I write reviews for musical albums. My main genre is metal, but I will probably do some hard rock as well. Any reviews other than the two most recent are shown on the right hand side under the "Blog Archive" tab. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

After Forever- Decipher

Source: Wikipedia

Band:  After Forever

Album:  Decipher

Year: 2001

Score: 9.5/10

“Probably the Best Symphonic Metal Album Ever”

For me, symphonic metal has always been an iffy topic.  Some bands are incredible, but many are just plain mediocre.  One of the standout bands in the genre has always been After Forever.  Decipher is the band’s magnum opus- a challenging work that, for me, defines the symphonic metal genre.

The overall feel of the album is dark and elegant.  Layers of guitar are supported by deep orchestral backdrops… perhaps it could be described the other way around as the orchestra often provides the lead melodies for the songs (“Monolith of Doubt”, “Intrinsic”) even though the guitars are more powerful.  The songs are often brooding and complex.  The structures are experimental for the genre, and honestly the most experimental I’ve heard from the band.    Due to this, there is an element of progressiveness to the songs.  There is also a surprisingly good sense of dynamics.  Many songs contain soft passages weaved throughout the heavy riffs, making the songs more intriguing.  One of the only true downfalls is that the album gets a bit monotonous.  The songs are somewhat similar and often follow a similar pattern.  Given my high score it’s obviously not a huge part of the experience but, it does deserve to be noted.

The individual performers are good at what they do.  Obviously, the vocals are where the album shines the most.  Floor Jansen is easily one of my favorite vocalists, and Decipher contains some of her finest performances.  Her vocals are far more operatic on this album than on the later work of After Forever, and she uses this operatic style alongside an equally effective style more reminiscent of rock vocals.  The guitars are largely rhythmic, usually playing support to the orchestra.  They are highly precise and suit the music well.  The keys are similar to the guitars, that is, they play support to the orchestra.  They tend to be more atmospheric than the guitars and, thus, are not nearly as irritating as the keys of similar bands.  As mentioned previously, the orchestra (along with the vocals) provides the melodies for the songs.  These instruments are actually kind of low in the mix, which lends an atmospheric feel to the album- very tasteful.  The drums and bass guitar are solid for the genre, both being precise but not particularly flashy.  The only low point in performance is the harsh male vocals.  They’re way too polished, almost as if a robot was grunting into the microphone.  The high growls are particularly annoying.  Other than this, the harsh vocals are used well.  That is, they are well placed and suit the songs and Floor Jansen’s voice.  So, overall, they’re tolerable but not much more than that.

After the atmospheric introduction “Ex Cathedra”, the album truly begins with the steady rocker “Monolith of Doubt”.  It’s not my personal favorite but is, nevertheless, a very good opening song.  It’s followed by the more impressive “My Pledge of Allegiance #1”, a progressive tune with an Arabic influence in the melodies.  This is easily one of my favorites off of the album for many reasons, most notably the complexity of the song and the catchy melodies.  Floor Jansen has some very impressive vocal moments throughout this song, in particular.  Following this song is the very accessible “Emphasis” and the elaborate “Intrinsic”.  The former is the easiest song to listen to on the album, while the latter is a slow-building piece with a truly fantastic climax.  “Intrinsic” is, without a doubt, another favorite from the album.  The next piece, “Zenith”, isn’t exactly bad- I just do not like it as much as the previous songs.  Still, it’s an excellent piece and well worth a mention.

The next song is the incredible “Estranged (A Timeless Spell)”, another excellent piece where the vocals are complemented perfectly by the rhythmic guitars.  “Imperfect Tenses” comes next.  It’s a ballad and my least favorite from the album.  While it’s not awful, it does become cheesy and irritating after awhile.  This is the song I am most compelled to skip.  Luckily the second installment of “My Pledge of Allegiance” comes next.  It pretty much follows the trend of the first song and ends up being successful, though not quite as good as the other song in the saga.  “The Key” follows and features one of the best vocal performances from the band.  It was my first favorite, and is still my “go-to” song from the album.  The closing song is entitled “Forlorn Hope” and is a fitting way to end the album.  It’s intense, in the vein of the “My Pledge of Allegiance” saga and ends up being a favorite; a classy ending to a lovely album.  There’s also a bonus track called “For the Time Being” that is surprisingly good and worth checking out with the other songs.

Decipher will certainly be enjoyed by fans of symphonic metal and possibly even fans of gothic, progressive, and power metal.  It’s a diverse album filled with majestic twists and turns.  I’m skeptical to say that this will be a metal classic one day, but it might be.  It will certainly be a classic to those who are into the more melodic forms of heavy metal.  Therefore, I recommend it to such people; fans of heavier forms of metal should give songs like “The Key” and “My Pledge of Allegiance #1” a shot.  Decipher is a very impressive album, I highly recommend it.

Best songs:  “The Key”, “Emphasis”, “Intrinsic”, “Estranged (A Timeless Spell)”, both of the “My Pledge of Allegiance” songs, and “Forlorn Hope”.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Epica- Consign to Oblivion

Band: Epica

Source: Wikipedia
Album: Consign to Oblivion

Year: 2005

Score: 8.1/10

“One of their Better Albums”

I’d be lying if I said I was the biggest Epica fan.  I enjoy everything they’ve done, yet I don’t feel that anything they have done is absolutely spectacular.  There are usually a few songs per album that I like, but never the final product.  Consign to Oblivion is one of two exceptions (the other being The Divine Conspiracy), where the finished product is a rather strong album with many standouts.

