In a genre that is becoming stale and plagued with copycat bands playing the same style of female-fronted metal, some of the old dogs are still playing and making the music. Tristania, one of the early bands to play this style, have solidified their reputation over the years with albums such as Beyond the Veil and Widow's Weeds. Morten Veland, the band's original songwriter, may have left, but the band has recovered since and it has been full throttle ahead after that. After the acclaimed Ashes release in 2005, Tristania were challenged with writing a succesful follow-up, which would be released in 2007, and that would be... exactly, this Illumination release.
Well, Tristania has someone in specific to thank for their success. Now ex-singer Vibeke Stene is an unbelievable megahot chick from Norway, and on top of that, she sings gorgeous operatic vocals, in a register above that of Tarja even. Many of the songs on here are carried by her vocal operatics, mostly contrasted with Bergøy's baritone vocals, but also, as on Destination Departure, a gorgeous ballad, by her alone most of the time. She hits those high notes with pride and majesty, and she can just leave the low stuff to another singer, which is an excellent combination.
Musically it's nothing overly interesting or complex that you're going to see from the band. The riffs are clearly metal but they don't churn or chug; they sound a bit muffled and put to the background. The band also doesn't use any symphonic orchestras (they do use keys though.) It's a bit more modest, but for all the operatic bombast and grandeur the style is known for, it works amazingly well; Tristania are simply the more honest, down-to-earth version of gothic metal posterboys/girls Within Temptation. And that approach to the music just shows that you don't have to bring in a damn orchestra just to sound good and gloss over your shortcomings.
Song-wise, the album isn't huge on variety, but there are some interesting experiments. Occasionally grunts are used, courtesy of Vorph (from Samael), for when simple baritone vocals aren't good enough. This is done on some of the heavier tracks, such as pummeling opener Mercyside, or the amazing Down. However, there is one song that also is heavy that definitely steals the show on this album. That is the amazing Sacrilege; probably one of the only songs on here to contain some pure furor, mainly directed against the misguidings of Christianity (how original.) The guitars churn, the drums just banish, and the unmistakable duet vocal lines just keep you enthralled all the way through this magnificent song.
But for most of the album, the band doesn't stick to those dark, downtuned guitars. The major thing about this album is that the band resorts to ambient music as the backdrop for the metal side of the band. This mellows the album down and mitigates the heaviness, giving the album more of a rock feel rather than a metal feel. As a consequence, the variance between more midtempo songs (Lotus for example), and slow tracks (Deadlands), allows for just enough mellowness to creep in for you to relax and enjoy this album. It isn't a headbanging experience, this is music you could just play everywhere basically because it's not excessively heavy, not excessively provoking, it's just nice and beautiful gothic metal.
I don't know if all this could lead one to conclude that Tristania have released another winning album over their lengthy career. However the band does show with this album that they are on top of the gothic/female-fronted metal heap, and continue to release good album after good album. Tristania may not be honoured for doing something special, but at least this band continues to pump out good and consistent music. And that alone should be enough for any fan of the style to purchase this platter of well-made metal.