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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.