Issue 2004-045: Asrai Special
Round Table Review
Touch In The Dark
Tracklist: In Front Of Me (4:53), Pale Light (4:36), Whisper (5:44), Restless (4:23), Touch In The Dark (5:02), Tower (6:19), Dream (4:16), Child (4:59), Garden (4:06), Shadows (3:22)
Dutch outfit Asrai were formed back in 1988 yet are hardly workaholics – this is only their second album. The first, As Voices Speak was released back in 1997, and I’d be very surprised if every waking hour during the last seven years had been spent working on this new effort, as whilst A Touch In The Dark is competent and reasonably entertaining, its neither groundbreaking nor a stellar release in its genre.
Asrai could certainly be labelled ‘goth metal’, although the comparisons (bandied around by the bands label in the promo material) with the likes of Within Temptation and (label mates) After Forever is rather misleading – if you’re expecting choirs, classical bombast, soprano vocals, ‘grunts and screams’, and the whole progressive-symphonic shebang, you’ll be disappointed. To me, Asrai represent Transmission’s attempt at breaking into the Evanessence market’, as they certainly have some similarities with that band, although equally the music at times reminds me of Vision Thing-era Sisters Of Mercy, and of late 90’s Paradise Lost. Understated, ‘haunting’ synths form the backdrop to layers of sharp guitar riffs, over which are Margaret Mol’s vocals; she has a pretty strong voice, slightly reminiscent of a less histrionic Toyah, and can certainly belt out the big choruses when called for.
A Touch In The Dark starts pretty strongly; both In Front Of Me and Pale Light are obvious single choices, boasting a strong groove, good riffs and decent choruses, whilst Whisper shows the band are able to slow it down and up the ‘dark and brooding’ ante to good effect. Things soon start to slip, however, with Asrai’s limited range of ideas being exposed as they start treading out the same basic formula to diminished effect – the mid-section of the album in particular drags. In addition, many of the tracks simply go on beyond their natural length – Asrai don’t go in for solo’s or extended instrumental sections, and most songs only have a simple structure, which is basically repeated just (as far as I’m concerned) to stretch things out a bit. Things do pick up intermittently; Dream thankfully ups the tempo and is all the better for being more concise and direct, whilst Garden is a strong track which features one of Margaret Mol’s best vocal performances, with good use of harmony vocals on the chorus.
Ultimately, this is a fairly enjoyable listen, just nothing overly special. The album does however sound very good – the riffs are sharp, vocals well-pitched and the overall sound nice and thick (with the likes of Sascha Paeth involved, you’d expect nothing less) – which probably helps elevate even the more non-descript songs. Fans of goth rock/metal will probably find stuff to enjoy here, provided they don’t set their expectations too high.
Following the success of Dutch bands like Within Temptation, The Gathering, After Forever and Epica, Asrai also wants a piece of the cake. Asrai has already existed since 1988 and they very quickly earned an excellent reputation thanks to radio sessions and numerous live gigs. However their debut album As Voices Speak was not released until 1997. The album got great reviews and in the following years the band concentrated on getting the best line-up together. The band now consists of Margriet Mol (vocals), Rik Janssen (guitar), Manon Van Der Hidde (synthesizer, violin), Martin Kooy (bass guitar) and Karin Mol (drums).
Asrai’s grunt-free emotional, melodic metal is composed of spherical and emotional elements with modern samples. I would describe their music as passionate rock between gothic and metal and musically not as interesting as a band like eg After Forever. What bothers me most is the fact that Asrai sounds like a complete Lacuna Coil rip-off, and therefore their originality is at stake ... Furthermore because of the lack of instrumental passages the album tends to get boring after five or six songs. Do not get me wrong, the vocals on this album are superb, the wide range of vocals is fragile, sometimes frightening, but always razor-sharp. The melodies of the songs are mostly melancholic and/or romantic and the choruses of the songs are most of the time even “catchy”.
Pale Light, which will be released as the first single, reminds me of female singers like Kate Bush or Sinead O’Connor, really “dreamy” stuff. Tower, the longest track, is a nice ballad, while Dream has a tendency to sound rather sad because of the violin parts. The most aggressive song is probably Child, which features some “heavy” guitar riffs. Fortunately there are no grunts on this album and Margriet’s vocals are really splendid, but the whole album reminds me too much of that Italian band I mentioned before, and that is a real shame. My advice for Asrai is to create a style of their own and not become the second Lacuna Coil!
Asrai has existed in a number of line-ups, a description of each one of them can be found at their web site, which includes when and why people have left and makes a very informative and entertaining read. From the web site you can read also that Asrai started of as an all girl band and did their utmost best to stay that way for as long as possible. They did not exactly succeed in that because at present time Asrai line-up is: Margriet Mol (vocals), Rik Janssen (guitar), Manon van der Hidde (synths & violin), Martin Rooy (bass guitar and backing vocals) and Karin Mol (drums).
Asrai's music is what in Dutch, translated into English, is called 'A feast of recognition'. Next to a number of recognisable references there's one really strong reference: Lacuna Coil. However this term reference is a little weak and perhaps the word 'copy' would be a better description. Magriet Mol's voice has a part in this but moreover the way the keyboards are used and the guitars are pumping the beat. In Front Of Me, Pale Light and Restless are the most obvious examples to my Lacuna Coil claim, and as a reference does not make this a bad album, Lacuna Coil is a good band to immitate and furthermore it is not like this whole CD is a in the same vein. Added to that Pale Light is one of my favourite tracks of this album and when all these add up, it tips the scale to create a positive impression.
This album is full of catchy tracks and Transmission's claim that 2004 will be Asrai's year might very well be true. Released in Europe, the America's and Asia at the same time gives it enough exposure. If only a number of radio stations pick it up this might be a star band in the making, however to DPRP readers this may not be a recommendation, not much of the music we really like ends up in the charts. The fact that Asrai does have this potential also uncovers another feature of their music: it is a bit too straight forward and simple.
In concluding this self-contradicting review - good or bad - I would have to say that it is not a new classic masterpiece, that I know for sure, but the good vocals, synths, pumping guitars, and rhythm section are too good to discard it. It is not nothing really new or complicated but it is highly enjoyable.
Tracklist: Pale Light (3:47), Recall (6:10), Shadows (3:10), Touch in the Dark (5:05)
If the cover of a CD-single would make people decide to buy it then Asrai have done a good job. A bit different from the album cover but still very recognisable - I like it a lot.
Four tracks on a CD-Single is somewhat standard and beside the actual single, adding something new (unreleased tracks) and something old (album track) is also. Pale Light is a shortened version of the same track that appears on the album and I think it makes a fine single that serves as a good example for the album, so a pretty good first choice. Recall is a previously unreleased track, that in my opinion should have been on the album! What a good track this is, perfect build-up mixing powerful and mellow. The acoustic version of Shadows (a track also on the album) is also very good and finally a Touch In The Dark remains unaltered from the album version.
The video to this single is a bit strange as there are no clean shots of the band in it at all - very stylish and weird. The video is completely changed into images with a limited number of colors. Have a look here to see what I mean. This effect is nice but in my opinion shouldn't have been used for the complete video. I would have liked to see the band in a normal close up. To sum it up, nice effect, nice idea but I am not a big fan of this video. The effect has been taken a bit too far.
Listening to this CD-single made me wonder if I should not up my album rating a notch especially because the acoustic version of Shadows show the band is capable of much more than what they have shown on the CD, but being capable of more and doing it are two separate things. In conclusion this is a worthy release, however, bear in mind that my rating for it concerns a CD-single and it cannot be compared to album ratings.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10