Catherine Duc – Visions and Dreams

15/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Catherine Duc
Title: Visions and Dreams
Label: Self Released
Genre: New Age

Track Listing:

01 Essence of Dreams
02 Dancing in The Mist
03 Evocation
04 One Autumn Day
05 Secret Sanctuary
06 Heart of Andalucia
07 Midsummer Twilight
08 Incense
09 Rivulet
10 In The Light of Day

I remember having an argument with a colleague who said that Nora Jones – one of the most insipid artists in the jazz world – wrote little more than ‘background music’. It seemed that this would be the last thing an artist would want to hear as they whiled away their time at great length, putting thought and emotion into their compositions. But looking back, it makes sense to me that some of her numbers would be used as filler for schmoozy parties, nudging its way into the lulls of conversation on last week’s squash game, the property ladder and cushions. Nora Jones is pistachio music – songs to nibble nuts, vol-au-vent and other entrées to whilst waving about a glass of cut-price champagne – whereas Catherine Duc creates the kind of music you’d find playing in the background at a marginally classy Chinese restaurant. You know, one with a carpet.

I’ll be blunt and admit that my knowledge of the new age genre is mostly restricted to what’s piped through the speakers whilst browsing tarot emporia, and what my dad used to play in the car on the way to the Peacocks shopping centre in Woking. Many a time on a journey we’d be honoured with the strains of “Manifestation of the Pyramids” or “From Another Sky” (which has now been re-released under the humiliating rebranding of “Bathtime Bliss”). Catherine Duc’s début, Visions and Dreams, is very similar to these kinds of ambient/new age creations but it’s not quite as cheesy as I was expecting. In fact, I even found myself enjoying parts of it.

Visions and Dreams can hardly be described as a demanding piece for the listener. The ten tracks and forty minutes which comprise its length are filled with mellow, washing synth chords, slow tempos and simple violin melodies. Catherine’s main inspirations are apparently Enya and Enigma and this really shows on the record, especially on tracks like Incense and Evocation, which could have come straight off Enigma’s first album, MCMXC AD. The rest of Visions and Dreams presents itself as a slightly tamer version of these bands, being far more focussed on lusher, minimal ambience than the sometimes dance-inducing rhythms of Era and Delirium.

There may be moments when things get a little dull and naff, but then, this is new age music. You can’t listen to an album all the way through or gaze at the track names without feeling at least slightly ill, so some kudos must be given to Catherine for not laying the cheese on too heavily, which is always a danger. Because of her Asian heritage there is a nice Eastern flavour to a lot of the melodies and much of the album feels like something you’d find a guzheng player coming out with along the streets of Covent Garden, or even the markets in Seoul.

Visions and Dreams could therefore be a tool to conjure up reveries – or play during them. Catherine makes the point that people can contact her if interested in licensing her music for soundtracks, so I may well have found a composer who’s willing for her tunes to be used purely as background music. If your taste is slanted towards the ethereal genre you may find some of this stuff to your liking, or you may run away in terror at the sheer sugary ambience of the record. However, those in the former category will find this is the kind of thing that suits the foundation of a daydream, or indeed the background of a dinner party. You can masticate over those olive and feta salads to your hearts’ delight, and this is one artist who wouldn’t be offended.

Autumn – And We Are Falling Leaves…

15/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Autumn
Title: And We Are Falling Leaves…
Label: Stygian Crypt Productions
Genre: Doom Metal

Track Listing:

01 The End of Last Summer (Intro)
02 The Druid Autumn
03 Whispering Your Name…
04 Fallman
05 Gods
06 The Sons of Ocean
07 The Dance in Blood
08 Bottomless…
09 Shine on Me
10 Wings (rehearsal)
11 Feasting the Dark Half (rehearsal)

I’m still trying to work out why anyone would release this record. Russia’s Autumn, the first band to name themselves so, originally brought out “And We Are Falling Leaves” back in 1997, and nine years later the ever-enthusiastic Stygian Crypt gave the world this boon of a re-release. Just why they did so beggars rationale. Ideally, reissues are brought out to assuage thirsty fans wanting to stock up on original copies of a popular record, or to give a new selling direction to an already familiar old favourite. Listening to this, I’m finding it hard to believe that either reason could be the case. In fact, it’s difficult to think of any explanation apart from there being surplus plastic down at Stygian’s manufacturer or a band member nostalgically re-funding their debut as a tribute to the doom band that never was. Or certainly, never should have been.

