There is power in a name, as ancient wisdom claims. And sometimes a prophecy. It was a moment of rare foresight when guitarist Esa Holopainen came up with a name for his new band: Amorphis. Derived from “amorphous” (without determinate form, shapeless), the choice would subsequently prove more apt than anyone could have imagined at the time. It was the fall of 1990, and the band’s two founding members, Esa and drummer Jan Rechberger, had recently joined forces with guitarist/vocalist Tomi Koivusaari and bassist Olli-Pekka “Oppu” Laine to leave their mark on the emerging Finnish death metal scene, only to transcend it by far and set their sights on new horizons before that scene even reached the surface of public awareness. From the outset, Amorphis were determined to follow no vision but their own. Asked a few months after the band’s conception whether Amorphis would ever change style if some new trend came along, Esa answered: “We’ll change our style only if we manage to create something ourselves.” A programmatic statement for a band that would go on to reinvent itself with almost every new album, continuously challenge listeners to forget their preconceptions about musical genres, and, through all ups and downs, never bow to compromise.
In January 1991, Amorphis spent two days in Timo Tolkki’s (Stratovarius) TTT Studio to record their first, and only, demo. While not satisfying the critical tastes of the band members themselves, the three-track Disment of Soul caught the attention of Relapse Records, and the American label was quick to sign the young band. In May 1991, Amorphis was already back at TTT to record six songs. Only two of these were picked for the first 7″ single, but the full session was two years later released on the EP Privilege of Evil. Frequent club gigs won the group a devoted fan base even before they entered Stockholm’s famed Sunlight Studio in May 1992 to record their first full-length album. The Karelian Isthmus was released in 1993 and, like the four following albums, distributed in Europe through Nuclear Blast Records. Albeit rightfully overshadowed by Amorphis’ later work, the assertive debut showcased many of the elements that would soon become the band’s trademarks. Majestic, doom-laden riffs combined with concise, folk-influenced guitar leads and atmospheric keyboard passages set this work apart from many of its contemporaries and offered a glimpse of future greatness. In recent years, songs from the debut album have made a comeback in Amorphis’ live set, seamlessly blending with the band’s later work and proving they have indeed stood the test of time.
Although The Karelian Isthmus took its name from a historic Finnish battleground, its lyrics contemplated universal themes of warfare and religion, drawing on Celtic mythology rather than the traditions of Amorphis’ own native land. With its sophomore release, however, the group reclaimed its Finnish heritage in triumph, creating a monumental album that single-handedly put the small Nordic country on the map of progressive metal and is nowadays considered an all-time classic: Tales from the Thousand Lakes, a concept album based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. While still strongly rooted in the death metal tradition, this 1994 release already branched out beyond the usual confinements of the genre. The boldest step toward a new direction was the addition of clean vocals, provided by Kyyria’s Ville Tuomi. Ville’s melodic voice, elegantly contrasting with Tomi’s growls, brought a new dimension to the band’s sound, as did the greater prominence of synthesizer and piano. Whereas the synth tracks on the first album had been laid down by drummer Jan, Amorphis had recently found a full-time keyboard player in Kasper Mårtenson. Kasper’s best-known contribution to the band’s repertoire was the song “Black Winter Day”, which was later released on an EP (flanked by outtakes from the Tales sessions) and remains a favorite among old and new fans alike.
The strenuous tours following the huge success of Tales took their toll; Kasper soon decided to leave the band and was succeeded by Kim Rantala. Jan was replaced by Pekka Kasari (ex-Stone), and a sixth member, singer Pasi Koskinen, was recruited in time for the third album. Elegy was released in 1996 and marked another quantum leap for Amorphis. Death metal took a further step back to reveal a vast array of other influences. Rather than on guitar riffs, the new songs were based on pure melody, often with a distinct oriental touch. The mesmerizing interplay between Kim’s lush synthesizer arabesques and Esa’s immaculate guitar lines conjured up the spirit of 1970s progressive rock at its finest. Lyrics were again adapted from Finnish mythology, in this case, the Kanteletar, a collection of ancient folk poetry. Pasi and Tomi shared the vocals on a roughly equal basis, with Pasi’s role restricted to the clean parts. To demonstrate the band’s increasing versatility, an acoustic version of Elegy‘s perhaps most significant song, “My Kantele”, was added as a reprise at the end of the album. This acoustic rendition also served as the title track of the 1997 EP, which contained two new originals as well as two excellent cover versions of songs by Hawkwind and Finland’s own heroes of Eastern-flavored psychedelia, the legendary Kingston Wall.
