Monday, December 17, 2012

Ashen - All We Will See (2012)

Symphonic metal newcomers Ashen are not as young as their discography appears. Formed in 2004 in northern Holland, this six piece have been around for the better part of eight years without so much as an official release. With a stroke of bad lucky, they won first prize in a "battle of the bands" contest, only to be abandoned by the promoter in the process. Focusing on their writing, alongside a host of live shows, the band dug themselves out of a rut in 2010, solidified their line up and decided the the time was near. On their first full length album, second only to their 2006 demo recording, the female fronted outfit look to show that their time was not wasted. The seven songs of "All We Will See" may be enough to give the listener hope, but they leave many questions unanswered.

There is a majestic nature to the keys that open "Grey," setting the tone for the track at large. But as vocalist Melanie van Hoof enters the first time, her voice lacks the initial staying power. It isn't in her ability to hit the right notes; she has that pretty well locked. But in the more standard singing parts, she lacks confidence in her talents, and it leaves her feeling timid. As she hits the more operatic segments, she shines, giving the needed dimension to the mix. For their part, the band does well to move things along, creating a wholly atmospheric quality through the use of symphonics. A quick barrage of guitar work, followed by some aggressive male screams, courtesy of guitarist Danny Bouman, rounds out the track. The title track, which happens to be the longest on the album, sees a tempo shift as the main highlight. With the speed turned up, van Hoof and Bouman trade vocal blows over a series of double kicks. Together, they spark a great deal of chemistry. Separate from one another, there is a stilted feel to their vocals, with Bouman's coming off as forced at times. Despite a somewhat flat mix, the instrumental is well played and well constructed. The overall precision is fairly incredible, with each piece relying so much on the others to come through. In particular, the last minute shows the pieces finding common ground, resulting in a memorable melody.

It may have taken three tracks, but van Hoof comes into her own on "Orphan," delivering a chilling performance in both standard and operatic styles. It plays out as the most complete track on the album, even incorporating Bouman's vocals in a significant way, without losing any of the thunder that the instrumental has to offer. The bridge segment does wonders, allowing the symphonic elements to come through unhindered, laying down a rich blend of piano and strings. They execute the tempo shifts well, and make ample room for the heavy guitars to end the song. The work of keyboardist Robert Blokdijk quickly becomes key, especially on songs like "Pavor Nocturnus," where the synthesized pieces become the keystone for an entire mix. The bad strikes a very delicate balance here, one that could crumble at any moment with too much, or not enough, of anything. The spoken word portion almost derails the entire operation, until a blast of extreme metal takes over and rights the ship. But in the more stripped down "Ivory Rose," the dual vocal attack becomes even more important. Both Bouman and van Hoof are at their best here, delivering powerful performances when paired together. The combination of scary and sublime elevates the track, even when the instrumental takes a back seat. A pulsing bass line occupies many of the quiet moments, which is a nice touch in a simple track.

An extended intro, flooded with tremendous depth of sound, opens "Save Me." The bass heavy symphonics prepare you for a blast of guitars of drums, one that simply does not live up to the buildup. van Hoof takes a step back here, her voice seemingly getting a little lost in the wind. She tries to force in extra accents to the verse, just missing the mark. Her aria is as perfect as ever, though the grutns of Bouman are a little off center this time around. Luckily, the best guitar work resides in the bridge here, at times sounding like "Humans Being" era Van Halen. This seems to be a shock to the system, as the outro finally sees the full band come together as one cohesive unit. It sets up the beautiful piano intro to "Insanity," a virtuosic piece in and of itself. This is the heavier side of the band, with the harsh male vocals taking the lead, as van Hoof plays second fiddle. The way the two voices comes together is key, especially at the minute and half mark, making you wish there had been more moments like it scattered throughout the album. The second half of the track gives you a taste of what the band is capable of, but didn't execute fully. There are more aggressive pieces, some incorporating all of the elements at their disposal into one larger than life mix. And though those moments are fleeting, they are present enough to leave hope for what comes next.

Taken as separate pieces, it would be hard to find something not to rave about on this album. The guitar work, bass work, drumming, keys, and vocals are all top notch in their our right. But the way they come together, or fail to at times, is what makes Ashen a band with a lot of work left to do. This isn't to say they are left to reinvent the wheel with their music, but Bouman, van Hoof and company have to find a stable ground to build their future albums on. They must use these seven tracks to find and highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and do more to take advantage of both. Whether it is the accessible vocals in the verse, the male grunts in the bridge and chorus, or the way the orchestral elements are integrated, it all needs a little coat of polish to make it all shine. Despite the album name, I suspect this isn't "All We Will See;" there will hopefully be a lot more to come.


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