I have lost count of the number of distinct artists I have on what I like to derisively refer to as my iPood. It is probably in the low hundreds. The story of how I came to be the proud owner of an iPood is one I will tell in a little while. Suffice to say for now that of the hundreds of artists that sit on my iPood and occasionally get listened to, none have perplexed me more than the Finnish doom-black metal crossover who went by the name Unholy.
Every good black metal, doom metal, and combination or derivation of the two in some manner band has certain, trimmings (I will say in this instance), that distinguish them to some degree from the rest of the pack. Some have a whole bunch of them. Subgroups also tend to have features and trimmings that distinguish them from other subgroups. You will not, for instance, mistake a black metal band from Finland for one from England or Australia. Finnish men who ruin their throats as part of black or doom metal bands tend to have a noticeably more hoarse, coarse, draconic sound to what comes out of their mouths. Unholy are no exception to this rule. Bassist/vocalist Pasi Äijö has one of the harshest voices I have ever heard coming out of a man’s mouth, with only other men from Finland (Mika Luttinen being the main example that springs to mind at present) offering him any credible competition for this exalted title.
The other three men that constitute the main, “classic”, and current line-up of Unholy are Ismo Toivonen on guitars and keyboards, Jarkko Toivonen on guitars, and Jan Kuhanen on drums. Over the years, the band has had some session members (the most notorious of them being one keyboardist/vocalist named Veera Muhli), and Jarkko left the band for two albums for reasons that change with time. The first time that I heard the story, it had to do with addiction or alcoholism issues. The second version I heard was simply that Jarkko had decided another musical project, the name of which escapes me, was more worthy of his time. It is only relevant here because Jarkko seems to have rejoined the band for another reunion that has so far yet to produce an official release. Given that this reunion was made news whilst I was in nowhere shitsville, and that was more than three years ago now, I am not holding my breath.
(Worth noting also is that bands are, in direct contradiction to the fantasy everyone has as a thirteen year old, a bit like a business arrangement such as a small company or even corner store. In order to work successfully or even productively, everyone has to know who the boss is and who the underlings are, as well as what every party has the right to expect from others. I might cover this subject more thoroughly later, but the salient point here is that a good, professional band keeps a legal agreement drawn up concerning who is actually a member, what conditions a member can be sacked under, and what violations of sense justify an automatic firing. In most sane bands that did not want to make money out of hitting the headlines every few weeks during the 1980s or 1990s, alcoholism and drug addiction would definitely qualify as a sacking offense. Wanting to leave due to having a more productive or enjoyable project in the works is more of a leaving by mutual consent thing.)
To date, Unholy have brought us four albums, each of which have varying strengths and weaknesses. One might assume from the band name that, like a lot of bands to which the term black metal can be applied, their main musical theme would be about what a bunch of fukks the Christian empire is and so on. Kind of like their aforementioned countrymen did when said countrymen made good music. One would be sorely mistaken. Unholy (usually) do one thing in terms of musical and lyrical theme, and they do it very well: psychological distress.
I cannot remember exactly when it was, probably the mid-1990s (1994 or early 1995 would be my guess), when I first heard Unholy‘s second album, rather appropriately titled The Second Ring Of Power. At this time, there was a specialist record store in a somewhat run-down and out of the way area in the city of my birth. Which is ironic, because when you look at the place now, it bears a strong resemblance to the Death Star. Even more ironic because when one left the rail station in said city from one exit, one could literally walk to this place in about six minutes flat. But I digress. At this time I was still young, more given to following my immediate instincts, petulant, and still suffering the sensory effects of having had certain medical “professionals” play Let’s See What This Chemical Mix Will Do with me.
But one song on The Second Ring Of Power called out to me like a siren song: Lady Babylon. With slightly nasal-sounding and extremely peculiar vocals by guest vocalist Merja Salmela, Lady Babylon captured a sense of what the perfect doom metal song sounded like. At this time, I had “got” My DyING BRIDE in such a big way that if one escaped a conversation with me without hearing me mention them once, they wondered what the hell had just happened. So a song with a slow, drunk-sounding, slightly flanged guitar intro, constant subtle keyboards, and a woman singing about how she wants to be “eternally dazed… forever and ever and… ever”, sends out one signal to the young me: buy this album. Buy this album now.
