Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Human Contradiction | Delain

In the symphonic metal realm of the Internet, Delain has been gaining recognition, especially with the release of their latest album, The Human Contradiction. It was a bit easier for Delain to make their name known in the world of symphonic metal as it was started by Martijn Westerholt, brother of Robert of Westerholt and initial keyboardist of Within Temptation, but they've only been growing in popularity as they've been releasing albums. Lead vocalist Charlotte Wessels has a unique voice since she's had both classical and jazz training, and while it took her style a while to grow on me, the fact of the matter is that Delain is making music that's catchy enough and heavy enough to demand attention almost instantly nonetheless. The Human Contradiction is a lovely symphonic metal album because of these elements.
"Here Come the Vultures" kicks the album off with a horror feel reminiscent of songs like "The Howling" by Within Temptation and "Cloud Nine" by Evanescence. It begins softly with chimes and piano as Wessels sings along to a creepy melody, but then heavy and infectious guitar riffs come in at the end of her powerful opening verse: "I just want to see you stare / As I lay my soul bare for you / To crush upon with heavy feet / I'm in it for the beat." This is the longest song on the album, clocking in at about six minutes, and even though the overall structure is a bit repetitive, more elements are added to make the song more interesting. The choir and strings become more and more prominent as the track continues, and there are moments where I definitely see the resemblance between this band and Within Temptation. The final section of the bridge is a thrashing jam session that is a perfect blend of guitars and strings, and I don't think I could be happier with this opener.
"Army of Dolls" also stands out as one of my favorites. I fell in love with it right away when I heard it during Delain's setlist as they opened for Nightwish last month, and it's actually what motivated me to look up more of Delain's music. It's an epic track about body image and the struggle to accept oneself amid society's impossible standards... It actually surprises me that there aren't more songs about this; I'm very happy Wessels decided to tackle the subject. The chorus is a fantastic blend of guitars and keyboards and it's easy to get it caught in your head as Wessels repeats "Do you want me...?" The middle eight seems to slow things down before all hell breaks loose (sort of like in "Here Come the Vultures," yet still distinctive). I love this song.
The first single, "Stardust," primarily stands out because of its catchy chorus and pretty lyrics: "Bring me to life / Bring me to starlight / Bring me the sun and moon / Release the stars tonight." However, the second verse helps the song chug along since guitars are added and it doesn't rely quite so heavily on vocals alone. The piano part of the pre-chorus almost seems to imitate a heartbeat and continues as one of the chorus' layers, another of the song's great elements. Even though it's one of the poppier songs from the album the middle eight certainly still rocks and adds a soothing choral layer. I wasn't initially crazy about "Stardust," but it definitely grew on me once I was able to truly appreciate the standout chorus.
"Lullaby" is also a pretty solid track with a mystifying use of keyboards. It's one of the more repetitive songs, but it's quite fun and energized. The way Wessels vocalizes in the middle eight reminds me a bit of Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation, and I also hear this resemblance in the beautiful chorus of "The Tragedy of the Commons." Death metal vocalist Alissa White-Gluz of The Agonist and Arch Enemy is featured in the bridge, a dark and interesting contrast to Wessel's lighter voice. "The Tragedy of the Commons" has a perfect combination of heaviness and lightness, thus making it one of my favorites and a relatively memorable album-closer.

This album features a couple of other high-profile guest vocalists. Marco Hietala of Nightwish sings on "Your Body is a Battleground" and "Sing to Me." "Your Body is a Battleground" is definitely the heaviest of the two with its intense, war-like feel, and "Sing to Me" is more melodic. Neither are favorites of mine but I prefer "Sing to Me" as it's more relatable and the string line during the middle eight is quite pretty.

I was more excited for "Tell Me, Mechanist," as it features the ex-Orphanage vocalist George Oosthoek... We all know how much I love George. And while he sounds great on this track, it's a really good song nonetheless. It begins with just Wessels and the piano: "Tell me, Mechanist, is it true? / Does none of it bother you?" But heavy riffs reminiscent of Amaranthe's music comes in and it sounds fantastic. It's definitely a highlight.

