DARK SARAH – Grim

Label: Napalm Records
Release: 17-07-2020
Author: Kira L. Schlechter

DARK SARAH-GrimSymphonic power metal and concept albums go together like leather and lace. Grim, the latest by Helsinki’s DARK SARAH, is no exception.

Formed in 2012, the band is classically trained singer-songwriter Heidi Parviainen, guitarists Sami-Petri Salonen and Erkka Korhonen, bassist Rude Rothstén and drummer Thomas Tunkkari.

Their journey in what they call ‘cinematic metal’ began with their debut Behind The Black Veil in 2015, followed by The Puzzle in 2016 and The Golden Moth in 2018, completing a trilogy called The Chronicles.

Described in the band’s bio as a ‘modern horror fantasy’ concept album about the character Luna, Grim starts aptly with My Name Is Luna, a brief introduction to her. From the start, she is a mystery and maybe not exactly a benevolent one — “They think they’ve seen me/But I’m not the same”, she warns. Heidi’s voice has impressive range, delicacy and power all at once. Wafts of electronica and a sparse melody mark this opener.

More electronics set the stage for The Chosen One, with layering of keyboard effects marking the entrance of the punchy main riff delivered by Sami-Petri and Erkka. The instrumental bridge is syncopated and powers the action along — this is very much in the line of Nightwish in many ways, in arrangement, in concept, but less dense and less esoteric. The prechorus leads into Heidi’s operatic range, which is stunning, rounded and full. A second run through the chorus is modulated a bit higher and she stays with it easily. Her diction is precise, and even though her true soprano isn’t especially big, it takes up plenty of space. The ending string section is the melody of the chorus; well constructed, it’s long, but flows well. This is another sort of introduction to the character — we learn she is ‘chosen’ (for what it’s not clear yet), and that nature is sort of her trigger (‘the raven calls’ and all the references to Gaia, Goddess of the Earth).

Illuminate has a strong groove, full of drama and energy, and the bridge gives it the grit it needs. There’s a lot of restraint here, which is admirable — sure, symphonic power metal is indulgent and that’s why we love it, but the band has a knack for keeping it succinct and using a lot of imagery as opposed to exposition. This is a foreshadowing that something dark is coming — Luna is again using nature, in this case the phases of the moon, as perhaps a means of renewing power (there’s a mention of the ‘orb’, which according to the band bio is a magical means by which she can see her past), but then she sings, “The wind is howling/And turning to a storm/The hate is growing/The shadow takes form” and that’s all that is said. It’s a hint, it’s not overt, which is nicely done.

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The darker Melancholia, set to Thomas’ potent double kick drumming, pits the lyric quality of Heidi’s voice against the jagged points of the music. The chorus has a beautiful desperate quality to it, a helplessness, and the bridge is glorious. The chorus is revised quietly with strings only, then moves to a guitar solo that plays off the chorus melody (I like the continuity of this). The fading out at the end is lovely as Luna laments, “I’m in a different time”. It too is a longer track, but it holds interest throughout. There’s an obvious sympathy between Luna and the yet-to-be-introduced darker character, and it’s an effective tactic that Heidi draws out the suspense with this hinting, leaving you to wonder what this person or being is. The two have a not-so-pleasant past (“It is violence to see you now when time has passed” and “Like a tyrant you used my faith”), so she definitely knows him. And she repeats several lines in different ways — “In the silence I hear you now/In the silence” and “It is violence to feel you here/It is violence.” It’s pleasing to the ear and creates emphasis and a certain sense of doom or inevitability, like you are ruining my peace again, we’ve been through this before.

Iceheart is dainty and light, a musing ballad/interlude about being numb, incapable of feeling (“When my flame was bright/I got speared in the night”), and the bio says the mysterious orb will allow her to find out why this happened. It’s beautiful and fluid and brief, again keeping the excess in check.

