FROZEN FACTORY – Album Review: “Of Pearls & Perils”

Hailing from the beautiful nation of Finland is the exceptionally talented rock band Frozen Factory. I first introduced them to my readers last June when I reviewed their excellent EP The First Liquidation, which they cheekily described as “an EP with a suspiciously high number of tracks.” I was so impressed with its high quality that I didn’t think they could top it, but their new album Of Pearls & Perils has proven me wrong. I’m not generally a huge fan of hard rock, but I loved it at first listen. And it’s not often I call an album a “masterpiece”, but Of Pearls & Perils deserves that title, and then some. 

Since forming in December 2018, Frozen Factory has undergone several personnel changes, and now consists of founding member Tomi Hassinen on bass, keyboards and backing vocals, Stephen Baker (who’s originally from England) on lead vocals, Mici Ehnqvist on lead guitar, Marianne Heikkinen on drums, and Johnny Koivumäki, who joined the band in late 2021, on rhythm guitar. Influenced by some of their favorite acts like Alice In Chains, Iron Maiden, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine, they create moody, complex and melodic alternative rock with strong undercurrents of progressive, grunge, symphonic, metal and dream rock. This seemingly contradictory and eclectic combination of stylistic elements makes for some incredibly compelling and darkly beautiful music that’s a joy to listen to.

Photo of Mici, Johnny, Marianne, Stephen & Tomi by Petri Sara

Interestingly, Of Pearl & Perils was actually written and partly recorded before the band even began writing and recording The First Liquidation EP. They explain: “We penned ‘Of Pearls & Perils’ almost immediately after finishing 2020’s ‘Planted Feet’ and fell so in love with the songs that we wanted to make sure we’d give the album all the right conditions to sound the best it could. So, we banked the songs and experimented with the creation of ‘The First Liquidation’, expanding our horizons along the way. As a result, the EP and this new album link together almost like siblings. That’s not to say that ‘The First Liquidation’ is a B-record – it simply felt like a necessary bridge to our growth before we tackled the monster we knew was lurking within ‘Of Pearls & Perils’.

And what a magnificent monster it is! They’ve really outdone themselves with their skillful blending of alt-rock, melodic metal and progressive elements to create an epic, mind-blowing and stunning work. All 12 tracks are outstanding, overflowing with gorgeous melodies, driving rhythms and breathtaking instrumentation. The poetic lyrics are both biting and deeply insightful, and delivered with Stephen’s powerful, resonant vocals, which often cover me with chills. He seriously has one of the more beautiful voices in rock today.

Written by Stephen and Tomi, the album addresses such topics as inequality and oppression, toxic masculinity, the afterlife, and the climate crisis. More specifically, the dark lyrics reflect Stephen’s inner struggles with the behavior of much of the human race, including himself. He elaborates: “I really cannot comprehend why we’re so careless with our home planet and the living communities that depend on it. I’m sad when I see regular people fighting with other regular people and then voting to give power to people who’re hell-bent on destroying regular folk. I feel like we’ve become so easy to influence, so easy to deceive, so easy to distract with trivial differences. I’d like to see a safe world where every kind and life-respecting human has the opportunity to reach their potential, no matter what kind of body they possess, beliefs they follow or lifestyle they lead. Our songs are usually a wake-up call, and often written to push myself as well as anyone else who listens, because I sometimes feel lazy and inactive about things that should anger me to the core. I want to be more. I want to do more to help. I want human civilisation to succeed.”

Album opener “Murder in the Depths” starts off with a woman speaking the line “Il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis” (which translates to English as “Only a fool would never change their mind”), accompanied by jarring sounds of a siren blaring a warning. The woman speaking is Angela Carolei, one of Frozen Factory’s most active fans, whom they’ve never met. Her voice is also featured in several other little moments throughout the record, in both French and English. Stephen said that he chose to use some minor French moments for both Of Pearls & Perils and The First Liquidationbecause the French language includes some absolutely killer phrases that don’t work so well in English.”

