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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.