1996 was the year Opeth's "Morningrise" was released, and since that date Opeth has become regarded as one of the most innovative and adept death metal bands in the recent history of the genre, most often drawing acclaim for the degree to which they have perfected their fusions of death metal grinds and cleanly-played and sung sections with acoustic guitars. The level of majesty and acclaim the band draws for this fusion is not only well-earned but well-deserved. You may recall that their debut was "Orchid," released in 1995, was a huge breakthrough in the European and worldwide metal community for being one of the first death metal releases to do such a thing as give acoustic guitars equal siding with death metal sections.
1996 also saw the release of Therion's "Theli," which for a time was regarded as the apex of the band's career, fusing operatic vocals and orchestrations with death metal instrumentation, a direction bandleader Cristofer Johnsson had been moving towards for a few years.
Also in 1996, an Australian band named Paramaecium released an album called "Within the Ancient Forest."
Paramecium had debuted in 1993 with an album called "Exhumed of the Earth," which featured everything Opeth and Therion would include on the albums of their respective pinnacles--orchestral instruments, cleanly sung vocals and death growls from leader Andrew Tompkins, female soprano vocals, and death metal brutality--THREE YEARS before the masterpieces glossed over above. And yet for all this astounding innovation, arrived at long before Opeth were making similar efforts, Paramaecium has remained very underappreciated, and even downright unknown.
A concept album based on the singer's fantasy novel of the same name (yes, he wrote a novel to go along with this album), "Within the Ancient Forest" is a powerful work, which will probably amaze listeners not just with its skill, but also with the fact that this here is a true innovation that is hardly recognized or known amongst fans of the genre. Even as you hear this music and find little of note (at first--I cannot stress this more) when you compare it to your favorite Opeth album, you will remember that here is music arriving just as Morningrise was being put to the album presses, and be astounded that you have never heard of the group and respect what they did for the time they did. Andrew Tompkins has easily some of the most beautiful, and most importantly sensible and understandable, lyrics I've read of any album, one of the most engaging concepts of any group to write a concept album, and a distinctive sound and vision for his group's metal side that borrows not from death metal, but from the slow-paced, powerful grooves of doom metal. That they combine all these influences, in addition to an intelligent story that itself has massive Christian "finding of faith" overtones in that the protagonist ventures through six songs of despair and finds a ray of hope at the end, is a tale of the most utterly remarkable kind.
If anything, it is not just the dates surrounding this band's history but also every way in which they are UNLIKE Opeth and Therion and similar groups that just doubles my respect for them. Because I had heard of this group as a predeccessor to Opeth, I was expecting a bit of "sound pwnage" in that I thought Paramaecium had hit on a basically Opeth-oriented sound before Opeth did. But they didn't. The band took elements Opeth would perfect later, to be sure, but they did many different things with them. The growled vocals are not bellowy and harsh, but breathy and ghoulish. The clean male vocals are not soaring with melodic precision as Mikael's would, but are very deep, bassy, breathy, and doomy. The female vocals are shy, subdued, and calmly articulated, rather than bursting forth with operatic reverb and power as is the wont of women like Tarja Turunen. And then there's the doom aspect of it. This band is a doom metal band, not a death metal band.
Therefore, it is clear from the differences in addition to the dates that Andrew Tompkins came up with these innovations entirely independent of the movements in Europe, and that just makes me respect them more.
Andrew Tompkins - male and growled vocals, bass, lyrics
Jason De Ron - guitar
Chris Burton - guitar
Jayson Sherlock - drums
Sue Bock, Rosemary Sutton, Annette Dowdle - female vocals
Roxanne Lascaris - cello
Sebastian Lorefice - harpsichord, piano
Judy Hellemons - flute
Mark Kelson - acoustic guitar
1.) In Exordium
A piano-driven song for the most part, the song is a showcase for the clean vocals of Andrew Tompkins and the majestic sound of the band's two guitarists and drummer. Tompkins' clean vocals are, as I said above, very, very deep. He seems to have a very wavering voice, both in the intonation aspect and also just in overall power. To me, that quality is mostly effective when laid against a backdrop such as this one: as a fan of power metal and death metal, whose clean singers typically have either operatic or melodic rock-oriented voices, I found myself thinking that Tompkins was just plain bad at singing, but on the other hand this doom outfit seems to not place very much worth on male clean vocals in the first place: as the main character of the concept is a thoroughly weak, crushed individual searching for a version of faith and redemption within the context of the story, the weak way Tompkins sings seems to bring a whole other sort of majesty to the proceedings than a standard, reverbed singer of heaven would. By having a voice such as this, Tompkins really makes the music achieve a whole other sort of unconventional grandeur.
2.) Song of the Ancient
This rather long-tending song, which features Tompkins' death growls and the first clean vocalist to appear on the album, Sue Bock, it provides a bridge between the cruel levels of bowel-churning heaviness the album will descend to and the melodicism of the opening song. Featuring a collection of stellar, melodic, twin-guitar riffs, the complexity of this song is pretty clear, and most importantly the obsessively slow tempos are just fantastic. Sue's vocals are similarly wavering and subdued to Tompkins', and again, fans of power metal accustomed to much more obvious orchestration will be hard-pressed to appreciate it at first. But when taken together with the concept and the instrumentation, it once more seems oddly appropriate. The ending's resurgence back into growls is surprising and crushing.
