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RECENT EDIT: So, after several months of having Fiction, it has grown on me significantly and I consider it to be DT's greatest work to date. The score reflects this and most of the things in this review still stand in my opinion, it's just that the similarity between Character is there, only Fiction is MUCH BETTER.
Dark Tranquillity's previous effort, Character, propelled them back into widespread metal fame, truly making them the kings of melodic death metal, certainly compared to recent efforts from In Flames and other gothenburg bands. Ever since 2000's Haven, you could tell Martin Henriksson & co were searching for their sound, and it seemed that they found it on Character.
Now they've found it, they clearly don't want to throw it away. While Character was indeed a fantastic album, this new effort is just too similar.
So, when I bought this CD, I popped it right into my CD player and laid back. At first I thought I was listening to a new Velvet Revolver album, which scared me for a second, but obviously after that in comes those ever-so-gorgeous sounding guitars, and we're off. Even from here you can tell that this album will be in a very similar vein to Character. Aside from some production changes (particularly to Mikael's voice), this could be stuck on Character, anyone could deeply analyze it and not notice a difference. The technical proficiency shown on the first track, 'Nothing To No One' is actually quite impressive, with Anders Jivarp whipping out a really tight blast and some strange timing.
Overall Anders has polished up his craft. While most of the beats are very similar to things he's done before, when you compare between then and now, he's definitely better, with some more use of toms than before. However, he still keeps using a rather irritating splash (I think it's splash...) cymbal, it may just be taste but I really don't like the sound of it (listen to the second half of the chorus of The New Build to see what I mean). Of course this is a minor complaint, his blasting in particular has improved no end. Anders has definitely got his part in the band covered.
Main songwriter Martin Hendriksson and art director Niklas Sundin have to do a good job on guitars for this record to live up to expectations, because they actually wrote most of the music, and because guitar work is really what shines in this genre. Unfortunately the solos on this album are very short, and while most are quite good (absolutely great lead tone) there is so much potential to extend them. Instead they often go into a breakdown of sorts, with a semi-nice rhythm to give the keyboards a nice hearing. While I am in no way criticising the use of electronics on the album, the breakdowns do get a little repetitive. I know they were used on Character as well, but normally to much better effect. The riffs are your standard fare DT, normally a quite low riff, a simple rhythm part and then the keyboards playing the main melody, but there are times where it is the guitar standing out (and normally this is how the best riffs are).
Martin Brändström and his 'electronics' playing (which basically means keyboards and synth) are not something that I normally pay attention to on DT albums (aside from the obvious parts like in My Negation), but here I'm forced to quite a lot, but this is not a bad thing, not at all. His melodies are always nice and the synths add an awful lot of power to the songs, especially when Hendriksson and Sundin are playing leads together. He has some nice sounds, which can always help keep the atmosphere and mood of the song (see: Icipher). The guy fucking owns on Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive).
Michael Nicklasson's bass peformance is solid. Again, the production gives him plenty of space to be heard, but unfortunately he rarely strays from the guitars (an exception is a moment in Nothing To No One which astounded me). If you listen closely though, you can tell his picking speed is very nice, especially when keeping up with the string skipping some of the riffs involve.
Melodic death vocals are very much a love it or hate it affair (see Omnium Gatherum's new album), some trying very high pitched screams, others going for very brutal sounding growls. Mikael Stanne has always been a nice mix of the two. He can rip out a terrific yelp when he wants, and he always has nice variety, even when the rest of the music doesn't (more on that later...). The lyrics he has written are actually bloody astonishing. I've never paid much attention to the lyrics before, but the lyrics here are incredible. He addresses some important subjects, like war, religion and the environment, as well as some personal-sounding songs which I couldn't expect to really understand. Also, something which he's brought back to nice effect is clean vocals. They only appear on the song Misery's Crown (if you don't count Nell's beautiful guest appearance on the closer, The Mundane And The Magic). He has a great voice, and I hope he uses it more on the next album.
The song title 'The Mundane And The Magic' really does sum up this album. There are some dull songs (though I must say, a couple less than Character), and some flaws from Character that still haven't been sorted (too many breakdowns! Not enough lead guitar!), but the lyrics, vocals, drumming are absolutely brilliant. As I write what my overall opinion of Fiction is, it all depends on what song I'm listening to from it. If I'm listening to songs like Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive) or Inside The Particle Storm, I'll say it's another top-notch effort from Dark Tranquillity, but if I'm listening to songs like Empty Me or Focus Shift (which isn't a good sign, considering it was the lead single) I'll say it's solid, but dissapointingly not enough of a change from Character. So, to decide I'll listen to a song which has its mundane moments and magic moments (The Lesser Faith, if you're curious).
Fiction is a good album. It has everything I expected, but unfortunately that's about it. Of course I had high expectations but unlike Character, they haven't been exceeded in such a wonderful fashion. Then again, Character is a tough album to beat. It's a great album to just listen to, but if you think about it too much you'll see it has some flaws.