Whispered hail from Finland, but don’t tell them that. Spiritually, the hearts of the all-Finn band beat in time with the samurai warriors of Japan’s yesteryear. Whispered gallop and scream themselves hoarse like a charged-up Ensiferum, but with the help of traditional Japanese folk instruments like the koto and shamisen instead of the more generic ensemble many folk metal bands like Ensiferum employ. It’s easy to assume that Whispered are a gimmick band, desperately scraping for relevance in a crowded modern melodeath scene with the distinctive twang of their shamisen. But Whispered don’t appropriate the ancient sounds of Japan lightly; the thick tapestry of Japanese music and culture weaves throughout every stitch of their newest release, Metsutan – Songs of the Void.
The opening ditty, “Chi No Odori”, establishes the premise instantly. The two minute intro offers a crash-course in Japanese folk instruments, preparing the listener for what is to come. The national instrument of Japan, the koto, offers its high-pitched royal picking over the lower thrum of the shamisen, which sounds like an echoey banjo. Some spicy throat singing and whooping reminiscent of Tennger Cavalry neatly wraps up the package as the next song, “Strike”, lands its first punch. Whispered’s commitment to detail is clear in the articulate, speedy jabs of guitar notes following the shamisen. The notes are designed to mimic the finger-picked, swift melodies of the koto. This isn’t a one-off trick; again and again the guitar adds seven oriental strings to assume the guise of a koto, like at the !:00 mark of the excellent epic “Sakura Omen”.
Although Whispered primarily focus on Japanese instruments, they aren’t afraid to throw in some good ol’ brass when some extra Kobe beef is necessary. Some of their longer pieces, especially the aforementioned “Sakura Omen” and “Bloodred Shores of Enoshima” use the orchestration with laudable tact. The bellowing of the brass surprises with its heft among the often airy, higher-register melodies, and works to add a suitably epic sense of gravitas to the conclusion of these tales of the void.
Hidden somewhere among all this yammering about folk instrumentation and authenticity is some top of the line melodic death metal. Like many Finns, the vocalist has whatever gene it is that prowls around Scandinavia gifting mighty larynxes tailor-made for death and black metal screams. The guitars manage to provide articulate leads and sweeps while also maintaining a heavy quake in the bass-aided riffs. The double-bass kicks are menacingly powerful. Even among all the other elements, atmospheric keyboards somehow manage to slink in without crowding the show, like a ninja in the night. Furthermore, the album is a triumph of audio-tacular modern metal production. Despite the chaos of balancing so many instruments and tracks simultaneously, everything sounds crisp and genuine without restraining the bestial power of melodic death metal done right.
Suffice to say: Metsutan – Songs of the Void is an excellent album, one of the best of 2016. Even if Whispered’s Eastern influence began as a gimmick, it has not ended as one. The permeation of Japanese music, culture, and mythology into Whispered’s DNA has resulted in one of the most interesting, unique, and talented melodeath bands today.