Review by Nathan GDL on October 10, 2021.
Many youngsters, when they try to get into metal for the first time, tend to wean their way in with metalcore and power metal shit, but I remember being a nerdy 10-year-old when I dived headfirst into metal through Skepticism, Burzum and Windir. Listening to those early records was such an enchanting experience, and I have grown to hold this band incredibly close to my heart as time went on.
I wrote a review back in 2015 when Ordeal, their 5th album, dropped. I was extremely disappointed, and I lived in denial for a long time, wondering how my favorite band could write such a boring, uninspired and third-rate funeral doom album, when they wrote such moving, unique and special pieces before. I came into this thing with the same energy that I left Ordeal with, and boy, there is no greater feeling than to be proven wrong.
I was already impressed when they dropped their first single, 'Calla'. I knew, before going in, that this album was going to be better sounding, as the one-off live recording that Ordeal featured, was just that: one-off. This would be the first time in 13 years that the boys would record in a proper studio, and the results are fantastic. The keys sound lush, and the drums have a fuck ton of power to them too. The guitars sit just behind the mix, offering just enough texture to not overpower the keyboards, like they seemed to do on Ordeal a bit too much. Matti’s vocals sound a lot better here too. They were way too gruff on Ordeal, and though they still sit a bit too high in the mix for my liking (Alloy was better at this), they still flow very well.
'Calla' is very much a throwback to one of their best songs, 'The Arrival', which opened up their 4th album Alloy. Both are 5-6 minutes long and are oddly triumphant in their approach.
'Calla' is followed soon by 'The Intertwined' which wastes no time with its immediate vocal aggression and dissonance before setting down into some ominous as fuck arpeggio passages. The best thing about this track is how similar it sounds to their 3rd album, Farmakon. I believe it features the same string preset found halfway through their song, nowhere on that album. Around 5:40 it appears, alongside the main guitar arpeggio. One thing I really loved about this one is the dry piano that Eero plays throughout the thing, which, again, sounds like something that would feature on Farmakon, especially that EP they made prior to the actual LP’s release. There’s something awfully unsettling about it clashing against the heavy and orchestral drums. I read in a blurb for the album that this was the song Eero liked the best, and I can see why. There are so many different keyboard passages here, from the dissonant piano I mentioned above, to the shrill strings that hearken back to the Farmakon days, to the pipe organs and some soft square wave pads, he really is all over the place on this track, in the best way possible. The song structure on this song is also fantastic as it winds all over, it feels so unsettling, much like trying to maneuver a carriage on a cliffside in the dark. You think the song will end here, but it brings you further away, then repeats, before changing up again. It makes for an extremely entertaining and thought-provoking listen. From 6:00 onwards especially, the drums will slow down, signaling that the song could end at any moment, then speed back up again, before the keys take it somewhere else.
Now, we come to the weakest link on the album, the longest song on it, 'The March Of The Four' which doesn’t seem to rely so much on aggression like the other songs do. This one feels the most Ordeal-esque by far, with its sparse instrumentation. I feel the band is trying to capture the more intimate moments from earlier work (specifically the beginning of their seminal song 'The March And The Stream', or the quieter moments found on the same album, especially in songs like 'The Falls' or 'Aether'). Unfortunately, the production choice of their recent works seems to make these “quieter” moments not very dynamic, which is a real shame, because I often remark on how much I love the early albums solely because of how quiet and solemn they are. The newer stuff seems to be the same volume, all the time. There are highlights to this track, however, with the lead guitar being one of them. I just wish it was a bit louder in the mix, when it appears, so it doesn’t sound like a rhythm guitar, and so it has the proper emotional backing to emphasize itself. I think one of the problems on this track is that when Skepticism relies a bit too much on lead work, they tend to lose the atmosphere. This happened a LOT on Ordeal. I get that there’s only one guitarist, and one keyboardist, but I feel there needs to be a rhythm in the background to hold the lead up, so it shines more. If there is only a lead going on, it diminishes the weight of the guitar altogether. And if there is a lead guitar going on, why is there a separate lead on the keyboards playing? Shouldn’t the keys be playing pads or whatever to maintain the atmosphere? I feel this songwriting issue is becoming pretty apparent in later Skepticism works. Back in the Stormcrowfleet days, the weight of the lo-fi production acted as its own atmosphere, or rhythm, so it obscured a lot and created its own weight and depth, but, because this new production is so clear, it often highlights the lackluster songwriting, and erases atmosphere, often creating, or rather, forcing the band to adapt more dramatic or (and I don’t want to say cliche) gentrified sounds found in a lot of other death/doom acts in order to compensate for the lack of present emotion found in a lo-fi atmosphere.