After about one and a half years of ceaseless touring in 1996-97, the band members opted for a time-out to recharge their batteries and think about new material. From the outset it was clear that the next album would have to do without the massive production of Elegy and strive for an earthier, less meandering feel, particularly since the band was again without a keyboardist after losing sight of ever-busy Kim. Released in 1999, Tuonela was arguably the most focused of the four albums Amorphis recorded with Pasi Koskinen, who by now had adopted the sole responsibility for lyrics and vocals. Growls had become rare; in fact the category-defying longplayer contained only one “pure” metal track, namely “Greed”. This song featured a playful Indian-style intro performed by Tomi on sitar; others were spiced with saxophone and flute performances by Sakari Kukko of world music legend Piirpauke. The album’s sparse but tasteful keyboard tracks were laid down by Santeri Kallio of Kyyria. Its defining element, however, were the guitar parts. Originally inspired by the likes of Pink Floyd and U2, the extensive yet sophisticated use of delay effects first introduced on Tuonela has subsequently been honed to perfection and become an integral part of the Amorphis sound.
The new millennium was greeted with the tenth-anniversary compilation Story and another line-up change. Following the breakup of Kyyria, Santeri had already joined Amorphis full-time when bassist Oppu quit and was succeeded by another ex-Kyyria member, Niclas Etelävuori, who stepped in just in time for the third U.S. tour. The next album, Am Universum (2001), retained its predecessor’s atmosphere but introduced more varied soundscapes and a wider dynamic range. Where Tuonela had predominantly been a guitar album, now keyboards and saxophone were at the forefront, the latter again contributed by Sakari Kukko. Folk influences took a step back in favor of a more experimental and psychedelic approach, liberated studio jams included. The opening track “Alone”, a quintessential Amorphis song, was released as a single and topped the Finnish charts for three weeks. In 2002 the band was asked for a contribution to the soundtrack for the movie Menolippu Mombasaan. The commissioned piece was a cover version of the 1976 pop hit “Kuusamo”, which was given the full Amorphis treatment but, unlike any of the band’s original material, was sung in Finnish.
Amorphis’ longstanding relationship with Relapse Records ended with Am Universum and the 2003 retrospective Chapters. Freed from a contract which had not entirely been in their best interests, the band members – now reunited with original drummer Jan Rechberger after Pekka Kasari had left to concentrate on family duties – decided to record the next album on their own terms and shop for a label with the finished product in hand. Far From The Sun was released by Virgin/EMI in 2003 but only in Europe; an expanded edition with five bonus tracks is nowadays available worldwide from Nuclear Blast. Recorded for the most part at Niclas’ and Santeri’s own CCPC studio, the album sounded relaxed, intimate and more straightforward than Am Universum as well as once again more folky, journeying deep into Middle Eastern territory. Despite the undisputed quality of the song material, the outcome was unfavorably affected by increasing lack of motivation on behalf of Pasi Koskinen, who ultimately quit the band in August 2004.
The search for a new frontman was no easy task. Of more than a hundred demos submitted by hopeful candidates, not one fit the criteria. In the end, Amorphis found the right person through word of mouth: Tomi Joutsen (Sinisthra), a powerful, multi-faceted singer with breathtaking on-stage charisma. His intense, deeply emotional delivery immediately won the crowds over at each concert the band gave in 2005, including a one-month tour of North America. Himself a fan of Amorphis since their early days, Tomi brought not only new vigor and a fresh perspective to the band but also the initiative to revive the use of contrasting vocal styles that had contributed so much to the magic of Elegy and Tales. Befitting this choice, the band – which by then had signed with its trusted partner of old, Nuclear Blast – decided to pick up another loose thread from its past by returning to the sources of Finland’s literary heritage for lyrical inspiration. Eclipse (2006) recounted the fate of Kullervo, the most tragic character of the Kalevala. The vast dramatic scope of the ancient tale provided the canvas for Amorphis to paint an all-encompassing masterpiece which went straight to the top of the Finnish charts, as did the accompanying single House of Sleep.
