2006 – The Year In Review

25/03/2007 § Leave a comment

It’s not strictly fair to call the femme metal scene uninventive. If any noteworthy phenomenon came about in 2006, it was that while the top end of the genre continued to churn out middle-of-the-road money-spinners, something altogether more interesting was happening under the hood. If you weren’t au fait with how things were even starting to develop, you would have missed a whole host of interesting occurrences. Down in the busied guts of the femme metal machine, a multitude of bands were putting out some ingenious albums and it was refreshing to see a musical genus that was beginning to look somewhat like a wheezing, asthmatic emphysema patient getting a dose of well-needed oxygen. 2006 was the year when the femme metal scene started to get innovative, progressive, experimental and avant-garde, and after two years of semi-interesting drivel, it was great to see such life being breathed into it.

As is always the way, the top of the pyramid was where the most user-friendly and easily-digestible music was fermenting. Though whether every listener of LACUNA COIL’s new effort would agree with its being ‘user-friendly’ is debateable. The band, after four years of incessant touring and hard work, put out their long-awaiting Karmacode album in April. The main concept behind the album was to retain a sizeable range of the old fanbase but more than anything it. was to gather new younger fans. The band, already being fans of Korn, decided with their label that the best way of garnering further interest was to slap in as many chuggy riffs as possible with some basic yet catchy melodies riding the top. The idea didn’t so much shunt them forward as propel them much faster in the direction they were already going. Yes, a lot of fans hated the album but Karmacode did exactly what it was supposed to do, reap sales and get them well-known in the USA. Karmacode sold over 300,000 copies before its first year was out, whereas Comalies did not even manage an eighth of that figure twelve months into its release.

Another band to put out a long-awaited album was the empress of the Gothic rock scene EVANESCENCE. September’s The Open Door was in many ways a difficult album for the band to make. The departure of main songwriter Ben Moody along with immense pressure to make a successful follow-up to the hugely popular Fallen resulted in an album which managed to retain a lot of the vibe of its predecessor though not introducing any new elements. The Open Door is certainly a perfect reflections of Evanescence’s sound though it’s hard to see just how they will be able to top Fallen in terms of popularity and notoriety. In spite of this the album sold very respectably, managing to shift 3 million copies within the first six months of its release and going Platinum in over ten countries.

A step down from the mainstream, THEATRE OF TRAGEDY also had a lot to live up to by releasing their Storm album with THE CREST singer Nell on vocals. In spite of having some half-decent numbers in the form of Fade and Begin And End, Storm ended up sounding very much like another Crest album with no vast difference between the two bands’ styles. For no known reason to man or beast Raymond still insisted on using his trademark style of ‘vocals’ with a lot of people remaining unimpressed overall, especially since the band maintained that the album would be another Aegis. ANGTORIA and DELAIN released two similar Gothic metal/rock albums, both debuts which, though welcomed at the more popular end of the spectrum, were let-downs to those more aware of what femme metal could offer. Their adherence to routine, typical formulae became predictable and unoriginal after a couple of listens, with neither having any kind of reputable lasting appeal.

Slightly more interesting were the new releases by Belgians SENGIR and the French group THE LAST EMBRACE. Both bands put out respectable offerings with some appealing songs and competent vocals. MORTAL LOVE completed their album trilogy with Forever Will Be Gone – a good album but not quite as strong as its predecessor, and SILENTIUM put out a much better album then expected with the marvellous Seducia. This was indeed an album of two halves since though the female-only tracks were very good, the male vocals almost totally ruined each song they were integrated in. This was a big shame indeed since without them this would undoubtedly have been one of my albums of the year.

Poland, though normally one of the more productive countries with regard to the rawer side of Gothic metal, didn’t produce too much of interest. With bands like NAAMAH and DESDEMONA not releasing anything it was down to MOONLIGHT to bear the standard along with ARTROSIS, whose Con Trust album was less synth-based than others and though it had one or two notable tracks, it was nothing like the quality of the band’s previous releases. Artrosis really need to release a strong album next since Con Trust did little, in my mind at least, to consider them worthy contemporary competitors inside the genre. For those luckier to get on the larger labels, DELIGHT was still working on its Breaking Ground album, without a doubt its most accessible release yet. Short songs with punchy, think guitars and bags of reverb on the vocals made the album bearable to listen to in pieces, though very sickly and samey should you try it all in one go.

