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3.64 | 19 ratings | 2 reviews
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Album · 1995


1. A Hamlet for a Slothful Vassal (4:05)
2. Cheerful Dirge (5:02)
3. To These Words I Beheld No Tongue (5:06)
4. Hollow-Heartèd, Heart-Departèd (4:57)
5. ...A Distance There Is... (8:51)
6. Sweet Art Thou (3:58)
7. Mïre (4:08)
8. Dying - I Only Feel Apathy (5:08)
9. Monotonë (3:10)

Total Time: 44:29


- Liv Kristine Espenæs / Vocals
- Raymond I. Rohonyi / Vocals
- Pål Bjåstad / Guitars
- Tommy Lindal / Guitars
- Eirik T. Saltrø / Bass
- Hein Frode Hansen / Drums
- Lorentz Aspen / Keyboards, Piano

About this release

Released in July 1995 via Massacre Records.

Recorded at Unisound studios, Sweden.

Thanks to adg211288, lukretion for the updates


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There are some albums that hold an iconic status in the metal community, and the self-titled debut of Norwegian band Theatre of Tragedy is certainly one of those. Released in 1995, this album laid the foundations for the female-fronted gothic metal scene, providing the blueprint for countless artists to follow. Their formula relied heavily on the notion of “contrast”. Contrast between the crushingly slow riffs and oppressive tempos of death/doom metal and the lightness and airiness of instruments like piano, violin, and acoustic guitars. Perhaps all the more iconic is the contrast between cavernous death growls and ethereal, soprano-like female clean vocals, which led critics to dub the approach “beauty and the beast”. Even the lyrical themes are based on contrast, inspired by Romantic themes of dualism between life and death, love and hate, joy and pain. Of course, this was nothing completely new back in 1995, as other metal bands had occasionally relied on these types of contrasts as a compositional element in their music. Celtic Frost had incorporated operatic vocals into their dark music as early as 1985. Paradise Lost’s second album Gothic, released in 1992, contained a couple of songs featuring the interplay between male grunts and clean melodic female vocals. The Gathering’s debut album Always…, also released in 1992, provides another prominent example. Other doom/death bands, like Anathema and My Dying Bride, had experimented with the use of piano, violin and keyboards, and with the insertion of delicate acoustic sections in their songs. What is perhaps unique about Theatre of Tragedy, however, is that they took these isolated elements and put them at the centre of their music, purposely making a whole album out of it.

Regardless of who came first and who inspired whom, Theatre of Tragedy’s debut album contains all the archetypal elements of the “beauty and the beast” gothic metal sound and is therefore commonly seen as the precursor of that scene. The songwriting is complex and multifaceted, unafraid of taking the songs in multiple directions and long detours before going back to familiar themes. The tempos are shifting all the time, as the songs keep speeding up and slowing down, toying with the listener as they move from section to section in an endless spiral of despair. Guitarists Pål Bjåstad and Tommy Lindal provide ample doses of thickly distorted, slow-paced doom riffs that twist and turn like maggots in a coffin. But then, suddenly, the music opens up: a piano introduces an ear-pleasing motive; a cello intermezzo gives sadness a new sound; a gentle acoustic guitar dispels the thick fuzz of the distorted guitars. It’s this constant change of moods and atmosphere that makes the music so interesting, dynamic and special.

However, what gains this album its iconic status is undoubtedly the interplay between male and female vocals. Raymond Rohonyi is the growler. His vocals are cavernous, monotonous and grim, thick as the darkness itself. The contrast with Liv Kristine Espenæs’ eerie operatic vocals could not be starker. Her voice is delicate, almost whispery, as she mostly uses her upper-register to create maximal contrast. Both singers are given space to sing on their own (sometimes on entire songs, like Liv on “… A Distance There Is …”). But often the two vocalists are used simultaneously in the same song, providing a sort of counterpoint to one another and accentuating the contrast between the two different styles. Oddly, however, neither singer really manages to convey strong emotions with their voices, an effect that is partly compounded by their cold, one-dimensional delivery as well as by the use of Old English in the lyrics, which creates a further barrier between the singers and the listener. It makes for an odd effect, transmitting a sense of apathy and detachment to the listener that contributes to the dramatic and oppressive atmosphere of the album.

Another aspect of the music that nurtures this sense of oppression and emotional detachment is the lack of strong and memorable melodies, both in the vocals and the underlying instrumental background. Sure, there are riffs, piano motifs, and even a couple of cello solos (played by prog rock outfit Unicorn’s Anders Måreby), but overall the album feels melodically unyielding. This is perhaps also the biggest limit of the record, which prevents me from rating it higher. The music is not particularly accessible or easy to assimilate, making a few songs feel plodding and dull (“Cheerful Dirge”, “Monotone”) and the overall album somewhat of a chore to go through. Theatre of Tragedy will soon learn to write much better melodies, and already their follow-up album Velvet Darkness They Fear will constitute a dramatic improvement in terms of accessibility and enjoyment of the overall listening experience.

Although Theatre of Tragedy will do better in later releases, the album has nevertheless some great moments, especially in the songs that are more concise and focused, like “A Hamlet for a Slothful Vassal” and “Mire”. These songs are punchy, direct and fun to listen to, showcasing the best features of the beauty and the beast approach. The acoustic piece “… A Distance There Is …” also stands out as a long threnody for piano and voice that keeps spiralling from lament to lament. “Hollow-Heartéd, Heart-Departéd” features a nice cello part and good vocals by Liv, although it loses a bit of focus in its second-half.

The overall production of the album is excellent. Recorded at Unisound studios in Sweden under the watchful eye of Dan Swanö, the album’s sound is miles better than that of many similar albums in the genre (I think of those early, muddy, thin-sounding Tristania and The Sins of Thy Beloved albums). The guitar tone is great, deep and powerful. The balance between instruments and voices is also good, and so is the balance between Raymnod’s growls and Liv’s cleans. The overall production value of the album is really strong and makes the album sound good even for today’s standards, 25 years after its release.

Regardless of its strengths and weaknesses, the album stands tall as a seminal contribution to a nascent musical genre. Ambitious and innovative, the combination of doom/death, operatic vocals, and classical instrumentation will influence many bands in the following years, with dozens of albums in this style being released in the second half of the 1990s. Theatre of Tragedy will produce one more full-length in this style (1996’s Velvet Darkness They Fear, perhaps their crowning achievement), before starting to incorporate gothic rock, electronic and industrial influences in their sound, effectively leaving behind the scene they had so much contributed to establish.
Listening to Theatre of Tragedy's debut after their subsequent work, it's hard not to see the material here as anything other than rough sketches towards the majesty of Velvet Darkness They Fear. All the ingredients of the later album are in place, but Theatre of Tragedy need tighter songwriting and more confidence than they show here to excel. Not to say that this is a bad album as such, but there aren't any compelling moments to compare with, say, the masterful Masque of the Red Death section from Velvet Darkness. It does the job, but it pales in comparison to its successor.

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