Friday, September 19, 2014

album review: 'jealous gods' by poets of the fall

There are some bands that when you look through their discography or their charting singles, you wonder why on God's green earth they became famous. Because even bucking the trends of the time, even without a catchy or interesting song or even good song to their name, there are acts that will somehow rise to the top of the charts. And then five years later people will look back on that time and wonder why the hell these guys became popular.

And then there's the opposite case. A musical act that for all intents and purposes should have been huge - maybe the trends were on their side, maybe they had infinitely catchy hooks, maybe they just made awesome music - and yet for no discernible reason, they never blew up in the mainstream the way they should. And we're going to be talking about one of those bands today, the Finnish alternative rock act Poets of the Fall. These guys released their first album Signs of Life in 2005 and ever since then have been releasing record after record of quality music that pretty much encapsulated everything I liked about alternative rock and metal. They had a great melodic focus and the instrumental heft to back it up, they wrote fantastic, hook-driven songs with introspective and emotionally compelling lyrics, and lead vocalist Marko Saaresto had one of the most compelling and expressive voices in the genre, a rich liquid baritone capable both of grit and melody.

So why didn't Poets of the Fall become huge in the US? Well, I've got a few ideas, the first being that the band opted for a more sophisticated and melodic presence when alt rock and metal of the time was going in the exact opposite direction. And with the decline of mainstream rock radio, I'm not surprised that Poets Of The Fall never blew up beyond their home country. The other thing - and this is coming from a fan of the band that thinks they've never really made a bad album - is that Poets Of The Fall didn't really make consistent albums. Their early output, especially their third album Revolution Roulette, was pretty uneven as the band worked to strike a balance between gorgeous melodic ballads and their more hard-edged material. 

But in 2012, the band seemed to finally hit that sweet spot with Temple of Thought, a strikingly potent release that fused their melodic focus with sweeping heaviness that made the album one of the best of the year. So you can bet I was hotly anticipating their newest record Jealous Gods - so how is it?

Honestly, I'm conflicted about this album. Let me stress that Jealous Gods is a great record, one that shows plenty of artistic innovation and yet still maintains the Poets Of The Fall sound that I really love. And yet this is a bit of a tough album to analyze, because we're looking at the band's lightest, breeziest, most mainstream-friendly record to date instrumentally - and paradoxically, their lyrics are just as cryptic and intricate as always, even though when decoded the subject matter doesn't appear all that weighty. In fact, I was almost convinced this was Poets Of The Fall's attempt at pop melodrama - and you know, they kind of nailed it and managed to sneak in subtle commentary on it along the way. In other words, I see a lot of direct parallels with Icon For Hire's self-titled record last year - and like that album, Jealous Gods is one of the best albums of the year - and I suspect for some long-time Poets of the Fall fans, one of the more controversial entries in their discography.

And the funny thing is that after the first few listens, you wouldn't think this album is that far removed from traditional Poets of the Fall, at least in terms of instrumentation and production. The electric guitar tones are clear with just enough reverb to shimmer across the mix, the acoustic instrumentation has plenty of texture, the rhythm guitar has rollicking crunch, and the keyboards lay a fantastic foundation for the melodic progressions. And yet from the first track 'Daze', the swirl of electronic effects become very audible, and it becomes apparent that Poets of the Fall are making one of the slickest albums of their career. And while I can see some metal fans calling this record 'poppy', I'm not against the shift - Poets of the Fall have always had a very clean, soaring, anthemic brand of production, and with Marko Saaresto sticking more with clean vocals on this album, it's a natural fit. It helps that the electronic elements are tastefully added and never feel tacked on, instead gentle support for the melodic progressions or the drums, which thankfully have not been replaced and still provide a lot of well-balanced presence on tracks like 'Rumors' and 'Love Will Come To You'. That being said, this is definitely Poets of the Fall's most acoustic leaning album to date, with the heavy strums opening 'Brighter Than The Sun', the indie folk leanings of 'Love Will Come To You', or the well-picked guitar balanced against the strings on 'Rebirth' or 'Nothing Stays The Same'. That's not saying there aren't more energetic heaviness: the sweeping power of 'Jealous Gods', 'Rumors', 'Hounds To Hamartia' or 'Clear Blue Sky' or the explosive guitar solo at the end of 'Nothing Stays The Same', or the rough-edged instrumental 'Rogue' which shows the band still has serious chops, even if this album doesn't deliver another 'Psychosis'.

