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Without much introduction, After Forever's third full length is one of the most overrated albums of the whole symphonic metal genre, as well as the last decade. Despite the almost unanimous praise it seems to have received in time, and most of After Forever die-hard fans calling it a masterpiece, it is far from being the top of either its genre of After Forever's discography. Due to its lyrical content, it may be argued that its artistic value has even dropped considerably in time, until most of it has become socially outdated.
Firstly, we must consider that Invisible Circles is a concept album, which places a particular emphasis on its themes and lyrics. This alone is enough for it to be mercilessly panned, as the concept, the tragic impact of a dysfunctional family on a child's growth, is very poorly developed. The superficial, simplistic approach of Floor Jansen's lyrics to a series of very complex social problems and phenomena end up in a mishmash of shallowly depicted marital problems, forlorn childhood, escapism through the internet community, ambient influence on a person's character and so on, that make up an overly tragic story that's supposed to awaken the listener's conscience (to help any known broken families and their children? To responsibly avoid parentage when the circumstances are against it? To try and break free from one of these "invisible circles" if somebody founds himself in such a situation? The pretentious "didactic" intent is there, but not at all clear). In fact, it even fails to prompt empathy for any of the characters, let alone be thought-provoking.
These stereotypical situations make the whole story sounds more like a farce (if not a badly written soap opera). Several ideas are repeated over again throughout the songs, but without any new point added to them, which makes the whole thing redundant. Further redundancy is added by the spoken dialogues, overly dramatic and badly acted (her "mother" role is possibly Amanda Somerville's worst performance recorded on a cd and it's far better than Jay Lansford's as the "father" anyways).
Floor Jansen's naivety and lack of a deep understanding or adequate research about the matter is shown over again throughout the weakly built narration, which sounds absurd at times: for one thing, no woman would discuss a pregnancy while in a difficult relationship as a means to win her man's love back; for another, working mothers do exist, so the bitterness of the mother is exaggerated. Then we have Digital Deceit, which is one of the silliest songs ever written about the internet, and the assumption that any human contact born on the web is necessarily fake is perhaps the shallowest commonplace available about the subject. It is forgivable as it was written in the early 2000's, but as of 2013 it sounds ridiculous and is a primary example of how the value of the album has dropped in time and is now socially outdated. The child's paranoid, "I am the poor victim forever and ever" attitude is just as exaggerated, most notably in the three final songs. Personally, if I had had a difficult childhood, were a single mother struggling to work and raise my child, or were to find myself in any of the situations depicted, I would feel very offended by the shallowness of the stereotypes presented in this concept.
So, with the concept of the concept album being so weak, does the music do any good to the general situation? Well, no. While the split between After Forever and Mark Jansen was clearly good for both parts and the stuff is overall more enjoyable than the first two After Forever records (with a much better vocal performance by Floor Jansen), the melodies still suffer from an overdone songwriting and even more garish arrangements, which is worsened by the progressive insertions in the already redundant symphonic texture. The mixture is still immature and sounds chaotic and aimless at times.
The vocal performances are quite okay (despite Jansen's failure at effectively separating the "mother" and "child" characters with different singing styles) and so are the guitars, but the keyboards are so garish they sound like a parody at times, adding to the farce-like mood of the work. Indeed, Lando van Gils' departure and Joost van der Broek's arrival is what made the two subsequent album's quality adamant, possibly the best thing that ever happened to the band. Unfortunately, such times were yet to come as of Invisible Circles.
So, what is it that makes so many people call this album a masterpiece? Well, this is a really good question. Most likely, the oh-so-touching and controversial concept was enough for fans to openly embrace it no matter what (it would have seemed rude, insensitive and politically incorrect not to like an album about poor mistreated children, wouldn't it?), which provided the foundation for the myth that grew around this album. At the time it might have been acceptable, bus compared to what both After Forever and other bands in the genre have released aftermaths, this album can nowadays be called a mediocre work per se – if I were to recommend, or listen to, a good After Forever album I would pick either Remagine or their eponymous last effort – and a totally failed concept album. Many albums can survive the test of time and still be a masterpiece even after decades, even when their lyrical content is somehow "outdated": Invisible Circles is not one of those.
After the departure of main composer and songwriter Mark Jansen, After Forever had to endure somewhat of a stale writing period where the band had to find direction and a creative vein to replace the one that had been lost. The Exordium EP released the year before showed a newfound appetence for simpler more direct songs, more versed in rock structures and catchy choruses than on heavily layered symphonic arrangements and film score atmosphere. This was the dawn of a new age for the Dutch collective and it was under that premise that their third album, the first without Mark at the helm, was released back in 2004. The attempt to come back with a new and different full-length effort led the band’s members to pour many different ideas onto the table, with the creative brainstorm’s result being a heavily layered concept album with everything from piano ballads, to violent grunted pieces of extreme symphonic music, to even clean singing sections and sampled dialogues correspondent to the people in the storyline.
Storyline this which was, and still is, up to date with the current times where many times career choices and individuality take so much precedence over everything else, even over nuclear matters such as family, pregnancy or just plain common sense. I quite enjoy the concept they unfolded for this album, although it may strike too simplistic and down to earth for many who try to catch up with it. Bear in mind that this isn’t a complicated concept album in the vein of progressive metal acts, but rather a simple story of the easiness of life’s derailment and all the pain adjacent to those events. This may strike as personal to many and mainstream appealing to many more, but the fact is that this is a mature and pertinent idea and more so a factual event that takes place more often than we would like to think it does.
