There are few things that break my heart quite like seeing people with passion give their all to something and fail anyway. It’s inevitable in many cases, and often funny (darkly or otherwise), but something about it tugs at the heartstrings. Apropos of nothing let’s discuss Once, a German band named, presumably, for the Nightwish album you just thought of. Having toiled in the underground for a half-decade, Once are finally here with a debut album, After Earth. How does it stack up against the glut of material in their chosen milieu of symphonic power metal?
Speaking as the site’s apparent apologist for this stuff, there are a few things to like here. Most of the riffcraft is pretty solid and versatile, if at times over-reliant on power chords as on the lilting “My Fairytale.” “The Allure,” “The Hour of Eden’s Fall,” and “Phenomena” all feature excellent interplay between guitars and keys, engaging riffs, and soaring, powerful vocal melodies. The drum work is also solid across most of the album, propelling individual tracks where present. Even the softer material that takes up too much of After Earth is usually passable at worst, at least in theory.
Unfortunately, this album suffers from serious and frequently amateurish mistakes in songwriting and editing: overlong choruses, trite melodies in the keys (including what appears to be a snippet of “Chopsticks” on “Sins of Saints”), and symphonic padding with little to no substance. Several of the transitions, such as from opener “Act I (Overture)” to “Awake,” stutter rather jarringly, and even leaving aside fluff like the overture, intermezzo, and epilogue,1 pretty much every track has overlong segments. Further, Once‘s occasional flirtations with progressive songwriting are… let’s go with ill-advised. The most representative example is, lamentably, also the worst; the post-chorus of “Insane Schemes of Sanity”2 features a segment of oscillating time signatures (3/4 to 2/4 in this case) in which the 3/4 measure closes on an entire quarter-note rest from the entire band. For those unschooled in music theory, the overall effect sounds like they just missed a note entirely, for the low price of making the song harder to play. Baffling. Finally, the “grim” vocals (their term, not mine) provided by guitarist and bassist Marco Paulzen are highly variable in quality; while they typically harmonize quite well with Alina Lesnik’s leads, they’re spotty in places, particularly the hilariously raspy spoken word segments on “Phenomena.”
The mix is a minor disaster as well, with vocals regularly overtaken by guitar, keys, or both; given that Lesnik is not an overly powerful singer to begin with, this just makes her sound weak. The bass is buried so as to be near-inaudible even on a rather nice speaker, as well. It’s not all bad, though! The guitars have an unusual amount of bite for this genre and are not totally lost under the orchestration the way you can expect for, say, Epica, while the drums have a very naturalistically rough-edged trigger. The master, conversely, is pretty typical for symphonic release (read: bad and over-compressed) and gives the whole album an unnecessary plasticky sheen despite the best efforts of the production on the individual tracks. Given that the production work was done by the guitarist and keyboardist, these problems should be avoidable in the future, but they irrevocably mar this release.
Ultimately, given the apparent age of the musicians, I tried to be lenient, but… I can’t. After Earth is an album riddled with issues, and it’s honestly somewhat bewildering that this didn’t see drastic reworking from the label. Even if you like symphonic metal in the stereotypical vein, this isn’t worth your time. I sincerely hope I don’t have to say that again on their next release.