The first year that I tried to kid myself that I could make it through a university course with the current… heh, support network… around me, I found myself waiting around to get to and from the place for long, long periods of time. By car, the campus I was stuffed into as a booby prize and my front door were about fifteen minutes (at most) apart by private car. It is a sad testament to just how Queenslanders, even the best of them, get it horribly wrong even in comparison to the Parramatta that I remember from boyhood. But since I was going to have to endure this colossal waste of my time and all of the sensory problems associated, I figured I may as well transfer some music onto the rather crappy telephony device that I had at that time. One of the bands represented in the transfer was Unholy, and the songs transferred were the aforementioned Lady Babylon, Procession Of Black Doom, and Air.
I think what appealed to me most about Procession Of Black Doom is the introduction, in which Pazi sings after a guitar section that just has to be heard to be believed, “You have arrived to valley of endless black memories”. Given how utterly isolated, disconnected, and tolerated as opposed to accepted I felt within the university, I think there could not be a better one-sentence description of my state of mind at the time. I may have mentioned this in writings prior, but for much of the past two decades, I have frequently been visited by a little ghost representing the nine or ten year old version of me. He is not exactly an easy person to be visited by. As I passed fairly common places such as schools, hospitals, and the like, he would be there, wrapping his ghostly arms around one of mine, and crying, pleading not to go into this place. It did not matter that I had never been there before. One school or hospital was the same as another to him. But the point here is that Procession Of Black Doom is almost exactly what the ghost of little boy me would be saying if he were the twenty-one or even twenty-eight year old version. Does anyone not understand now why I say that Unholy‘s main focus and point of excellence is songs about psychological distress?
But by a length, my favourite song from The Second Ring Of Power is Air. The lyrics are extremely surreal and make very little sense on listening, but when read after the fact… they still make very little sense. Unless you picture them as the reflection of a schizophrenic adult as they die (sad fact: due to the poor integration with society that schizophrenics enjoy, even today, the average life expectancy of a schizophrenic is ten to fifteen years less than that of their normie peers). Then they make perfect, complete sense. But that is also why the song is so incredibly awesome: the sheer distress and horror both the instruments and the voices of Pazi Äijö and Merja Salmela make this terror and fear pretty much universal. You do not need to be schizophrenic to really grok this song. Merely suffering from PTSD as a result of child abuse and neglect will do nicely.
There are weak points on The Second Ring Of Power. Songs like Neverending Day and Serious Personality Disturbance And Deep Anxiety… well, let me put it this way. When I transferred The Second Ring Of Power to my iPood, I left these two songs out. Why? Because no matter how hard I attempt to get into them, they just do nothing for me. I could understand why some might accept or even like a song like Neverending Day. It just fails to turn my dials. But Serious Personality Disturbance And Deep Anxiety is a classic example of an instrumental that seems only there to fill space. It goes nowhere, and whilst it does have a discernible theme, the general construction of the song (which also happens to be the longest on the album) does nothing to make that theme go… somewhere. It just comes across as a collection of sound effects. Even shaving a few minutes off of this song would have drastically improved it. However, if you want a piece of music that helps you understand that nervous veteran in your neighbourhood who never looks right at you, only through you, then The Second Ring Of Power is an excellent album to start with.
For four years, everything went quiet around Unholy. I mean everything. Although the Internet grapevine was not as well-developed in the years betwixt 1994 and 1998, it was still more than a bit odd to not even hear that Unholy had broken up. Apparently, Jarkko had left the band in order to pursue an interest in another, and real-life things had gotten in the way of Pazi, Ismo, and Jan doing anything with the band themselves. But then the latter three reconvened and discussed the future of the band. With just themselves and two guest vocalists, they recorded what I feel is the weakest of all Unholy albums released to date: Rapture.
Let us get one thing straight here. Even the worst Unholy album, this one, is miles above the crap that was coming out of the soundalike pop trash factory, both then and now. But when I transferred this album onto the iPood I mentioned previously, I left out fully half of its songs. Since this is the biggest complaint that I have with the album, I will go into those first.