The small intro shows sounds of a children’s playground, signaling a sort of flashback into the pains of yore, and it’s with the first song that the concept begins to unfold. “Beautiful Emptiness” enters the stage and its bombastic opening brings along Floor’s powerful voice, ladened by a fuzzy guitar tone that is quite uncharacteristic of them. The song revolves around a mid-tempo riff played with this weird distortion on the guitar and soothing piano passages, with the grunts complimenting the theatrical approach given to the lyrical content. The progression by the third minute with the vocal lead is quite enthralling in its delivery and we see a slight return to some of the rhythms found in Decipher, although if you blink you’ll miss them. The following, “Between Love And Fire”, continues telling the story of this young ambitious couple, and we witness the first duet between Floor’s high notes and Bas Maas clean singing. Also present in this song is the first of several sampled dialogues scattered through the entire album, showing the characters as more than simple bits of the lyric sheet and instead transposing them to the music and showing them directly to the listener. The duality of vocals is now more than beauty meets beast, instead it goes from Floor’s enticing tone to Sander Gommans gruesome grunts and into Bas cleans, which are a very welcomed addition to the mix.
The theatrical approach given to this concept album makes way for this type of chronological storytelling, with each song displaying a different timeline and part of the complete tale of this doomed kid. “Sins Of Idealism” is a frantic and fast-paced piece of adolescent rage against the wrongdoings undergone by the parental lash, showing some of the best riffing material on this album, and finally using the symphonic elements and choirs effectively. This theatrical and chronological approach, while being one of the main attractive points of the album, is also sadly one of its pitfalls. The piano ballad, “Eccentric”, is so Tori Amos in its bleak and sad reproach that it ends up feeling out of place. It fades into “Digital Deceit”, which tries to avert it with a pompous build-up into a climaxing chorus of beauty fading away. All songs are directly connected to the time and story lines, and each of it has a different compositional approach given the subject they cover. Some like “Through Square Eyes” and “Blind Pain” deal with the mutual infliction of pain and are aggressive pieces that intend on transpiring those feelings, while others like “Reflections” and “Life’s Vortex” are a looking back and pondering on the past events, seeing them running in flashback in front of your eyes once again.
It’s hard, if not blatantly impossible, to listen to this album and disassociating it from its concept and storytelling, considering how enrooted it is in the music’s presentation. Every songs tries to transpire a different time and feeling, every bit is a significant part of a whole that continuously reveals itself and the individual parts end up not working alone, at all. This is an album that if not listened to as whole simply doesn’t function and is castrated of its ability to tell a story, not only through the lyrics but also through the music itself. It’s an extremely moody album that will hardly appeal to anyone on an everyday basis, best being reserved for the times when you need something a bit less straightforward and more thought-provoking, more intimate and less immediate. Nevertheless it doesn’t manage to evade the trappings of being such an ambitious work every time, and there are points where the theatrics clearly transcend the musical output, hindering what is the most important part of any musical work, the music itself.
This isn’t the quintessential After Forever album, nor is it the most impressive concept album ever, but it also doesn’t fall into the other side of the spectrum by being an over the top or even pretentious attempt on something great. It lies somewhere in a middle ground where it is clearly an attempt at a complex idea that works most of the time, but ends up lacking on some points. And as I said above, given the sensitive nature of its concept it isn’t something you’ll be able to enjoy every day, as this story feels all too real and feasible to be experienced firsthand on a daily basis. It does have enough musical value to warrant a decent amount of exposure, and shows that after the departure of Mark Jansen After Forever still managed to make something great, albeit in very a different way from before.
After Forever's third release, Invisible Circles, was the first album I bought from the band. As soon as I heard that it was a concept album, I could not hold back, despite the far from perfect reviews I had read about it. My first impression was one of surprise; the album had great production, exciting contrasts, interesting songs, catchy melodies, brilliant vocals from both parties...
The strength of Floor Jansen's voice is one not often heard in metal, or even female-fronted metal music, as populated as that genre has become. Her notes soar majestically over the music (which is heavy, dynamic metal, contrary to the majority of similar bands), with power and emotion. Her voice isn't exactly what you would call "angelic" or "delicate", but strong and beautiful. It is truly awe-inspiring, and you'll find yourself marveling over it throughout the whole album.
After Forever also makes use of an excellent harsh vocalist, Sander Gommans, who is given a fair share of "air time". For the most part, female-fronted Gothic/Power metal bands steer clear of harsh vocalists, or only give them a verse once in every 4 songs. Fortunately, that is not the case here. Gommans does nothing but strengthen this album. His grunts are top-notch and distinctive, outshining the majority of the some thousand growlers out there. He has a great clear(-ish) tone, and every line is executed perfectly. Even when dueling beside the amazing Floor, he still delivers. Great job on his part.
The musicians play solid music. For the most part, it seems a bit pushed into the background by the outstanding vocals. And with a vocalist of this caliber, that could be expected. However, it certainly is much more prevalent than the majority of female-fronted metal bands. The guitars are strong and heavy and a playing more original and melodic riffs than, say, Nightwish or Within Temptation. Also, while there are keyboards, the guitars are definitely the leading instrument here.