With lyrics containing nautical references, a theme that will be repeated on several tracks, the song encapsulates the album’s overall messages of social injustice and inequality, not only among classes but between men and women, oppression and environmental degradation. “Murder in the Depths” speaks of a woman who perished while diving for pearls intended for the wealthier class, which she would never have had the opportunity to wear: “With little choice like most before, she laboured for a dream. Was sent to dive too deep, where nobility refused to even dip their toes. Her lungs collapsed far below...if we don’t face up together, fear will point our distrust down. And billions more will drown.”

The song quickly segues into “Host With the Most“, blasting through the speakers with a barrage of raging guitars, throbbing bass and Marianne’s explosive drumbeats. And though it’s purely coincidental, I like the little guitar riff that sounds like the one from The B-52s “Rock Lobster”, and Mici’s wailing guitar solo in the bridge is absolute fire. As an Atheist who does not believe in heaven nor hell (other than how both are manifested here on earth), the lyrics about how so many people endure injustice and pain in their lives, hopeful in the belief they’ll do better in an afterlife, strongly resonate with me: “How many place their bets on bliss? How many live their lives for this? Oh have they seen some guarantees or signs of afterlife? / There’s only one life given at a time. The rest is a question that will never die. But you will die, so be prepared to say goodbye. No afterlife.

Solar Windfalls” is a gentle song with a nod to David Bowie’s iconic “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars”, sung from the perspective of an astronaut traveling through space, contemplating their endless search for exciting new adventures and the state of the world they’ve left behind: “I’m closer than ever to an answer for Bowie. Yeah I turned to face the strange, but what can life on Mars teach me about the richer man’s change?/ What have I become? Pursuing shiny desires. Points of light above keep me majorly wired. Is there even a place at the end of my trail? Or will I endlessly trace a line that’s destined to fail? The pale blue dot fades, she is to me ever darker, ever farther she wanes, and the chasm grows starker.” The somber piano keys, twinkling synths and chiming guitars are wonderful, as are Stephen’s plaintive vocals.

The next several tracks see Frozen Factory railing against racism, cruelty and putting our faith in duplicitous leaders who steer us to ruin. On “Equalise Power“, they call out racism, fear of the other, and police brutality, and implore us to act with fairness, tolerance and compassion: “What part of you is broken? That your heart cannot be open to a person of another colour, what is colour? You’ve been put in a bubble to elevate your struggles. Your fire stoked by nonsense that you swallow gladly. Apparently unable to see what’s on the table. The poison that you’ve been fed since your first days alive./ Your reasons for hate are not reasonable. When you discriminate you are not reasonable. That call you will make it is not reasonable. The actions police take will not be reasonable. Time to end this now. Time to equalise power. Seize thy hour.”

They channel their inner Alice In Chains on the hard-hitting “The Depths of Hell“, a scathing diatribe against too many societies’ penchant for going against our best interests in the support of disingenuous and evil leaders who stoke hate and divisiveness by preying on our fears: “Our only future is the ash of the past, when we fund and root for the most egregious ass. We love a Lucifer to fork our lives on every burning issue. They will decide. We’ve picked our demons to fix our aim and sell us our trip to heaven.” The song’s a proper metal rock gem, with a deep, pummeling rhythm courtesy of Tomi’s crushing bassline and Marianne’s speaker-blowing drums. Mici’s guitar work is positively fearsome as he makes his six-string wail and scream, and Stephen’s vocals are dripping with venom as he matches the music’s fury note for note.

And speaking of venom, they launch headlong into “Loud, Lazy, Late“, furiously calling out an asshole totally lacking in any redeemable attributes: “Can’t you show any will to grow? Any thoughts to be kinder than you’ve been. You’ve no empathy, it’s all me me me. You don’t like my tone, but you’ve abso-fucking-lutely got to go! Loud, lazy, late and low quality!

Pie in the Sky” is a stirring anthemic ballad, with beautiful piano, cinematic synths, and exuberant jangly and wailing guitars. The lyrics seem to speak of finding contentment not from material possessions and desires, but from the natural beauty and love that lies inside each of us if we allow it to flourish and grow: “False symbols of winning life, bring promise before denial. ‘Cause what we’d like you cannot buy. This is our own and it’s beautiful.