There’ll probably be one or two of you thinking I’m unfair. I’d normally urge you to listen to the thing yourself before making further judgements but fortunately I’ve done the work for you. At first glance “And we are Falling Leaves” fools you into thinking that it’s a professional release with its mystical lush artwork of airbrushed charcoal forests. The humble tree probably gets featured on more metal album covers then any other inanimate object: immediately it screams “atmosphere – this way”, “woefully intense music alert” and “this may be too deep for you” before you’ve snapped open the plastic case. Unfortunately, the artwork’s the best things about this disc. It’s mutton dressed as lamb, Cinderella before midnight or Dr Jekyll at his most ascetic, since what lies on the laser-burned polycarbonate of the CD itself is a very ugly creature indeed.

There is no single instrument on this record that drags it down into the musical mire – it’s really a joint effort. Every note played, every syllable sung, is done so with such banality and lack of skill that Autumn come across as little more than musical sadists. Yuriy Vaschenko’s vocals, for what they are, are not the spitting, gruelling growl that we’re used to hearing in doom metal, but more an adolescent choking, a struggling larynx with no power or force. He attempts some clean vocals as the record progresses and these are equally bad, impressively straddling the line between croaks and indecipherable white noise. It’s not like the song-writing doesn’t need help either – each track is quite colourless and flat with mediocre guitar playing and blotchy drumming, and even though you want to give the band some leeway since it’s their first release, you can hardly be bothered to. It’s far better to turn it off, stick another CD on, or stab yourself in the eye with a pair of secateurs.

There is, surprisingly, one good thing about the music on this album, which is the female vocals. These are provided by Svetlana Polezhaeva and they’re beautifully sultry and erotic, even mimicking some of the excellent female vocal work in Siebenburgen’s Delictum. Svetlana seems to have ducked out of the music industry since this release, possibly changing her name for obvious reasons. Either way, it’s the one ruby in the dust here, though it’s not enough to make the album worth listening to for any longer than the 72 minutes of its duration.

Stygian Crypt have decided to round the reissue off with two tracks from the band’s rehearsal sessions. If possible, these should have been tagged on to the end of a rarities and B-sides album rather than an original full-length since they sound even worse than the material before them. Sadly, ploughing through this disc has really lead me to question the motivation of an ambitious and dedicated record label, and I’m still to come up with an answer. My only hope is that Stygian Crypt have better albums on their catalogue and that deciding to release this was only a momentary lapse of taste.

Mistress Of The Dead – White Roses, White Coffin

15/02/2009 § 4 Comments

Artist: Mistress Of The Dead
Title: White Roses, White Coffin
Label: Epidemie Records
Genre: Funeral Doom Metal

Track Listing:

01 My Beloveth
02 The fading Light in her Dying Eyes
03 She Gave Me Her All…
04 White Roses, White Coffin…

Mistress of the Dead is not actually a ‘mistress’ at all. It’s the one-man project of Vlad Cristea Vales who has been running it single-handedly for the last five years. Maybe Vlad is confused about this own identity, maybe he has gender issues, or maybe he has a hope for something greater than the good Lord dealt him, but either way his vocals have the sound of someone with the right pair of chromosomes. Mistress of the Dead’s music is bleak – very much so – as well as being drawn-out, heavy, and at times downright wearying, but this wouldn’t be funeral doom otherwise. However, there’s something about Mistress of the Dead’s sound which is more pensive, more wistful and even more lonely than a lot of similar artists.

