Sunday, April 13, 2014

album review: 'broken crown halo' by lacuna coil

I've mentioned in the past I have a complicated relationship with gothic music.

Because despite some of the things I've mentioned in the past, I do like a large chunk of it and a lot of the bands that pioneered the format remain favourites of mine to this day. And hell, even though I never had an angry white boy phase as a teenager, I won't deny that my unironic love for symphonic metal had more than a passing fondness for goth subculture. 

But maybe it's just greater exposure, but I only tend to tolerate gothic music of certain veins in small doses, and I liken it to that friend you idolize on some level for being a badass. Sure, he's cool and dark and edgy and can take you on a wild ride, but in the end that brand of darkness either becomes too depressing or too insufferable to tolerate. It's one of the primary character arcs in Edgar Wright's movie The World's End with Simon Pegg's character, and there are a lot of elements that ring true there. Plus, I'll restate what I normally say about nihilistic artwork: if you don't switch up the formula or innovate with it beyond standard goth cliches, it can get insufferable really fast.

The funny thing is that four albums into goth metal band Lacuna Coil's career and after the star-making double punch of Comalies and Karmacode, they seemed to have a similar revelation. For me growing up, Lacuna Coil was the good version of Evanescence and while they weren't really on the same playing field as Nightwish or Within Temptation, they still had a niche I appreciated. But after four albums of pretty damn solid gothic metal, they flipped the script somewhat with their 2009 album Shallow Life, an album that still had many goth cliches but a more mainstream-accessible focus. Unfortunately, they got this thanks to producer Don Gilmore, who is most famous for working with Linkin Park, Good Charlotte, and Hollywood Undead. And honestly, while I can't say Lacuna Coil delivered any of their best material on either Shallow Life or their 2012 album Dark Adrenaline, I blame Gilmore for why those albums are nowhere near as great as their predecessors, mostly thanks to placing the guitars on the surface in the mix and dampening the melody, and moving the vocal track closer to the front. And look, the lyrics have never been Lacuna Coil's strong point, and by lessening the focus on the melody, the songs got a lot more interchangeable and considerably weaker.

Thus, I was actually enthused when I saw they had ditched Gilmore as a producer for their newest album Broken Crown Halo. And while I wasn't expecting a return to the glory days, I did hope that the band would be able to recover some of their spark. Did they pull it off?

Well... it's not as bad as Shallow Life. But even though Broken Crown Halo does have a marginally interesting concept and a little more narrative ambition, it's not as consistent as Dark Adrenaline and nowhere in the same ball park as their truly great albums. And the most frustrating part of it all is that Lacuna Coil's Broken Crown Halo is the worst sort of album to review: not a bad album from a band you used to like, but an only decent album that has just enough of the old spark to be freshly disappointing all the same. And coming up with anything substantial to say about the album becomes the real challenge, and the main reason this review is as late as it is.

First, let's address the biggest shift, which is the replacement of Don Gilmore with Jay Baumgardner, and finally, the guitars actually have solid depth in the mix and occasionally build to a potent riff. But with every step Lacuna Coil takes forward, it takes another step back, as the production unearths new problems and doesn't fix all of the old ones. For one, the drum production, especially on the cymbals, is really shoddy, with the sound often wispy or submerged at the back of the mix. And while Lacuna Coil has never been a guitar-driven band in terms of melody, the synth choices they use to carry the melodies are either glittering lines that get lost in the shuffle or so fuzz-saturated to lose any sort of cohesion. And ever since Karmacode Lacuna Coil has never been the tightest of bands, but here the lumbering bloat is a stark contrast against the painfully underweight melodies, most of which don't do enough to stand out or flow well with the chugging guitars. That is, when they're not so fuzzy to lose all sense of decent tune.

This tuneless malaise is arguably the biggest issue instrumentally for Lacuna Coil, but I can't say they weren't trying to craft more diverse songs. There's definitely a stronger symphonic element on this record and on songs like 'I Burn In You' there are attempts to add more diverse instrumentation, but much of it feels strangely hollow and lacking in true dramatic swell - most of which I'll blame on the electronic elements, which really feel tacked onto this record in an attempt to 'modernize' the sound. That's certainly the only explanation I can find for the autotune on Cristina's vocals, which might fit the tone somewhat on 'Cybersleep' but everywhere else feels completely unnecessary.

Now this takes us to the lyrics and themes, which do deserve some scrutiny because Broken Crown Halo is a concept album. And at first glance, that's a great idea - Lacuna Coil has developed something of a reputation for retreading similar ground lyrically, so a new concept could only be a good idea for the band... and then they choose to make an album about a post-apocalyptic dystopia, most likely one overrun by zombies.

Now, I'm not against this in theory - you can make good music out of anything, and Lacuna Coil's brand of passive-aggressive melancholy is a pretty apt fit for these kinds of scenarios - but in recent years the 'zombie apocalypse' well has been so thoroughly played out in modern culture that unless you dramatically reinvent the concept or tone, you're going to be retreading old ground. And unfortunately, that's what happens here - and since Lacuna Coil have never really been great lyrical songwriters, we get a lot of reiterated text, but not a lot of subtext or depth. We get the songs about the emptiness of existence and the parallels with modern culture, life on the run and personality conflicts, the killing of a friend who's infected before he turns, the loss of humanity in the face of despair or overwhelming odds, the loneliness after the carnage, we've seen all of this before - and frankly, done a lot better. The one song that really does stand out in a great way is 'Die & Rise', not only because it has the weight and seething power of a Korn song actually done right, but it's a song framed from the zombie's point-of-view - and unlike most art from that POV, there's a visceral hunger and sense of raw excitement that lends the song a ton of flavour and life - well, okay, maybe unlife, but still! Not only is a step in a new direction for the zombie genre, it's a great song all the same and shows a new idea the band could have explored. The problem is, it's really the only song that has that much creativity.

Look, in the end, this album isn't bad, and there are moments I like, but Broken Crown Halo confirms something I've suspected since Dark Adrenaline, and that's the fact Lacuna Coil might be running out of ideas, definitely instrumentally if not lyrically. And sure, revisiting old concepts can work if you put a fresh spin on it - but with this album, we don't get that fresh spin and it leaves the album really kind of tedious by the end. And believe me, I hate to say this about a band that made Comalies and Karmacode, but sometimes, you need to do more. That said, it's listenable and arguably decent, which earns it a 6/10 from me, but frankly, Lacuna Coil should be better than 'listenable'. And while I used to think they were capable of more... now, I just don't know.

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