Share and Share Alike

05/05/2007 § Leave a comment

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination”
– Oscar Wilde

Few purchasing options are open to you as a 13 year old. I remember as the hormonally-fuelled germ-stack that I was in my early teens, one thing that I didn’t have a great deal of was money. Of course there was a lot of everything else – libido, frustration, attitude, irritability – but I starkly remember never having enough cash to do what I wanted. It changes when you’re older though, much older, when you’ve nothing to do with the money you’ve hoarded away as a pensioner apart from divvy it out to family members who strain at the thought of spending five minutes on the phone with you. You have to be nice to your elders after all. You’re told you have to be. And I know that when my younger relatives call me in thirty, forty years’ time it won’t be out of genuine interest for talking to me, to finding out how the eight hundredth day of my senility is going, but to appease some nagging parent telling them that they have to call me at this time of year and only then they can go back to their Play Station XII. It’s all I’ll be able to do to move over to the phone, thankful that someone has called me, knowing too well that the youthful imp at the other end can’t wait to be rid of me within seconds of hearing the elderly croak of my larynx as I, locked in some kind of self-absorbed aged loop, revel and drag on my only single conversation of the week.

Having no cash meant it was hard to get things that you wanted. Impress people. Buy records or tapes, it was difficult. But once you’d managed to get hold of your album – your only listen of the month – the poor thing would be played to death. Because you’d never have any idea of what it sounded like in its entirety before you bought it, if you didn’t like it when you took it home, then bad luck. I would listen to the weaker tracks intently, praying that I’d be able to prise some hook or relatable cadence out of them so my purchase didn‘t seem like a waste. I’d never take anything back though. I was still intent on maintaining a collection, partly because of my fascination with amassing these kinds of things and, partly because I’d imagine random people coming into my house, poring over the racks of popular and slightly obscure plastic oblongs and reeling at the informed and musically enlightened soul I was. Possibly wanting to have sex with me. Anything seems to lead back to that at some point.

Opportunities changed in a big way at the end of the 90s. People started maintaining Hotmail accounts, email was a fascinating novelty and no-one dreamed of criticising Windows 98’s instability or its failure to handle new hardware natively. With the added popularity of Windows 95 and 98 came Napster and the avaricious, decentralised peer to peer generation. It became less necessary to go and buy records when you could pinch the music instantly off someone else’s PC. The one or two album a month principle became jettisoned in favour of the one of two hundred album a month principle, losing the music industry thousands of pounds per month for one listener, those brought up in the early 90s having little to no cognisance of how the corporate mechanisms of the decades before operated.

Have I been guilty of this? Of course. I’m sure most kids with a passing interest in music have succumbed, and the situation is made worse by how easy it is to do. Downloading and installing programs is insultingly easy and any half-witted child can find similar artists to bulk up their collection and decide in one spin whether they like them or not. We live in a dissuasive age where people want microwave quick actions, reactions and reviews and there seems to be little time taken to enjoy the music. The effects on the bands are demeaning. People think that’s it’s easy to get acquainted with the sound of an entire subgenre through very little research or knowledge, so artists have to find increasingly innovative ways of getting through to people and being original. I get sick when I see people seeding discographies, posting links to albums on forums and websites. There seems to be no respect for the bands themselves, only an interest in poaching a product as quickly as possible. Ironically, at a time when it’s been easier than ever to have direct contact with bands, with sites like MySpace and Last FM going a long way to remove the barrier of elitism and untouchableness between artist and fan base, people still see musicians as little else but factories churning out produce which they have a right to seize without paying for.