But, of course, the song that fans will be most bitterly divided on is 'Choice Millionaire' - and it's easy to see why. The prevalence of shimmering synthesizers and echoing keyboards, even with the guitars coming in the back, it's a song designed to evoke swirling images of icy Europop - and on that standard, it's actually pretty good. Part of it is the slick production being so able to mimic that genre, but the larger factor is the sheer attitude that Marko brings to the vocals, the chorus and bridge all earnest power, but the verses crisp spoken word that's more reminiscent of Lady Gaga than anything else. And for what it is - all artifice and style and succumbing to empty thrills - it's pretty damn effective. If I were to take an issue with the song, it'd be for a more common issue with Poets of the Fall - Marko's falsetto. It's a divisive point amongst Poets of the Fall fans, and I'll go on record saying I don't like it as much as his mid-range, but it honestly doesn't bug me that much as his nasal cackle can, which is mostly absent on this album entirely. But his voice on this record is as clean and rich as ever, and is responsible for some of this record's most potent highs, the best being on the chorus of the title track which sends a chill down my spine every time.

But now let's get into lyrics and themes - and let's make this clear, Poets Of The Fall are the kind of songwriters I really like. Intricate lyrics loaded with classical references, rich dramatic imagery, and yet still show enough of a knack for a killer chorus and hook. But on this album, Poets of the Fall opted to be more oblique with their wordplay - the killer choruses are still there, but they don't seem to make a lot of sense or appear all that straightforward. And when you do start to decode the lyrics, they seem more than a little overwrought for the subject matter. A breakdown in trust in a relationship on the title track can be spanned by building bridges of rainbows, a new Bifrost to span the void. 'Rumors' describes the titular words like wildfire capable of death, 'Brighter Than The Sun' is used to describe the woman the narrator admires, 'Love Will Come To You' spares no expense in showing all the horrid torture the other person in the song might endure before love comes through, 'Rebirth' is positively biblical in describing what he'll do to hold onto love, and 'Hounds of Hamartia' evokes Greek tragedy. It's telling when the soaring whirlwind of 'Clear Blue Sky' is, lyrically, one of the more sober tracks on the album because the poetry everywhere else is hyperbolic in describing the feelings and it's all being sold with complete sincerity and it would be so easy to see it all as high camp because what are such weighty words doing on concepts that are really so pop...

And then you realize that's the point. 'Choice Millionaire' is the first salvo, a straight-up Europop song all about surrendering to that empty glamour because, to quote, 'Nobody needs more confessions'. And the sarcasm bleeding from Marko's voice says it all - all that hyperbole around trifling subject matter can feel empty. And the album ends on a dark note with 'Nothing Stays The Same', pointing at the people who see such hyperbole and exploit it for cheap thrills with no soul behind it and how it makes him sick knowing that whenever 'sorrow calls my name / I know nothing stays the same'. It's a lyric showing he won't have peace - and yet throughout this album he still tries and pursues real earnest emotion because to him, that's real. It might feel over-the-top, but it's honest and that lends it a power nothing can break. And it shows that even subject matter that's decidedly pop can be elevated into something more with real conviction. Hell, even the straight-up nihilism of 'Choice Millionaire' has a certain seductive quality that most Europop wishes it could pull off - and the crazy thing is that the song and the band knows it has that power. And thus it makes a certain amount of sense that the band references Norse, Greek, and Biblical tragedy and titled the album Jealous Gods - not just because the band plays the songs with that level of sweep and intensity and pulls it off, but because when you break it down, it's all just human drama. And when displayed properly, it can earn that epic sweep of drama. 

In other words, this album could easily be seen as melodramatic or silly, but it brings a level of intensity, power, and a very human element to the conflicts that makes it work. It's an album that reminds me not just of Icon For Hire, but Strange Desire by Bleachers, another album I like more and more every time I listen to it because it manages to elevate human drama to epic scale and has the sincerity and intellectual heft to back it up. And Jealous Gods by Poets of the Fall is even better, a killer slice of some of the band's best work that manages to be thematically consistent and extraordinarily powerful. In other words, it's a 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, go get this album - this really is something special. 

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