Consign to Oblivion has the most intriguing and the prettiest melodies of any Epica album.  The orchestration is brilliant, and most of the songs are more theatrical and epic than on any of their other albums.  One HUGE positive is that the death growls are largely reduced on Consign to Oblivion.  It’s not that I mind death growls (I like them in most bands), but most of Epica’s growls are very weak.  They are weak in execution and poor in placement.  I largely prefer the choirs and semi-operatic vocals of Simone Simons to the growls.   The main downfall of the album is that it is predictable and fairly simplistic where the metal aspect of the music is concerned.  The arrangements are also relatively simple, that is, the songs don’t venture far beyond the verse-chorus-verse format.  While this by itself isn’t bad, I would have liked to see more structural experimentation.  Especially since similar bands (early Nightwish, the Gathering, and even After Forever) have flirted with more complex structures and dynamics.  I honestly think that the musicians in Epica are very gifted and capable, but there needs to be a bit more variety within the songs.  I will say, however, that Epica has a good formula on this one.  For most of the songs, the simple combination of strong verses and powerful choruses works very well.

From an instrumental standpoint the album is decent.  As with most of Epica’s work, the blend of orchestral and metallic elements is what makes the album listenable.  The guitars are done well; the riffs are rhythmic and precise and, thus, end up being better than one would anticipate.  However, there aren’t any guitar solos; most of the lead melodies are delivered by the keys, orchestra, and vocals.  For a symphonic metal band, the bass is good.  Surprisingly audible at times, it’s a steady force in the songs.  Aside from that, there’s not much to say about it.  The bass did get better on Epica’s future work.  The drums are much like the guitars and bass; that is, they are precise but not terribly impressive.   Concerning the drums, there’s nothing to complain about but there’s nothing that stands out either.  The keyboards are done in a standard symphonic metal way.  They provide a lot of melody in some songs, but in others they are hardly noticeable amongst the symphonic elements.  The vocals in the album might be the best part.  While Simons has never been my favorite singer, she always does a good job.  One of her greatest strengths is the versatility in her voice.  She can go from a more operatic style to a lighter, poppier style.  Speaking of which, she uses her operatic voice a lot more on Consign to Oblivion than on Epica’s later albums.  Her vocals are also a lot better on Consign to Oblivion than on their debut.  The other most impressive aspect of the album is the orchestration.  The lush symphonic backdrops complement the guitars very well.  So far, Epica has been one of the only bands to utilize an orchestra that actually adds something worthwhile to the songs.  Consign to Oblivion is no exception to this trend; the symphonic elements are enjoyable in every single song.

As far as the individual songs go, Consign to Oblivion simply has the highest number of quality songs for any Epica album.  Nearly all of the songs are very memorable, something that I can’t say about the majority of Epica’s albums.  After a purely symphonic intro entitled “Hunab K’u” (it’s actually their best little intro song), the album kicks into gear with “Dance of Fate”.  Already, we have one of the standout songs- an ultra-melodic piece filled with big hooks and clever passages.  “The Last Crusade” follows; it’s not really as good as the previous song.  But it is a good listen and has some well performed shifts in dynamics.   Unfortunately, the album takes a downward turn with “Solitary Ground”.  It’s a ballad.  While it’s fairly emotive, it ultimately falls flat as there’s nothing unique about it.  Not even the arrival of heavy guitars in the middle of the song save it from being simply boring.  The intro of “Blank Infinity” leads the listener to believe that it will be like the previous song but, luckily, it is a solid symphonic metal piece with a good chorus.  It doesn’t quite reach the glory of “Dance of Fate”, but it is a fine listen anyway. 

The second half of the album begins with the surprisingly good “Force of the Shore”.  Contrary to what I’ve mentioned before, the growls are actually tolerable in this piece.  It’s one of the very best on the album, featuring grand melodies and catchy passages.  The singing, above all, is lovely and well accomplished.  “Quietus” is one of the famous songs, and actually one of my favorites.  I love the piano at the beginning; overall, it’s just an irresistible catchy song.  “Mother of Light”, regrettably, ends up falling flat.  It’s not bad, just not particularly memorable.  “Trois Vierges” is especially disappointing, for the sole reason that it’s another ballad.  It’s an important song, however, because Roy Khan (formerly of Kamelot) sings on it.  Both Khan and Simons give a great performance, but the song is simply weak (much like “Solitary Ground”).  It’s not quite as bad as that song, as it does have an interesting feel and atmosphere to it.  For the end of the album, things pick up in an excellent way.  The penultimate song on the album, “Another Me in Lack’ech”, is the absolute best of the album.  While I cannot definitively say it is my favorite from the band, it grows on me every time I listen to it.  This song, to me, is really what all Epica songs should sound like.  Everyone should listen to “Another Me in Lack’ech”, even if they don’t listen to the rest of the album.  The closing song of the album is, of course, the epic title track.  It honestly has the best orchestration of the whole album.  Ultimately, it ends up being one of the better tracks (though not as good as pieces like “Force of the Shore”, “Quietus and “Another Me in Lack’ech”).  It is also one of the band’s best epics, being far better than “The Divine Conspiracy” and “Kingdom of Heaven” from later albums.

Overall, Consign to Oblivion is one of the best (if not the absolute best) Epica albums.  It’s quite a good listen.  While it does fall flat in some areas, it is still an advisable listen.  This will certainly appeal to fans of the symphonic metal genre, and probably to fans of power metal too as long as they can tolerate a female voice.  There are many strong songs throughout the course of the album, perhaps more than any other Epica album. Consign to Oblivion is recommended, but not essential.  It’s a solid listen.

Best songs:  “Another Me in Lack’ech”, “Dance of Fate”, “Force of the Shore”, “Quietus”, “Blank Infinity”, and “Consign to Oblivion”.

Thanks for reading!  Be sure to comment!