Felsenreich – Unschuld

15/12/2008 § Leave a comment

Artist: Felsenreich
Title: Unschuld
Label: Danse Macabre
Genre: Gothic Rock / Synthpop

Track Listing:

01 Breathe Again
02 The Seeker
03 Januar
04 Maniac Minds
05 For this Time
06 Lost
07 Veronia
08 Pray to Luna
09 Ende Mensch
10 Faking (Just a Pretence)

It’s surprising that Felsenreich aren’t more well-known since they’ve got four releases under their belt. In fact, looking for any information on them is something of a challenge. But what is clear is that the band have been together since 1999, the scope of their music has hardly changed at all and they like to describe themselves as Mexican Gothic rock. It’s usually problematic when bands start giving genre titles to their own sound because – ironically – they’re generally wrong about it and secondly, they don’t always make sense. I used to think it was only the journalists that were the lazy ones, inventing ludicrous subgenres to pigeonhole bands, but now it won’t be long before we’re hearing artists that play post-post rock, folk mathcore or dragon metal.

In the context of Felsenreich though, Mexican Gothic rock doesn’t really have anything to do with Mexico. The melodies don’t have a particularly Latin theme to them and there don’t seem to be any traditional Mexican instruments or lyrics in the music: the band only use the terminology since they play Gothic rock which incorporates trumpets. This is really the only thing that sets them apart from a lot of other similar bands but the sad thing is that if I hadn’t read it in an interview and on the sleeve of the CD, I don’t think I would have noticed. Still, it’s nice to know it’s there if only for the psychological difference.

The standard of music here isn’t particularly adventurous in spite of the inclusion of non-standard instruments: its all quite dark, mid-paced Gothic rock with bubbly synthpop elements and guitar riffs but without the hooks or differentiation that would prevent the album from appearing homogeneous. Vocals are taken care of by Mathias Sohn and Romy Unger, sometimes intertwining and sometimes singular, but though both of them are quite competent as singers their restrictions become clearer when the songs demand higher notes as they both struggle to reach them.

Unschuld starts well, with Breathe Again and Seeker being quite possibly its two strongest tracks. There are some good choruses and pleasing riffs but by halfway through the album it becomes evident that the chips have been spent too soon. Felsenreich seem to be at their best when indulging in shorter songs that can catch the attention of the listener quickly, but when the songs get longer, the band descend into repeated passages and tedium and it’s not long before it starts to get tiring and even frustrating. Songs like Lost, Pray To Luna and Maniac Minds have none of the solidity that was promised at the start of the album, being little more than milky, patchy murmurs that dribble on for over five minutes.

The main problem that Unschuld has to bear is the lack of variety in the album as a whole. Gothic rock isn’t the most inventive of genres but a lot of bands are able to cast their net over a number of different songwriting formulae on one album, something which Felsenreic aren’t quite able to accomplish. Seeing as the band have been doing this for close to a decade I don’t think we’ll see them departing much from their accepted songwriting template, so you should already have an idea of what the next few albums are going to sound like.

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Requiem Eternam – Medieval Times

15/12/2008 § Leave a comment

Artist: Requiem Eternam
Title: Medieval Times
Label: BloodDivine Records
Genre: Medieval/Neofolk

Track Listing:

01 Medieval Times
02 Heart of Knight
03 In the Name of God
04 Terrible Battle
05 The Great King
06 The Last Castle
07 Dreams for the Sky

Requiem Eternam [shouldn’t that be Requiem Aeternum?] is a two-person project focussed on creating medieval music with a religious theme. Phil X, the multifunction keyboardist and songwriter, has crafted this joyous septet “to serve his Lord Jesus-Christ through his art” so obviously Phil’s got an agenda that he needs to get across. Musically though, Requiem Eternam’s sound is very much in the vein of Dargaard with hints of neofolk such as you’d find in The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath the Cloud. It’s all dark, sinister, introspective stuff that we’ve heard before but with a highly Christian twist which supposedly lends it more weight and validity.

As good as the intentions are behind the music though, the shortcomings of Medieval Times become apparent from when the first note squeaks itself through your speakers. Before this, actually. Unsheathing this CD from the rest of the promo pack, I was greeted with artwork that looks like it’s been created using Clip Art in Windows 95. The low-res castles, armour and medieval imagery have been savagely thrust onto the CD panels with no finesse or imagination and may as well have been photocopied down a newsagents for 5p per sheet. And this is a microcosmic representation of the album in its entirety – the intention behind it is so clear and, to a point, enviable, but the execution is dreadful. I love medieval themes and music but they can tread a slender line between epic, elegant wonder and full-on naffness, and Medieval Times has set up camp firmly on the latter half of the divide.

The formula for songwriting here is pretty straightforward. You write one medieval-sounding folk passage and play it as often as the tempo will allow in a four and half minute song. You can also stick in samples from Hollywood films [such as Braveheart]; crows’ caws and battle sounds in order to perfect the medieval finish. If it sounds a bit hackneyed that’s because it is: the song elements have been chosen with such cliché and lack of thought that each of the seven numbers is devoid of heart and emotion as a result. They each come across as little more than fumbled musical mosaics which is surprising considering the author’s clear dedication to their theme, temporally and religiously.

