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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.