional melodies, most pronounced within the chorus. The lead guitar melody is so fragile that it could break at any second, but it is achingly beautiful. There’s a hint or two of more recent My Dying Bride to be heard, especially when Kotamäki almost talks some of the lyrics to a relatively minimalist soundscape, dominated by subtle synths and rich strings, the latter playing an intense part in the rousing finale to the composition.
One thing I’ve always admired about the Swallow The Sun sound is their penchant for playing riffs that allow for the heavy chords to ring out and resonate; their not in a hurry to lace their music with unnecessary speed; they are happy to let the notes do the talking. Just listen to ‘Woven Into Sorrow’ for a great example, particularly at the outset. That being said, when a slightly quicker crushing riff is required, they can deliver here as well to fantastic effect, bulldozing everything in sight with sheer power. This track sounds so full of despair both lyrically and musically, it touches me deeply, threatening to raise wounds that I have spent much of this year coming to terms with and trying to heal. It isn’t the easiest listening experience, but make no mistake, I’d have it no other way because this is music of the most wonderful kind. So full of honesty, rawness and fragility.
‘Keep Your Heart Safe From Me’ injects a few new, interesting ingredients into the Swallow The Sun armoury, including acoustic guitars, lead guitar solos, and pronounced synth sounds that together with the construction of the song hint at a vaguely progressive feel. As such, it’s an intriguing composition that takes a bit more time to click, but it’s all the more rewarding when it does.
Elsewhere, ‘All Hallows’ Grieve’ features Oceans Of Slumber vocalist Cammie Gilbert, a perfect fit if ever there was one. Gilbert’s vocals are always full of melancholy and fragility, so her appearance is a welcome one, sending shivers up and down my spine when she duets with Kotamäki so effortlessly. It also helps that the melodies are so achingly beautiful they are almost painful, albeit in a good way. Arguably one of the songs of the year can be heard right here ladies and gentlemen.
I love the pulsating bass heard within ‘The Void’, not to mention the extended chorus that features a real grower of a melody or two. The acoustic guitars make a comeback within the delicate intro to ‘The Fight Of Your Life’, a song that expertly juxtaposes the extreme death/doom metal with elegant string arrangements that temper the onslaught just enough to deliver a scintillating melancholic listening experience.
To close, ‘This House Has No Name’ features Stam1na’s Antti Hyyrynen, and it’s a more than fitting, gloomy note upon which to end ‘Moonflowers’. Dabbling in some grim black metal speed and intensity, it is a striking composition too, especially when the blasts of savagery are replaced by something altogether more ponderous and mournful, complete with the tinkling of piano keys, more strings, and Kotamäki’s resonant but reluctant-sounding clean vocal delivery. As always, melody does feature, albeit less pronounced than on other songs on this record. Nevertheless, it’s a fabulous composition, capping off what is a fabulous album.
Without a doubt, Swallow The Sun have remained one of the most consistent and high quality bands for the better part of two decades. Their output has remained largely unchanged across that time, but reserved experimentation and boundary-pushing has taken place when required. The thing is, when the music that they create is as good as it is, where’s the benefit is drastically altering your approach? It is clear that Raivio has suffered over the past few years, but he and his fellow musicians within Swallow The Sun have channelled that suffering into one of the most heart wrenching albums that 2021 has heard. If ‘gloom, beauty, despair’ continues to sound this good, I never want it to end. The world would be a worse place without it.
The Score of Much Metal: 94%
Dream Theater – A View From The Top Of The World
Beast In Black – Dark Connection
Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile
Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery
Sleep Token – This Place Will Become Your Tomb
Necrofier – Prophecies Of Eternal Darkness
Ex Deo – The Thirteen Years Of Nero
Enslaved – Caravans To The Outer Worlds
A Dying Planet – When The Skies Are Grey
At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being
Fractal Universe – The Impassable Horizon
Eye Of Purgatory – The Lighthouse
Desaster – Churches Without Saints
Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum
Drift Into Black – Patterns Of Light
White Moth Black Butterfly – The Cost Of Dreaming – Album Review
Bloodbound – Creatures From The Dark Realm
Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever
Astrakhan – A Slow Ride Towards Death
Ninkharsag – The Dread March Of Solemn Gods
Bodom After Midnight – Paint The Sky With Blood
Mother Of All – Age Of The Solipsist
Sweet Oblivion (Geoff Tate) – Relentless
Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined
Maestitium – Tale Of The Endless
Mourning Dawn – Dead End Euphoria
Liquid Tension Experiment – LTE3
Plague Weaver – Ascendant Blasphemy
Ephemerald – Between The Glimpses Of Hope
Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde
Evergrey – Escape Of The Phoenix
Temperance – Melodies Of Green And Blue EP
Demon King – The Final Tyranny EP
Angelus Apatrida – Angelus Apatrida
Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound
Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus
TDW – The Days The Clock Stopped
Need – Norchestrion: A Song For The End
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: