Dark Passion Fray

01/05/2008 § Leave a comment

I pity the individual forced to live within the dystopia of Birmingham. Its raison d’être is to visually and emotionally affront. Driving down to see Nightwish a couple of days ago, I couldn’t help feeling that the band were playing in one of the country’s most contaminated pores. It’s not just the structural design of the place that’s dislikeable, but the essence. Wretchedness lurks round every corner, leaping onto the backs of the natives who unthinkingly dress in blue and white as if it’s part of the uniform.

It probably is. At least, it is if you don’t want to get several shades of waste matter booted out of you. To live in Birmingham you have to have your class receptors detuned – wealth, style, opinion, chic, they’re all outmoded concepts here; either that or they were driven brusquely from the spaghetti junctions at the sign of the first Poundstore. Even finding a restaurant on the parade is impossible, or certainly one where the organic matter isn’t compressed inside a bun. The people in Birmingham have taken on the features of the culinary material they ingest – spherical, doughy and with absolutely no taste.

Places like these exist all over the world but it’s hard not to feel some level of empathy for those who have been punished by karma to live there. Dante would have given such cities an entry below the Eighth Ring of Hell, Traitors and the Fraudulent being banished to Lichfield or Moseley. Kowloon’s Walled City could have taken linear notes from their physical and social architecture. They hum with a sense of threat and uneasiness, their inhabitants being little more than symptoms of their own disease, microbes that can be eradicated in the name of solving the greater problem.

But not everyone is at its mercy. The younger generation attending the Nightwish gig clearly didn’t suffer from the same affliction of boredom, bitterness and torpor as the older townsfolk. Giving out promotional CDs to the queue of beaming teenygoths was a surprisingly enjoyable experience whereas in London, the offer of free music was met with disdain and disbelief, the queue members eyeing me up with suspicion, left hands resting on the emergency dial keys of their mobile phones. People would actually refuse the free CDs, as if by accepting them they were part or party to some seedy network of underground salesmen attempting to palm off their samples at any opportunity. For the Birmingham lot, the offer was accepted with rapture. People were excited, interested, intrigued and glad to see something new coming their way. The free music generation can’t get enough of the stuff, whereas quite a few of the older, jaded Londoners looked down their noses in disparagement.

The situation was the same inside the Birmingham venue. It was a strange place – a two-tiered warren with rooms off rooms, dimly lit and painted black on every surface. The wheelchair crowd had been shunted to the front of the second tier, looking almost apprehensive of the event about to take place. Putting them in direct view of the audience of a thousand energetic, functioning teenagers is surely rubbing salt into the wound. If I were one of the poor unfortunates on the second floor, bound to a cattle grid on wheels for eternity, watching the rippling, seething mass of youthful bodies below me I’d want to roll my last. No wonder crowd surfing was banned in the venue.

Nudging my way downstairs I managed to get a semi-decent position behind some girl who was so short it was a shame that she hasn’t been forced into the circus. She was lucky to see anything over everyone’s heads, so she attempted to remedy this by jumping up every few seconds in an effort to glimpse whatever was happening on stage. With every fresh bounce I could feel myself getting more irritated and overcome with the need to pull her to the side and explain the pointlessness of her ineffective endeavours, as if a half-second glance at some fuzzy characters on stage justified the effort it required or her position as an audience member. However, when the lights went down and the intro tape started, something very strange happened. Everyone got excited – very excited. This, for me, was a long-forgotten experience. I’m used to people getting eager and animated at gigs, but it’s been a long time since I was in an audience that felt a genuine thrill to be there. It was clear that for so many this was not just another gig but a very special event, and for once it was the spectators creating the atmosphere at the beginning of the show rather than the band.

The more gigs you go to, the more bands fill your database. The more exposure you have to whatever scene is your passion, the more desensitised you become. I remember my first ever gig at the Brixton Academy in 1995 felt similarly incredible. To be able to see a band who I extolled play live – the actual band members onstage, the light show, the songs I loved – was a totally enveloping high. But the more bands you see, the less special it becomes. You turn into that person who, rather than jostling close to the front of the stage and singing every syllable of the lyrics, stands near the back picking holes in the performance many heartbeats ahead. Passion for your chosen genre turns you into someone more fastidious, more finicky, until only the very best by your own terms will have a chance of recreating the wonder you originally felt.

As far as female-fronted metal goes, the job was even easier before the scene exploded. Even in 2003 it wasn’t a quarter as popular as it is now, and now it isn’t as popular as it will continue to be. However, as more carbon copy Gothic metal bands emerge, it will take more to imbue the same sense of zeal and revelry within the long-term fan. The popularity of Gothic metal has ended up mercilessly redefining it as anything with clean female vocals that isn’t progressive, folk or doom. It has ceased to be an entity in its own right, but has ended up as the reject bin, the fallout category for anything the other subgenres are not. And as this continues, a lot of the older fans will get more and more cynical.

I’m probably one of the most guilty of such an accusation, and while being so has its merits, Birmingham helped me to remember the appeal of the live act and the awe of the occasion. Exposure to anything for too long can gag your emotions, deadening the neurons and axons that fizzed when the first dream band took stage in front of you. If we could remain a little more openminded, it could be possible to snatch some of this back from the part of us that primarily removed it. Birmingham demonstrated two things – that there is far more to it than the grey, breeze-blocked mediocrity that comprises its unimaginative structures, and that it really is the fans that make a band, not just the music.

Metal Female Voices Fest V – Review

03/11/2007 § Leave a comment

By the end of the festival we had probably become the people the organisation wished they hadn’t let in. And, unfortunately enough for those with me, sometimes I remember most things about an evening, maybe it’s something to do with the strength of the beer. Flowing Tears had left and Leaves’ Eyes had shut up shop. We screamed “Val” several times as she walked pass us, pretending to ignore the drunken Brits who were cluttering up the backstage areas. The festival, to her, probably seemed like less of a problem than the native English speaking nerds who were lolling about at the table mere feet away. We had become the very thing that most people leave the country to avoid.

The crowd numbers hadn’t been bad at all and looking at the gathering of those who still remained in the venue, most people had thoroughly enjoyed the headline act. I’m not a massive fan of Leaves’ Eyes and I wasn’t overly keen on the prospect of a humongous MDF Viking ship accompanying them on stage for the DVD shoot. The whole thing lacked a serious amount of irony and I have a feeling that the Viking theme may be prevalent with them for a good while to come. However, what I actually caught of their set was impressive – really quite impressive. I’ve seen them live twice before and only because they were on the same bill as other bands, but I couldn’t doubt that they put on a very decent show.

And good for them, since they didn’t have the easiest act to follow. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen Epica now. They plaster themselves all over so many country’s gig schedules that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Portuguese fado fans had stumbled across one of their events on the way to seeing the latest Christina Branco. This was the fifth Metal Female Voices Fest they’ve done. But I don’t know. As much as I love the new songs and I’m very impressed with The Divine Conspiracy, something was missing for me. Live-wise, it may be a case of over-egging the pudding and though I’m more than aware than this band can cut it in front of an audience – Simone making us aware twice and thrice a song that they were indeed playing “new material” – it had lost its pizzazz for me and no amount of pyrotechnics and confetti could help it. Stage pyro? This wasn’t Rammstein and the only reason I could possibly think for its inclusion was because…. it was possible. As The Divine Conspiracy’s title track wended and dragged its way to its lengthy conclusion, I was much more interested in listening to Miri from Distorted talk to me about her toy cow in Israel. It certainly sounded better than what was coming out the PA.

Mind you, the PA was probably recovering from the awfulness of the set that had just preceded it. Sirenia were a band I started out respecting a lot when their debut, At Sixes and Sevens, was released in 2002. It remains one of my favourite Gothic metal albums, and one of my favourite albums in metal overall. However, something seems to have gone seriously awry after that. Their next album, An Elixir For Existence, was Morten Veland’s first example of how he was losing his focus, and their most recent effort, Nine Destinies and a Downfall, contains some of the most horrific numbers ever to be committed to a Gothic metal disc. And, lucky us, we were about to experience them first hand. A lot of them.