For The Unknown One is something I never thought at that time I would say about an Unholy song: intensely boring. The problem is largely the same one as I described with Serious Personality Disturbance And Deep Anxiety from the previous album. On the first listen, I was constantly thinking to myself, any second now, they are going to bring in a big change in rhythm and structure that will just blow me away. But they do not. In fact, they keep going with the same progression of rhythms and leads for pretty much the entire ten minutes and twenty-one seconds. And discerning what the song was about was pretty much impossible. The lyrics in the booklet of the original 1998 release of the album are unreadable. Unzeitgeist, we can be brief about. It is three minutes and five seconds long, but goes nowhere and has no real climactic moment or oomph. So that is three minutes and five seconds too much. But by far the worst offender in this respect would be Wretched. Wretched is basically an over-and-over rhythm of drum heaves that never changes nor goes anywhere, with Pazi heaving out words like “I’d rather be wretched and broken than join into your fraudulent joy”. Nice concept, shame about the song built around it. And it goes on for eleven minutes and two seconds. Now, do not get me wrong. I like long songs. Long songs that have the material to sustain interest and are played by musicians with the chops to pull it off (more on this shortly) are wonderful. I find them blissful. But the songs that do have the material to sustain interest are either the shortest of the lot (when Unzeitgeist is forgotten about, anyway), or the longest. Wretched is about four minutes of material stretched to nearly three times that length, and it simply cannot cope. I will also be brief about Deluge. It is an instrumental, it closes out the album, but it violates the first rule of good album building. That is, if you cannot make your album consistently awesome from go to woah (eg The Dreadful Hours), put your best material both first and last. They get that rule wrong here.
They do, however, get the opening part right (which is part of what makes the failures on Rapture so bitterly disappointing). Into Cold Light is one of the best opening songs I have heard on any album. With a drum beat you can almost dance to (and when I say dance, I do not mean what certain subcultures that have no place being mentioned here mean, ie making yourself look like a complete knob) and a progression of harmonies that actually feel like they are going somewhere, Into Cold Light is everything that Deluge is not. And whilst we are on the subject of rules that apply to storytelling and music-making, one of the most important rules in my opinion is that if you have several songs that are good enough to open or close the album, make your second song at least as strong as the first. It is like the old one-two punch. If you follow up your best haymaker with a light slap, that gives your opponent enough time to recover his senses and laugh at you. Petrified Spirits is, like Into Cold Light, a haymaker and then some. With a slowly-rolling rhythm and one of the best arrangements of vocals to actually fit and complement the music (something most pop “artists” never even reach elementary school level in), Petrified Spirits will leave your jaw hanging open.
Unfortunately, the next song after that is For The Unknown One. But the album recovers nicely enough to make a hopeful listener believe that was just one dud, and hope it will be the only one. Wunderwerck, unlike the other songs that last around the length of ten minutes, is easily the best song on the album. The vocals in it are, in a contrast to just about every other song I can think of, relegated to the background, only audible as a faint whisper among parts of the music. The sections of the song progress slowly, changing dramatically only at precise moments, but oh my stars what a sledgehammer the climactic section in which the rhythms build to a massive burst before the keyboards break out in a ghostly chant turns out to be. Listening to Wunderwerck for the first time was literally like having sex with a certain woman I miss the hell out of for the first time. Nothing afterwards was the same. Everything was the same, and yet everything was also somehow different.
Wunderwerck is immediately followed by After God. One of my favourite sayings by a punk rocker by the name of GG Allin goes “with GG Allin, you do not get what you expect, you get what you deserve”. I am unsure if we can say we deserve the fine textures of changes and rhythms that forms After God, but the shock of Pazi growling out what sounds like “fear” without so much as a microsecond of warning is definitely not what we expect. Whilst none of the songs on The Second Ring Of Power have any radical changes in style or structure, After God excels in a way that they do. Wunderwerck goes one better, of course, but given the other half of this album, I think just equalling the majority of The Second Ring Of Power is a pretty strong recommendation. But the end result is that out of an album that can jump up and reach sixty-eight minutes, there is only thirty-three minutes and twenty-three seconds of material that is actually what a doom metaller would rightly expect from a good band of this culture. That is kind of sad (although it is a better average than some bands I could mention…).