“White Roses, White Coffin” is dedicated to Jindřiška, an enigmatic figure who’s alluded to only once inside the album. Not much is known about her apart from the fact that she has passed away from the artist’s life or fantasy, but the album is nevertheless one long musical eulogy to her. ‘Long’ is the operative word here since this album, though only four tracks in total, is nigh on eighty minutes’ worth of doom metal dirges, the shortest song clocking in at a very generous 13 minutes. The album’s artwork is filled with allusions to cemeteries and flowers, the staple fodder for this kind of music, and though it may fool you into thinking that there’s an air of beauty hidden within its aural layers, there certainly isn’t. “White Roses, White Coffin” is a pained piece of doom metal: a massive, mournful hymn to unrealised affection, and at times it’s almost difficult to listen to because of it.

It’s not just the emotional content which makes the album hard to listen to. It is a mammoth, demanding piece of work and there’s no point in which you’ll hear the music picking up at anything above 30 bpm. This is emotional battery at its most slothful and only on repeated listens does its structure start to unravel itself. Vlad Cristea Vales, after several hundred demo’s worth of musical compositions, knows that doom metal is not all about thudding guitar riffs but ambient sections, and especially at the beginning of the album we find the distortion ushered out the way by elevating guitar and organ drones which provide solace from the darker, grimmer moments.

Of course it’s not just the instrumentation that plays a part in the ambience, but the vocals as well. Vlad’s voice is thick, gruff and syrupy, singing the lyrics so slowly that they’re indistinguishable from actual words, sounding more like tortured, otherwordly snarls. According to the inlay the lyrics are made up of coherent sentences – but they’re so drawn out and elongated that the only way you’d be able to decipher them is to speed them up to triple their original tempo. This all adds perfectly to the viscosity of the music and though it would be nice to see some more tuneful riffs, melody and hooks, this isn’t really what funeral doom is about. Mistress of the Dead produces songs for the most dour of moods: those unrushed, uncompromising moments of solitude where harmony is thrown aside to make way for the very depths of lengthened, crushing bereavement. “White Roses, White Coffin” is not an album that you can sling on at any moment and expect to hit the right spot, but when it does it’s quite beautifully reassuring.

O Quam Tristis – Les Chants Funestes

01/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: O Quam Tristis
Title: Les Chants Funestes
Label: Palace of Worms
Genre: Darkwave / Medieval

Track Listing:

01 Oriens
02 Anna Soror
03 O Caelo
04 Bulla Fulminante
05 Sancta Nox
06 Planctus Samsonis
07 O Vox Prophetica
08 O Abies
09 Soror, conjux, gemma
10 Verna Redit Temperies
11 O Meiam Miseram
12 De Ramis Cadunt Folia

I only found out recently that I’d been writing “O Quam Tristis…” wrongly all these years. The actual name of the band has an imposed ellipsis after the last word, even though leaving it out would have been simpler for everyone. It certainly would have been for me, anyway. Therefore I’m going to be pettily rebellious by forgetting it ever existed, and if some ardent perfectionist fans feel cheated by its removal or my lack of respect then feel free to make your own stand and mentally insert it. I’m sure the band would have wanted it that way. Though going by the sound of their latest disc, an omitted punctuation mark is going to be the least of their problems.

O Quam Tristis are a well-respected group of musicians with a small, dedicated following in the ethereal/darkwave scene. However, I’ve never really been able to understand the justification behind the following unless it’s all made up of close friends, family members and random reviewers giving them high ratings under duress. Their style mixes subtle electro with clean, guitar-driven medieval music in the vein of a watered-down Qntal, each song being led my an intermingling of male and female voices which lend the songs an edge of Gregorian chant. It’s certainly a good idea but as with many of these ‘medieval’ bands, what seems fantastic on paper ends up aurally as little more than a bland, underbuffed musical exercise which never quite manages to go the distance it should.

The electro elements aren’t there all the time, though. There are numbers that don’t feature them at all and contain purely vocals and clean, plucked guitars such as the opener Oriens, or O Vox Prophetica which features purely female vocals and synthesised pianos and wind instruments. The rest of the time the electro is there in full force, more so than in previous releases, but it’s not the type of full-on, harsh industrial style that some bands experiment with. I always found Qntal’s earlier works to be a bit too heavy on the electro which is certainly something that one couldn’t accuse O Quam Trsitis of since the electro is always subtle and even refreshing at times and there are moments such as in O Abies and Verna Redit Temperies where it’s quite refreshing on top of the medieval underlay.

