Symphonic metal is clearly thriving in 2023. It's not the end of February yet and I've already taken a listen to strong albums from Beyond the Black, Twilight Force and Xandria. Well, here's another one from Delain, though this is easily the poppiest and most commercial of the three. It's a fresh start for them after six previous albums, because bandleader Martijn Westerholt took a chainsaw to the line-up, ditching everyone else, including the longest serving guitarist and bassist the band has had, along with lead vocalist Charlotte Wessels, who had sung on everything released up until that point. He supposedly planned to make it a solo project with guests but instead it became just a new line-up.
Westerholt continues, of course, on keyboards and orchestrations. In to join him are two old hands and two new fish. The old hands are guitarist Ronald Landa, who played on their second album and wrote a couple of its songs with Wessels, and Sander Zoer, their longest serving drummer, who left in 2014. The new fish are Diana Leah on lead vocals and Ludovico Cioffi, who I believe will be their bassist going forward but who only provides some harsh backing vocals this time out, the bass on this album provided instead by a guest, Epica's Rob van der Loo.
Of those, Leah is the most obvious, because she's easily at the front of the mix and she delivers an overtly poppy lead vocal that's all about hooks. It's not quite so obvious that a listener unfamiliar with Delain might assume that this is her solo project, but it's not far away from that, because it's a serious effort for anyone else to steal our attention whenever she's singing. They're lowered in the mix to give her more prominence and raised again when she's done for a while, which actually helps us focus on them when the focus shifts back their way.
If we can juggle the elements, then Leah shifts between pop and rock while the music follows suit but from rock to metal. She's definitely lighter than every other aspect of the band's sound right now, even when it's at its lightest and, when it heavies up, it leaves her quite a distance behind. It ought to go without saying that the heaviest songs are the ones with harsh male vocals, but there aren't many of those, the most obvious being The Quest and the Curse, which also benefits from a heavy prowling riff, but even that song's a trade off because it lightens up when it shifts back over to Leah.
If this intensity clash sounds like a problem, I should underline that it isn't. Sure, it's odd to listen to a symphonic metal band where the lead singer doesn't contribute to the symphonic sound, but Leah has a strong voice and she delivers some excellent hooks that keep us engaged. It's left to a combination of orchestrations and choral vocals to keep this anchored in symphonic territory, the pair of approaches shining on The Cold and especially Invictus, which also benefits from two guest vocalists, both Finnish. Paolo Ribaldini is actually on three songs here but Mark Hietala only joins him once. He's a heavyweight presence, having given Tarot three decades and Nightwish two.
While I don't dislike anything here, my favourite songs all come on the second half, when the choir is busiest and Landa is most successful at introducing heavy riffs. The Cold is the closest Leah gets to symphonic and the choir is all over it. Moth to a Flame starts out with Leah poppy and a capella but it finds a tasty and notably urgent metal riff. Then there's Invictus, musically strong and with those guest male vocalists. The album wraps up with Underland, with more choir and another big riff from Landa. Sure he delivers on The Quest and the Curse and Tainted Hearts too, but it's that combination of choir and guitar that gets me every time.
I can only guess at why Westerholt took such drastic action in 2021, but this is a fresh band with an entirely fresh sound and that sound is good. It's almost deliberately aimed at multiple audiences, close enough to symphonic metal that die hard fans of the genre will dig it but with enough pop in Leah's vocals to trawl in a new fanbase. The longer I listen to Moth to a Flame the more I hear Pat Benatar and that's hardly where Wessels came from musically. It's almost as if Westerholt heard Lady Gaga singing for Metallica at the 2017 Grammys or maybe got into Babymetal and decided a pop/metal hybrid would work for Delain. And hey, maybe he's right.