Femme metal suffers as much as any small genre does. There’s not a huge amount of money being passed around especially at the lower end of the tree, with some bands not having a label at all and having to self finance and distribute their records themselves. Some of the bands are victims of circumstance, with some of the larger groups, especially in Holland, seeing little to no cash at all from the sales of the records – the money goes into to the industry, rather than to the artists directly. The anarchists’ reaction to this is that their downloading and seeding of such material is therefore justified. If the artists who make the music aren’t getting paid for it, then why pump your money into the rest of the industry. But those who are committing any kind of misdemeanour will generally find ways to validate what it is they’re doing. The truth is that most bands in the scene don’t get a lot of money for what they do, it’s only when you get to the level of Nightwish, Within Temptation and Lacuna Coil that things definitely start changing Any other band is still getting peanuts for playing headline slots, and even less than that in support.

It’s hard to do anything to stop the onslaught of the downloaders. Music producers have thought of various ways to stop people ripping CDs and promos to their computers, ranging from anti copy software to splitting tracks up. In the end it’s just a deterrent, there’s little you can really do to stop these things from leaking. A few months ago Nuclear Blast announced that it was going to be watermarking each track on its promos, so that if they leaked onto the internet prior to the album’s release they would be able to see who the leak came from. Of course Dimmu Borgir’s album and the latest After Forever both managed to leak before their release date. I imagine – I hope – that someone at Nuclear Blast is feeling ridiculed by this, purely because it was a preposterous idea to think it could work in the first place. If you give out CDs, they will end up on the internet, there is an unstoppable flow of bytes out there and it just takes one person to crack the software and everyone has the album.

Psychonaut, The Gathering’s own label, thought of a different alternative to this, letting the album be streamed from the press area of their website while saying that they wouldn’t be sending out any physical copies. However, physical copies were sent out and soon enough Home ended up on the internet too. Promo CDs are integral to promotion of any new album – reviews need to be written and songs have to be aired in order for people to get some kind of idea of what it is they’re going to part with their money for. That is, if they part with their money at all for it. A lot of bands and labels have no real idea of how many people are listening to their records, they only have a clue through sales figures. Exactly who is playing the stuff at home is something that no-one can be definite about.

This doesn’t mean that everyone knows file-sharing is wrong. In 2003 reporters burst into the home of Brianna LaHara, a 12 year old girl from Los Angeles as she was helping her brother with her homework. She was told that the Recording Industry Association of America was going to file a lawsuit against her for copyright infringement through sharing music on the p2p network KaZaa. Threatened with having to pay $150,000 per song, she eventually settled at $2 per song, paying a grand total of $2,000 in fees for her wrongdoings. “We’re trying to send a strong message that you are not anonymous when you participate in peer-to-peer file-sharing and that the illegal distribution of copyrighted music has consequences” said the RIAA in a sanctimonious statement.. Brianna, possibly like thousands of other people, had little idea that what they were doing was immoral, let alone illegal. However, the law loves strict liability. Didn’t know what you were doing was criminal? Doesn’t matter, you’re culpable anyway, though the RIAA made an infamously poor call with this one. The difficultly being that if so many people don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong – or don’t believe it – it becomes more difficult to do anything about it.

If there’s one positive thing that downloading albums can do though, it’s spreading the news of bands and their music to gain wider audiences and appreciation. And if those that hear it like it, then it will be spread further. This, in a sense, is free promotion and to a far greater number of people that could be consciously engineered from inside the industry. Now a lot of people are turning to the internet to try products before they get hold of the hard copy – something they could never do before. Trying to close down the networks, suing 12 year olds, Grokster and Limewire may get money back into the industry but it’s the people who are using the programs who are to blame. The enthusiasts and those who love and care about the bands will buy the CDs regardless, in fact, people will buy the CDs who would never have come across the artists otherwise. In a way it’s a shame that we have to resort to stealing music in order that people can hear it worldwide, but it’s a relentless juggernaut that few in the industry can do anything about. Sharing music gains bands a wider audience and a worldwide fan base, it‘s an indisputable fact. No one would care about the scene half as much otherwise.

