Review Summary: A landmark for doom/death and the reason Liv Kristine’s name will be forever mentioned in conversations regarding the greatest female vocal performance on a metal album.
Purple velvet, red roses and Early Modern English are some of the ingredients to one of the most atmospheric journeys in music. What may now seem as mundane or trivial to some, was so groundbreaking 20 years ago, that engraved Liv Kristine’s name on every metalhead’s brain that had the pleasure of discovering the album, at the time of its release. The impact of Theatre of Tragedy’s sophomore effort was so significant, that Liv Kristine featured, along with Anneke van Giersbergen, for an extended period of time on year-end lists regarding the best female vocalist in metal; and chances are that these two ladies will be included on such lists for the foreseeable future.
Even though women in rock had long before looked men straight in the eyes since the time of Janis Joplin, Liv Kristine did it in her own way; instead of trying to sing as powerfully as her counterparts, she sounded distant, cold, fragile and elegant. She’s never over the top or too operatic like Nightwish for example and it feels like her delivery is intentionally shy, which blends perfectly with the instrumentation (check “Bring Forth Ye Shadow” on the 1.23 mark); the nature of the music is haunting, almost cinematic, like a good medieval gothic thriller.
A step forward compared to their self titled debut, Velvet Darkness They Fear
is a more refined version of its predecessor; the death metal vocals are less harsh and there are more gothic elements. It seems as if the whole album’s purpose is to create a gloomy atmosphere with a strong sense of romanticism that is mostly due to Liv’s delivery and some of the lyrics. Following the same direction as on the debut, the lyrics are on Early Modern English and even though they’re almost indecipherable – especially for a non-native speaker – the interplay of the band’s two vocalists is sufficient to set the mood.
The antithesis between death grunts and graceful operatic singing, even though hadn’t been done before, is probably the greatest specimen of beauty and the beast vocals and hasn’t been repeated with the same degree of success since then; the closing minute of “Bring Forth Ye Shadow” and the vocalists’ interaction, which blends melody with brutality and results in a minor crescendo by Liv, is a strong testament. Nevertheless, the vocals – even though the most important – is just one of the elements that make Velvet Darkness They Fear
so special. The guitar playing, which is highly influenced by Paradise Lost’s Greg Mackintosh, is used in order to build walls of doomy riffs that actually play the same role with the brutal lyrics; add heaviness to the final outcome. On the same vein, the use of classical instruments such as the harp (“The Masquerader and Phoenix”} piano or its predecessor the clavichord, provide the aforementioned antithesis from an instrumental perspective. For example, the keys resembling clavichord on "Fair and 'Guiling Copesmate Death" provide a baroque flavor to the song.
However, breaking down the music in various parts doesn’t make the album complete justice; the magic lies not in the ingredients but the way they blend together and the feelings they evoke. In addition, dialogues from the The Masque of the Red Death
(starring Vincent Price) on “And When He Falleth”, perfectly backed by the band’s music, make the album even more atmospheric and chilling; such is their effect, that one doesn’t even need to have watched the movie to fall in love with it. The band integrates the dialogues so perfectly to the music that the song doesn’t miss a beat. On the same track, the spoken part of Raymond Rohonyi backed by Liv’s delivery is also a highlight.
What is more, the consistency of the LP is the main reason it works so well as a single piece of art, rather than a collection of songs. Generally, the music is slow and doomy but there are catchier or uptempo songs (“Der Tanz der Schatten”, “Seraphic Deviltry”) that serve as mood changers. Selecting a favorite track isn’t an easy task, such as on the band’s debut where “A Hamlet for a Slothful Vassal” and “...A Distance There Is...” were arguably the strongest numbers.
All in all, Velvet Darkness They Fear
was Theatre of Tragedy’s breakthrough album and for good reason; it’s more mature and consistent than their debut and with a clearer musical identity. The fact that Pete Coleman, who had worked with Paradise Lost, produced the album was also a sign that the band approached this work with increased professionalism and a strong sense of direction. More importantly, even though it broke barriers at the time, it felt natural and managed to bridge different worlds which resulted in one of the most magical journeys, for the young and impressionable version of the writer of this review.