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Mandrake's nautical tendencies hit full throttle with this release, opening with the title track about a ship discovered floating around devoid of its crew while bearing no traces of ransacking. It's the sort of theme that suits Mandrake perfectly, as they've referenced the ocean and coastal regions on numerous occasions in past releases. To assist in capturing a sort of musical representation of vast and unmerciful seas, the band opts for a dense, almost oppressive layering of fuzzed-out heavy guitars, a booming distorted bass and a backing layer of synth washes. Overall it's a pretty loud din that pushes the drums deep in the miasma, rendering them audible but not nearly the showcase they were concerning their prior discography. Birgit's vocals also aren't too prominently mixed, swimming about amongst all the buzzy guitar noise though not drowning beneath it. Those who prefer the sort of gothic metal in the vein of Delain and similar acts will probably find Mary Celeste to be a bitch to deal with mainly due to the shoegaze influences amplified to levels that during a few moments barely retain the sense of melody.
Mandrake, not known for particularly strong openers in the past, finally gets it right by offering one of their best numbers right up front, a song with progressive themes, ideas and some pretty groovy vocals. Swirling with changes in tempo and heaviness, it's one of their most accomplished works, and even boasts that most elusive of things concerning this band, a fucking guitar solo. The quickie little six string workout didn't blow the mind, but the song as a whole filled my pants with enough elation to render me excited to hear how the rest of this baby would pan out.
For the most part, it plays as their best album yet, brandishing that thick, mean four-ply blanket of sound throughout, excluding a couple of well-placed ballads that come in handy for clearing the mind and ears of lingering fuzziness. One of the strongest tracks, "Crystals Of Forgiveness" throws some demented dissonance into the rhythms, boosting the song with a darker and more threatening sheen than most of the group's output. "Masquerade" is like the title track's more accessible but equally cool counterpart, balancing the sing-song melodies with some hooks drenched in that monolithic production. "Fragile" is also noteworthy as it really feels like a heavily distorted rendition of something by This Mortal Coil. Graceful and flowing yet caged in doom metal trappings.
The production alone does not give Mary Celeste its unique identity, as the style of playing by the band seems equally inspired by alternative and even "indie" approaches to strumming rather than palm muted riffs, adding dronelike waves to this wide open oceanic sound the band seemed to be aiming for. "Sweet Desolation", one of the mellow cuts, takes a sort of rhythmic blueprint of Coldplay's "Clocks" and morphs it into their own tale of desperation. It may feel like a homage but without a doubt it's clearly Mandrake material with its foreboding atmosphere and looming tension. Birgit's voice is wonderful on this track, showcasing her ever improving delivery that's becoming more and more distinctly her own. In general concerning Mary Celeste, her tone is just right for this material, and without operatic, lightweight, witchy, nasal or pop-leaning baggage, Birgit sings the damn songs like a woman, and I'm fucking down with that.
Discovering their discography, I'm starting to come to the conclusion that Mandrake may be one of those rare breeds that release successive albums that are improvements over their last. That is not to say that their prior releases don't possess certain aspects Mary Celeste could have utilized. For example, the growling vocals of Lutz are banished, which I don't mind at all, but his clean singing here, though used quite sparingly, is so ineffective that it adds nothing to the songs. The guy sang much better on The Balance of Blue, and just sort of mumbles here and there for this album. Such a waste, but a minor quibble.
It's the overall ambition that the band put into this thing I appreciate the most, and even a couple of songs that I don't particularly hold in high esteem, such as "Adore", are passable enough and would probably seem decent on a shuffle due to their sheer loudness if nothing else. The shoegaze and open strumming elements liberally cloaking Mary Celeste have really given Mandrake a sound that separates them from the majority of gothic metal acts. Hell, the music for "Borrowed Life" even comes across like some cranked-up Interpol track at times, but Mandrake are able to take these influences into their umbrella without becoming a clunky menagerie of shape-shifting ideas. It's still a metal album, possessing the main traits that have always constituted Mandrake's sound, but it also reflects the individual members growing as writers and players in adventurous directions that don't exactly pander to mainstream appeal. So yeah, boat metal. I can dig it.
The Mary Celeste set sail from New York in the year 1872. On board were a small crew and a huge amount of pure alcohol. The vessel was found, empty, floating around as a ghost ship. Was it piracy or theft by the crew itself? A mystery ever unsolved. Mandrake has put this story on music and of course the album was called 'Mary Celeste'.
This nautical history lesson kicks off with the more than decent title track, displaying an up-tempo female fronted version of The Vision Bleak. Catchy, dark, melodic and almost danceable.
