without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
It's a shame what happened here. Funeral is a band with quite an interesting history, and within every two albums, there tends to be major line-up changes and a gold mine of unreleased material. The transition between Tragedies and In Fields of Pestilent Grief was no exception. In the late 1990's, female vocalist Toril Snyen was booted out of the band, and before the brilliance of Hanne Hukkelberg and Kjetil Ottersen came into the picture, there was the incredibly obscure Demo '97. The demo consisted of five tracks of epic doom/deathy material with female vocalist Sara Eick, who only stuck with the band for the one demo. I have written a glowing review of the demo, as I feel it's perhaps one of the most underrated and eloquent doom releases to have come out of its time. As one could imagine, I was thrilled when I first heard the announcement of this compilation; "[The album] will contain remastered tracks from the 90's, being a missing link between classical 'Tragedies' and 'In Fields of Pestilent Grief' albums". What I had in mind was a re-release of Demo '97 and Demo '99 with enhanced sound quality, and perhaps a few special unreleased tracks from that particular era. Nothing could set me up for the disappointment that came once I heard this album.
Well, the five tracks of Demo '97 are indeed present here, except with new vocal arrangements and the addition of some orchestral sections. With the exception of 'Wrapped All in Woe', the female vocals that were present on the original demo have been replaced by the deep male cleans of Frode Forsmo. This was particularly unfortunate because, while his performance on From These Wounds was stellar with melodic croons and genuine emotions, his voice here is dreadful. His low baritone quality lacks any kind of emotion or melody, sticking almost entirely to a robotic and monotonous "choral" layered effect. His delivery of the lyrics is awkward and doesn't fit the tempo of the music and, generally, he just sounds dissonant and badly placed in the mix. The addition of pianos and orchestral synthesizers really don't do much for me either. Though they are placed pretty sporadically throughout the first four tracks, they just seem like a last-minute adjustment added in so that the keyboardist could feel like he was doing his part. Of course, the rest of the music is top-notch; the rhythm section is deep, aggressive, and crunchy. The leads soar and wail dramatically, creating very epic harmonies between the two guitars. There is a dark doom/deathish feel that always seems to be on the brink of ripping into some blastbeats, but keeps its composure and stays true to its doom roots. Ultimately, the only track out of of the bunch that I feel is worth listening to is 'Hunger', which was also on the band's album As the Light does the Shadow. It's the only one that feels like a worthy remake of the original demo track, which was titled 'The Swansong of my Heart'.
Tracks five through eight consist of outtakes from the 1997 sessions, with Øystein Rustad on vocals. I have to say, while this latter half of the release still isn't that great, it's a much bigger improvement over the first four tracks. Øystein has a much lighter tenor voice, which doesn't seem to have had proper training, as he tends to go flat pretty frequently throughout his contributions. His voice reminds me a lot of Aaron Stainthorpe, with a weeping and moaning quality that adds more of a romantic tone to the music. Like Frode, a lot of layering is used to create a harmonized effect, and admittedly it sounds a lot more melodic with Øystein's higher range. On this second half of the album, the synthesizers and pianos are much more evenly dispersed with the rest of the music, as opposed to popping up in random sections. It sounds a lot more atmospheric and tasteful, as the orchestral synths blend fairly well with the guitar melodies. The songs themselves are a lot less aggressive than the earlier tracks, staying reserved to kind of a funeral-paced gothic/doom blend altogether. It's pretty close to something one would hear from The Angel and the Dark River, and it's not done badly. In fact, tracks 'Dancing in a Liquid Veil' and 'How Death May Linger' have some pretty decent riffs and tasteful vocal lines snuck up in there, while the latter two tracks are pretty forgettable and a tad too saccharine with the melodramatic lyrics and heavy usage of keyboards.
Finally, we have the final track, 'Wrapped All in Woe'; the only song to come from the original demo without being altered. The approach is very straightforward; funeral-paced epic doom, driven by incredibly hopeless guitar leads and mournful female vocals. Sara Eick's voice is incredibly strong and powerful, soaring over the dire guitar melodies and dragging rhythm sections. The mood is incredibly angry and bitter, a kind of sharpness that went away as the band grew more melodic in their songwriting. Overall, I'm glad the band at least included this track, even though they neglected to honor the rest of the demo as I feel they should have.
Within the past few years, Funeral have re-released Tristesse and Tragedies on vinyl, as well as their In Fields of Pestilent Grief album. I can only hope there comes a day that the band chooses to properly unearth the songs on Demo '97 with their original arrangements. Though I would obviously recommend the original release over this album, I will at least say that its worthy of looking into for those who appreciate majestic, guitar-driven, epic/gothic doom metal, particularly if you are able to overlook some pretty flawed vocals.
Let me start this off with a little bit of background information in terms of my perception and listening relationship with this group. I can safely admit that I am not a very big follower of Funeral or their underground legacy. I know of the band, as well as being familiar with sporadic bits of their material, but I don't know every album, every demo, every lineup change... I have just never cared enough about them to seek out that information. However, I was familiar with the demo release of 'To Mourn Is A Virtue' which came out back during the dark ages of 1997. I had liked what I heard then and, upon revisiting some of the material, I still like it today. I do know that since that release there have been significant lineup changes, there have been deaths within the band and I am somewhat aware that they've 'evolved' their sound.
With that having been said, I really want to know why the band felt the need to reach into their musical past, pull out this demo and say amongst themselves: "Hey, let's completely re-record this with the new members and newer sound, even though we've released 3 full length albums since it was originally recorded." It makes someone on the other side of the coin think that they had nothing better to do with their time than re-construct a demo that many had hailed as brilliant for it's time 14 years ago. It also doesn't make much sense for a band who is attempting to take their sound to the next level and somewhat distance themselves from their earlier roots would think this was a good conscious decision.
I suppose that the above statements will be enough of an opening stance, so that I may now tell you what to expect from this revisitation experience. The female vocals are almost completely gone (Except for a partial placement on the album's closing track) and replaced by two different vocalists for each half of the album. The first vocalist displays very average Gothic Doom style clean vocals, with fairly monotonous harmonized sections that sound a bit like a less talented Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth). The second vocalist is somewhat similar in style, as he too fits the gothic doom bill but has a much higher range that causes a bit of an earache as the album unfolds. The best thing about this album, to me, is the drumwork. Over time i've grown pretty used to straightforward and repetitive drum patterns in doom metal material, but that is not the case here. Not only does he show off a heavy array of different fills throughout the album, his rhythm patterns are pretty intricate as well and not a style you normally see within this genre.
One of the few things I really like is the piano work. The grand piano sounds used are magnificent, although they don't see a whole lot of time on the album, which I find unfortunate. Elsewhere, the guitar work on most of the album just screams mid-era My Dying Bride. The tones and chord progressions are the biggest culprits in terms of that accusation. Admittedly, though, these aren't terrible traits to have, as I do enjoy My Dying Bride's guitar sound. I merely expected more out of a band with the underground clout and reputation that Funeral has. One prominent issue I have is that while some bands can pull off having songs of a prolonged length, nearly all the tracks on this album just seem to drag along much more than necessary. Another thing to note is that the production, albeit crisp and clear, is lacking in terms of a noticeable bottom end and therefore comes off as sounding fairly thin during most of the songs. I also find a problem with parts of the mixing, as the drums can have a tendency to somewhat bury the guitars. From front to back, I have to say that i'm not a fan of the album. A main point could be argued that if the band had a better assortment of vocalists for this recording, it definately could've worked in their favor. Maybe my feelings would be different if it wasn't a band re-recording a release that I was already familiar with, but what's done is done.