Within Temptation – The Silent Force

17/01/2005 § Leave a comment

CD Info
2004
Label: Gun
11 Tracks
Language: English

I think a lot of us had given up any hope for Within Temptation, I know I certainly had. The fans were nearly insulted with years’ worth of re-releases and we had got just a little sick of Mother Earth. There was a time when I was convinced that the Dutch fivesome were going to the dogs and their flame would fizzle out over the next couple of years while the rest of us would sit around musing about the days of a band called Within Temptation who produced two wonderful albums but who got strangled by the bureaucracy of the music scene and the fact that they were trying to fill a niche that was getting filled up pretty quickly by other bands.

The Gothic Metal scene is now rising to the surface, becoming more mainstream, and is being redefined in the process, or at least people’s perceptions of it are. Evanescence broke the mould and clearly WT are going to be the next to attempt success with the bigger players. This is no more obvious that after hearing Stand My Ground, which has some nu-metal guitar riffing, an intentionally catchy chorus, Sharon singing in a more acceptable mainstream fashion and such a clichéd, simple song-structure that Sum 41 would be proud of them. And I think that WT would be the first to admit this.

Clearly the focus behind the band has changed, but this is not altogether a bad thing. After all, in the two albums that came before this there was a dash of musical development in there, albeit it not a sensational one. On Enter we saw Robert give his all on the death vocals which went beautifully with Sharon’s sultry voice. These disappeared on the annoyingly conceptual Mother Earth which was, apart from the fact that it felt a need to address the environment through a cod-Wiccan way, a very good piece of work and stood firmly and respectfully in the Gothic Metal scene along such greats as After Forever’s Decipher and Tristania’s World Of Glass. Now we see yet another development in the sound, but like last time, it’s not a great one. If any word could describe The Silent Force, it would be ‘bombastic’, and it’s not a word I like to use because it has ghetto overtones. It’s hard to believe that WT could produce music any more bombastic than the shunting, buffering battering-ram of sound that we were greeted with on Mother Earth. Still, Within Temptation have successfully gone one stage further and amazingly, we’re left not feeling too overwhelmed by the experience.

Once thing is for sure, The Silent Force is an avalanche of sound. I was a little discouraged by the fact that the first track was called Intro, which has ‘filler’ written all over it, but I was pleasantly surprised that this was in fact a choral number with some beautiful strings and Sharon singing over the top. Another cliché? Maybe, but you can’t deny when you hear it that it is a great start to the album, a very tasty appetizer before See Who I Am hits you square in the face with a wonderfully brusque, brash but stunning intro sequence. The guitars and orchestration are in full force here and the punchy backing demands your attention without letting your mind wonder. There’s something angry in the beauty behind the music, a thread of the devilish running through an otherwise angelic euphony. The next track, Gillian, is one of the best numbers that WT have produced. The music is so grand it could be used for a film, for a requiem, for a musical, for anything that commands powerful and stirring symphonics. Sharon may not be singing as her old self since there is none of that higher-register warbling that we came to love on Mother Earth and that made men and women swoon over her melodies, but no-one can deny that she is a good vocalist, in spite of the fact that she is clearly holding back her talents a little here, which is a shame since we know what she is capable of producing, so in this case the album feels like a tiny shuffle back.

Stand My Ground is one of the biggest attempts at a mainstream smash on the album, along with Angel, the title of which makes me feel a little sick, since if one word is overused in Gothic Metal it’s ‘angel’, I think that it should be banned from the genre for the next ten years to see if production at this end of the scene hits an all-time low, and it’s because of things like this that bands are in danger of being typecast more than they already are. It’s The Fear is also a little mainstream, but it becomes clear by the end of the album that any concerns about WT going into the wider market should now be fully accepted and we will all have to deal with it. WT will be moving on to please a wider and less fussy audience and we can either miss out on the good music like whiny traditionalists or cease to be so pragmatic and go along for the ride.

In spite of the fact that at the beginning of the album I thought that The Silent Force was going to be a sweet, fun-for-all-the-family Jolly Rancher of pussy metal, by the end I was completely stunned by its quality. Ballad-esque numbers such as Pale may be a little annoying, but someone out there is sure to like them and it’s all part of the WT package. The Silent Force is quite a remarkable album in its magnificence and I get the impression that making it was certainly no easy task. Every song has the WT grandeur to it and the refrains and melodies are beautifully heavy and addictive. I’m not sure if I would call this strictly metal, we’re veering into the territory of Gothic Nu-Metal and it will be interesting to see how other established bands choose to follow this and which bands are formed and inspired as a result.

