Curse Of The Red River
posted on 6/2010 By:
Let me get the brass-tacks shit out of the way first: The Curse of the Red River is a high-quality melodic death metal album. It features an amazing vocal performance, proggy but focused songwriting, and a flawless production. If you're still amped on recent Opeth, Amorphis, or Crimson II, there's a good chance that you'll love this album. By all rights, I should love it too. Hell, just a few months back, I was loudly talking up this Finnish supergroup's debut EP and fairly salivating at the prospect of a full-length. But I don't love it, and if you'll indulge me for a few 'graphs, I'll explain why.
Basically, anticipation is a funny thing.
As we juggle the many, many pressures of 21st-century living, most of us find ourselves with only scant time available for appreciating the music that keeps us going. As the heaps of interchangeable, mediocre-to-decent metal albums mount ever higher, we find ourselves relying on others to help us navigate the seas of blah. But that's not enough to ensure maximum bang for minimum buck; so much music is out there that we have to sift through the sifters, choosing the 'zines, labels, and the like-minded friends who will cater to our increasingly granular tastes.
At some point, all of this pre-valuation rendered the way people talk about music just as important for its consumption as any of its other features. By attaching gobs of stylistic and historical context to everything we listen to before even hearing it, we're able to rapidly digest a given album and move onto the next one that much faster. But in many cases, that context extinguishes any possibility of a surprising listen -- the album becomes a dutiful reproduction of what you already knew you would hear, rather than the startling experience many of us desire.
And this phenomenon is why The Curse of the Red River didn't do much for me. From the first, everything about this disc screamed holy fucking year-end list material, Batman! Each member has done time in a respected veteran act (Swallow the Sun, Amorphis, Kreator, and Moonsorrow). The band's stylistic roots are right up my alley (especially Edge of Sanity, whose Dan Swanö gave this album its gorgeous mix), and the Our Twilight EP proved that they have an above-average handle on crafting streamlined, prog-tinged melodeath. Barren Earth's stars couldn't have been more aligned if they'd been mounted on a flagpole, and I expected this album to shatter my world with its soul-searing awesomeness.
Even without the big expectations, The Curse of the Red River wouldn't have done so. It's an extraordinarily competent, hi-fi metal album, but it also pastiches liberally from more inventive bands. Specifically, its doom-tinged death metal owes its mid-paced heft to early Amorphis and later Edge of Sanity, its classic-rock haze and subtle complexity to Opeth, its slightly mopey melodic sensibility to...Opeth and Amorphis, and its half-growled half-sung vocals to all of the above.
Barren Earth's derivative approach isn't a problem in itself; lots of good metal bands wear their influences on their sleeves. But their successes are predictable to such an absolute degree that the whole album sounds banal. Their songwriting flows marvelously, but only downhill--you find yourself wishing that they'd make a terrible decision if only to stymie an expectation or two. Swanö's mix, for all its crystalline balance, only deepens their rigid adherence to their own press-sheet description. The album is, for better or worse, exactly what you'd expect, and not a jot more.
Arguably none of this is Barren Earth's fault. Any band with such a flashy lineup will face unfairly high critical standards, and they aren't responsible for managing their listeners' expectations. The fact remains, though, that a reasonably well-versed listener could derive just as much stimulation from reading a Wikipedia article about The Curse of the Red River as from listening to it. Maybe that's a sign of our over-informed times, but it also suggests that Barren Earth are too mired in their own impressive aesthetics to develop a distinctive voice. Give them a listen and decide for yourself...if all this context hasn't ruined them for you already.
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