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I'll try not to be too subjective with this one. Count me amongst the meager few that considered Tristania inert once Morten Veland left for then-greener pastures. The two near-classics Sirenia pumped out in short order only served to accentuate Tristania's status as a collective afterthought during the period in question. Veland's glory disappeared however, starting with Nine Destinies and a Downfall, and after giving him a fair shake (three strikes and he's out!) I return to Tristania akin to a childhood friend seeking to reminisce of better days. So across The Rubicon I go, this time with newcomer Mariangela Demurtas as my guide.
I feel it important to clarify that while Vibeke Stene's departure left Tristania licking it's wounds, the announcement of Italian import Demurtas as her replacement was certainly unexpected in more ways than one. Does she have a nice voice? She is alright, but I don't necessarily agree with the way she is utilized on much of Rubicon. She could be a decent front woman in a more mainstream act, but her talents are inordinately stressed with the demands of a lot of the material here. Mary has the tendency to lose control of her upper register at times, and she boasts a very unusual and distractingly thick accent. It certainly doesn't help when she is called upon to deliver bizarre, atonal melodies like on the verses of "Year of the Rat" and "Patriot Games." She certainly evokes a tense atmosphere once layered with Nordhus' husky tenor, but it isn't as dark or despondent as I would like. The stripped-down, less symphonic constitution of Rubicon only serves to accentuate her shortcomings. Yes, Mary is incredibly pleasant to look at, but otherwise she fails to capitalize on the (admittedly meager) hand she is dealt here.
Let's not lose all hope just yet, as Rubicon flips a few of the right switches when it feels like giving a damn. "Protection" opens with a decent, bobbing powerchord and has a relatively sticky chorus. In fact, Anders has a rather distinctive riffing style that serves Tristania well and ends up constituting an unusually large allocation of the sound partially due to the meager symphonic element. It would be shallow for me to throw Tristania to the wolves for subduing the keyboards on principle alone, but if Rubicon lacks one vital component, it is atmosphere. The normally reliable Moen is relegated to simply standing in the background of promo shots and other than a few piano runs during "Year of the Rat," there isn't a whole lot to see on the symphonic end.
While Rubicon really irked me on first blush, I would be lying if I said that it hasn't grown on me a fair bit. The aforementioned "Protection" should make the "Best of Tristania" list - if one should ever arise. "Exile" is also a pretty solid tune, as is the bonus track "The Emerald Piper." In these tracks I can sort of see what Tristania was going for with Rubicon, but it is still a hard sell to fans of both ends of the spectrum it gracelessly occupies. Here we have an album by a symphonic / Gothic metal band that lacks both the expected austere atmosphere and any real degree of orchestration. Through these deficiencies Rubicon might satisfy a very narrow demographic, but I can't help but feel that it embodies a raw deal on the whole. While I can't necessarily call this any worse than Sirenia's output around this period, do I feel any satisfaction from Rubicon at all? Maybe a little, but more like disappointment with a touch of confusion, to be honest.