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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