2005: Review of the Year

13/01/2006 § Leave a comment

2005 was very much the year of the underdog. Most of the bigger names in the industry such as Within Temptation, Nightwish and After Forever had released albums in 2004 and had thus cleared the way for the lesser bands in 2005 to get some exposure.

As the year dragged on, and drag it did, pockets of talent from the less well-known corners of the genre seemed to show through. However, the sound of the underground was hardly the fresh hum of something positive and promising but the flat drone of something monotonous and plain. The Gothic underground seemed to have turned through neglect into some kind of disgruntled, unwell creature sat festering too long in its own juices. What there was to see, more than anything, was not necessarily a gaping hole at the centre of the scene but a wound created by the mainstream. The lack of attention towards the larger bands meant that we really got to see the up-and-coming contenders for the femme metal crown in all their glory, though unfortunately, the next suitors going for their run of the Gothic gauntlet did not look that formidable.

Many would agree that 2005 was a dry year with nothing really to offer and though there were one or two diamonds in the rough, they were few and far between and sometimes quite a respectable amount of excavation was necessary before they made themselves known. It was not a year either for the newly-initiated to become au fait with new releases since there was little there of quality. Musical genres, like wines, have their good and bad years, and unfortunately 2005 was very much a case of sour grapes rather than the cream of the crop and there were moments when one found oneself delving into the Deciphers, Mother Earths and Comalies just to remember why exactly the new BESEECH or SUNTERRA album had found its way into the CD player in the first place.

But was it really all that bad? No, it wasn’t terrible but things have certainly been better. Scandinavia had the largest amount of new material on offer in 2005, starting with the sensational MIDNATTSOL, whose folky twist to femme metal made their sound slightly more interesting than LEAVES’ EYES’, who produced their worst album so far with Vinland Saga. This was something that I, in particular, found quite disappointing since I thought that Lovelorn had the capability to be something really quite good but just missed the mark: there was definitely a potential there, a presence which didn’t need too much exploiting to be half-decent. Still, LEAVES’ EYES had two directions they could have gone in since their debut last year – straight up or down – and it was quite an unceremonious downwards trajectory that they took with Vinland Saga. Their reception amongst the more seasoned members of the Gothic metal crowd has never been that favourable but now they need to do something quite drastic to salvage their reputation.

Through MIDNATTSOL the term ‘folk metal’ rang out heavily at the start of the year, though the true holders of the femme folk metal standard, LUMSK, went by more or less unnoticed as they produced another album of quite startlingly high quality with Troll. Though only eight tracks long in comparison to the fourteen -track marathon that was their last effort, Troll showed off some amazing vocals and wonderfully progressive songwriting, nevertheless, it slipped by with little more than a puff rather than a fanfare and as a result the band remain one of the most underrated in femme metal at the moment.

Other bands from Scandinavia which also released albums to relatively little aplomb were the unsung heroes of progressive female metal, THE PROVENANCE, whose third unpleasantly-titled offering, How Would You Like To Be Spat At – a darkly honest and personal heartwrencher – had little press; while my heart went out altogether for MORTAL LOVE, whose second album, I Have Lost, was miles ahead of their previous dreary effort. Unfortunately, it seemed that their debut had so alienated people [probably due to the atrocious nature of its lyrics more than anything else] that most listeners thought it pointless to check out whatever they had to say next.

Many were waiting desperately to see what TRISTANIA would come up with next now that they didn’t have any Morten-dregs to siphon off since World Of Glass. Ashes was very much a double-edged sword – beautifully satiating for some and terribly bland and lifeless for others – it will forever remain an album which the devotees of the band love, while the devotees of the genre will just sit quiet in the knowledge that Ashes was very much an underdone steak of an album, unsucculent and unsatisfying, though if it had been left to marinate longer it could have been something really quite special. Not so much, however, could be said for Darker Designs & Images by Norway’s kings of black metal corn, SIEBENBURGEN, who put out probably their worst effort yet and proved that they are no longer a band worth following. Meanwhile, THE CREST put on a good show with Vain City Chronicles in spite of the fact that Nell has taken time out for THEATRE OF TRAGEDY, and RAM-ZET went from strength to strength with their best, most complex and innovative offering yet, Intra.

