With The Spirit of Ukko, Kiuas captured the best qualities and avoided the excesses of power, pagan, thrash, prog, and heavy metal, while adding rock/blues elements and a little death and black metal. Enhancing this aural banquet was an edginess, exuberance, and raw energy that were as vital a part of the album's freshness and broad appeal as was its blending of genres. On their sophomore release those traits are muted. The snarling, spirited mongrel heard on TSOU has had a few sessions in obedience school and a visit to a fussy groomer. The exciting mixture of strains is still there (albeit with more emphasis on prog and power) but in a tamer, more refined, embellished form. More ambitious than Kiuas's debut, technically superior in many ways, Reformation features slicker production (not that TSOU was lacking in that department) and increased complexity and detail in its arrangements. Mikko Salovaara's guitarwork is just as adventurous as before, if not more so, many of his solos being quite intricate, but Reformation is a less riff-oriented album, giving keyboards, which sound more ethereal and whimsical this time, greater emphasis. Subtler but very significant contrasts can be heard in the vocals. Mega-talented Ilja Jalkanen hasn't abandoned his wonderfully unorthodox, ballsy style, but he's less consistently vigorous on Reformation, smoothing out some of the grit and spending more time in the upper parts of his range. Nowhere is he as harsh and evil-sounding as on TSOU's "On Winds of Death We Ride" or as forceful as on "No More Sleep For Me." I could also do with a few more of his patented "Yea-ea-EAH's," "Whoah-oah-YEAH's," etc. Never in need of bolstering, Ilja's voice is actually less powerful and distinctive when multi-tracked, a technique used more extensively--at times gratuitously--on Reformation. Part of why the vocals seem toned down is that they aren't mixed quite as up front, taking away some of the edge, which in turn diminishes that quality in the overall sound.
As a result of all these differences in instrumentation and production, Reformation's tone is lighter and more playful than its predecessor's. "Race With the Falcons" tries to kick off Reformation in the manner that the title cut did on TSOU, but despite fast riffing and effective blast beats doesn't have the same intensity, its instrumental opening less dramatic, its chorus jauntier, its interlude more delicate, and there's nothing to match the grovel-before-me pre-chorus of "The Spirit of Ukko." Like TSOU's "And the North Star Cried," "Reformation (Wrath of the Old Gods)" is an epic send-off, lyrically functioning as a response to the first album's closer, as is the case, more broadly, with Reformation as a whole. But despite a stirring chorus with a beautifully arranged choir and a soulful, Brian May-ish guitar solo, it doesn't achieve the power generated by the majestic melodies, impassioned vocals, and other musical elements of "And the North Star Cried," whose naked emotion and menace are far more potent than the newer song's bravado. The theme in "Reformation . . . " ("the gods of the ancient world" forming an army and returning "to reclaim their thrones") is trivialized at the outset by an over-the-top combination of light, fluttery keys and strings, a flute, and a whispery vocal intoning uncharacteristically generic lyrics. Kiuas wax theatrical again later with Ilja's cackle in the interlude. I like fiendish laughter as much as anyone, but it doesn't work in this context. Then, just before the end is a self-consciously medieval-sounding passage. Throughout the song keys and strings, which are used to greater effect in "And the North Star Cried," negate the riffs and drums's heaviness and keep the atmosphere light, working against the song's message.
Kiuas are more successful in maintaining intensity and edginess while following their prog and orchestral leanings in "Through the Ice Age," where keys are more in the background and stuttering, Meshuggah-like rhythms, bashing guitars and drums, and harsh singing dominate. Also strong is "Black Winged Goddess," in which "berserker vocals" by Amoral frontman Niko Kalliojï¿½rvi and sharp tones from Ilja, particularly in his solo parts, form a rough duet. The long, varied interlude is a guitar workout augmented well by strings, keys being mostly limited to classic Psycho-style shrieks in the background. Contortionistic rhythms and great singing make the verses and, especially, pre-chorus of "Heart of the Serpent" high points on the album, but the interlude's riffing could use more punch and the chorus suffers from an uninteresting melody and perfunctory "Yea-eah's." Unfortunately, this song isn't alone in having a weak chorus: that of "Call of the Horns" drags, mostly because of a dreary melody further weighted down by a badly multi-tracked vocal. Although better executed, the choruses of "Bleeding Strings" and the rather bland "The New Chapter" have a for-simpletons-only type of catchiness, and the former track is a rare case of Ilja making ill-advised choices.
Exquisite vocal melodies, adroitly phrased lyrics, and perfect delivery by Ilja Jalkenen are why TSOU was able to awaken the inner pagan in everyone. In their evocation of Finnish myth and legend, it was as though Kiuas was tapping into some kind of universal consciousness. While there are few instances of weak writing on Reformation (the only glaring case being the first several lines of the final track, as noted earlier), the lyrics are generally less inspired and the often unremarkable vocal lines don't elevate them. Nor does Ilja, despite his best efforts. When he gives unwarranted oomph to mundane words and phrases, it's as though he's trying to inject the lines with something that simply isn't there, either in the lyrics or the melodies. Just listen to the way he inexplicably grinds out the word "forest" in the opening of "Reformation . . . " or spits out "steppe" in "Of Ancient Wounds."
Familiarity with Kiuas's themes is, of course, a factor in the way Reformation's lyrical content is received, and the same is true of the band's sound, to some extent: unique elements that were present on the first album inevitably don't seem quite as fresh on the follow-up. And while new directions are desirable, it is sad that they have been taken at the expense of some of the qualities that made TSOU so arresting: relentless pacing, raw edges despite its sophistication, and brashness. Despite technically dazzling displays and loads of extras, Reformation is a "safer" album than the debut is, which, combined with unevenness in certain basics like melodies, makes it solid but not as special. How much less special depends on individual tastes. Many prog and power fans will welcome most of the changes in Kiuas's music. Anyone who loves The Spirit of Ukko's "Warrior Soul" more for its high-pitched, happy chorus than for its rampaging verses may be very satisfied with Reformation. If the reverse is true, nothing will fully compensate for the subtle (and not so subtle) things that are missing or diminished. And those who value that song's verse and chorus equally might be vaguely disappointed and somewhat perplexed as to why.