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The Enigma of Life is certainly underwhelming, but it isn't necessarily any worse than Nine Destinies and a Downfall, or even The 13th Floor. The one advantage it has over the former is the presence of Ailyn, who is much more tolerable as a front woman than Pedersen was. I still prefer Bordvik over them all, but Ailyn has a safe, smooth voice that fits effectively within the mainstream inclinations being experimented with here.
The biggest problem here is that much of the album is far too vocal-driven, no matter how saccharine Ailyn's delivery becomes. The band really puts themselves at sixes and sevens (yes, I just did that) by constantly dropping out into ethereal nonsense just when Veland gets a good idea cooking. Just like on Nine Destinies and a Downfall, we get a few shoehorned-in heavier riffs alongside a bevy of overblown choirs and buzzing synths. The keyboards are more orchestral and less synthetic sounding this time around, which isn't necessarily a detriment on it's own. The opener "The End of It All" is a good example of the symphonic style being pioneered here. The keyboards risk veering into Nightwish levels of overcooked pomp, but it's a well written and in hindsight, quite deceiving opener. Sirenia has a pretty characteristic style, defined by the use of orchestra hits that coincide with breaks in the riffs. We get some of that here, but for every bruiser (well, by Sirenia standards) of a track we get two or more lachrymose half-ballads like "Fallen Angel" or "Winter Land."
Even with Ailyn as present as she is, Veland could have put her to better use with a return to the dark, risky subject matter present on Sirenia's first two albums. The lyrics this time around are universally pretty faceless and forgettable, and it puts added pressure on Ailyn that she is in no way fit to handle on her own - as impressive as she may be. As stated above, she has a pretty smooth delivery and a wide swath of a range. She enunciates some of the words strangely, but after the meek, childlike warbling of Pedersen, nearly anything would represent an improvement. Veland tosses a few gutturals into the stylistic mixing pot, most evident on "Fading Star," which is easily the best track here after the opener. It features an accretion and release of tension not present on most of the rest of The Enigma of Life, so there are still hints of life under the thick layers of pretense. "Coming Down" has a sweet-as-honey chorus, but sorta drags during the verses.
Other than that, there's not much more to see here. "Darkened Days to Come" is a cool ode to Wishmaster-era Nightwish and features some nice resonant clean singing by Veland. More of this tradeoff aesthetic would have added immensely to the lasting power of the slower material, and from this point of view you can sort of see what Sirenia was going for here. Nothing here is unabashedly offensive, but some of the more mediocre songs like "The Twilight in Your Eyes" really test the listener's patience by failing to commit to any one compositional avenue for any length of time. Sirenia's earlier material was never this busy sounding -despite Veland's eccentricities-, with classics like "Meridian," "On the Wane," and "Lithium and a Lover" all representing a more subdued, melancholic stab at the normally far too upbeat aesthetics normally associated with symphonic acts like Sirenia. The Enigma of Life instead tries to distract the listener with pompous orchestration and constant, in-your-face female vocals that simply drain the entire procession of anything of marked value way before anything interesting occurs.
Going back and listening to albums like An Elixir for Existence after this very nearly results in a case of aural hypothermia; the female vocals were always a supplementary facet and never at the forefront back then. Veland is a very skilled composer, but it doesn't take a veteran of this genre to tell that he is forsaking his earlier masterpieces in an attempt at pleasing the more mainstream crowd. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that on it's own, but there are a number of bands that execute this style way more proficiently than Sirenia. Talk about not playing to your strengths.
Our hats must be taken off to Morten Veland, after all he is a musical extraordinaire. Veland not only sings vocals, but also plays numerous instruments including guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. Veland is also a songwriter, producer and engineer - the guy just does it all. His band Sirenia is entirely his creation and aside from a female vocalist and a few added musicians to help out with either drums or guitars, Morten Veland basically does it all on his own. We saw his impressive one-man band Mortemia with the release of ‘Misere Mortem’ back in 2010 and now in early 2011, we get to hear the 5th full-length release by Sirenia, entitled ‘The Enigma of Life’.
