Sister Nightfall, Sister Darkness
403 · 17 October 02
Sirenia: At Sixes and Sevens
I'm all for innovation in packaging. Or, at least, I'm for innovation and I'm for packaging, so I ought to be for innovation in packaging. The line between innovation and failure to learn previous lessons, however, is thin and faint in the best of times, and in CD packaging I believe I am basically prepared to stipulate that for the conveyance of single-disc music releases the jewel case is close enough to packaging perfection that valuable research energy could be more profitably redirected elsewhere. Taking the fairly random sample of 239 such packages currently occupying piles of various pending-ish significance on or near what would be my working surface if it weren't always covered with CDs, I find a reassuring overall lack of variation. There are only eight cardboard/plastic-hybrid digipacks among this set (a couple of them, tellingly, now slowly deforming at the bottom of what for me are only modestly sized stacks), and only one non-single packaged in any kind of spineless slipcase. Two-disc editions still seem to prove an irresistible temptation to physical excess, and although I'm sympathetic to the desire to have a "special edition" also seem special to the touch, I think here too we have a viable standards candidate in the miniature-hardback-book style employed recently by the Rheostatics, Spock's Beard, Pallas and some BOC and Bowie reissues. Easily the worst packaging example I can reach without standing up is the silver folding contraption used by ZTT for their Propaganda retrospective Outside World, in which the abstractly-laudable goal of reducing plastic usage (which I don't care about, personally, since I never throw a CD away) has resulted in a rather tragic misunderstanding between silvered cardboard and glue (the cardboard feels it is the glue's responsibility to maintain the package's structural integrity; I have not been able to determine what the glue thinks it's there for), and an "innovative" disc-holding mechanism (little spongy bits you're supposed to squish into the holes in the middle of the discs) that works like crap when there's only one of it, and turns into an abject parody of effectiveness when two of them are, as here, directly opposed in the folding scheme, so that when you try to unfold the package they adhere to each other, stretch, and thus release the very discs they nominally exist to secure.
The only alternate packaging I want to like is the delightfully menacing metal box used by Napalm Records for At Sixes and Sevens, the debut by ex-Tristania co-leader Morten Veland's new project Sirenia (a more impressively gothic name if you don't know its biological definition as a rather flagrantly ungothic order of placid and lumpy sea mammals). Putting "metal" music in a literal metal box is such an obvious idea that it's baffling it isn't done more often. I assume it's more expensive, but this metal edition reached my stores with a price-tag only one dollar higher than the eventual jewel-case edition, so I assume that's about the magnitude of the cost difference. The intriguing metallic click, as I shuffle little piles of CDs that include this, is probably worth the dollar both to the band and to me. Sadly, though, this particular metal design is at its most intriguing when closed, and at its most annoying when anything else. The top and bottom of the case are hinged together, which was smart, but the CD sits on a small protruding flange on the otherwise convex bottom half, and the booklet rattles loosely in the concave top half, which was dumb. Metal can't give like plastic, so the flange maintains only a loose grip on the disc, which the minor flexing needed to open the case taxes. You thus have this choice: open the case right-side up, in which the disc will probably stay put but the booklet will definitely fall out, or open it upside down, in which case the booklet will sit still but the disc will probably fall off. Reclosing the thing properly presents the same problem in reserve, effectively requiring two hands and a clean flat surface with decent lighting. One might point out, reasonably enough, that only a collector idiot like me would pay anything extra to get the exact same music in a different case, and collector idiots deserve what they suffer. I prefer to think of this as a sacrifice I make so that you may be spared my mistakes. Consider yourself warned.
