After Forever - Invisible Circles (2004)
"Incredible" would not do this album justice. Granted, I'm somewhat biased, as they are one of my favorite bands, but this is a musical masterpiece. I've put off doing a review of it because I knew that it was be quite a daunting task, due to the epic nature of the album, but it had to be done! I'm not going to do a song or album "rating", because every single one of these tracks would get a 5/5 and that would be redundant. :p I'm going to warn you: this is going to be a lengthy write-up, but any less would not do justice to the album. Without further adieu, I'll introduce the masterminds and contributors:
Floor Jansen - Soprano
Sander Gommans - Guitars, solos, grunts
Bas Maas - Guitars, clean male vocals
Luuk Van Gerven - Bass Guitar
Lando Van Gils - Synths/keyboards
Andre Borgman - Drums, acoustic guitars
After Forever Orchestra:
Yvonne van de Pol (Viola)
Carla Schrijner (cello)
Saartje van Camp (cello)
Herman van Haaren (violin 1)
Jeanne Biessen (violin 2)
After Forever Choir:
Hans Cassa (bass)
Caspar de Jonge (Tenor)
Martine de Jager (Alto)
Ellen Bakker (Soprano)
*phew*. Anyways...Invisible Circles is a concept album by the Dutch metal band After Forever. One note of caution that I thought I might add before getting into detail is to put any previous notions of the word "Gothic" out of your head, especially the often associated American "goths." When I say "Gothic," I'm more referring to a strain of neo-classicism that draws from the original definition of the difficult to define word. After Forever's music is symphonic in writing and construction and draws on a wide range of classical/romantic influences and instrumentations. Floor Jansen, the lead vocalist, is a classically trained opera singer who, thankfully, is also into metal.
The reason why I love this album is that it is absolutely uncompromising. It can be brutal (Two Sides, Blind Pain) and it can be beautiful (Digital Deceit, Eccentric). At times, it's often even both (Sins of Idealism, Through Square Eyes). It is highly internally consistent, and some of the transitions occur beautifully (Especially between "Of Love and Fire" and "Sins of Idealism). Floor combines operatic singing with a kind of theatrical rock/metal power singing, and is incredibly dynamic on her own, an attribute I have not seen to this degree before. A common case with male/female dual vocal metal bands is that the dynamics will be shared between the two vocalists; the male is angry and brutal, the female pretty and beautiful. Mrs. Jansen doesn't scream or growl, yet she is still able to create an incredible amount of power and energy out of her voice; a quick listen to the opening passages of "Beautiful Emptiness" is a wonderful example of that.
In addition, she can also switch seamlessly between styles, namely between metal and opera. A great example of this is on "Sins of Idealism," in which she launches into her opera voice right in the middle of a phrase, using the dramatic change in her voice as an accent as she suddenly becomes the voice of the child's mother. The dynamics exhibited on this album are incredible...I sometimes think that the band consciously puts the most beautiful and moving melodies right in the middle of the most brutal of songs on purpose!
Musically, the band plays a perfect balance between direction and experimentation. There's quite a few technical sections in the songs, customary of their sound (for those familar with their earlier work), but they don't allow it to detract from the purpose of the song like other bands have. There's plenty of things for music-fanatics to gobble up; odd time signatures, guitar leads, exotic melodies, technical singing, etc, but the main thrust of the album is on songwriting and composition. With that, I'll transition into a play-by-play description of the album:
Invisible Circles tells the tale of a young girl growing up in a troubled and painful childhood. Much of the album is written from the Child's point of view, although the parents also come into play often.
After a short instrumental intro (Childhood in Minor , a clever double-meaning), the album kicks into the thunderous "Beautiful Emptiness." From the beginning, the listener is assaulted by the dynamic interplay between beauty and anger, as the child lets loose a volley of complaints through the voices of Floor Jansen and Sander Gommans. One line that hit me particularly hard, summing up the theme of the song is this: "You don't allow me a single place, nor any love into your lives...an unperceived, annoying presence you'd rather ignore...but in my life you'd know you'll leave a beautiful emptiness."
After this introduction to the girl's condition, the story then moves into a flashback of the parent's lives just before she was born.
"Between Love and Fire" tells the story of two ambitious people who met and fell in love in college, with dreams of grandeur and fame. "Ambitions high, burning...the flames burn deep down in our souls....to be known for efficiency and passion." They are both becoming very successful, but because so much of their attention is focused on their careers, their love is failing. "Our love is pale, but it's not in my way..."
However, they suddenly run into a problem that they had never foreseen before: a child! In one careless night, the woman becomes pregnant, and the couple is faced with a choice between following their dreams or keeping the child and hopefully saving their love. "See the child here as a saviour. Choose for love and let this life begin." Note that the welfair of the child is not even considered in the arguement...this is a trend that will continue throughout the album.
