Released By: AFM Records
Release Date: October 19th, 2018
Genre: Symphonic Power Metal
Lassi Vääränen – Vocals
Iivo Kaipainen – Guitars
Gege Velinov – Bass
Arttu Vauhkonen – Keyboards
Topias Kupiainen – Drums
1. The End of the Fall
2. No One Stands in My Way
3. At the Break of Dawn
4. The Last Sacrifice
5. Through Your Falling Tears
7. Punish You
8. Life is Not Beautiful
9. The Last One Falls
10. Last of Us (2018 Version)
11. Seven (2018 Version)
12. I Am the Storm (2018 Version)
One of the most promising bands to come out of Finland in recent years is symphonic power metal band Arion. I discovered them in 2014 with their debut, Last of Us, and was immediately impressed by their strong vocal melodies, varied songwriting and their ability to blend softer tracks nicely with speedy power metal tracks. They’ve gone through some changes since then, with original vocalist Viljami Holopainen leaving and being replaced by Lassi Vääränen, who they quickly put to work with a new single, At the Break of Dawn. After that, the band was mostly silent for a couple years, while quietly working on a full album, and now, over four years after their debut, they’ve returned with their second full-length release, Life is Not Beautiful. I was excited to see where the band would go musically, as well as to see whether the new vocalist would fit in well, and while I have some mixed feelings on the latter, overall Life is Not Beautiful is another excellent release, which definitely moves the band’s sound forward, while still feeling familiar enough to keep existing fans happy.
Fans of the band’s debut will likely notice a slight change in the music direction between albums, as while the guitar tone and symphonic elements still feel familiar, the actual songwriting has changed a bit, moving towards a slightly more modernized sound, with crunchier guitar work in places, as well as an increased focus on harder hitting, speedy power metal, over some of the more relaxed material Last of Us had. There’s still some softer passages, for sure, including two ballads, but overall there’s a definite push towards heavier material on this release, and there is a time where the guitars overtake everything else, with the symphonic elements still being strong, but not quite as dominant as on the debut. Musically, everything sounds as great as before, with guitarist Livo Kaipainen, in particular, turning in a strong performance, with some excellent crunching riffs and strong solos, while the keyboards add some extra flavor, and the symphonic elements make everything feel more epic, especially on tracks like “No One Stands in My Way” and “The Last Sacrifice”. Songwriting is strong throughout, though none of the ballads grab me nearly as much as “You’re My Melody” from Last of Us, which may be at least partially because of the vocals.
Speaking of which, the aspect I was most concerned about going into this release, was, in fact, the vocals. Original vocalist Viljami Holopainen had a very smooth voice and he really excelled during the softer sections, while still doing a great job on the heavier parts. New vocalist Lassi Vääränen, on the other hand, has a much deeper and much rougher voice, which alone makes for a big change in direction. That’s just the beginning, though, as Lassi has a very wild, over the top delivery throughout the album, rarely toning it down, instead coming close to screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time, with a very energetic vocal performance that works great on heavier tracks, but not so much on the more melodic tracks. Worse, he fails to put in any kind of touch at all, taking some choruses that could have potentially been amazing, and instead of turning them into nearly incoherent scream fests. He does a pretty solid job throughout the album, and it must be noted he sounds very good on the three bonus re-recorded tracks from the debut, so part of the problem may be with the vocal melodies themselves, but either way, his vocals really bother me from time to time, and I feel he’s the one thing keeping me from potentially enjoying this release even more than Last of Us.
One area I wasn’t too worried about was the songwriting, as that’s an area the band had proven themselves to be great in on their debut, as well as the terrific single At the Break of Dawn, and so it’s no surprise to find that every song on this album is excellent musically. Following a nice orchestral intro track, opener “No One Stands in My Way” kicks in, and is a very epic, mid-paced track, where the symphonic elements dominate. It would have fit in pretty well on Last of Us, though it does have some of those extra crunchy guitars in bursts, as well some very energetic vocals from Lassi during the verses. The chorus is also epic, and Lassi’s vocals fit in pretty well on it, so it’s a strong start to the album, overall. Next is the single, “At the Break of Dawn”, and of course it’s still as amazing as ever. It’s a speedy, hard-hitting track with some great guitar work, epic keyboards, especially during the chorus, and while Lassi himself sounds pretty solid, the highlight of the track is Amaranthe vocalist Elize Ryd, who really shines the during the chorus, as expected.
