Interview with Amorphis — “I would say it’s probably the most proggy album we’ve made.”

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The time has finally come for progressive metal masters AMORPHIS to release a new album, “Halo,” out on February 11th, via Atomic Fire Records. We met up with keyboard player Santeri Kallio and guitarist Esa Holopainen in Helsinki to discuss the upcoming release. Watch the complete interview here or read the transcript below…

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview today. How have you guys been during the pandemic? I know you released a solo album, Esa, but I don’t know about you, Sande?

Santeri: Well, waiting for the shows has been our main focus, but they all basically got cancelled. This year, we had the chance to do nine shows, [of which] most were festivals. Last year, we did a little bit less. Besides that, [I am] basically sitting on the sofa, watching TV, and waiting for the shows [to happen]. Of course, we did the new album with AMORPHIS, “Halo” this year. The whole process took 7seven months, but there was not that much work for each person in the band; a week or two per person maybe.

Did you start writing after you did the Decade shows in Finland or is that something you already started before?

Esa: For this album, we started writing I think last summer?

Santeri: Yeah, I think I wrote all my songs in summer 2020. Yeah, the decade shows were the only shows we were able to do. I think they were in August or something. I think I’d started June, mid-June, June-July, August – the whole summer or something like that.

Esa: Pretty much the same thing [for me].

Do you feel like preparing for those Decade shows and revisiting all your material had an effect on the album as a whole?

Santeri: Well, we’ve always played songs from the “Tales from a thousand lakes,” even from “Karelian” and “Elegy.” We always had them included in our setlist. So I wouldn’t say that the decade shows really affected [the album] that much because basically, we’ve always been carrying our past with us in the shows. I would say no.

Esa: No, not really. It was just a great opportunity to play a wider range from our back catalog. I wouldn’t say it would have really had any impact on the music.

Santeri: Yeah, because the impact is always there. [laughter]

Let’s talk about the sound of “Halo.” You guys have been classified as a progressive metal act and surely you have had progressive elements, but never as many as in “Halo.” In this album, it’s somehow more pronounced especially in the rhythmic sections. What do you think about that?

Esa: There were some progressive parts there, absolutely. We don’t really want to label ourselves that much. I think it’s the other people who chose that and we are great fans of progressive music and bands, so of course, that’s likely included in music for us. But I don’t know if we have ever been that progressive. Perhaps now – for the first time – we have slightly more rhythms changes and progressive stuff.

Santeri: It probably comes from that, but you have to try to label it somehow. If you compare this new album to our previous material, it is progressive. But if you compare this album to real prog metal bands, it’s definitely not that prog. It is probably more progressive, it’s more detailed… there are a lot of details, a lot of things you can hear that were really thought out, you know, that is not by coincidence. There are a lot of different time signatures and a lot of small licks here and there, which we haven’t necessarily had before… some here and there, but now everything is very detailed and there are a lot of small tiny details. You will figure it out later on when giving it twenty spins, or even more, or you may find some new elements when we finally get to play the shows, but I would say it’s probably the most proggy album we’ve made. I still think it’s more of a melodic death metal [album] with hard rock vibes, you know. [laughter] Not like a prog metal album really, no.

From the first song, “Northwards,” on, I was already surprised because, at some point, there’s this part with some epic choirs. I kind of expected it to go back to the chorus, but then it twists again. I think that’s a trend over the whole record because there are so many unexpected things and surprises happening. Was that a natural thing for you guys to kind of include these sections in the record or was that maybe Jens’ influence on the record as well?

Esa: I think it was pretty natural. It was pretty much the arrangement we had when we rehearsed the song. Although, some of the songs Jens wanted to change some of the arrangement parts a little bit what he usually wants to do. Not that radical, but some things to make some parts more interesting. That also might give some – I don’t know – proggy flavor, [laughs] a little bit more interesting flavor to the songs.

Santeri: He likes to break the AMORPHIS pattern. We tend to do things pretty simply. On the other hand, we’ve been working with Jens since Under the Red Cloud,” so it’s pretty natural too because you know, he’s gonna do it anyway. So you don’t really have to make the original compositions super complex or surprising because he will anyway have his own input. I would say the songs were more surprising than before already, but then he added his magic touch there too.

Do you feel like working with the same producer, for the third album, is where you really take things to the next level or get to experiment with each other a lot more, because you know each other better now?

Esa: I think that’s at least what we hoped… by having the same producer, we start to know each other better and better doing each album, so I think absolutely. This is the third time now that we work with Jens. We know each other pretty well, we know how Jens works. So that also helps us when we write the music, so we know what direction it is going to.

