SKEPTICISM – Companion (2021)REVIEW

The well-tended mind does not slow over time, only grows in awareness of its own precipice and considers each careful word, or step, beyond the pale an opportunity for purpose in action. Soaked of life and wilting into autumnal respite, the light dims inside of us calling to our latent keepers of joy and sorrow to awaken wisened and refreshed by their yearslong spiritual-natural commune — This sixth full-length album from Finnish funeral doom metal quartet Skepticism could be rightfully received as a conversational meditation among eldest friends but, not without including the linden and birch rich forest groves nearby Riihimäki, Finland as part of the greater artistic alliance in mind. Set into frame by a row of trees cut to resemble the flute pipes of a church organ, ‘Companion‘ lands upon us in celebration of a three decade long partnership, waxing a bit of nostalgia (in their own way) whilst indirectly acknowledging the timeless craft still standing tall in their wake; Having likewise gathered and left pieces of themselves behind in these natural areas they’ve wandered within for inspiration throughout their lives, the key acknowledgment made here is not self-serving amongst friends but a shared resonance in terms of these influential fellowes’ relationships with the greater ecosystem, literally and figuratively speaking, to which sustained existence is owed. Consider the residue of the experience an unusually comforting hug you’d gotten from a distant relative at a funeral, a memorable moment of grounding when the mood is heaviest and you are at your most vulnerable.

Perhaps the only southern Finnish band to take an extremist slow-hand to the Finnish death metal of the late 80’s and stick with it ever since, we can firmly consider Skepticism innovators in terms of capable craftsmanship and signature within the realm of early Scandinavian extreme doom metal and well, tangentially as one of first bands to be called “funeral doom metal” with any consensus beyond marketing candor. Nearby efforts in Thergothon, Unburied and Faltom certainly make their own argument in hindsight via demo recordings, but the real clash of the titans happened in 1994 and… that is a topic for another time and place. Having formed in 1991 and released an impressive 7″ single in 1992 (‘Towards My End” b/w “The Castles Far Away”) it should be noted that Skepticism were still essentially a death/doom metal band at their most formative point and that their signature funeral doom metal angle, which remains steadfast today, began with the impressive ‘Aeothe Kaear‘ demo in 1994 with much of the material finding its place on their inarguably classic debut ‘Stormcrowfleet‘ a year later along with a few pieces on the ‘Ethere‘ (1997) EP. Many people consider this point the sort of final form or point of great achievement for Skepticism but this is entirely foolish, the fully realized and ‘professional’ signature of the band arrives with ‘Lead and Aether‘ (1998), a personal favorite album within this specific sub-genre sphere and the point where I’d always felt this band set themselves apart from any sort of shared legacy with similar bands. Of course if you are not a strange extreme doom metal nerd like myself the signature in question is essentially a “church” or pipe organ sound that shares space with the rhythm guitars and provides the basslines via footpedal work. So, without getting lost in the woods of my own fandom, we have established the basis for worldwide ‘underground’ renown while still acknowledging the reality that funeral doom metal would not really “break” into public view for most until the early 2000’s. Many bands came-and-went as art metal mood-mutants and quickly moved on throughout the 1990’s but Skepticism continued to double-down on themselves, insular and distant pillars of the funeral doom form.

A fan of this niche should be able to acknowledge that while historicity is a keen place to set one’s fealty to musical innovation, Skepticism have improved beautifully with age and practicum throughout the last two decades settling into their skin as artists with great confidence. This realization hit me like a nuke back in 2008, picking up a copy of ‘Alloy‘ on CD and being completely flattened by it. This’ll make more sense once I’ve begun fawning over ‘Companion’ since the two albums share a hint of similar tonality and visual language. Beyond that point it must be said that the traditions that define Skepticism hadn’t (and haven’t) changed drastically since 1998 (1995 if we stick to the remastered version of ‘Stormcrowfleet’), the only major differences coming from a broadening range of expression, and an emphasis on the realism long afforded their presentation and render. Live and ‘live in studio’ recordings continue to speak to the caliber of musicians and performers honed within this quartet these last three decades, a modus I was not aware of until ‘Ordeal‘ (2015) upped the ante by recording live in front of an audience. Alas, ‘Companion’ wasn’t recorded in front of an audience but we can consider it an organically realized experience thanks to all primary forms being performed in unison. I can only imagine this choice is practical for the sake of Skepticism being a real band, one that rehearses together and fleshes out the writing experience within these sessions so that the desired effect is realized in their work rather than studio finagling. As we venture beyond the known and into this new material two characteristics pull the mind from various angles specifically, first a most “present” and engaging use of mid-tempo pieces and second, increasing use of varietal organ/keyboard tonal sets which admittedly don’t stray from signature and tradition but the combination of increased tempo makes this different voicing stand out even more.

