Issue 2004-033: After Forever - Invisible Circles - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Childhood In Minor (1:20), Beautiful Emptiness (5:25), Between Love And Fire (4:56), Sins Of Idealism (5:22), Eccentric (4:10), Digital Deceit (5:38), Through Square Eyes (6:23), Blind Pain (6:47), Two Sides (4:34), Victim Of Choices (3:21), Reflections (5:11), Life's Vortex (5:53)
In my previous After Forever review (of Exordium I ended assuring fans that After Forever still had it. In that same review I worded the hope that a full album would soon follow. This hope has now been fulfilled by this album. And it was well worth the wait. Much has been said on the departure of Mark Jansen (who then started Epica) and because of that you tend to forget that 5 of the original members are still there. On this album the six piece band from The Netherlands show that they are still true to their roots and this album fits perfectly to the line set out from the very start. My hope is that not only old fans will embrace this album but that it will also attract new ones. The album certainly deserves it.
I my previous review I also made a remark on Floor Jansen's singing that I now largely regret. One of the most stunning features of this album is her voice, and this time I like it, in all it's facets, be it soprano or be it otherwise. Oh man, does this lady have an amazing voice. Just listen to Eccentric and you will know what I mean.
Many times After Forever is used as a good example of Gothic music and therefore it's a pity that they did not really profit from the increased popularity of this genre like other bands did. In my opinion this might be because After Forever is so much more than just 'Gothic'. After Forever is just, well, After Forever. A mix of many genres but most appealing to me: it is heavy music that has a firm body without only being a wall of loud and heavy sounds/screams. It has a lot of complexity and melody without being all polished and slick. In fact After Forever is one of the few bands that uses grunts in such a way that I can not only accept it but even like it at times.
This album tells the story of a child that was not exactly welcome because her parents were so busy with themselves. You are led in this story by the child writing in her diary. Most of the story is of course expressed in music and lyrics but some parts are conveyed by (long) dialogs between the parents and that to me is the only negative aspect of this album. They could have done without these dialogs, for one they slow down the pace of the album too much and it is as if the album's story is force fed. At times I find the lyrics a bit too simple and corny but then other pieces are very powerful.
Musically it took me no time at all to appreciate this album, from the first time I heard the children's music in the introduction I was sold. And, as said, the vocals on this album are better than ever before. Although the music is very recognizably After Forever, it does not mean they have copied all of their previous albums in this one. I especially like the tracks Sins Of Idealism because of the superb guitar solo's and vocals, Eccentric although it might be called the obligatory ballad it is much to good to wave it off like that, Digital Deceit because of the built up from heavy bombastic short guitar loops to soft and mellow, Life's Vortex because of the use of strings and keyboards.
After Forever is highly appreciated by a somewhat select group of people. They have played a number of larger festivals but still a lot of people have never heard of them. Of course their group of followers is growing, but a band that is able to release albums with such consistent quality should finally get the appreciation they deserve. I can only do my part in that and recommend this album.
In 2001 After Forever released their brilliant album Decipher. That album is three years old now and a lot has happened since then; Mark left the band to form Epica and Bas Maas replaced him. Before this album came out After Forever released a mini-album called Exordium and on this album it was clear that the musical development of After Forever was still growing.
This new album shows that After Forever is no longer a gothic metal band anymore; they have really chosen for the metal side of music on Invisible Circles. So for the die-hard fans that loved the previous album this one is rather a bit “weird”. You really have to get used to this album, which means that you have to listen to it a lot to truly appreciate it. Sander, guitar player, composer and grunter describes their music on the new CD as the new wave of Dutch heavy metal, which means that the bombastic choir and orchestral passages, as on Decipher, belong to the past. Furthermore it is a concept album and it deals with the daily problems of a modern family, seen through the eyes of a child.