Santeri: I like to think so too. With “Under the Red Cloud,” it was just a scratch when we got to know each other, Queen of Time was a little bit more and we developed the sound and Jens has developed it even more. Now, I think this is the strongest album we made with him… with these seven people and with this kind of process, our working style. I like to think that this is the best of what we’ve achieved so far. At least, if you compare it to how the process was before it started and how it is now when it ended. I think we are quite happy with the album. At least, I think it’s super strong and it doesn’t open up quickly. You have to give it a little bit of a spin. So it’s basically a synonym that it can hold time. It’s not like a couple of spins and that’s it. I think people will still find – at least I do all the time – some nice things here and there.

Esa: It’s a great album if you also think about how we’re going to start building up the live set in the future. Bringing up the new songs, I think they most likely will take our live shows to another level as well.

I think you mentioned in the press release that this album is sort of more stripped down in comparison Queen of Time,” there are fewer orchestrations. Why did you guys decide to do it like that?

Santeri: I don’t think we did. I think it was the producer’s choice. We gave him the freedom to really decide on how the final album would sound. Because we like to concentrate more on the compositions, the basic arrangements, and playing the instruments. So we can play as well as we can. Jens basically has the freedom to decide how it will sound because he produces the album and he also mixes the album, so it’s always kind of a surprise for everyone. You know, I was quite shocked. I was in India on holiday when I heard the “Queen of Time” mixes for the first time. I thought this was pretty big, massive stuff. Now that I heard it… It’s always kind of a surprise because we don’t hear… we don’t really listen to the album while we make it. Of course, you can hear some rough mix or rough stuff where you play your parts along to. But yeah, it’s absolutely, totally up to the producer how the final product of the sound will sound and how massive it is, or how detailed it is.

Esa: It’s like a secret for him. He doesn’t allow us to listen that much while he’s doing mixes. [laughter] He wants us to keep concentrating on playing the parts right and what he wants.

It’s nice to hear that you have a huge amount of trust between you, especially if you only get to hear the end product. That’s really cool to hear actually.

Esa: I think that’s the reason why you in the first place hire a producer, somebody you can rely on, [someone you] trust, and taking… almost like a puppeteer in the whole process, and for us, it’s a relief so we can just concentrate on what we do. We don’t have to figure out that much what the end product is going to sound like.

Santeri: Instead of endless arguments, because six guys in a band and a 30-year-old career, you can imagine that there’s a lot of opinions and they don’t necessarily match. [laughter]

Esa: Put me louder. [laughter]

Santeri: Where’s my solo?! [laughter]

Obviously, the lyrics were written again by Pekka Kainulainen. I read that there’s some kind of theme for this record. I was wondering what usually comes first, the music and the arrangements or the lyrics? Or are there sometimes lyrical ideas that you then write music to?

Esa: We work very separately. Pekka is working with lyrics and we work with the music and at some point, Tomi then starts to translate the lyrics and then starts his arrangements, and everything but we work totally separately. We don’t know what Pekka is writing and he doesn’t know what we are writing. [laughs]

Santeri: Yeah, so there’s not any collaboration. I think with this album, the lyrics came first… way before we even started to compose. So maybe, just a little bit, it gave us some framework to work on, but I’m not sure… I really didn’t think about it, but it’s very nice. It’s not normal in heavy metal music. The lyrics might come in a studio when a singer writes some stuff you know about relationships, about love, and then nobody knows what the hell is this song about until it’s out? I’m quite happy that we have the chance that we have the lyrical framework before we start working on the album, but it hasn’t always been like that with Pekka. I can’t remember but at least the last two albums, the lyrics came first and then… but I wouldn’t say it affects how I compose the songs because you still don’t know which lyric is going to be attached to each song. So basically, it’s impossible, but you might get some ideas if you re-read it on a Sunday night in candlelight.

Esa: It’s definitely not the normal way to do… how we work. It’s a really long process what Tomi goes through with the lyrics and translations, and with arrangements to get everything, the final album. The results are great.

So you only get to hear the vocals after Jens is done producing?

Esa: Usually, we hear the vocals for the first time when everything is mixed. Well, I guess we heard something a little bit with some lyrics for some songs. But the final results, we hear off of the mix.

Santeri: I play so late in the process, because keyboards are really dependent on the main melodies. You can’t play any kind of shit there because they will not match. So I tried to play as late in the process as possible. So I had some [vocals] but not all. I had some growling parts and stuff, but then I was like, I don’t really need the growling parts. I need the melodic parts. And there was some, I have to say, but I’m not saying they have a tendency… they might still change, but at least I have some rough idea to play along to. Because it’s very difficult to play a melodic instrument without knowing what the main melody line is going to be. So it kind of helps and you don’t have to do things or redo them.

