Thursday, January 28, 2016

Album Review: Serenity - Codex Atlanticus

Let's start with a moment of honesty; symphonic metal has never been a genre that I'm a big fan of. For the most part, when I listen to that kind of music, I hear songwriters who are so in love with the ability to layer a dozen instruments on top of one another that they don't always write the sharpest songs. While the ear-candy is often interesting, there's nothing holding up the layers of frosting. Serenity is one of the few bands that has done a better job of striking a balance. I genuinely liked their album "Fallen Sanctuary" when it came out, thinking that it had just the right amount of pomp to go along with the sticky melody. But then they started moving further into the outskirts of artistic metal, which made me abandon ship. There were two amazing tracks on "Death & Legacy", but the album as a whole didn't work for me, and I think I completely skipped the dual vocalist approach they took on "War Of Ages". But being as this is a new year, and Serenity has taken steps to be more of their old selves, I figured I would give their new album a chance.

As expected, things get underway with a symphonic introductory piece, which doesn't really do a lot to set the stage. "Follow Me" opens the proper album with a few twinkling piano notes before the rest of the band makes it clear that this is still going to be a metal album. The song is pretty much exactly what you would expect from Serenity, with something interesting happening in the background at all times, and Georg Neuhauser's vocals dominating the song. It's a perfectly solid song, but as an opener it wouldn't have gotten me as excited as "Iniquity" did when it was released as a single.

Before we can get to that track, we have "Sprouts Of Terror", which speeds along like a Blind Guardian song of old. We get voices playing characters, and when the song slows down for the orchestral swell before the chorus, it's one of those moments that illustrates what symphonic music can be. It's a very simple moment, and it doesn't last, but it's beautiful and emotional in a way that metal can't often be. That track leads into the aforementioned "Iniquity", which is such a strong track that it convinced me I needed to give the full album a listen. The strings here are massive and heavy, dripping with drama, while the song ebbs and flows through quiet moments and epic bombast, culminating in one of those melodies Neuhauser can write that sweep you up. It's utterly fantastic, and if Serenity could ever bottle that spirit and use it to infuse an entire album, they could produce a masterpiece.

After that, however, the album reverts back to comfortable form. There's nothing wrong with tracks like "Reason" and "My Final Chapter", but they lack the spark that makes "Iniquity" so good. The symphonic parts don't hit as hard, and the melodies don't latch on as easily. They're good tracks, but when you've just heard something amazing, they come across as a bit disappointing.

Maybe a part of the problem is the odd choice to use very few backing vocals in the choruses. For an album as lush as this, that decision makes little sense, and the fact that Neuhauser is singing by himself most of the time, no matter how good his voice is, means that the choruses have nothing to separate themselves from the verses. I think upping the ante, making them feel even larger, would have gone a long way to solving that issue.

Overall, "Codex Atlanticus" is an album that fits in with my preconceptions of Serentity; they're a band with plenty of promise, but they only write one or two songs on each album that really hook me. "Codex Atlanticus" is a good album, but for all the layers and orchestrations it contains, it's also a bit bland. "Iniquity" is going to wind up one of the best songs of the year, but the album as a whole is going to be in the large pack of good records that I won't be able to distinguish it from.

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