Tristania – Illumination

22/12/2006 § Leave a comment

After the rather sorry drivel that was Ashes, it was hard to hold out a great deal of hope for Tristania’s next album. The band experienced more than a tinge of trouble after World of Glass and it was clear that Ashes suffered from a kind of self-directed confusion, an interest in where it wanted to be without actually being able to get there. Illumination, though being not two years after Ashes, is not so much a joyous leap in the right direction but a shuffling crawl, clawing at the ground beneath and just managing to escape from the stigma that lags wearily on its heels. The band seem to have woken up to the fact that it is possible for them to make half-decent music whereas before it was a case of making do with some old Tristania elements and trying to conjure a new sound out of them. And Tristania do indeed have a new sound, but thankfully it’s not quite as drastic – or as cringeworthy – as that which other bands have treated us to over the last 24 months.

The idea of a newer Tristania may send many heading for the hills but all is far from lost. This doesn’t seem to be so much about commercialism but more to do with the fact that since Morten has jumped ship the band have the freedom to experiment in other ways. Creating a new sound is therefore not so much about adding new elements and creating new rhythms and atmosphere, but more about removing some of the old ones. Gone are the choirs and the classical instrumentation, which means that Tristania have a sound that confines them less to the old school Gothic mindset and brings them more alongside what every two-bit femme band is doing these days. In a way it’s a shame, since in a time when bands like Lacuna Coil and The Gathering have lost all their Gothic essences and influences, there were maybe some of us that thought we could still count on Tristania, one of the forerunners of the genre, to carry the standard. Unfortunately this is clearly no longer the case and if Ashes was a hint that things were changing, Illumination is very much a hearty stomp on our preconceptions.

Still, the result is far from a bad one since in spite of the ‘missing’ elements on the new album, Illumination still manages to be a quite good. Just because there are one or two absent friends doesn’t mean that the band can’t play or write a tune and this is clear from its outset. Mercyside, with its unfortunate connotations of Northern English pie shops, is a good opener with some thudding, heavy drums and nicely distorted guitars. Osten’s vocals, which welcome us into the album, are also quite accomplished and don’t have the wince factor as they have done before. The queen of the album is still very much Vibeke and from the moment she comes in it is obvious that she is still the soul of Tristania – and of Gothic metal to many people. The melodies she sings are a little different to usual, experimenting more with dotting about all over the scales and this is also shown in the album’s best track, Destination Departure, a showcase for her voice which especially in the chorus has one of the most deliciously Gothic feels of any song I’ve heard for a long time. Vibeke seems to be able to evoke essences and atmospheres with just one note and it’s good to see this air retained effectively while still playing around the musical modes, especially when veering into the major scales. Lotus, The Ravens and Sacrilege also count among the album’s most vibrant moments, the latter especially showing how the band are now able to mix both male and female vocals seamlessly without doing so just for the sake of it.

One thing that Tristania are not able to do effectively is create interesting chord structures for their vocalists to work with and sadly some of the songs do have something of a cobbled-together-in-a-rehearsal feel to them. Though the singers may have learned to swim around the staves and thus provide us with more vocal variety, the tried and trusted chord skips get tiresome quickly with some songs holding little to no allure whatsoever. Songs like Down, Fate and Open Ground are not fillers as such since some effort and understanding have gone into them, but they do have little centre or purpose even though they are carried by supreme vocal talents. If their cosmetic layers are stripped away, the saggy underbelly of stock musicality presents itself all too quickly and it’s easy to forget them altogether.

On the whole though, things have certainly improved since the tedious effort of Ashes and now it feels as if Tristania are getting slightly more into their stride. Illumination is by no means a Beyond The Veil or Widows Weeds but the band have made it subtly clear that these are not places they have an interest in going back to. The sound is still very much Tristania and the unmistakable feel of a band who not only are old hands in this field but who are coming back after being in the doldrums of a creative wilderness. Illuminations is not so much a triumphant reclaiming of the Gothic metal flag, but it is an ushering in the right direction. The chaff that surrounds some of this album could quite easily have been blown away if they had put their minds to it because intrinsically it shows a reassuring amount of recovery and promise.

