Thursday, April 17, 2014

album review: 'the human contradiction' by delain

So recently I was watching one of the new React videos from the Fine Bros., specifically the 'YouTubers React to Babymetal'. For those of you who don't know, Babymetal is a band fusing J-pop and heavy metal, amongst other genres, and honestly, they aren't really my thing. But one of the questions the Fine Bros. asked got me thinking: would there be a way to fuse pop and metal in a way that was accessible to the mainstream public? 

Because when we look back through the Billboard Charts, the periods of time when metal has crossed over into mainstream acceptance has been thanks to rock trends of the time - the punk and post-punk movements in the 70s, hair metal in the 80s, and nu-metal and post-grunge in the 90s and 2000s. But if you were looking to skip the conventional definition of rock altogether to fuse metal and conventional pop, how might you do it?

Well in my opinion we already have something of an answer, and that lies in what I'd call the most accessible genre of metal: symphonic metal. Often featuring clean vocals, pretty and upbeat melodies, soaring choruses, this was the method I got into metal and with the commercial success of a band like Evanescence, it's proven to work. 

And if I was looking to answer one of my recent questions of 'how can I get into symphonic music', I now have an answer if you're coming from pop: Delain, the Dutch symphonic metal band formed in 2002 by former Within Temptation keyboardist Martijn Westerholt and who might be without a doubt the most commercially accessible symphonic metal act from a pop landscape I've ever heard. Now that's not a bad thing: I've stressed a number of times pop music is worth defending and a transitory step between the two very different genres isn't a bad thing. However, Delain also strikes me as a band that instead of effectively blending the two genres chose to water down the metal side significantly. The highest praise I can give the band is that lead vocalist Charlotte Wessels is a really good singer with a lot of emotion and range, but the melodic progressions are simplistic, the guitar solos are inexcusably basic, and the production is shallow at best. On top of that, the band often seems to have a painfully high school sensibility to the lyrics, which can make some of the self-esteem and 'social commentary' anthems come across as overwrought and lacking in nuance. And while symphonic metal lyrics are often arch or borderline-irrelevant, here the arch subject matter comes across as a bit pandering to me, and that rubs me the wrong way.

Now let me stress I don't think Delain is a bad band - but in a symphonic metal landscape that has Nightwish, Tarja, Within Temptation, Epica, and others, Delain doesn't really stand out for me. But I figured that I'd give them another chance with their newest album, The Human Contradiction - how was it?

Well, frankly, it's what I expected from Delain - and though it's heavier, I wouldn't exactly classify it as better and it's not an album to which I see myself returning. And as I've mentioned about previous Delain releases, it's not bad, but I don't think the band has stepped up their game enough to compete in the big leagues. And while the band does have a few interesting ideas on this album, they don't exactly execute them in a way that would suggest more imagination.

Okay, to explain, we need to talk about the instrumentation and production, and I'll say the one net positive for this album as a whole: we're getting to see more of the band's strengths as they get heavier. The guitarwork is meatier, we get some respectable solos, and the drumming shows some more sophisticated progressions. I wish I could say the same thing for the melody lines, though, and here's where we run into my consistent issues with Delain: the melodic hooks are a little simplistic and don't really show a lot of variety between songs, mostly sticking with three or four note progressions. This especially comes across when most of the melody lines are carried by the keyboards and not in the guitars, which leads to some admittedly harder riffing starting to run together. Thankfully, the production does give the guitars more depth and crackle, although it's very evident the greater focus is on the keyboards, synths, and Charlotte Wessels' vocals. And while the symphonic elements were solid enough, I honestly preferred the more electronic elements of the production, because with a relatively thin orchestration, the electronica at least gave Delain some greater personality.

Now thankfully Charlotte Wessels was on hand for yet another solid vocal performance, and honestly, she's one of the strongest members of the band, capable of a broad emotional range and she's good here. Unfortunately, the choice of guest stars is a little shaky, as George Oosthoek is solid for 'Tell Me, Mechanist', but Archenemy frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz seems to fade into the background on 'Tragedy Of The Commons', and that's just unfortunate. I think this is more of an issue in the production than her delivery, because the mix placement of Nightwish bassist and vocalist Marco Hielata is also slightly behind Wessels'. And incidentally, if Marco's presence wasn't indicative that Delain was trying to imitate Nightwish with a social justice angle, I don't know what is.

This takes us to the lyrics and themes, and really, we could call this album We Are The Others Part II, because we get a lot of similar social justice themes broadly sketched and not particularly well-realized. Sure, 'Your Body Is A Battleground', 'My Masquerade', 'Tell Me, Mechanist', and 'Tragedy Of The Commons' touch on themes such as pharmaceutical abuse, over-reliance on technology, oppression for being different, you get the drill. Hell, 'Tragedy Of The Commons' tries to make an environmentalist argument with the economic theory in the growled lyrics, but then it just resolves into pessimism and Wessels' delivery suggesting to just bitterly give up. And that sourness comes across on more than a few songs of this record - the opening track 'Here Comes The Vultures' seems overloaded with sarcasm when Wessels realizes she's not getting everything she wants, and it comes across as petulant. 

And this is an underlying attitude that really kills the populism of the social justice side of this album: the sense that Wessels never really includes herself in the framing. The pronoun is always 'you' when it comes to the hard topics, reserving 'I' for 'The Masquarade' where they can fly their freak flags high far away where no one will judge them - uh, I appreciate the dark romance the song is trying to cultivate, but for a social justice inspired album, why hide? Even on my favourite song of the album 'Army Of Dolls', a song that incorporates goth rock electronica for some pop appeal and it actually comes across really well in talking about conformity through body shaming, is pointed at someone else. And I don't buy the argument that it's an a 'universal you' and she includes herself, because the lyrics imply actions she's taking from outside the picture. What it means is that the songs come across as preachy, and when the social justice angle feels so sour and underweight, it comes across as self-centered and not something that works for me. And for an album claiming gothic influences instrumentally, the lyrics really come across as having the necessary flavour, but lacking the spirit. 

But then you realize the truth of it: this is an album that will unintentionally speak very well to teenage self-absorption, giving the listeners the feel of not being part of the machine without the nuance to back that assertion up - which, honestly, is a very pop attitude. And it's that pop attitude to both lyrical and instrumental composition that ultimately makes Delain such a frustrating contradiction of an act. They have the sound and instrumentation of a symphonic metal act on the surface, but go deeper and you don't find enough complexity in melodies or lyrics to back it up. And since with a move to a heavier sound they're looking to be judged as a symphonic metal act, I'm giving them a 6/10, and only a recommendation if you're looking for a bridge act between modern pop and symphonic metal. But honestly, you'd be better off picking up Dark Passion Play or Hydra or even Tarja's most recent album Colours In The Dark. Honestly, they're just better.

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