So the third Unholy album that I bought, and the most difficult for me to talk about, is Gracefallen. Gracefallen was released the year after Rapture. If you have read what I had to say about Rapture, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am about to tell you that the ratio between good music and filler on Gracefallen is the same or even worse. You would be mistaken. In an interview with one online “underground” publication, one of the members of Unholy (Ismo, I think) was asked politely about why he had announced that the band was “officially dead” on the band’s official site. The interview has since vanished, as has the site and hostname where it was located (doom-metal.com). What I remember boiled down to a lot of creative frustration. In more detail, the Gracefallen recording sessions were fraught with annoyance. Newly-hired keyboardist/vocalist Veera Muhli, from what Ismo was saying, thought she was “too good” to rehearse, and thus ended up fukking up constantly in the attempts to record keyboard parts. Ismo said in same interview that one of his goals in Unholy was to create a better musical experience for the audience. Thus, he would not accept bad playing. I wish more artists of all walks had this attitude toward their product, quite frankly.
But the next biggest problem was that, in Ismo‘s words, Gracefallen was Unholy‘s best album, but sold the worst. To be honest, whilst I do not dispute his position on the quality of the material, there are a few other factors he did not seem to consider. One, a lot of fans, myself included, were put off by Rapture. You just cannot release an album as uneven and at times downright boring as Rapture without expecting some listeners to be hesitant to buy the next one. Second, although it was early days yet, the emergence of a new sound compression algorithm that allowed people with 56 kilobaud modems to transfer entire albums to one another in a relatively short time meant that a lot of people got to hear Gracefallen without paying for it. Which brings me to point three. Gracefallen‘s music may have been amongst the best that Unholy ever put together, but it had to fight a massive battle with the album’s production for any of that to shine through. To clarify, the production on Gracefallen is fukking terrible. The liner notes have it that Unholy produced the album themselves with the aid of someone I will not list here, but it absolutely baffles me as to how a man who “will not accept bad playing” would let an album with his name on it go out sounding like this.
The production on Gracefallen is extremely muddy. One hears the upper guitars, keyboards, and vocals just fine, even if they are a little too thick for their own good. But the lower frequencies on the spectrum are a jumbled mess. It is like listening to a band trying to urgently play an SOS through a pond of pea soup. And this is the problem that probably resulted in many Unholy fans simply deciding that it was time to call it a day in terms of admiring the band. I know it took me years to decide, after hearing a CD-R of the album and wondering what the person who made it had done to make the album sound so awful, to buy the album and try to hear it properly. Often, when instruments attempt emphasis, they are driven into clipping because the limited ranges, both frequency and dynamic, of the Compact Disc specification simply cannot handle what is being asked. There are many albums in my collection that could benefit from being allowed to breathe in DVD-Audio or similar specification (six channels, 96 kilohertz, twenty-four bit wordlength), and this is definitely one of them.
The old one-two knockout punch is present and accounted for on Gracefallen. …Of Tragedy and Immaculate are two of the best songs it will ever be your privilege to hear in your lifetime. The first is about a subject that is very close to my heart. “Like wept mother, so wept son; entered the world not welcomed…” Veera sings at the beginning. Yup, it is about that subject. And it brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it. When Veera sings “…and I hate” at the end of verse one, followed by Pazi echoing these words in that trademark style that demonstrates why I think of Finnish as a proxy language for real Orcs, it is quickly followed by a staccato, continuous seven-note pattern from the keyboards that really rams home that this song is not merely about living as an unwanted mother to an unwanted child. This song is about not wanting to live that life anymore. All I can say is that when Elton John sang “sad songs say so much”, he had absolutely no fukking idea. Immaculate continues the harsh assault upon the listener’s sense of comfort and personal relationship normality. It is also the most enigmatic song of Unholy‘s that I have studied further, at least so far. But any song that ends with the vocalist singing “rejoice, you men… the bitch is in heat again!” gets top marks for ending with a bang rather than a whimper.
Do I recommend Gracefallen? Well, Peaceville bought the rights to Unholy‘s catalogue from Avantgarde Music some time ago and rereleased each album with bonus tracks, so there is the distinct possibility that Gracefallen has since been given a bit of a redress in the production stakes. But unless you really, really like the other three Unholy albums, I would tread very carefully with paying for Gracefallen.