Right from the start After Forever hits you in the face with heavy guitar riffs, howling keyboard parts, beautiful vocals by Floor and mysterious grunting by Sander, as for example in the first real song (after the intro Childhood In Minor) Beautiful Emptiness. However as I am not a real fan of grunting I rather prefer Eccentric, a superb piano ballad, beautifully sung by Floor. Digital Deceit, a very diverse, almost power metal like song with typical hooks and guitar riffs. Or the third grunt-free song Life’s Vortex, a track with orchestral parts, very bombastic and dramatic, an example of how good prog metal should sound like. Together with Reflections, Life’s Vortex belongs to my favourite tracks on this album. Reflections begins as a piano ballad, but then it evolves into a heavy song with extreme high vocals by Floor, especially the chorus sounds like an opera aria. On this CD it is evident that the voice of Floor is even more “dominant” than on the previous albums, but it is also clear that the music has changed from gothic metal to darker, heavier, powerful metal.
I truly believe that After Forever will “reach” more people with the kind of music they are displaying on this album, which not means that you could call them more commercial now. As I said before it is an album that needs some time to really enjoy, but then you will agree with me that this is one of the best Dutch metal albums ever. The only two things I do not like on this CD are the soap-like conversations at the end of Between Love And Fire and Blind Pain and the grunting of Sander. If every song on this CD would be grunt less I certainly would have given it 9 points or maybe even 9.5…… But there is no accounting for taste!!
The mini-album Exordium which appeared last year served as a reminder that After Forever were still very much alive after having lost a key member the year before, but it was this, their new full length studio album, that I have been looking forward to with most relish. Its predecessor Decipher was my pick for best album of 2001, and my expectations were pretty high.
The first time I heard Invisible Circles I was working late at the office. For the first twenty minutes I wasn't able to do much work because I couldn't stop jumping up from my chair every other minute and exclaim "this is friggin' great!". And it is: I can safely say that the suite consisting of the first five songs on the album is the best After Forever have ever done. Varied, with exciting dual rhythm guitar, tasteful keyboard accompaniment, and great riffing.
There are moments of utter brilliance here, like in Between Love and Fire, where the song is picked up after a brief narrative interlude with a three way vocal: soprano, grunts, and clear vocals, courtesy of Floor Jansen, Sander Gommans and Bas Maas. With the latter After Forever have not only found a replacement guitarist, but an additional vocalist as well, which is quite a revelation. He does great, especially in offsetting the other two vocalists, which works very well. I wouldn't mind After Forever using this song element more often.
But the band's (f)(v)ocal point remains Floor Jansen, and she's at her emotive best here. Of special mention is Sins of Idealism where she shows the incredible range of her voice in a heartrending cry which cannot fail to send shivers down the spine even of someone who's been dead and buried for three days.
This first phase of the album is closed by the gentle piano/vocal piece Eccentric, which gives the listener some much needed respite after the preceding emotionally draining tracks. What follows is really a mixed bag. With Through Square Eyes (nice vocal duel between Floor and Sander) and the orchestra heavy Digital Deceit the band manages to come close to reaching the high standard set by the first songs on the album.
Victim of Choices and Blind Pain on the other hand are rather forgettable, with the latter suffering from the inclusion of a lengthy stretch of spoken text, which becomes annoying on repeated listening. Two Sides features fast synthesizer noodling courtesy of ivory tinkler Lando van Gils, and a second vocal spot for Bas Maas. Reflections reintroduces a theme from Between Love and Fire and features nothing less than a guitar solo, a rarity in After Forever's work.
Invisible Circles peaks one more time with the fantastic closer Life's Vortex: a rising crescendo of guitars, strings, church organ and emotive vocals, leading into an operatic interlude with choir, before climaxing and trailing off rather ominously with a gargling sound similar to the one that started the album: these circles may be invisible, but they are not silent.
To conclude: a worthy album, its lesser moments more than compensated by the brilliance of especially the first quartet of tracks. Therefore, with 9.5 points for the first half and 7 points for the second half, this makes for a grade of 8 points and a big fat recommended tag.
