Therion was once a leading light in its genre, but now it's become lazy and let itself fall behind. Oh, and there are far too many singers to keep track of.
Throwing everything into the mix and seeing how it turns out is a technique that’s being used increasingly in metal. Sweden’s Therion, who plays in an offshoot of the genre, dubbed symphonic metal, has made it work in its favor up until now, adding all sorts of intriguing instruments and multi-layered ornamentations to compliment the rich, fantasy-orientated soundscapes, apparently undaunted by the thought of taking an orchestra on tour. Gothic Kabbalah marks the band's 13th album (impressive!), making it a veteran of the scene, and extending (rather than expanding) the sound that brought its original acclaim, as well as bringing in two opera singers to compensate for the considerable wholes in the lineup.
Get this: frontwoman, Sarah Jezebel Deva, departed the band to join Cradle of Filth. You’d think this might leave the band a little lost about where to go, but any worries were unfounded, as “session members” Hannah Holgersson and Katarina Lilja always sound completely on top of their game throughout Kabbalah, and are made to sound uncannily like Nightwish. But you realize just how much you miss Nightwish when listening to the record, as at the same time they’re nothing speical ... instruments like the makeshift orchestra are completely without emotion or attachment to the music. This leaves it to the subtle orchestral tricks to hold the album up: trumpets on “Three Treasures”, alternating percussive roles and harps which actually play in harmony on “Mitternacht Lowe”, and a piano which unexpectedly breaks out in ballad-esque chords for “The Wand of Abaris”.
It wouldn’t be far off to say the band has a free reign. It basically stilts the music up to its hearts content over 15 tracks and two CDs, favoring epic, sweeping arrangements and sprawling songs, but itching to appeal to the common metal fan with a high-fretted guitar solo, oh-so predictable in its reliability. The “guy” and “girl” vocals, following the age-old growling/clean singing attack, are spread fairly equally throughout the spin, playing each other off as they do on the title track. The crunching “Tuna 1613” isn’t sure whether it wants to be fist-pumping or melancholy, and worse, rips off Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast”. “Close up the Streams” treats us to the grating voice of one of the temporary members, and a thick, repetitive riff (with five singers to juggle). Unfortunately, Therion sounds like a different band performing on every track.
Thank God we’ve got two songs, on different sides of the spectrum no less, which transcend the pretentious goop. “The Perennial Sophia” is unblemished, A-grade music as symphonic metal goes, with a focus on one of the opera singers’ stunning vocals (I’d love to know which one, believe me. I suspect somehow that it’s Holgersson, but I’m unable to confirm that) and is wrung with downtrodden feeling. The roaring “T.O.F. -- The Trinity”, meanwhile, is a solid dose of meaty, guitar-driven hooks that revives both the tempo and the rock, though it still probably goes a bit longer than healthy. Closer, “Adulruna Redivivia”, is begging to be noticed, too; at 12 minutes-plus, it’s by far the most experimental the band has ever gotten. In theory, piling layer upon layer of sounds as it does should work, and in a sense it does, but fails to bring Gothic Kabbalah to the spectacular, monumental close it was so blatantly aiming for.
With the European market now thriving with similarly voiced bands (female-fronted, male-backed) if you know where to look, at least half of whom have been influenced by Therion. It’s a hard task to keep as much distance as possible from the wannabes, yet still guard your position as innovators -- every pioneering metal band has had to go through it at some stage. After having arguably already passed its peak, the Swedish foursome really needs to power ahead and tread new ground rather than step in with the copycats. In addition, the act of bringing in personnel solely for vocals, only for them to be chewed up and spat out after Kabbalah hit the shelves, is the height of pretentiousness and overkill. The sad truth is that, with this double-disc, the band is at a stage where no matter what it does, it seems force of habit, and despite all the shiny techniques used to try and prove otherwise, it’s that which renders this release ultimately disappointing.