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I've been following this gloomy Norwegian gothic death metal group fer many a year now, and their career isn't the simplest to sum up. Let's try shall we, since this'll be their lastest album. They've veered from their first two records of mournful epics uplifted by operatic vocals, to hate-fuelled, Dimmu-style melodic extremities with the next two, and recently to a more compact sound partway between Tristania and Penumbra. What about this swansong then, eh? Where each previous album was some development or growth of the previous album's agenda (even discounting the often drastically different line-ups) this is pretty much Bloodstained Endurance, Chapter II.
Trail of Tears were always in a different league to the mediocre likes of Siebenburgen, recent Sirenia and so forth as far as I am concerned, what with de facto band leader Ronny Thorsen possessing latent proclivities for truly devastating death metal outbursts in the otherwise Therionic surroundings of choirs, epic clean vocals and symphonic keyboards. Recent efforts have unfortunately once again done away with blast beats and much of the overt fury, while keeping enough gruffness to offset the sugar. Oscillation slightly tones down on the rage again, though Ronny still gets a look in on many of the verses and breaks, and sounds as ferocious as ever. The title track, for example, has a bit of a 'My Comfort' feel to it, while the otherwise average 'Vultures Guard My Shadow' features some harsh vocal assaults as unforgiving as Thorsen's ever been, which is great I guess, 'cause it reminds you that this band is no Sirenia or Nightwish, they're actually capable of brutality when they want it.
The burly vocals of Thorsen have been paired with plenty of different singers, from sonorous soprano Helena Iren Michaelson to the brilliantly bluesy Emannuelle Zoldan, to my favourite of all, the gifted and criminally unknown tenor Kjetil Nordhus - his departure from the fold after he and the rest of the band members featured on Existentia fell out with Thorsen has been an embuggerance if only because he's done almost fuck all since. Here Cathrine Paulsen is providing the cleans for her third ToT album, and she is as impressive as ever, unleashing noble clean vocals and the odd soprano note as well.
The songs themselves just unfortunately aren't as crack-a-lacking as on the previous record, despite being enjoyable. 'Waves of Existence' opens with dramatic guitars, a My Dying Bride style whine, pretty different to the grandiose strings usually present - but the customary bulldozer bass and groovy death metal riffs aren't far behind. In terms of songwriting it isn't a huge triumph, though in terms of vocal performance, production and general atmosphere it sounds great. Good for a bit of headbanging and probably even better with some beers, but I wasn't stunned, and after recent openers like 'Deceptive Mirrors' and 'The Feverish Alliance' I expect to be rapt. It sets the scene for an uneven album, where the usual overtones of cathedrals being engulfed in fiery infernos while angels sing choirs of anguish have been replaced with something more in line with the cover art's somber, modern hues and imagery.
Sometimes it gets really modern. Like about as far from 'A Fate Sealed in Red' and 'Obedience in the Absence of Logic' as poss while still being the same band. Paulsen's chanting and belting vocals on 'Scream Out Loud' are incredibly poppy, as is the song's general progression and funky electronics. It's a sort of 'Bye Bye Beautiful' - personally I pretty much dig it, but I know that this is where the album is likely to lose less invested and more jaded listeners. Despite these leanings, the album is comprised of songs of between four and six minutes, adding enough to the arrangements to avoid the verse-chorus curse, and generally making none of the mistakes a band like Sirenia or Battlelore do. 'Crimson Leads on the Trail of Tears' includes some great, galloping rhythms, a huge atmosphere created by vocal effects and ethereal backing choirs and feels good despite its jiggy, positive vibe (and the admittedly irksome "shout choirs" that feel uncomfortably American... as in "NWOAHM").
There are a few highlights after that pretty solid first four songs: 'The Dawning' has a really cool, driving vibe to it, rhythms sizzling toward some incandescent horizon as Paulsen and Thorsen's vocals respectively soar and bawl. Would have made a good opener, actually. 'Lost in Life', another soft song, has a beautiful performance by Paulsen, reminding of 'A Storm at Will'; it's a real lighter-waver, or would be if there was any chance of Trail of Tears ever playing live again with Paulsen, or at all. 'Eradicate' is like a part two to 'Waves of Existence', same familiar thrust, while the two bonus tracks, 'Sleep Forever' and 'Quick Fix of Shame' are actually very cool - the first a dramatic, groovy riff fest, the second a creepy and surprisingly extreme outburst reminiscent of Existentia or A New Dimension of Might.
However, despite their evading the curse of many of the female-fronted bands signed to labels like Napalm Records, the album generally sags a little at the middle. 'Path of Destruction', 'Room 306' and 'Our Grave Philosophy', aside from the vocals, don't have much to recommend them, lacking the atmosphere and drive of a 'Waves of Existence' or 'Oscillation'. So if you removed these three (and probably 'Vultures...' and stuck 'Sleep Forever' and 'Quick Fix...' into the main tracklist, you'd have a much stronger album.
So that's it. The end of Trail of Tears. No-one really cares, except me, who has been listening to them regularly for the good part of a decade. The fall-outs with most of the past band members probably prohibit any interesting re-recordings or farewell compilations surfacing, or some Candlemass style live show with several past singers making an appearance, so with this flawed but pretty damn listenable album the band falls silent. It's stronger than Free Fall Into Fear and Disclosure in Red, but the newcomer would be better advised to start with albums other than those and this.