Ensuing club gigs and festival appearances all over Europe at long last established Amorphis as a first-rate live act, all the while new songs were already in the making. Released in August 2007, Silent Waters confirmed that a new era had indeed begun: this album was the first in the band’s long history to have been recorded with the same personnel as the previous one. Stability, however, does not mean stagnation for Amorphis. While continuing along the lines of Eclipse in both musical and lyrical terms – as opposed to earlier albums, which often differed radically from one to the next – Silent Waters has its own distinct atmosphere and tells a quite different story, namely Lemminkäinen’s hunt for the Swan of Tuonela. Its somber mood was gracefully captured in the outstanding cover artwork by renowned US artist Travis Smith, who has been responsible for almost all of the band’s album and single covers since 2006 including the latest release. Eclipse and Silent Waters were the first Amorphis albums to be awarded gold records in Finland and won the band a host of new fans around the globe. The remainder of 2007 was spent on the road in northern and central Europe as well as in Russia and Japan, whereas 2008 found the band in southeastern Europe, at a multitude of summer festivals and, during the fall, in the USA and Canada.
Entering the studio straight after returning from a month of intense touring proved to be a wise choice, as Skyforger (2009) presented Amorphis tighter and more focused than ever. A feast of musicianship as well as a triumphant statement from a band that has managed to create its very own sound, the album combines the power of Eclipse and the sensitivity of Silent Waters with the intrepid creativity of the Elegy days. While each song from the chart-topping “Silver Bride” to the epic “Sampo” and the thunderous “Majestic Beast” is a gem in its own right, the whole effortlessly surpasses the sum of its parts. The lyrics were again crafted by Finnish poet Pekka Kainulainen and translator Erkki Virta, who also collaborated on the previous and the following album. Bringing the archetypal blacksmith Ilmarinen to life with a depth of character far beyond the one-dimensional portrait of the hero rendered by the Kalevala, the poetry of Skyforger cements the role of Amorphis as modern-day storytellers perpetuating an age-old tradition in their very own way. The album occupied the top spot of the Finnish charts for two weeks, scored several noteworthy awards – including Finland’s Grammy equivalent Emma for Best Metal Album of 2009 – and was subsequently certified gold.
In time for the 20th anniversary, Amorphis’ first-ever official DVD was released in July 2010. In addition to a one-hour documentary covering the Finnish metal pioneers’ entire career, Forging The Land Of Thousand Lakes comprises two full concerts, recorded in 2009, which vividly portray the band’s infectious live energy and sheer musical prowess. Another special release to celebrate the history of Amorphis followed in September: Magic And Mayhem – Tales From The Early Years, a retrospective featuring newly recorded songs from the first three albums. Its title also served as the motto of the anniversary tour in December, for which Amorphis were joined by all former members.
Nostalgia, however, is not what this band is about. Granted, The Beginning Of Times (2011) showcases their trademark style in perfection, including plenty of reference to the death metal days, yet at the same time it proves that Amorphis have lost none of their progressive edge and experimental spirit. Doing honor to protagonist Väinämöinen, the Kalevala‘s central character whom myth credits for bringing music into the world, the band brought forth its most versatile and nuanced effort to date; in terms of performance and arrangements as well as rythms and sounds. Iikka Kahri, whose flute and saxophone already graced several songs on Skyforger, was back in the fold, Tomi Koivusaari added a few discreet touches of pedal steel guitar and Santeri balanced the 1970s prog and 1990s death elements with a synth vocabulary straight out of the eighties. More noticeable still was the addition of Netta Dahlberg’s backing vocals, which beautifully complement Tomi Joutsen’s lead – most poignantly on “Mermaid” and “Soothsayer” but also, for example, on the single You I Need. Besides another number one in Finland, The Beginning Of Times also earned Amorphis their first-ever Top 20 rating in Germany.
At the outset of the third decade, Amorphis continue their musical journey creative as ever – not confined to any predetermined shape, yet always instantly recognizable, always true to their own vision, and always unique.