The songs are well-written, creative, and memorable. They do not blend together and they do not get boring. There are choruses, riffs, ballads, and highlights, even some low-lights (but that makes it more exciting...). Although there is no particular song that blatantly stands above the rest, there are more than a couple songs you'll want to replay over and over. They all sound good, which is really what matters most. However, they are not perfect.
Unfortunately, the part of the album I was most anxious to hear was the part I was most disappointed in. The Concept. Sure, they have a right to write about whatever they feel, but I believe that the majority of metal-heads do not want to hear about a little girls' social problems. For the most part, the album is great to listen to despite the awkward lyrical theme, although sometimes...it can get a bit annoying...
For example, the arguing couple. Is there anyone who doesn't fast-forward through that part? I have listened to this album probably twenty times through now, but only listened to the couple's parts once or twice. It just doesn't fit with the brilliant music. Sorry.
It does seem fitting that, after years of lesser bands ripping them off, After Forever went out with a bang just as darker and grittier Gothic Metal outfits are having a renaissance. With female-fronted metal bands beginning to go out of vogue, and After Forever having split up at the beginning of the year, it seems an appropriate time to do a retrospective on some of the band's material. As the third of five albums, and the band's sole concept album, Invisible Circles is something of a centre-piece in a highly regarded and consistent body of work from a band that will be sorely missed on the scene.
Having had a thorough workout on the EP Exordium, Floor Jansen's legendary pipes are on full form here, and with Mark Jansen having departed (along with his elaborate compositions) she dominates simpler but no less sophisticated songs that allow her to shine as a vocalist. A chest-pounding moment on 'Between Love and Fire' sees her yelling alongside both Sander Gommans' growls and Bas Maas' crooning, and Floor still completely steals centre-stage. Her most stirring performance here is on the ballad 'Eccentric.' Ballads on Gothic Metal albums have always been a tricky area, with a lot of bands phoning in obligatory piano-based cop-outs, but 'Eccentric' is a classic, not just to the genre but simply as a piece of music. Floor's sensitive vocals tread the subject material of a bullied girl with class and sincerity, while the build-up of a panicked violin motif leading into the next song is a stroke of genius. It really makes the ballad feel like an integrated part of the album's musical and lyrical concept, rather than an obligation on the band's part.
Much like the preceding EP, the sound of After Forever here is filled out, more powerful and hard-hitting than Prison of Desire or Decipher and catchier than both, but less straightforward than the two LPs which would follow: Remagine and After Forever. Tracks like 'Victim of Choices' sound truly enormous in all their heavy choral glory, and when he takes up the microphone for 'Blind Pain', Sander Gommans provides the aggression Mark Jansen never quite did. The diversity of the album is unbelievable: the penultimate song 'Reflections' provides a Gothic Metal fan's wet dream with duelling guitar and violin solos, followed by spot-on crooning from Bas Maas and THEN heavy chugging aided by Gommans' throaty roar. You won't be skipping around on this album; you may even find yourself annoyed, at first, that no one song stands out on a first listen. This album demands more patience than the band's previous efforts, and without Mark Jansen's pseudo-Hans Zimmer meanderings things become a lot more rewarding once you get to grips with the music here. Every time you listen, a riff, a vocal arrangement or some other little touch sticks out, or you suddenly realize how a certain song gels together when previously you thought it was a random collection of ideas.
The guitars adopt a heavier sound, forsaking the edgy and at times tinny sound of Mark Jansen-era After Forever. Melodic leads are backed by gurgling basslines and tasteful keyboards that occupy the space eventually filled by an orchestra on the band's 2007 album. While Andre Borgman is no Cozy, he puts in a strong performance on the drums and was ready to really come into his own on the followup.
The lyrics themselves deal with social issues where previously fantasy and anti-religious indignation had hold; while the band moves away from genre-typical lyrics a more Power Metal sound is adopted, reinforcing the link to the many Progressive-Power Metal outfits so fond of concept albums.
What made the album so special, in retrospect, is that it showed the band proving to their audience that even without gothic visionary Mark Jansen (who had undoubtably surpassed himself recently with Epica's brilliant debut) that they could perfect the formula from previous works while adapting it to a more direct and heavier Power Metal approach. Following this, Remagine saw a completely different side to the band, making Invisible Circles the first of the band's trilogy of extremely diverse and satisfying albums without Mark Jansen.
Is it their best album? Many will still claim Decipher to be their greatest achievement, and nobody can blame those people. Others might very well say the self-titled swansong album represents the culmination of everything the band had created and could hope to create. Invisible Circles however demands more of your time, more patience than any other After Forever album, and may well therefore be the most rewarding. As a first album after Mark Jansen's departure the band bravely decided to create a challenging, layered work. Whether there will even be bands like this in ten years, and what they will be like, I don't know, but I can guarantee you will return to this masterpiece throughout your life.
Did you really think that the band needs Mark Jansen to create powerful, emotional and perfect music? You’ll find the answer (which, by the way, is no) in their third full-length album; "Invisible Circles". I have to admit that "Decipher" was absolutely stunning, but "Invisible Circles" is even better. "Exordium" showed us that After Forever can be great even with a completely new sound, and it was confirmed with the release of this masterpiece.
"Invisible Circles" deals with a simple, yet effective concept. This concept was thought of by the band’s guitarist and harsh vocalist Sander Gommans, while the lyrics were written by the female vocalist Floor Jansen. The whole concept is about a girl who was unwanted by her parents because she was born by accident while they were still very young. They only cared about having a successful future, not the nurturing of a child. Because of that, the girl had a very tough childhood, ignored by her parents and having only her computer as a friend. Even when she becomes an adult, she kept on feeling the pain of the negligence and apathy that her parents showed her. Each song tells a different part of the story, and a different side of her pain.
