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I am quite fond of Dark Tranquillity mainly because of the eerie atmospheres this band has a knack for conveying in every album they wrote. "The Gallery", for an example, was kind of a fuck up in the ‘heavy riffing’ department due to its way too constant lead guitar, but it sure had some interesting melodies to make up for it and the whole thing sounded beautifully barroque. Like a mad bard playing frantically while singing about his innermost woes. Ah, the good old crazy shit.
"Fiction" is, as many have pointed before, a keyboard-centered album. Here, Brandstrom's keys are loud and simplistic, but the atmosphere they create is probably the best in this band's career. It's introspective, sorrowful and melancholic without the sugary aspect this genre is known for when employing keyboards, but it was the guitars that had me divided the last time I reviewed this. Here's some considerations about it:
Previously, I used to chastise this album for what I perceived to be underwhelming guitar work. Well, after listening to many other melodeath albums and becoming even more accustomed to the fine tunings of DT’s craft, I had a change of heart. See, reviewing is a subjective, weird little thing. From my point of view, an album should be analysed and criticised by what it is within the context it was created, not by what the reviewer thinks it should be.
The thing is, even if bands like Kalmah and Garden of Shadows exist to prove the contrary, melodic death metal is not a subgenre that exists almost solely on the strength of sheer riffwork, like thrash does. It is a nuanced beast with many ramifications that differ from band to band, even if the core staples (Higher pitched death growls + thrashdeath drumwork + guitar harmonies inspired by Iron Maiden, etc) are almost always present.
For an example, it’s safe to assume that "Jester Race", "The Mind’s I" and "Oracle Moon" are all melodic death metal albums, even if the first one is a blueprint for gothenburg –melodeath’s more accessible brother- , rocket science won’t be needed for the listener to understand the vast differences in songwriting and atmosphere of these three excellent releases.
My point being, reviewing Stratovarius while having your mind set on Wormphlegm will get you nowhere. “Fiction” finds Henriksson and Sundin going for just the right amount of guitar shenanigans for it to be called a decent post “Damage Done” Dark Tranquillity album, just as the more aggressive “Character” did. Sure, some groove hooks could be better implemented like the one on “Terminus” and solos could be longer, but those guys were never big on the whole Tipton & Downing vibe, so their stuff is a tad different and very competent here, like the intro riff to “Icipher”, that works really well with the keys and tracks like “The Lesser Faith”, “Nothing to no One” and especially "Blind at Heart" strike me as particularly riff-heavy, even when employing the aforementioned grating one note grooves.
Vocally, this album is also not bad. I do enjoy Stanne’s vocals because the man just never failed me. I mean, his voice was always good, it didn’t go from tolerable to shit like Angela Gossow’s or from shit to a complete goddamn disaster like Anders Friden’s. This man is probably one of the most focused and enjoyable Gothenburg vocalists and is also a damn fine lyricist too. Also, his clean baritone vocals are back and they don’t sound bad, fortunately. Nell Sigland (of Theatre of Tragedy fame) also makes a cameo in the last track trading some vocals with him, and the result is also quite fun.
The lyrics are the good ol’ Dark Tranquillity fare, featuring obscure metaphors and abstract themes, but this time they apparently chose a slightly more direct way of writing, as evidenced in ‘Misery’s Crown’ and ‘Icipher’. And as far as drumming goes, Anders Jivarp delivers a sharp performance, as always. As for the production, it is slightly thin but not raw black metal-like thin. I found it very sterile and cold, more than fitting to the kind of sensations they were trying to convey here, specially on Brandstrom's end.
There are some highlights, such as this album’s best track, the great “The Lesser Faith”, which blends the keyboards seamlessly with the guitar tracks and is an absolute winner in terms of atmosphere. Other good tracks include “Empty Me” with its beautiful chorus and ending, and the aforementioned “Icipher” for its somewhat cold and introspective feeling.
This is a powerful grouping of songs that keep, in each and every one of them, a feeling of intangible coldness that spreads to every other instrument like a virus, morphing the individual parts into something else, something stranger but still pleasant to listen. "Fiction" is Dark Tranquillity absorbing the coldness of their own atmosphere and using it as a cloak. Perhaps stunted here or there, but still capable of delivering the goods and an amazing sonicscapes when the time is right.
(Oh, and the album also features some good bonus tracks)