LP: Delain ‘Moonbathers’ (Napalm Records)

When my copy of this, the fifth full studio album from Dutch symphonic metallers Delain arrived (on the day of release – kudos Napalm Records and the Royal Mail!) the shrinkwrap covering the record sleeve contained a sticker trumpeting this as ‘Delain’s Finest Moment’. It’s certainly had a lot of build-up; as early as January this year I and other attendees at their ‘Suckerpunch’ gig at Haarlem Patronaat were treated to some short extracts from the sessions they’d been working on. Soon after that came ‘Lunar Prelude’; an EP containing two new tracks, some live material and some previously released songs reworked for the EP. Those two tracks (‘Suckerpunch’ and ‘Turn The Lights Out’) are also featured on this new album, along with a cover of Queen’s 1989 hit ‘Scandal’. More recently, in the weeks leading up to this release, some other tracks have been getting airplay on rock radio; ‘Fire With Fire’ has been featured on a local radio station’s weekly show and ‘The Glory And The Scum’ has also been released as a lyric video on YouTube. On top of all of that, the band released short extracts from all the album tracks, initially to fans who attended the aforementioned ‘Suckerpunch’ show and later on, to YouTube.

With all this activity, it has heightened excitement for the eventual release but also served to spoil a little of the suspense; we already knew two of the songs (three if you are a Queen fan and familiar already with ‘Scandal’) and by the time this record was out, anyone interested will have heard at least half of it. Napalm Records have done what they usually do with acts on their roster, and have issued this album in a bewildering choice of formats including two different vinyl options (my choice this time was the initial double vinyl issue on 180 gram ‘gold’ vinyl) and, for those who have yet to discover the bottom of their pockets, a wooden box containing the CD in ‘mediabook’ packaging, a bonus silver vinyl 7″ disc and – a flag! Once again, the cover features art by Glenn Arthur, whose trademark style is becoming synonymous with this band. But is ‘Moonbathers’ the band’s ‘finest moment’ as trumpeted on that sticker? Time to shred the shrinkwrap and put those 180 gram discs on the turntable to find out…

Things get off to a good start with ‘Hands of Gold’, a lively rocker very much in the familiar style, with symphonic fanfares and downtuned guitar crunches. They have picked up pretty much where they left off with 2014’s ‘The Human Contradiction’; using the same writing team (lead singer Charlotte Wessels, keyboardist Martijn Westerholt and studio collaborator Guus Eikens) and with production duties once again handled by Westerholt, it does feel like a continuation of that record. They even brought back Arch Enemy’s frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz to contribute ‘death growl’ vocal on this track as she did on the previous album closer ‘The Tragedy Of The Commons’. I confess I’m not a fan of that style of vocal, but used sparingly I can handle it. ‘The Glory And The Scum’ is another typically Delain track, one that could have sat on the last album comfortably. All the trademarks are there, I can picture Wessels getting the crowd clapping along to the second verse; they’ve deployed a familiar trick in backing off the guitars, leaving Wessels to sing over a bass drum beat. ‘Suckerpunch’ we know all about, with its Bon Jovi-esque ‘whoa-whoa’ hooks, leading into what I consider to be a highlight of this record, ‘The Hurricane’. A slower, quieter number more akin to what they were doing on ‘We Are The Others’, it has a catchy chorus that lodged its way into my head straight away. The cooling of engines here allows Wessels to use her sweeter vocal, which was what drew her to my attention in the first place, rather than the ‘roar’ she has developed in recent years. Things are taken down still further with the epic ballad ‘Chrysalis – The Last Breath’, once again showcasing the singer’s remarkable voice.