3.) I Am Not Alive
The longest song on the album, this song opens up with some eerie, parlor-sounding harpsichord, and the bone-dry way these instruments are used here totally contributes to the bleakness of the atmosphere: any other group would have arranged their music to draw as much attention as possible to its use, but this group uses it as a bridge to the incredibly crushing, even slower grooves here. The soprano vocals by Rosemary Sutton are much more controlled than those of Ms. Bock, which is a very effective thing and leads into some of the most painfully slow, crushing sections of any metal release I've ever heard. The guitars sound incredibly fat, resonating with low-frequency power, with infinitely better production than that found on Morningrise. The drums in particular are just so bowel-churning and crushing, and Jayson has a huge amount of skill at creative drum rolls and double-bass fills. The pained, almost note-less vocals by Tompkins are once again highly disconcerting as they seem to be just so unskilled and untrained, but even so, the backing instrumention makes it even more tense. Just wallowing in the depths of despair, this song is fantastic. See the outro in particular for the most creully crushing drum-guitar passages.
4.) The Grave, My Soul
Even slower than the first song, the intro here is incredibly crushing. I love the relentless slow pace of this band's heavy music. The amazing rolls and drumming of Jayson Sherlock is all over the place here. The production of this album is incredibly high-quality for an indie metal band as this, and I am very impressed at the way the band sounds. The middle of the song features a very slow buildup with a lot of impressive, VERY slow chord work and melodic riffs, and awesome drumming. The music is just so relentlessly low in frequency and hope, the mood is VERY effective, especially as it relates to the concept. The lyrics are just so well-written as well, I wonder if the novel is as good. A sample:
"It pays tribute to the accursed rains/for of all that was, little remains/These grey flowers you see/are but a poor reflection of humanity...the human condition, it seems, is to reduce all to tradition."
The song builds up to an incredibly emotional three-minute-long cello solo, totally capturing the sense of the dead forest witnessed by the protagonist, and one of the most beautiful stretches of metal music I've ever heard. Incredible, and an album highlight.
5.) Gone is My Former Resolve
Opening with beautiful acoustic guitars, and a vague hint of a cello or synth, it is here that Opeth fans will be reminded very much of "Benighted" or similar works. Tompkins' clean vocals are almost inaudible, they're so deep. Even with the slight ray of hope offered by the end of the last song, here we are brought down into very deep depths of sadness once more. When the band enters again, we are treated to eerie soprano vocals from Ms. Sutton and death growls from Tompkins. There's an almost uptempo double-bass grind in the middle here, and it's truly awesome. The lyrical turn is wonderful, as well. Another fantastic cello solo is to be found here. Sue Bock and Andrew have a duet of sorts here, leading into another oppresively slow, heavy outro.
6.) Of My Darkest Hour
The slowest song here, and the darkest. The music here is some of the most depressing and funereal music I've heard, and I love it. Jayson is once again shining here. As a woman says "Stay with me," the music unleashes a huge level of fast fury to be found nowhere else on the album. A crushing groove is unleashed not long after this, just unbelievable. A depressing flute solo is played over the slowest doom groove here, sounding particularly eerie over the dissonances of the guitars. More harpsichord enters over the guitars, and the darkness of this song is just even more pronounced. Great, great stuff.
7.) Darkness Dies
This song is the solitary ray of hope on this album, a closer with incredibly beautiful clean guitar work and powerful bass and drums and synths. Comparisons with "To Bid You Farewell" are enormously tempting, because this song is incredibly beautiful, with plaintive flute and great heavy sections and female vocals from Ms. Dowdle. I would almost consider this to be on a par with that fantastic song, because in many ways it seems just like Paramaecium's version of "To Bid You Farewell," all the more impressive due to the fact that this album was released a few months before Morningrise. The guitars are very powerful and melodic, and the result is a fantastically dynamic and, by Paramaecium standards, uplifting song. Utterly great.
Sorry about the length of this review, but the degree to which this band has innovated here is enormous, and there is a huge vacuum in knowledge, as far as I can tell, about this band and this album that I felt really needed to be filled. "Within the Ancient Forest" is so fully-formed, and so ahead of its time in the way it capitalizes on and makes full use of musical tactics and techniques that would never be found in such complexity and tightness in the works of Opeth, Therion, and countless other power and death metal bands until a number of years later, that it deserves a huge amount of respect. In addition, as a piece within the framework of doom metal, it's just awesome in its own right. This is a brilliantly concieved, lyrically fabulous and musically amazing work. While Opeth fans will easily prefer the voice of Mikael Akerfeldt to that of Andrew Tompkins, and while Therion fans will easily vote for the powerful, operatic vocals of "Secret of the Runes" over the more subdued, shy female vocals to be found here, you cannot help but award Paramaecium respect for what they had done with "Within the Ancient Forest," which was the full expression of everything found on 1993's "Exhumed of the Earth," itself released many years before Opeth had even solidified its lineup, much less decided on its course of musical expression to the degree Paramaecium had. A must-own for fans of metal.