7.5/10

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The Provenance – Red Flags

22/12/2006 § Leave a comment

After the rather questionable and antagonistic rant that was How Would You Like To Be Spat At, The Provenance have returned barely a year later with an altogether calmer and less spiteful approach to making music. Whereas How Would You Like To Be Spat At came across as a necessary evil, an acerbic outburst that the band had to throw off their chests, Red Flags is a lighter offering less weighed down by the drudgery of long, meaningless songs with negative lyrics and hateful vibes. It seems that over the last year The Provenance have undergone some kind of emotional irrigation meaning they have dealt cathartically with their hardships and come out the other side with something more welcome to listen to than the sound of their own problems. In spite of Red Flag’s title though, I can’t pick out too many Communist overtones, maybe they chose it to deliberately throw people like me off. There I was, thinking this was going to be a musical biography of Leninist proportions when it’s just about their own personal relationships again. Ho hum.

There are three big differences between Red Flags and the last couple of albums. The first is the lack of male growls here – in fact, they’ve been removed altogether. This I found to be quite strange since I enjoyed the growls in the last two albums and thought that, in a genre when 90% of the bands overuse the growls and just shove them in when they feel like it, The Provenance were one of the few bands who were able to use them correctly and fit them in only where the music demanded it. But no, they’ve been whipped out completely this time, though that’s not to say that there are no male vocals at all, there are clean male vocals here but they are used quite sparingly. This means that we get to hear a lot of Emma’s voice and so we should do, since she is one of the best and underrated singers in female-fronted metal and listening to this album, I am amazed that the band haven’t got farther with her at the front. However, now that the band are signed to Peaceville, hopefully this will be remedied with better promotion and distribution.

The second difference about this album is its pace. How Would You Like To be Spat At was a terribly bulky piece of work with protracted songs and I remember thinking Speeding To Get By was one of the slowest tracks I’ve ever heard outside Funeral Doom metal. The songs on Red Flags are much faster and this means that the album feels like less work to listen to as well as being more accessible. From the album’s first track, At The Barricades to the fantastic Settle Soon, the whole thing is a hearty canter through metal rather than a bled out recovery jog. The songs are mostly very good, with At The Barricades, First and Last But Not Always, Revelling Masses and Settle Soon being the best of the bunch, and it was interesting to see a 7/4 time signature in Leave-Takings. The Provenance seem to have worked out how to lift the tone of their music and create more elevating atmospheres and this is something that all the better songs on the album do very well.

However, the biggest triumph that Red Flags has as its currency is the fact that it’s so much more unpretentious than anything else that the band have come out with. In the past there seemed to be an emphasis on moving lyrics, deep propositions, trenchantly dull chord progressions and those awful song titles like ‘Considering The Gawk, The Drool, The Bitch and The Fool’. This time round everything has been shaved to a point, albeit not always a sharp one since the songs don’t all hit the mark. In spite of most of the numbers being goodies, Red Flags is let down by one of two dullards such as One Warning with its insipid chorus and The Cost which starts off well and then becomes about as interesting as painting the contents of a packet of Cornflakes. The other strange thing is that the strength of the album’s pace is also something that lets it down. Even though there are many speedy songs here, they are almost too many and it feels like they don’t have enough distinguishing features to be that memorable. In fact, the only slow song on the album, Deadened, starts off honestly and beautifully with no more than bass, drums and the beautiful ringing of Emma’s voice, only to become even slower later on and to descend into pointlessness.

Red Flags could have been an even better album if the label or band had got rid of the less interesting numbers, indeed, with so many albums these days including more and more duff tracks the need for 8 track albums is more necessary. Nevertheless, I don’t get the impression that The Provenance are anywhere near their peak yet. In spite of being four albums down the road, there is a sense of gradual improvement and though this band have always been about hit and miss, there seems to be something better coming on the horizon. I have always thought that The Provenance’s songs were not quite as good or accomplished as they could have been, always getting the outer and not inner bullseye. I get the feeling that there is a great album waiting to be set free from this band but at the moment it’s caged by too much personal grit and the need for meaningful songs. If the band lost the emphasis which they place so heavily on poignancy they could hit the mark that they’ve been missing all along.