I think my favorite track from a musical standpoint is “Absolute in Vanity“. I love its strong driving beat, heavy chugging rhythms and gorgeous ostinato guitar riffs of a similar vein as Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, though the melody is vastly different. The song is a kind of response to “The Depths of Hell” above, but this time sung from the perspective of the evil Trump-like leader people have elected: “You! I will be your king if you please. What’s that? You love me? Well. I don’t come free. No. I will be your king if you please. What’s that? You chose me? Well. I don’t come cheap. Because of lies, lies. You idolise lies.” Between those fiery riffs and Stephen’s spectacular impassioned vocals, I’m left covered in goosebumps.

We’re Gonna Die” is a rousing banger decrying peoples’ greed and insatiable need for more, more, more, and how it’s killing the planet: “Long ago on a hill lived a group who felt they had a need. Though they had more than most, their whole life was a spiral of greed. They lit a fire for their revolution. The first distant lands burned with absolution. Hey you, we’re gonna die if you don’t change your lifestyle now.” The arresting piano riff reminds me a bit of U2’s “New Years Day”. “Never is a Theory” is perhaps the most enigmatic song on the album. I’m not sure of the song’s meaning, but my guess is that it’s about coming to terms with one’s own death, as expressed in these lyrics: “Will I cease to be tonight, as i can’t believe my sight. A myth the trust in vision seems hard to swallow, lies or dreams yeah. End of the river. End of the river. I’m trying to see, what’s at the end of the river. End of the river for me.” In any case, it’s an enchanting rock song, with terrific improvised guest vocals sung by Lily M.

The title track “Of Pearls & Perils” opens on a pensive note with a man assuring his son that, even though the ship (representing the Titanic) is in trouble, everything will be alright: “Try not to worry about it son. You know what the captain said. He said ‘Every single one of us is safe on this ship.” The song gradually expands into a haunting piano-driven anthem, accompanied by grungy guitars and soaring vocals.

Stephen states that the song is essentially about toxic masculinity, and how men have taken the world in the wrong direction, but remain incredibly stubborn and resistant to change, denying or underplaying their weaknesses and overstating their strengths in order to protect their pride. The ship represents the ruling elite of men who currently control the ship of human destiny, and in this song, a man gains a woman’s love with a gift of pearls, assuring her the ship is safe: “With a hull so strong, we will brush off ice and storms. On the treacherous cold seas we will never freeze. I’ve heard no man can steer us wrong. Our ship will n carry on. This titan can’t be breached. These props will never seize.” As the ship continues to sink deeper into the ocean, his unwavering belief in the men who built the ship, and that it would never sink, cannot be broken: “Sit with me, be relaxed. Rest assured this is a lapse. Don’t listen, look or think. You cannot know that we will sink.” The song ends with sounds of actual Morse code from the Titanic, sending out a distress call, accompanied by an eerie voiceover of a woman, sung by Angela Carolei, saying “Ce n’est pas la mer à boire“, which translates to “It’s not the sea to drink”.

The album closes with the somber “Deceit Upon the Decks“, a final note to the story of the woman described in “Of Pearls & Perils”. The song also mirrors the first track “Murder in the Depths”, except that in this song, the woman who perished was upper-class, rather than a worker: “A skull dressed with her jewels. He never loved her true. They never really were for her, but emblems for other men to observe. Of status, cash and property. The shackles in his evil dream. Her trust went to the top of the chain. They both tumbled when he fell from grace.” Stephen says that the final lines of the song sum up the album’s overall meaning, that we’ve been conditioned to believe that many things that are actually against our own interest would be good for us, and we often allow things to happen that are bad for us: “Of pearls and perils there is much lore. To claim each as a gem for the men with it all. And they’ve told you they’re one and the same. And it’s not your place to question their game.” The last words, spoken by Angela, quietly implore us to “Please, think again.”

What more can I say about this album that I haven’t already gushed over, other than to restate that it’s an epic, mind-blowing and stunning work. The thought, care and strong musicianship that have gone into its creation and production are truly impressive, and the five members of Frozen Factory should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished. I think it’s one of the best albums of 2022.

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FROZEN FACTORY – EP Review: “The First Liquidation”

I’ve recently featured more international acts on this blog than ever (in the past few months I’ve written about artists & bands from South Africa, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, England, Wales, Germany, Italy and Denmark, as well as a compilation album featuring artists from across Europe), and today I’m pleased to introduce my first ever act from Finland, a wonderful band called Frozen Factory. I learned about them when band vocalist Stephen Baker reached out to me about their new EP The First Liquidation, which dropped May 28th.

