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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"