Thursday 9 February 2023

Dark Princess - Phoenix (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
Sites: Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | VK

If I'm understanding correctly, Dark Princess was formed in 2004 as a solo project for lead vocalist Olga Trifonova, who may have created the first album on her own. However, there was certainly a band for the second album, which is when Stepan Zuev arrived on keyboards and backing vocals. It looks like they released four albums in total before splitting up in 2017, though Trifonova actually left after three, so the fourth is with a different lead vocalist, Natalia Terekhova. She returned in 2020 when the band reformed with a new line-up to support Trifonova and Zuev, each new member recruited from the latter's other band, Sangvis, who play melodic death metal and metalcore.

This is the first product of the new line-up and it's a far cry from those genres. This is gothic metal, mostly heavier than we'd call gothic rock but with occasional dips back to that side of the fence, at points when electronica joins in and the drum sound shifts. The intro to The Pain I Need adds violin too and could have been taken from a Dead Can Dance album. The song settles into rock and then heavies up to metal, before ramping back down to that intro sound at the end. That's not unusual for this album.

Generally speaking, the album aims at the elegance of gothic music, everything on offer polished mahogany and brass, with a clean symphonic metal lead vocal from Trifonova. Zuev doesn't join in on every song and how he does so depends on the material. He showcases a harsh vocal in support on the opening title track and especially on Falling to Fly, but he's also able to shift to a clean vocal, as he does on The Light and My Chance, to name but two. On a first listen, it was the heavier songs where he stood out most, but gradually I realised he was there a lot more than I'd initially heard.

I can see why this used to be a solo project, because Trifonova is certainly the most obvious aspect of the band's sound and almost everything else seems to be there to support it. That extends to an odd lack of opportunities for the backing musicians to move into the spotlight and shine. There's a decent guitar solo on Taste of Freedom from Denis Burkin that almost surprised me and there's a strange break between it and the rest of the song, as if they had no idea how to connect the two in a seamless manner, so just stopped and started again. The similar solo on The Light doesn't segue well either but it's much more effective, both as a solo and as part of a song.

Of course, then there's another solo on the next song, My Chance, which is shorter but seamlessly integrated, and then another one on Your Flame that's likewise, with a reprise no less, and it feels all of a sudden that this is a guitar band. However, once the solos are over, the guitar is lowered in the mix and we're back to a predominantly vocal outlook. And that's fine, but my biggest concern here is in the lack of hooks. Trifonova sounds wonderful and everything she does is melody but I'm not going to be waking up in the morning with any of these songs playing in my head and that's even more important if the focus is going to be so ruthlessly on the vocals.

What I found most odd here was that my favourite songs are the heaviest and the lightest. Anyone who's read a lot of my reviews won't be surprised to hear the former because, while I like bands to vary what they do and keep their albums interesting, I also dig the heavy stuff. However, the latter is a lot more unusual. I don't dislike soft and subtle music and I don't dislike ballads as a matter of course, but I do tend to be less fond of lighter material on heavier albums, which is Not Enough in a nutshell.

However, I'd place it alongside Falling to Fly, with all those harsh backing vocals, as my highlights here, because Trifonova is a delight and in her element in an aria that allows her to exercise some more subtle elements of her talent, like intonation and playing with emphasis. The orchestration behind her isn't entirely unpredictable but it has some nice subtleties to it too. That it heavies up in the third act is merely a bonus. It would have been a highlight for me even if it hadn't.

I wanted a little more from this album than the band seemed willing to give, but it's a decent and welcome return for a band who have been gone from the studio for over a decade.

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