For the softer and slower albums on the metal side, there are two which definitely deserve a mention. THE GATHERING put out one of the best of their career with the fantastic Home – an excellent offering featuring great inventive songs and outstanding vocals. Home very much became what Souvenirs and even How To Measure A Planet hinted at, with the band finally sharpening and honing their trip rock round to a perfect point. The band had certainly made a rounded, complete and confident album: locking themselves away in a church for a week obviously did them some good. Another album that springs to mind at the same time if the marvellous AVA INFERI whose debut humbly crept on the market under Seasons of Mist. Even though the album has had few mentions in the press, it is a light, shimmering and warm offering of doom metal with mesmerising vocals and tons of atmosphere. For those who thought that the femme metal genre couldn’t produce original doom, Ava Inferi were the exception.

However, it was at the more progressive side that things really took off. It’s hard for me to think of a year in which there was so much good and imaginative music in the more creative side of the genre. MADDER MORTEM and THE PROVENANCE both put out excellent albums, Red Flags being arguably the best thing that The Provenance have done. In spite of its lack of growls the songs were far more pacey and energised, and there was much there to suggest that the best from the band was yet to come. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE, who don’t generally seem to be mentioned all that often in the femme metal scene, put out the fantastic The Locust Years. One of the reasons why this band doesn’t get lumped into the category of other femme metal is because they sound so different from it. Hammers Of Misfortune seem to harbour an old school progressive metal influence, and since the genre only took off in the 21st century it’s not surprising that they’re not massed together with the rest of the femme metal mob. AGHORA released their first full-length album for six years and it’s a very good piece of work indeed. Highly progressive, jazzy in places, very heavy guitars and the almost ethereal vocals of Dianna Serra. All these albums alone made 2006 very worthwhile musically.

There were a few very noteworthy debuts in the progressive side of the genre too, with the highly talented TO-MERA releasing their debut with Julie Kiss on vocals. The band took nearly all their influences from male vocal bands which gave their sound a more complex, heavy and refined air than a lot of other femme metal, and the album was very well received. Another astoundingly good debut was that from DIABLO SWING ORCHESTRO whose novel and inimitable The Butcher’s Ballroom brought them much acclaim due to its use of excellent operatic vocals, varied songs and high originality. DISTORTED from Israel also brought out their debut with its influences from Nevermore/Opeth and Miri’s beautiful singing holding a heavy middle-eastern slant. Its uncompromising style of progressive death metal was remarkably good, and for me, unexpected, whereas UNEXPECT’s In a Flesh Aquarium was an immature and ostentatious contribution to the avant-garde side. The same could certainly not be said for STOLEN BABIES whose debut There Be Squabbles Ahead with its fine use of excellent clean vocals and screams, jaunty songs and rhythmic, slick basslines made it certainly one of the best albums of the year.

There’s already much in 2007 to get absorbed in and it does seem that the femme metal scene is righting itself. In the past couple of years it mostly seemed to be about standard metal riffs and acceptable rock, though as it now roots itself more sturdily under the metal umbrella it has become more aware of what it can do. Though the first half of 2006 wasn’t much to write home about, the second warranted a meaty tome. It’s great to see such good things happening in femme metal, and with so many more inventive bands around, it will be intriguing to see just how far we’ve come in another twelve months.

Bands to watch in 2007:

Epica [Netherlands]

After Forever [Netherlands]

Night wish [Finland]

Tristania [Norway]

Lumsk [Noway]

Akin [France]

Xandria [Germany]

The Project Hate [Sweden]

Penumbra [France]

Madder Mortem [Norway]

Virgin Black [Australia]

Soul grind [Sweden]

Nemesea [Netherlands]

Catafalque [Turkey]

Diluvium [Serbia]

Dylath-Leen [France]

Asrai [Netherlands]

Shadow play [Ermmm somewhere]

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Stolen Babies – There Be Squabbles Ahead

20/03/2007 § Leave a comment

Recently The End seem to be thrusting themselves in an eminent direction, as least with regard to unique releases. In fact, it’s likely that from 2007 we’re likely to see the rise of the avant-garde femme band purely as a result of The End’s contributions to the scene. In the last few months people are going crazy for crazy metal, and with bands like uneXpect, Giant Squid and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum coming to prominence it’s hardly a surprise. What all these have in common is that they’re all signed to the same label and Stolen Babies, the next addition to the category is certainly among good labelmates. Since In a Flesh Aquarian hit the shelves and the internet a few months ago more peoples’ eyes have been opened to the unusual jazzy tomfoolery of experimental metal, and it’s nice to see a new genre gaining popularity rather than being made up because people want to rename an existing one with a cooler title.

