Review Summary: Dark Tranquillity is probably at their melodic best here, churning out melancholic and yet often sublime music structures owing to the very liberal integration of keyboardist Martin Brandstrom in the composition process.
Dark Tranquillity - Haven
Dark Tranquillity has rightly gained substantial fame as one of the most competent and influential practitioners of death metal's more melodic cousin, with the no-brainer classification of "melodic death metal." 2000's "Haven," second of the albums Dark Tranquillity have released on the American label Century Media Records, boasts outstanding production and a highly interesting electronica/ambience influence due to the keyboard and sampling abilities of electronics programmer Martin Brandstrom, who joined the band with the release of this record.
The album is otherwise notable for bearing a return to exclusively death-grunted vocals, abandoning vocalist Mikael Stanne's controversial decision to try some cleaner vocal styles on 1999's Projector. The vocals are still a little toned down, exhibiting a raspy quality that is actually much more like what we would actually CALL a "grunt" seperate from its musical context: rather than overblown death howls Stanne uses his growl voice for almost exclusively rhythmic purposes. This works very well, though, as the percussive quality of the songs on "Haven" is very pronounced. Many of the songs are in 4/4, eschewing later albums' tendencies to fool around with time signatures (especially evident on 2005's "Character"), and this may be due to the obvious attempts to integrate the keyboard and programmed melodies into their sound. Some of the melodies are almost dance-able (even, dare I say it, poppy) and in particular are consistently minor-key and on occaision anthemic with their beauty. The mid-song dynamic shifts that often occur are particularly excellent.
Album opener "Wonders at Your Feet" sets the record straight instantly with fabulous synth lines interspersed with staccato guitar work. The whole song is an extremely tight piece of work: clocking in at just over 3 minutes, the level of music in this is mind-blowing: nothing is melodically dissonant or short of anthemic, and of particular note is the middle section with beautifully dynamic piano and synth lines and lightly percussive guitar work, not to mention the out-of-left-field tapping solo at 2:24. "Not Built to Last" is built on more or less the same basic structure, featuring the same sorts of keyboard and guitar interplay, and there's another calm interlude with still more beautiful keyboard work. The song's a bit weaker in the tightness of its dynamic shifts, but other than that quite high-quality.
"Indifferent Suns" operates on the same principles: the riffs are anthemically melodic and the keyboard work spacious and almost poppy. It could actually be said that were it not for the heavily distorted guitars and growled vocals that the melodies here are all pretty pop-worthy: they are very catchy and stick in your head, and the subdued nature of the screaming in the very nice-sounding mix makes them very unobtrusive, allowing you to focus on the thick coils of guitar harmonies and electronics.
If there's a problem here it's the sameness in tone. DT is obviously quite taken with the new possibilities opened up to them with the use of their new electronic elements, but other than that new element to the overall sound (which is album-wide anyhow) many patterns begin to emerge that makes it difficult to differentiate the works in the end. Every song clocks in at roughly 3 and a half minutes, many of the songs are in the same key, and the focus on exclusively diatonic minor tonalities can be very samey. "Feast of Burden," "Haven," and "The Same" pass by in this way, with little stylistic differentiation aside from different effects on Stanne's voice and new keyboard samples. "Fabric," however, has a bit more fun with an increased intensity in the nature of the guitar lines and more drum interplay, which is largely nonexistant on this album in general, and there's a great string-keyboard interlude.
The last third of the album is given over to more melodically and instrumentally diverse works, which is important for a band that has chosen to employ a more stripped-down range of vocal choices and dynamic shifts. Lush, chorused piano and guitar interludes are frequent: "Ego Drama" features doublings of keyboard melodies in the riffing, which is very effective, in addition to melodic modulation, and a substantially more intense feel near the end, while "Rundown" has a much more classic metal feel, incorporating Celtic-like riffs, dual guitar harmonies, and classic Phrygian work with bigger drums, very exciting keyboard work devoted to keeping rhythms and a much more crackly growl from Stanne than elsewhere. Stanne's crooning makes a surprise appearence on "Emptier Still," although effected beyond all ability to discern his obviously wavering pitch, and the guitars here are much more adept at the dynamic shifts, which makes them sound much bigger when they finally come in, not to mention the effect it has on Stanne's growling. Melodically tight and quite interesting after what's come before. Closer "At a Loss for Words" has cool phased keyboard doublings of a very pretty clean guitar part, not to mention a much more pronounced death metal feel, with fast-picked guitar work and quick-tempo drumwork (and even a little harmonic dissonance! :shock:), along with an odd-time piano break and an exclusively feedback, piano and clean guitar-dominated outro where the band gradually drops out except for the ambient noise. Nice stuff there.
Overall the album's pretty samey in the most important stretch--the middle. The best tracks are by far "The Wonders at Your Feet," "Ego Drama," "Rundown," and "At a Loss for Words," but as much of these songs are concentrated in the back half I feel this encourages track-skipping, which is too bad as DT's standard for melodic excellence is probably as on par here as it is on any other album if not more so. The lush moments in particular are striking, and the side-by-side equality of the keyboards and guitars (which would diminish on Damage Done and Character). Overall, a 4: a tight piece of work from DT here but, as with all consistent works, a little samey from beginning to end. Some additional experimentation in tonal and dynamic mood would have served this album VERY well, and stops it from being totally perfect. Nevertheless, one of my favorites by these melodic metallers. Highly recommended.
Mikael Stanne - vocals
Niklas Sundin - guitar
Martin Hendriksson - guitar
Michael Niklasson - bass
Anders Jivarp - drums
Martin Brandstrom - keyboards and electronic effects