If there’s one saving grace that the album possesses, it’s the female vocals which are done a beautiful service by the mysteriously named Claudia. The sleevenotes mention that she’s part of the Choir Santo Domingo and it’s easy to see why: each note is sung with a smooth, velvety grace in spite of being hammered with reverb, and it does lend an uplifting edge to the album. The reverb isn’t the only thing to note on the sound production though: the mastering is some of the shoddiest I’ve come across with loud sections ending up as inaudible fuzz, and some of the synth effects are so shamelessly cheesy that they would be quite happy in the soundtrack of a Nintendo game.

It’s very clear to see exactly what Medieval Times should have been – and what it wants to be – but it’s nowhere near the mark. It’s like the offcuts that bands such as Artesia and Dark Sanctuary would leave out of their music, and as a result it just ends up feeling like the runt of a very large litter that’s destined to be locked in a shed and fed scraps, huddling near any cracks of light for recognition. There is some potential here but it’s very minor and when there are other bands doing it with far more class and character, attempts like this just don’t cut it.

Waldsonne – Wanderer

15/12/2008 § Leave a comment

Artist: Waldsonne
Title: Wanderer
Label: RAIG
Genre: Neofolk

Track Listing:

01 Eternal Motion
02 Pain of Senses
03 Over the Earth
04 Sand
05 Leiben eines Mannes (Life of a Man)
06 Longing for Mistery [sic]
07 Call for the Sun
08 Village Revelry
09 Durch den Nebel (Through the Mist)
10 Autumn Fair
11 песнaя песня (Woodland Song)

Three years after their self-released EP Stahl, Neutral spin-off band Waldsonne return with their debut offering. The band consists of four members of Neutral, the main difference here being the inclusion of female vocals fronting the ensemble. As is standard fare for neofolk a lot of the songs are about trees, nature and the usual Mother Earth themes, the artwork confirming this with lots of pictures of twigs and bracken to make sure you’ve got the message. Actually it’s the same picture used three times: slightly unusual since you’d hardly think there was a shortage of bleak and dismal scenery in Russia. The Russian bands have been utilising this concept for years, it seems to sell well over on the more verdant areas of the urbane world.

It’s not like Waldsonne are enjoying the barrenness of the perpetual Winters though. Much of the subject matter of the album rotates around the need for bright weather and lush nature in stark contrast to the photography in the booklet. Maybe they’ve had enough of the whole place and rather than upping sticks and trekking West have decided to stay in Russia and plays songs about it instead. And I can’t say I don’t sympathise. As much as I love the romanticism of desolate climes it must get slightly depressing, especially when the rouble’s sinking along with the rest of the world economy and vodka indulgence is getting more expensive. Time to stock up on potatoes and get back to the home gin brewing – and you can even power clocks with the leftovers. Ingenious.

Wanderer is therefore quite a cathartic work. Its music and melodies, though not wildly original, will certainly appeal to many fans of neofolk, being traditional and accomplished for the most part. The guitar and mandolin passages are well-written and excellently played, so instrumentally at least, Waldsonne get off to a good start. The vocals are introduced in the second track Pain of Senses, provided by Veronika Martynova, but though they’re certainly not bad they lack a particular sheen and lustre. Monika is note perfect most of the time but there’s little conviction in her voice as she seems to sing a lot of the songs by numbers, vocally connecting the dots rather than feeling the music. Her lyrics are mostly in English and they’re often quite basic [calling the sun/where are you/come, come, come] but it’s the German numbers which she seems to go out of tune in, presumably because she’s having to concentrate more on the language.

Where the album generally shines is therefore the pure instrumental passages and some of these are quite strong such as the captivating Sand and Longing for Mistery[sic]. But though the harp, guitars and mandolins are all played with distinction, the violin suffers in the quieter sections. Anna-Noel Buzuk is capable of producing channelled, strong cadences in the louder segments but her violin screeches painfully through the softer parts. What’s worse still is the pipe-playing which is sometimes dreadfully off-key. This, in particular, really lets the album down and more than once an emotional musical fragment is spoiled by an out-of-place or flat instrument.

When Wanderer succeeds – which is more often than not – it’s a pleasurable and elevating experience. However, shoddy playing in some parts doesn’t make the listener feel relaxed in the hands of neofolk masters and by halfway through the album you’re left wandering whether the beauteous section you’re currently listening to is going to be ruined by an erratic bow or overenthusiastic piper. As a whole, listening to the album feels like completing a rally in an r-reg Vauxhall Astra: you’d still make it round the circuit but it could be done a lot better. What Wanderer shows more positively is a serious band with the competence to go much further with the second record. If the creases can be ironed out they could put out an excellent offering, though their debut suffers from one too many flaws to hold such an accolade.

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