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Dark Tranquillity > Skydancer > Reviews > differer
Dark Tranquillity - Skydancer

The beginnings of melodeath - 81%

differer, June 16th, 2009

Sometimes it’s funny to listen to an old debut album. Nowadays, a band that’s clearly still developing doesn’t often get a chance to put out a full-length album, but things were very different in the early nineties. What makes Dark Tranquillity a special case among all the bands that started out back then, is the fact that they managed to start on a high note. ‘Skydancer’ is their best album to date, and not only that; it’s also one of the best melodic death metal albums ever.

However, this does by no means imply that the album is flawless. There is a certain awkwardness in the music that could perhaps be explained away – on grounds of early stages and all that – had it not grown worse on some of their later releases. For one thing, the songwriting is most of the time patchy and illogical (as opposed to unique or innovative), and not fluent in any conventional way. The songs feel like rambling – there are often simply too many different things in one song. If you can’t take my word for it, listen to ‘Shadow Duet’ which, incidentally, is probably the best track this album has to offer. When the structures are more straightforward and a song sticks to one distinguishable mood, a different type of awkwardness appears – namely, that the melodies don’t seem to “go” anywhere. It still seems patchy, in the sense that the parts don’t work together very well, even if they are good individually (see: ‘In Tears Bereaved’). There’s also often a hasty feel in the music, like the band can’t leave well enough alone but keep on cramming notes into melodies, beats into drum patterns and words into vocal lines just for the sake of having more of them there (see: ‘Nightfall by the Shore of Time’).

As many probably know, the music mainly consists of tremolo-picked two-guitar melodies that clearly have their foundation in Iron Maiden et al., but there is also a technical quality to this that makes me think a band like Atheist could count as an influence too. The palm-muted riffage typical for most death metal is very seldom heard and the compositions are anything but "brutal"; I would rather say that there is a sophisticated and thought-out feel to this, focusing more on musicianship than heaviness per se. What is also notable is that some of the tracks seem like "theme and variations" instead of following any common structures. For example, 'A Bolt of Blazing Gold', shifting from clean plucking to distorted riffage and back again, has essentially the same melodic form throughout the song. When executed well, the guitar parts are phenomenal in their melodic interplay, but only very rarely does this last for an entire song. 'My Faeryland Forgotten' (which even features some conventional riffs) and 'Alone' (a slower, almost peaceful track) are the most consistent ones. Sometimes the twin guitars can sound a bit thin, as both occasionally venture to higher tones, but these parts are salvaged by the bass. I'm not a huge fan of the bassist's style - he often plays much like a third guitarist - but at least the instrument takes up a lot of (otherwise empty) space where appropriate, leaving the guitars free to explore their harmony lines.

What I don't like at all on this album are the drums and vocals. The drumming sounds stiff, in a word. The beats are unimaginative and don't often fit the music too well, making the rhythm feel forced and unnatural.
There are times when I wish the drums would keep quiet altogether, in particular some of the clean parts suffer from the rigid beating; 'Through Ebony Archways' is a perfect example of this. As for the singing, there's simply too much of it. Or, better said, too much lyrics - they have their role in making the music feel hasty. Some great instrumental work is buried under a mass of growls (and those are not really spectacular, either). What's more, I honestly don't see a point in having two vocalists, as Fridén and Stanne sound just about exactly the same. The clean male voice that appears on two tracks is dreadful and should have been left out completely. The voice is weak and barely in tune, the kind that makes you wonder if the band knew what they were doing. And then there are the lyrics that seriously make me shudder; way too many fancy words and totally obscure metaphors that seem pretentious and make you think they were written with the help of a dictionary.

But, even with all its flaws, I have to say I like ‘Skydancer’. It’s personal, really, since this was one of the albums that introduced me to death metal. (Not that I ever thought of it as death metal; to me this was always more like “melodic metal with harsh vocals”, but the difference is rather slight.) There are parts on the album that still give me the chills. I’ve only started criticizing some sides of the music after becoming a somewhat analytical musician myself, so my complaints are not to be given too much weight – I don’t even do so myself.

For a concluding historical note, it is astonishing to notice how remarkably few obvious similarities this album has with the established styles of the death metal scene of its time, be it Florida, Stockholm or NYC – as we all now know, 'Skydancer' is for its part responsible for creating the "Gothenburg sound". I don't care much for what melodic death metal, the Gothenburg scene, or Dark Tranquillity themselves have later become, but this is an album of undeniable historical significance. It has its flaws, yes, but as a document of early melodeath, it also has its place in the collection of any DM enthusiast.