Everyone who delves into a scene outside the mainstream has their own kind of Dante’s Inferno, a journey deeper into the bowels of their newfound community and lifestyle that holds such wondrous attraction. My first plunge on that trip occurred somewhere late 2003, almost half a lifetime ago. It was the release of Dance of Death by Iron Maiden, though I had been primed by popular bands such as Rammstein and System of a Down, and my father’s extensive classic rock collection before that. Soon I found myself rocking out to the unprecedented brutality of Children of Bodom and Norther, diving headfirst into the world of melodic death metal. Listening to No Return, I’m transported back to those halcyon days, despite never hearing the French band before picking The Curse Within from the promo bin.
And it would have been far from impossible for me to hear them, because they got their start all the way back in ‘89 when my heart was scarcely beating, let alone my head banging. Almost three decades of worming through death and thrash metal, undergoing the rise and fall of melodic death, No Return in 2017 reminds most of Frailty–era The Duskfall, with highly melodic songwriting and a thrashy edge in the riffs. The tracks fly by at a confident mid-to-high tempo, featuring a strong medium-pitch growl and frantic fretwork following a Helloween recipe. The second half of the album slows the train down a notch, with the Dark Tranquillity despondency of “Just Passing Through” and the shimmering Insomnium riffs on the chorus of “Memory Turns to Ashes.” The album closes on a high note with “Serpent’s Curse,” featuring a catchy undulating lead and tight drumming with the energy of an opening single, finishing with the slow melancholic wailing of the dual guitars.
Curse does have its spots. “To the Dark Side of the Sun” sports a lively Kreator-like verse but the chorus feels a little limp, and ditto for the underwhelming “Stare at my Reflection” which barely saves itself with a tasty solo. Part of the issues in both cases are the strained semi-clean vocals, which are far less convincing than the Mikael Stanne issued growls. The early tracks are a bit too similar to make them stand out, though the latter half resolves that issue, reversing the common problem of frontloading. Most significantly though, there’s not much original material to be found here. Nostalgia awakened by new music is often a sign of derivative songwriting, and Curse reads like a catalog of Gothenburgian making, without bringing something new to the equation and thus missing a personal touch. The question how big an issue this is, most will have to answer for themselves, though I reckon the more you’ve heard in this style, the less appeal it may have.
Production-wise there is little to complain about. The sound is crisp and clear, avoiding smashing everything into a brick wall. The spotlight is on the vocals and guitars, which is no crime in and of itself, but the bass is left in the lurch as usual. Compared to the mid-naughties melodeath that’s emulated here, the production is a bit fuller and thicker without giving up too much in the dynamics. It’s pleasant to listen to and won’t give you a headache.
I had intended to say that Curse won’t blow anyone’s mind. It’s not very original nor does it throw any curveballs. But then I think back, and in my heart, I know that 15-year-old me, still unspoiled by experience or age, would have gobbled No Return right up. The infectious energy, hooks, and fluid guitar wizardry make it easy to listen and easy to like. The band still sound like a pack of enthusiastic young wolves, but with the experience of three decades in the music business backing their compositions, The Curse Within is a solid, lightly digestible piece of nostalgic melodic death. Now, where did I leave that old folder of CD-R’s…