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Be'lakor is nowadays a fairly known band among melodeath enthusiasts, like myself, thanks to a couple of amazing releases, 2009's Stone's Reach and what I consider to be on of the genre's finest gems of the last 10 years; 2012's Of Breath and Bone. But in 2007 these Australians were practically nobodies. I guess they had been playing some gigs in their Melbourne area in those formative years, until they finally launched their debut, The Frail Tide. This is a strange case of an album for me, since it already displays Be'lakor's well known traits; long songs with multiple sections that never try to sound “progressive” or display virtuosic playing, instead focusing in creating an emotional flowing of melodies and arrangements, chiaroscuro compositions that fluctuate between calm sections with piano and acoustics and more forceful, though never particularly heavy or aggressive, mid-paced melodic death metal. However, in this first material, the formula is a bit hit or miss.
There are only six songs here, but the album manages to break the 40-minute mark. Opener “Neither Shape nor Shadow”, over seven minutes in length, is a good example of the typical Be'lakor sound. It starts with a clean power metal-ish melody that advances mid-pace for a while, until some piano starts a different, slower and heavier section and then George Kosmas's blunt growls finally appear, so the song is transformed into their distinct melodic death metal. Pace is accelerated and decreased here and there, as different sets of riffs come and go. The use of acoustic guitars and especially piano is a constant in all songs of the debut, more so than on following albums. Therefore, Be'lakor's music might be accused of being “soft” for the hardened death metal fan, but it can hardly be called monotonous or predicable. One never knows what’s coming next in one tune. These guys always manage to hold one's attention throughout their entire compositions, and this is a forte that's even true here, in their flawed debut.
So what are these flaws? Well, for starters there's indeed too much piano here, even enough for open-minded metalheads to become a bit sick of it by the end of the record. There's even a six-minute all-piano tune, “Paths”, which could have been easily abridged into a third of its actual length. Steve Merry obviously knows how to use the keys, but this is just too much. He'll add more varied sounds and effects from his keyboards in future compositions. Also, on the rest of the songs, the rhythmic section is a bit too basic, another correction that would be made in the future works from the Australians. And finally, the production, while not bad, it’s not exactly crisp either. The guitars lack punch and so does the bass guitar, at times pretty difficult to notice. The riffing is ok and functional, and while stellar riffing has never been Be'lakor's main characteristic, it would be definitely improved, along with the finesse of the fluctuation between sections in their songs.
The Frail Tide is a decent melodic death metal offering, but it was indeed nothing too special in 2007 to get these guys noticed, sounding like an elongated, piano-infested, slower version of Finland's Insomnium. It remains an album I wouldn't recommend to most metalheads, except for the curious who wanna know how this band started. Two years from its release, the sophomore Stone's Reach would change all that doesn’t quite work here, by perfecting their formula, upgrading their production and overall aesthetics, giving us the Be'lakor some of us really appreciate.
At a glance at the bleak, sepia landscape that adorns the front cover of The Frail Tide, a prospective listener would be led to believe that the music or Be’Lakor reflects the mood of the cover, dark and sombre. From the very opening notes of Neither Shape Nor Shadow I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong, the CD is underpinned by beautifully produced soaring melodies and progressive song structures rather than the abrasive black metal bombardment I expected.
Though I was wrong about the style of metal I expected Be’Lakor to play, I was indeed NOT wrong about deciding to review this CD. The Frail Tide is a fantastic debut from a young band with a bright future. I almost hesitate to compare the young Aussies to Slovakia’s 5 piece melodeath figurehead, Depresy, not because I don’t believe Be’Lakor measure up (quite the opposite in fact) but more because the bands are only sonically similar on one level, that is when they are playing straight up melodic death metal. Be’lakor go much further than this.
It is when the band turns the volume down that things get more tricky, and on the flip side, more interesting to listen to. Influences are worn on the sleeves, but are so diverse and widespread that there is never any sense of deja’vu. Desolation of Ares features an interlude that would not seem out of place on a Haggard CD, immediately followed by an outro that sounds as if it belongs on Opeth’s Still Life. A Natural Apostasy builds up to a wonderful duel between semi-distorted guitars and flutes that gradually grows to a crescendo. Grand piano is also used to its full extent, not just in the slower breakdowns, but frequently alongside electric guitar as an equal rather than being tucked behind or obscuring other instruments, a rarity in modern metal, indeed, pianist Steve Merry gets his chance to shine on Paths, a 5 minute piano instrumental.