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Delight – Breaking Ground

05/05/2007 § Leave a comment

I was more than a little dubious about hearing Delight’s new effort. As we all know too well by now, signing to a behemoth the size of Roadrunner does tend to change the sound of a band more than a little and I’ve got a soft spot for Delight. I saw them play in Katowice a couple of years ago in a humdrum, characterless shell of a venue. There was a railinged platform protruding from the front of the stage like Concorde’s nose-cone and a group of three bald aggressive men involved in their own personal moshpit which was so menacing that I and others around me feared genuinely for our health. Fortunately, what stood out more than this was Delight’s performance and, signed to Metal Mind Productions as they were, I know they were desperate to go somewhere else. Everyone was. All the bands were complaining acerbically about how dreadful promotion was in Poland, how you could never play outside, how support and representation were in short supply. To others’ envy Delight won a place at Roadrunner records, and yes, their resultant sound is more accessible, though it’s a shame that their original style has been so dryly smothered in the process.

I shouldn’t act so surprised but it’s unusual when a band who haven’t changed too much from year to year – that’s four albums – get a new tinge to them. Though for Delight it’s not really so much of a tinge but a big slap of the 5-inch brush, a coating of creosote mixed with double cream and molasses that sinews their sound and gums up any of the old recognisable features. Breaking Ground, unless you didn’t know, is not an entirely original album. In spite of the fact that there are twelve tracks on it, at least five of these are direct reworkings of songs from their previous album, Anew. I don’t know who came up with this ridiculous idea, to follow an album with half the tracks from the last album, in fact it’s a pretty dire thing to do for the Delight fans. Anew was released in 2004 and now, three years later, you don’t get a new album but effectively an EP, and I doubt that a large majority of the fan base will think it’s ‘OK’ and ‘understand’ because they’ve switched to Roadrunner. No, the majority probably don’t even have a clue who Roadrunner is and what the label state of their average band is. It’s like giving a kid a huge ice cream cone but only filling it halfway up.

The first song on the album, Divided, is a reworking of an older Delight track called Anew. However, this time round the song has more of the words missing to make it shorter and colossal lashings of reverb on the voice. Straight away it’s clear that Breaking Ground is a different kettle du poisson: the guitars are terribly punchy and meaty, the vocals trails off into the ether and all the songs are quite ridiculously short for maximum effect in minimum time. It’s not only Anew that has been given the lucky reincarnation treatment though: Bare Tree, More, Emotune and Your Name also got mangled on this new release. The reason for doing this evades me since it would make more sense to rework songs from the band’s earlier days off The Fading Tale or Last Temptation rather than songs from the last album, unless the idea was to distribute this thing worldwide with more of an up to date version of the band’s sound recognisable to both old and new audiences. Either way, for those of us who are familiar with Delight’s stuff, these tracks do absolutely nothing and are only there to skip since we know them already. So as far as I’m concerned that’s half the album out the window.

This leaves seven new tracks which are not of the Delight form that you’d expect, in fact, there’s not much here about the old Delight at all. Someone somewhere has decided that Delight need to throw in more crunchy riffs with catchy choruses and more jumpy down-tuned bass. Don’t panic too much though, this is nothing along the lines of Lacuna Coil’s Karmacode and it never skates off into nu-metal territory, but there’s only so much that Delight can do with three minute songs and the numbers here hover between being good, catchy pop rock snippets and forgettable pointless fillers. Therefore while Reasons, Sleep With The Light On and In Too Deep have some nice parts to them, every other song is so weighty and starchy that by two-thirds of the album it’s hard to care since it all sounds the same.

I almost feel sorry for the band since though being on Roadrunner may introduce them to better marketing and fuller audiences, they’ve almost had their old sound raped along the way. They probably don’t mind so much about this – or at least I hope not – but what was once a confident, happy and inventive band on the Polish metal scene seems to have become strangled by corporate need and the shortcomings of their home country. As a result it’s hard to wrench a lot of fun, feeling or emotion out of Breaking Ground and I get the impression there’s been a slight amount of turmoil somewhere behind this release. It’s all very well being signed to a major but Breaking Ground is a short, stumpy little dwarf amongst Gothic metal. It’s got attitude, grit and to an extent, style, but Delight’s most mainstream release is also their weakest yet.