But the problems are already starting – people aren’t happy enough labelling something progressive or avant-garde because even though the avant-garde metal bands have been around for years, this doesn’t mean anything to those newer to the ranks. Earache bands like Ephel Duath and Carnival In Coal are likely never to cross the ears of those who like their avant-garde stuff femme based, and already I’ve seen the subgenre renamed with ridiculous monikers such as ‘avant-goth’ and ‘spooky core’. To an extent it doesn’t matter exactly what kind of music you’re listening to as long as people know what you choose to spend your time with has a cool or impenetrable/nonsensical name. Whatever you want to call Stolen Babies, it doesn’t matter: this is female-fronted metal with as many twists as it wants to throw you. It thinks, moves, breathes and lives for itself, and whatever rubber stamp you want to punch on it won’t make any difference to what’s already there.

And movement is key to how this band translates their sound to the listening demographic. Whereas bands like uneXpect stop and start all over the place with clever, questionable and slightly self-inflated hubbub, there’s no such thing with Stolen Babies. Though there is a great idiosyncrasy to their sound with rhythm changes, whirling guitars, noise and heaviness aplenty, the music never loses track of itself, it always seems to know where it’s going. A lot of similar bands give the impression of having no direction, but it’s easy to feel not so disorientated in the presence of Stolen Babies since their freak-show, accordion-fuelled metal shanties have some sense of purpose and self-knowledge and it’s possible to sit down and relax among all the chaos rattling against your eardrums as a result.

Right from the start if the album singer Dominque is screaming along to the fast groove of the token basslines which drive every song with a particular buzz. Her vocals always switch between clean and screams, sometimes beautifully to the point where she alternates them every other word. The album takes us through 13 songs ranging from galloping, furied shouting; to dinky, metal jaunts with electric guitars, and to slower, thoughtful ballad-like numbers, or at least ballads as far as Stolen Babies are concerned. There really is a lot of variety in the album though not so much that the band ends up suffocating themselves. Each song certainly has its own personality through taking acceptable, standard song structures and contorting them into something more interesting, provocative and confrontational without tripping over themselves in the process.

A lot of the time one gets the impression with debuts that bands have laid their signature sound and there needs to be some development from that point. However, with their debut Stolen Babies have clearly made their mark since everything about the album is solid – the vocals, the song writing, the musicianship and even the sound production. Not only that, but I get the impression that the band have far from spent their chips and that this is just a taste of things to come. There Be Squabbles Ahead is certainly one of the most interesting and welcome releases I’ve come across in a good long time and it sets itself apart from other femme music by being unpretentious, matter-of-fact, and not making an effort to impress its listeners. It is a fabulous, well-structured and original debut. It’s great to see the genre doing something truly inventive again.

9/10

Within Temptation – The Heart of Everything

20/03/2007 § Leave a comment

After hearing Keith Caputo’s antagonistic vocals on the What Have You Done single I didn’t hold out the best hope for this album. The Heart of Everything, as well as having a questionable title and artwork, seemed to be yet another step into the realm of mainstream success, boosted by Caputo on the warpath and flat-packed Gothic songs. However, The Heart of Everything should certainly be given a chance to be heard in its entirety before we all go screaming for the hills, despairing that it won’t be long before we see WT on the MTV awards doing duets with Eminem and Bullet For My Valentine. The band have clearly not lost an ounce of self-respect in the years that it has taken for them to be successful and though some bands may take the Lacuna Coil approach of chuggy Kornlike guitars to get the teeny Goths frothing at the gashes, WT have taken the line of releasing an album made purely of good songs. As long as you have the right people on board, it seems you don’t have to change your sound that much to retain your old fans while getting new ones at ample opportunity.

The Heart of Everything builds on what The Silent Force already started, apart from the fact that it does it a lot better. The Silent Force, which took many years to be released, seemed to be more a promotional engine running to gather new fans than just the next album in a series. Since it came out WT have been getting stuck into new scenes and crevasses that they wouldn’t have dared dream about in the Enter days. However, though TSF worked for the most part, there were many of us cynical reviewers who, whilst momentarily mourning the older sound, appreciated that TSF wasn’t everything it could have been. It had its ridges and holes, and when one song was masterful, another was unashamedly lifeless.