The main problem for O Quam Tristis lies in the album’s nature to create songs which are far too similar to each other and this, coupled with rather dull singing, doesn’t do them a whole lot of favours. The guitar playing may be excellently done and the synth playing quite accomplished but the vocals are dreary and even dirgelike at times, creating quite a soporific aura. It’s also common for both voices to fall below the notes they’re trying to project and there are few things less inspiring than a song sung with no pep or vigour, and if the vocalists seem to be losing interest every so often it doesn’t provide much hope for the rest of us.

There’s normally a chance with some bands that things will improve in the long term, but for O Quam Tristis this isn’t necessarily the case. Les Chants Funestes is their fourth album and doesn’t stray at all from their previous material. I’d love there to be some beacon or semblance of promise here since the band can go further if they chose to unlock some kind of emotion – some spark of feeling – anything other than the dingy haze of tedium that gums up Les Chants Funestes. Even though they may have an interest in medieval themes and music, this doesn’t mean that this interest translates particularly well onto CD. The disappointing vocals and doggerel, tiresome compositions make this is a very lukewarm addition to the darkwave genre where the splendid work of other bands such as Dominion III and Helium Vola ruthlessly outshine it.

Novalis Deux – Ghosts Over Europe

01/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Novalis Deux
Title: Ghosts Over Europe
Label: Ars Musica Diffundere / Black Rain
Genre: Neofolk

Track Listing:

01 Put On Your Shoes
02 Homecoming
03 Ghost Over Europe
04 Sleeping Violin
05 The Clown
06 Passing By
07 Rome
08 One Step
09 World In Flames
10 Your Hell

Novalis Deux have been around for a while, long enough for it to matter that they stick a number after their original name ‘Novalis’ in order to stop them from getting confused with the German progressive rock band of the same name. 2008 sees the release of their fourth full-length album but it hasn’t been an unmarked and frictionless road here. After an apparently difficult time concerning the loss of a drummer they decided not to throw in the towel as per their original plan but do what most self-respecting bands would do: get another one. And there you were thinking that neofolk bands didn’t have any drama in their lives. I’m still waiting to see Tenhi smash up a Stradivarius.

Ghosts Over Europe is the result of a two-year slog in which the band went from a line-up of three members to seven, now incorporating multiple instrumentalists and singers. Novalis Deux are not your typical neofolk band though: they toy around with a number of different styles – not in a haphazard avant-garde fashion, but in a more of an understated and modest way. It’s quite common to hear shades of folk and Goth bubbling away in the music as well as pop and electro but there’s no doubt that everything has been underlined with a bedrock of neofolk. Ghosts Over Europe is very much a folk record, just one with different twinges to add something fresher to the genre.

The album opens with the curiously named ‘Put On Your Shoes’, presumably an indication of moving forwards with the opening of the album. It’s one of the more accessible tracks with just guitar, military-style snare drumming and the dual vocals of Stev and Marcel leading into a catchy chorus before one of the album’s strongest tracks, ‘Homecoming’ begins, which features some beautiful female vocals and violin playing. Novalis Deux are clearly very serious about their work and all the instruments are played faultlessly, with the guitar sounding crisp and clean and the violin sliding round with composite skill. The title track and ‘One Step’ are also clear highlights, the latter opening up with some synths that wouldn’t be out of places at an EBM club before the clean guitars come in for the verse, which is something certainly unusual for a piece of folk music.

However, though some of the songs are quite likeable straight away, they can descend into repetition in some parts and pure bizarreness in others. The song that takes the most credit for this is ‘The Clown’ with its buoyant, riant bassline and lyrics about well, a clown, and though the band may have thought some dark humour was another good break from the norm, it doesn’t work as either parody, irony or sarcasm. As well as this, though there is great playing and singing in places, it’s still troublesome trying to find much feeling in the music. The emotion is certainly there in some parts but it doesn’t jump out at you straight away or convince you when you do find it, and as a result a lot of the album ends up as one massive piece of potential that promises a whole lot but doesn’t ultimately deliver, like a grade A guest who fails to make it to a party at the last moment.