In short, I was pleased with The Human Contradiction. I actually enjoyed it more than I anticipated. Even though there are a couple of mediocre tracks and I just couldn't get into "My Masquerade," I really like what Delain is doing here. Plus, on the two-disc edition we get the piano ballad "Scarlet," which is undoubtedly one of their best pieces - it's so subtle but so epic! Their blend of strings and guitars is really well-balanced and they display some wonderful moments in terms of songwriting. While I can't quite rank Delain among symphonic metal legends Within Temptation, Nightwish, and Epica, I must say that they are leagues ahead of quite a few of the bands within this subgenre. I'm impressed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Classics I Can't Believe I Haven't Read Yet

Top Ten Tuesday is a fantastic bookish meme from The Broke and the Bookish. Every week book bloggers are asked to make lists based on the chosen topic, but this week is a free-for-all. Today I'm going to be talking about classics and the good 'ole TBR:

Top Ten Classics I Can't Believe I Haven't Read Yet
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Anthem Ayn Rand
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Hidden Force by Louis Couperus
*For those of you wondering "What even is this?": It's more prominent in Dutch literature. My favorite album by Within Temptation, The Silent Force, was written about this book, and that's why I want to read it.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Emily Bronte’s Poetry
Paradise Lost by John Milton

Feel free to leave your Top Ten Tuesday link. Have a great day!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ultraviolence | Lana Del Rey

It's certainly no secret that Lana Del Rey's music sometimes needs time to grow on me... Remember that time I reviewed her debut Born to Die somewhat negatively and eventually wrote a note on it saying that I mostly changed my mind and ended up loving it? I like to avoid stuff like that and give albums their fair chance. That's why it took me so long before I listened to her latest release, Ultraviolence.

Even though this new album is a departure from the odd yet wonderful mesh of indie and R&B influences of Born to Die and the delicate, score-like sounds of Paradise, Lana has once again crafted an album that's solid, relaxing, and perfect for summer. Altogether, it's certainly very Lana despite any differences in sound. Ultraviolence took even longer than Born to Die to grow on me, but finally, the time is right for me to appreciate this new direction.

Ultraviolence is a strange combination of dark and beachy sounds, and it works... In a way, it has more of an alternative vibe as it's very guitar-led. However, the guitars are like a lazy, hot summer day - the parts make me think of Pink Floyd's riffs in songs like "Breathe" and "Us and Them." This is especially noticeable in the single "Shades of Cool." It's very slow and dreamy, and there's even a bit of a guitar solo in there. Oddly enough this song had no effect on me whatsoever the first few times listening to it, but now I can't get enough. Despite being less ballad-like and having more of a kick to it (for lack of a better term), "Cruel World" has a similar feel. And of course, Lana's mellow alto voice molds into this relaxing, dark, yet summery flow perfectly.

The 'beachiness' of Ultraviolence comes full force in the singles "Brooklyn Baby" and "West Coast." Actually, "Brooklyn Baby" is one of the few songs that I loved instantly with the semi-staccato guitar line and general melody. Percussion really helps the song pick up at the start of the second verse, and Lana's lyrics certainly have their appeal: "Well my boyfriend's in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed / I've got feathers in my hair / I get down to beat poetry." At that point I was basically in love. On the other hand, "West Coast" took absolutely forever to grow on me, but once it did... Well, it's still hard for me to keep away from it. Lana half sings, half narrates the verses in a way that might sound musically appealing at first, but once you see how it fits in line with that fantastic chorus, it makes perfect sense. Still, the chorus is the best part of the song as it takes the pace back down a bit and Lana sings in the most soothing way.

"Old Money" is the most stripped down, with the instruments primarily being the piano and some strings. This song is by far the easiest to fall in love with. It's beautiful and soft, and the vocal line is similar to the classic "A Time for Us" from Romeo and Juliet. Fans of her album Paradise will eat this song up like candy. The lyrics are especially poetic: "My father's love was always strong / My mother's glamour lives on and on..." "Old Money" always makes me think of my favorite movie American Beauty for some reason... It feels somewhat similar to the softer moments of Thomas Newman's gorgeous score.

"Pretty When You Cry" and "Money Power Glory" are other slower-paced song that stand out for both their simplicity and melancholy feel. The guitar part of "Pretty When You Cry" reminds me of "Hotel California" by The Eagles, except this is much darker (despite still being an ideal summertime track), and while "Money Power Glory" certainly has some of the more 'classic' ingredients found on Ultraviolence (chilled guitars, simple piano chords, etc.) it's more atmospheric. In fact, at the very beginning of that one I was reminded a bit of the alt/synthpop band Of Verona.