7.5/10

Evanescence – The Open Door

22/12/2006 § Leave a comment

For many people Evanescence is still a taboo word. Metal fans, and those that think they know their metal well, are a notoriously picky lot. It seems that the more complex the music you listen to – the more inaccessible – the more right you have to say others’ music tastes are inferior. It’s a shame that there is a sense of hierarchy within the music fanhood. Those mainstream bands that are actually good get instantly overlooked, reasons ranging from because they are popular to because some avaricious record company has put their videos on television, even though television is seen as a less popular pastime than it used to be. Television watching, especially among the younger generation, has become replaced with internet chatting, trolling, flaming, flirting and exchanging views in a virtual arena. And what better way to vent than over a popular Gothic rock band like Evanescence.

Already we’ve struck gold here, punctured a valve and blown a gasket. A lot of people would argue that there is nothing Gothic about Evanescence, though one could posit that they’re not as Gothic as they used to be. Fallen was most certainly a Gothic album, although honed to mainstream perfection. The choirs, strings, female vocals and melancholy song topics were all a popular Gothic album needed and it was the neat Gothics, the sanctimonious prima-donnas of the scene that would disregard any idea of such a band infecting their space. In this way, Evanescence suffered very much from the Slipknot syndrome. The music they made wasn’t actually bad, but many people had trouble segregating the music from its popularity and fan demographic. It’s tempting to think that if a lot of music fans didn’t know the fame of Evanescence, the band would, ironically, become even more popular.

And that’s exactly what Evanescence deserve to be. Five years of trouble, break-ups and religious banter after Fallen, the band finally managed to put out their much anticipated and fawned over sophomore studio album after their label had to fill the gap by judiciously releasing umpteen live albums and reissues. But when the thing actually hit the market, it was clear that Evanescence hadn’t done a bad job at all. The Open Door is not too much like Fallen, but then it was never going to be. No album is a carbon copy of its predecessor even though it was clear that Fallen cornered the market and that certain elements created a new popular formula. Evanescence have spoiled us with this new record. The Open Door is a very good and rounded CD which is sure to not only please current fans, but also those who have a passing interest in the band.

The Open Door’s true success comes from the shortness of the songs, the catchy choruses and the strength and feeling behind Amy’s voice. At times I was very impressed with listening to her and out of all the singers in the female-fronted metal genre, I am surprised that she isn’t given more credit. Her tone on many of the songs here is sharp, focused and mostly flawless and it’s hard to think of many singers one can say that about. Songs like Sweet Sacrifice, Weight Of The World, Lithium and Cloud Nine are all perfect Evanescence numbers, whereby Good Enough has the closest My Immortal feel about it, even though I couldn’t help feeling that it was somewhat an excuse for Amy to show her range off and it’s hard to deduce at such times whether the song’s emphasis is itself or the singer.

Unfortunately, as the album wears on it does become a little difficult to listen to in places. Like You and Lose Control are quite dull and lifeless, whereby I couldn’t say such a thing about any of the tracks on Fallen, which seemed to hit the mark every time. The first two thirds of The Open Door are more or less as perfect as an Evanescence album could be but after a while the lack of variety sets in and by the time I got to The Only One I couldn’t help feeling that Amy had used the same chord progressions, closed her eyes and shuffled them around.

Evanescence will always get a hard time of it even though they have brought a lot of fans into metal through the female-fronted side door. Some of the Dream Theater and Atrox fans will scoff at records like this but its vital to take Evanescence in their own context. The rock on this album is very well done, as well as thought-provoking, powerful and even emotional at times, though it’s a shame that a few of the songs seem to mirror others so closely. Overall though, the band have proved themselves admirably with this release and have overcome not only personal hardships but the expectations within the scene. Evanescence deserve to do well and as long as they don’t become too complacent, we should follow them with close and grateful interest.

