Getting Into: Tarot
So, what kind of band is Tarot, you ask? It was formed as Purgatory in the early 80s by the Hietala brothers with, I suppose, a mission to create Finland’s own take on 70s metal, their main inspiration being Rainbow, with many more influences such as doom metal, symphonic metal and prog rock creeping in along the way. The lineup has remained impressively stable throughout the decades of its existence, with only two changes on the way to its dissolution after 2010's Gravity Of Light after the death of drummer Pecu Cinnari (ex-Lazy Bonez). Any fan of metal ought to know what a fantastic vocalist and bassist Marco (ex-Nightwish, ex-Sinergy, Northern Kings - he changed his artist name to Marko later but in Tarot he is Marco, and so also here) is, but fewer probably know what a talented guitarist his brother Zachary (Marenne, A2Z) is.
Well, strap in and join me for a ride through the catalogue of Tarot, and you’ll find out all about this and more, and get three songs per album recommended to you in case you’re too important to have time for full albums. Oh, and feel free to scroll down and check out the playlist I’ve created for you with my favourite Tarot songs while reading. Let’s go!
1986 - Spell Of Iron
“Love's not made for my kind / My heart's turning to stone
Love's not made for my kind / Better to leave me alone”
"Wings Of Darkness" is the instant classic of this proto-power metal album, and remained a staple at the band's live shows throughout its entire career. Songs like the opener "Midwinter Nights" with its offbeat riffing and excellent solo, the instrumental bag of fun that's "De Mortui Nil Nisi Bene" (Nothing But Good About The Dead), the instant classic power ballad "Love's Not Made For My Kind", and closing ballad "Things That Crawl At Night" have all aged very well even up until this day. Notably, the closer is just the first of Tarot's many , many very fine (proper) ballads; don’t worry, I’ll point them all out to you. On this album (and the next one), Tarot featured an additional guitarist in Mako H., who influences the sound in ways different to their later output, and it is an old album that sounds very 70s with all of the charm and drawbacks this might entail to a first-time listener, so I'd recommend starting elsewhere if you’re coming in fresh. However, it is an impressive debut album in its own right, and well worth a listen or three or fifty (or more).
Recs: Love’s Not Made For My Kind, Wings Of Darkness, Things That Crawl At Night
1988 - Follow Me Into Madness
“Look at me, I'll create you a dream
Reality escapes or so it may seem”
An improvement upon the debut ever so slightly in every way, except the atrocious cover art (to be fair, they’d later re-release the album with a much better cover, but this is what Metal Storm’s database scrounges up for me, so deal with it), Follow Me Into Madness continues on the melodic proto-power/heavy metal path forged by Spell Of Iron, but introduces some darker, experimental and more unpredictable elements to the sound (as a sophomore album should). "Descendants Of Power", "Breathing Fire", and "I Spit Venom" are all breakneck heavy/power metal songs, “I Don’t Care Anymore” is quite unforgettable, the closer ballad "Shadow In My Heart" is again highly memorable, and the title track is one of the band's finest songs to this day; a power ballad with creepy, sinister lyrics about an abusive partner (or a cult leader?), undulating dynamics, and an excellent buildup to one of Zachary's finest solos to date (and that list goes on and on and on). Still, not the best place to start unless you’re really in the business for an old-school sounding melodic heavy metal album, but it has aged very well and continues to be a highlight in Tarot’s career.