The only problem, and quite a big one, is that The Silent Force, like Mother Earth, is the kind of album that you will play indefinitely for a couple of weeks and then hardly listen to again. It has little true essence, little endurance, it’s like amyl nitrate or ecstasy, a Gothic drug that gives you a huge hit but which you could still live without if you had to. Nevertheless, while you are under its influence, the rush it will give you is undeniably and unashamedly pleasurable.

7/10

Moonlight – Audio 136

17/01/2005 § Leave a comment

CD Info
2004
Label: Metal Mind
10 Tracks
Language: English/Polish

There’s obviously something in the water in Poland at the moment since nearly every band on the Metal Mind label put out a good album this year. And some of these albums were not only good, but exceptional. I was never a huge fan of Floe, in spite of the fact that it was hailed as being the musical equivalent of chocolate fondu, and Candra showed some sparks of brilliance, but they were only sparks and not enough to start any kind of blaze of enthusiasm going. It’s like I ended up appreciating Moonlight bank to front, not as a metal band, but more for the finesse of the music they are now making. I can only now look back at the older material and realise how good it was, whereas at the time I found it a little dull.

Audio 136 was a total surprise for me. I knew that Moonlight were one of classier outfits on Metal Mind but I never expected them to come up with something like this. This, along with Naamah’s Resensement, showed an impressive evolution in ability and songwriting the likes of which I haven’t come across for a very long time. Moonlight are clearly unafraid to experiment and depart from the sound that they were once appreciated for. Now they will hopefully gain a following of far more discerning listeners who will be able to appreciate the new stuff as well as the old.

There are two things that make Audio 136 so impressive. Firstly, the song structures. Normally this would refer to a few rhythm changes, time signature changes and some quirky and kookie arrangements. There’s nothing of the sort here. Moonlight also never employ different instruments, but are thoroughly creative with those at their disposal. The way they are able to make a clean guitar sound as smooth and fluid as water running over the bassline, or the way they can create several very funky rocky riffs out of the simplest of chord sequences shows how their musical imaginations have come on in leaps and bounds. The changes mid-song are not so much to do with speed and rhythm, but tone, and the tone that Moonlight employs is almost a funky, jazzy and rocky one. The latter of these points is the most important because Moonlight have altogether done away with their metal roots, since there is not one power chord on this album. Their sound has matured in the most beautiful way and the result is uplifting.

The songs that really show this off are tracks such as Words, which has some wonderfully funky sections, and the marvellous New Life, which is the closest the album gets to metal. This is an interesting point because there are time in Words where the riffs border so close to metal without actually getting there that it’s like the desire to do metal ran away with Moonlight and they had to reign it in and turn the distortion down. Some of the resulting cadences seem therefore quite clipped and precise and wanting to burst into metal at any moment, but Moonlight always keep them harnessed, which, far from being frustrating, shows that we can appreciate the lighter sides of the genre even if it doesn’t mean banging our heads up and down for five minutes.

The bounty doesn’t stop there though, since halfway through the album we come across the sublime Kontakt, which is a shimmering, gracefully beautiful ballad that almost transports you to another level of being. Kontakt also brought home to me just how staggering Maja’s voice sounds on this album. She really is learning to use her voice as an expressive instrument, switching between loud, husky, sultry and sad as the song’s colour demands. It’s so refreshing to hear an artist sing with meaning and feeling about the song’s topics rather than just seemingly reading notes from a page or singing lines parrot fashion. The way that she sings ‘I don’t care what you have to say’ at the end of Don’t Look Back is one of the best examples of this, as well as ‘Will you ever dare to look inside me/will you take your chance’ on the beautiful 13.

Unfortunately, the album is let down by a couple of fillers, Rosemary’s Baby and the oh-so-inventive Rosemary’s Baby [Reprise] at the end. I’d like to think that these tracks were catalysts invented to generate some sort of atmosphere to steady the listener and create the right mood for the album. There’s certainly an argument for that, seeing as if the album’s first track was Air, we wouldn’t be as well primed for it if we hadn’t heard the little snippet beforehand. Still, these songs are dull to listen to in their own rights, so they’re still fillers in spite of the function that they were maybe intended to perform.

In spite of this, the album is not let down by having these little bits of ballast. Audio 136 is a strikingly beautiful album which is streets ahead of so much other material produced in 2004. The combination of the honest lyrics, ingenious songwriting and angelic singing make it a truly exceptional album. Nevertheless, it is likely to disappoint Moonlight fans who really enjoyed the older material and aren’t too enthusiastic about music that is a little avant-garde and bends the rules which the bands set themselves. For the rest of us, Audio 136, though not a metal work at all, is an exquisite and humble album that has the potential to stay with you for a long time after you first hear it. These are some of the most unassumingly creative sounds to hit the scene for a long time.

