|Musical Style: Symphonic Metal||Produced By:|
|Record Label:||Country Of Origin: Finland|
|Year Released: 2010||Artist Website: HB|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 85%|
One way to consider Pääkallonpaikka, the summer of 2010 fifth full-length album from Forssa, Finland based HB, is a heavier, darker and more impassioned version of the group. Better known as one of the scenes few female fronted Christian symphonic metal bands, HB has gained reputation (well deserved I might add) for recording English equivalents of albums that it originally released in its native Finnish. The Battle Of God from 2011, for instance, is the English version of the groups 2004 full length debut Uskon Puolesta, while 2008 release Frozen Inside represents sophomore effort Enne re-done in English. HB also recorded in 2010 an English counterpart to its 2008 offering Piikki Lihassa under the new title The Jesus Metal Explosion.
Hence, I am sure one can understand that when Pääkallonpaikka came out I balked at doing a review, with the thought an English rendering would later follow, and I might do the review at that point to avoid double work. As things turned out, however, HB has yet to remake Pääkallonpaikka in English. The main reason as far as I can tell is a lack of band activity resulting from turnover: Starting with long-term front woman Johanna Aaltonen being replaced by Miia Rautkosk in early 2013, but also including Rautkosk’s departure in March of 2014 and ultimate return of Aaltonen several months later. A four-year musical drought has resulted, with the lone HB output being a video of the track “The Evil Song” (with Rautkosk on vocals) and a Christmas single from last year.
As the years passed, I lost track of Pääkallonpaikka - it would be a fair assessment to suggest the album fell beneath the radar - until a couple months ago when I had the pleasure to listen to several online samples. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. Up to the point of rediscovering Pääkallonpaikka, I respected and appreciated HB but did not consider myself one of its biggest fans. I regarded Frozen Inside its best release (85% Angelic Warlord review), while The Jesus Metal Explosion and The Battle Of God (75% & 70% reviews, respectively) were solid but unremarkable. In revisiting the HB back catalog, Pikki Lihassa (80% review) stood out the most - perchance I need to upwardly revise the review? - in terms of how the group comes across that much more comfortable and focused in its native Finnish.
Perhaps this accounts for the reason why I embrace Pääkallonpaikka to such a high degree. Consider how The Jesus Metal Explosion and The Battle Of God (in my opinion) reflect at times a formula if not contrived feel that leaves the impression the group were attempting to fit within a mold as opposed to letting its natural sound stand out. Contrast this with Pääkallonpaikka, which finds the true HB qualities better manifesting themselves and allowing that heaviness, darker texturing and impassioned aura to make profound statements in the process. Revealed even further are the trademark HB symphonic aspects in the form of layered choir vocals, classical instrumentation, orchestral arrangements and grandiose keyboards. In listening to both albums side by side, I do not think I am out of line to suggest Pääkallonpaikka represents an extension of Pikki Lihassa (or the next logical musical step for the group) in this regard.
All of these traits and more manifest themselves on the five opening hard rocking Pääkallonpaikka tracks. “Supermies” gets things going with a bang, a near speed metal infused piece that establishes a relentless environs in which symphonic keyboards and hyperactive drumming prevails. The ripping guitar leads lend a fitting touch. “Perkeleitä” proves every bit up-tempo in coming across in the form of what I like to describe as ‘techno-wave-dance-metal’. Yes, somewhat different and keyboards are a bit thick in places (albeit not to a fault) but the rollicking tempo and mirthful mentality border on the infectious.
“Hanki elämä III” finds HB at its slowest and heaviest. The song mauls its length, with low end staunch as it gets and guitars delivering dogged bite and crunch in abundance. Lending a smoother touch are layers of choir-like vocal melodies. “Eteenpäin” also reveals an unflagging feel, mid-paced with its powering guitar walls and freight train mentality but also accessible in terms of its enticing refrain backed by more choir vocals. Bristling lead guitar matches the tenacious tempo.