7.5/10

uneXpect – In A Flesh Aquarium

22/12/2006 § Leave a comment

Take some standard ingredients, throw them in a big mixer, switch them around then flip it all upside-down. However, though I could quite easily sit down and enjoy one, two, or unhealthily large quantities of apple turnovers, getting all the way through uneXpect’s new album is not so easy to stomach. Now I know that some of the more self-labelling musos out there will instantly think that I haven’t given this album enough time and that it’s not possible that I can be a true, valid music interpreter because I don’t ‘get’ uneXpect’s sound but just what their ‘sound‘ is is debatable. Oh, and by the way that’s uneXpect, not Unexpect. be sure to get the capitalised lettering in the right places or BlooGG, TreewaRT and TwiNGLEfwuMP will come after you and impose a lesson on spelling in the world of avant-garde metal.

If anything, In A Flesh Aquarium is a unique piece of work. After all my years reviewing femme metal titles I don’t think I’ve ever come across something of such waywardly challenging proportions as this. I remember when I first heard Atrox I thought it wasn’t possible that anyone could like such a band, though after a while it became possible to see the patterns and shapes, indeed the intentions behind the music. The same is true of uneXpect, though to an even more impenetrable degree. Avant-garde metal is not about conjuring beautiful soundscapes or working with the odd uncommon time signature, but creating music that a lot of the time sounds like a freeform jazz band playing rugby. This is the sound of extreme music. Base-jumping for those with instruments. And it’s not surprising that a lot of the time it comes across as 20 car horns being fired from the top of a building. Meter, rhythm and groove seem to go out the window and what we’re left with is an apparent cacophony, but one which has been crafted carefully over a number of months though still having few discernable melodies.

And this may well be the intention. uneXpect are clearly very good musicians, astoundingly good in fact. The work and talent taken to make an album of these proportions is quite amazing. Still, at first listen, or even at third or fourth, In A Flesh Aquarium is likely to go totally over a lot of people’s heads. There is nothing particular here to keep you coming back if you’re into more standard forms of music, there are no hooks or easily-accessible sections. The band drop us right in the deep end from the word go: Chromatic Chimera is a reworking of an earlier uneXpect number on the We, Invaders album though what used to be a piano-only number has turned into a fully-fledged song with vocals and distortion, but it’s hardly an easy ride. The music stops and starts all over the place and it’s almost impossible to see where it’s going to go next or even sometimes where it’s come from. The same can certainly be said of Feasting Fools though it is Desert Urbania which, after a difficult trudge though the musical minefield, finally gives us some form of release since it does have a few noticeable riffs. Silence_011010701 is a serene instrumental in comparison to the rest of the album, and the three-part The Shiver starts off quietly and then goes on to what has now become the trademark madcap uneXpect sound by the final part.

Even though In A Flesh Aquarium is very well-played and well-written, there’s no question that this is not an easy album to listen to by any stretch. There is nothing here at all for the normal pop metal listener and it’s quite a slippery piece of work, evading and challenging everything that you thought you knew about metal – or even sometimes about music. However, all these things do not make it a brilliant piece of work, or even a good piece of work at times. If there’s one thing that IAFA is incapable of doing, it’s conjuring atmospheres. The band don’t use the music as tools for making people feel anything in particular, but tools for proving what it’s possible to do with frequencies, sounds, and the preconceptions of their listeners. It’s almost like looking at a Hieronymous Bosch painting or some of the architecture by Piet Blom: you can stare at it from a distance and marvel about the gumption it took to create it, but there’s little more that you can do with it.

Above all, whether you appreciate IAFA is very much to do with what you want to get out of it. If you like your music to prove a point rather than to make you feel anything remotely poignant, uneXpect could certainly be for you, but if you like a cedilla of emotion injected into the sound you choose to fill your head with then it won’t be your cup of tea. Technically it’s astonishing but tunefully, emotionally and melodically it’s little more than a metal band having a tantrum. Hopefully uneXpect’s next album will be more of a mature piece of work with some – God forbid – more understandable and relatable passages. If I sit down to listen to an album, I would rather it were something vaguely coherent than some sermonising technical rant from an avant-garde bunch of Canadians. Being unique, talented, and original does not always make good – or worthwhile – music.

