SENTENCED - FROZEN IN CRIMSON SHADOWS OF THE PAST
Gazing across the Atlantic, to a land of frost and desolation, comes a vision of bleakness and barrenness so completely encompassing, as to instigate one to wonder what sort of beast may dwell, by choice, in this harsh land. That beast is Finland's Sentenced and their latest in a long saga of despair, Crimson. Now ten years old, Sentenced has sculpted a history, chronicled in last years Story: A Recollection, that imparts the legacy of this act's formation and evolution. Originally a brutal death metal band, the influence of time and experience took over as only such milestones can, and molded Sentenced into a mellower, yet still heavy, atmospheric metal band.
The new album is a continuation of the sound pioneered on their Amok release from 1994, and if you ask guitarist Sami Lopakka, it's as much an example of evolution as it is a salute to where this act has come from. "Everything we do is and has to be totally natural for us. I agree, I would say that the first few songs on the album are continuing what Frozen was. But after that, it's also taking some new levels and creating new atmospheres." The sentenced one elaborates "In some sense we are taking a step forward, but on the other hand, a step back as well. Like the basic sound of the record, I think, it's a lot more aggressive (and) it's heavier than Frozen. There is a lot of contrast, however, between the songs, and even inside one song we are trying to create big contrast between the silent parts and between the actual metal parts where the whole band is playing."
It's undoubtedly this concept of contrast that plays a large role in what is now Sentenced, heretofore an unexplored plateau of dynamics that intensifies the listening experience. With Crimson, the band has devised their most sonically well-rounded release yet, with an exploratory nature to it that stretches well beyond the 'safer' sound that, in retrospect, the last few releases embraced. "We gave this thing a lot of thought before we went to the studio, and we really wanted to have these different songs and these different directions inside one album," concurs the guitar player. "For example, the song "The River" is pretty experimental for us. It's the first song ever where we did almost everything with just lead guitars and Hammond sounds and so on. But on the other hand, songs like "Dead Moon Rising" or "My Slowing Heart" are totally based on heaviness and heavy guitars. It is just that we wanted to make each song an individual; stand out from each other, so that all our songs would be different from each other, but still in the way that you can hear that the songs are taken from the same album."
Going back to the Amok release for a moment, it is this album that is the first to demonstrate this ethic of individuality of song, and is a crucial turning point in this Finnish act's career. Sami agrees completely and offers this insight. "Before Amok, we had this musician masturbation going on, like, how fast can you play? How many riffs can you put in one song? How aggressive can you be? But after North From Here we didn't really feel that we had to prove anything to anyone except ourselves. With the Amok album, we kind of found ourselves, found our style; this melodic song-oriented, atmospheric metal music, and we've been growing again and again with each album, within the same style. When we found this kind of style, we felt that this is something of our own, at least at some level, and we should stick to it, not too strictly, but to keep some kind of basis for our music. So we have been doing (this) for four albums now, and I think this is the way of working in the future as well."
A large part of this "this melodic song-oriented, atmospheric metal music" is the realization that in the case of Sentenced, less is indeed more. The tracks from the last four releases (Amok, Down, Frozen, Crimson) show an affinity for a simpler style of song, foregoing the temptation to throw thousands of average riffs into a tune in favour of three of four really powerful hooks. "We are really song oriented, with choruses and "A" parts and "B" parts. Parts are pretty important to us" states the guitarist. "We want to keep the songs pretty simple in that way. But on the other hand, they can be pretty complicated in terms of melodies and harmonies and so on. In the early days, we were doing songs that had maybe 10 or 11 different riffs. But nowadays, it really doesn't feel right; it makes no sense to write that kind of stuff anymore. Maybe it's easier for a listener as well, to listen to these kind of songs that have real choruses and something you can remember after you have listened to it."
One thing that's unforgettable about the new album, is the stunning cover artwork. Easily the best of the band's career, Lopakka agrees that this time around, there is a definite connection between the book and its cover. "At least with the lyrics it has some similarities. On the cover there's this fossil, and for me it represents something dead, something that is lost, and you can find these kind of things in the lyrics as well. The whole cover is pretty atmospheric, visually, and maybe you can relate to it in the music, the music as well, is atmospheric." Does the title Crimson fit into concept of the artwork? "No, it's just the colour I would say. We had the Crimson title before we had the cover, and we gave the cover artist just the title, and he came up (with) different motifs than, and we picked out this fossil cover with this burning behind it. But there is no bigger relation between the title and the cover itself. In our twisted mind it fits very well together."
