OK, there's a lot here, especially early on, so I had to start afresh to make sure I was working from the right page. Vampire Coven is a forty-nine second intro that obviously plants the album's feet in gothic territory. The first track proper, The Dark Times, backs that up but initially does so using an entirely orchestral approach. The band eventually join in to add metal crunch but the vocals we hear are truly operatic in a way I haven't heard since Nova Malà Strana back in the nineties. They come courtesy of Vladislava Solovyova who doesn't just deliver a clean soprano like so many other female vocalists in symphonic metal bands; she actually sings opera.
This opener is a clear highlight, Solovyova's operatic delivery being wonderfully contrasted by the clean but dark vocals of Sinner Apollo. The worst thing about the song is that it ends and relatively quickly, under three and a half minutes into something I hoped would be an epic. What's important is that Apollo is the actual vocalist in Erode of Sadness and Solovyova is merely a welcome guest, a side opportunity to her own band, a symphonic metal band called Rabies that I'm especially eager to seek out to see how she sounds there. It's an odd choice, to bring in a guest lead vocalist on the first proper track on a debut album, because it gives the wrong impression, but it's a great song.
There's another guest vocalist, also female, but she doesn't show up until Supernova Remnant, so there are three tracks for Apollo to enforce his presence as the actual lead singer.
He sounds excellent and underlines that the core sound of this band is gothic not symphonic, even though orchestration continues to play a major part in the sound, especially the violins which start out Blood and Grace and are pivotal in Lie to Me. The other important note to make is that Apollo shifts to a harsh voice at points, unless there's another member of the band who steps up at those points to add further contrast. Certainly there's a section in Lie to Me where both clean and harsh voices sing together, an easy enough effect to achieve in post-production but not so easily in a live environment.
That other guest is Evgenia Frantseva, the singer for doom/death metal band Odium Throne, who sings clean here with an almost hoarse emphasis, while Apollo varies between clean voice, harsh voice and an electronically manipulated effect. I love these variations from the band's core sound, though, of course, they're most obvious on the two songs with guests, however often the choir has opportunity to vary the tone. There are thirteen tracks on this album, along with a bonus track and two intros, so Apollo gets eleven plus one and guests get two. It may not help that, as excellent as he is, I'm still thinking of this band as best with both male and female vocals.
But I need to review the album I'm listening to not the album that I'm imagining given one track on it. Apollo's voice is deep and rich, very much in the Andrew Eldritch tradition but with melody more like Finnish gothic rock bands like HIM and 69 Eyes. These songs certainly bear that influence but a heavier one too, from bands a little further afield like Lacrimas Profundere. There's an occasional shift into much heavier territory too, like on Blood from the Cross, which increases the tempo and prompts plenty of grit in Apollo's voice even when he's not singing harsh. If Erode of Sadness often drop into gothic rock on some other songs, this is the most gothic metal they get.
Given that this is a debut album, I wonder where they'll move stylistically. It feels like the majority of songs are gothic rock with rich male vocals, orchestration and hints at harshness, so maybe that will be the whole of their next album. Maybe, though, it's where they started and they grew into a more metallic sound that verges on extreme metal in those harsh vocals and the urgency of Blood from the Cross. Maybe The Dark Times has always been an anomaly, with Solovyova invited not for a general expansion of sound but just because she was there and could add something to it.
Who knows? I certainly don't, but I'll be keeping an eye open for that second album to find out.