I can also report, by way of additional research, that one can minimize the operational annoyance of At Sixes and Sevens' case by just leaving the disc in one's player between playings. This has been a very good year for metal, for me, and I'm not going to attempt to evaluate any definitive comparison calculi before the end of it, but Sirenia are clearly on an extremely short list for my favorite metal discovery of the year, and this record is on an only slightly longer list for my favorite recent metal album. The basic aesthetic is, if you've been me for the last couple years, a now-familiar one, alternately bombastic and grinding epic-metal arrangements underpinning a collage of hoarse death-metal croaking, dramatic massed choirs and airily operatic female soloists. But where Tristania, during Morten's tenure, was a six-piece core band with various extra vocalists, Sirenia is instrumentally a one-man studio show (violinist Pete Johansen is the only extra musician credited), and although Veland's solo arrangements are no less dense than the band's were, there is a single-mindedness to them that you don't tend to get from ensembles, no matter how tight. Combined with a subtle but detectable mechanical feel born of programmed parts replacing human ones (particularly the drums), this pushes At Sixes and Sevens, for me, in the exciting direction of the Sisters of Mercy's Vision Thing, which I persist in thinking of as one of the definitive masterpieces of overblown metal, despite not having made any appreciable headway in getting much of anybody else to agree with me that it is metal, never mind great metal. "Meridian" writhes and thrashes with gloomily cryptic choirs (Latin? Norwegian? English I just can't follow?). "Sister Nightfall" is furious and effusive on the order of "Temple of Love". "On the Wane" evokes bits of dramatic old Queensrÿche. "In a Manica" and "Manic Aeon" both allow machine drums and synth textures much more latitude and prominence than self-identified death-metal would ever tolerate. The sprawling title track provides the obligatory quiet acoustic bits, and "Lethargica" and "A Shadow of Your Own Self" add the almost-as-obligatory sparkly bits in the middle of otherwise pounding metal arrangements. Johansen finally gets a spotlight turn in the melancholy conclusion "In Sumerian Haze", mournful violin counterposed against guarded female vocals, and my only significant complaint about the entire proceedings is that this song, which passes up an obvious opportunity to crescendo back into the intensity of the rest of the album, is thus something of a letdown as the finale. Other available complaints, if you're so inclined, include a total lack of irony on any lyrical or musical level, an overall uniformity of tone, a pervasive lyrical style in which vagueness attempts to suffice as depth, a somewhat haphazard grasp of period English (including an odd habit of inserting extra "a"s wherever Veland finds himself a syllable short), and the usual gothic over-reliance on leaden quasi-mystical/mythological nonsense ("Thou stalk the Stygian stream and the riverine", "Come down to linger in the undreamed", "Heavenworks for a welkin at dusk", "And the winds they sweep my manic funereal ground", "Your tears they sweep upon life's shore", etc.). But nothing about this album, from the metal box onward, presents itself as any kind of crossover, and all those criticisms are characteristic qualities of a genre Veland is trying to perfect. As objections they are no more cogent than censuring murder mysteries for body count.
Tristania: World of Glass
Veland's final album with Tristania was 1999's Beyond the Veil, which could easily have been my favorite album ever if I'd been fifteen at the time, especially since the artwork contains actual naked girls draped on rocks. The rest of the band and entourage continued on without him, beating him to the follow-up by several months with Tristania's 2001 album World of Glass. Remaining guitarist Anders Hidle and keyboardist Einar Moen seem perfectly content to take over full-time writing duties, and the usual cast of singers is so large that Veland is hardly missed on that count either. World of Glass didn't, I'll admit, originally make that much of an impression on me, but when I exhume it from the vaults a year later, with At Sixes and Sevens to contrast it with, I now find the pair together quite a bit more interesting. The simple formula predicts that the things Sirenia exaggerates, a Veland-less Tristania will eschew, and for once this is pretty close to exactly what happens. World of Glass is oblique where At Sixes and Sevens is obvious, measured instead of headlong, darker and grimmer. Full-time female vocalist Vibeke Stene could be a softening influence, but in practice her pale, statuarial presence only serves to emphasize the band's comparative austerity. Even scattered bits of synth and drum programming here come nowhere near Sisters of Mercy pomp, and for every legato violin figure (Johansen again) there's a counterbalancing deathly growl, and for the most part the composite result remains resolutely in-genre, somewhere between Emperor and Therion. The notable exception, though, the title track, leans into its choruses with a buoyant enthusiasm that stop-start verses and a weirdly indecisive profusion of vocal styles can't quite derail. And when this record ends with the intricate, evasive epic "Crushed Dreams", little pinging piano runs threaten to belie the otherwise severe demeanor. I don't know the story behind Veland's departure, but the most acrimonious "artistic" differences can often be the most subtle, and it won't surprise me at all if the two bands, given a couple albums each to forget the proximate tensions, end up converging precisely where they would have ended up as one.