Actually, that’s really interesting. I never thought about that. I was actually wondering whether you were sort of inspired by the themes because it sounds very consistent. The songs sound adventurous, but then it’s all a coincidence.

Santeri: It still is a big adventure, absolutely.

I want to talk a little bit about some specific songs. Do you have any memories connected to the opening track, “Northwards?”

Esa: I think it was the first or one of the first tracks I started to work with for the album. Yeah, it’s got a lot of things happening in that song. It’s pretty aggressive occasionally, I didn’t think originally that it would turn out that aggressive. [laughs] But yeah, it’s very ’70s influenced, C-part was influenced by CAMEL, the band. Big fan of their music. So that’s slightly influenced from their music. So a lot of things happening.

I also really liked your solos on that song.

Esa: Okay. That was probably one of the solos that I thought out before I went to the studio. [laughter]

Santeri: My solo is improvised in a Hammond session. [laughs] It took a long time… Well, it took a second to make the first version, but then it took a while to figure it out how to play it with the Hammond Organ.

Esa: I think the solos overall, like the keyboards and the guitars solos on this album, I think are more cared for than before. I think there are a lot of fine and nice details going on in there. There’s a lot of effort put into them.

Santeri: Yeah, it comes probably from working with Jens for this third album. We didn’t have that… at least, I didn’t have that many solos before. So now, when there is some you want to put some effort to them because they last a lifetime. So it’s better to be at least decent. [laughter]

Esa: At least from the right box.

Santeri: They have to be at least in the right box. [laughter]

So that’s why you took out the Hammond Organ for a spin. [laughs] Actually, I always love the Hammond Organ. It gives me Jon Lord vibes.

Santeri: Thank you. That’s the whole idea.

Today, I heard the new single is going to be “On the Dark Waters.” What can you tell fans about that single and is there going to be a music video?

Esa: There is going to be a music video. Actually, we had a plan to shoot the music video this week, but our bass player has caught COVID. So he’s in quarantine now so we can’t do it. We all tested ourselves because we had a show last weekend. We all tested negative. But anyway we wish a quick recovery to Oppu, I think he is doing okay. Like a slight fever and a little headache, but otherwise okay. Anyway, the video plan is surely going ahead, it should be going ahead early next year. The song itself has catchy chorus lines, perhaps a bit of a heavier touch in there, introduces a bit heavier side of the album, I guess.

Santeri: A funny memory about… this is not going to happen, but the first time I heard about… I read an email about the video. Well, I didn’t read anything. I just got a message suddenly about the video which said can you swim and dive? [laughter] I was like, wait a minute. But now I heard it’s not going to happen. At first I was thinking we were going to play at the bottom of a lake. [laughs]

Esa: I guess the film director had an idea that there will be an underwater camera crew filming us underwater being underwater. We would have had some weight belts to get to the bottom of the lake. [laughter]

Santeri: But it’s not going to happen. It’s too cold… [laughter]

Yeah, actually, ALIEN WEAPONRY from New Zealand did a video like that. They said it was really challenging. So probably for the best.

Santeri: The Finnish band MILJOONASADE played in a swimming pool in the ’90s… a gig. [laughter]

Esa: Yeah, but now it looks like we’re going to freeze the hell out of ourselves outside somewhere. [laughs]

Yeah, early January is the best time for doing video outside in Finland. [laughs]

Esa: So looking forward to that.

Santeri: Man’s got to do what a man’s got to do for rock ‘n’ roll. [laughter]

One song that I thought was the most prog-rock was “Windmane.” Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Esa: Progfart. [laughter]

Santeri: Yeah, it was called “Progfart” originally.

Esa: That was the working title. So yeah, what can I say… it’s a different kind of rhythm that we’re used to use perhaps with the band. Many progressive elements in there.

Santeri: I love the kind of like occultist melody that Tomi does. I love it. It’s a little bit psychedelic.

Esa: It is.

Santeri: Unpredictable AMORPHIS.

Esa: He told that he got inspired by the early LIFE OF AGONY albums and wanted to do something like that based on those. But it sounds very like… from like the ’70 occult stuff.

Santeri: Yeah for me it could be from JEFFERSON AIRPLANE or AMON DÜÜL. It’s one of the magical moments in the first half of the album, you know, when the chorus starts.

Esa: It’s nice that it’s not an obvious vocal line that he does.

Yeah, it’s great how the first half I guess is a bit more progressive and then shifts to a darker record. It has a great flow.