The title track, "Sad Girl," and "Fucked My Way to the Top" are the only ones I don't care for, at least on the standard, and of the three deluxe bonus tracks, the ever-melancholy "Black Beauty" was the only one to resonate with me. Overall, Ultraviolence left me with very positive vibes. Even though it's lighter and easy to listen to, it's still relatively dark, like all of Lana's work. I'm really happy I gave it a chance to grow on me and I definitely encourage everyone to give it a try this summer. After all, that seems to be Lana's prime season, and Ultraviolence is no exception.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Favorite Voices: Part 2

Years ago I compiled a list of my favorite vocalists of all time. That list is still true today - I love all of those singers just as much as I did back then. (However... I must warn anyone who reads it: It was posted during my first couple years of blogging, which means the layout isn't quite right and my writing is super simplistic.) Somewhat recently, I've developed some love for other voices, and I thought now would be a good time to share them.

Floor Jansen
Member of: After Forever, ReVamp, Nightwish

It took me a while to discover the perfection that is Queen Floor. Once she started filling in for Nightwish I listened to her on "Ghost Love Score," and by the last note I became a fan for life. She has mastered a combination of vocal styles one could only imagine: She can hit notes higher than the stratosphere, she can sing classically with grace and power, she can sing metal with a grungy sound, she can growl better than most of the grunters in the metal scene. And she can switch between styles with seconds to spare. This woman is power. When watching videos of Nightwish's "The Greatest Show on Earth" live I thought an extra lion was added between the sections "Life" and "The Toolmaker." But it wasn't a lion. It was Floor.
George Oothsoek
Member of: Orphanage

I actually don't know Oothsoek from his band Orphanage. Instead, I know him from Within Temptation's impressive list of concert DVDs, all of which feature him as a guest. On the Mother Earth Tour DVD,  he performs "Deep Within," on The Silent Force and Let Us Burn: Elements and Hydra Live in Concert he performs "Candles," and on Black Symphony he performs "The Other Half (Of Me)." On Black Symphony, Within Temptation's lead vocalist Sharon den Adel calls him "the best grunter in the Netherlands," and I completely agree. Many grunters struggle with consistence live as they have to really do it just right in order to sound good and not destroy their voices, but George is spot-on.
Dolores O’Riordan
Member of: The Cranberries
*Also has a solo career

If you told me eight years ago that I'd feature Dolores O'Riordan on a list of my favorite vocalists, I would have said you were crazy. But here we are. O'Riordan's voice is characterized by a thick Irish accent and the way her voice cracks a bit at the end of phrases. It's not what a lot of people are used to, but her sound is so unique it's impossible not to grow fond of it. She belts so strongly and thrusts a lot of emotion in her voice, making her sound utterly powerful at times but utterly broken at other times.
Dido Armstrong

Even though I've always known of Dido and even owned one of her albums, my appreciation for her has truly grown over the past half year. Her alto voice is one of the smoothest I've ever heard, but I suppose hearing it always makes me nostalgic since I remember hearing "Thank You" on the radio 24/7 as a child (I think my mother was completely sick of the song at the time, but even she can't resist Dido now). To be honest, I only really like some select songs from her, but her voice is so pretty that I'll always be interested in her career.

Chester Bennington
Member of: Linkin Park

A unique sound, a unique range. Chester Bennington's tenor voice is certainly recognizable even though much of the mainstream-listening general public doesn't know him by name and instead by the title "The Lead Singer of Linkin Park." His voice is higher-pitched than that of most men and has a remarkable clarity to it, but Bennington is also known for his harsh vocals. Rather than projecting low, monstrous growls and screams, Bennington screams about as high as he can sing. In addition to Linkin Park's fusion of genres that lessen some of their rock music's aggresiveness a times, Bennington's voice is also a factor that plays into the band's widespread popularity.
Elena Tonra
Member of: Daughter

Daughter is one of those bands that are the epitome of the laid-back indie sound, much like Radical Face but perhaps more melancholy. However, the effect wouldn't be the same without Elena Tonra's alto vocals. Her voice has a smoothness remnicient of Dido (though I'd definitely be able to distinguish the difference between the two in an a cappella match). She doesn't show off; she just goes with the music and allows her voice to mesh with subtle instruments, and hence, her voice is quite peaceful to listen to.