Friday, October 4, 2013

Sleeping Romance - Enlighten (2013)

Metal music with women handling vocal duties is nothing new, as bands dating back as far as the late 1970's boasted either women as lead vocalists, or even some all-female line-ups, such as Girlschool or Rock Goddess.  In the last 10-12 years, however, women fronting metal bands has become a bit of a trend, if not an outright phenomenon.  From the rise of Nightwish right around 2000 (then helmed by Tarja Turunen), to the popularization of "gothic metal" by bands like Lacuna Coil (Christina Scabbia), Xandria, and Within Temptation, metal bands sporting a woman lead singer have become commonplace.  The formula is simple: take a talented set of musicians of any gender and pair them with a reasonably attractive woman who can sing, sprinkle in plenty of melody and give the guitars some grit, and you have yourself a female-fronted metal band.  Now in reality, it's not quite that simple, but when looking at the sheer number of bands that have been formed and introduced in the last 4-5 years alone, it seems like all of a sudden, metal bands with women as lead vocalists have come out of the woodwork tenfold.

The problem with this sudden glut of metal bands with vocalists of the feminine persuasion is that, like the glut of "glam metal" bands of the late 80's and early 90's, or the long running glut of European-styled power metal bands, most of the bands don't stand out enough to do more than become part of the landscape, rather than being a hill or mountain that fans of the genre might want to scale to discover more than what's on the surface.  To really make an impact, a band must either have ea unique sound and approach that separates them from the pack, or they have to have songs that really hit home and connect with audiences.  If a band can bring both to the table, they have the best chance to break free from the "scene" and garner a larger listener base.  Is Sleeping Romance positioning themselves to do just that?  Read on!

First things first: the name Sleeping Romance is kind of cheesy, so I want to get that on the table right away.  Not that half the names of half the metal bands on the planet aren't in some way cheesy, silly, or downright awful, but that is a first impression which may deter some listeners.  If the name doesn't put you off to listening to the band, then you're likely to hear a lot of touchstones you've heard before from other groups.  Punchy, bass-heavy guitar sound that shifts back and forth between muscular metal and groovy hard rock vibes?  Check.  Thick, full production that gives the proceedings weight and volume?  Check.  Talented players cranking out reasonably good tunes?  Check.  Vocals that range from Evanescence rocking to Nightwish-lite Tarja Turunen style operatics?  Check.  Is this all starting to sound a little too familiar?  Check.

In defense of the album, it all sounds really good.  The guitar sound is nice, with a real weight and depth to the tone.  It's not overly heavy, though there are a few chugging portions where the heaviness factor goes up just slightly, and it feels a bit more aggressive than it all really is.  When the solos come, you can hear that guitarist Federico Truzzi is a talent, and has some fretboard skill.  I will say that bass guitar is a highlight here, especially in "Soul Reborn" where the bassist does all kinds of runs up and down that provide a more interesting backdrop than the standard "follow the melody" sort of playing that tends to be the case.  Drum work is solid, if nondescript, though there are dynamics here and there which help make things less rote, notably during the softer sections of ballad "December Flower".  Otherwise, the drumming doesn't stand out as much, though that's typical for this style.  Vocals by Federica Lanna are the focal point here, and really, they are quite well done.  She has a voice and style that lands somewhere in between Tarja Turunen's highly operatic style and Christina Scabbia's more laid-back, sultry sound.  She vacillates between the 2 approaches, often within the same song.  This usually looks like a laid back verse vocal, and then a higher register, more urgently sung chorus with more of that overdubbed, operatic feel.  I'd like to hear a bit more emotion and inflection from her, but honestly, it's difficult to overly fault her performance here, because she sounds great and brings plenty to the table.  The male background vocals sprinkled throughout also sound good.

In terms of how I feel about the album, I can say that at first, I was somewhat ambivalent.  The music sounded good, but didn't do much for me, as I felt like I'd heard it all before, and generally done better elsewhere.  As I've continued to listen to the album, however, it has sort of grown on me slowly, with Federica's voice slowly beginning to worm its way into my heart a little.  Not to the point where I feel she's in the top tier of female metal vocalists (she's no Tarja, Simone Simmons, or Floor Jansen), but she has a good voice that she uses well on the record, and that's enough to take this debut up a notch.  Part of my problem here is that musically, they sound an awful lot like label-mates Darkwater with more symphonics and a woman at the vocal helm.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I already have both Darkwater albums, and generally prefer that band when they're playing power metal under the Harmony moniker.  Still, this is a competent album with well constructed songs that eventually begin to stick with you, despite the melody lines being less catchy than they ought to be for this style.  As this is the band's debut, it's hard to give them too much flack, since this is a respectable first effort, and one that I've enjoyed spending time with.  More time spent writing songs that have catchier melodies, or that flex the band's muscle more will help them get ahead.  They're at their best when they're making things more epic, like the excellent "Devil's Cave" at the end of the album, as well as "The Promise Inside" or perhaps "Free Me".  I just don't know how much I'll go back to it now that this review is written, and that's what the band needs to know going forward.  I will recommend this to gothic/symphonic metal diehards, and to those who simply cannot get enough metal with female vocals.  Otherwise, I'd recommend listening to this one first.


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