The main riff of 'Crystals of Forgiveness' could easily have been one of Blackheim (Katatonia), where 'Fragile' sounds more like a lofty doom metal anthem. Asrai and old Within Temptation (Enter period) probably serve as examples for 'Forgiven'. One last act of name-dropping: doesn't 'Sweet Desolation' sound like a well known Coldplay hit song?
Despite the various influences, this Mandrake album never really gets exiting. A clear no-go for fans of unpredictable, technical or brutal metal. On the other hand, 'Mary Celeste' never bores me. It has a kind of comforting flow, it never becomes too cheesy or unnatural and the total playing time is just about perfect.
Most vocal duties are taken care of by Birgit Lau , only incidentally using her high pitch voice. No opera aspirations can be found on this album. Thank god! Here and there Lutz de Putter fills in a few lines with his low voice. Truly an addition to the whole.
If the Mary Celeste ever sets sail to my hometown, I will surely come to salute her and (if granted permission) step on board to meet the crew of Mandrake.
Mandrake is a symphonic gothic metal band from Germany and this is their fourth studio disc. Their music is extremely heavy, crunchy and dense, often a thick, busy wall-of-sound. The songs are primarily riff-driven overlaid with the vocal melodies; indeed, most of the songs feature a nice flowing texture of changing crunchy riffs, often quite hooky and hard-rocking, and almost always dramatic and engrossing. Mandrake obviously put a lot of effort in the quality of the sound on Mary Celeste – although dense and busy, each instrument is clearly discernible: the guitars are thick and rich, the keys are huge and majestic, the drums are very hard-hitting, and the arrangements are warm and absorbing with an overall somber and brooding gothic atmosphere. Mary Celeste seems to be a concept disc about the ship Mary Celeste (which was discovered in 1872 in the Atlantic Ocean heading for the Strait of Gibraltar in full-sail, yet completely unmanned, like a ghost ship; no one knows for sure what ever happened to the crew and passengers), with most of the lyrics being quite poignant and forlorn.
Their female vocalist, Birgit Lau, has a pleasant voice but she is quite limited in range and power. She can actually be frustrating to listen to. At times she sings with an incredibly enchanting, emotive style with captivating melodies that add real beauty to the dense arrangements, but too often her singing is flat and uninspired, and she seems to be struggling to avoid being completely overwhelmed by the music. That said, she sounds much better and more consistent on Mary Celeste than she did on their earlier discs. There are very occasional warm gothic male vocals (Mandrake used to feature death vocals, but not on Mary Celeste) and some dark, sinister spoken male vocals which may be movie samples.
Mandrake features very strong and memorable song-writing on all their discs, often breath-taking in their melancholy intensity, but Birgit has not yet been able to consistently complement their arrangements with equally effective vocal melodies. She is closer than ever on Mary Celeste and this hints that their next disc may be the one that potentially catapults them to the top echelons of the gothic metal genre.
This is the third album from German gothic metal quintet Mandrake, following their 2005 album The Balance of Blue, and the famous 1872 disappearance of the crew of the brigantine Mary Celeste provides an appropriately spooky concept to hang the album on, with movie dialogue samples throughout the album providing reminders of this theme.
The opening and title track ‘Mary Celeste’ sets out Mandrake’s stall - this is glossy, high-concept, goth metal, dominated by keyboards and Birgit Lau’s sweet but insipid vocals. A dozen more tracks in similar Nightwish / Epica / Season’s End vein ensue. There are power ballads (‘Fragile’), even softer ballads (‘Sweet Desolation’, ‘Paralyzed’) and harder-rocking tracks (‘Moments (Touched By Time)’, ’Solace’). And can’t you just tell from those titles what this album is going to sound like? I got a bit excited by the second track when I thought it contained a threat to ‘fill the lake with Christians’. Imagine my disappointment when, far from the gnarly black metal anti-Christian genocide I was envisaging, this turned out to be about not Christians, but ‘crystals of forgiveness’, whatever they may be.
Listen – I would never dream of listening to this kind of dry-ice pumpin’, lighter-wavin’, would-be arena-fillin’ soft rock if it didn’t get sent to me for review. This is not my idea of a pleasurable listen. Every song conjures up horrible visions of a slow-motion video montage of Mandrake playing in front of a large audience, intercut with shots of the singer sashaying around a shadowy mansion in a long velvet gown, carrying a big candelabra. Having said that, I can see that Mandrake are pretty good at what they do, and I wish them well, and if you like this kind of thing, then good luck to you too. Hey Mandrake, you must have caught me in a good mood. I've been snorting crystals of forgiveness. Now get out of my stereo!
This review was originally written for Judas Kiss webzine: