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.

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.

Epica – The Divine Conspiracy

27/09/2007 § Leave a comment

More than two years on from the second-rate curmudgeon of Consign To Oblivion, it seems that some re-evaluation has been the order of the day at the Epica camp. More than a few of us agreed that Consign To Oblivion was a slightly half-baked piece of work, an undercooked steak that promised succulence and fulfilment, but which ended up tasting flat and uninteresting. This time round, some serious work has been put in to make The Divine Conspiracy an improvement over its predecessor. Epica have had more time to concentrate and this means honing the finer details and sharpening their sound to something crisper, edgier and ultimately more successful. The gears have been cranked up on the Epica machine and it’s no doubt that The Divine Conspiracy is a good album as a result of it. In fact, it’s probably the best thing that Epica have come up with.

It’s no easy job being a cynic. I always become naturally dubious when a band at this end of the femme-metal ladder start to put out polished album after polished album. And when something slips, I wince at the possibility that the whole ensemble could crumble in a few years’ time. But my fears that The Divine Conspiracy could be nothing more than a pompous anti-religion rant were soon quenched with the first couple of songs. Yes, there is the standard intro track which is nowadays an unthinking commonality, but soon into The Obsessive Devotion something was very clear – Epica weren’t trying so hard anymore. What prevented CTO from being something better was the fact that too much force had been put into various areas – the vocals, the songwriting, the concept; and the whole thing seemed a little unconvincing. TDC is under far less of this strain and as a result the whole album is more natural and fluid.

Epica have no coyness about retaining their bombastic elements though. In fact, when they said that the album was darker and heavier, they weren’t lying. The vocals, the melodies and the themes all have a far darker thread running through them, and these rudiments befit the band well. The songwriting is really quite impressive in parts, utilising excellent understanding of key and melody, with Fools’ Paradise and Chasing the Dragon being good examples of this, the latter probably being the best song that Epica have done. Simone sings at her very best here and I can only guess this is because she’s not trying to sound like anyone but herself now, and her voice is something joyful to listen to. Mark’s vocals have changed too – no more does he do the higher-end chocolate-coated rasping: these days his vocals are far lower, gruffer, and suited to the heavier tone of the music.

The songs have a good amount of variety within them too – not only as separate entities within the album, but their components are quite varied. It’s not uncommon for a song to have many sections that work together well and that fit so flush that when you crack through their polished lacquer you can see some quite clever composition underneath. Not everything is complex though – Menace of Vanity and Never Enough are the most accessible songs with catchy verses and choruses, and the beautiful Sancta Terra is a shining showcase for Simone’s plush vocals.

There’s so much to commend TDC for that it seems slight unfair to pick out its blemishes, but fortunately there aren’t that many. There are a couple of slightly weak tracks with Death of a Dream being quite an unexciting Gothic rumbler, and the final track of the album being another example in how Epica really shouldn’t attempt an ‘epic’ song. While the thirteen-minute title track is a country mile off being an abject failure, it’s hardly an exciting journey and Epica have yet to disprove the theory that they’re only making these long numbers for the sake of it. If they could actually bear some interesting content rather than gesture melodies and instrumentations there might be some point to their inclusion on the album.

Still, none of this detracts from the fact that Epica have really done themselves proud here. The Divine Conspiracy takes what was good about The Phantom Agony, learns what was lacking with Consign To Oblivion and whizzes itself into the best thing in the Epica catalogue to date. The excellent vocals, varied songs and the welcome newer elements in the songwriting make it one of the best recent works in Gothic metal, and certainly one of the best albums of 2007. Even though not every track shares the same strength, when the band put out a good song here, they really do it with flair, skill and aplomb. Things may have been looking precarious a couple of years ago, but Epica have certainly righted the boat.

8 / 10

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

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

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

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