Esa: Good point. It’s nice during the interviews, you’re reminded of how the songs went… like oh yeah, that’s true. I haven’t listened to the album for a while now. I wanted to give it a little break. Now I really have to recall how the songs went. [laughs] Progfart. [laughs]

Who came up with that name?

Esa: I think I did. Because usually…

Santeri: I don’t want to know how.

Esa: No, no, no. [laughs] I don’t go into detail but, when we introduce our demos or put them in a folder, we title them in some way. There have been really weird working titles.

Were there any other funny working titles on this record?

Esa: Oh, there were some… Didn’t you have a song which was called “Mehtis,” which was named after our guitar tech?

Santeri: Yeah, he is called Mehtis. [laughter] I don’t know why. It was actually “The Moon…” Or no, it was “Seven Roads Come Together.” There’s some weird names. [laughs]

Esa: I’m trying to figure out some songs from earlier albums which would be just like really, really weird stuff.

Santeri: Especially for Jens, because the titles are in Finnish and he’s Swedish. He can’t really understand anything and then with the Scandic letters and he makes the project… sometimes the names change even weirder that they’re not even Finnish anymore. They are something beyond this world. [laughter]

Never thought about keeping the working title of a track as a bonus track or so? [laughter]

Esa: Well, that would go too far, I guess. [laughter]

Santeri: Well, yeah, I don’t think anybody wants to have a song called “Progfart.” Well, actually, “Northwards” was called “Messiah,” which would have worked if the lyrics would have worked. But the lyrics are not about that. Well… kind of. [laughter]

Why did you pick “Halo” as a title track, or is that something the label did?

Santeri: It was a catchy name and we also got some basic, strong elements which there are in the concept of Pekka, and it seemed to fit with that, like contradictions between black and white, good and bad, and the moon and the sun, so it somehow fit the best. We had some ideas or other ideas, but also “Halo” sounds good. It also gave the graphic designer some freedom, which they need because we don’t give any ideas. We just say like can you make an album cover and all the graphics so it’s “Halo,” give some… and we always have that kind of thematic in the music.

Esa: This is also the third album now that we work with the same cover artist. He’s great. We sent him the lyrics as well to get a little bit inspired… what everything is about. But it’s really hard to catch from the lyrics what to start to write.

Santeri: There are so many ideas.

I was gonna ask about the cover. It looks like there is some kind of duality going on.

Esa: I think he’s stuck to the radical contrasts, sort of Yin and Yang type of idea.

I like how it goes with the music as well, because it’s also super dynamic.

Esa: His artwork is always very symmetric. I like it very much that it’s… graphically it’s very attractive. You can get nice shirts and merchandise out of it. [laughter]

I’m thinking if there’s any section in this album that you’re particularly proud of having written or played?

Esa: There are always little details here and there. I can’t really name any specific things.

Santeri: I like the fact that we got a strong ballad on the album. We haven’t had a ballad since I think “Silent Waters…” well is it a ballad? “Enigma” or something like that. I’m not saying ballad, but kind of acoustic song. I’m kind of proud that we got it to the album because we have had the tendency that maybe if there’s an acoustic song in the album process, it probably drops out to a bonus track, but it turned out to be so good. Yeah. And Petronella is doing such a great duet with Tomi, so I’m very happy that it’s included in the album and it finishes the super hard, super proggy, supermassive, and super detailed album pretty nicely. It gives a nice atmosphere and after that you feel like, wow.

Esa: It calms you down nicely.

Santeri: Let’s put it again maybe tomorrow. It’s so strong.

Yeah, it does very well what the last track is supposed to do. Well, it’s tricky to ask still, but what are your plans with the live situation? Are you waiting out?

Esa: We have a lot of plans. [laughter]

Santeri: They just don’t happen because of the coronavirus.

Esa: We start to… our plan is to start the tour from North America next April and do the summer festivals and tour in Europe next fall, but that’s like the scheduled plan but nobody knows where we are heading with COVID.

Santeri: Yeah, we have tons of festivals booked for summer and two tours, and that’s not even including the Finnish tour. There will also be a Finnish tour, we will visit Russia, but nobody knows when.

Esa: I just read that the Pendolino is now going to St. Petersburg again.

Santeri: Again? Oh, okay, so maybe the tour in Russia will happen. Fingers crossed.

Fingers crossed. I think that’s it for my questions. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share with our readers and your fans?

Santeri: Well, there was a lot of talk about the new album, so check it out. It’s very, very deep, strong, and atmospheric. We’re waiting to hear what you think about it.

Written by Laureline Tilkin