La Folie Verte (or ‘The Green Madness’) is magical and fairytale-like, almost playful, but a bit foreboding since it’s in a minor key. It feels like a stalking or seduction or a luring, like Luna is being tempted (“This is something true and new!/I just need to try this, right?”) and later on, the dreamlike seduction is complete (“Then in the night, when the full moon is bright/The enchanted unite”). The chorus is a fine release, keeping that buoyant bounce of the verses intact. There’s definite immediacy to these songs — they’re not so obtuse that you can’t relate to them. The bridge has an appealing little gallop to it, and that last playful keyboard riff at the very end hearkens back to the beginning.

It serves as a definite lead-in to the next track, The Wolf And The Maiden (with former member JP Leppäluoto serving as the mysterious other character), and here the two actually meet. It’s suitably dark and dramatic, the beefy guitars seemingly serving as ‘him’ and the little chiming keyboards as ‘her’. What’s also fun is that SHE sings the line introducing ‘the beast’ and HE sings the line introducing her, ‘the maid’, and when they at last sing together, it’s sublime. There’s no resolution in this song, which is also nice — you wonder, well, what happened?

The story is not terribly overt, as The Hex further proves —  Grim can be listened to just for the songs themselves, but then again, after reading the bio, you almost wish it would be a little more defined. ”The hex is justified”, Luna insists — there’s a reason for it, it’s a punishment, like divine justice — but we don’t know for what offense.The solo here is paired with a subtly changing drumline, making it eminently listenable. You note here too that Heidi has certain lyric touchpoints throughout, like the color green is always malevolent, while blue is the opposite.

All Ears! has a bouncy, bassy groove and a cool keyboard chug, and again it displays a little musical humor with that quirky little riff that pops up throughout. This song almost serves two purposes — one to show the forming of Luna’s army (as the bio indicates), “If there’s a rage in you you don’t know what to do with/Just join the cult of dreams and wait and see/You’ll be released“. But then again, it’s justification for telling a compelling or fun story (“You’ve come to this far in the story/So you must know/That life is so dull without stories that are told/Now one for the darkness, magic and monsters/If they’re real or not, we don’t care/Cause they just work”), like we are always up for a good tale.

There’s a reference to The Devil’s Peak in the previous track, and there’s a sense that this is pivotal in the action just by the atmospheric lead-in, with lots of low-end drums and terse keyboards. It’s a bad place, easily discerned by the very sound of the song — it’s tragic and hopeless, the song serving to release those who are held here (“These hollow halls/Have bound you for too long”;“You’ll never know/This place after you’re gone!”;“The walls are screaming about the pain”) and that light and the earth will be healing.

Mörk is at last the long, epic track that’s the focus of the action, set to frenetic blastbeat drumming and minor-key drama. Guest singer Jasse Jatala is the titular bad guy and a real screamer, and this is the showdown between him and Luna (his crime is stealing dreams). The band’s knack for humor shows up again in that little barroom vamp section before the chorus — they do it again when Luna basically re-introduces herself and gently but firmly reminds us of who she is (“I’m a moonchild/Born from the Day and born from the Night”). Mörk of course responds with postures, threatening violence (“I will crack your bones, crack them like whips/I will crack your teeth, your limbs and tiny fingertips”). When they both sing, “I’m a monster!”, you realize they kind of both are in a way. Luna makes reference to her frozen heart, like that is her protection against Mörk’s power. The ‘ghosts’ serve as the Greek chorus, the ones who depend on how this confrontation will play out (“We all need to have something to believe in/Something to make our lives seem less gray or grim”). It’s quite well done, and when it ends with that vampy piano part again, it’s most satisfying.

DARK SARAH-BookBy the quiet, reflective ending, The Dark Throne, we’re not sure who won. “And say you’re sorry, because you broke me,” Luna sings, but that could go both ways. Heidi’s voice has a heartbroken wistfulness in this mostly keyboard track, and it ends with her voice alone, which is really lovely. It’s an interesting way to close because of its ambiguity and reflectiveness — it’s not some victorious thing, instead saying as much was lost as was won (“See me now, I’m proudly wearing my crown/In this life I own the dark throne”, Luna sings, but was it worth it because I’ve lost my adversary who may have also been my love)?

The band offers an accompanying book, Grim Poems, on its website, further fleshing out the story. But buy that or not, Grim the album itself has just enough of a storyline, and an appealingly transparent enough one, to make it stand just as strongly alone.

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