LACUNA COIL — Unleashed Memories (review)

LACUNA COIL — Unleashed Memories album cover Album · 2001 · Gothic Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
Hailing from Milan, Italy, Lacuna Coil have become one of the most significant names in the gothic/alternative metal scene. Unleashed Memories is their second full-length album. It was released in 2001 and it is where the band truly began the ascent to the gothic/atmospheric metal throne. It is a far more polished record than anything the band had released up to that point. The heaviness and rough edges that had characterized the band’s early releases have almost completely vanished, leaving room for a lighter, more refined form of gothic metal that takes inspiration in equal parts from the gothic/doom of Paradise Lost (probably one of the band’s biggest early influences) and the atmospheric rock/metal of The Gathering. The Dutch labelmates’ sound between Mandylion and Nighttime Birds is in fact the main reference point for the overall sound and feel of this album.

The strength of Unleashed Memories lies in the smoother songwriting and more sophisticated arrangements relative to the band’s previous records. The rough edges that were present on Lacuna Coil’s debut EP and LP have been ground down. The songs here rarely explode in harsh and aggressive passages as they did in the past. The distorted guitars are still there, but are no longer dominant in the mix. Bass, clean guitars, keyboards and programmed samples are given more space in the song arrangements and in the mix. These production choices gives Unleashed Memories that slick sound that was a trademark for Century Media productions at the time and make the album feel less anchored in the 1990s gothic/doom sound and more propelled in the new millennium instead. The new sound direction has both pros and cons. The advantage is that Unleashed Memories sounds smoother and more professional relative to the debut record and it is therefore better catered for the international market. The disadvantage is that the band’s sound loses a bit of the uniqueness and spontaneity that had characterized their early recordings. The differences between Lacuna Coil and the other gothic/atmospheric metal bands in the Century Media rooster became smaller and smaller, which is a pity. One gets the impression that at this point of their career the band made a conscious decision to reduce the more challenging (but unique) aspects of their sound in order to seek wider commercial appeal, even if this came at the cost of making slightly less interesting music.

Another subtle difference relative to previous albums is that the instrumental arrangements seem to have been more purposely written to support the vocals rather than to stand as fully accomplished musical pieces of their own. Again, there are pros and cons. The new songs flow better and feel smoother, making the vocal melodies more effective. On the other hand, instrumentally there is not much going on in the songs and not a lot of variation across tracks, which makes the listening experience somewhat sedated and unexciting. But then again Lacuna Coil have never been the greatest instrumentalists so the decision to focus on the impressive vocal talents of singer Cristina Scabbia was probably the right one for the band.

By 2001, the alternation between male and female vocals was nothing really surprising or new in the metal arena, as a few dozens symphonic gothic bands had now adopted the so-called “Beauty and the Beast” style. Lacuna Coil always stood out in the female-fronted symphonic gothic scene due to Cristina Scabbia’s unique timbre and vocal approach. Instead of resorting to operatic vocals as many of her contemporaries, Cristina relies on a warm and full timbre that at times reminds me of Dolores O'Riordan from The Cranberries. Of course, when the song needs it, she does not hesitate to soar and make full use of her upper range, which she is fully in control of. Overall, she offers a complex and rounded performance that is undoubtedly the main highlight of the album. Her male counterpart, Andrea Ferro, also puts in a good performance, much more assured compared to the early albums. His vocal talents are limited, especially compared to Cristina’s, and so Andrea relies on passion and expressiveness to make up for it. His vocal lines have character, both when he adopts his trademark shouted style (not too different from Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes vocal style) and when he uses his clean gothic croon. Most importantly, in many songs, both Cristina and Andrea are given strong melodies to sing, making tracks like “Heir of a Dying Day”, “Purify”, “Senzafine”, “When a Dead Man Walks” and “Cold Heritage” particularly enjoyable.

Elsewhere, the vocal melodies are less inspired and the songs become immediately less interesting. This is not an uncommon feature of Lacuna Coil’s albums, where the quality of tracks is often inconstant, alternating between strong memorable pieces and more pedestrian ones that feel like faded-out versions of the former. Tracks like “To Live Is to Hide” and “Distant Suns” are particularly unspectacular and can be arguably considered as fillers. But it’s the whole second half of the album that feels generally weaker and less inspired. It is a pity because the presence of these lesser tracks spoil the listening experience somewhat. Boredom inevitably sets in as the album plods towards its unglamorous conclusion, offsetting the pleasant experience of strong tracks like “Heir of a Dying Day”, “Purify” and what is probably the best song of the album, “Senzafine”, made even more interesting by the lyrics in Italian.

Despite this alternation of highs and lows, Unleashed Memories is nevertheless a good album. If on previous records Lacuna Coil gave the impression of still being in the process of figuring out the precise coordinates of their sound, on this album the band feel mature and completely in control of their music. They also feel ready for bigger success, their slick modern sound having nothing to envy to other established bands in the international metal arena.

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