8.5/10

Review of 2004 – God Save the SCENE!

16/01/2005 § Leave a comment

2004 should be remembered as the year when Gothic Metal – or at least, the revised version of it – became popular in a big way. There were hints that the genre was really going to take off big time and indeed, this year, all the big guns came out blazing with some noteworthy albums, so there was more than enough to give the newly initiated something to latch onto. Gothic Metal saw some interesting developments which were arguably a result of pressure from the mainstream, not only to conform to something more commercially acceptable, but to fit in with people’s preconceptions of what the genre is about. As we know, things generally develop through ignorance anyway and since the rise of EVANESCENCE, there has been an awful lot of pressure for some of the larger bands to forcibly bring their future oeuvre up to date by dragging it, kicking and screaming, into the harsh light of primetime television. Some things can’t remain underground forever, but for those who aren’t that versed in the ins and outs of the scene, things are fanning out pretty nicely at the top end.

But there’s still far too little irony, too many people taking themselves seriously, egos and faux-principles clashing. Before Sony came along and got their big slippery suction pads on EVANESCENCE, things were quite different. As soon as Fallen got released and treated the world to the novel sound of user-friendly PG nu-goth along with the likes of HIM and AFI, it almost became a rush to see who could pip who to the post. The niche was begging to be filled and still is. Don’t get me wrong, EVANESCENCE are a very good band. Most people seem to have a problem with them for purely nominal reasons inasmuch as they misrepresent what Gothic music is ‘about’. Well, you tell me what Gothic music is about. A genre is not defined by one sound, and it’s hard enough when people want to stick labels on things anyway. You can say what you like about EVANESCENCE and the fact that their guitar is a little too doggerel, the song-writing is about as complex to figure out as a monochrome Rubik’s cube and the musicianship is hardly going to give WATCHTOWER and PSYCHOTIC WALTZ nightmares about being outdone technically. At the end of the day they make good, enjoyable music, and if we all forgot about how other people are labelling them, then maybe their fan-base would grow even larger. There are a few die-hard Goths out there that can’t stand the idea that EVANESCENCE are labelled so, but its time to realise that the definition of Gothicism is gradually changing.

This isn’t to say that there are any really great shakes happening, and the Midas touch for Amy and her band of merry men won’t last particularly long. It’s one thing to make enemies amongst Christians, but I get the feeling that EVANESCENCE won’t be that popular with everyone else for too much longer. Their esteem has been saturated almost to bursting point and they’re not filling many with confidence that they have lots of tricks left in the bag. Various compilations, remixes and live albums do not instil the greatest sense of security in the average fanatic, though apparently their next work will be a ‘development’. Of course, a development for EVANESCENCE is different from a development for LACUNA COIL, who publicised the selfsame boast about their new album as and when they were writing the songs. I think EVANESCENCE’s new album won’t be anything mind-meltingly thrilling, but it’s still likely to be more interesting than LACUNA COIL’s next work, which I’m expecting to be an absolute sell-out. I would love to be proved wrong. LC are proud, and deservedly so, of the notoriety they have achieved in the scene, but things have got simpler and punchier since the days of In A Reverie and unless they go all electro, it’s hard to see at this stage what kind of ground they’re going to cover if it’s not totally 100% dull and user-friendly. However, it’s not all uncertainty in the femme quarters of the Century Media camp especially since FLOWING TEARS’ near-flawless Razorbliss, which was definitely one of my albums of the year. It was a pleasing, unpretentious offering with twelve near-perfect Gothic Metal gems on it. An unexpected treat indeed, allaying a few concerns that we wouldn’t see a huge progression in sound after Serpentine.

WITHIN TEMPTATION also allayed a few fears about the quality of their next offering, though not after bringing out an insulting amount of Mother Earth and Ice Queen reissues. I think a lot of us had given up all hope on them before they came out with The Silent Force. However, what TSF did so well, along with NIGHTWISH’s Once, was prove the lack of sticking power that albums at the top end of the genre have. NIGHTWISH showed that once again they will never do things by halves, but the problem with Once was that the only point it seemed to be making was that the band had an orchestra, and that they had an orchestra because they could have one, more to the point, because they are NIGHTWISH. However, even though a few of us think that Tuomas is a few fibres short of a bow and that the band will crumble in the not too distant future, they’ve really gained new fame which should keep them swimming along for a bit. All in all, both bands put out decent efforts, both over the top, and both really good sellers for the undiscerning kiddie market. There’s nothing about the lyrics that anyone can relate to, but they’re still perfectly popular, and still the mini-moshers sing their lungs out to the songs at gigs, while the dreadful PAs at the larger venues pummel their ears with an undermixed cacophony, being flogged overpriced beer, tacky merchandise [which NIGHTWISH do so well – bottle opener, anyone?] and as many different versions of the same single as quickly as Nuclear Blast can whack them out.

