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Gothic Metal, A Fading Tale

Gothic Metal, A Fading Tale
Editorial by Sam B. Grant

2006 has already proved an important year. After the musical wasteland of 2005 it’s been reassuring to see some of the bigger names releasing long-awaited albums and some of those albums have not only been long-awaited, but needed, demanded, craved and pined for by a whole host of Gothic Metal fanatics all over the world.

At the beginning of the year, with Lacuna Coil out of the spotlight since 2002 and with Nightwish having jettisoned their vocalist in favour of someone with an ego not quite as large as the next WTC conspiracy theory it almost felt as if the Gothic Metal genre had been unintentionally orphaned and that it was up to Within Temptation and a number of smaller bands to take up the parenthood and make us all feel that everything wasn’t going to go to hell in a chickenbasket.

Though why should any of us have been worried at all anyway? Are we really that fickle and pernickety that as soon as one of the keystones drops out temporarily we’ll all be shaking our heads, commenting that everything’s gone dry and that the luscious, verdant plateau of musical ecstasy we were once all frolicking in has become a barren vacuum of hopelessness? Well, yes and no. Tristania did try to reassure us all that they still had it in them with their mediocre Ashes, and Epica’s Consign To oblivion didn’t quite live up to the standard of its predecessor, however, After Forever did manage to convince us of their worthiness with Remagine, even though it was starkly different from the Gothic loveliness of their earlier works. And there lies the rub: the problem exists in the fact that most of us got into Gothic metal in the first place through the sounds of early Tristania, LC and Theatre Of Tragedy whose offerings are now almost disparate from what they used to be. The goalposts have well and truly shifted in favour of success and commercialism, and now that a slightly different sound is expected of bands in order to sell records, the likelihood of things changing back to their original order is slim.

Nevertheless, this is how musical genres, bands and styles develop and it’s clear to see that femme-fronted Gothic Metal in the late 90s is no longer the inventive nightling it used to be. The main albums of 2006 have been now put out by some of the most important bands around – The Gathering, Theatre Of Tragedy and Lacuna Coil - bands that have shaped the very foundations of the music which subsequent artists such as Xandria, Elis, Evanescence and Bloodflowerz now practise. However, in order for things to really go with a bang for Mr Label Magnate and his minions – the emphasis in Gothic metal really has to be in the ‘metal’ rather than Gothic. What does Gothic mean for the genre anymore but just the inclusion of female vocals and the odd choir sample thrown in? Maybe we’re all becoming too easy to please and a little too indiscriminate. It seems that the original Gothic essence is being lost in favour of what the majority of people really want and since Gothic metal didn’t sell enough of its own back, the labels have to bring in the cavalry in the shape of chunkier, bouncy riffs and songs which are as easily forgotten as you can say ‘MTV2’.

There is always another way to relieve the pressure of the tide of corporate condition though. The most discriminate band of the original bunch would be The Gathering who released one of the most impressive albums that I’ve heard for a long time this month. My faith for the band had been slowly spiralling downwards for the last few years but Home has beautifully righted the balance. The Gathering were a band who, one album after releasing their much-acclaimed seminal Gothic metal album, did a bit of a Radiohead manoeuvre [and it’s no coincidence that this is one of the bands which they respect the most] and instead of trying to top what they had already written, they went in a totally different direction in 1998 and have been honing their sound and whittling it to perfection over since. Home deserves to stand proud above the rest of Gothic metal though it is, in a sense, not Gothic at all. Backing away from Century Media really gave the band the chance to explore what avenues of interest they wanted to, and listening to Home serves as a reminder that these people have risen above the genre which they created rather than have their music contorted into something user-friendly, bitesize, colourful and sugary which a lot of other bands do. The choice was theirs – go your own way or go with a major label and have your music altered in order to make your albums fly off the shelves with greater ease.

One band who are guilty of this, now more than before, are the ever-inventive Lacuna Coil. Inventive, that is, in creating less and less complex songs, saying less and less likeable things about the genre that spawned their success and becoming less and less agreeable people. Is this what happens to bands when they become successful? Maybe for some, though I would have thought that LC would have risen above such an attitude. However, the evidence is there, horrible for all to see and though Karmacode isn’t terrible as an album, it is but a carcass of the kind of music they used to produce – a rotting shell with only a semblance of similarity to the music they were making five years ago, such is the draw and pull of the recording industry when it sinks its fangs into you. Of course the new – and younger – fans will lap it up like it’s the best thing their little ears have come ever across and oh how popular they will in the forums discussing it. Then there are the new experts who will have managed to quickly purchase all LC’s other albums on the back of this one so they can say how diverse the band used to be but Karmacode is far and away their best effort.

Still, once can’t really blame the band for taking this tack. When presented with the option of making a living out of your life’s love of music or earning a hell of a lot less money but still having freedom to do what you want with your sound, most of us would probably choose the former option. Are we really going to blame LC over The Gathering when people were also saying three years ago that Souvenirs was a total betrayal to their earlier music? The answer is simple – you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can at least ensure that the majority of your fanbase retains respect for you. In this way, The Gathering show themselves to be more innovative than one might initially think since by being individuals rather than pieces of the machine they can still garner respect from their fans to the point where people will buy their music having not heard it since they know they will be in for an interesting and challenging listen whenever they buy a Gathering record. That’s an experience which hardly any of the LC fanbase can admit to sharing. And that, for the serious music fan, is a risk that many of us are willing to take.

It’s a bit of shame that just over ten years down the line since female-fronted Gothic metal came into its own, that many of us would plead for a back-to-basics approach to the genre, reigniting the torch that carried it this far before commercialism got its hold. On the other hand, ten years in the land of rock and metal is a very long time with fads and genres being created and falling away left, right and centre. Creativity is about using what tools you have open to you and allowing only as much influence in as you can control. In another ten years time The Gathering are far more likely to stick around than Lacuna Coil. By then, the moguls will have filled their pockets, the kiddies will be into something else but the older and more respected bands will have grown in strength. Maturity isn’t always counted in years. It is primarily – and musically - a state of mind.

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