6.5/10

Aghora – Formless

05/05/2007 § Leave a comment

Season of Mist have some decent bands on their roster and USA’s Aghora is hardly an exception. Not the kind of ensemble that has been publicised or touted to the femme metal crowd, fans of this lot are more likely to come from the prog/thrash hordes of the early 90s. Femme metal followers generally seem to be of the younger variety who would have to – heaven forbid – look at 90s back catalogues to have any real idea of the artists who shaped the progressive scene as it is today so Aghora may not be known to many fans on this side. However, Aghora is not the band that it was in the 90s, losing not only their singer, Danishta Rivero, but also Sean Malone on bass, which was arguably a bigger detriment.

Six years later and the band have put out their long-awaited second album, and long-awaited it was indeed since the debut created such a furore that it was painful for some to have to toe the line and sit it out until Formless hit the shelves. Danistha’s trebly whiney vocals have been replaced with the softer more ethereal tones of Diana Serra, and the bass, now far less of a feature than it was, is taken on by Alan Goldstein. In a sense Aghora is less the beast it used to be and a few changes have had to be made musically as a result of the alterations in the line-up. However, Formless has not suffered a terrible blow as result of this, even though many of the debut purists have whinged about how inferior this sophomore release is.

The gulf between albums was inevitably going to bring a few changes to the band’s sound. Formless is still very much a successful work of progressive metal though now the focus is more on guitar riffs than anything else, in fact the whole thing has turned into the Santiago Dobles Shredding Show. Rhythmically there is a heavy concentration on chuggy and trebly riffs and there aren’t so many tempo changes but more cut-and-pasted rhythm sections. Atmas Heave and Mahayana are the best examples of this, being laden with heavy guitar, and imaginative percussion, all mingled with the band’s token middle-eastern vibe. Dual Alchemy is another of the album’s best with a calm, clean-guitared chorus over Diana’s smooth lyrics and it’s at more thought provoking numbers such as this that the album really excels. It is sometimes a thrilling and absorbing experience, the rhythm is so crisp and certain in places that it’s hard not to get drawn in by it and when so many bands profess to be progressive in femme metal, it’s good to see one that actually is.

Formless does seem to suffer from the affliction which is also its namesake though, being sometimes made from too many trebly, high end trashy riffs and disorganised ideas that it’s hard to discern one song from the next. The title track is quite an unimpressive 12 minutes as well, even managing to shove in the same chorus and verse tune from Dual Alchemy at points which is less than impressive and one wonders whether the band would pass this off as mirrored creativity or lack of ideas. The other thing that bugs me about this album is the sound production. Even though it’s perfectly clear and not thick and sludgy like some of the albums released by bands on poorer labels, the levels in Formless really need some help. Singer Diana sounds too low in the mix for me and there are a couple of times when I’m really struggling to make out what she’s saying, doubtless not helped by her poor diction. The drums also sound terribly shallow, not deep and intense as I’d like them but thin and hollow, some of the fills sounding as though they’re struck on kitchen utensils rather than a full kit.

Whether you have a soft spot for Formless very much depends on what you choose to compare it to. At a time when I find myself caring increasingly less about some of the more ‘Gothic’ bands in the scene, it’s nice to be able to find one that can actually carry something distinctive. In spite of this I can’t help but feel that Formless had potential to be more on so many levels – more heavy, more intense, more creative, and yes, more progressive. It’s also sad that Diana’s vocals aren’t given more of a chance to shine, she’s certainly competent and in tune but it’s unfortunate that her talents have been forced to give way to the sometimes relentless battering of Doble’s rhythm guitar. After such a long gap between releases you’d be forgiven for thinking that this album wasn’t rushed but it still feels like not enough concentration went into the finer details. As a work in femme metal it’s definitely worth getting and admiring above a lot of other albums, but as a work of progressive metal it could have been far grander.

