By David E. Gehlke
The 17 years since vocalist Tomi Joutsen joined AMORPHIS have been quite good to the long-running Finnish melancholic progressive metallers. Joutsen's first effort with the band, 2006's "Eclipse", righted a ship that started to go astray with Pasi Koskinen as frontman, ending with 2004's less-than-inspiring "Far From the Sun". Joutsen's presence and vocal prowess reinvigorated the band's songwriting core and made "Eclipse" one of the finest comeback albums in recent memory. From there, AMORPHIS failed to disappoint, but on the hand, never quite released albums at the level of their legendary 1994 opus "Tales From The Thousand Lakes" and 1996 successor, "Elegy".
That all changed when AMORPHIS began working with Swedish producer Jens Bogren for 2015's "Under The Red Cloud". The demanding, highly meticulous Swede brought out the best in AMORPHIS, harnessing both Joutsen's immense capabilities and their folk-meets-progressive brand of Finnish metal. The combination worked so well that Bogren was tapped for 2018's highly orchestrated "Queen Of Time" and now their new long-player, "Halo". Heavier and more direct than its predecessor, "Halo" completes a trilogy that started with "Under The Red Cloud". Where the Finns go next is anyone's guess, but it appears Bogren will be along for the ride.
Keyboardist Santeri Kallio phoned BLABBERMOUTH.NET to talk about "Halo", Bogren and what the band is expecting when they make their triumphant return to North American shores this April.
Blabbermouth: "Halo" is your third studio album with Jens. How integral has he become to AMORPHIS's sound?
Santeri: "He's a pretty demanding producer. He likes to take care of orchestrations and some additional stuff. I would say he's like a seventh member, at least. He takes care of selecting the songs for the album, which is probably the most important thing to transfer our music to somewhere. We wrote at least 30 songs and he selected 11. With different songs, it could have been a totally different album. He's kind of an all-inclusive producer. He points out everything. He talks about tempos, song structure, song selection, orchestration and arrangements, vocal styles — he's modifying our sound. On the other hand, we've been working so long together that we know already if there are some songs that are going to have growled vocals or melodic vocals. Not all of his decisions come as a total surprise for us. We know how each other likes to work. There are no surprises anymore like with 'Under The Red Cloud' and 'Queen Of Time'. He takes care of how the album will finally sound — he mixes it as well."
Blabbermouth: Has it ever made you nervous giving someone who's not an official band member that much responsibility?
Santeri: "[Laughs] To be honest, we are looking for it. With the 30-year long career and 14 albums that we've made, they are more like a burden. There are six guys with strong opinions. We can go a lot of directions and there a lot of styles we can implement into our music from the past. It's basically what we are looking for with the producer that Jens takes care of. He takes care of all the shitty stuff that we would end up fighting over. It would be endless compromises because there are six guys in the band and everyone has had a long career. That's what we hired Jens for, to select the songs for the process, decide how the songs will be presented and play, then, in which particular order they will be on the album. If we had to decide by ourselves, it would be a total disaster. We've been there, done that. We self-produced 'Far From The Sun', 'Eclipse', 'Silent Waters', 'Skyforger', and 'The Beginning Of Times'. I'm not interested in going back to that process. We had a lot of fights about the songs that would be on the albums and in which order. Any professional takes care of that sort of extra-musical stuff so we can concentrate on the playing and putting out the best performance instead of constantly thinking, 'Am I going in the right direction?' Because Jens will make the final decision. That's very nice. I don't think anyone is complaining."
Blabbermouth: You are now on Atomic Fire, a new record company. What led you to make the jump from Nuclear Blast?
Santeri: "To be honest, there was no jump. The founder of Nuclear Blast, Markus Staiger, I think he sold Nuclear Blast to some big digital distribution master-label [Believe Digital]. At the same time, he decided to take 10 or 15 bands from Nuclear Blast with him. We have known Markus from the early '90s. Esa [Holopainen, guitar] and Tomi [Koivusaari, guitar] were sitting in his room, drinking beer in 1991. He's a very old friend of ours. We didn't actually make any decisions — it was so obvious. If Markus wanted to put up a new label, I think he took some other bands. He's been working with a few classic bands for 30 years. It wasn't a question for us whether we'd stay with Nuclear Blast or go with Atomic Fire. We have a long relationship with Markus. He's serious. He took some other people with him. It was a natural change for us."
Blabbermouth: This has been the longest period between studio albums for AMORPHIS. How much of it was related to the pandemic? And how much of it was associated with the touring behind "Queen Of Time"?
Santeri: "It has nothing to do with the pandemic, actually. The timetable was set around the end of 'Queen Of Time' touring. We were supposed to do an AMORPHIS 30th anniversary tour. There was one festival season and a European/Finnish tour, and also an American tour where we were supposed to play 'Tales [From The Thousand Lakes]' in full with ENTOMBED A.D. We all know the story that happened [ENTOMBED A.D. vocalist L.G. Petrov passed away in March 2021], but the tour was already canceled because of the pandemic. We canceled more than 100, 150 shows after 'Queen Of Time'. Basically, what we could have done, there may have been a possibility to make the album earlier. Of course, it was impossible. Not all the shows got canceled. It wasn't like, 'Okay, you have one and a half years off now, so do whatever you want.' No, they were dropping out every month. You're waiting, and then they drop out. We couldn't change any timetables. We were just waiting and waiting. We were like a loose rope. I think the 'Halo' timetable was already set, so the pandemic didn't affect it all. The only thing it affected is that it canceled our huge 30th-anniversary tour around the world."
Blabbermouth: Were you at least able to get in a room together to work on the songs for "Halo"?
