The Portuguese metal veterans deliver a sublime exercise in goth doom and gloom.
Along with being the most famous metal band to ever come out of Portugal, Moonspell hasn't so much been an innovator in the dark, moody style otherwise known as goth metal as simply a band that has always known how to work the formula to its own advantage. Other acts like Tiamat, Type O Negative, and My Dying Bride were more groundbreaking, and female-fronted bands such as The Gathering, Lacuna Coil, and Evanescence brought the sound to wider audiences, but over the past decade, starting with the well-regarded 1995 album Wolfheart, Moonspell has stuck to what it does best, combining mood-drenched arrangements with pensive lyrics, haunting vocals, and slick production, and as a result has enjoyed a modestly successful run.
Still, as with most other veteran bands, sometimes a creative jumpstart is needed every once in a while if the recent work tends to be a touch too formulaic, and over the course of several albums, the Moonspell sound tended to stray from the metal, and emphasize the goth element more, vocalist Fernando Ribeiro employing more of a dark croon instead of a harsher vocal style. When such a band considers re-energizing its sound, it almost always brings out the tired "back to basics" line, but while that indeed is the case with Moonspell, on Memorial, by returning to the sound of its more metal-oriented past, the band has emerged reinvigorated.
In fact, the band hasn't sounded this explosive in well over a decade, as several cuts on the new album sound closer to death/doom metal than simple goth. The furious "Finniterra" catapults the CD to a blazing start, cascading synths juxtaposed against a barrage of rapid-fire snare beats by drummer Mike Gaspar, while Ribeiro delivers his lyrics in a death metal growl, his singing style of choice for the majority of the record. The theatrical "Memento Mori" is one of the most instantly catchy songs on the disc, the keyboards accentuating the melodic riff much like black metal stalwarts Dimmu Borgir. The thunderous "Blood Tells" sets the high water mark as far as pure visceral power goes, a mid-tempo bruiser weighted down by Gaspar's authoritative beats. We do get glimpses of the band's prowess at the goth style, and results are often phenomenal; "Sanguine" is six minutes of Wagnerian bombast and melancholy melodrama ("Your love comes to me in oceans of blood"), while "Luna", though straightforward in structure, provides the album's most luminous moment, as Ribeiro's somber vocals are offset by the angelic singing by guest vocalist Brigit Zacher. So good is "Luna", that the duet trounces the often flaccid male-female singing by Lacuna Coil.
One thing about Moonspell that has always remained consistent has been the presence of producer Waldemar Sorychta, the band's longtime collaborator. Sorychta has become one of the best-known metal producers over the last decade, his polished style perfectly suited to the ornate/brutal characteristic of goth metal, but unlike his work on Lacuna Coil's otherwise likeable Karmacode, which lacked goth atmosphere, Memorial exudes mood very well (just listen to the horror movie-like tension of "Proliferation"), exemplified by the fact that four tracks are instrumentals, including two of the album's first four songs. "Once it Was Ours" is one of the best examples of how such rich production can enhance the atmosphere of a metal album, Sorychta creating a stirring backdrop that includes a creepy sample of ascending male chorus vocals, the synths sounding funereal, Ribeiro's voice sounding schizophrenic.
Everything on Memorial is first-rate, from the band's robust performance, to Ribeiro's charisma, to the graceful production, to the songwriting. At a time when expectations weren't exactly high for this band, Moonspell has come along and assembled its finest album in ages, a dark beauty of a record that remains under your skin long after it's over, that soaring chorus from "Luna" echoing in your head. It's one of the year's finer metal albums.