Scandinavia really took the lion’s share of albums and new releases, leaving the main contender, Holland, with little to say by comparison. However, two of the heavyweights, AFTER FOREVER and EPICA, ended up not so much battling it out at a few gigs together but releasing a couple more albums in the interim. EPICA’s Consign To Oblivion, though quite accomplished, was unfortunately not to the same standard as their wonderful Phantom Agony, while AFTER FOREVER’s Remagine ended up being something of a surprise since though it was written and thrown together in a small amount of time, this actually seemed to be its strength. The shorter songs and easy-to-follow lyrics really did the trick against Invisible Circles which was full of sound and fury by comparison but did, ultimately, signify nothing.

As the year waned on it became clear that there was one more voice in Holland which was going to make itself known and rightfully hog the limelight in 2005. Arjen Lucassen had created many impressive offerings over the years but with STREAM OF PASSION he cornered the femme metal market. There was nothing Gothic about Embrace The Storm so there was no commercial imagery attached to the music, but for a straight femme-metal debut album it was strikingly impressive. Those who had not heard of ELFONIA’s Marcela Bovia were totally floored by her vocal talent and for many Embrace The Storm was unquestionably the album of the year – and deservedly so.

It wasn’t just Holland that had a couple of things to offer – newer talent was emerging from the rest of Europe and there were many bands who put out impressive debuts. It was not only new bands that came to light though, but new countries placed themselves on the Gothic Metal map: Slovenia came through with NAIO SSAION who had released Numedia a few years ago but which Napalm reworked for what it called their ‘debut’, Out Loud. Turkey came through with a more rocky SEBNEM FERAH and CATAFALQUE showed that they could teach many a band in the scene how BnB really should be done. Poland didn’t really have much to show with two disastrously disappointing releases, MOONLIGHT’s Downwords and UNDISH’s A Gift Of Flying which were both literally shadows of what they could have been. Nevertheless, it was Italy’s FOREVER SLAVE who came up with one of the worst albums of the year, Alice’s Inferno, which was a blind stab in the dark at being popular amongst the Gothic Metal crowd and was only lauded by those critics who had heard little or no truly good Gothic Metal before.

However, what 2005 did do very well was to reform our preconceptions and expectations of the genre. A lot of people expected great things from the likes of LEAVES’ EYES, TRISTANIA and EPICA and a lot of people were disappointed – still, this was no bad thing since it gave a chance for a bare few bands – RAM-ZET, MORTAL LOVE, THE CREST and STREAM OF PASSION to shine through and show that that there were still other people out there making very good albums.

2005 also saw the emergence of a few bands who will be very necessary to watch in the near future and which we should all expect good releases from in 2006. The first of these is the wonderful TO-MERA featuring the vocals of ex-WITHOUT FACE singer Julie Kiss. TO-MERA’s two-song demo with sublime, lush vocals and progressive, composite instrumentation attracted attention from many labels [now signed to Candlelight] and it will be interesting to see what their debut will bring. There are also two up and coming Dutch bands, namely AURACLE and DELAIN who have both put together impressive demos and should have some very special releases coming in the new year.

As if this wasn’t enough, there are some massive bands putting out albums in 2006 and the line-up is quite impressive already with THE GATHERING, THEATRE OF TRAGEDY, FLOWING TEARS, LACUNA COIL, EVANESCENCE and WITHIN TEMPTATION all expected to honour releases. However, there is one big name – NIGHTWISH – missing from the equation, and the only thing we are likely to hear from them in 2006 is who their new vocalist will be. Speculation will undoubtedly continue about the identity of the new singer, though hardly anyone knows at this stage who it could be. However, one thing remains for sure: NIGHTWISH continue to grab people’s attention even when they’re not making music.

2005 Notable releases:

Scandinavia

Midnattsol – Where Twilight Dwells

Mortal Love – I Have Lost

Tristania – Ashes

Leaves’ Eyes – Vinland Saga

The Crest – Vain City Chronicles

Lumsk – Troll

Ram-Zet – Intra

The Provenance – How Would You Like To Be Spat At

Beseech – Sunless Days

Holland

After Forever – Remagine

Epica – Consign To Oblivion

Stream Of Passion – Embrace The Storm

Delphian – Oracle

The Gathering – Accessories, Rarities & B-sides

Morning – Hour Of Joy

Poland

Moonlight – Downwords

Undish – The Gift Of Flying

Rest Of Europe

Catafalque – Unique [Turkey]

Skeptical Minds – Rent To Kill [France]

Forever Slave – Alice’s Inferno [Italy]