Ghosts Over Europe attempts – and mostly succeeds – in doing something different with the neofolk sound. It’s just a shame that there is so much warmth and sensitivity missing from the music, meaning it’s quite common to be underwhelmed with the album in spite of many promising sections. The band are clearly quite confident in their sound from the solidity of the performances, but in spite of some catchy moments, good insights and competent instrumentals I couldn’t help coming away from the record thinking that something was missing – some real essence and depth. Ghosts Over Europe is a creature with head but no heart – great ideas but no soul – and it’s this which prevents it from being the moving, unobtrusive take on neofolk that it so nearly is.

SaraLee – Damnation to Salvation

01/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: SaraLee
Title: Damnation to Salvation
Label: Firebox Records
Genre: Gothic rock

Track Listing:

01 Scars
02 Forsaken
03 Sleeping in the Fire
04 Rescue Me
05 Crimson Sky
06 Catch the Moon
07 Nights (we’re Living For)
08 Turning Point
09 Remains of Carmen
10 Last Day Alive

Choosing a name for your band must be difficult these days. I remember when I had to do the same a few years ago, it got to the point where me and my fellow bandmates ended up going through an entire dictionary [admittedly the Oxford Pocket] to find something that sounded trendy, individual and intriguing. The people who really max out in this area are the ambient and industrial bands: you can call yourself any combination of letters, numbers, glyphs or Pokémon and no-one will question you. If you’re a Gothic rock band from Finland though, the weight of cliché is slightly more difficult to avoid and I wonder why a band who were previously called ‘Restless’ decided to change their name to that of a British cake manufacturer. I’m a fan of chocolate gateaux as much as anyone, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

And there is something ever so sickly about the kind of music that SaraLee make. According to their official website they create songs which manage to fuse metal, rock and Gothic music in an “interesting” way, though exactly what ‘interesting’ means here could be very much up for debate. This clearly isn’t a band that has a huge desire to do anything original since Damnation to Salvation, their second offering, is about as unadventurous as Gothic rock gets. They’re very keen to sell the fact that they were inspired by the likes of Pantera, Paradise Lost and Type O Negative and though these bands may have originally led them to pick their guitars up and start twanging along to the sounds of Christian Woman and Embers Fire, none of these influences have found their way into their music. In fact, they should have mentioned Liza Minelli, Blue Mink and The Wurzles for the hell of it, no-one would have known any differently.

What is clear is that SaraLee have been listening to too much HIM and 69 Eyes recently and this is really the kind of territory their music occupies. It must be hard to avoid that kind of stuff in Finland and though I’m sure many a band would love to make a bomb from it, very few can without sounding totally boring. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably guessed, SaraLee haven’t succeeded either and though quite a bit of money has been put into the sound quality of this release, it’s more or less money wasted. It’s like throwing thousands of pounds on a pony at the Grand National, the amount spent is not directly proportional to the result.

The main problem with Damnation to Salvation is the huge lack of variety in the music. There are bands who manage to do Gothic rock very well such as countrymates Entwine or Italy’s excellent unknowns The LoveCrave, and these bands carry if off by not only creating very catchy choruses but altering tempo, key and colour regularly, something that SaraLee seem incapable of. Every song plods along at the same pace with little soul or emotion and after several listens it’s still very hard to distinguish one from another. It feels as if their click tracks and metronomes have been permanently set to “tedious” and they’ve had no choice but to succumb to their hypnotic duress.

If SaraLee manage to do anything well, at least they can knock a tune out coherently. Lead singer Jonas manages to hold his position respectably, even experimenting with some convincing growls in a couple of places. However, in the cleaner sections his voice doesn’t hold the fervour or silky intensity of Valo or Heikkonen and it’s all too common to find your attention drifting throughout songs which could have been so much more. And that’s really the point with SaraLee – the music and musicianship are so nearly there, but not quite enough to make this disc worth multiple listens. If you like your rock to be inoffensive and unchallenging, this would certainly fit the bill. The rest of us can look elsewhere.

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