But, when that song ends, we have probably the most insane Skepticism song since 'Untitled'. 'Passage', which was inspired by a riff that the drummer came up with in a dream, is a straight up monster of a track. There is a legitimate death metal aggression here, which is something Skepticism never bothered with before. The chanting in the beginning also is super super cool and made me laugh a fuck ton when I heard it for the first-time last night, in the best way possible. The songwriting on this track is also fantastic and the keyboards, again, are extremely Farmakon-esque. This feels like a spiritual successor to the title track from that album, which was similarly aggressive too. Around 2 minutes or so into the song, they unleash what I believe to be the only moshable riff the band has ever come up with. This is a song that would be fun as fuck to hear live, and the band definitely knows this. I predict it will be a staple on their setlist for the foreseeable future. Easily the best song on the album. The keys are so good here, with the square synth wave coming in around 5 minutes in, it’s a sound I don’t think we heard from them since Stormcrowfleet. The organs are also very reminiscent of Alloy, especially the song 'Antimony', or even 'The Organium', from Lead And Aether. This track blows me away, solely because it sounds like a perfect mashup of every album into one and when it ends on that church bell, fuck man, I smiled so hard. As cliche as it sounds, sometimes I wish Skepticism had some church bells, or more chanting, and “funeral doomisms” in their music, and that was a literal chef’s kiss when I heard it.
'The Inevitable' follows, and this track, although probably the second weakest, is one of their most interesting too, because of the use of acoustic guitars. There’s a lot of them on this track, and we haven’t heard one used since 'The Falls' from Lead And Aether. The keys on this track, as they build with the palm mutes in the beginning are fantastic. Production wise, this is one of the best tracks, with it being a very intricate and layered piece. Eero’s keys, again, bring SO much life into this song. They follow in a perfect pattern alongside the acoustic interlude halfway, which is a perfect example of what I was saying earlier on how they should write lead sections. A harmonized guitar lead follows the backing acoustic guitar as that is backed by Eero’s keys. Nothing clashes into one another, and it all harmonizes super well. One complaint that I have with this song is how it seems to go nowhere, which a lot of Skepticism songs suffer from, a lot of their riffs and lead parts don’t appear in later moments, or if they do, they sound out of place. Skepticism is often best at moments like at 5:40 when there aren't any guitar leads, and there’s just a monumental dirge that slowly plods away. They have an atmosphere that works wonders when it’s able to be drawn out and sipped. I think a lot of Jani’s leadwork is not the best, and very forced, and unfortunately, this song suffers from quite a bit of unnecessary leadwork. One thing to note too, is how this album, this song in particular too, sounds layered. The other works, and I might be totally wrong here, sounded like they were recorded live, like the band, in the studio, didn’t rely on layering or recording the drums, then guitars then keys etc. On this album, for the first time, I can clearly hear that there is a distinct layering going on, which makes the entire thing sound that much more intricate, whereas earlier releases usually were a bit minimalistic in their approach, with one guitar riff, or one keyboard riff, playing at the same time, without any overlap. I’m glad they are finally trying to shake things up.