Elfonia – This Sonic Landscape [Spain]

Sebnem Ferah – Can Kiriklari [Turkey]

Naio Ssaion – Out Loud [Slovenia]

Xandria – India [Germany]

USA

Lucid Fly – Adapting To Gravity

Era For A Moment – Realise

Gretchen – In The Mean Time

Legion Of Hetheria – Choices

Bands to watch in 2006

Auracle [Holland]

Delain [Holland]

To-Mera [UK/Hungary]

Lucid Fear [Norway]

Sylver Myst [Holland]

Ebony Ark [Spain]

Diluvium [Serbia]

Skeptical Minds [Belgium]

The Gathering [Holland]

Theatre Of Tragedy [Norway]

Lacuna Coil [Italy]

Flowing Tears [Germany]

Sengir [Belgium]

Crimson Tears [UK]

Evanescence [USA]

Without Face – Astronomicon

13/01/2006 § Leave a comment

CD Info
2002
Label: Earache
6 Tracks
Language: English

Dual vocal prog-metal seems to be some kind of bastard child of the genre. Ironically, my search for ever more progressive music seems to have led me away from Without Face but in my ignorance I had no idea just what I was missing out on. Looking back now, they seem to have been a bit of a fated ensemble. The band only produced two albums, albeit two short ones, though neither of them are mentioned that often in the progressive metal scene which in retrospect is heresy, not to mention a great anomaly.

Astronomicon offers six tracks of progressive metal, its distinguishing feature being that it’s not too distinguishable from a lot of other progressive metal; however, what sets it apart from its siblings, more than anything, are the wonderful vocals of Julie Kiss, which immersed and bewitched me from the outset. It’s very difficult to find a decent vocalist in femme-fronted metal, though contenders seem to be all over the place, baying at the gates and desperate for a piece of the action, though none of them are that good. This is what makes the Sharons, the Floors and the Annekes of this Earth something to write home about and though Julie is not quite in their league she does possess something that many female singers do not – a personality to her voice, a richness which curls itself around the vocal melody and fills it out beautifully.

In addition to the vocals, Without Face also have an ingenuity to their songwriting, a mastery that comes from crafting vocal patchworks with obsessive intensity and there are moments when the dual vocals of Juliette and Andrs intertwine wonderfully and, dare I say it, ingeniously, and nowhere is this shown better than in the first track, Weird Places. The music is unpredictable though they do seem to be quite fond of their artsy drumming and the old power chord mirroring the drum beat stunt, stopping and starting all over the place and though it does sound quite impressive it gets quite tiresome later in the album. In this way Without Face are a bit of a one-trick pony – they have clever musical devices at their disposal but later in the album, short though it is, these seem to sound a little overused and as a result there is little variety on show.

However, even though the album is quite short in numbers it still manages to rack up nearly forty-five minutes’ worth of music, with every track apart from the short outro song being longer than seven minutes. The songs themselves are mini opuses but not with all the different sections that we might expect from progressive metal numbers, but repeats of other parts of the same songs, interchanging randomly within the few minutes given to them. Nevertheless, what the songs offer is all pretty good – which is just as well given there are so few of them. Weird Places is a wonderful opener to the album, where In The Garden’s vocals get better and better as the song progresses. There are even moments where the music veers off into some kind of progressive BnB a la The Provenance, which does work but in a very unusual way. By far the most wonderful moment of the album comes in the final track which only features the fantastic vocals of Juliette and it is three minutes of silky, sublime bliss.

Astronomicon in indeed a competent piece of work though what it shows, more than anything else, is a band who did not realise their full potential. Shortly after it was released, Julie Kiss left the band under bad terms and as a result only two works hold testament to what they were really capable of. Indeed, the album leaves us gasping for more and with a feeling that there was so much left to be written and that the best was yet to come. In this way Astronomicon comes across very much like a teenager whose promising life was cut short tragically – there was so far to go and so much to go with but the cruelty of reality cut things short.

Julie has since gone on to start the Hungarian/UK fusion To-Mera, which looks equally, if not more promising. Astronomicon may be a fine piece of carefully woven metal but it leaves us gagging for more and querying what there could have been had the band gone on further and it is this hole that leaves us feeling, more than anything, a little undersatisfied and almost hard done by. Thankfully though, with To-Mera, we may not have to wait too long to hear the next instalment.

7.5/10

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