Back up to speed next for ‘Fire With Fire’, as the guitars come roaring back with another high-tempo, but catchy song. The difference between this album and the previous one is that the songs are more ‘hooky’ – with few exceptions they’d moved away from the more pop sensibility of 2009’s ‘April Rain’ but here, it seems to be a partial return to songs you can latch onto quickly, the sort of thing that ‘walks off the disc and into the concert hall’ (if I may steal an old quote from David Coverdale!) ‘Pendulum’ follows, probably their most Metal number on the album and somewhat reminiscent of 2012’s ‘Where Is The Blood’. Towards the back end of the record, it gets a little more experimental; ‘Danse Macabre’ has a strange but catchy ‘eeeyyaahh’ vocal throughout, an unusual hook but effective. I’d been anticipating their cover of ‘Scandal’ since they announced they were to do it.  One of the lesser-known Queen songs (originally from that band’s 1989 album ‘The Miracle’) and from their later period, it was written by Queen guitarist Brian May (although credited to all four members). Its lyric dealt with the relentless intrusion of band members’ personal lives. I did wonder whether that was something Delain also felt hence their decision to cover this track, but it turns out that Martijn Westerholt simply liked the song and was even given May’s blessing to cover it. It’s heavier (the synth riff in the original is now accompanied by guitar), it is a little faster in tempo, but otherwise not too different. However, much as I love Charlotte, nobody beats Freddie Mercury! 😉

‘Turn The Lights Out’ is the other previously released track and is already known (in truth, not one of my favourites) and the album closes with ‘Monarch’. I detect more Queen influence here; the song is mostly instrumental with only a short vocal contribution from Wessels in the middle. Queen did something very similar with the track ‘Bijou’ on the ‘Innuendo’ album; although this song is slower and more keyboard-orientated the effect did remind me of the concept of the ‘inside-out song’ as Mercury and May aimed for with ‘Bijou’.

Following the studio tracks, there are several live tracks presented from a recent show in the band’s home country of the Netherlands; including a live rendition of ‘The Glory And The Scum’. Closing the fourth side of the double LP are orchestral versions of that song and ‘Hands Of Gold’. That’s something they’ve done on previous releases; it is essentially filler material to make up a double LP but the live tracks are more of interest to me personally.

This is a strong album with probably their most accessible songs since ‘We Are The Others’; however I do feel that the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ production takes some of the gloss off for me. One of the things that attracted me to this band some years ago was that their music was less overblown than other bands of this type; the symphonic elements weren’t swamping their vocalist so much. The 2009 album ‘April Rain’ got that balance right for me, but here I found myself struggling to hear Wessels over the wall of sound on some of the heavier tracks. I’ve already heard two of the songs delivered acoustically by her and guitarist Timo Somers; they worked better for me as the strength of the songs was more evident once stripped back. I still think it is a very good album, but one that could have been improved had they left that extra egg from the pudding. (Apologies to Charlotte for the analogy, since she has been vegan for some years now!) 😉

Finally a word about the choice of vinyl this time around; I bought a vinyl LP of ‘We Are The Others’ at a show last year, and on playing it I’d noticed how much more comfortable a listen it was than the CD. I found out later on that it had been mastered differently for that release; further investigation revealed that the CD (and all the others in their catalogue) were ‘brickwalled’; i.e. mastered for maximum ‘loudness’ at the expense of ‘clipping’ of some of the higher frequencies. That makes for an exciting, but wearing listen if played on even halfway-decent stereo equipment, and the vinyl LP proved to be so much more preferable. Since then I’ve bought their subsequent releases (this LP, and ‘Lunar Prelude’) on vinyl and will continue to do so as long as the CDs are mastered that way. (I already had the LP version of ‘The Human Contradiction’.) They’re far from the only band whose CDs have their phasers set to kill, but it is a trend I could do without. If the music can be mastered properly for LP, it can be done better for CD – after all, that format was sold to us back in the 80s as ‘perfect sound which lasts forever’. Not true as we now know, but CD is capable of a far better listening experience than what we are being offered today in the never-ending ‘loudness war’.

4 - deserving

4 – Deserving

Moonbathers cover

Moonbathers cover

 

 

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