Norway’s Tristania have been quite the durable and enduring entity, weathering the ebb and flow of musical trends and surviving numerous line-up changes and defections, including that of founder Morten Veland. From their humble doom/death beginnings, the ever changing line-up has increasingly evolved into a standard gothic metal act with less and less emphasis on the metal part of the equation and that process continues for better or worse here on album six, Rubicon. Long gone is the Tristania that delivered the genre classic Beyond the Veil and well regarded follow-up World of Glass. Instead, Rubicon finds them dealing in fairly average, somewhat nondescript, if professionally done gothic music that’s very light in the metal department.
Following the release of 2007’s Illumination, Tristania experienced a mass exodus of personnel and had to reinvent themselves by acquiring new lead vocalist Mariangela Demurtas, along with supporting male vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (Green Carnation/Trail of Tears) and guitarist Gyri Smordal, among others. Despite the near total band overhaul, Rubicon isn’t dramatically different than Illumination in direction, and the familiar Tristania elements resurface, albeit in a more somber, slow and sedate way. The vocals of Demurtas are sensual and sultry, but fairly run of the mill for the genre, and she lacks the power and distinctiveness that former singer Vibeke Stene possessed. Similarly, the clean vocals by Nordhus are standard issue gothic baritone, while the harsh vocals by Anders Hidle are pretty average. The varied vocals are generally awash in keyboards and intermittent violin, with the guitar taking a very distant place in the sound and songwriting. In fact, aggressive metal riffs and harsh vocals appear on only a few tracks, as if tossed in as an afterthought.
Despite the drift away from a more metallic style, there is some quality songwriting displayed on Rubicon, with several songs building toward memorable choruses (Year of the Rat,” “Protection”), and a few tracks contain interesting moments, like the odd, creepy vocals on “Sirens” and the generally morose, bleak feeling conveyed by “The Passing.” However, there’s an overall lack of energy on many of the tracks, and at least to these ears, this is too sedate and somber to hold much interest for many in the Angry Metal Universe. Even tracks like “Magical Fix” that contain harsh vocals and up-front guitar, still seem lacking in impact and heft. While I obviously didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by the heaviness of a Tristania album, I will admit to being surprised by how mellow Rubicon is.
The sound and production across Rubicon is lush and full so all the various symphonic elements can be heard and fully appreciated, and everything has a very professional luster to it. However, that same production contributes to the lack of energy by rendering the guitar tone flat, toothless and without bite of any sort. There’s a nagging feeling of malaise throughout Rubicon, which none of the material seems able to rise abov,e and I don’t mean the good kind of melancholy malaise either. This just feels underwhelming, boring and devoid of energy and soul.
With so many bands out there plying their wares in the goth-metal marketplace, Rubicon comes across as just another member of the pack. There is nothing here to separate Tristania, or make them stand apart, and considering the quality of their earlier output, that’s a real shame. No matter how many times I spin Rubicon, the one overriding impression I’m left with is how very long ago the Within the Veil era was.