Musically, "Invisible Circles" goes very well with the concept. Just like the girl’s inner feelings, the music is aggressive and rebellious. Songs are much heavier than their previous two releases. The emphasis here is mostly on guitars, unlike "Decipher" were the strings dominated most of the album. The string section is also present on "Invisible Circles" (in every track, actually), but it doesn’t appear as often as it used to. However, to keep the same tradition, some songs still carry the same Arabic atmosphere that was always present in their previous albums (although it’s only very clear on one track). Well, overall, the musicianship on "Invisible Circles" is flawless. However, due to the complexity of the music, this album won’t captivate you from the first listen. It just requires a few extra listens to be able to appreciate completely.
Now, let’s move on to the vocals. Over here we find three vocal types (unlike the two present on "Decipher"). These are female vocals, grunts and clean male vocals. Female vocals, beautifully done by the multi-talented Floor Jansen, appear the most. That’s definitely an upside; given that Floor has one of the most beautiful vocals on the planet. As for grunts, we have Sander Gommans. His growls aren’t as annoying as most harsh vocalists out there. In fact, I enjoy Sander’s voice as much as I enjoy Floor’s. Last but not least, we have Bas Maas, the clean male vocalist (which is a new vocal type for After Forever). He adds certain seriousness to the three songs he appears in. His voice, if I analyzed the lyrics correctly, represents reason and rationality, and not the same anger and rebellion like the other two. To top it all, we have the addition of the choir. They’re not the usual pleasant-sounding choir that you find in a lot of gothic metal bands. In fact, the choir on “Invisible Circles” is very disharmonious and tends to add to the darkness of tracks instead of reducing it. Just like the music, vocals are flawless and couldn’t have been done better.
So, let's see the reasons why people don't like this album. The most common one is the fact that two songs contain a short conversation between the mother and the father ("Between Love and Fire" and "Blind Pain"). Now, I find this as an excuse not to like this album, and not a reason. I timed these conversations and they only take up 2 minutes and 40 seconds out of the whole album, which is almost an hour long. If you do the math (which I also did), they’re actually less than one twentieth of the album (which is quite a small amount to say you hate it because of them). Personally, I wasn’t very fond of these conversations, but they grew on me with the rest of the album. They help the concept to be more realistic and to show us the true suffering that the child had undergone.
The second reason, which is pretty narrow-minded in my opinion, is the fact that this sounds nothing like "Decipher" or "Prison of Desire". Now, just in case you didn’t know, I’d like to explain a basic band fact; the composer determines the sound of an album. So, if Mark Jansen was the composer and he wasn’t present in the recording of "Invisible Circles", it’s pretty damn obvious that it won’t have the same sound as the albums he was present in. It’s ok if you like "Decipher" (since everyone’s got different tastes), but you cannot say this is a weak album just because it’s different from it. I personally find them both to be high quality albums, despite the dissimilarities between them.
I don’t usually describe each track individually, but "Invisible Circles" is just too tempting. It contains twelve unique and beautiful tracks that must be described one by one.
"Childhood in Minor" is a short instrumental track, unlike anything the band has ever done. It’s not the same chamber piece that was present in their first two albums, nor is it a regular instrumental like on "Exordium". Instead, here we have a very eerie, atmospheric track. When you hear it, you’ll picture yourself in a playground with kids playing around in slow motion. However, you can feel a slightly malevolent atmosphere, like you know that there’s something wrong. At the last few seconds, the song keeps getting heavier until in explodes into the next track (it’s one of the best moments on the album). This short track gives me shivers every time I hear it. Even though it’s an instrumental, it’s a clear highlight.
The album then moves on without a single pause to "Beautiful Emptiness"; my favorite song from the entire album. It starts with aggressive choirs, followed by Floor’s passionate singing. From then on, it keeps on changing speed (it slows down slightly during the chorus). This song is filled with growls, heavy guitars and violins. On the fourth minute mark, there is some great choir work, along with very emotional singing coming from Floor. This song contains everything it needs to be the absolute highlight of this album. However, this song isn’t exactly a part of the story. In fact, it’s like a summary of what the child’s anger (the actual story begins from the third track).
In "Between Love and Fire" we meet the parents who don’t want the baby. Instead, they’re only interested in their career. This song is a debate between the mother and father (Floor and Sander) on whether or not they should keep the unborn child. In this track we’re introduced to Bas’ voice, along with the first conversation. "Between Love and Fire" is an obvious highlight provided that it’s the foundation of the whole concept and contains one of the catchiest choruses on the whole album.
The song then blends into "Sins of Idealism". It starts with choirs chanting in the background (which appears throughout the track), then Floor playing both the mother and the daughter, which is what makes this track unique. Floor sings the daughter’s lines in the same voice as she uses throughout the album, but she sings the mother’s lines in an operatic voice. After that, we have the father (Sander) and, again, the choirs. This song shows the child being blamed for her parents’ loss of freedom.
The album moves to the softest song in the album; "Eccentric". This features only a piano and Floor, which fits perfectly since the song shows the child feeling lonely and left out. She feels different than everyone, and she’s asking herself what’s so different about her. It’s a very beautiful, relaxing track with a surprisingly catchy chorus.