7.5/10

After Forever – After Forever

05/05/2007 § Leave a comment

Barely months after Transmission Records got itself a website the whole thing bit the cyberdust. Years of expensive ways of promoting bands, putting all its eggs into the Epica basket and neglecting some of the more important areas of business meant the whole thing crumbled without a whimper. Nobody really knew that the record company had gone under, but meanwhile all the orphan bands were scattered around Holland trying to find someone to take them on. After Forever had managed to jump ship well before this, their contract expiring after Remagine, and their new self-titled album sees them signing with one of the biggest labels in the metal business, Nuclear Blast. All the groundwork done under Transmission has paid dividends and now things have settled there are no bitter recriminations on the band’s website, Sander is posting studio reports to the theme of the He-Man soundtrack and the band aren’t screwing around with their image so much that they look like they’re off to a line-dancing contest after every photoshoot. In fact, I’m sure I saw Floor wear a skirt in one of the new videos.

After the strong internet rumour that this album was going to have the terrible title of Energized and the ensuing outcry that After Forever really need lessons in how not to be naff, at the last minute they went for the self-titled option. What exactly a self-titled album is supposed to signify is unclear. It could hint that this is an album through which the band feels their sound is defined, it could herald a sea-change in their mindset now that they have a new label or it could be that they had no idea what else to call it. Nevertheless, what the sound of this album offers fans is much of the same formula as was presented in Remagine, though with more heaviness and solidity. The songs are harder, faster, though not particularly dark since AF have never had that much of a dark edge to them. It’s all one part symphonic, one part progressive, one part power – and whether they like it or not – one part Gothic.

The Gothic elements this time round are as few as the band could be comfortable including. The choirs, when they do show themselves, sound like Floor pasted upon Floor and though there is something of an operatic shade to her voice in places, this doesn’t really rear its head much of the time. Sander has a much bigger part on this album as well, being in a generous number of songs, especially the ultra-heavy De-Energized which almost makes a point of itself in the same way that Nightwish’s Slaying The Dreamer did with heavy riffs, thunderous guitars and lots of growling. This is a little different to the stuff that AF have experimented with thus far and there is further evidence of this in Transitory, easily the fastest song on the album, with many pummelling drum beats and carefully placed guitar chugs.

The album clearly likes its new harsher approach. It runs away with its own energy and momentum considerably, only stopping for a couple of songs which could be defined as ballads before the distortion comes back in and Floor wobbles all over the place for the choruses. One song which tries to remedy this is the 11-minute Dreamflight, possibly inspired by a visit to the Efteling leisure park in Kaatsheuvel. This is the longest song that AF have attempted and thus has the moniker of ‘prog’ written all over it. And it’s a curious thing: slow, fast, slow and fast again, though I have no idea why the band didn’t break this down into a couple of numbers since it just doesn’t work for me. However, for me the album‘s biggest problem is the intemperate bashing and battering of some of the other songs which gets too much on constant listening, only making it possible to take one or two tracks at a time rather than the full album at one go.

Though After Forever certainly know how to please their fans it’s going to be hard to exploit this formula for too much longer. This self-titled effort, though effective and powerful, gets just a little bit sickly after a while and after playing through this three or four times it’s a little too easy to break AF down to their lowest common denominator. It’s all heavy riffing power chords, a few growls here and there, Floor bubbling away in the verses and waiting to explode like a reactor for the choruses. Each album differs from the last by as much as it’s required to do and call me pernickety, but for some reason I was expecting an ambitious step into other forms of songwriting rather than rotating within the same comfort zone. If they’d just stop churning out the albums and take some time and concentration over them, every level of their fan base could be rewarded with something truly brilliant. This, however, isn’t quite it.

7.5/10

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