Metal CD Ratings
Last year, I reviewed the debut CD from Finnish youngsters Kiuas on these pages with unbridled enthusiasm, finding their incendiary cocktail of Dimmu Borgir, Sonata Arctica, and Children of Bodom to be both intoxicating and innovative. Needless to say, I was positively giddy at the prospect of a swift follow-up to 'The spirit of Ukko'. Blessed with an original, ambitious sound and demonstrating technical skills, songwriting prowess and maturity beyond their years, Kiuas seemed poised for a massive artistic breakthrough once the disparate elements of their sound had time to coalesce, simmer and meld into a unified whole.
Right out of the gate, 'Reformation' is unmistakably the product of the same minds that breathed life into Senor Ukko in your living room last year. Indeed, opener "Race with the falcons" displays all the trademarks that made 'The spirit of Ukko' such a success, as a brooding, pounding intro gives way to a breathless thrash riff, before adding blackish keyboard melodies and blastbeats, only to settle into a heavy power metal crunch once the nearly exclusively clean vocals kick in, and reaching the pinnacle on the immediately catchy sing-a-long chorus that hints at Symphony X's Russell Allen. Just shy of the 3-minute mark, there's another curve ball, as Kiuas spring a short piano solo on the unsuspecting listener before diving into a neo-classical shred. And all of this happens in the span of a single 5-minute song!
Thankfully, the Finns have not attempted to reinvent themselves on 'Reformation', as there are many parallels between this CD and the debut. Killer riffs and catchy melodies abound, even though they may not sound quite as amazing this time. The talented 5-piece remains as musically adventurous as ever, changing tempos, styles and feels on a dime. If anything, Kiuas have broadened rather than refined their musical palette on 'Reformation', as the mixture of styles is staggering, both within and across songs. The neo-classical element has been beefed up considerably in the guitar solos. "Black winged goddess" is primarily a full-on death metal song, featuring torrents of blastbeats and guest-growled guttural "berzerker vocals", as well as clean vocals from lead singer Ilja Jalkanen. Then there's "Bleeding strings", a decidedly accessible mellow track for American modern metal radio with lyrics paying tribute to Dimebag Darrell Abbott and featuring jangly guitars and a too-easy, too-repetitive chorus layered over some Dimebag-inspired axework. And the epic, slightly folky "Reformation (Wrath of the old gods)" channels no one more than Rhapsody (or whatever name Luca's crew of Italian nutters is going by this week), with its expansive choirs, uplifting chorus, and vibrant classical instrumentation (violin, violincello, and flute), albeit in a song that also includes what the liner notes describe as a "brief but important black mass." Errrr, what?
Ultimately, this theme brings me to my main gripe with 'Reformation'. For all of its grandiose musical ideas and stupendous parts, this CD takes a step back from 'The spirit of Ukko' in the cohesiveness/focus department. Rather than honing and refining their craft, Kiuas seem more scattered and less decisive in their direction now than ever before. While the debut came across as refreshing in its unwillingness to be pigeonholed in a narrow stylistic box, this CD is all too often confusing, schizophrenic or headache-inducing.
But let's not lose sight of the big picture. Kiuas may not be evolving in exactly the manner I would have mapped out for them, but 'Reformation' still kicks all kinds of pagan Finnish butt. Stuff like "Race with the falcons", "Of ancient wounds", "Call of the horns", and the title track are sure to please existing Kiuas fans and to garner them more than a few new ones. So if you think 'The spirit of Ukko' is the shiznitz, then you can purchase 'Reformation' with confidence that you'll find much to your liking there too. Personally, I'll enjoy this CD for what it is, but will hope that these talented youngsters streamline their attack on CD #3 by figuring out how to integrate their many dimensions more seamlessly in the context of both individual songs and the CD as a whole. May Ukko be with you, my friends...