Long before you came to know me as Decibel’s resident curmudgeon with a heart of pyrite (Google it), I fancied myself a writer and, like way too many people did during the 1990s, had my own zine with a few of my high school friends called For Only the Sick, which only ever made one issue and was put down during the curating of its second issue which was for the best for anyone involved. I bring this up only because it segues into my initial experience with Elegy and how, almost immediately, I realized how wrong I was, proving that first impressions can be meaningless and that you should probably give things (but not people) more of a chance to sink in.
I placed an ad in Metal Maniacs to get promos to review. This was during a time where the response to that sort of thing was fucking massive and while I could write 3,000 words about how bad most of it was the reality is I mostly remember a day in 1996 when I got two packages, one with Irreligious and Mandylion and the other with Elegy. The first package left a horrible taste in my mouth as it saw two bands I enjoyed move to drastically different styles (I eventually grew to dig the Gathering’s later stuff but anything from Moonspell after Wolfheart just isn’t my bag) but I think I was initially most disappointed with Elegy.
Coming off the heels of two of the most flawless death metal recordings of all time (1992’s The Karelian Isthmus and 1994’s Tales from the Thousand Lakes), Elegy was way more in the folk/psychedelic realm (Wikipedia and other sources called it “progressive metal” but that’s such a masturbatory term that really doesn’t, in my opinion, apply here), abandoning a lot of Tomi Koivusaari’s death growls for new vocalist Pasi Koskinen’s clean approach. Many bands of the era seemed to be surprising fans with these sorts of changes, like Celestial Season, Pyogenesis and Xysma — each with varying results. At that age I couldn’t discern who was transforming their previous harsher leanings because they were developing as artists or if they wanted to reach a bigger audience with more accessible dreck. And regardless of which, this was never my or your call to make. I was just disappointed that gone were the deep dark waters of Tales from the Thousand Lakes, replaced with a more upbeat and experimental rock oriented album. That disappointment lasted a day or two at the most.
One thing you can say about any era of Amorphis is that they know how to craft fucking earworms and those grubs are uniquely theirs because they’ve somehow kept an underlying soul to everything they’ve recorded regardless of what genre you’d want to throw them in. And I don’t think any record of theirs shows that kind of genre flexibility better than Elegy.
Take a song like “The Orphan” which starts out almost like a western campfire jam a la ZZ Top’s more slowed down drug infused early tracks but then takes a sharp turn into near Tales-level death/doom, ending on a mixture of the two with some traditional heavy metal thrown in for why the fuck not’s sake. There’s moments like this all across the album, where the Moog is treated more like it was in its early days, blending seamlessly with the last bits of grandiose synth work the band would see (in this style) for a few years.
The further you get into the record, the more it flows in a way that tells you where they’re going as a band, like with the title track sounding more like a lost Kansas track than the more death growl-filled front half of the record would lead you to expect.
Pulling musical surprises out of the air really isn’t really a new trick for Amorphis. Elegy could have been predicted if you listened to the last two or three minutes of Tales from the Thousand Lakes. But it was enough to agitate most of their (at least American) fan base, which was already cranky because of years of obvious personal affronts to their sensibilities like Wolverine Blues, Heartwork and whatever else that made people abandon metal for, I dunno, woodworking or something. And it was almost enough for me to write Amorphis off but that was more displaced frustration that Moonspell had recorded a bargain bin October Rust and I’d missed the dreadful record in between Always and Mandylion. Plus, I was in my mid-teens so everything confused or enraged me (not much has changed) but something kept pulling me back to Elegy, initially as a kind of “guilty pleasure” and finally as a fan of it’s well calculated risk taking and frankly, it’s great sonic storytelling.
I was fortunate enough to see Amorphis at (correct me if I’m wrong) the first New Jersey Metal Meltdown at a time when Tomi would still perform on older songs and their set was a mixture of the first three records. Alongside Enslaved and Hypocrisy doing early material, this remains one of my fondest memories of a live performance. By the time follow-up LP Tuonela rolled around, I had become very much a fan of Pasi’s vocals and fell right in line with their near abandonment of doomy and dark death metal.
I did get the chance to see them another time or two with Pasi handling almost all vocal duties and, for a time, they remained a band I would do my best not to miss. Eventually Amorphis sort of faded out of my sight for a bit until they did the Magic & Mayhem record revisiting old songs (including a few off of Elegy) but I stay nostalgic for the genuine articles. I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll still come to the States next year to do the full performance tour of Tales but, regardless, I still hold very warm memories for Elegy as one of the first times I was able to admit I was wrong about a piece of art that challenged me and as a record that somehow would worm it’s way into my summer playlists for over 20 years after it landed in my mailbox.