East Asian culture, mythology and aesthetics occupy a limited and somewhat niche space within western metal culture, but an identifiable one nevertheless. Whether it’s mostly limited to artwork and lyrical subject matter, as in Holy Martyr’s “Invincible” or Thy Majestie’s “Shi Huang Di,” or inclusive of the instruments and particular tonalities of Asian music, as in Wintersun’s “Time,” it’s easy to see where the appeal lies. Metal gets so much mileage out of the dramatic, visceral appropriation of ancient cultures and mythologies, strip mining them for flair and mystique, that it hasn’t taken European groups long to look to the other side of the world for inspiration, finding particularly fertile ground in the imagery and nomenclature associated with Japanese samurai traditions, always so conspicuous in the western conception of that idiosyncratic nation.
Finland’s Whispered are perhaps the foremost practitioners of this gimmick nowadays, having beaten their countrymen Wintersun to the punch by a couple of years with their 2010 “Thousand Swords,” a laudably ambitious, if somewhat faltering and messy, marriage of orchestration and Japanese folk instrumentation to Children of Bodom-style Finnish melodeath. 2014 sees their sophomore outing “Shogunate Macabre” offer a slight refinement and tweak on the formula established on their debut album, reigning in some of its gaudier excesses and flimsier songwriting conceits while leaving others unaddressed.
Sitting at 45 minutes, more than a quarter of an hour shorter than its predecessor, “Shogunate Macabre” is altogether more compact and tightly-wound album than “Thousand Swords,” packing what seems like an equivalent mass of ideas into songs dense to the point of bursting. “Jikininki” kicks things off with a brief, ominous spoken-word section (in Japanese, natch), before a calamitous burst of instrumentation that has orchestral stings, finger picked string instruments and shredding bass, guitar and drums all alternately jostling for space. The messy, cluttered fervency of those first few seconds are an apt representation of “Shogunate Macabre” in microcosm. The song that follows certainly doesn’t want for energy; on the contrary, it’s straining at the seams, its endoskeleton of speedy melodic death metal creaking under the weight of pompous choirs and appropriated ethnic folk instrumentation.
The kitchen-sink approach to both arrangements and songwriting persists throughout the following “Hold the Sword,” with its samples of the sounds of what I imagine to be the battle of Sekigahara. “Fallen Ameterasu,” includes a sort of taunting, vaudevillian chanting that sounds like it could be lifted from Nightwish’s latest, as does the completely out-of-left-field saxophone interlude that comes midway through “Kappa.” Bear in mind, these elements are all the while rubbing shoulders with liberally applied dual-harmonised guitar solos and venomous trem picking. It’s probably a good thing that the songs here, unlike those on “Thousand Swords,” have the courtesy to contain themselves to reasonable lengths, mostly averaging between four and five minutes. By squeezing all these disparate types of instrumentation together within a limited timeframe, they achieve a semblance of synergy purely by proximity – if allowed to sprawl, the altogether chaotic and feverish organisation of these tracks would chafe a lot more. The overall effect is both garish and stimulating, like a skinny Christmas tree bedecked in every bauble that came to hand, to the point where the branches are barely visible.
With that said, the songs that I enjoyed most here are the ones with the tightest grip on the reins. Those would be “Lady of the Wind,” a stately seven-minuter that draws in the tempo and proceeds through its structure with deliberation and focus, taking the time to develop and tease out its verses and chosuses, finally earning its big orchestral splurges. Contrastingly, the sharp little three-and-a-half-minute “Unrestrained” gets by with a minimum of overbearing orientalism and stands as a straightforward, punchy melodeath rocker, ending with a joyous guitar solo trade-off between Jouni Valjakka, Pepe Ruponen and erstwhile bassist Mikko Mattila. The concluding ten-minute epic “Upon My Honor” perhaps expectedly, flounders in excess somewhat, but stands as a highlight nonetheless by dint of sheer presence and girth.
“Shogunate Macabre” is ultimately so much flash and sizzle, a gimmicky record by a gimmicky band that doesn’t linger in the memory as anything more. The crowded, messy composition works against itself, the band’s efforts to perpetually add more paradoxically making the music feel more insubstantial. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not ambitiously mounted and ebulliently played, and it’s patently the work of enthusiastic musicians eager that the listener should not for a second be bored. That’s not an instinct that ought to be censured or downplayed, as long as the result is called what it is – a curiosity that captures the attention for a moment, and then passes by like a cherry blossom on a breeze.
02) Hold the Sword
03) Fallen Ameterasu
04) One Man’s Burden
06) Lady of the Wind
08) Upon My Honor