Where Morten Veland falls short amongst his musical prowess, however, is that he has continued to write the same song, using the same riffs and the same structure on almost everything he’s released since 2007’s ‘Nine Destines and a Downfall’ (a breakthrough album for both Sirenia and Veland). Moving away from the more traditional gothic metal sound that was heard on Sirenia’s first 2 albums, and also back when Veland was a part of Tristania, ‘Nine Destines’ was a slab of “commercial” gothic metal brilliance. The chunky low end guitar riffs, the atmospheric and emotional choirs, plus the combined vocals between Veland and Monika Pedersen (who left the band shortly after the release) was fantastic. Over the following three years, Veland continued this formula for the next Sirenia album ‘The 13th Floor’ and for Veland’s side project Mortemia. While it was no surprise to hear it on ‘The 13th Floor’, the formula eventually ran a little dry on ‘Misere Mortem’.
Hearing the same thing for two more albums shows that Veland has either run out of ideas because he’s so busy doing everything else himself, or that this is the peak of his song-writing brilliance. While ‘The 13th Floor’ was a solid album, new vocalist Pilar Giménez García, aka Ailyn, I felt did not grab me as much as Pedersen did. Whether it was the lack of spice or conviction in her vocals, Ailyn to her defence is a young singer and will most definitely improve with experience.
So on to the new album, ‘The Enigma of Life’ and surprise surprise, the disc yet again continues the same song structures and riffs we’ve already heard before. Yes, even the choirs make it back for their mandatory appearance in the middle of most tracks. Talk about a lack of diversity. This repetitive issue is a double-edged sword – a new listener of Sirenia would find this album to be quite refreshing, interesting and vastly entertaining, while the Sirenia fan who has been there from the start would roll their eyes at realising that the latest cd is pretty much ‘Nine Destines and a Downfall’ rehashed yet again. That might sound like a harsh comment, but in reality I feel it is quite true. We as fans don’t want to hear the same formula repeated over and over on following releases (even if it did work like a treat the first time round), as eventually it becomes stale and boring and loses interest very quickly.
However, taking the album on its merits, ‘The Enigma of Life’ still has a lot going for it. Ailyn’s vocals have improved a fair amount (maybe a tad too high-pitched in areas) and the majority of tracks (despite the severe case of déjà-vu) are done very well. Veland has tried his best to re-shape the song structures so they sound and feel different, but the best part of the album is that there are, in fact, a bunch of kick ass tracks. The atmospheric and orchestral elements throughout each track add depth, while I don’t think anyone can ever get sick of hearing Veland’s ferocious growing tones.
Veland’s guitar-work is also worth another tick, with some top-notch solos thrown in here and there. The tracks on the cd range from the popish side of gothic metal, to the harder-edged and more powerful gothic metal roaring tracks. Highlights include the memorable “All My Dreams”, the groove infused and melodic “This Darkness”, “Darkened Days to Come”, which features Morten Veland on clean lead vocals, “This Lonely Lake” and “The Enigma of Life”, both softer sounding and slower-paced tracks which shows off Ailyn’s ever-improving vocals, and lastly the cd opener “The End Of It All”.
While Morten Veland can still create kick ass and memorable tracks, he’s needs to realise that the identical formula used for each track and also used for the past 3 albums he’s been a part of, will eventually work against him. Fans want change, fans want diversity and fans want their favourite bands to evolve just as they do. Veland’s a creative guy, but for Sirenia I really think he needs to obtain some outside input rather than his rule, his way, 100% of the time. ‘The Enigma of Life’ is quite good (marginally better than ‘The 13th Floor’), but if only it contained material that we haven’t already heard before. For Sirenia newbie’s however, this release will definitely be a highlight in your gothic metal journey.
Originally written for www.themetalforge.com
The first few minutes of the album made me think this was Sirenia following on the sound of "The 13th Floor". The first track here sounds quite similar to (yet not as memorable as) "The Path to Decay", so I figured Sirenia are headed towards that direction. This was not the case. "The Enigma of Life" is nothing but disappointing. Catchy? Sure. Good? Not at all.
The main reason for this being a huge disappointment is simple: it's incredibly boring and repetitive. Everything is the same throughout the album. Ailyn sounds as though she did not know the meaning of the phrase "change of tone". Unlike on "The 13th Floor", her voice is super bland and gets boring quickly. The same applies to everything really, not just the female vocals. The guitar work sounds identical on most tracks, and there is lack of musical variety overall. Choirs appear less often, which isn't such a good thing, since the vocals tend to annoy you after a while, and that frequent break wouldn't have been a bad idea. Also, the increased frequency of clean male vocals does not help.