The single "Digital Deceit" is next; starting with some of the best violin work on the entire album. This is only sung by Floor, along with a few choirs towards the middle. Just like "Eccentric", we have the girl on her own. This time, she’s turning to her only friend in life; the computer (hence the title). She looks at the computer as the "secret place of light". It is the song in which violins stand out the most, which makes it an album highlight.
"Through Square Eyes" opens with a beautiful Arabic melody produced by strings (one of the best intros I’ve ever heard). It’s a duet between Sander and Floor. It slows in the middle, where we hear a lot of acoustic guitars. On the 3:37 mark, the song explodes and we hear Floor keep a beautiful note for 7 seconds. At the 4:38 mark, we hear the choirs singing, accompanied by the same amazing strings that made the intro (one of the best moments of the album). Here we see the girl trying turning to the television to suppress her solitude. This song is without doubt a highlight, especially if you enjoy vocal contrasts.
"Blind Pain" opens with the choir chanting in the background, which is heard throughout the song. This is a very angry song. In fact, to increase the aggression, it’s mostly Sander who sings. The chorus (which is the only part sung by Floor) is very catchy and sticks in your head for hours. This song shows the girl getting physically abused by her father. At the end, we are presented with another conversation like the one on "Between Love and Fire", but this time it’s a fight between the parents because their relationship is dead. If you listen well, you can hear the child breathing at the background, which shows that she was exposed to these fights when she was young, along with the vulgar language that her parents constantly use.
"Two Sides" has a sound that’s quite similar to the one on their 2005 album "Remagine". It starts with typical power metal keyboards, after which we hear Floor. She is then joined by Sander and even, for the second time, Bas. Just like the title implies, this song talks about the fact that the child is torn between two sides. "Two Sides" contains another killer chorus that you’ll start singing without noticing.
"Victim of Choices" is a very interesting song. It talks about the mother of the child’s father (the child’s grandma), who visits them (which is why you hear a doorbell ring in the beginning). Unlike her parents, her grandmother knows that the child isn’t being brought up as she should be (since she made similar mistakes with her son). The grandmother’s role is played by the choirs; the father’s role is taken by Sander, while Floor is the girl observing their conversation. The great choir involvement makes "Victim of Choices" one of my personal favorite tracks on the album.
After such a bombast track, we have "Reflections". It starts off slow, then gets heavier in the chorus (which is very memorable). This song is the perfect summary since it’s slow in some places and fast in others. It also contains some similar riffs that were present in the previous songs. One which I noticed was the melody in "Two Sides" just before Floor yells "Can you tell?". It also summarizes the album perfectly because we get to hear all three vocalists together for the last time, along with the choirs. Lyrically, this track is like its title, where the child (now a woman) is reflecting on her past. It’s a very beautiful track which takes a few extra listens to get into. I especially love the music at the end of the song. I would consider "Reflections" as a highlight.
"Life’s Vortex" shows the protagonist still feeling the pain of her childhood. She knows that her past will always torment her, however, she knows that her children will be treated a lot better than she was. It ends the album on quite a positive note and shows the optimistic nature that the woman has now (unlike when she was a girl). "Life’s Vortex" is mostly sung by Floor, with a few choirs. It has the catchiest chorus, and it’s an obvious highlight.
In conclusion, "Invisible Circles" is the best After Forever album to date (I’ve also heard a few tracks off their latest self-titled album, but they weren’t as good as this). It has everything; a cool concept, flawless vocals, music variety and a sad atmosphere that goes perfectly with the story. If you appreciate good music, you will definitely like this. However, give it a chance, and don’t reject it before even listening to it. It’s simply perfect. I couldn’t ask for anything else from an album.
"So for those who believe in this life
spin right on the circle-must be round
Every turn has its vortex, you'll drown if nobody warns you
and shows you another circle of life"
Sometimes, I find myself wondering why ex-guitarist and primary composer Mark Jansen departed After Forever to form Epica... and then I listen to Invisible Circles. In the three years since AF's ear-opening album, Decipher, the band has seemingly decided that their flawless approach was in need of some renovation.
The music on Invisible Circles has, at the same time, the most aggressive songcraft ("Blind Pain") and the most watered down balladry ("Eccentric") seen on an After Forever album to date. The full, lush orchestral arrangements have been replaced by proggy keyboard leads and symphonic enhancements that no longer sound so much symphonic as they do synthetic. The guitars have developed a definite sense of crunch and an attitude of progressiveness that sees them exploring some rather elaborate arrangements and halfway interesting riffing patterns, acoustic segments, and leads... halfway interesting because a lot of it sounds forced, like they tried too hard and only half-way succeeded. Andre Borgman's drumming has moved in a similar direction, once again acting as a breath of fresh area in a genre saturated with predictable and trite percussion. Floor is... Floor. However, there's something about Floor on this album that doesn't really sit right with me. I have immense trouble saying or writing anything negative about her talents, but throughout this album her voice sounds sort of strained. Maybe it has something to do with her delivery - much more immediacy, drive, and power that seems almost forced; not quite as pure and angelic. Perhaps I'm just being nitpicky... she still blows here peers out of the water with extreme prejudice. With the departure of Mark Jansen, growling and snarling duties have been taken over by guitarist Sander Grommans, and while the vocals themselves aren't bad, they seem dreadfully out of place at times... not really complementing Floor so much as just taking up valuable space.