The band aren't the only ones that see themselves as a little twisted. For years the group have been given the tag of "The Suicide Kings" by the metallic press, and it just wouldn't be a Sentenced interview without addressing this point. And seeing as how the guitarist is also the primary songwriter, who better to explain the Sentenced mindset? "(laughs) "The Suicide Kings!" Well, they have to always come up with some words for that. I would say at least with the new album, suicide has less attention than before and it's a wider variety of different feeling and different things. But on the whole it's always pretty negative stuff, pessimistic attitude and totally depressive atmosphere in the lyrics and in the music as well." And while he laughs off the above statement, Sami is quick to point out that this is no fašade. "This is just something that runs in our blood in some sense. It shows in everything that we do. Even our sense of humour is pretty weird, I would think. Like, if we ever make a joke or something, it's about depression or death or having a nice grave or something. I think it's a Finnish mentality to keep these things to yourself. When we do music these things come out naturally, when we express these feelings in the music, it feels very easy for us, and it's very hard to imagine that we would ever write a happy song or happy lyrics. It just isn't something that we are, and yeah, maybe it's some kind of therapy for us to maybe get rid of these feelings at least for a while, through our music. When we express them there, we don't have to commit suicide in real life...maybe...hint (laughs)."
And being the main lyric writer, Sami feels that his bandmates can stand behind his bleak outlook on life. "I would say it's a reflection from all of us. We are kind of thinking the same way about things, including depression and things like that. So we have been lucky, in some twisted way, to have five guys who are self-destructive and the same kind of freaks from northern Finland. We get along very well, and no one has any doubts about the lyrics that we have with the music. Everyone can stand behind the lyrics, also personally." So it's not just your vision? "Yeah, everyone is a Suicide King (laughs)"
Another characteristic associated with the band, is the tendency to title each release with a simple single word tag, an idea the suicider whole-heartedly embraces. Wondering if this was simply coincidence, Sami clears things up. "No it's not a coincidence. We are fond of these one word titles, they always leave room for personal interpretation, and anyone can make almost anything out of the title; how anyone sees the music, how anyone sees the whole album. We don't want to have restricting titles like "The Last Growling of the Eternal Monster of Hell" (laughs). It leaves no room for interpretation at all. We like to have these open titles for the albums, I mean for the songs we have more specific ones."
One of those more specific ones, a tune entitled "Killing Me, Killing You" also happens to be a milestone in the history of Sentenced, as it's their first ever music video. The guitar player picks up the story "The video was shot in northern Norway, about 900 kilometers north from here...north from here..." It was "frozen" was it? "(laughs), Yeah, it was frozen. In a place that is almost the northernmost place on earth that you can go by car at this time of year anyway. We were shooting the video on the shores of the Arctic Sea, and it was totally freezing out there. We had to take these little breaks all the time to keep our fingers moving and so on." He adds "We were there for two days, but the director of the video was staying there for a week. The band part took maybe ten hours, and it was the longest ten hours of my life, I would say; it was so damn cold. And you can't have jackets on the video, you have to be with your shirt, and being with just shirt when it's minus 20 degrees and the wind is freezing, it's not funny anymore."
On the topic of the visuals accompanying the music, Sami relates "There's this theme of fading of love, but it's done not in a typical way of some guy and some rock n' roll girl (chuckles). There's this old man who's the only one left in the village, everyone else has died and the meaning of life for him is to visit the local cemetery of his closest ones, who all are there already, and he's going there as well pretty soon."
Well, it looks as though 2000 is going to be a big year for Sentenced. Between the creation of their first video, and a new album on the horizon to support (look for a domestic release in late February), the final question pertains to plans for Sentenced over the next 365 or so days. After ten years, will North America finally get a chance to see a tour? "Yeah, it seems that way. It seems, at the moment we are going to tour with Iced Earth starting in August or September, and it's probably going to be like three or four weeks in the States, and it's the first time for us, so we are pretty much looking forward to it. We are getting a lot of good reactions from the States. We have this e-mail address that people can send comments or questions or death threats or anything, and we get a lot, a lot, of mail from the States asking why we didn't come already and when are we coming and so on. And they really seem to be interested in the band so it will interesting, for us as well, what the reaction really is when we finally get there."
By Jon Clark / RIP N' TEAR