It's not all horrible though. Some parts of the album cannot go uncredited. First and foremost, the choirs are always pleasant, and they sound more or less the same as the previous album. Another interesting thing about the album is how some tracks have a really cool opening music, even though this isn't exactly what one should look for in a gothic metal album. My personal favourite is the intro music of "All My Dreams".
As for highlights, there aren't that many. If I had to mention them, I would have to say that the aforementioned "All My Dreams" is decent (especially since it happens to be in between of two of the really bad tracks). "Fading Star" and "Coming Down" are two of the few tracks here in which I felt music was on par with the previous album. "The Enigma of Life" is undoubtedly the strongest track here. Ailyn sounds pretty good here, and the track overall sounds like a Veland track. Sadly, the rest of the album is below average, at best.
What on earth happened to Sirenia? I hadn't listened to the band since their first two albums, but then I come back and find -this-? You're telling me the same band that crafted those two masterworks of gothic metal has now been reduced to little more than a Nightwish clone?
Not that I even have a problem with Nightwish. Their latest was somewhat lacking, but even the much-derided (by some) Once was chock full of catchy songs that kept me coming back for more. It showed that with some simple-yet-effective riffs, a talented vocalist and good sense of song-writing you can really turn out something special, so there's nothing wrong in adopting that style if you do it well. The Enigma of Life certainly does not however, coming out much more like a very uninspiring mess of lifeless components.
The riffs are really just a chug-along-in-the-background affair that never manage to assert themselves for any length of time. Of course many metal bands have shown us the riffs can be a part of something greater, taking a backseat for the greater good. But alas, there's little else to take their place in leading the music to heights of elegant darkness as was heard in the band's early days. The vocals are utterly generic female croonings with none of the captivating power of the genre's better frontladies, more often so sugary that the listener's face scrunches up in a painful wince. A nice voice is of no use if you don't do anything with it.
The albums one saving grace (of sorts) lies in it's symphonc aspects. These are still not great, a far cry from masters like Therion or Epica, but they have their moments at least. Many of the symphony compositions would work well if only they had more substance behind them from the rest of the band. As it is, they can't carry an album on their own.
Several sections of the album had me outright cringing in the sheer cliche limpness, the pervading feel that the band isn't even trying, and most of it was completely forgetable. Gone is the gothic majesty of At Sixes and Sevens or An Elixir For Existence, replaced instead with a poorly executed attempt at emulating the commercial appeal of bands like Nightwish or Within Temptation, but without either band's passionate vocals, song-writing skills or ability to seamlessly entwine grand symphonics and driving guitars together. Sirenia will have to try a lot harder if they want to show they're still capable of the old magic.
Sirenia is a band that could easily have been defined as a band of constant change (be it growth or regression, that is a discussion for another time and place...). The Enigma Of Life seems to have shattered that view of Sirenia. Having had more than its fair share of frontwomen, perhaps holding onto Ailyn for another album warrants the lack of growth found here; however, there is little to be found here that hasn't already been heard on The 13th Floor.
With regards to the steadfast leading-lady, Spain's Ailyn, all is performed well and without any outstanding flaw. Every now and then she can sound whiny, mainly in choruses. For the most part though, her voice is unarguably sweet, delicate, and wholly pleasing. But compared with some of the hard-hitters found elsewhere in the genre, or even in previous Sirenia releases, there is much to be desired. Seldom comes a time when the listener is awe-struck or fast-forwarding to hear her again. The majority of what she does sounds rather uniform, without highlights or climax. She is safe, far from the best and even farther from the worst. Yet, more than once throughout the album, I was hoping for a Vibeke Stene or even a Henriette Bordvik to come soaring in (listen especially to 'Darkened Days To Come' from like :30 to 1:00, that transfer from Veland's dark, soothing voice to Ailyn's more poppish style is a bit disappointing).
After having written some of the most powerful, most endearing, most beautiful music to grace the gothic metal scene, it is elementary to expect the best of the best from Morten Veland, Sirenia's mastermind and songewriter. Of course, after the recent releases of Sirenia and his side-project, Mortemia, fans seemingly cannot expect 'Beyond The Veil'-caliber masterpieces anymore. As with The 13th Floor, you'll feel the tiniest memories of Morten's Golden Era for a few seconds on a random track here and there, but the bulk of the music is what us fans have come to expect. It is shortened, shallowed, and less enveloping than Veland's earlier works (It will be so difficult to get over the change, though it has in effect for years now.) This is far from bad music, in fact it is pretty good, despite the obvious blemishes.