Formed rather spontaneously at the end of 2018, the Helsinki-based group has undergone numerous personnel changes, and now consists of founding member Tomi Hassinen on bass, Stephen Baker (who’s originally from England) on vocals, Mici Ehnqvist on lead guitar, and Marianne Heikkinen on drums. Influenced by some of their favorite acts like Alice In Chains, Iron Maiden, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine, they create moody, complex and melodic alternative rock with strong undercurrents of progressive, grunge, symphonic, metal and dream rock. This seemingly contradictory and eclectic combination of stylistic elements makes for some incredibly compelling and darkly beautiful music that’s a joy to listen to.

They released their marvelous debut album Planted Feet in June 2020, then followed with a series of singles from December 2020 to May 2021, which culminated in the release of The First Liquidation. Interestingly, the EP almost never got made, as Frozen Factory originally planned to drop a few one-off singles before moving on to focus on their already-written second album, to be released later this year. But they were having so much fun creating these new songs that ‘a few singles’ eventually grew into to a five-track EP, which then ballooned to become what the band describes as “an EP with a suspiciously high number of tracks.” It now features eight tracks, six of which are fully fledged songs, with the other two serving as intro and outro. Because it runs less than 30 minutes in length, the band feels it doesn’t quite qualify as an album, hence their insistence in calling it an EP. The songs were co-written by Stephen and Tomi, with Tomi also flawlessly producing the EP.

About the EP, Stephen explains: “We’re extremely proud to present this record to you. In between our main records we wanted to spend some time practising our craft using some strong songs that didn’t match the theme of our previous or upcoming albums. It’s been even more rewarding than we imagined in terms of fun and from how much we’ve learned making these songs. This record takes a brief look at human-to-human relationships, expressing some thoughts on empathy or lack of, and telling a couple of true stories. We think you’ll enjoy the emotive true-to-life direction of the record and the expanded use of sound design. We’re active with talking to those who follow us, especially on Instagram, so please come and say hi and join our mailing list on http://www.frozenfactorymusic.com.”

In listening to the EP, what first strikes me is that, despite its relatively short run time, it feels almost like a rock opera or an epic musical in the vein of Les Misérables. This is partly due to the music’s complex and cinematic arrangements, but also the sounds and interludes used between songs that work to tie them together. Also, Stephen’s gorgeous vocals have a rich and commanding timbre that make them perfectly suited for the more grandiose orchestration. (As a side note, he recorded his vocals in a tiny home sauna that he converted into a sound booth, so as not to disturb his family and neighbors. Because it heated up very quickly within the enclosed space, he recorded vocals in his underwear.)

The opening track “The Alternate Missed” starts off rather ominously, with dark, cinematic synths and distant choral vocals, followed by sounds of footsteps in snow and a door opening and closing as someone enters a building. The ominous music returns along with Stephen’s vocals earnestly singing the profound lyrics that seem to speak of a fallen leader, and setting the tone for the EP: “And once his head’s spun with truth and fiction. The wise lament lest they ignore his final diction. And languish their judgement or vanquish indeed. His theatre has vanished and with it his heed. And we all miss the man that he could have been.”

The song immediately segues into “Au Contraire“, a lovely, melodic song with lyrics in both English and French. The song continues with the theme introduced in the previous track, namely what seems to me to be the duplicity of a hubris-afflicted leader who disregards the suffering of his/her citizens: “Fait accompli. The value of the public’s clear. Raison d’être, to earn for you through their blood, sweat, and tears. Objet d’art, the walls of that cathedral stand, Vis à vis, now aligned with your contempt for those who truly need.” Stephen beautifully sings the English and French lyrics with ease, accompanied by guest vocals by French singer Madeleen singing the choruses. The whistling at the beginning of the song, as well as the warm organ and accordion notes and gently-strummed guitars give the song an intriguing French flair.

