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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it may be argued that its artistic value has even dropped considerably in time, until most of it has become socially outdated.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.