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One of the forerunners of the gothic metal scene, and certainly one of the first to employ the "Beauty and the Beast" effect, Theatre Of Tragedy's debut full length takes the blueprint laid down by the likes of Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride and adds a few extra layers of 'darkwave' atmosphere, most notably with the presence of Liv Kristine, but also with a stronger permeation of keyboards, principally an organic piano sound. The results may not be revelatory, but with its emphasis on atmosphere and a heavy brooding production adding a cavernous quality to the doom-ladden riffs, this album remains one of the classics in the development of gothic metal as a definitive genre.
Sullen riffs open this album with plodding tempos, yet never repeat themselves to aggravating levels. There's a healthy amount of ideas and shifts in aggression popping up within each of the tracks, except the instrumental "Monotone" which takes a particularly cool note pattern and rolls with it. Guitars interweave melodies when not slugging away at morose chord progressions, and the keyboardist appears reasonably busy throughout, avoiding lush symphonics and going for an older, more traditional presence. The flow for these tunes range from a dirge-like crawl to medium-paced stomps, and the echo on the drums adds a necessary foreboding aura, particularly during "Sweet Art Thou", in which the snare's resonance is powerful and almost otherworldly thanks to the generous reverb.
Vocally is where things get interesting, and what was back then a novel approach to reciting the lyrics. Raymond's un-amused growl has depth and carries enough of that morbid slovenly feeling to blend well with the melancholy melodies. As a complete counterpoint, youngster Liv offers ghostly female wisps that linger in the air like a cold vapor cloud. I'll be honest, her voice works fine as a direct foil to the growling, but without those growls, this would be one chore of an album to put up with since her one-dimensional and somewhat amateurish delivery eventually would furrow the brow and annoy the living shit out of me. At times it is effective though, circumventing pop convention for Elizabeth Frazer worship that adds to the mellower moments such as "...a Distance There Is...", a lengthy song bluntly on the goth side of the gothic metal spectrum. In general, together the two singers generally compliment each other decently, except during the few occasions when they sing together in unison, sounding like some sort of deranged parody of a duet that I picture avant garde acts like The Residents thinking "We need to try that!"
As one of the initial harbingers of gothic doom before the floodgates of female-fronted corset obsessed metal acts opened wide, this debut remains one of the more listenable ones due to the dynamics of the spacious production, baroque lyrics, off-setting vocal approaches and some pretty well written doom riffs. If Liv had a bit more skill at this entry point in her long career, or at least varied her tone a bit once in a while during the recording, this album would hold up even better in comparison to major efforts by better developed later acts appropriating aspects of this sound to their own similar visions. Theatre Of Tragedy themselves would soon evolve into a less underground-anchored band by streamlining their style and eventually ditching the growls, but in this case they stick close to their death/doom roots, flirting with the notion of evolving into a more goth-oriented band thanks to what seemed to be a growing interest by them and other acts towards the 4AD ethereal class of gothic derived music. As a product of its time, Theatre Of Tragedy's self-titled effort is still a worthy enough benchmark for a style they contributed immensely in developing.
As a forlorn doom album, this isn’t all too bad. It can get a tad sluggish, since nothing eventful really takes place (or any real build-up), but the gloomy tone adds a fine touch to the raw (but polished) production. I’ll go on record right now by saying that I absolutely (without a doubt) fucking hate Liv Kristine and her vocals; I always have and I always will. Yes, they’re soprano vocals, but they’re so annoying with their Barbie doll high-pitch, completely detracting from the listening experience. I can’t think of one instance where / when I’d like them, except maybe if I was getting paid. Regardless they sound so fake, processed, and polished that it goes against everything that the bludgeoning doom metal being played stands for. Raymond’s vocals are wicked death grunts with little echo but a ton of tormented passion in them. They’re beastly (hence beauty and the beast style vocals), and keep this album on its feet everytime Kristine butchers it with her role.
As doom metal, the album can be pretty blazing when it comes to the riffs and bleak mood. It’s a dark album in this respect, but the gothic elements add a more traditionally depressing atmosphere and theme to feed from. The Old English, the classical instruments (keys, strings, acoustics), and the vibe all reflects that of older times, making for an almost medieval experience. These emotions are revealed most in “…A Distance There Is…” but they’re scattered in lesser amounts elsewhere on the album. They aren’t cheesy at all, and go very well with the rough collage of woeful riffs and demonic roars.
Bass support does paint a glossier picture on things with its addition to the music, following the riffs in their wake. Their grumbles thrive off of what pounds from the guitars, so the whole thing is very pumped. Drumming oddly feels very secondary – the bass gets lumped with the guitars, the keys intermingle with the two different vocal styles (both acting against eachother instead of together), but sometimes doesn’t get in on the fun. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, and the sound of them feels distinctively ‘80s (with their echo and all). The bass drum is pretty quiet, but otherwise that’s really all the bad coming out of them.
From what I’ve heard, this is not even close to a masterpiece as some people make it out to be. Sure, it helped usher in the use of two different vocal styles acting off each other, but only one of them is actually worth anything. I’ll happily take later Theatre Of Tragedy – you know, the one with both vocals actually being good…
There are already two 100% reviews, so I may have little to add but damnit, this thing deserves another 100%. The only things I ever heard against it can be defused as follows: 1- the production quality is too low. This is from Norway, deal with it. 2- there's a 9 minute all vocal song in the middle of it. It's beautifull and this is gothic metal, not grindcore.
I have not heard any gothic metal album made before this. I have never heard of the melodies of baroque opera infused into a metal album, not even by Celtic Frost before this. I have never heard an operatic female vocalist used at the front of heavy metal before this- Only in backgrounds did the choruses and silky voices manifest until this amazing, perfect and absolutely original work that in my view, invented real gothic metal.
Except for the beautiful vocal track and ending appropriately titled instrumental, each song is identical in style tone and outset: They are each made to intertwine melody with brutality, metal with opera, gothic depression with supergothic superdepression. Like their countrymen, Theatre of Tragedy are not afraid to make the dark parts really damn dark. They will hurt the idiot Evanesence fan who tries to claim them. But they will also repel the die hard metalhead who has no place for true melodic classical music. That is not to say Holst or Wagner, anyone who knows metal knows them, but Bach and Pachelbel. Mussorgsky and Grieg have their say in the riffs and moods that permeate the lightest frolics of phrase and darkest deepest assaults of raw distorted guitar.
As it founded the field, there is little to compare it to. It sounds like the predecessor of Tristania and Theatre's later works should- the early versions of the concepts that would grow so popular in the next millenium are all here, and often at their best. Here are growls and opera, riffs and pianos, and beauty- pure unrefined gothic beauty.