The guitars themselves sound fantastic and use a wide variety of effects and tones to suit the moods of the various sections, melodies are kept refreshingly simple and catchy rather than seeking any technical approval before seeking musical effectiveness. However, this leads to one of my only gripes with this CD, the fact that some of the catchy melodies may be a bit too catchy. The most prominent example of this would be the opening track, which continually revisits variations of the same riff. The riff itself is very listenable and very catchy, but I feel that the level of repetition used in this song doesn’t fit the album particularly well.
The vocals are entirely growled, a decision which I personally think works very well as it allows the softer sections to be purely instrumental, vocals over these parts I believe would detract from the great compositional skills that this band possess. Vocal performances throughout the CD are consistently good, there is little variation, but in a band where the focus is very much on melody and song writing, this isn’t really a major issue for me at all.
Finally I come to the production, which leads to my only other problem with the album. Yes, the production is fantastic, it is never easy to master for a band with so many different tones and instruments going on at the same time and I can safely say that the clarity of the disc is excellent, everything is perfectly audible, however I get the feeling sometimes the that mix is a bit too thin and favours the drums over the guitars a bit too much, this leads to a bit of a dry feeling which is perfectly common in band’s first releases and is to be expected.
Overall, this CD is a wonderful listen and is very much a strong foundation for a successful career to be built upon, I had to look very hard to find any minor things wrong with The Frail Tide, and the pickiest little decisions I’ve made about a generic riff here and there or a slightly thin production should be taken with a pinch of salt for the sake of constructive criticism, you WILL enjoy this album if you are a fan of any form of metal that is a bit eccentric or out of the ordinary, BUY IT NOW.
Okay, at one point you realize that human tolerance for the world works in a pretty narrow spectrum. Because of the way we're built, there are many more negative things than positive things. In the same way, there's many more dissonant and atonal melodies than there are 'normal' melodies (though I'm not saying that dissonance or atonality are a bad thing). So it goes as a result to say that 'normal' melodies are getting pretty goddamn exhausted over thousands of years of human civilization and musical craftsmanship. I say this because Be'lakor has proven that theory dramatically with 'The Frail Tide'. This is an album that rests solely on melodies that we've all heard a thousand times before, and the pleasant tingle of familiarity is hardly enough to keep any of us interested in this stuff anymore.
This album is really, really boring, even if it is rather professionally played and composed. Every note of this is something I've heard elsewhere and in at least a moderately interesting fashion. Be'lakor plays melodic death metal, but it's a really tepid and overly moderate form of it that doesn't really do anything. It's all so tied to what the audience expects, or what the audience would like that it has absolutely no personality of its own. Melody after sugary, easy to digest melody flies through the music, each less memorable than the last, and while each is pleasant enough while it's there, it offers nothing. This album is actually less than the sum of its parts. Everything is capable; the playing, the writing, the production, everything. But put it into action and it's just unbelievably stale all the way through.
There's a LOT of piano in these songs, so much that there apparently needs to be a six minute track dedicated to it. I think that I'll say now that unless you're Archaic, there is no circumstance ever where, on a metal album, a six minute piano track is necessary. Nor do we need more dramatic violin accompaniments over medium fast double bass and melodeath that just boils down to the same rock and roll conventions the genre has been rehashing ever since 'The Gallery' was stillborn onto the scene back in '95. It all feels uninspired, and above and beyond that, it feels, quite simply, very dated. I would expect this sort of thing seven or eight years ago, but I thought we got past this sort of obsessive conventionality a while ago.
'The Frail Tide' isn't actively bad. There are many albums I would much less like listening to. But even those ones I don't like listening to would stick out in my mind as sucking, and Be'lakor doesn't stick out in my mind in any way. It just feels really, really lazy, and the band can easily do better.
(originally written for www.vampire-magazine.com)