The first song where the vocals really start to irritate me is “The Final Sacrifice”. It starts off slow, with some nice atmospheric keyboards, as well as some quiet vocals from Lassi, which already feel slightly off-putting. Once the track gets going, it picks up the pace and turns into a speedy power metal track, with some nice melodic leads, but the big moment is the chorus, which is very melodic musically, with some epic orchestral work, and it leaves room for some big vocal melodies, except Lassi falls back to his screaming, and the result is not exactly the most pleasant. It’s still a nice track overall, but it feels like the vocals hold it back a bit. Next is “Through Your Falling Tears”, a soft piano ballad, which is very beautiful musically, and while Lassi doesn’t excel in the way his predecessor likely would have on this track, he does a solid enough job on the chorus, not overdoing it too much with his screaming, so it ends up being a solid, if not quite amazing ballad.
One song where Lassi does excel is the hard-hitting “Unforgivable”, a very speedy track, which feels similar to “At the Break of Dawn”, except the guitars hit just a bit harder, and Lassi is the only vocalist here. His screams actually work very well during the chorus here and help make it super intense and epic. It’s a very fun, extremely catchy track, and easily my favorite on the album. Sadly, the same can’t be said for “Punish You”, which is probably the worst song on the album, just because of the vocals. Musically, it has a very modern sound to it, with the guitar work, in particular, feels like it would fit great on a modern melodic death metal track, and during the verses Lassi’s deep, rough vocals work quite well, but as is a common theme on the album, once the chorus hits, things go downhill in a hurry. He switches to a higher register, which is in one word: disastrous. The less said about it the better, really. The song itself is still very good, thanks to the verses and some excellent instrumental work, especially during the solo section, but the vocals bring it down quite a bit. Another track I have mixed feelings on is the title track. It’s another song with some very modern sounding, crunchy guitars, almost going into metalcore territory, and it’s excellent musically, with an especially melodic and beautiful solo towards the end. As usual, the verses are strong, but Lassi’s nasally screams get on my nerves once again during the chorus, almost as much so as on “Punish You”. Closing out the album is one more ballad “Last One Falls”. This is the one track on the album where Lassi tones it down completely and sings softly, with pretty good results. He isn’t the most emotive vocalist, but his deep voice fits the sorrowful tone of the song nicely, and he gives a solid performance. As mentioned earlier, the album features three bonus re-recorded tracks from Last of Us, including the softer title track, where Lassi sounds good, but a bit off, as well as the speedier tracks “Seven” and “I Am the Storm”, where he actually sounds great, particularly on the latter, where I’d even say he takes the song to new heights. Musically, the tracks sound pretty much identical to the original versions, so it all comes down to which vocalist you prefer.
Overall, Life is Not Beautiful is a bit of a frustrating release, as it’s a brilliant album musically, continuing with the epic symphonic metal of the band’s debut, while pushing towards more of a power metal direction, with quite a few speedier songs as well as some harder hitting, more modern sounding guitar work, but new vocalist Lassi Vääränen isn’t the best fit at times, and brings my enjoyment down on a couple tracks in particular. At the same time, he does bring a new intensity and energy that can help the band in the future, and I think if they write material that’s well suited to his voice, they could reach the next level. It hasn’t happened yet, but Life is Not Beautiful is still an excellent album overall, which I can easily recommend to fans of their debut, as well as anyone looking for some great symphonic power metal, with great songwriting, great instrumental work, and some good vocals, especially during verses and heavier sections.
Written by: Travis Green