For a historically unpredictable band like Amorphis, the only true given is their malleability. Few bands in metal can say they went from a thrashy death metal band to a psychedelic art band to a straightforward pop rock band to a nearly un-categorical progressive metal band. Guitarist Esa Holopainen has been there from the beginning when The Karelian Isthmus screeched and thrashed straight out of Finland after the sound died out in North America. Ironically, Amorphis got a bit more recognition on this side of the globe from their befuddling mainstream album Far From the Sun. Did Amorphis have something of an identity problem? Some may argue yes, but some bands continue to challenge themselves, no matter how strange or bald-faced they sound to their core fans.
Amorphis are who they are, and having reinvented themselves yet again on last year’s Eclipse, the Finnish progressionists change things up one more time--albeit with no personnel shifting for once—-in what may be their most expressive album to-date, Silent Waters. Esa Holopainen dialed in from his home turf to give us a deeper examination of where Amorphis is at mentally and musically these days...
The Metal Minute: I want to talk about Amorphis’ take on the word “amorphous,” meaning no concurrent shape or form. Your band has followed this namesake in theory as well, be it from The Karelian Isthmus to Elegy to Far From the Sun. Your latest album Silent Waters is obviously another shift in direction as well, so obviously you’ve had some diverse transitions in-between all of these albums in the band’s history. Have you felt the need to continuously challenge what Amorphis is about on each album?
Esa Holopainen: You know, it’s really funny how the music world describes us and it’s been interesting through the years. There’s been a lot of changes with some of the albums, sometimes more and sometimes less, but I guess people have to expect it as this band’s trademark, at least that we were going to change whenever we could. Why we have changed so much, I don’t know; it’s really hard to answer. There have been a lot of lineup changes over the years. Of course every time we’ve done that, someone’s always brought something new, but I think now we’re more stable I guess compared to Eclipse, our previous album. It’s gone quite well since we started having Tomi (Joutsen) on vocals starting with Eclipse, and that’s how we wanted it. It’s also the first time that we’ve done an album this fast from the previous one, and with exactly the same lineup, which is something new for us! (laughs) I always like to put something fresh into the music that’s different from other things, experimental things with our music; so that’s definitely why things are what they are, featuring a lot of different elements on each album.
MM: Vocally, Amorphis has been about evolution from a strict growling base in the beginning years to Tomi’s soaring cleans on Eclipse and Silent Waters. I think the vocal presence likewise changes the face of the way the rest of the albums have gone. Tell us about how the role of the continuously altering vocals might’ve changed the identity of the band as Amorphis has progressed.
EA: It’s been a funny sort of circle with what we have gone through. We started with our guitarist Tomi (Koivusaari) who was singing back then and doing the crunch type of vocals. Quite soon on Tales From the Thousand Lakes we knew that we definitely wanted to add more melodic vocals in our music. We had one of our friends helping us out with vocals on Tales and we really liked the results so much we decided that we wanted to have a real singer in the band, and this was when Pasi (Koskinen) was hired. During the time we released Elegy, we really picked a difficult vibe to bring in these clean vocals and started to throw the hard vocals away because we felt it didn’t fit the emotion of our music at that time. It’s funny to think, once Pasi left the band and we brought Tomi Joutsen to our vocals, he told us he was a really big Amorphis fan and he used to sing to those first two albums. We went through some of those songs which we haven’t played for years and years, and when he brought up the idea that he would like to do heavy vocals to our music, everybody was really 100% behind him and we all liked the idea to bring the old vocals back. It’s a great feeling now, especially the way Tomi has become the definitive Amorphis singer; it’s good that we’ve gotten everything we wanted from this guy.
MM: Going back to Far From the Sun for a second, you guys almost landed on Virgin Records, which may or may not have broken AMORPHIS here in North America, but going back to that point in time and what you’ve created since joining Nuclear Blast Records, do you wish that the Virgin deal had come to life or do you feel you ended up on the right path as you are now?
EH: I think a lot of bad things happened around the time of Far From the Sun and the “deal” with Virgin. There were a lot of procedural policy problems with Virgin and there were a lot of empty promises. In some territories the album did really nice, but in other territories where we’re already known… For our career, the release was a disaster. Germany, for example, had almost no promotion at all! It was really, really weird. I think we saved ourselves from the mere fact that everybody warned us that you should never go to a major label because you’re really not sure that they’ll do everything for you in your agreement. That’s really what happened, but the people here at the local Virgin were very nice, so we negotiated with them out. We don’t want to waste another album if they’re going to do the same thing! The good thing was that it was released in the States and North America, which was good for us because that was much better than what it was here in Europe. Pasi suffered from a lack of motivation and he didn’t like to tour anymore, which is typical of what happens when you lose interest in something. So we were without a singer and thinking ‘What we should do?’ (laughs) The first thing that we did was we contacted Nuclear Blast because we know all of the people over there and it’s really easy to communicate with them; if they promise something, they will keep it. They knew all the people in the industry and where to promote the band, and so we had a big blast when we found Tomi to be our singer, which was also really frustrating and a long process to find a good singer like him. Luckily we ended up with Tomi and it really worked well. We call Eclipse our first album of our new era, if you want to put it that way. So a lot of negative things happened between Far From the Sun and Eclipse, but I think it’s been a good thing since we found Tomi and went back to Nuclear Blast. We’ve definitely started a new era for this band. Sometimes you have to go through a lot of shitty things before something good turns up! (laughs)
MM: (laughs) Silent Waters and Eclipse draw inspiration from The Kalevela, and The Kanteletar is a book of 700 poems about Finnish culture, which was also a firm base for Elegy and Tales From the Thousand Lakes. Obviously Amorphis celebrates Finnish culture in your music, and these last albums especially have been more open and expressive in sound. How much do you find yourself nodding back to The Kanteletar for inspiration? I think it really helps create that folk root sound of Silent Waters, in particular the song “Enigma.”
EA: Yeah, exactly. Both Eclipse and Silent Waters are modern versions of our Finnish traditions and beliefs. The basic theme of this album is that it’s the old Finnish belief that tells the story of a man who travels to the land of dead people. People used to believe that you had to travel across the river into this land of the dead people. This is a basic belief and Silent Waters is a sort of telling about this, which is not a very happy theme (laughs), but it was interesting what we really wanted to throw on this album. “Engima” is really one of my favorite songs on this album because it’s almost a pure acoustic track; I really like acoustic music and it was a great, great song to have on this album. It has a really strong folk influence which is a nice molded piece there. It would be nice sometime in the near future to do a live CD with all-acoustic arrangements.
MM: I’ve noticed a lot of people still trying to tag Amorphis as a death metal band, and other than the nature of your muse for Silent Waters, there really isn’t much justification to call Amorphis a true death metal band these days. You guys were in the beginning, of course, but not so much anymore. What are your thoughts to that?
EA: (laughs) Literally, yeah, we started as a death metal band, and there are a lot of people who want to keep us as that death metal band! But it’s funny that all of these bands have to be categorized in some way. I do like a lot of death metal music, but there are so many aspects to our music as well as a lot of dimensions. The influences are not just from death metal; I think the only thing that’s from death metal in our music now are some of the vocals, but there’s so much more to us than that. I hope they still keep us as a metal band, but I definitely wouldn’t consider us a death metal band as well as a Gothic band. I think with death metal music, it’s like pop music; you can’t really vary pop music, plus you’re really stuck with the one form! (laughs)
(c) 2007 Ray Van Horn, Jr. / The Metal Minute