The Sins of Thy Beloved: Perpetual Desolation
And if Tristania and Sirenia haven't quite satiated your desire for this sort of thing, there are a couple more albums of it, made with different band personnel but the same producer, violinist, country and label, available under the name The Sins of Thy Beloved. Johansen's violin is actually much more of an integrated presence here than it tends to be in whole Sirenia or Tristania albums, and singer Anita Auglend gets to play the occasional character part rather than sticking exclusively to gowns and fog, but these are distinctions of shading, and the only striking variance in Perpetual Desolation's version is an entertainingly grindy goth-metal reconstruction of Metallica's "The Thing That Should Not Be". This could be the style Sirenia and Tristania will converge on, dramatic without edging into caricature, forward-moving but disciplined, atmospheric but not too becalmed. I only suggest, with no malice or condescension intended, that if there are going to be three bands performing this one unified aesthetic, and in English, perhaps they should establish a group fund to hire a native lyricist, or at least somebody who learned the language from a better translation of Beowulf. It's a bad sign when a Metallica cover is your album's least ridiculous text.
Without Face: Astronomicon
There's something enduringly bizarre, for that matter, about English having ended up as the lingua franca of macabre metal at all, particularly since so many of its emotional centers don't currently fall in English-speaking countries. Without Face are from Hungary, and although you wouldn't actually pass through there on an overland journey from Finland to Italy, a carefully-drawn line on a map could connect the three, and to me Without Face produce a quite-plausible approximation of a midpoint between the Scandinavian version of female-led gothic metal, à la Tristania/Sirenia/Nightwish, and its Italian counterpart in Lacuna Coil. No subgenre is fully functional without some younger bands making a simpler version of the masters' style, and Without Face are a Fates Warning to Nightwish's Dream Theater, perhaps, or a Paula Cole to Tori Amos. Their arrangements rest more squarely on lock-step guitar and bass, and Juliette's smooth lead vocals are left to their own more often than woven into choirs. Despite the dorky album title and the always-dubious inclusion of a song supposedly based on a long-dead person's letters, though, Astronomicon is actually somewhat less indebted to genre conventions, it seems to me, and maybe a small step closer to being appreciable as a metal-derived rock band rather than just a masquerade staging. Understated drum production helps. An avoidance of conflicting melodic strategies helps. Conventionally silky guitar solos (almost never to be found in Sirenia or Tristania) help. Having only one song shorter than seven minutes, of course, hurts, as does the veil of distance that Juliette's singing never quite pierces. And in the end this is still gothic metal diluted with progressive metal, which for many people will be like cutting arsenic with cyanide. But one person's eternity of excruciating torture is another person's forty-five minutes of comforting indulgence.
If sidling from death-metal to progressive-metal seems like progress to you, though, it's a short trip across the border from Hungary into Austria, where, if Edenbridge are indicative, the gothic-metal scene is rather more velvety than cobwebby. Edenbridge's version of this style is still heavy when it needs to be, but harbors no evident horror-movie aspirations. Singer Sabine Edelsbacher is technically adept but not as operatically inclined as the other women, and also apparently doesn't kennel the kind of barking monsters the others dote on. These songs mostly don't rise to the hyper-melodic heights of Nightwish, but my favorite moments, like the swooping "Color My Sky", the sumptuous choruses of "The Whisper of the Ages", the Queensrÿche-tense guitars in "Into the Light" and the giddy double-time sprints in "Suspiria", have their own coherently muted classicist charm. And although most of Edenbridge's songs are shorter and less digressive than most of Without Face's, the ten-minute title-track finale is an unapologetic Faerie Queene of a thing, and might lead you to concede that sometimes you'd rather be concisely abused than sit through the whole poetic recital of the story of your downfall.