I must be honest in saying that at the turn of the year, Invisible Circles was firmly at the top of my list of new releases that I was looking forward to hearing in 2004. Despite my disappointment with the Exordium release, I was hoping that given a full length release, the band would deliver a worthy follow-up to Decipher, but even 2 months or so after its release, and many spins, I still can’t quite come to terms with this disk.
Invisible Circles is a concept album, a format that is still quite popular in these times, yet it is a concept album written from the female perspective and from that of a young girl - an unusual point of view - at least in the world of Prog Metal, though any one who has experienced problems in matching up to their parent’s expectations will find something here that they can relate to. My main source of dissatisfaction is however the music.
The disk opens with the sounds of the schoolyard and a brief overture before the whole band make their entrance in Beautiful Emptiness. During the more tranquil passages the voice of Floor Jansen, generally playing the role of the child, sings of her plight as a child who is but an annoying presence that her career-obsessed parents prefer to ignore. Sander Gommans’s growling voice is used to represent the child’s anger at her mistreatment as well as playing the role of the Father figure but this is confusing at first and one has to refer to the detailed notes and lyrics in the booklet in order to work out exactly what is happening and which voice is playing which role.
The arguing between the child’s parents is played out during Between Love and Fire and is dramatised with the first of two major clashes between Amanda Somerville (as the mother) and Jay Lansford (as the Father). While not being the sort of acting that Oscars are made of, the words of their argument reveal the story to those listeners who have not followed the scene-setting up to this point. Introducing such spoken word sections is always a tricky thing and while it works well on the first couple of listens, it does become a real distraction after several spins. The voice of Jay Lansbury is a familiar one to those who have albums from Rhapsody, Aina etc where his voice adds the necessary cheese and pomposity required. Here however, we have serious subject matter and his voice and acting does not carry the gravitas necessary to make it all believable.
The following series of tunes have the child trying to please her parents but always falling short, eventually taking solace in the world of television, video games and an online world of her own creation, in which she is a "queen". Eccentric, which has Floor singing with just piano for accompaniment is the best of the bunch, freed as it is from the heavy and rather boring repeated motifs that link many of the songs. In fact the heavy pounding bits feature a guitar sound that becomes increasingly annoying as the disk progresses and the riff that appears repeatedly, does so to the detriment of some otherwise promising tunes.
Blind Pain is perhaps the most dramatic song on the album with the rage of the child rising once more and the riffs and vocals becoming even more brutal, especially when set alongside the contemplative passages. The second of the lengthy spoken passages closes the track and is even more dramatic than the first. It is also all the more disturbing, as one can hear the breathing of the child above her parents’ arguing voices. Unfortunately the dialogue is a little stilted and it comes off as slightly unconvincing, becoming more annoying with each subsequent spin.
Fortunately the final third of the disk is the most satisfying and positive part. In Two Sides the child begins to see that she is in danger of seeing history repeating itself, a point that is made even more clear during Victim of Choices as her grandmother warns her father about the effect his treatment of his daughter is having on her, comparing it with the mistake she herself made during his upbringing. Then we have the delightful Reflections, which is probably the highlight of the disk, the orchestra, the keyboards and Floor’s voice all being used to perfection. If only the rest of the disk was as good as this track. Yet, after the slight uplift in mood, the final track Life’s Vortex leaves the listening whether the whole process is going repeat as the child herself becomes a mother 10 years further on.
While I admire the fact that After Forever have tried very hard to do something a little out of the ordinary, I have to say that I do not find it a very satisfying disk to listen to. Vocally Floor Jansen seems to go from strength to strength and her performance here is powerful, dramatic and very impressive overall, not matter how she chooses to sing. The music unfortunately does not match up and both in the guitar department and in terms of compositional variety the band do miss the departed Mark Jansen. There is a dourness to the music which gives it a heavy feel that is lifted only briefly during Reflections and one or two passages elsewhere. After the shock of the first listen I wasn’t sure that I could bear to play the disk again. However it has become a little more palatable over the course of a further 10 spins, but even so, this will never become a disk that I’ll listen to for pleasure. Hard going.