The Heart Of Everything has patched up these holes nicely since every song on it has its own commendable aspect and it’s hard to believe that a band I thought were going gradually to the dogs, soaked in the nectar of mainstream goodness, have managed to put out an album of songs this fine. Yes it’s hooky, catchy and some snobby fans of progressive metal will turn their noses up at it, but the rest of us will be able to appreciate what WT have done here – make an album of epic poppy goodness with not one dislikeable track. The songs themselves are very much in the vein of The Silent Force apart from the fact that there isn’t such an emphasis on orchestration. You do get the odd violin sound such as in the fantastic Hands of Sorrow, but these aren’t overly loud and obtrusive – they don’t try to make a point and purely provide a great riff over the choruses. Likewise Final Destination, Frozen, The Howling and The Cross are all powerful songs with terrific refrains. Sharon also sounds particularly good in the ballads All I Need and Forgiven, which actually work this time rather than being too token and twee like in earlier releases; the way that Sharon trills over the notes in the latter being particularly emotive.

Some tracks work better than others, The Truth Beneath The Rose being one that didn’t cut it for me. I’ve always thought that if there’s one thing that WT should avoid it’s long songs, and anything over seven minutes is a no-no. Even though it has a good intro and some nice instrumentation, it’s hard for my attention not to wonder half-way through; likewise Our Solemn Hour, with its part-Latin chorus, is a little bit daft and drawn-out. Still, neither of these songs are bad in their own rights and if other more feeble-sounding Gothic rock bands had released tracks like these we’d be saying they were their finest moments, but on an album with so many better tracks, one or two are always going to fade into the background.

Whichever song you may or may not like here is a point of very personal opinion. The Heart Of Everything is an album filled with so many examples of good ways to spend four minutes that what will be a dull song for one person will a total joy for another. And in a way this is the medium in which the album most succeeds. The Silent Force felt a little deflated at times whereas WT have proven now that they not only have what it takes to make one of the best Gothic rock albums I’ve ever heard, but they also manage to offer a kaleidoscope of numbers which every femme and Gothic metal fan should enjoy on some level. After ten years of hard work in the scene and with an established faithful fan base, they truly deserve a peak, and The Heart Of Everything could well be it.

8/10

The Last Embrace – Inside

20/03/2007 § Leave a comment

Even though The Last Embrace have been together since 1998, only recently have they managed to release their debut full-length. I have to wonder what the band’s been up to all this time, it makes me think of Left Hand Solution and how it’s taken them something like twelve years to release two albums. Yes, I know the music business can be an unforgiving and troublesome field but there’s a difference between being in a band as a hobby and putting out a new album at the start of each generation gap.

Even though I hadn’t actually listened to their EP I’d heard some good things about it and I was hoping that The Last Embrace would be one of those bands to alleviate and elevate the miasma of mediocrity that seems to be distending the femme metal scene these days. However, having listened to this multiple times I don’t feel totally satisfied that that’s what has happened here. The Last Embrace have certainly put out a competent effort, though I wanted to feel satisfied to the point that I’d stuffed my face with the choicest and most politically incorrect haute cuisine, dining on the brains of baby dolphins and pandas drowned in cognac and amaretto, only to actually feel like I’ve been given a turkey sandwich with one of those toothpicks in the middle to hold it all together.

Inside is an album of straight up Gothic rock/metal with a slight progressive edge to it. There’s nothing particularly harsh about the sounds of the guitars, it isn’t trying to give us quick hooky fixes and it doesn’t think itself to be a clever piece of work either. In a sense this is quite a humble and self-realised offering with a little bit of distortion on the guitars and Sandy’s very smooth vocals which capably dance about the staves and don’t go off at any point. The album starts with the obligatory instrumental before going into three of its best songs, Mother, Somewhere In The Dark Rain and Inside. These songs, along with the later crunchy It Says are certainly the best of the bunch and there are moments, albeit quite rare ones, when there are glimpses of something really special. The music is indeed intriguing though nothing novel, and it was reassuring to be in the presence of a band who were sure about their sound, even though the music didn’t quite hold my attention all the time.

And getting your attention to hold is not something that the album gets better at doing as you work your way through it. Even though Inside is composed of a very good first half, the effectiveness starts to taper off halfway through the album, heralded by the terribly average Can You? and Broken. After listening to these, the self-certainly and inventiveness which the band showed during the first few numbers seems to go out the window and the entire edifice ends up becoming watery and slightly flavourless. The songs faff about in what seem to be terribly straightforward and monotonic choruses with little variety in the notes, not really seeming to know what they’re doing and having no apparent direction or purpose. It’s easy to get the impression that the band wanted to put together a decent album here but the feeling of genuineness and resolution that fuelled the first few songs isn’t there anymore.

