Wednesday, October 5, 2016

album review: 'clearview' by poets of the fall

If you've been following me since 2014, you should all know how much I've been looking forward to this record.

But for those of you who haven't, and might not otherwise be familiar with this band, let me add a little bit of context. Coming out of the alternative metal scene in the mid-2000s, Poets of the Fall is a Finnish band that immediately made a lot of impact for me thanks to a melodic focus, strikingly well written lyrics, and arguably one of the most versatile and expressive singers in the genre courtesy of Marko Saaresto. Their first four records might not have always been consistent, but you could at least count on at least three or four songs that kicked all amounts of ass, and would be frontrunners for some of my favourites in that given year - never quite as immediately abrasive as their contemporaries, but their knack for hooks and power ballads made them favourites of mine all the same.

And yet in 2014 things seemed to be changing. For one, coming after the damn near untouchable Temple Of Thought in 2012 there was a marked shift in direction towards more experimental pop sounds, which was a bold move. It's probably their most polarizing record - although for me it didn't shy away from any of their strengths and remained pretty damn kickass, landing on my list for my favourite records of 2014. But I'll admit I was going into their newest album Clearview with no real view into it, or any idea where the band would take their sound next. Would they continue down a pop path, venture back to alternative rock and metal, or do something unexpected altogether?

Well, folks, there was a change here and it certainly was unexpected - and here's the thing, unless you're a diehard fan you're probably not going to notice it. Hell, most people going into this record will probably think it's just another Poets of the Fall record, with its typical blend of gorgeous melodies and riffs with real heft and punch to match the intricate and frequently gorgeous writing. And yet... there's a shift on this record, a small one but shows just how what could have been one of the best records of the year can be rendered much weaker. Now don't get me wrong, it's still good... but this should have been amazing, on par with Temple Of Thought or Jealous Gods, and the fact that it's not is a real disappointment.

So before we get into the change, we need to talk about what this album does right - and make no mistake, the fundamentals of this formula are still incredibly solid. Marko Saaresto remains one of the most potent singers working in the genre, capable of huge belting on one song before switching to a softer voice that proves just why Poets of the Fall have been some of the best at writing rock and metal ballads over the past fifteen years. And they've always had a knack for some great melodic hooks with solid grooves: the bass lick on the chorus of 'The Game', that noisier roar coming off a slick prechorus change-up on 'Shadow Play', the melodic swell that builds into 'Center Stage', and the gothic elegance that gives this band another ballad staple with 'Moonlight Kissed' - not quite at the level as 'Sleep' or 'Where Do We Draw The Line' or 'All The Way 4 U', but this is a group that can knock these songs out of the park. And then there are the two best songs: the gorgeous layers of guitar that build to 'Children Of The Sun' including a fantastic outro, and the great choppy groove that makes the hook 'Crystalline' so damn sticky for me.

And you know, a lot of the lyrics come together too. I wouldn't say they're as consistent as Jealous Gods was, but there's a lot to like here, even if the songs are playing intentionally broad again. Thematically we aren't that far removed from usual Poets of the Fall territory - if we're going to find a band that can make affirmation anthems sound fresh again, songs like 'Children Of The Sun' and 'Center Stage' are solid examples, as well as the open embrace of love on 'Crystalline'. And like Jealous Gods this album also takes aim at the flashy veneer of celebrity and prefers to cut to something real, like how the puppetmaster of love subverts and satirizes 'The Game', or how on 'The Child In Me' we have a refocus on finding innocence and something real, or the slam against cronies on 'Shadow Play' that might as well be Poets Of The Fall's version of 'Golddigger'. And I like the framing of this, because Saaresto has no problem admitting on songs like 'Drama For Life' or 'Crystalline' that he doesn't have all the answers and can get caught up the superficiality of it all too - and on songs like 'The Labyrinth' and 'Moonlight Kissed' it becomes clear that when you leave it all exposed, you are that much more open to pain or loss - you might have clarity of purpose and emotion, but that'll come at a price. That said, I didn't really love the jabs at ex-lovers on 'Once Upon A Playground Rainy' - I appreciate admitting your own naivete, but it still comes across as more petty than it should.

So yeah, for the sort of broad strokes Poets of The Fall work in, that's a potent theme... unfortunately this is where we have to talk about the change in the sound, and that comes into the production, because for the first time in their career as a band, Poets of the Fall did not produce this record. No, instead it was handled by a guy called Stefan Boman, and if you know the name at all it's because of his work with Kent or Hellacopters, or maybe some of the engineering work he did way back in the late 90s boy band scene. I say all this because the production is the biggest reason this record isn't nearly as good as I expect from Poets of the Fall. See, for a band that kept production in house they've always had a remarkable knack for tone and mix balance - the melodies come through cleanly on the guitars while maintaining bite, the mix has plenty of room to breathe, and all the tones come through cleanly. And for the life of me I have no idea why they went with Boman, because his mixing sounds like someone trying to force a Poets Of The Fall sound without getting the details. Take the first single 'Drama For Life' - on a compositional level it's fine except for the non-solo, but it's so obviously compressed and the shift from verse to chorus takes place with an audible thud - which also happens on 'Shadow Play' for no good reason - including compression and effects on Saaresto's vocals that are not needed in the slightest. It comes up more blatantly on 'Center Stage' - you don't need to add compression to the vocals on the hook to make the song sound big, Saaresto can handle it! Similar case for 'The Labyrinth' - the sparse acoustics and strings could carry plenty of body but Boman saw fit to drown the track in reverb - why? On 'The Game' you get an outro that's got a borderline tremmolo guitar riff that could have sounded amazing with a little more muscle to it in the mix, but the electric guitar mixing feels blurred over too many times. Tellingly, the mixing problems don't come up on the most blatantly pop song here 'The Child In Me', which I actually didn't mind how the guitars balanced against the wiry synths... but if we were going for an electro-rock fusion, this could have definitely hit harder. Unfortunately, when we get a guitar tone does get more emphasis it's on 'Once Upon A Playground Rainy' - I know some people like that flattened, Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque tone, but it definitely doesn't fit for this song or for Poets of the Fall, and I'm not really Boman for that.

Granted, assigning blame anywhere here is frustrating, because I get Poets of the Fall wanting to push their sound in a different or new direction... but on some level they didn't really do that, they just got a producer who doesn't seem to have a coherent sound or vision and thus mess with a workable template. But putting Stefan Boman aside for a second, on a compositional level does this record rise to the level of their best? Honestly, it's hard to tell but I probably say no - there are a couple strong hooks, but more often than not this record falls into a Poets of the Fall template that's definitely agreeable but could do with the sort of innovation that takes them in a slightly different direction while maintaining their strengths. But as it is, this for me is a light 7/10 and really a recommendation only if you're a Poets of the Fall fan. Otherwise, their other albums - especially Temple Of Thought, Carnival of Rust, or Jealous Gods - are all stronger. I still really like this band, but I do think this was a misstep - let's hope it gets corrected.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with the issues of the producer. I was convinced when I hear the version of "once a playground rainy" they recorded on the Genelec YouTube channel, you should take a look at it.