In the argument, the mother is somewhat idealistic, thinking that her child would save their love and make everything alright...however, the future turns out to be much different than she expected, as the aptly titled "Sins of Idealism" proves...
The song kicks forward about 8 years or so, as the child addresses her parents in a kind of bittersweet manner:
Child: "Hello father, hello mother, there is so much I don't get...please don't be mad at me, I will try harder, I'll really do the best I can.."
Mother: "That's not enough. You're the cause of my domestic captivity...suffer the causes of my personal misery, I've sacrificed my beauty, my freedom, my dreams...the independent me."
Child: " Hello father, hello mother, don't blame for things I didn't do. Yes, I will go now and I'll be silent please stop screaming, and love me."
Introduced into the song are also a number of third-party contemplative observers, written almost in a manner similar to the Greek Tragedy Choruses:
"Sinner or righteous, the line is so thin. Can you condemn it? Can you be the one to judge it all? Or accuse yourself if the sentence is your life? Tell me, can you live in freedom knowing that your choice hurt someone?"
The father also introduces a few blows upon the child. This stanza is, IMO, one of the most tragically powerful parts of the album:
"Once we had a life and now we have you
The saviour of love is a catastrophe
I'll leave you both if I must give up my dreams...
The sins of all, the sinner in me
I follow my dreams, you call it blasphemy
If my ideals are sins
To me they are the strength within
Then I shall stay a sinner."
Her parents blame all of their problems upon her, and see her as the cause for everything that went wrong in their lives. As a result, the poor girl retreats into her own private world of digital deceit, relying on the internet and her diary for outlet. After the thunder of "Sins of Idealism," the album hits a soft spot in the hauntingly beautiful piano ballad, "Eccentric," which describes the child's painful experiences with other children as a shy and quiet eccentric girl that is often teased and ridiculed.
After this, the album picks up into the huge, emotional "Digital Deceit." One of the softer tracks on the album (no growling, grunting), it is also one of the most powerful. It opens up with a dynamic interplay between a roaring metal guitar riff competing for attention with a full string section, which I believe represents the emotional interplay between the child's excitement over finding a place where she's safe from her parents and the true tragedy of her being forced into this situation. For example, the child triumphantly declares herself the "queen of her own world," loved by everyone, "not someone insecure and strange....my father's will in here, it doesn't mean a thing...and I don't fear his violent rage."
Again the Greek-style chorus comes in, calling on the girl to Stop dreaming and wake up your sill world is not what's real...this world of fake friends and computers-digital deceit...this cyber wall is built to break out or hold...the choice is yours, will you dream or see what's real?"
At this, the child replies "I am the queen, I must be loved. This so-called 'wall' is there to protect. A life controlled by keys, closed off from pain and cold."
Trapped within her digital deceit, the child seems to lose track of reality. The next track, "Through Square Eyes," contains some of the most beautiful vocal lines I've ever heard played against incredibly brutal grunting...a very dynamic, unique track, that signals the album's descent into darkness, as things just...keep getting worse. Her father seems to be abusing her, possibly physically as well as emotionally, and the kids at school continue to torment her, and she has nowhere to turn to but her own imaginary world.
The parents continue to battle as the child's opinion is basically ignored by both, and the story finally climaxes in the charged, emotional, and properly titled "Victim of Choices." The title itself is a powerful statement about the perspective that way too many parents hold when having children. In the song, the child's grandmother (father side) suddenly comes into the scene, pleading for them to change. In a surprising twist, the audience is treated to a possible explanation for the father's behaviors, as he responds to his mother: "Where were you when I needed you...your interference is not welcome now."
This song sets up the theme of the album, and explains its title: "Invisible Circles."
Child: "I try to feel and understand that their distant past is like my life today
It's a circle, a curse
I am one of the victims
One of their, one of your victims."
The parents acted how they did because they had similar childhoods; the story is an endless cycle of abuse and selfishness. Each person - mother, child, and father - lives in his/her own personal world, which he retreated into because of his own parents' ill treatments.
Following is one of the most well written, deepest songs I've heard in a long time, "Reflections." As one should hope out of every concept album, the song is both a lyrical and a musical reflection upon the album, running through all of the musical themes and ideas, often with lyrical references. (Example: when she remarks, "so they would up to me, and fill up my emptiness," the song launches into a remniscence of the song, "Beautiful Emptiness.") At the end of the song is a remarkable choir arrangement that is almost identical to a guitar solo that occurs earlier in the album.
After the album reflections, the final track, "Life's Vortex," is a cautionary conclusion hoping to providing a solution: "So for those who believe in this life, spin right on the circle...every turn has its vortex; you'll drown if nobody warns you and shows you another circle of life." Basically, those caught in the Invisible Circles need another life to show them the way out, an intervention, love.