[17 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When an established metal band attempts to broaden its sound to reach a much wider audience, the decision is always met with derision from many of those who supported the band in the early days. However, when a European band with an already very solid worldwide fanbase decides five albums into its career to Americanize their sound more, well, that’s when the accusations of, “Sellout!” truly start to fly.
Such is the case with Lacuna Coil, who for the past five years has been gradually moving away from the goth-infused metal sound that it helped popularize in the late-1990s and early this decade, the atmospheric beauty of Unleashed Memories ultimately giving way to a more direct approach on 2004’s Comalies and 2006’s Karmacode. With their last album’s simple, downtuned guitars and highly compressed sound, it was clear to some that subtlety had been tossed out the window in favor of pandering to the Disturbed crowd. But one thing the Milan, Italy sextet has never lost is their knack for very contagious melodies, and despite its inconsistencies, Karmacode turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable, its hooks greatly making up for its rather straightforward nu-metal riffery.
With Shallow Life, the move towards the middle of the road continues even more earnestly, the band this time more preoccupied with emulating the streamlined hard rock sound of Linkin Park. Opting not to work with longtime collaborator and goth metal architect Waldymar Sorychta, the band enlisted the services of Don Gilmore, who produced Linkin Park’s massively popular first two albums. As a result, the new album is their most upbeat, pop-fueled effort yet, shedding the goth image for good. And although the metal crowd will continue to be up in arms about this brazenly commercial direction, for the most part it delivers what it promises, which is good, safe, catchy songs and nothing more.
The one ace card Lacuna Coil holds over all the David Draimans and Chester Benningtons of the world is singer Cristina Scabbia, who has gradually evolved from being a solid singer in a hard-working band to the most recognizable frontwoman in metal. But for all the exposure, on Comalies and Karmacode she made significant strides as a singer, and Shallow Life has her sounding more confident and adventurous than ever. While Gilmore’s production and the more pop-centric songwriting style works greatly to her advantage, Scabbia’s willingness to take chances, like on the cheeky single-in-waiting “I Like It”, yielding surprisingly charismatic results. As is always the case with Lacuna Coil, the album is at its best when the magnetic Scabbia is at the forefront with male lead vocalist Andrea Ferro playing a supporting role, as on the gorgeous, dance-fueled “Not Enough”, the shameless power ballad “Wide Awake”, and the brooding title track.
Typical of the band, though, they continue to stubbornly (and frustratingly) stick to the more democratic boy-girl vocal formula, and the band’s continued reliance on the vocal presence of Ferro continues to be their Achilles heel. His limited range is made tolerable when offset by the lovely voice of Scabbia, but when he dominates certain tracks, as on “The Maze” and “I Won’t Tell You”, his borderline monotone delivery tests our patience. That said, he sounds slightly stronger on this album compared to the last couple, and when the band goes back to the duet template they perfected years before, Ferro and Scabbia offset each other nicely. The post-hardcore drive of “Spellbound” works especially well, Ferro’s delivery surprisingly dynamic, while “I’m Not Afraid” sees Ferro and Scabbia trading lines effectively enough to keep the heavy track compelling.
No Lacuna Coil album is complete without the odd hiccup, and the middle of Shallow Life is marred by the listless “Underdog” and the melodramatic “The Pain”, both of which, after the comparatively ebullient “I Like It”, bring things to a dead halt. In the end, though, those incessant choruses this band is so good at continue to dominate, and yet again, it’s what ultimately compels us to think of the album as decent instead of merely middling. But please, dudes, you really need to let the lady sing more.