The album starts off promisingly with "Childhood in Minor", which evokes images of children playing in a carousel. Not just any carousel though, but a carousel that's under the watchful eye of some sinister, invisible entity. This subtly menacing mood rolls over into "Beautiful Emptiness", which sees Floor reaching for the heavens (hah, no pun intended) straight off the bat, but quickly abandons that and meanders through driving metal, piano-led serenity, and one or two instrumental evolutions before reaching "Between Love and Fire"...
...and here, my friends, is where the true horror of Invisible Circles is revealed to the audience.
Around three minutes into the song, the band drops out and spoken dialogue ensues between two individuals - a male and a female arguing and yelling about various broken-home related things. It becomes apparent that this is a concept album. A concept album about a girl growing up in a home full of discontent. A girl unloved and unwanted by her father. A girl growing up in confusion as she's trying to figure out how everything went so horribly wrong. In other words, an extremely cliché concept. The male and female mentioned above are the father and the mother in this melodramatic soap opera. Now, the concept itself isn't really the problem - the problem is with the actual delivery. This act (and all that follow) is so horrendously pathetic that I would actually feel embarrassed should anybody ever catch me listening to this album in public. Honestly, I'm afraid to recommend this album to anybody I know in real life because of those interludes. They are awful.
Of course, those spoken interludes make up an almost insignificant portion of the album's running time, and are mostly placed at the end of a given song so that they become easy to skip and erase from your mind - permanently.
Ironically, the part of this album that really floors me also makes up an insignificant portion of its running time. The part in question lasts for approximately two seconds and comes in at roughly 1:15 (and again at roughly 1:22, for a total of four seconds of music) into "Two Sides". It is Floor Jansen singing a particular line in harmony with herself, but the way the vocal lines are layered and her absolutely godly delivery is just so fucking incredible that it makes me want to lay down and die peacefully... and the effect is multiplied ten-fold through headphones. As silly as it might seem to buy a 59+ minute album just to drool over four seconds of it, I think I can safely say that I would do it with Invisible Circles. Label me daft. I care not!
Another standout moment is in "Sins of Idealism". Floor's vocals throughout the last minute or so of this song are totally reminiscent of past glory.
So... basically, just skip through the inane acting portions. The rest is still good After Forever material.
Well, I'm not saying nothing new considering AFTER FOREVER before and post Mark Jansen as two completely different bands. The highly melodic pseudo-operatic stuff this band is making today has little to do with the obscure and bloodchilling "Prison Of Desire" and "Decipher" albums, and the new direction taken is actually closer to the Power Metal scene rather than to the so-called "Gothic" stuff in which they once highlighted.
Even considering how much I like Mark's era, I don't see this radical change in AFTER FOREVER's music as something bad. After the old mastermind left, it was the logical path to walk, and with the EP "Exordium" they demostrated that can still write awesome shit.
Let pass now to "Invisible Circles". Its first notable element is that it's a conceptual album, and that's exactly the first thing in which it fails. The story told about the tragic story of a girl with a dreadful relationship with her parents is no more than a cheap cliché, and you certainly need a stronger idea (and better lyricists) to write this kind of albums. And well, the worst is about to come now... to make the story more explicit, a few spoken dalogues were added, simbolizing fights between the girl's parents. They're just pathetic, an aweful pseudo-theatrical attempt that makes you feel a mix of shame and pity. The simple deed ok knowing that spoken shit is there, had prevented me to listen to "Invisible Circles" a lot of times.
Musically, this is not a highly inspired but a rather decent album. It's very subtle, without the bombast of most of its genre-mates. The overall rhythm is fast enough to keep you interestd all the time and songs are varied enough, although it has some ultra-mellow spices that fucks some of the enchantment. On the other hand, Floor's vocal performance is very convincing, athough by times she seems like trying to imitate Tarja Turunen with her vocal lines. Unfortunately the growling is weak and misplaced, and once again, it seems to be put artificially to make coherent the father's part on the story, instead of be made under purely musical purpose.
I would not recommend you to buy "Invisible Circles", having this band so much better material to offer. It still has some good songs, a kind of blissful ambient and a very nice melodic game, but everytime when you begin to think this could be actually a pretty decent album, come the spoken parts and fuck it all.
After Forever's 3rd full-length album, Invisible Circles, is one of my favorite albums of this past year. Fronted by the powerful voice of the beautiful Floor Jansen, AF have the unfair advantage over their symphonic metal competitors with such an amazing talent. Since the departure of main songwriter Mark Jansen, Sander Gommans has taken primary songwriting duties, and has done an excellent job. The guitar riffs are great in this record! Instead of following the vocals, the riffs take a path of their own, and are not drowned out easily by the synths. The keyboards are beautiful, adding an extra whole dimension to the music. Drumming and bass are both perfect, and easily audible.
The concept behind Invisible Circles involves a girl who is physically and emotionally abused at home and school. She keeps track of her life in a diary (whose pages can be read in the album booklet). Her only escape from reality is her computer, where she buries herself in the song "Digital Deceit". In the end, we are taken into the future, where she describes herself as a mother, neglecting her child as her parents did to her. She is trapped in an invisible circle.
The highlights of this record include "Between Love and Fire", a beautiful heavy track where Floor sings her heart out; "Eccentric", one of the most beautiful ballads this band has ever written, almost tearjerking; and personal favorite "Through Square Eyes", a headbanger in which Floor and Sander exchange vocal roles throughout the textured verses.
