Despite its title, this new column isn’t a complete dis. Yes, “Jerry Bruckheimer metal” is slick and over-produced. I dislike the vast majority of it. But I like a little of it. Bad Boys II comes to mind. It’s the most over-the-top movie I’ve ever seen. Actually, it’s not a movie so much as a collection of bad jokes plus some awesome action scenes. I didn’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to make it, nor this column, a regular practice. But sometimes it’s productive to discuss excess — and sometimes it’s just a guilty pleasure.
Epica are not a guilty pleasure for me. You sadists voted for them to be reviewed, so here I am, suffering through Design Your Universe (Nuclear Blast, 2009). It wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting a goth metal prom dress-fest. Instead, this is symphonic melodic death/prog metal with touches of goth metal. In other words, it’s much, much worse. I have to hand it to the band for having amazing technical skills. The keyboards approximate a symphony orchestra, the choirs are impressively grand, the performances are tight and shredding, and the Barbie Doll singer hits her notes. But everything is loud and dramatic, which means that nothing is loud and dramatic. I call this “Carmina Burana metal.” It’s like if Dethklok weren’t a joke.
As I grow older and more crotchety, I get more militant about my “no keyboards” rule for metal. Yet a few bands slip through, like Chaos Moon and Dark Tranquillity. In those bands, keyboards stand for themselves, rather than substituting for something (like strings, most typically). They complement guitars instead of fighting with them. That’s the case with Russia’s Forest Stream. Keyboards, in fact, are so dominant that guitars take a back seat. They crunch out chord progressions and lay down some leads, but that’s about it — not much riffing here. To my surprise, I don’t mind. The keyboards are ethereal, majestic, and “take me to another place.” Normally I want guitars dry and upfront, but sometimes it’s nice for music to spur my imagination. The Crown of Winter (Candlelight, 2009) evokes icicles and blue hues. I call this “fantasy fiction metal.” It’s pagan-ish black metal with Scandinavian melodic tendencies, and it’s lovely.
I hate to call Katatonia Jerry Bruckheimer metal, but they brought it upon themselves by hiring David Castillo as co-producer. Castillo did the pretty remix of “My Twin” from Katatonia’s last album. Accordingly, Night Is the New Day (Peaceville, 2009) has a fair bit of electronics. By now, Katatonia have settled into their one song, which has subdued verses with throbbing bass lines and big, distorted choruses: ye olde quiet-loud formula. Now pulsing synths often accompany the verses. They work, but I can’t help thinking of the video for Sting’s “Desert Rose.” It’s smugly sleek and upscale. I call this “G-Star metal.” Katatonia don’t reference class, but now they sound expensive, and I tend not to like expensive things. I also tend not to like “radio modern rock,” which is what Katatonia have become. (3 Doors Down’s “Citizen Soldier” could, with a few tweaks, be a Katatonia song.) What saves Katatonia here is their gift for atmosphere and Jonas Renkse’s disgustingly knee-weakening cooings. This album is over-produced, over-compressed, and a little monotonous, but I still like the one thing it does.