7/10

Sirenia – Nine Destinies and a Downfall

22/12/2006 § Leave a comment

I remember a couple of years ago when Sirenia released An Elixir For Existence I was surprised at the tack they’d taken. Morten Veland, the mastermind behind Sirenia and Tristania had created an album of similar style to his usual work, except that – for the first time – this one was not quite up to standard. Something was missing, some ingenuity, some novelty, some risk. And if An Elixir For Existence was an indication that things were on the way down, we have most certainly plummeted further with this new release. It’s all very well to throw the rule book out the window as long as you don’t throw all your good ideas, skill and flair with it. Unfortunately, Nine Destinies And A Downfall does not only lack good ideas and skill, but inspiration and passion, and as a result we’ve pretty much hit rock bottom here. Though give Morten half a chance and I’m sure he’d start burrowing into the mantle.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. It’s quite common for bands to have an off album and a lot of us had confidence that An Elixir For Existence was nothing more than a slip, a careless loss of balance from a climb up the musical ziggurat and that everything would right itself on the next release. Regrettably things have hardly righted themselves at all, since Nine Destinies And A Downfall is not a work of Gothic metal but a large dollop of Gothic rock with standard, overproduced guitars, choirs thrown in for good measure where they don’t fit and about two minutes of growls on the whole thing. The songs are about as linear as you can get, there is no progressive songwriting and it all may as well have been cobbled together collectively by Within Temptation, Delain and Elis.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with making Gothic rock – or at least music that’s tailored towards squarely hitting the mainstream market – as long as it’s done well. However, the music contained in NDAAD is so terribly clichéd, hackneyed and stale that even after listening to half the album it’s difficult to pull anything particularly good out of the hat to say about it. The album’s first three songs, The Call, My Mind’s Eye and One By One have almost identical choruses and later in the album Absent Without Leave also ends up sounding very similar. The music is all mid-tempo and though the guitars are quite chuggy and rhythmic this isn’t really enough to make the music anything special. As a metal artist Morten knows more than most people how to write rhythmic music and though the songs do contain some pace and pulse, they certainly don’t contain harmony, atmosphere or originality. In fact the whole thing is quite staggeringly bland and featureless.

Many will also notice the inclusion of a new vocalist in the Sirenia fold, Monika Pederson. I don’t know how the band do it but they’ve managed to get through three vocalists in three albums and it will be interesting to see if Monika is able to go the distance or if she’ll be thrown out the tree for the next record. It’s sorry to say that this would probably be a wise move since the female vocals on this album are quite bad in places. Monika’s vocal tone may be fresh and colourful occasionally, but she’s regularly off-key, sometimes for entire choruses. This is apparent from the start of the album since the chorus to The Call could make the most tuneless and tone-deaf listener squirm in torture. It doesn’t stop there though, and there were many points where I was shocked that they didn’t pitchshift more, or if the original vocals were so bad that not even modern autotuning equipment built and designed by God himself would be enough to shunt Monika’s notes into the right lines on the stave.

Nine Destinies And A Downfall really does suffer from too many afflictions to be anything nearing a good album. There are so many things counting against it that it’s hard to see just how Sirenia can save themselves from this point on. Indeed some of the track titles in An Elixir For Existence hinted that Morten was undergoing some mental or artistic trials, and maybe albums like this are a bi-product of those difficulties. NDAAD is a conscious, intentional decision to move away from roots, typecasting and stigma, though it does so with little to no finesse, quality or class. Granted there may be quite a few of the younger mainstream Gothlings who will think this is the musical equivalent of a crème brûlée but it’s sad to see one of the most respected ensembles in Gothic metal so carelessly and eagerly dismantled. I would say that Morten can do better but it’s uncertain as to whether this is true anymore and it seems that with each album Sirenia give us further suggestion of a career past its peak. We can always look at the back catalogue for their glory days in Gothic metal but I imagine there’s little of worth that Sirenia can provide from now on.

5/10

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