Each individual track seems to follow the same 'template' of sorts; there is the nice intro, the nice verse, the nice chorus, rinse, repeat. Before three tracks have finished, the listener already knows what to expect from the next ten on the album. And really, if you've heard The 13th Floor, you probably will know what to expect before the first track has come to a close.
The everlasting trademark of Veland and his projects is the choirs, which, as expected and welcomed, are indeed present. Yet again, we are blessed with the strength and perfection of Sirenia's enigmatic choirs. They are commonplace now, and some may argue overused throughout Veland's career, though doubtly from the majority. The Enigma of Life's choral stretches are not the best we have heard, nor do any in particular stand out, but they are well-placed within the music, perfectly executed, and only enhance the pieces they grace.
Occasionally, the guitar-work will be permitted to shine, and those moments are among the highlights of the album. Most of the instrumental segments are executed via keyboarding though, which could be an upside or a downside, depending on who you ask. However, it is safe to say there still needs to be more 'music' and less of the repetitive vocal passages (and why do song lengths continue to shrink?); it is almost impossible to differentiate any sort of identity within each song, as they all sound so close to one another.
In the end, it is a listenable and at times enjoyable album by Norway's Sirenia. But compared with what they have released in the past, it is a dud. It's very similar to their 2009 release, The 13th Floor, only watered down quite a bit more, with less shining moments. Though less progressive of a step than it's predecessors, it is just another step down the path of the mundane.
Sirenia for most of the time are the pure definition of an enigma, it is quite puzzling and unexplainable how Morten Veland and company released two magnificent gothic metal albums, drastically changing to releasing an average symphonic metal and then the release of The 13th Floor showed definite signs of improvement over it's predecessor. The Enigma of Life breaks the pattern of those reoccurring enigmas and attempts to play it safe by sticking closely in style to The 13th Floor which is not necessarily bad as that album definitely had some very enjoyable moments. Comparisons aside for most of the time there just isn't anything quite entertaining, emotionally gripping or overzealous enough to fully grab your attention.
Quality wise this album is all over the place, ranging from the two abysmal pop/symphonic metal opening tracks to some quite enjoyable moment in much later tracks of the album e.g Morten's clean vocals in Darkened Days to Come. Similar to its predecessor album the quality of songs do pick up after the two terrible opening tracks, not by a huge and substantial amount you would be led to believe though but notable improvements never the less.
The main glaring problems here are lack of identity, having to fight off a sea of symphonic/gothic metal bands to be recognized is hard enough but it doesn't help Sirenia also that this album sounds essentially the exact same as the last one except not as entertaining. Lead female vocalist Ailyn can evidently sing quite well when given the opportunity can and perform most of the verses spot on but during the choruses it's a completely different story. During the choruses Ailyn sounds way too high pitched for my liking turning any momentum the song might have built up completely on its head!
The guitar riffs/solos and growls on this album are not entirely in the background or excluded but are lacking a certain punch, the elements that would make them impactful and stay with you long after you listen are absent. The programmed drumming and synthesizers are adequate for what they are meant to do. Lyrical wise like all other Sirenia albums deals with themes such as human decline and the general dark side of humanity, there is lots to work with inside this theme but it is impossible to take most of the songs seriously as it sounds like Ailyn is happy singing them and Morten's growls are restricted to certain parts of the songs!
Almost every song on the album follows the same boring and predictable verse chorus verse structure, that doesn't entirely mean that the songs are automatically unenjoyable and there are noteworthy parts during most of the bridges. The exception to this painfully predictable song structure rule is the title track, the only track I find decent and a bit out of the norm, Ailyn fully proves she can sing here and it feels like that The Enigma of Life is the only song that there was a certain degree of emotional investment put into.
For most of the part it feels like The Enigma of Life is just a worse version of The 13th Floor, offering little new material to the Sirenia discography or the symphonic/gothic metal genre. It may seem a bit drastic but the quality of most the songs are honestly on par with Sirenia's Nine Destinies and a Downfall album, one decent title track doesn't save the entire album from mediocrity. There are enjoyable parts to salvage from a majority of songs here, it's just a bit hard to justify listening through mostly mediocre songs to find them.
Music lovers trying to get into Sirenia's music are better off with any of their other albums excluding Nine Destinies and a Downfall which The Enigma of Life is sadly on par with. I would recommend that if you're a current Sirenia fan to at least check this out to see what it sounds like but you're most likely going to be disappointed.