Finally, the closer and second single from the album, 'The Swan And The Raven', closes this album out perfectly with an awesome string opener, followed by some thunderous drum fills. This song has some of Jani’s best guitar work, contrary to the previous song, especially the solo at the end, which caps off the album in such a perfect way. It reminds me of my favorite song on the last album Ordeal, 'You', which features a pretty similar sort of solo. This track, along with the opener, feels the most similar to those found on Alloy, as they both feature an impeccable flow, and the songwriting never grows stale. It might come across as a bit generic or gentrified, but I will take that over some aimless piece that plagued the last album. One final note, I wish that the band would bring back those hidden endings that they used to do on the first 3 albums. I get that streaming kind of erases the fun of a hidden ending, but I thought they were always a nice touch, and usually were alternate versions of some of my favorite parts in existing songs.
So there we go, Skepticism 6th full length album, 6 years of waiting to be gone in only 48 minutes. I feel a bit wanting for more, but if I’m being perfectly frank, I’m glad they aren’t like Esoteric, or any other funeral doom band, with their 2-hour long albums, because of the huge wait and radio silence between albums, every release feels like a huge occasion for me, and I think that’s one of the things I love most about them. So many fans of metal often compare bands to one another, and that’s fine, but there will always only be one Skepticism, and the standards I hold them too are vastly different from the standards I hold bands like Esoteric or Shape Of Despair to. Skepticism was never the most epic of bands, or the most technical, or the heaviest, or saddest. They were always the one that touched me more than others, and I can blame that partly due to nostalgia. But their first three records are untouchable by any other band, and although it seems we won’t ever get a chance to go back to that style, albums like Companion are great reminders that those albums will always be a there, and that sometimes all you need is a well-made, meat and potatoes album that leaves you hungry for more for years and years to come.
Rating: 9 out of 10100
Review by Benjamin on October 3, 2021.
Some funeral doom exists as almost an endurance test, daring the listener to subject themselves to the daunting prospect of spartan instrumentation played at geologic tempos for as long as one can bear. Finland's Skepticism, on the other hand, have a more extravagant and opulent take on the genre, constructing lush atmospheres to luxuriate in, any sense of time and place evaporating, as deep layers of keyboards wrap themselves around crunching guitars in triumphant despair, a pyrrhic victory even while the world around us burns, in contrast to the more nihilistic and terrifying take on doom offered by Thergothon, or whatever it is that Khanate briefly conjured. Indeed, 'Calla' opens the album in almost upbeat style, the band transposing the kind of folk melodies that one would ordinarily associate with their countrymen Amorphis, or even the folk-metal of Ensiferum, on to a more classic metal framework, the guitars practically chugging along gleefully.
The majority of Companion though, sees normal service resumed, with more mournful minor key chord progressions taking their time to weave their considerable magic, augmented by thoughtful arrangements, which see skeletal pianos and crashing drums taking the lead on large swathes of 'The Intertwined', and monolithic guitars and organs dominating on many of the other tracks. A highlight of the album is the ecclesiastical feel of 'The March Of The Four', which highlights the debt that metal generally owes the baroque and classical movements, with Matti Tilaeus's guttural vocals adding enthralling texture, and resonating as if under the vast carapace of a cavernous church, in which the organs continue to grind, eventually joined by what feels like an orchestra of guitars, reminiscent of early-2000s My Dying Bride, but with an even more all-encompassing sense of grandeur, if that is at all possible to conceive of. Companion is also a more diverse album than one might be expecting, the band peeling off shards of overtly metallic tremolo lines in 'The Passage', and utilizing sorrowful acoustics paired with gothic keyboards on penultimate track 'The Inevitable' in a way that brings black metal tonalities into a stunning, windswept doom masterpiece. For a lengthy album composed primarily of tracks, it is an impressive feat to create the impression that every note and beat is equally essential, but Skepticism have made something very special here, and this Companion is an acquaintance that is unlikely to overstay its welcome any time soon.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10100