Since the release of their last full-length album, Decipher, in 2001, there have been many changes to the musical sphere in which After Forever operate, both internally and externally. Within the band there have been line-up changes, not least the departure of guitarist and key songwriter Mark Jansen (to form a new outfit, Epica). Meanwhile, the whole female-fronted gothic/ symphonic/ progressive metal scene has taken a leap forward in popularity, with Evanescence cornering the mainstream side of the market, and acts like Nightwish and Lacuna Coil rapidly gaining in popularity. After Forever are currently popular in the low countries, but still relatively unknown elsewhere – therefore quite a lot is riding on Invisible Circles.
To be honest the stop-gap EP Exordium offered up more questions than answers – the material seemed to be taking a more ‘conventional’ turn, with a decided lessening of the orchestral bombast the band were known for. In addition, the band included a couple of covers, making it difficult to judge the effect of losing a key member such as Mark Jansen.
On first listen, Invisible Circles came as something of a surprise – quite the opposite from going in a different direction, it is in fact every bit as bombastic and majestic as before – in fact more so! All the main elements associated with the After Forever sound – strong, powerful guitar riffs, soaring strings, choirs, symphonic synths, the use of ‘grunts and screams’ – are present and correct, and turned up to 11 on this release. On top of all this, of course, is the stunning soprano vocals on Floor Jansen, and I can tell you that on Invisible Circles she has never sounded better; whilst on Exordium she seemed to be refining her range, here there seem to be no limits to where her voice will go, and she maintains a fine command over it at all times, knowing when to reign things in and when to let go. Without question, Floor Jansen establishes herself beyond doubt here as one of, if not the, best vocalists in the genre.
Of course, all this is well and good, but would be meaningless if the songs weren’t up to scratch. Thankfully, the loss of Mark Jansen doesn’t seem to have had a particularly detrimental effect on the band’s song-writing abilities, and the majority of the tracks on this album work very well indeed. The band have gone for a concept album on this occasion (the not particularly upbeat reminiscences of a child growing up, neglected by her parents and taunted at school, who retreats into her own world and confides her thoughts to her ‘diary’) and this concept holds together very well, seemingly giving the band some focus. There’s a good range of material on offer here, with stately mid-tempo affairs (opening track proper Beautiful Emptiness, the epic closer Life’s Vortex), powerful, aggressive numbers (Sins of Idealism, Victim Of Choices) and strong, emotional balladry (the excellent piano and voice effort Eccentric is a highlight, whilst Reflections makes excellent use of the string section).
The album isn’t beyond criticism, however. Two things in particular grated on me a little. Firstly are the two spoken interludes, where the ‘mother’ and ‘father’ engage in arguments, firstly about the merits of having a child, and later about how annoying she is. These simply don’t work – although short, they completely disrupt the flow of the album – especially the first break, which comes slap bang in the middle of the raging Between Love And Fire. In addition, I found the male voice very annoying indeed, and its’ hard to resist the urge to skip the CD forward at these points. Secondly, the use of grunting male vocals (courtesy of guitarist Sander Gommans) is very heavy in this album, and I think overused. Sure, at times its effective (especially on the more aggressive tracks) but at other times it seems inappropriate (in particular when Gommans’ takes the lead on Blind Pain) and besides the overuse blunts its impact. Personally I’d have preferred the band to use more ‘clean’ male vocals on the album as a counterpoint to Floor’s singing – these are used (presumably courtesy of second guitarist Bas Maas, whose credited with ‘vocals’) but very sparingly compared to the grunts.
Overall, this is a strong album, and certainly better than I expected following Exordium. Whether it will take them to the next level, or is actually better than either of their previous efforts (or indeed Epica’s The Phantom Agony) is a moot point, but then we are comparing strong albums against each other here. Suffice to say, existing fans will certainly want this, whilst it is also a decent starting point for the uninitiated.