Recs: Follow Me Into Madness, I Don’t Care Anymore, Shadow In My Heart
1993 - To Live Forever
“Why, do you wanna live forever / The truth might hit you blind
If you wanna live forever / Better widen your mind”
“Better widen your mind” indeed; however, on To Live Forever, the guys in Tarot might have widened their minds a bit too much for their own good. Five years have passed between this and the previous two albums. Most notably, Mako H is no longer in the band, reducing the number of guitarists to one, his place instead being taken by keyboardist Janne Tolsa (Turmion Kätilöt, Eternal Tears Of Sorrow, Marenne), and this change and hiatus lead to To Live Forever being a mellower, more laid-back, but more experimental and lush affair, which dials down the blistering proto-power metal, down down down, until it turns into something closer to melodic arena rock that sounds less like Rainbow and more like a mix of Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, and Blue Öyster Cult, albeit a quite straight-forward one. “Do You Wanna Live Forever” showcases this stylistic shift immediately, showing sparser instrumentation, a softer production, lush keyboard pads, and even motivational lyrics. It’s one of the best cuts on this album, for better and worse; while it remains a great song in Tarot’s discography, and goes down very well live, it sets a high bar for the way too long album to come. The original release consists of no less than 14 tracks, and while many of them are great in their own regard, the sheer bloat and mostly middling pace (apart from the fast-paced “Sunken Graves”, “In My Blood”, and “Shame”) make it a bit of a slog to get through. This is a “Shame”, as none of the songs are really bad; in fact, they’re all pretty good, with the anthemic “The Colour Of Your Blood” and “Live Hard Die Hard”, the Black Sabbath cover of “Children Of The Grave”, and the (once again) beautiful, soaring closing ballad “Guardian Angel” being the best songs here. However, the middle of the album tends to drag until “My Enslaver” comes to pick up the pieces, and as I tend to say, there’s just a bit too much good for the good’s own good.
Recs: Do You Wanna Live Forever, My Enslaver, Guardian Angel
1994 - To Live Again [Live]
“Screams falling out of the sky
Blackness encloses me”
With three albums under the belt, Tarot decides to release a live album. It turns out already from the opening minute of “Children Of The Grave” that this is very likely the best way to experience the band. Marco’s bass is turned up ever so slightly compared to on the studio albums (and he adds his trademark powerful wail here and there). Zachary has a lot of fun with his guitar, adding little licks and spits all throughout and pulling off some excellent solos. Janne’s keyboards have a life of their own at times, and add a whole new dimension to the songs from the first two albums, while honestly removing very little in the process. Pecu pummels along in a nice, thick tone better than his studio sound. Of particular note is how the more arena-oriented, anthemic songs from To Live Forever all work very well in the live setting; this is how they’re meant to be experienced, folks. There’s also a great cover of Rainbow’s “Kill The King” towards the end, killing all doubt as to where its influences lie. Still, Tarot would go on to release an even better live album over a decade later, so read on to find out all about that…
1995 - Stigmata
“Know the price of unleashed empathy
To much of it will get you killed”
Stigmata is a strange album. It is very much in the vein of To Live Forever, but somehow dials back the sound even further for most of the time. However, its tighter focus, with only 10 tracks arranged in a much more sensible tracklist, makes it preferable in every way. “Angels Of Pain” opens up the album in a fast-paced, keyboard-driven fashion that instantly tells us that Tarot has found a much better way to integrate Janne’s keyboards into their sound than on its 1993 album. Next up is “E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)” which sounds like one of the better cuts on To Live Forever, with its long runtime and mid-paced, anthemic nature. Juggling fast and slow throughout, “Shades In Glass” picks up the pace sharply, only to drop it again on the following, melodic, very beautiful “As One”. “State Of Grace” and “Expected To Heal” might be slightly throwaway here, and they pad out the tracklist a bit too much, but “Sleepless” is the latest addition to Tarot’s already by now extensive catalogue of highly memorably, soulful, beautiful ballads, and closing track “Stigmata (I Feel For You)” is the band’s longest, most ambitious song yet, with thoughtful, darkly romantic lyrics and many twists and turns that serve to set up for the epic, repetitive outro that makes you want to replay at least this song again only to hear it while knowing what’s coming. Stigmata also features an additional, live, disc, which seems a bit unnecessary considering To Live Again wasn’t that long ago, but why not, I guess.
