Thursday, November 13, 2014

album review: 'arms of morpheus' by kingfisher sky

So here's an interesting situation: you're an technically minded musician, looking at pushing the boundaries of your craft, and you're part of a band that's on the precipice of breaking into the mainstream. And you know that if you start aiming to push for more complex progressions that are less commercially friendly, it could hold you back from that breakthrough. So what do you do - stick with simpler instrumentation that really aren't stretching you artistically, or forge a new path that will almost certainly be less commercially viable?

That was the choice Ivar de Graaf made when he left symphonic metal titan Within Temptation after their critically acclaimed album Mother Earth. And to some extent, it makes complete sense - Within Temptation were always a band with a keen eye to appealing to a more pop-friendly metal crowd, and de Graaf's desire to play more complex progressions and improve his compositional skills would almost certainly fly in the face of that. He still maintained a friendly relationship with Within Temptation and would occasionally play with them on later occasions, but in 2005 he collaborated with his wife Judith Rijnveld to form the progressive symphonic metal band Kingfisher Sky.

And here's the funny thing: listening through their debut album Hallway of Dreams in 2007, I definitely saw some real potential but I also was struggling to see the areas where Kingfisher Sky could stand out from the crowd. Keep in mind that not only did Within Temptation release The Heart of Everything that same year, Nightwish released Dark Passion Play in all of its folk-flavoured genre-bending might, and it's not hard to see how Kingfisher Sky might have been overshadowed simply for being quieter and having more restraint, their influences being less film scores and more Porcupine Tree, Kate Bush, and traditional folk. But I'd argue that being a little softer gave Kingfisher Sky a chance to develop their songwriting and acoustic textures, and while they did occasionally fall into cliche, they frequently were able to compensate for it. They followed that album with Skin Of The Earth in 2010, which was heavier and had tuned the songwriting a little finer, but it was at this point the lower production budget was definitely hampering the more symphonic side of the band, and while the guitars had crunch and some of the more progressive grooves were interesting, I found myself wishing that Judith Rijnveld was a more powerful vocalist or they could expand their sound into something with a little more import and scope.

In other words, I wasn't sure what to expect with their crowdfunded 2014 album Arms Of Morpheus - I expected to like it, but it's been a crowded year for symphonic metal. So how is it?

Ehh... let me stress that I really wanted to like this album, considering how often it was recommended to me given my liking for symphonic and progressive metal, but here's probably the masterclass of a band not playing enough to their strengths. I was worried about this on Skin Of The Earth and on Arms Of Morpheus those concerns become very real problems. It's more than a little frustrating that I have to criticize a smaller symphonic metal act for sounding smaller and less impressive, but the grander Kingfisher Sky tries to sound, the less it works. That said, is this album still worth your time? Yeah, for the most part it is, but for more of the folk side than the symphonic, that's for damn sure.

I should explain, and the best place to start would be the instrumentation. I'll give Kingfisher Sky this, while this album isn't as groove-driven as Skin Of The Earth, they do some great acoustic and cello textures on this record that really emphasizes their folk side in a potent way, and I do like the more intricate drum progressions. And hell, the piano-driven melodies interweaving with the acoustic instrumentation leads to some great melodic progressions like on 'King Of Thieves'. And there were some other moments I really dug - the clipped guitar leads and piano on 'I'm Not Alone', the off-kilter strings progression on 'The Morrigan' that leads into a great ominous drum pattern, the rattling guitars on 'Strength Of The Endless', these are some solid progressions. And that's not even touching the two best songs, the gorgeous 'Heather' with the piano, guitars, and strings weaving together beautifully, and the album closer 'Maddy', which opens with organ and blends into some great guitar textures. 

But note here that I'm mostly talking about elements that aren't really all that metal - and there's a reason. Simply put, the metal production is inconsistent at best and outright tepid at worst. None of the electric guitars have any snarl or presence, the bass is incredibly underweight, the drums frequently feel isolated, and while the guitar solos are given a chance to shine, the tonal choice barely has any heft, either going for a thin, squealing tone or one that wouldn't be out of place on an early Lacuna Coil record. And that's before you even touch on the symphonic side - to be blunt, even despite the vocal multi-tracking and the strings arrangements, this is a very small-sounding record - which can work for folk but doesn't really work for symphonic metal. And what's worse is that you don't really get a lot of dynamics across this record - for as much as the folk elements work the best, the production doesn't emphasize it. There's no warmth or subtlety to these mixes, which emphasizes every edge and point and can make many songs feel jerky. Granted, Judith Rijnveld's vocals don't really help matters - she's a good singer, don't get me wrong, but her range falls between Anette Olzon and Sharon den Adel's lowest range, and it doesn't always lend itself to an emotive delivery. What's a shame is that when on 'Heather' they bring in male harmonies from the rest of the band, it sounds excellent and does a lot for the mix - honestly wish they did that a lot more for the rest of the album.

But surely the songwriting could make up for it - and you know, if the band were opting to make more of a folk-inspired and subtle album, the more personal flavours in some of the songs would work a lot better. And there are points where they work - the song 'Maddy' dedicated to a friend who passed away, and 'Heather', a song chronicling two childhood friends drifting apart. And hell, there are moments where the louder, more aggressive angle works too - the burning fuse of 'At Least You Tried', the dismissive and well-detailed kiss off of 'King Of Thieves' - but when you get songs like 'I'm Not Alone' where our narrator is going for a one night stand, the song is so blunt and in your face that it feels incredibly forced. And sure, that might be part of the point, but the tone is so harsh that I find it hard to buy. This also happens with 'Open Eyes', a song where our narrator tries to win back a partner with both anger and cooing entreaties, and it feels completely unconvincing. If I were to highlight an issue with this album lyrically - because really, the lyrics are pretty solid and well-written across the board, especially for symphonic metal - it'd be the tonal clash between the lyrics and instrumentation. Take a song like 'Insomnia', trying to capture the frustration of not having the relief of sleep, and maybe its the delivery or the mid-song break into a pretty inert guitar riff and one of the worst-produced bagpipe interludes I've ever heard, but it just doesn't work. And the more I think about it, the more it comes down to the metal segments just not clicking with this record - they try to add darker, heavier elements and maybe it's a lack of real grooves or potent texture, but with the exception of the solos, they just don't seem to fit, and they clash with the more graceful and restrained lyrics, which leaves the album feeling a little inert to me.

So look, Arms Of Morpheus by Kingfisher Sky is not bad, but it lacks the quiet grace of their debut or the stronger rhythm sections of Skin Of The Earth. For symphonic and progressive metal, I can definitely respect the intricacy of the construction, but many of the emotional notes they're trying to hit misfire for me. Now granted, I can still recommend it for many of those melodic progressions that I really liked, leaving me to give this record a light 6/10, but I get the feeling that Kingfisher Sky needs to decide if they're going to make heavier music or stick with a lighter, more dignified folk palette. Because right now, their blend of the two isn't quite hitting the mark.

1 comment:

  1. A good recommendation for symphonic metal from this year has to be the new album from Epica