Santeri: "The last time we played those songs was before we sent them to Jens about a year ago. [Laughs] We quickly ran through a couple of demos that Jens selected and made some changes he wanted. I don't think we're going to play them for a while. Of course, we have to build up the stage production with the live engineer and sound technician. They need to have the songs before the touring starts. The only time I played the songs was when I had to practice the song 'The Moon' because we did a music video. It was a play-through with a keyboard solo. That's the only time I've gone back to the songs because I had to practice the song since there's a keyboard solo. It really matters where your fingers go when playing the keyboards. [Laughs]"
Blabbermouth: Was there a specific direction for "Halo"? It feels like a combination of all recent AMORPHIS albums.
Santeri: "It was pure luck because in AMORPHIS, we don't talk about the direction or style we're going to do. I think it comes from touring and the atmosphere in the band. Also, the fact we know the producer we're working with and we're improving the process. 'Under The Red Cloud' was the scratch, 'Queen Of Time' was a normal repetition and we got a little bit deeper. Now, with 'Halo', we had total confidence. Everyone knows everything about the producer and he knows everything about the band. The one thing that I noticed is that it's a heavier album and the guitar riffs made a comeback to our music. There are more riffs, like heavy metal guitar riffs in 'Halo' than all the last three albums together. We didn't plan it. I think everybody had it in mind that 'Queen Of Time' was such a big success. We gained a lot of new fans and we could see it in the shows that there are a lot more people coming to the shows, even though it was pretty nice for us after 'Under The Red Cloud'. But 'Queen Of Time' was a step up for us. Maybe we got more hungry personally. We didn't really talk about it. The musicianship develops when you do professional shows all the time. Olli [Pekka Laine, bass] came back to the band and he has a lot of energy. He's a composer and a great bass player. He likes small details, much more than [former bassist] Niclas [Etelävuori]. He played a lot of fills. Olli plays into the music instead of into the groove and drums. I think everybody wanted…we didn't want to make another album like 'Queen Of Time'. Sometimes when you have a popular or hit album, you shouldn't try to re-make that album. Maybe that's why 'Halo' sounds so fresh. Esa brought his songs from his home studio. I couldn't figure out any 'Queen Of Time' vibes and my songs were a step further from 'Queen Of Time'. Of course, we didn't know how Jens would react to the songs. Now, we can hear it. The production is stripped-down compared to 'Queen Of Time'. Not every second is full of something. There are many details and many progressive elements, but it still flows from beginning to end. All the songs are pretty different, even though the album sounds pretty coherent, but they are all one-of-a-kind if you compare the songs. It's a very multi-dimensional album, for me."
Blabbermouth: And where do you see your keyboards fitting into all of this?
Santeri: "That's a hard question. I try to keep myself and everybody else happy. Keyboards are like drums. If you play them in a style that nobody likes or wants to hear, they will ruin the music. You have to be really careful not to point out yourself too much with keyboards. I try to go with the flow. I like to play authentic instruments like the Hammond B-3, grand piano, organ or synthesizers that sound timeless. I don't want it to sound like that after 20 years, someone can say, 'Yeah, this album was made in 2013. I recognize it because of the modern keyboard sound of the time.' I try to sound timeless and not to point out my playing too much. I like to think about the keyboards in the background, kind of like a rhythm guitar, except there's a melody line. I'm a huge fan of DEEP PURPLE and old RAINBOW, where the keyboards sound like a band instrument and not like where they pop out with a super-modern sound. I try to go with the flow. The aim is to try to please everybody else in the band, the fans and myself."
Blabbermouth: "Halo" wraps up the trilogy that started with "Under The Red Cloud" and "Queen Of Time". Where does it stack up for you?
Santeri: "I like all the albums a lot. Of course, I have a deeper connection with 'Under The Red Cloud' and 'Queen Of Time' because we've played those songs for years, like 200 shows per album. I get into the songs and what we accomplished and made, but not before I had the chance to practice the songs with the band and on stage. That's the time for me when the album starts to open. I can say that 'Halo' is the most fresh at the moment because we haven't played any of the songs for a year. We haven't selected the songs that we are going to play. It's going to be exciting times. The songs are totally new to me. I've listened to the album many times, but when we play the songs, I get into the music. I don't know how to compare it to 'Under The Red Cloud' or 'Queen Of Time', but 'Halo' sounds more stripped-down than 'Queen Of Time'. There will be more space in the songs when we play live for improvisation. There will be new things to try out. 'Queen Of Time' was really full of stuff, so you had to be careful not to jam around too much or it would collide with something. I'm looking forward to the moment when we play the 'Halo' songs. There's a lot of up-tempo heavy metal songs. There's a lot of energy."
Blabbermouth: Speaking of shows, you have a North American tour scheduled for April. What are your expectations for the tour?
Santeri: "The first expectation is that we will make it there. [Laughs] We love to tour America. Of course, it's going to be very difficult times because all the heavy metal bands from Europe are coming into the U.S. at the same time. Let's hope there will be love for us if there are ten bands playing in the same area. It's going to be very nice. We have a couple of support bands with us [SYLVAINE and HOAXED]. I've been listening to them and they sound fucking great. It's going to be a very nice tour and very atmospheric. I truly hope there won't be problems on the road. If somebody gets a positive test, I'm not sure what we will do."
Blabbermouth: What's the band's mindset to the pandemic?
Santeri: "For us, we don't even talk about it, the vaccines. We are professional musicians and we tour around the world. That's our job. Everybody has taken their shots instantly. I already had three. We wear our masks if the pandemic is going. It's the only way to try to stay healthy or show other people that you care a little bit."