There is one Unholy album that I like to listen to from beginning to end, without skipping anything, although one of the songs also tends to make me listen to it on repeat very frequently. That album is their first, From The Shadows. Oh sure, it contains all of the mistakes bands traditionally make on their first album, with arrangements and even some aspects of the production being not quite what they would have done if they had a little more experience going into the studio. But the actual material is awesome. Again, it goes in with a one-two punch to open. The first song, Alone, whilst not being particularly remarkable, does grab one’s attention and make it very clear that one is listening to a band that may have something new and exciting to offer. Then the keyboard and acoustic introduction of Gray Blow hits.
Understand this: when vocalists in pop songs, or indeed a lot of any kind of song, repeat the same thing over and over, I normally find it extremely annoying. Not so with Gray Blow. For one thing, I am not sure who is actually singing this part. If it is Pazi, then his un-Orcish voice is really quite a contrast, and probably should have been used more often. But also, “water gives a sigh”? Even without a good and healthy dose of LSD, what the visualisation sector of my brain responds with when given this stimulus is generally quite something. But I lose count of the number of times the vocalist repeats this phrase. It goes on and on whilst the guitars and especially the keyboards slowly, subtly change, getting more sinister and insistent. And then it happens. The vocalist repeating this evocative phrase lets out the most blood-curdling scream that keeps a harmony that I have ever heard. It stays in harmony, but for a brief second, I cannot help imagining one of the other band members violently shoving the blade of a stanley knife into their right buttock. And then an Orc-like voice, unmistakably that of Pazi, lets out the phrase that I simply cannot help but think of whenever I picture a character like Kronisk casting his Horrid Wilting spell: “whirl absorbed… water gives a sigh”. Want music that makes you picture the loss of all hope and dignity? Gray Blow is the first, last, and only place to go.
There are seven other songs on From The Shadows. None of them stand out to me as much as Alone or Gray Blow, although they are all quite worthy of a listen. As titles go, Stench Of Ishtar and The Trip Was Infra Green are the most image-invocative. The closer, Passe Tiermes, is obviously not as strong as Alone or Gray Blow, but when it is over and I hear silence, I think “awww I want more”. Which is probably the best reaction a listener can have to an album other than “I wonder if putting this on the next time I have sex with [insert name here] will enhance the experience”. Oh wait, I also reacted that way to some of the songs on From The Shadows (and The Second Ring Of Power, it must be said). On the other end of the scale, the worst reactions can be “is that it? is that the best they could come up with?” or “I feel ripped off”, so the two I have just described me having to the end of From The Shadows should give you an idea of just how good the album really is. Unlike films, it is not better to make a bad album than to make one that listeners like my good self are indifferent to.
Do I recommend From The Shadows? Unreservedly. Since discovering the joys of FLAC and searching for it over the pipes of the ‘net, I have discovered, rediscovered, and listened to literally hundreds of artists of all number of walks that were only vague whispers to me when people still traded music on cassette tapes or CD-Rs. But when I want to listen to something that helps release the excessive anguish simmering in the recesses of my mind, From The Shadows is near to the first album I think of to spin up. I could go on about the song Gray Blow for years, it continually blows me away to that extent. But I have raved on about each album enough for now. I want you to stop listening to me “talk” and actually investigate what I am on about if you do not already know about it.
From what I have been reading on the grapevine, Unholy‘s latest reunion has not produced any discussions concerning the recording and releasing of new albums. I know that the opinion of one extremely disturbed listener from across the world is not going to make that much difference to their considerations, but I hope that they do it. Maybe not even releasing an album, per se. The Internet now allows artists to record and release albums in higher qualities than Compact Disc, convert the source files into FLAC, and distribute them in online stores. I realise that the logistics of playing outside of Europe make a tour of America or even Australia extremely unlikely, so a new album as a time capsule of where Unholy are at as of 2012 would be very nice for those of us living outside of Finland. But of course, that is all up to Unholy and their ability to avoid the severe internal/business friction that has plagued them seemingly since day one.
For my part, I hope that this “little” writing about the virtues of Unholy and the four albums that they have released to date has enlightened some of you out there. If it prompts you to get out there, get out of whatever barriers you have around you, and give the band a listen, then drop me a line in the comments and let me know all about the listening experience you have had.