SaraLee - Damnation to Salvation (Firebox, 2009)
What do SaraLee think when they hit upon that perfect vocal harmony to complement their big ol' goth-pop choruses? I sure hope the band's five members see dollar signs, because there's really no other reason to write music this bland. Or listen to it. Wait -- if you really dig Evanescence but wish that whiny bitch would be replaced with a whiny Finnish guy with no access to autotune, or if you think In Flames should cut the Gothenburg death shtick and make the pop/rock record they've been threatening for years, then SaraLee is for YOU.
There are a couple up-tempo thrash sections here and there ("Catch the Moon") and some light growling sprinkled for taste, but the bulk of Damnation to Salvation sounds like entry-level modern rock meant to be blasted loud from the stereo of your very first car, so that the twenty-somethings in the car next to you at the intersection will think "Awww, I wish I was still that innocent and free." SaraLee can write a damn catchy chorus, and their arrangements highlight them well. Every time the stompbox switches on that toothy guitar distortion though, something feels misplaced. This album sounds like meat-flavored cotton candy. And with head-scratch lyrics like "Feel the earth is dooming for you," the meat's sorta funky-tasting.
Forest of Shadows - Six Waves of Woe (Firedoom, 2008)
The one man band has come along way since Dick Van Dyke's lovable multi-tasker Bert from Mary Poppins. Take Niclas Frohagen, the lone vocalist/musician/programmer/composer behind Sweden's Forest of Shadows. Ol' Bert would be aghast at how controlled and expansive FoS's second album sounds. The six tracks on Six Waves of Woe resound with the time-release dynamics of Cult of Luna and later Katatonia -- icy electronics and faux-mellotron leading up to chest-beating metal mountaintops, then gently guiding us down again with synths and spectral guitar tinkling. Frohagen follows the Aaron Turner school of vocalizing, switching between a tuneful but characterless baritone and a considerably more powerful growl.
We've all heard far too many iterations of the NeurIsis template, so while the massive crescendo in "Selfdestructive" and tribal surge of "Deprived" still raise hairs, they're the least interesting parts of Six Waves of Woe. More thoughtful are "Detached" and "Pernicious," which fold post-metal's eighth-note chug into a goth rock framework -- think a Moonspell/Mogwai merger (or CureIsis?). I just can't help but wishing there was less majesty and more bite to Frohagen's songs. There's nary a surprising direction taken or a jagged chord to be found. Maybe that's how you can tell that this album is the product of one man. Filtered through a co-conspirator, Frohagen's perfectionism might have been sullied a bit, turned darker. As is, Six Waves of Woe just sounds pretty, and Frohagen's eternally wallowing lyrics come off as a bit disingenuous.
Pantheist - Journey Through Lands Unknown (Firedoom, 2008)
Never have I had so much fun listening to such a muddled mess of an album. As if a stone-cold serious hodgepodge of doom metal, monastic chanting, Arabic modes, crossover punk, and keyboards taken from a Hawkwind album doesn't sound incoherent enough (it should), the mixing on Journey Through Lands Unknown is just atrocious. And the clean vocals are even worse, either out of tune or way over the top, frequently both. What the plodding stoner rock jam "Dum Spiro Despero" is doing on the album I have no idea, but the Latin title of the song sounds like "Doom, speed or death metal" when it's chanted by the band, which it is a whole bunch, and that makes me happy in the same way that hearing a bunch of Mandarin-speaking 2nd graders singing the happy birthday song in English would make me happy.
With no warning, after a three-minute acoustic guitar/harmonica duet (I'm not joking), Pantheist pull their shit together, shed the genre-abuse and initiate a mostly spectacular second half full of fucking depressive funeral doom. Ten seconds into "Oblivion" and we're reminded that Pantheist's bassist Mark Bodossian is also in Esoteric and (formerly) Mournful Congregation. Even the mixing starts to make sense -- they're performing death rites in an underground burial chamber dude, of course it sounds all reverb-y and muffled down there. As Kostas Panagiotou's wobbly Buddhist recitations (also not joking) closes out the disc with Nile-like wardrums pounding behind him, the realization sets in: Pantheist are fucking awesome, they just have no idea what they're doing.