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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