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Mandrake took root around 1996, and their first full length, Forever, was subsequently released in Germany in 1998. As a self-produced effort, the overall emphasis reaches for a clear and concise tone, which gives the impression of a professionally mixed recording of doom-laddened riffs accented by keyboards and occasional violin melodies. Influences pertaining to their compositions seem to point towards My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost and Theatre Of Tragedy, with male growling providing most of the vocals while feathery female vocals are interspersed within a number of tracks and are featured almost exclusively on two of them. Forever features some lengthy pieces, most particularly the title cut which spans over nine minutes. Also peppering the album are some passages that tend to play as short, calm interludes annexed onto the ends or beginnings of a few songs. Although this album does contain a number of guest musicians, little emphasis is placed upon any complexity of construction regarding these works, as the guitar riffs and surrounding melodies are relatively simplistic in design and retain a sense of the familiar in reference to earlier acts who pioneered this brand of metal.
If the above paragraph sounds a bit dry, it's due to the fact that this album offers so little to me that it's hard to show any sort of enthusiasm or repulsion while trying to write this review. It's a very workmanlike recording with no terrible or inane flaws, and yet it's so transfixed in aping a particular style, adding little to what the veteran bands of that ilk had already achieved, that for me it's a Herculean labour to reach the end of it without throwing in the towel and switching to perusing scat porn just to get my pulse back. Probably my biggest complaint would be that the production just does not work for the material. Yes, the instruments are mixed well and there's a strong clarity to everything, but all this really does is expose the pedestrian chord sequences and mediocre musicianship as the displays of tedium they are, while a hazier production would have at least masked some of the flaws with a semblance of a gloomy aura, which is sorely missing here. The guitars lack in reverb, which to me hurts these easy riffs by denying them a dark presence, and the keyboards too often sound like the "chimes" button was stuck on the thing, thus this garish cheap sound tends to waft throughout these tunes while providing scarcely any haunting allure.
The female vocals are provided by guest singer Sarah Palmer, and unlike the Halo commander bearing the same name, there is generally nothing striking about her performance whatsoever. Even during her two "showcase" tunes, she delivers her lines as if she'd rather be relaxing on the crapper solving German crossword puzzles. She's not off-key or anything, just completely blasé in approach with nothing to distinguish her from the growing legions of female co-singers at the time. Lutz "The Putter" fares better, growling about losing his beloved or how he's the lord of all kinds of bullshit with some personality and anguish, but unfortunately it's still not a strong enough voice to carry an album such as this, in which the music seriously needs powerful vocals to compensate for the simple progressions and recycled themes. A few moments of clean singing by the guy showed some promise though, enough to have wished that the band utilized them more since the female vocals add little except a break from the incessant mid-ranged growls.
I'm probably being a bit harsh on this debut, since if nothing else most of the team here put more effort than they probably needed to in getting this album out there. After numerous spins, a few of the songs have grown on me a bit, with opener "Nightshades" sprouting into a pretty decent number after enough listens with its sprinkling of faster rhythms and by not driving its main sluggish melodies into the dirt. At the same time, Forever is easily my least favorite Mandrake album, but I wouldn't say it's a terrible recording. There's just nothing here that grabs me, with even the female-fronted numbers inducing painful levels of ennui. I have to say, though, that I'm glad the band persevered and evolved, since they would eventually gel as a unit and release some pretty good shit later on.