18/07/2006 § Leave a comment
It’s an increasingly sad problem that female-fronted metal albums are, a lot of the time, all too unadventurous and predictable. Many of the works in an apparently up-and-coming scene are too conventional, conformist and pander to a by-numbers approach of song writing, especially when the band wants to give off a Gothic air. This is something that one certainly couldn’t accuse To-Mera of. Since their demo was made public halfway through 2005 the band showed us their ability to create progressive songs of an altogether different and challenging character which surpass anything put out by a lot of other bands. The skill in musicianship, the flair, and the refinement in the song writing promised – or at least hinted at – a notable debut, something which the female-fronted metal scene, at least, has desperately been crying out for for as long as I can remember.
And it’s a disappointing fact. I get the impression that many people who have been listening to the works of female-fronted metal bands have found things a little dry recently and there was an idea that the scene had turned turtle with little hope of righting itself. However, even though To-Mera‘s vocalist, Julie Kiss, started in the Hungarian progressive band Without Face, the other band members have come from very different musical backgrounds, with bassist Lee Barrett’s playing in Extreme Noise Terror, guitarist Tom Maclean’s work in the avant-garde jazz/rock ensemble FUBAR and Hugo Sheppard‘s interest in classical piano; while Akos Pirisi‘s obsession with the polyrhythms of Meshuggah comes out in a lot of the drumwork.
To-Mera’s mix of musical influences is greatly responsible for the diversity in their sound. Their influences from many technical hardcore and progressive bands gives their music a distinctive air and ingenuity, and as a result, many of their songs end up sounding like a fusion of Symphony X, Dillinger Escape Plan, Ephel Duath and even Carnival In Coal. Though such a blend may be daunting for those fans into the more melodic sides of metal, there’s little to get het up about since while To-Mera’s instrumentation may be diverse and varied, the soft yet strong voice of Julie Kiss tempers everything beautifully. There are no male vocals at all on Transcendental, with Julie alone bearing the standard and doing so with immense confidence and aplomb. Her voice is strong throughout and there is a distinct tone and manner to her sound. But this idiosyncrasy doesn’t only go for the vocals alone, the piano parts are astoundingly complex and well-played, and it’s clear to see the benefit of having a keyboardist with a classical background. Keyboard playing like this is very rare to see on a metal album since most of the time keys are used to fudge out the background atmosphere. However, on Transcendental they are their own instrument, creating atmosphere not from the drawl of a repeated semibreve, but from Hugo Sheppard’s fluid and graceful piano cadences.
The tracks themselves are only eight in number but each one is very different from the next and each has its own personality and shape. The album starts off with the intro track Traces and though it is an intro track, it’s far better than any other that I’ve heard. Right from the start To-Mera are keen to show their inventiveness, and Traces, beginning with Julie’s rich a cappella vocals and the sound of a citera, is so good that you’ll find yourself listening to it time and time again in its own right. It almost takes the piss out of other intro tracks by bands such as After Forever, Angtoria and Epica, being more of a complete instrumental than just a gesture filler, the guitar actually reminiscent of Riverside in places.
Both demo tracks Dreadful Angel and Born Of Ashes have been rerecorded and they sound clearer, more solid, and the jazzy section in Dreadful Angel is far more pronounced. The other tracks are complex and intricate works, comprising of a few more jazz sections, time-signature changes and long, meaty riffs. Obscure Oblivion, for instance, contains a two and half minute instrumental in which the tune switches from free-flowing jazz to a very punchy and heavy guitar riff which is immensely satisfying. In spite of its more gratifying moments though, Transcendental isn’t an album which indulges the listener as much as it indulges itself a lot of the time, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of the best song parts never repeat themselves and are generally always followed by something new and unexpected, therefore titillating the listener and making them want to come back to the same song over and over to discover more. It’s also good for the album as a whole – if a little testing at first – since the songs keep a genuine thread rather than rehashing their same passages over and over for effect.
The most accessible track is the fantastic Blood, though the album in its entirety is not that accessible, something that fans of more complex and progressive metal will be pleased about. It even takes many rotations to become familiar with some of the vocal lines since they’re so unusual, slipping in and out of mode to the point where the overriding tunes become highly unpredictable. Not all of the songs confirm to v/c/v structure either, such as Parfum and Phantoms, though it is Realm of Dreams, being just shy of ten minutes, which contains one of the album’s most welcomingly simple passages with Julie singing over the strumming of an acoustic guitar and the subtle trilling of a piano. It is a rare moment of understatement and reflection in what is sometimes such an intricate and intense project.
However, the album really shows its main ideas though the lyrics, which are vastly emotive, dark and clearly on very personal subjects. Transcendental seems to be very much about love, death and being at odds with yourself, and there is a grand focus on polar opposites though concentrating on their negative aspects and the turmoil this can result in. Lines such as “Fragile moments come to life inside my head and turn into an army of unspeakable fears” and “I’m left wondering when this darkness will end, when this pain will cease to be, when can I feel life again” conjure up images of personal disquiet related to the dream of reality, uncertainty of being and the fear of detachment.
On the whole though, Transcendental is a remarkably complex work. It really deserves time and concentration, but also is not without the occasional heavy riff and drum blast which are instantly appealing. In this way it’s very much an all-rounder, being able to satisfy both those who like their metal complicated but also those who search for the odd hook. I’m sure that a lot of comparisons will be made to bands like Nightwish and Lacuna Coil but these couldn’t be more inaccurate associations since Transcendental‘s influences aren‘t based in the Gothic scene. It is an album unlike so many others, leaving us with something to think about and deliberate on long after we’ve stopped playing it, both in terms of its musical passages and morals. It’s likely that in a few years people won’t be talking about the bands that have influenced To-Mera, but how they have influenced others.