A couple weak songs deducts points, but when the album hits, it HITS. Whereas Lacuna Coil and Nightwish seem to be going through a downward spiral, After Forever remain at the head of their game. I give Invisible Circles a 9.8/10.
Hardly 4 months after the release of the mini cd "Exordium", and more than two years after their acclaimed "Decipher", After Forever returns with the third full length album. Well, as many of you should know, the mini cd was the first work of the band after the departure of the guitar player and main composer Mark Jansen (now in Epica). "Exordium" contained 4 new very good songs (besides 2 covers), that showed in After Forever still remained a lot of talent. So this new album was important to confirm (or not) that the new way taken by After Forever went along with the musical quality.
Time ago was already known that the album would be conceptual. The guitar player Sander Gommans had the idea, although all the lyrics have been written by Floor Jansen . The story is about the life of a young girl (14 years old at the beginning of the story) that doesn't receive support neither affection from her parents. They had her when they still were too young, they didn't want to have a baby and the pregnancy was accidental. More concerned about their jobs and of being successful in life, they didn't dedicate time to their daughter's education, so she was always alone, looking for an entertainment in computer games, internet and the television. The songs go counting the girl's experiences as well as the diverse and constant arguments that her parents have.
And what about the musical quality of the album?. Well, the result couldn’t be more spectacular. The composition shows the maturity of a band that had very clear ideas after Mark Jansen's departure. It shows a very big evolution if you compare it with their previous albums: the sound is much more heavy, guitars and bass are much more on the foreground, it’s very aggressive and, at the same time, much more complex, intricate and progressive in its structures, and less gothic and atmospheric. The aspect that still continues in their music is the presence of the beautiful arabic melodies. It’s an album to listen followed and in order, since it’s a concept album, the songs follow a logical order and several tracks are connected to each other. The connection between the lyrics and the music is more than achieved, something important for any conceptual work. This complexity makes that the first listens are difficult and it needs some time to capture all its magic, but believe me, it’s worthwhile.
In the vocals we also find novelties. The main one is the new vocal contribution of Bas Maas, the guitar player; his voice is clear, very nice and adds an interesting touch of variety to the music, participating in 3 songs. Sander’s grunts are more present than ever, aggressive, expressive and doing a perfect job. About Floor Jansen what to say... if she was already a great singer, her work on this album it’s simply awesome: more versatile than ever, powerful, emotional, and owner of some vocal melodies that only a goddess could compose and sing. I really think she’s currently the best female singer in metal. And lastly we have, the same as in their previous albums, a choir (bass, tenor, alto and soprano) that participates in most of the songs. The vocal variety is without a doubt another skill of this album.
About the production… it’s simply perfect. Everything is in their place, and although guitars and bass sound more powerful than ever, the participation of keyboards is abundant, generally accompanying to the guitar riffs. The same as in the previous albums, a string section of 5 members (2 violins, 1 viola and 2 cellos) collaborates in all the songs, adding some really inspired arrangements.
If you thought that you had already finished to read the review, now is time to comment every song one by one
The album begins with a brief track by way of introduction called "Childhood in Minor." A small jewel where we can hear very background the uproar of a group of children accompanied by the notes of something similar to a musical box, something very simple but that it’s able to create a dramatic and startling feeling. It connects directly with the following track, "Beautiful Emptiness", in which we can hear the great verses sung by Floor, with very dense and heavy riffs and an a doomy atmosphere, and a nice, mellow chorus. The second part of the song is very dynamic, full of vertiginous tempo changes, guitar riffs masterfully combined with keyboards and strings and Sander Gommans’ grunts giving the touch of aggressiveness. The lyrics constitutes the girl's reflection about the hate she feels to her parents for not providing her any affection.
Some acoustic guitars take charge of opening "Between Love and Fire", an impressive song with a great catchy chorus, Floor and Sander’s voices alternating in the verses, (interpreting the mother and the father respectively), excellent guitar melodies and a sublime part in which we can hear the voices of the 3 vocalists at the same time (Floor, Sander and Bas). In the middle of the song there’s a narrated fragment that represents the argument the parents had before the dilemma of having a baby.
Without pause it continues with "Sins of Idealism." This song reminds a little more of After Forever’s old style, with a great guitar riff, good keyboards and wonderful vocal melodies. It’s one of the few points in the album in which Floor sings with her operatic voice. It concludes with some beautiful arabic melodies. Here the main character of the story faces her parents, accusing them from the wrong treatment and the lack of affection to which they subject her.
"Eccentric" is a ballad sung with the only support of the piano for splendor of Floor that moves with her interpretation. The lyrics goes in this occasion on the girl's bad whiles in the school, where she’s also rejected by her companions and she feels alone. At the end go appearing the violins, cellos, etc to connect with the following track, "Digital Deceit", governed by a powerful mid-tempo riff and in which is spoken how the girl tries to escape to the reality spending the time in internet . It’s one of the few songs in which doesn’t appear grunts.
"Through Square Eyes" continues the thematic of the previous one, in this occasion with television instead of internet. Musically, it’s simply impressive. The string section, very present, plays arabic melodies creating an enormous drama. The verses are incredible, with Floor and Sander’s voices being superimposed to each other, creating a nice dynamic atmosphere. Without a doubt, and in spite of the fact that all the songs are great, this is one of the best tracks of the album, sublime.
