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Unsilence : A Fire On The Sea

Considering the five year wait for a new album, one could have expected more from UK-based melodic doomsters Unsilence.

Unsilence are one of those bands you cannot easily categorise. They started out as part of the British Death Doom movement in the mid-nineties and recorded two demos comparable to Anathema’s early material, but with a stronger focus on faster-paced parts. After that, they soon moved on to a more melodic, midtempo approach with mainly clean vocals, somewhat reminiscent of the My Dying Bride classic 'Like Gods of the Sun'. These days, they are mostly referred to as Traditional Doom and sometimes compared to Warning, but in all truth things are far less clear-cut than that: the tempo is never really slow, the atmosphere never really dark or despondent, the song structures feature a good amount of dynamics, and influences from classic Heavy Metal are all over the place. Still, their music does not belong in any other genre, either, and given the overall melancholic mood and absence of aggression (not to mention the band’s roots), the Doom label is understandable.

Similar to the early career of Funeral, bad luck seemed to be following them around: their debut album 'Choirs of Memory' was never even released, and after two official EPs, singer Andrew Hodson left the band, leaving them in need of a vocalist. Guitarist James Kilmurray eventually took over the microphone, but had a difficult task to perform: for one thing, the vocals played an important part in the band’s trademark sound and a major change in that was unavoidable; for another, clean vocals have a natural tendency to polarise people. Thus, it comes as no surprise that their first full-length ever to be released, 'Under a Torn Sky' (2009), did not make every fan happy. In addition to the vocal issue, and despite mostly excellent songwriting and a potential for great melancholic atmospheres, it suffered from a subpar (in some respects even sloppy) production and mix which, among other things, brought the vocals far too much to the forefront. Eventually, what remained was a solid, but deeply flawed album which hardly did justice to the quality of the material.

After all this, it was hard to tell where the band would go next. Would Kilmurray be able to further develop his vocal abilities? Would the production be any better? What would the musical direction be? Finally, after five more years, we get the answer in the form of a follow-up album, 'A Fire on the Sea', released on a new Polish label called Nine Records. And yes: there is a noticeable improvement in production quality, even though the sound still falls short in comparison to today’s high standards. Stylistically, the album is not that different from the band’s previous works: you will hear their trademark midtempo arrangements with an occasional slower riff here and there (for instance, at the end of “Breaking Away”), the band still knows how to write emotive and memorable melodies, and Kilmurray’s vocals feature prominently throughout the entire album.

Unfortunately, once again, the vocals are where the problems start: they still sound somewhat thin on more than one occasion, and generally there is not much of a development to be heard, apart from a stronger use of vocal harmonies which make for a pleasant atmosphere. The main issue about the vocals, however, is that they hardly ever stop! There is only a handful of relatively short instrumental sections throughout the album, and consequently, little room is left for the beautiful lead guitar work which made much of their earlier material such an engaging listen; “On Wild Fields” is a positive exception to this. But even in the sections with vocals, the guitars used to be more interesting. On this new album, many of the riffs are very basic and seem like a mere skeleton to support the vocals, but Kilmurray’s voice simply is not unique and versatile enough to flesh things out properly. The stripped-down “Old Tides” best illustrates this: against the minimalist backbone of calm clean guitars and bass, the vocals seem extremely naked and fragile, but also quite hollow, failing to translate convincingly into an emotional nakedness and fragility. The absence of interesting instrumental flourishes certainly does not help.

In sum, the new Unsilence album is unlikely to convince old fans who did not like the predecessor much. On the other hand, lovers of 'Under a Torn Sky' will probably enjoy this one, too. But given the somewhat less convincing songwriting as well as the lack of variation and noticeable development, the fact remains that 'A Fire on the Sea' is a rather disappointing release from a band that once showed great promise.

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Reviewer's rating: 6.5/10


Tracklist :
1. The Doorway
2. Breaking Away
3. A Fire on the Sea
4. A Thousand Seasons
5. On Wild Fields
6. Old Tides
7. Unchained

Duration : Approx. 45 minutes

Visit the Unsilence bandpage.

Reviewed on 2014-09-27 by Dominik Sonders
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