Transmission also came out with some interesting nuggets this year. AFTER FOREVER’s Invisible Circles being lauded by many as a masterpiece, though different in sound to Decipher since the departure of Mark. What Invisible Circles showed was a progression in sound, but a regression in confidence. The music was overly complex and the lyrics too poignant to convince the hardened cynics that this was a comfortably-made creation. It seemed, more than anything else, an attempt to convince people, themselves included, that they still had what it took. AFTER FOREVER can clearly still make good music, but it will be interesting to see how things develop from here. A slide down would not be unexpected and I know many people who have no interest in seeing the band live any longer. However, it was EPICA who really silenced their critics by putting out the incredible The Phantom Agony, a Gothic Metal masterpiece indeed, paving the way for a promising follow-up. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform live in London earlier in the year, and more recently the delightful ASRAI at the same venue, whose Touch In The Dark was also released through Transmission. Though loathe to be described as Gothic Metal, and arguably not when measured against the other Transmission and Napalm doom/femme minions, Touch In The Dark was more traditionally Gothic in sound, touchingly personal and powerful, and the band are likely to be embraced well by the scene in the years to come.

Another label to put out some gems was the Polish Metal Mind, who rarely miss a beat with the good releases. There were a slew of good albums coming out of this label, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before, proving that the less well-known areas of the genre should really be where the focus is turning. Their real pearl this year was the outstanding Resensement from NAAMAH, a true development from their previous rather embarrassing effort, Ultima. What NAAMAH managed to do so well was create complex but convincing songs, beautifully written, the musicianship for which would challenge many a longer-established band. The same could also be said for MOONLIGHT and Audio 136, a beautifully creative album, with Kontakt being one of the most striking ballads I have heard on a recent album. DELIGHT’s Anew was a fantastically heavy offering, though more catchy and electro than before and therefore not to everyone’s taste, while CLOSTERKELLER’s Reginha was a little flat, though it did remind me at least that A-HA were still together through the cover of Minor Earth Major Sky, though it didn’t do much else for me. The only real dud was the torrid 3.0 by DESDEMONA, a thoroughly disappointing album and one of the worst I heard all year.

There were a few surprises also, in the form of the wonderful Mana from NEMESEA, who are very similar in sound to EPICA and old AFTER FOREVER, and are definitely ones to watch in the near future. There was also the fantastic Decoder by EBONY ARK, an unsigned fivesome from Madrid; the more or less completely unknown GÅTE from Norway, who brought out the stunningly creative Iselilja in November, which is hardly Gothic at all, but definitely femme rock, and highly atmospheric and inventive at that. More bands who raised the bar were the French SYREN’S CALL and the Swiss LUNATICA, both who made great leaps in their sound and put out quality albums. I am sure that LUNATICA will do well in years to come and will be especially appreciated by NIGHTWISH fans.

It’s hard to mention all the work that came out this year, though it would be unfair to let any review of 2004 go without mentioning the splendid Sleepy Buildings by THE GATHERING, which was probably the best acoustic album that has come into the genre. THE GATHERING really outdid themselves with this piece and proved how they have transcended the scene and are an extremely talented crew. They are unlikely to be appreciated by many of the superior cult of newbie nu-goth fans, but more fool them. THE GATHERING were really an elixir in the murky waters of the musical gruel of early 2004. And talking of elixir’s, it was SIRENIA who managed to put out one of the most disappointing albums of 2004 with An Elixir For Existence, which was nothing like the quality of the stunning At Sixes And Sevens. Rushing out an EP as a cover-up very soon after didn’t do much for the theory that Morten Veland is losing his touch.

All in all 2004 was a very promising year, the musical results of which should satisfy two factions of fans who were into the scene. Those who were already well appraised were shown that the lesser bands had a lot of promise – there were some very good albums indeed being produced, but these also showed up the flaws of the larger bands in which the big production, the simple songs, the easily-appreciable melodies proved once again, as if we needed reassurance, that the closer you get to the mainstream, the less likely the music is to have sticking power. On the other hand, for those who fell in on the back of Once and The Silent Force, there is much to be learned and enjoyed especially at the top end. Both disciplines have positive aspects to them. It’s strange watching NIGHTWISH, WITHIN TEMPTATION and LACUNA COIL float off into the musical stratosphere, it’s like nurturing some kind of Gothic young for years until they finally grow up, leave and do their own thing. A life in the mainstream is just beginning and should shunt some other bands up a few notches. We are in a new era of Gothic Metal, where some of the music is really reaching its potential, and its limit.

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