"Blind Pain" contains progressive riffs and it’s the most aggressive song in the album, full of grunts, touches of black metal and a good chorus sung by Floor. The girl is already desperate since its father's hate has grew so much that he attacks her physically. At the end there’s a long spoken part in which the parents are arguing again about these matters.
Some very atypical keyboards in After Forever appear at the beginning of "Two Sides", again with a progressive touch. Bas Maas’ voice appears here for second time in the album, doing a nice performance on the part he sings. “Two Sides” connects directly with "Victim of Choices", the fastest song of the album, a bit in the vein of european power metal (only a bit, hehe), and in which the choirs take a big role. Here a new character enters to the story, the girl's grandmother, who tries to explain to the girl’s father (who is her son) the errors that he has committed with his daughter and, it seems to be, she also committed long time ago with him.
We already come closer at the end of the story, and the main character thinks about how her life has been so far. Musically, "Reflections", the same as its lyrics, summarizes in certain way the whole album, because we can hear on it some melodies that appear on previous songs (always slightly modified), like for example, the guitar melody of "Between Love and Fire" (here played by the strings) or the guitar solo (novelty in After Forever!), which it’s a variation of the vocal melody of "Sins of Idealism." This is the third and last song in which we can hear Bas’ voice.
"Life's Vortex" takes charge of closing the album. It has the perfect atmosphere and feeling to conclude the album, with a slower beginning and a faster second part in which there are great tempo changes. Again some melodies with Arab reminiscences appear, and also some very dense and heavy parts in the vein of doom metal. The fantastic and melancholic chorus serves of glorious conclusion to this great story. The lyrics constitutes a great jump in the time, the protagonist is already 24 years old, she has just been mother and she meditates about how was her childhood, and how that has marked her for the rest of her life.
Don’t forget the wonderful artwork of the album, in digibook format, with a beautiful booklet in which beside each song, we can read fragments of the diary that the girl went writing along her life. This is an album that has everything: originality, strenght, feeling, aggressiveness, delicacy, technique, variety and a really interesting conceptual story. In my modest opinion, this is the best metal album released since several years. Simply perfect in all its aspects. I think all people who likes good music should listen to it.
Dissapointing. That's an adequate one word review.. I'll elaborate.
I got into this band through Decipher, though I never really thought it was the greatest band or album ever, I really enjoyed Floor's vocals (my God, she sounds like an angel..), the whole Arabic atmosphere and the nifty riffs. Who cares that the album is not even near flawless, it's an enjoyable listen and that's all that matters. But that's Decipher, not Invisible Circles. I'll continue about this album now.
The frontman got kicked out and started a new band (Epica) and you can hear that. Not only did After Forever change their sound, the fire is gone, but you can hear they're still trying hard to make good music. Actually, that ironically causes the album's major weakness. They've tried so hard that it sounds forced. After Forever, face it, you can't turn led into gold, no matter how hard you try.
They've traded their somewhat arabic sound for a more modern one (though you can still hear violins and shit), with groovy, fast riffs and Floor's vocals are not as high as they were on Decipher, they're still very nice though. The grunts are nothing spectacular.. But then again, their grunts never have been. Oh wait, some tracks include shitty clear male vocals, I nearly forgot to mention that. The drums and bass are ok, I guess, but they haven't been attracting my attention. There are some nice background choirs, but that's nothing unusual. The production is crystal clear, which is not a good thing on this album. It just adds to the feeling of things being forced.
Something that really attracts the attention is the annoying presence of keyboards, bleeps and shit.. And don't forget the voice overs. My God, does this album have voice overs. I guess the only thing that's good about them is the fact that it's in fluent English... but the content of it is rather lame and they last way too fucking long. This is a concept album, but that is not an excuse, these voice overs last more than like two minutes combined.
Yes, it's a concept album. It's a rather lame concept at that. But to top it all off, the execution of the concept is horrible.
The story is about a little girl that gets abused by her parents, who happen to have a bad marriage. The girl also gets bullied at school and she is lonely, so she writes in a diary and seeks friends on the internet. When she's an adult, she realizes that she's doing the same things that her mother did, meaning that she found herself trapped in a cycle, which leads to the album title: Invisible Circles.
What I find so bad about the concept is that it just doesn't fit, metal music is nowhere near soft or weak and should not have themes revolving around weakness. I guess that's just me though.
Now the execution of the concept. The lyrics are written from the perspective of the little girl, which unfortunately leads to the type of lyrics you'd expect in a random nu-metal band. As if that weren't enough yet, the album 'booklet' (there's no jewel case, at least not with the limited edition that I've got, just a carton book type of thing) counts 10 diary pages (actually 11, but one page was printed twice.. I'm not kidding), hand written, in English, with countless spelling and grammar mistakes. The content is, once again, rather lame.
The artwork is actually not too bad.. till you get to the pictures.. The clothes chosen are horrible and so are the ridiculous poses. Lady and gentlemen, this is a metal band you're in. Remember....
All in all, the music's not too bad as background music. Some riffs are actually pretty cool, Floor's voice is gorgeous as always, the grunts are not too annoying and the violins and keyboards are nice at some times. However, Invisible Circles copes with the same issue that Decipher had: all of the songs sound the same, nothing sticks out. Moreover, those downsides that I mentioned ruin the overall experience. Conclusion: This is not overall suckage, but I recommend you try something else instead. Decipher is better..