'Ethera' - Visions of Atlantis (5/10)
As has become the case with virtually every sub-genre of metal, there are now stereotypes associated with symphonic metal. Though the term simply means to denote the use of symphonic, or orchestral instruments in their music, it’s difficult to consider the style without thinking of a commercially-viable, goth-infused type of melodic metal, most typically fronted by a pretty white girl in a dress or other gender-specific attire. While symphonic metal could be used to describe bands as far-flung from this stereotype as Septic Flesh and Fleshgod Apocalypse, there is no denying the prevalence of bands that go for the specific, above-mentioned style. Visions of Atlantis are one such band, and though the intriguing album art may have conjured impressions of some epic mythological ordeal, there isn’t much the Austrian act does to make themselves any different from the rest of the female-fronted European horde. “Ethera” is sure to appeal to fans of the Epica and Within Temptation, but for those looking for something a little more distinctive, Visions of Atlantis haven’t made enough of an impression on me to warrant a wholehearted recommendation.
With this latest release being their fifth full-length recording to date, I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Visions of Atlantis before. Browsing through their earlier work however, it’s clear that “Ethera” is a fairly different sound from their early work. Originally, Visions of Atlantis took the operatic sound of Nightwish and fleshed it out with a greater presence of power metal. Their original vocalist- the soprano Nicole Bogner- has since passed away, though she has not been the band for close to a decade. Their 2009 album “Delta” introduced the vocal presence of one Maxi Nil, possibly best known as the touring live singer for Moonspell. Bringing a much more pop and goth-oriented vibe to the band’s sound, Visions of Atlantis have taken a shift to accommodate Maxi’s different vocal style, putting more of a focus on ‘dark’, chugging riffs and a greater focus on melody. In a big way, this change from opera to a poppier vocalist draws parallels with Nightwish. In Nightwish’s case however, they balanced Anette Olson’s voice with a grander scope of musical ambition and epic songwriting, a change that made their music all the more interesting to me. This positive transformation is not shared by Visions of Atlantis sadly. Instead of trying to give Maxi’s voice a counterweight to compliment it, they lean towards a single style collective and ultimately sound colorless. The gothic-symphonic style has been done to death, and Visions of Atlantis aren’t doing enough with it to stand out.
In regards to songwriting, it can be said that Visions of Atlantis kknow how to make the symphonic element work to their advantage. “Ethera” enjoys a clear, detailed arrangement and production sense. Although it’s not always evident upon first listen there always seems to be a symphonic arrangement around to bolster the metal. With that being said, Visions of Atlantis never take the symphonic approach by the proverbial horns; there are no keyboard arrangements here that could stand on their own. As generic and tame as their approach may be, it’s executed with taste and efficiency. Above all, “Ethera” is a vocal-centric album. Although there is the occasional memorable riff, you’re bound to come away from the album specifically remembering the vocals. Maxi and the male vocalist Mario Plank each have a strong voice. Though they- like much of the band’s craft- come across as being middle-of-the-road and generic, they make the familiar ‘beauty and the beast’ dynamic work rather well. Maxi Nil’s voice is in a lower range than Visions of Atlantis’ previous singers; she has a grittier tone to her voice well suited to the band’s sound. The vocal melodies are pleasant enough, but there’s rarely a passage here that stirs my heart or even gets me humming along. Considering the band’s decidedly poppy approach, this is a pretty sure sign that the shift towards being relatively ‘accessible’ hasn’t worked well for them.
There’s always a degree of risk when it comes to a band changing vocalists, let alone their style. In some cases, this has worked very well for the band- Iced Earth have thrived with Stu Block, and Nightwish’s “Dark Passion Play” was the best album I’ve ever heard them make. Visions of Atlantis are a tight, skilled musical unit, but I can’t help but feel disappointed that their style is so typical of symphonic metal. The power metal edge that made their early stuff promising is absent, replaced by a focus on the same radio-friendly stuff the ‘symphonic metal’ term seems to have come to signify. “Ethera” is an album with quality enough to appeal to fans of the style. Visions of Atlantis have the innate talent and skill to make something impressive, but with this latest album, there’s not much feeling they’re stirring in me, save for ambivalence.