After 30 years together, Finnish funeral doom legends Skepticism return with their sixth album, Companion, released on Svart Records. A band with a singular vision, Skepticism have remained at the forefront of the genre they helped to create with epic songs that marry sorrowful melodies and mournful atmosphere within sparse arrangements. Their pictorial lyrics based in nature and the past conjure vivid imagery to accompany a unique form of doom that alternates between crushing immersion and plaintive dirge but avoids obvious trappings of self-pity and morbid wallowing. Instead, Skepticism’s music is momentous and transcendent.
The band moved away from the subterranean murkiness of their early sound with their fourth album, Alloy, in 2008, bringing clearer vocals and guitars forward in the mix and restraining the keys, developing a new way to express their signature funereal sound. While some fans were left disappointed with this stylistic shift, and especially with their last album Ordeal (a live album of mostly new material), Skepticism have developed this style even further with Companion. It’s clear that the band has never compromised their vision, only changed their approach, and rather than regressing, Companion is a successful progression, showing that Skepticism is able to maintain their inimitable standard and still move forward.
First track Calla opens the album with stately organ, powerful drumming, and a notably triumphant tone. Matti Tilaeus’ raw vocals are steady and prominent, while the guitar lines swell and drop. Skepticism have never embodied a wholly negative or miserable tone, and as the name Calla suggests, beauty is at the heart of their melancholy.
The album is of course heavy, but it’s not laboured. The sound is huge but it’s not oppressive. The production has the natural feel of a live recording, but it hasn’t been pushed to the limits. With the band’s songwriting and arrangements as precise as ever, this production gives the music the chance to resonate clearly. Rather than lurking in the depths, it soars.
The Intertwined is a long and steady pounding march, with mournful string sounds and piano, and dramatic guitars both clean and heavy. It sounds like a traveler weathering a storm, determined to advance. While the vocals are guttural, they’ve never been clearer, and certain lines come to the fore throughout the album. The likes of ‘I am never alone’ and ‘I am never lost’ suggest themes of reflection and perseverance. There’s a vitality present, and it’s maybe unusual to describe funeral doom as life-affirming, but there’s a real sense of strength and resolve.
The album artwork appears to depict four tree trunks standing out from a forest shrouded in mist, seemingly representing the band and its members, standing alone but together. Third track The March Of The Four appears to be an ode to this camaraderie and shared pursuit. Skepticism have maintained the same four-strong core lineup of guitar, drums, organ, and vocals since their inception, and this record feels like a contemplative celebration of what’s come before and what lies ahead.
Each song is an epic within an epic album…
As the longest track on Companion, clocking in at just over ten minutes, The March Of The Four is something of a journey in and of itself. A minimal organ threnody is taken through an arduous crawl, eventually emerging from the droning mire with cathartic guitar leads and jubilant organs clearing the way for stripped back melodies and grandiose beauty. It’s perhaps the most archetypal funeral doom song on the album, but the way in which it flows and develops shows the strength and skill at the heart of Skepticism’s writing, neither predictable nor overstated.
With a sudden shift in mood, Passage is introduced with malevolent death metal guitars and layered droning vocals. The darkest and most aggressive song on the album, the intricate guitar lines create menace alongside gothic organ in an off-kilter and dynamic fusion. This controlled chaos is followed by the delicate contrast of the start of next track The Inevitable, with acoustic guitars and somber keys giving way to an uplifting and urgent sojourn.
As you might expect from a band that has clocked three decades, there is an assuredness to the writing and playing that means Skepticism confidently explore different ideas without straying from their path. Passage and The Inevitable cover a lot of musical ground within the borders of what constitutes the Skepticism sound. It feels like this band knows exactly what they set out to achieve, with their music as considered as their lyrics, artwork, or white rose-adorned besuited aesthetic.
Continuing with the avian imagery present on previous Skepticism albums, final track The Swan And The Raven has a surprisingly fast-paced pulsing cello throughout. The final song on an album that seems to embody moving forward, it has the most realised sense of steadfast persistence.
Companion is Skepticism’s most positive album. It seems to be a tribute to following your own path and finding like-minded peace in a shared mission and maintaining it for life. Each song is an epic within an epic album, created by a band whose career has been nothing short of epic.
Funeral doom is undoubtedly a niche within a niche, and it takes time and patience to fully absorb and appreciate its unique atmosphere. For some, the clean production on Companion will serve to counter any suggestion of atmosphere, but atmosphere is more than just reverb-drenched murk. With Companion, Skepticism exhibits a profound atmosphere in clarity, with every lingering note stark but alive as part of six carefully arranged songs.
Skepticism have established their own approach and after three decades they’ve seen trends and phases come and go. Like the gallant crow, this band stands proudly alone, and as Companion proves, all that’s left and all that matters is the pursuit of their own path.
Scribed by: Josuph Price