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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 The full, lush orchestral arrangements have been replaced by proggy keyboard leads and symphonic enhancements that no longer sound so much symphonic as they do synthetic.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.