When I throw the label “experimental metal” out to you, what does your blastbeat-addled mind conjure for images and sounds? Does your brain picture off-the-wall time changes, weird instrumentation, musical concepts foreign to metal, or something truly out of left field? Or, like me, does it simply explain that what you’re about to listen to, well, isn’t really metal? Sadly, 9 times out of 10, most “experimental” bands fall into the latter category. Lethe is a new project featuring Anna Murphy (Eluveitie) and Tor-Helge Skei (Manes) waving the “experimental metal” flag with their debut, When Dreams Become Nightmares. Does Lethe carve a new path through the thickets, emblazoning new trails, and sending the hordes kicking and screaming, welcoming the dawn of a new day in the world of heavy metal? Umm… no.
Let’s address the pink-and-white-striped pachyderm right now: When Dreams Become Nightmares is basically a gothic rock album with some ambient trip-hop and electronica elements. I’m fully aware that this site isn’t Angry Trip-Hop Guy, nor do we have an editor named “Steel Druhmachine,” but this was in our queue and I willingly took one for the team. Now that I’ve pretty much sent everyone reading directly to the “Back” button on their preferred browser of choice, let’s continue.
Opener “In Motion” has a very dreamy ethereal feel to it, showcasing Murphy’s incredibly delicate vocal delivery on top of a very interesting trip-hop background, but also allowing her voice to devolve to shrieks and dramatic exasperations. In fact, Murphy’s multi-faceted voice helps elevate Lethe‘s music considerably. “Oblivion,” one of the few guitar-heavy tracks on here, has a very introspective, dreamy-yet-unsettling latter-day Nebelhexe feel to it, thanks to her various vocal tracks. Her performance on the nine-minute “No Reason” is gut-wrenching, bringing forth an aura of sadness between the ambient noise, Skei’s slow electronica beats, and mid-paced riffing. In fact, I could very easily see this song end up on some television show as a backing track on a season (or series) finale. Yes, that’s a compliment.
So why the low score? The rest of the album has a hard time sticking with me. Tracks like “Haunted,” with it’s nu-riffing and wacky dance beat (especially toward the end) has me mentally picturing a teen movie where pretty vampires square off against shirtless buff werewolves. Silly? Yes. Nightmare-inducing? Not really. The title track (also the album’s closer) suffers from another pet peeve of mine: movie samples. Yep, When Dreams Become Nightmares uses movie samples like J.J. Abrams uses lens-flare: way too damn often.
The production also feels suffocating. With so much going on musically, very rarely do the songs have a chance to breathe. When they do allow the songs some proper oxygen and walking space, there is a shimmering, sad beauty to the music that feels like it’s being strangled within an inch of its life otherwise. Hence, nuances are skipped, and songs like “Ad Librum” become a chore to listen to, and it’s a shame.
Overall, I wanted to like When Dreams Become Nightmares more than I actually did. The ideas are promising, and the talent is there, but I feel very underwhelmed by the finished product. It did remind me of …In The Woods‘ 1999 classic, Strange in Stereo, but not as well-delivered or original. Instead of waking up from a horrible nightmare, I’m trying to recall a dream I can’t quite remember. [I like Steel Druhmachine! — Steel Druhmachine].