I really don’t know what has gone wrong with this lot but from the first chord the set was laughable. In fact, it was too embarrassing to be laughable, it was just a farce. Monika Pedersen, the new singer, stumbled around like she’d had had a few too many Hoegaarden backstage, which I hope was the case and she hasn’t got a condition. Seeming to have absolutely no idea about how to get the crowd going, she slapped her hands together like a seal and didn’t look too different from one, trussed up as she was in all her netting and leather. Her vocals were something else. Literally. Whenever she moved the microphone away from her mouth and stopped singing, her voice would magically come out of the speakers. I was almost proud of her for being so totally blind as to how ridiculous the whole thing looked. And Morten, for his part, looked permanently bored and pissed off throughout the set. Strangely enough, there were some people who came away from the set praising it, but these were probably the same people who had been standing next to the gargantuan speakers for way too long, their sense of hearing shot to buggery. If I’d played them a tape recording of white noise mixed with orders for cab pickups in Willesden they probably would have liked it.

A band who I was very keen indeed to see were Flowing Tears. Having missed their set in 2004 due to interviewing other bands, I predicted seeing them this year as being one of the highlights. Having had other things to concentrate on of late meant that this was the first time that the band had been onstage for 18 months, but they still managed to put on an excellent show. The biggest surprise for me was just how comfortable and natural Helen was with being in front of an audience and she even managed to get the crowd involved during the difficult minidisc and sound problems the band experienced. With Ben and Stefan running round like madmen and the band playing some of the best songs from their catalogue, they certainly put on a very strong exhibition, and it will be good to see more of them now they’re back on the scene.

The start of Flowing Tears’ set fortunately heralded the end of two bands who I’ve never really been a fan of, and their sets didn’t do anything to change my mind about them. I’ve never really been keen on Delain and Elis due to their watery, bland style of Gothic metal with paltry, middle of the road vocals. I stood there, in awe at the insipid music pouring out of the speakers once more questioning why these bands are as popular as they are. Maybe it’s because they’re accessible, maybe it’s because the pander to what a lot of the younger Gothic demographic like to hear, but I can’t really find anything musically credible in their sound. Seraphim, the band before them, were even less entertaining and probably the weakest band of the festival. Forty-five minutes of twiddly, homogeneous power metal with banshee-esque high vocals seemed to set quite a few peoples’ teeth on edge. I walked around. I did some shopping. I went outside to have some conversations. I even received text messages from people saying, “when are they going to stop?”. All I knew is that their set seemed to go on for ever, and quite a few people were pleased when they finally gave the stage a break.

The first few bands of the day are normally the ones that get the least attention and crowd numbers, though those people who were fortunate enough to see Distorted may well have argued that they should have been higher up the bill. Since I first heard Memorial I was in awe at the professionalism and dynamics and I was pleased to say they excel in a live setting. They worked their way through their debut album with flawless expertise and vigour, with Miri sounding note perfect throughout the set. The large stage was clearly undaunting to them and they were in their element, so natural and fluid was the performance that they put across. Interria also managed to put on a good show, and though the music was more rocky than I’d normally appreciate, they were certainly a promising band. Unfortunately I missed the majority of Valkyre’s set due to their early start time, but if Mieke could learn to be a little less static onstage their performance would have improved markedly, in spite of opening a festival not being the easiest thing for a new band to do.

When we arrived at the venue a little after 10am, the crowd numbers looked very promising indeed. I was told that the presales for the festival ran into something like 3000, much better than last year’s. It was obvious than the line-up had enticed many people, and a lot of people were justified in their enthusiasm about the show. The MFVF remains the keystone in the female-fronted metal scene with a lot of very decent bands already lined up for next year. Not all the bands will be to everyone’s tastes on each occasion but spanning the majority of a day certainly most tastes are catered for. With bands falling over themselves to play it, and the talk and anticipation that yearly surrounds it, it keeps the femme metal scene refreshed in everyone’s attention.

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

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.

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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