Gothic metal, or as I’ve come to think of it, hot-babes-with-epic-pipes metal. I used to love it but admit to getting burned out on it over the last few years due to the over proliferation of these types of female fronted acts. Of course, some bands do it way better than others but it just seemed like there were a million generic, plastic imitations running around and I eventually washed my hands of the whole style. So when I was assigned the new Ava Inferi album, I didn’t have high expectations to say the least. Onyx is the third album by this Portugal based crew which features the guitar work and song writing of Rune Eriksen (Aura Noir) and the vocal stylings of Carmen Susana Simoes. Although these folks are usually classified as gothic/doom, there’s really no doom in their sound in the conventional sense. No crushing riffs, no mournful dirges. Instead, they strive to create a somber, melancholy feeling by playing sedately, with minimal aggression. While I wasn’t blown away by their previous material, this one managed to get under my skin and really grew on me. I must caution however, although I liked it more than expected, I get the feeling many metal minded individuals will not feel the same way.
Onyx is a tricky album to nail down. There isn’t anything new or innovative here and a lot of what you hear will remind you of their better known genre contemporaries. The opening title track is a dead-ringer for Beyond the Veil era Tristania minus the growls. Tracks like “Majesty” and “Portal” sound a lot like Edenbridge during their more introspective moments. Despite the lack of innovation, the combination of haunting atmosphere, outstanding songwriting and the impressive yet restrained vocal performance by Ms. Simoes all conspire to make you think this is something different although your brain tells you otherwise. Every song is mid-paced, tranquil and laid back with guitar work that never gets in your face and there’s absolutely no cookie monster vocals. During “The Living End,” Mr. Eriksen lends his vocals but they’re deep, clean singing rather than shouts or roars. This is very much the Carmen show and her vocals form the focal point and foundation of every song and her ethereal, forlorn singing takes the material to a higher level entirely. Tracks like “The Living End,” “The Heathen Island” and “Venice in Fog” are crafted to put Carmen out front and let her emotional crooning carry the listener away and these tracks are real winners (despite “The Heathen Island” containing a riff distractingly reminiscent to Stone Temple Pilots’ “Vasoline”). Carmen’s vocals are so enjoyable because she never tries to overdo it and go all opera-diva-Tarja on us. This isn’t anything like Nightwish or Epica vocally and that’s a good thing.
Production on Onyx was handled by the ubiquitous Dan Swan0 and his supervision results in a lush, rich soundscape that invokes the 80s gothic rock sound. While the vocals are the focus, they aren’t pushed too far into the forefront and the guitar, though nonthreatening, is right there too and the balance feels right. Is there anything Super Swano can’t do? (Yes, make the latest Battlelore album interesting [Hey, I’m supposed to do the snarky comments on your posts! – AMG]).
So now you have to ask, after all this effusive praise, why wouldn’t metal fans like this? Well, the easy answer is, this isn’t really metal music and at best it’s at the lightest, fluffiest end of the metal rainbow (ha ha metal rainbow, I amuse me). All the songs are very good but also soft and mellow with little or no edge or teeth. Additionally, I can see a lot of people finding this monotone and boring. If you’re fine with quieter, gothic styled light metal, you may love this. It certainly surprised me and got me on board (though I still don’t like their older stuff). Maybe I was too quick to write off this whole “hot babes metal thing” after all.