Recs: Angels Of Pain, As One, Stigmata (I Feel For You)
1998 - For The Glory Of Nothing
“You, I, the final joining, never need another one
Crash race into the heart of the eclipsed sun”
It took Tarot over a decade, but on For The Glory Of Nothing, the band finally strikes gold.. I bid you welcome to one of my most-listened-to albums of all time; the kind of album where every little detail and every little lyric is forever entrenched in my memory from the sheer amount of times I’ve heard it. Here, you’ll hear Tarot find the perfect balance between guitars and keyboards, slow and fast pace, ferocious and anthemic; all of these contrasting elements sometimes struggling to find their footing previously in the discography suddenly come together to create something that overshadows much of the band’s other output, even if their “third era” albums would come pretty close. A sample of the outro to Stigmata decays into static noise. Then, the deceptively simple opener builds upon this theme into a short, sweet piece of sort-of fast-paced melodic heavy metal. “Warhead” is a longer-running anthem about the dangers of nuclear weaponry that is as relevant today as it was then, “I’m Here” juxtaposes a fast-paced verse with a slow-paced chorus to build tension and dynamics, and then the two beastly centrepiece tracks come to steal your attention. Yeah, the pace of the album drops quite a bit for the next 12 minutes, but with songs as memorable as these, it simply works. “Dark Star Burning” is one of the band’s finest moments, especially towards the end where it drops into pummeling tribal mode with Marco chanting “Freezing fire / Dark star”. “Ghosts Of Me” and “Ice” as well are some of the band’s finest moments, with the former being a tragic power ballad about a broken youth and the latter a sinister, twistedly romantic addition to said ever-growing list of simply beautiful (though in this case slightly unnerving) closing ballads that rests on Janne’s glitchy, modern keys and ends in Marco’s wordless falsetto screaming that sounds like something only he could ever reproduce. Still, hearing Tarot live is the best way to get started, however, this is a nearly flawless studio album, and one you’d do well to check out soon enough.
2003 - Suffer Our Pleasures
“Did you ever think that the stink of the flesh I’d suck / Would be you, sad fuck?”
Five years later, and Tarot returns after another hiatus, adding this time studio musician Tommi Salmela on sampler and additional vocals. Why a band with a singer like Marco would ever need another vocalist beats me, but my guess is it had something to do with their live performances that then bled into the studio process. I might be wrong though, maybe they’re just very good friends. Immediately from the opening chords of “I Rule” you’ll hear said samplers behind an ominous, acoustic intro that swiftly sets up for a blistering riff supported by the best production they’ve ever had. Sinisterly sexual lyrics and a drive as energetic as any Tarot ever did lead into a noisy, screamy outro, a cough, and then the epic keyboards and chugging guitars that build up “Pyre Of Gods”. “Pyre Of Gods” is at least as good as anything on For The Glory Of Nothing. In fact, so is the anthemic “Rider Of The Last Day” (that explodes into a fast-paced assault towards the end) and “Undead Son”, and the heavy power metal of the other songs too, not to mention the ballads “Of Time And Dust” (which features what might be Zachary’s best solo of all time, which is quite an accomplishment) and the acoustic yet heavy “Painless”. The only reason Suffer Our Pleasures pales slightly in comparison to aforementioned career highlight is that there’s nothing as epic as “Beyond Troy”, nothing as poignant as “Ghosts Of Me”, and nothing as sinisterly soothing as “Ice”, but it is a damn fine follow-up and well worth checking out.
