Wednesday, October 10, 2018

album review: 'ultraviolet' by poets of the fall

You know, I could rattle off a pretty impressive list of disappointing events in 2016, but if we're just to confine it to music, the last Poets Of The Fall album would be up there.

And no, I'm not going to mince words with this: Poets of the Fall were one of the most strikingly potent alternative rock and metal groups to break out of the 2000s with multiple albums I'd rank as among the best of their respective years... and yet in 2016, it didn't work. And for once it was strikingly easy to point to the cause of it all: not Marko Saaresto's delivery or the band's increasingly dalliances with atmospheric pop rock, but the introduction of a new producer who seemed to grasp the basics of a Poets of the Fall sound but none of the subtleties, leading to a glitch in the alchemy that gave us possibly their most underwhelming project to date. Don't get me wrong, there were songs that worked off of Clearview and it was still good, but this is a band that delivers magnificence, and merely good does not cut it in my books. 

But I had hope for this one, folks, I did. For one they had brought the production back in house and while buzz was indicating the wild experimentation that has characterized their 2010s work was still in swing, I've been of the belief that this band has a better grasp on genre blending than most - hell, I absolutely adored their biggest pop pivot on Jealous Gods, and if they were going to keep going in that direction, I had to hope they'd stick the landing. So, what did we get on Ultraviolet?

Okay, there's both good news and... let's call it slightly less good news, shall we? The good news is that I can confirm that the production style and sound of Poets of the Fall has returned to the high level of quality I expect from the band, which makes for a pretty damn great listening experience and one that I enjoyed thoroughly. Of course, that inevitably raises the question of where this album can be judged within the band's discography and where I have to deliver the slightly less good news: I wouldn't quite call this a top tier release from the band. It doesn't hit the consistent quality of Temple Of Thought or Carnival Of Rust, or the incredible high points of Jealous Gods or Twilight Theater, but it's strong enough to hold its own as a great album that I can see being the exact reassurance some of the audience needed - and yes, I include myself in that camp.

And at this point, if you're a Poets of the Fall fan, you know exactly why you're here and why this band kicks ass: Marko Saaresto's stunningly smooth vocals and impeccable multi-tracking, some of the biggest hooks you'll hear in alternative music pop or rock, and an unabashed sincerity that frequently goes over the top in ways that would seem silly if they weren't so damn convincing. And while the band has stepped far away from the roaring alternative metal crunch from their early albums, you're not going to get many better runs of soaring hooks than what opens up Ultraviolet, from the acoustic gallop of 'Dancing On Broken Glass' to the more aggressive piano and synthwork behind 'My Dark Disquiet' to the elegant waltz cadence behind 'False Kings' that actually still picks up some sizzle to the soaring lead melodies that drive 'Fool's Paradise'. Really, when you start a record with such a polished swell of momentum, you can't help but feel a little underwhelmed at the minimal arrangement behind 'Standstill' with the limited guitar and bass rollick, and while I will say that cuts like 'The Sweet Escape', 'Choir Of Cicadas' and even 'Angel' hold their own, the back half of Ultraviolet just can't match the power of its start. And note that I didn't say 'firepower', because following in the wake of the poppier side of Jealous Gods, Ultraviolet might just be their smoothest affair yet - the crunch has been sanded back, the thick wells of synth work are more prominent, and the guitar lines almost pick up something close to a new wave rollick, especially on the 80s-inspired 'The Sweet Escape', almost to the point when a more textured organ pickup slides into 'Choir Of Cicadas' it almost feels out of place until the more burnished multi-tracking and choral swell slides in.

Now look, I'll go on the record as not being against a pop pivot whatsoever when it comes to Poets of the Fall - Saaresto has the pipes and clarity to nail it, and the increased focus on melodic grooves and massive hooks is undeniable - but I won't deny there are a few issues taking such a maximalist approach and the production is not without flaws. We'll talk more about songwriting in a bit but I will say that for a song like 'In A Perfect World' the word choice focusing on more mundane details to set the stage does feel weird for a band with such lofty swell, only further enhanced this time around by arranged symphonic elements, but they present a new quandary for Poets of the Fall in their own way. To be blunt, I'm a little more forgiving of how synthetic said arranged pieces can sound given how polished and smooth the rest of this album is, but on a weaker cut like 'Moments Before The Storm' it's hard not to feel like a more lush pickup could give that song some convincing body - same, to a lesser extent, with the electronically enhanced synth-rock groove of 'Angel' and even 'False Kings'. But if they were to do that and pump the symphonic elements up on steroids, there'd be no excuse for the guitars not to regain some metallic edge, and yeah, I'll say it: for as good as Poets Of The Fall are at pop rock, I'd love to see a few more guitar solos and a little more muscle in that department, especially given the scope that Poets of the Fall traditionally bring to their mix. I totally get why that larger symphonic approach wasn't taken - that sure as hell is not cheap - but I do hope that door is left open for the future.

And now we get to the songwriting... and look, if there's an area where it's easy to nitpick Poets of the Fall, it can be here for the unabashed earnestness and word choice - especially on this record, where there seems to be a greater focus on huge, yearning love songs. Now this isn't a bad thing, and thematically it does seem to work with what Saaresto has described as the direction of this album, namely a focus on the intangible and what is not seen but influences us all the same, which to their credit winds up with a much more balanced sense of framing on a lot of these songs. They're more than willing to acknowledge the darker temptation to succumb on 'My Dark Disquiet' and 'False Kings', and on 'Fool's Paradise' as much as they know old toxic tendencies can drag us back in the long run, in the moment it's hard not to embrace the sheer, wondrous experience. And it also leads to a more balanced picture of relationships: 'Dancing On Broken Glass' might discuss a troubled relationship but there is that something that pulls them and gives them the strength to rebuild love, and on the flipside for as much as 'Standstill' might open criticizing the girl's inability to make decisions, the second verse flips the criticism back on his own demons and there's a refreshing amount of honesty in that. On the other hand there are songs like 'In A Perfect World' where that insurmountable optimism can ring as a bit thin, but they're in the minority, especially when the band ends the album with a 'through the years' picture of commitment that shows an intangible connection that somehow has kept them even as the world decays around them. But there's a line on 'The Sweet Escape' that I do want to highlight on an otherwise pretty damn sensual cut: how compassion is 'the highest state of art'. Such a simple line, but I could unpack it for the entire review in how it really does underscore the coursing heart of an album like this and why even despite layers and layers of polish it still can have such moving grace and impact.

So in short, of course I really liked this album, but I'd hesitate to put it among the best of the year just yet, especially if I'm drawing a comparison to other records from this band. I'll freely admit that now since their production is back on track I'd love to hear another metal-leaning record from the group, but Poets Of The Fall are one of the few acts that can deliver atmospheric pop rock not only convincingly, but chart a distinctive lane and tone, to the point I'm honestly astonished more bands haven't tried to copy their template instead of chasing trap trends that'll be dated in a year or less. In other words, Ultraviolet is goddamn great, netting a comfortable 8/10 from me, and absolutely recommended if you're looking for one of their more accessible releases, especially for a pop audience. So happy this turned out well, Poets Of The Fall, so glad you're back on the right track!

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