“Calla” drops us right into the arms of the beast, a plunge into sentimental orchestral rise and a sorta ‘Tales of the Thousand Lakes’-esque guitar melody to start which soon shards itself into deeper layers of movement. It may be because I am getting older or, have spent several decades listening to the sonorous antics of Finnish music but the arrival of this piece hits me over the head with a warmly received, yet terrifying cold dunk into marshland pool. My brain says, “mid-paced funeral doom metal” but the id insists this is symphonic melodic death/doom metal circa 1993 and perhaps the first step into the larger experience is meant to invoke this feeling with dramatic symphonic swells and vocalist Matti Tilaeus animalistic mid-chest growling narration rattles as the central spectacle of the presentation. In this sense we are getting the naked, living presence of Skepticism but also a bit of extra thrill from what I’d consider nostalgic actualization or, self-reflective movement. “The Intertwined” suggests that this feeling is not a fluke but a step within a larger progression, rustling into a pensive doom metal riff and empyrean keys with a deliberate pace, setting a scene where the eye scans low to the setting horizon on a regal yet impressionist landscape; On successive listens I’d found myself regularly lost in thought around ~2:45 minutes into this particular song, a co-morbid state of zen-like ease and poisoned despair beyond any potential immersive synesthesia expected. There exists a restlessness to the flow of “The Intertwined”, revealed in the increasing waves of its last third, which holds fast in mind as a major characteristic of ‘Companion’ as a whole. The first half of any Skepticism album tends to find its moment of great stride within a 10+ minute piece a cathedralesque marche funebre often titled nearly as such and in this case it is undoubtedly “The March of the Four”, and this is where the shoulders roll back and the greatest point of ease yet settles over the realm illustrated, a sojourn through familiar paths with the mind alight; The guttural release unto a reprise of the opening organ melody ~7:18 minutes into the piece reinforces its larger statement to great effect and seals Side A on a sombre note.

As we proceed to the second half it becomes difficult to edit thoughts on the complete experience down to just a few potent statements, each of the six songs on offer here conjure their own eminence worth delving into in some great detail. For the sake of not becoming more tedious than necessary on my part, I’d suggest that Side B is where this timeless, full-spectrum sense of mortality of Skepticism comes into better view via elements of old and new in beauteous harmony. This thankfully escapes any tangible sense of too self-referential thought while illustrating their work as a continuum that has never broken of its purpose. “Passage” offers a fine example of this by exploring atmospheric death metal movement to some degree while shattering the cathedral walls with its enormous, sinister organ grinding highs. The acoustic guitars and trembling progressions of “The Inevitable” are guided by lofty, ethereal synth and an almost early Peaceville-three inspired sense of melodrama and movement. Album closer “The Swan and the River” offers the still-beating heart of the album, a peaking dramatic statement delivered through its undulating opening rhythm and the grand hall-shaking finality sustained for the last six minutes of the piece.

From the moment we are set within ‘Companion’ Skepticism ensure the angle of entry is odd, or, unexpected to start but their waters are yet deep and warm, the greater duality of their beauteous dirge is preserved within a restlessly austere presentation and the quartet’s cumulative reflective mindset is quite naturally expressed within a trim and digestible ~48 minute roll. After spinning through the experience beyond the point of counting I can say that ‘Companion’ has reinforced my fandom of Skepticism in general and that it sits next to ‘Lead and Aether’ and ‘Alloy’ as my preferred ‘go to’ grab off the shelf when the mood calls for their particular brand of funereal sophistication. What is there to complain about within the listening experience? Nothing for the already indoctrinated, there is no reasonable gripe to pull from my time spent with the album, having already noted a more intense tempo map that is yet still very much within funeral doom metal range and I believe most will appreciate the variety of tone, pace, and expression on offer. It is neither the perfect album nor the perfect funeral doom metal album, I’ll die never having desired to witness perfection in the slightest, but ‘Companion’ is yet a perfect example of what Skepticism do, that which is impossible to replicate and marked by four lifetime’s worth of dedication to this level of great work. As such, a highest recommendation is entirely warranted.

High recommendation. (100/100)

Rating: 10 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Svart Records
RELEASE DATE:September 24th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp | Svart Store
GENRE(S):Funeral Doom Metal,
Funeral Death/Doom Metal

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