One of my favorite tracks on the EP is the anthemic “Hour of Need“, with its stirring piano-driven melody and dramatic soaring choruses. The song’s arrangement and execution are first-rate, nicely showcasing the exceptional musicianship of all four band members. I don’t know who plays piano here, but it’s stunning, and I love Stephen’s plaintive vocals, backed by Marianne’s hauntingly beautiful harmonies. The poetic lyrics are somewhat ambiguous to me, but my guess is that they speak to the current fears and strife facing many of us, urging us to remain focused on the big picture, and make the best of this one life we’re given: “In our hour of need, we’re adrift endlessly / Always remember this journey’s but once. Don’t cast it away. A sound destination sits on the horizon. Keep above the waves.”

Frozen Factory taps into their metal sensibilities on “Old Money“, which has a frantic, almost punkish vibe, both musically and lyrically. Mici rips through the airwaves with his blistering guitar work, while Tomi and Marianne keep the pummeling rhythms moving forward at full throttle. Stephen’s rapid-fire vocals sound fiercer than ever as he launches into a diatribe against the wealthy elite and how they keep the rest of us financially enslaved: “Some are born in, with every way out they could wish for. Others are born out, with no way in. Yet many search endlessly for an open door./ Their old money. Their old kings and queens. Their bloody tricks. They’ve had us on our knees.”

I have a special fondness for female drummers, and this video shows Marianne working her magic.

They then show their softer, more introspective side on the poignant ballad “Two Dads“. The touching song is about a man on his way to work who encounters a homeless man begging for a handout. He fumbles through his pockets, only to discover he has no change to give him, and thinks about the fact that they both have children who they’d give their life for, and how fate and luck have put them in such differing life circumstances: “His face says that he knows, my growing dread has been shown. He’s sensed me thinking of my son. We’d both die to save a cherished one. I can’t begin to comprehend gifts only received by the few lucky kids. Ought’a run to my job, can’t be late, no I won’t miss my stop. After leaving I ponder my time. Could have gone to get cash, my career would survive.”

When You’ve Grown” is equally poignant, with lyrics spoken internally from a father to his child who’s growing up so fast, thinking out loud about how he will miss them as they are now, yet looking forward to knowing them as an adult too: “I feel I will miss you when you’ve grown. That child you are today, it’s sad that we won’t meet again./ I’d never hold you back. Never hope for that. I’ll be proud to see the grown-up that you will be.” The song starts off slowly, with eerie synths and a far-off gently pounding drumbeat that’s soon replaced by somber piano chords as Stephen wistfully sings. Halfway through, the music and Stephen’s vocals turn more dramatic and impassioned, with heavier metal-rock guitar and percussion, before calming back down at the end.

The powerful and haunting rock anthem “You” is another strong track, with outstanding guitar work, sweeping keyboards and thunderous percussion. Mici’s fiery guitar solo and Stephen’s impassioned vocals are fantastic, leaving me covered with goosebumps. The lyrics seem to speak to a leader of some kind who’s waging a valiant but continuously threatened effort against tyranny: “You build us up, and you’re torn down. We suck the gun aimed at you. Target of the noose. You call injustice by its name. And you won’t stop until it’s better. Though you’re sick of the lies. You give yourself for our lives. Enduring the pressure.”

The EP ends on a somewhat optimistic note with “An Improbable Flame“, a brief, rather dark-sounding track that opens with harsh sounds of radio static, eerie thumping drumbeats, ill winds and breaking glass, which are eventually replaced with a somber piano movement. Stephen speaks the hopeful lyrics that perhaps we’ll do better next time: “A flame is improbable in a storm that’s unstoppable. Yet it is not the storm but the greed that tips the candlestick. To light for one a second wick, only to snuff their blessing out. Yet when gifted another time and place, perhaps this soul won’t make the same mistake. But share instead that flame around, til’ the winds blow not amongst the circled crowd.

In another review of The First Liquidation for Finnish webzine Kaaos, a writer criticized the eclectic nature of the music and songs, commenting that “the listening experience leaves you wondering what the band really wants to be: serene, flexible British pop, gloomy Gothic rock, or post-grunge world pain?” He couldn’t be more wrong, as I think the variety of styles and sounds of the songs are a real strength, keeping the EP sounding fresh and surprising, rather than boring and predictable. Every track is superb, and I found that I grew to love each song with repeated listens, as the music is so complex and rich, and Stephen’s arresting vocals such a joy to hear. The First Liquidation is an exceptional work on every level, and I’m now a committed fan of Frozen Factory.

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