Capturing both sides of the fence and lending a light progressiveness accordingly is “La Finlande de mon Coeur”. This one exudes the most technical elements of the albums material, with time signatures ranging from all out expeditious to those that slow to a near crawl to others reflecting traces of heartfelt groove. What the song shares with the four previous are Aaltonen’s stand out vocals, who joins her trademark medium to high end flavorings with a swarthier and lower register penchant to better align with the heavier nature to the Pääkallonpaikka material. Yes, due to the language barrier, I am uncertain as to what she is singing, but her delivery leaves little doubt as to the conviction and passion at hand!
I complained in past reviews how HB can be a bit ballad heavy, often including three ballads on a ten-song album, which is a bit much according to my taste. On Pääkallonpaikka, however, the group rectifies this by incorporating two ballads instead, a number that (in my opinion) offers better balance between heavier and lighter material. My favorite is “Tuomioni”, the lengthiest of the pair at six minutes. The song moves its moody distance as keyboards and classical instrumentation dance with occasional atmospheric guitars. Interestingly, male narration steps forward over the final couple of minutes (it would be nice to know what was being said). “Valtaa” manifests a relaxed and laid-back feel in allowing Aaltonen to exhibit the full range to her voice. It is also slightly heavier with its more consistent guitar emphasis and emotional soloing.
Two additional heavier pieces help to round out Pääkallonpaikka. “Herralle kiitos II” comes across as uniquely HB, laying a foundation of pummeling drums and funk like bass but also allowing for exquisite pop-based flavorings and periodic touches of the classical. Cacophonies of operatic vocal melodies provide the fitting touch. “Herra puolellamme” opens to several seconds of orchestration before taking off at a furious clip, relentless with its all out decisive riffing and barbed acumen that finds HB again approaching speed metal territory (by no means a bad thing). That newfound heaviness without doubt presents itself here.
Album ends to its title track, a shorter ‘outro’ piece slowly and hauntingly imbued with majestic keyboards and classic orchestral overtures. A slight Middle Eastern flair comes to the forefront, a particular I am uncertain if the group intended- it works regardless.
Similar to past HB albums, I have no qualms about production, which reflects a lush but even feel. Enough guitars present themselves to reside within metal territory, while the symphonic qualities shine equally but not to a fault. As for any potential future re-record, I hope the group leaves things as is - mix, mastering and overall sound quality is such there is not reason to make wholesale changes - and simply re-does the vocals in English instead. Obviously, it would be less time and trouble for HB by going this route, and free it to focus more attention on any project it might record to feature original material. Noting how Pääkallonpaikka roughly translates as ‘place of the skull’, I also hope the group comes up with a new title more original than Jesus Metal Explosion or The Battle Of God.
I had no choice but to go the (legal) download route due to inability to obtain the albums CD version. The pitfalls of downloaded music subsequently reared their ugly head in that all I received were the music files and cover art. Without liner notes I have no details as they pertain to the musicians appearing on Pääkallonpaikka, with the exception of Aaltonen, whose signature voice is unmistakable. Hence, I am unable to give credit to the fine work of the talented keyboardist and rhythm section performers; it also prevents me from mentioning the solid guitar player, who contributes some very tasteful soloing. Unlike previous HB releases, a lack of lead guitar work is a matter in which I no longer have to complain!
On Pääkallonpaikka HB strikes such a near perfect balance of heaviness and symphonic elements that it makes me regret waiting five years to do the review. Again, the group sounds much more natural, at ease and confident in its native Finnish. Still, an English equivalent comes highly anticipated in that the quality of music and performance is of such a high level. Long-term HB fans and those into symphonic metal would do themselves a favor by checking Pääkallonpaikka out.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Supermies” (3:32), “Hanki elämä III” (4:36), “La Finlande de mon Coeur” (5:10), “Perkeleitä” (3:31), “Eteenpäin” (3:47), “Tuomioni” (5:47), “Herralle kiitos II” (4:13), “Valtaa” (4:50), “Herra puolellamme” (3:51), “Pääkallonpaikka” (2:59),