Recs: Pyre Of Gods, Rider Of The Last Day, From The Void
2006 - Crows Fly Black
“Stars, they're skywide, forever burn
Scars, you carve deep, but never learn”
Enter 2006 and Tommi is now a permanent member of the band, sharing vocal duties with Marco and playing the sampler and (I think) even writing a song or two. It has to be said that Tommi is not as good a singer as Marco, but this mostly boils down to personal preference between the two’s voices. He hits higher notes more easily than Marco, it seems, and the contrast between Marco’s more gruff voice and Tommi’s more power metal, sort-of-falsetto at least brings something new to the table. Fun fact: Crows Fly Black was one of the first, and is still one of the only, albums I ever bought on CD (hey, when I grew up, mp3 players were already all the rage). This penultimate album of Tarot’s is very similar in both sound and quality as its predecessor (if not even a tad bit better), featuring equally sing-along-worthy choruses, equally blistering riffs supported by gnarly bass, and equally lighters-in-the-air-anthemic cuts. The only complaint I have is that with the addition of a new member, you’d expect some more progression, but then again, don’t fix what ain’t broken, eh? Highly recommended.
Recs: Tides, You, Howl!
2008 - Undead Indeed [Live]
“Airborne I'm speeding in flames / Dark wings growing from my heels
I make the rules for my games / Back in the fire with burning wheels”
If you’ve made it all the way here, this is where I tell you that Undead Indeed is very much the best place to start if you’re looking to get into Tarot. It is a superb live album, with content spanning the band’s entire discography and more often than not adding some welcome extra touches to the older material. It features most heavily songs from Suffer Our Pleasures and Crows Fly Black, which makes sense, but very early on also breathes new life into for example “Wings Of Darkness” and “Back In The Fire” way back from the debut album. Tommi on added vocals starts to make sense here, as he offloads Marco to the point that they both work better together than without each other. There’s even a very interesting cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars” towards the middle, and a 4 minute long guitar solo towards the end, before it ends with the anthemic (dear pyre of gods, how many times have I used this word now in this article?) “Guardian Angel” and “Things That Crawl At Night”, making for a soft landing that makes you want to hear it all once more. I repeat, if you want to get into Tarot (and if not, what are you still doing here?), this is the place to start - then you can start navigating their studio output. This is the perfect example of one of those live albums that manages to encapsulate everything a band is about while breathing new life into its material, and highly recommended, no matter your intent.
2010 - Gravity Of Light
“You may find me lying on some desert road
My eyes wide open to the universe”
Gravity Of Light has a totally badass title, and contains many fine songs, but turns out to be something of a more symphonic album than any of the previous ones, at the cost of some of the heaviness. However, as it would go on to become Tarot’s final album with their disbandment after Pecu’s death, it still holds a quite special place in the discography, and hints at what would be to come had the band continued on. Marco really is an underrated lyricist, always straddling the line between sci-fi, fantasy, dark romanticism, and insanity. Musically, this album is very similar to the previous two, but lacks the same punch or memorability except for in a few standout moments such as (pretty much the entirety of) power ballad “Hell Knows”, the subtly keyboard-driven and surprisingly explosive “Caught In The Deadlights”, (again) lighters-in-the-air anthem “I Walk Forever”, and since-long-ago-mandatory excellent closing ballad “Gone”. As far as final albums go, it’s definitely not bad, but yeah, it feels slightly unnecessary until you realise there was probably more to come if not for the tragic demise of a drummer that’d been with them since the very beginning.
Recs: Hell Knows, I Walk Forever, Gone
Actually, Gravity Of Light isn’t truly the final album; that dubious honour goes to 2011’s The Spell Of Iron MMXI which is exactly what it looks like: a remake of the debut album from 1986. Featuring Tommi on sampler and vocals and Janne on keyboards, it does turn those old songs into something new, but I’m not sure if it’s for better or worse, and I’ll leave that judgement up to whoever reads this and has the time to truly get into Tarot.
Tarot deserves greater recognition, and I hope this article will enable a couple more listeners of theirs. As you might have gathered, Tarot is one of my favourite bands, one of the ones I’ve listened the most and longest to, and one of metal history’s big underrated gems. Give it a shot, and it might become one of your favourites too.
|Written on 09.12.2023 by 100% objective opinions.
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