Nightwish: Bless the Child
And if I were the sort of person who could be content simply listening to the bands I like best, rather than conducting endless globe-scouring pilgrimages to find all the other related bands that I don't quite adore as helplessly, I could probably live without most of this stuff. Nightwish supplement their album schedule with more than enough other things to keep me from fearing stagnation, the most recent being this nominal single for the Century Child album track "Bless the Child". There are no b-sides here per se, disappointingly, the single instead serving as an excuse for a loose-ends-tidying compendium of stray tracks from various limited editions that the non-obsessive and/or late-arriving might have missed. "The Wayfarer" is the excellent style-summarizing bonus track from the Japanese edition of Century Child, and the shimmery "Sleepwalker" and thrashy "Nightquest" are the corresponding extras from Wishmaster and Oceanborn. "Come Cover Me" and "Dead Boy's Poem" are both simply reprised from the live album From Wishes to Eternity, but I only have it on DVD, so that's something. "Once Upon a Troubadour" and "A Return to the Sea", though, are from the limited edition of the band's 1997 debut, Angels Fall First, and don't change my opinion that you could start your Nightwish experience with album two and not have missed anything important. You'd have to be later arriving than me to have missed the Wishmastour 2000 EP, which already had "Sleepwalker", "Nightquest", "Once Upon a Troubadour" and "A Return to the Sea", but as usual, arriving late means you risked missing things but can now save money: I'm pretty sure the domestic version of Century Child and this single come to less than I paid for either the Japanese Century Child or Wishmastour 2000, and the cheaper pair lacks only a pointless edit of an Oceanborn track.
I can be patient to the point of mania, obviously, and I could and do listen happily to this kind of ethereal metal for even more hours than this selection accounts for. If I were more easily bored, though, I imagine I'd tire first of either the singers' reserve or the bands' abstruseness. There was once a time, after all, when "female-led metal" meant Lita Ford, and the cover of Beyond the Veil aside, there's precious little sex among all this gothic viscera, let alone anything as cheerfully trashy and unselfconsciously unreserved as Lita. Doro Pesch was the singer in Eighties German metal band Warlock, who didn't quite predate Lita but were the first place I encountered the then-radical-seeming idea of a female singer in a metal band. Lita remains in exile, and Doro spent the Nineties releasing albums in Europe without an American label, but new deals with KOCH and Steamhammer for 2000's Calling the Wild... got Doro back in US stores, and Fight is her eighth studio album, or something close to that.
And if you want to feel, for the length of an album, like the Nineties never happened, this is a pretty convincing formulation of the dream. The music is muscular, unhurried and utterly without progressive pretensions, heavy metal in very much the pre-grunge, pre-Metallica sense, and even the guest-vocal appearance by Pete Steele of the distinctively Nineties-metallic Type O Negative is played in grand old Ozzy-and-Lita style. The lyrics are simple-minded exhortations ("Always Live to Win", "Rock Before We Bleed", "Fight By Your Side", etc.) that sound dopier the fewer people are singing them, and frankly probably best if drowned out by a passing motorcycle gang. Doro's voice is throaty, the pictures are all about studded black leather and long white-blonde hair, and where else today will you find two Jean Beauvoir co-writing credits and a non-ironic KISS cover? Yet, as the booklet's collection of tour photos seem to feel obliged to try to prove, a bunch of people still like this stuff. Croatians and people from Tampa, one is tempted to assume, recidivists and cultural-backwater homesteaders and exiles in whatever is left of the modern world that hasn't gotten around to going post-modern yet. People who'd surely prefer PJ Harvey if they knew any better. Or fifteen-year-olds, I guess. Or me.