Album: Life is Not Beautiful
Label: Ranka Kustannus
Among the best of the Finnish up-and-comers these days is a power metal band called Arion; a labelmate of other Musicalypse favorites, like Blind Channel and Fear of Domination. After releasing the critically-acclaimed debut, Last of Us, in 2014, 4 years have passed and the pressure was on to live up to its predecessor. To add insult to injury, guitarist/songwriter Iivo Kaipainen suffered a personal loss. As a follower, it was hard to know what to expect from this album, taking all that into account. With that in mind, Life is Not Beautiful (what a name!) was a pretty heavily-anticipated album at Musicalypse HQ.
Listen to the album on Spotify:
I was really worried about this album. First of all, the word out there is that young Arion allstar guitarist and songwriter, Iivo Kaipainen, is quite a perfectionist, and may have a hard time living up to his and other people’s expectations with this album. The new vocalist, Lassi Vääränen, is replacing the incredible Viljami Holopainen, who is a hard act to follow. As well, the singles were all quite good, but not really great. This was the big album, the follow-up to an incredible debut… could they follow in the footsteps of Blind Channel and crush it, or would they sink under the pressure?
Well, they sure hit things out of the park and got my interest, let’s say that. “The End of the Fall” is a gorgeous intro, easily on par with the best of Kamelot‘s instrumental work. Looming percussion echoes as soft guitars lure you in. Choirs then quickly bring the music up into a cinematic rise, which I would totally use in my epic movie trailor. It has a smooth and powerful build-up and a fast fade-out. It’s a rather clever transition into “No One Stands in My Way”, which is very different in sound. This track had been released as a single some time back, and I had rather enjoyed it all but for some misunderstandings in hearing the lyrics (yet another example of why reviewers should get lyrics!). Once I learned that the whores were thrown on the floor, not drowning on the floor, I have really no complaints about the song – it’s a pretty high energy self-affirmation song and I’m not sick of those yet.
“At the Break of Dawn” was the second release from Life is Not Beautiful, known for Elize Ryd [Amaranthe] sharing vocal duties with Vääränen. My feelings towards this song rode a pretty specific roller-coaster that went something like this: this is generic epic cheese -> okay this song is fun as hell -> it’s actually not that cheesy either -> this is my party jam! -> okay maybe this song is on too many of my playlists, because I hear it so often -> oh gross, skip this crap! Well, as such, I expected it to be something I’d suffer through because I’d already over-listened to it, but I was completely wrong. Something about its place on the album has completely reinvigorated my enjoyment of it, and it became a great party-point on the album.
The transition from the radio-friendly “At the Break of Dawn” into the dark and magnificent “The Last Sacrifice” is quite stark, changing the album’s tone from ‘good times’ to ‘now you listen to me as I tell you a tale.’ No pop cheese here, my friends. This is all professional epic power metal, as good as that shit gets without going into the realms of silly fantasy wankery.
And then suddenly you’re in ballad territory with the viciously emotional “Through Your Falling Tears.” Acoustic guitar, soul-melting vocals, gorgeous harmonies, dramatic build-ups… I am near speechless. The power of the way this song builds up can just be overwhelming. I had a tear in my eye in the Korso train station*, of all places. It builds up to a perfect ending, and you’re halfway through a well-needed deep inhale, and then suddenly the song isn’t even over yet, and it’s still going and your chest is going to burst from all the feels. Vääränen shows his vocal range throughout this album, and his softer side is just as awesome as his power side, as is proved by this song. Dang, guys. Just… dang.
Okay, let’s not dwell on that. Take that deep breath, and let’s start banging your head. We got you with feels, but we don’t want to bum you out. Here’s a good-for-all single track you should already know, “Unforgivable”! And you’re immediately feeling better after the emotional rush of the ballad, and you’re back to rocking out and feeling good. This album was really rather masterfully put together. The songs are very diverse in style, but the band put them in the perfect order to have the whole album make complete sense.
Oh, and in case that’s not diverse enough for you, taste the somewhat thrashy intro to “Punish You.” This song has mystical powers. Every time it starts playing, the effect on me is something akin to, “hmm, yeah, another song is happening, cool…” but then suddenly you are rocking out and moshing your head accidentally into your laptop screen because the chorus is happening. I hate power metal that feels too ‘bright’ or ‘shiny’, if you get my drift. Bands like Helloween with albums like The Dark Ride have mastered the art of blending power metal and dark/heavy sounds into an art form, and I haven’t heard that blend done so well since Helloween’s “Where the Sinners Go” [7 Sinners, 2010]. And before that, probably The Dark Ride, 10 years earlier. I hadn’t expected Arion to be a band who would try to pull that off, but pull it off they surely did!
Again, much like the song before it, “Life is Not Beautiful” really sneaks up on you. You spend the first verse sort of ignoring this song because you’ve still got a rush from “Punish You”, but when the chorus hits and Vääränen belts out, “Life is not beautiful,” he snaps you back to attention like a boot camp drill sergeant, and you obey. Have one last taste of epic power with dark roaring drums before the end of the album. And it keeps going a bit longer every time you think it’s about to loosen its grip on you. The song is only 6:40 long – pretty short for an epic – but when this song sinks its hooks into me, I feel like I’ve been listening to it for hours, and I mean that in the best imaginable way. It’s a brilliant composition, with the power of Turisas-like drama, but with a much heavier overall sound. Hells to the yeah!
When you have a kickass song like “Life is Not Beautiful” as your penultimate track, you are throwing the dice. If you ask me, I will always recommend you to play it safe and end on an energetic note to make sure you leave your audience wanting more. It’s true of gigs as well as albums. So playing the very soft and ambient “Last One Falls” was a big risk. If your ending ballad is bad (re: “Meadows of Heaven” from Dark Passion Play [Nightwish, 2007]), you fail in the end of the story, and your album loses its last chance to be memorable. “Last One Falls”, however, does not disappoint. It has a haunting quietness that almost has a drop of Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, but with its own story to tell. The dynamics are again used to perfection, and the song sneakily fades into complete silence (there are at least three songs on this album that do this and I’m not even mad about it), pulling you in one more time before it fades out at last. These guys nailed it completely.
So, did I like the album? Holy freakin’ yes I liked it. Did it live up to the quality of its predecessor? It blew past it. Did it live up to my personal expectations? It shattered them. This album is so far beyond what I would have expected it to be, taking all things into account, including the loss of a songwriter’s family member. These guys brewed an album with massive dynamics, passionate vocals, precision instrumentation, intriguing lyrics that you can’t help but sing along to (even before you know them), and it leaves you ready to start it over again from the start after the last note fades out. If you’re looking for power metal to get mature and heavy again, you need to give this album a whirl. At least for me, once I put it on, I just clicked that ‘replay all’ button, and let it go all day.
Rating: 10/10, 5 stars
1. The End of the Fall
2. No One Stands in My Way
3. At the Break of Dawn (ft. Elize Ryd)
4. The Last Sacrifice
5. Through Your Falling Tears
7. Punish You
8. Life is Not Beautiful
9. Last One Falls
*Korso train station is not exactly known for being a nice or clean area.