Nevertheless, this isn’t a bad starting album, and a starter it should be since I wouldn’t want to think that The Last Embrace feel this is an adequate representation of what they’re capable of. There’s room here for development and with a little more concentration on the finer details of what’s positive about the music, there’s a lot of scope for things to get better. There’s certainly a chance for some good progressive song writing and heaviness and though the band have experimented with these two ideas on Inside they could fuse the two together very convincingly if they chose to. Sandy, for her part, shows sparks of great promise and it would be good to hear her really pelt out the notes at full force and to be more comfortable in the music. Even though Inside isn’t the femme metal gem I was hoping for, the potential for one is definitely there, and hopefully at some point the band could realise it.

7.5/10

Dark Sanctuary – Exaudi Meam Part II

20/03/2007 § Leave a comment

Exaudi Vocem Meam Pt II is the sixth full-length elegy by French harbingers of moroseness, Dark Sanctuary. If you’re into the ethereal genre, or even if you’re heavily embedded in the metal scene, you may have had some inkling that this instalment had moped onto the shelves a couple of months ago. I don’t know what it is about Dark Sanctuary but there seems to be such an inexhaustible supply of source material from which to draw their music: each album is fine-tuned to the hilt with some of the most dirgelike and depressing songs that its legally possible to squash onto one CD. Whatever’s going on in their lives I can only hope that it’s all an act and when they exit the studio they bounce, space-hopper like down the road in throes of inexorable glee and get on with their lives entertaining kids as life-sized bunnies at birthday jamborees.

Whatever may be going on in the cold recesses of their heads might be doing some good though, for at least they are able to produce albums which, although more than a little bleak, are just the kind of thing that the aspiring ethereal music fan will slurp up like crushed velvet throes. Exaudi Vocem Meam II is a more realised, more honed and sharper album than its predecessor which, though it stuck to the confines of the mould that Dark Sanctuary set themselves, almost ended up being asphyxiated by it. Pt I concerned me that the band were losing their edge, it suffered from a lack of enthusiasm and energy, whereas Pt II sees the band well and truly back on the right track – more so in fact – since it is the most ingenious and inventive album that they have put out yet, and for once they have tried to do something different with their hallmark sound.

Once again, the strength of this album lies in its simplicity, something well exhibited in Les Mémoires Blessées and L’être las – L’envers du miroir though this time the simplicity takes the forms of more straightforward piano riffs, softer pacey drumming segments, and a modest amount of experimentation with vocal parts. These all help the songs to have some kind of even flow through them when in the past it’s been too easy for Dark Sanctuary albums to come across as one big lump of ethereal mush. This time, songs like J’ai Rêvé d’une Vie, La rêveuse and the brilliant Femme d’un soldat mort all give us the same welcome slice of Dark Sanctuary but with a slightly different tinge to them, wheras Creuseur de Terre stands out as being one of the more prominent numbers because of its sinister dark ambient quality. Finish it all off with a French cover of Sally’s Complaint from The Nightmare Before Christmas and you have a remarkable work of ethereal music.

The atmospherics that Dark Sanctuary fill their compositions with are back in full force: everything is tinted with a soft, dark tone, filled with introspection, contemplation and sallow wretchedness. Though this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who revel in the atmosphere of this band won’t be disappointed. In this way, it’s very difficult to fault this album since the band deliver everything that they have done previously as well as throwing a few differences into the mix which, rather than tossing the songs into places they don’t belong, are subtle enough to make them stand out from previous efforts. The more standard DS songs are there too, with L’inconnue, Vision meurtrie and Un jour, peut-être…being of the slower and more recognisable style.

Since the lacklustre slump that was Exaudi Vocem Mean Pt I, Dark Sanctuary have risen to produce not only a quality album within their own catalogue, but one of the best things to hit the ethereal and darkwave scene for a very long time. The band have shown they are capable of altering their sound so their music doesn’t suffer, and indeed this may be necessary in order to keep their future music from being carbon copies of their earlier works. Exaudi Vocem Meam Part II is by far the superior of the duo: its lush gloom and self-belief make it one of the best works in the genre that I’ve come across for a very long time.

8.5/10

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