Injecting traditional instrumentation into heavier music makes me think Jethro Tull immediately. Maybe Blood Ceremony, Melechesch, Turisas; even The Bad Seeds throw a violin onto a lot of their material, and it works. Unshine, who hail from Western Finland, have given themselves the ‘druid metal’ tag, which their press release states incorporates doom metal, post-metal, folk and black metal.
A bold descriptor indeed – this is their 4th full length, released on their new home Rockshot Records, so let’s see what they’ve got.
It gives me no small pleasure to say that this is a massive step up from where they’ve been. Earth Magick, their first record, sounds like it was recorded in a bag and mastered with a fence post; Astrala is a grand declaration that such days are behind them.
Opener Birch Of Fornjot has a windswept, forlorn quality to it; so far, I’m in. After a curiously long pause, Kainuun Kuningas spreads its wings and we’re off. The track pulls from everywhere, with huge guitars, off-centre timing, organs, even flutes. This is the sound of a band who know exactly who they are – it pulses with confidence and grandeur, apologising for nothing. Sung entirely in Finnish by sole vocalist Susanna Vesilahti, it’s a cracking way to start the album. Ending a little suddenly, it nevertheless made a firm impression on this writer.
After another lengthy pause, the pounding of Jack’s Feast begins, and that old doom spirit rears its head. Susanna has switched to English, but in a thick Finnish accent, which seems to rob her of a sizeable chunk of power. The robust melodies and pomp stay intact and the guitar tone can’t help but remind me of Cathedral – the song slows right down at the halfway mark and yes, I’m into it. At 3:41 precisely a decision is made to change tactics, and a very twee, very synth line parps its way into what was a golden slab of hefty doom.
This event turns out to be a warning. The next three tracks firmly undo all the magic woven thus far by these Finnish conjurers; a very ordinary The Masks Of Enchantment gives way to the plodding Pan The One and the genuinely objectionable Druids Are A-Coming. That title alone is skin-shrinkingly poor, and all the individuality of those initial salvos is now a distant memory. This forces me to reveal a major grievance; Susanna’s heavy accent not only takes a lot of strength out of her voice but makes the english lines almost incomprehensible. When singing in Finnish she sounds like a gentle, ancient sorceress, but switching languages doesn’t work, rendering repeated listens a frustrating experience.
Thankfully the weighty, gothic chug of Slow Moving Creatures covers this linguistic difficulty well, and Unshine are back in the saddle. The last three tracks are a major recovery, with Visionary’s Last Breath upping the folk quota before the magnificently satisfying Suo (Kantaa Ruumiit) finally delivers unequivocal Finnlandian DOOM. Sung in their native tongue, it carries a similar feminine threat to bands like Subrosa, Susanna’s voice now a talisman for a power from the olde tymes, and despite the infuriating detour that occurs a third of the way through, I loved this track.
What happens next got right up my bracket. The Forest is a 10-and-a-half minute album closer, and it’s not the duration that got to me; having played a serious doom hand I was aching for some 25 minute riff-hymnals. No bush-beating here – the drums are wrong. I know how that sounds, but dropping the pace to a proper half-time stride would have made this a towering colossus of a track instead of the confounding struggle that it is. I thought I’d be proven wrong as it went on but I was saddened to become even more right, and genuinely so.
Unshine have the ability to produce a truly individual, mighty folk/doom record. Yes, this album has moments that had me reaching for my wallet, but it’s been poorly judged, and became a source of major upset instead of wonderfully elegiac listen. If the band are reading this I apologise for being so negative, but having all the evidence that you could have delivered something amazing with a bit of pruning and sticking to your own beautiful language led us here.
Close, but no menhir.