Dark Tranquillity are basically the stalwarts of melodic death metal, being the oldest and longest lived of any bands in the genre, as well as remaining in the confines of their style unlike some of their fellow countrymen. It can also be argued that they’re probably the most consistent band of their type too, having never put out a stinker in all their years in the business. However in this particular case that isn’t a good thing. For my money, I’d argue that DT have never really put out a good album (outside of Character, which honestly seems like a fluke), with every single one suffering from pretty much the same problem: They’re boring. In later cases this is down to writing songs that dither about without integrating any memorable hooks or leads, or indeed not performing with any real energy, but on earlier efforts like this the issue is down to something far more frustrating.
This album is archetypal melodic death metal, and it basically set the template for a lot of the more orthodox bands in the style that would come about later. It’s full of, and I mean *full of* melodic leads. Riffs of the more normal death, thrash or even groove metal persuasion are virtually nowhere to be found, literally all the guitar work on this album is a lead, and there isn’t a moment on this album that isn’t absolutely sugar coated in a melodic lead of some kind. The guitars have almost no distortion on them at all (much like a lead tone, unsurprisingly) and the bass reminds me a lot of what Steve Harris would do, given that it complements the guitars very well with its rather notable plugging. It’s easily the best thing about this album, if only because it reminds me of Maiden so much.
Obviously saying that this is exactly like Iron Maiden isn’t really correct. There’s the obvious difference of Mikael Stanne’s growls, which are typical melodeath vocals in that they’re like less abrasive and more intelligible death growls. As far as the style goes he’s worlds above Anders Fridén, being entirely serviceable if perhaps a little unremarkable compared to what Tomas Lindberg could do around this time. That said however, the comparison to Maiden is, to be blunt, a massive insult to Iron Maiden. That band had two things Dark Tranquillity completely fails at – the first of which is restraint. As stated, Dark Tranquillity completely let loose on the melody here with no let up and it becomes unbelievably tiresome after approximately two minutes into ‘Punish My Heaven’, with its constant noodling that sounds nice at first, but simply grates. The problem is that there’s a melody every 5 seconds, since a more simplified album like The Jester Race is notably more effective despite being just as melodic. That album works much more effectively because it develops one or two melodies over the course of a song, making for a more flowing, measured and coherent listening experience. Here, the guitarists simply noodle away or throw every idea they can at you in order to impress and dazzle in a flurry of sugary technicality, but it simply fails.
There’s also a second, more serious problem here, which largely stems from the first. While the band had the right idea on this album, that being throwing in melodic hooks into the songs to keep them memorable, they overdo it so much that rather than being a recurring motif in a song they are the body of the song. This has the added effect of a dearth in memorable riffing as it is overtaken by the lead work. This is a problem in and of itself because the guitars are noodling constantly, rather than playing something memorable. Hence the songs tend to meander and lose focus and tend not to be very memorable. In fact, it’s normally the bass that prevents the songs from devolving into a blur when trying to recall them. And perhaps worst of all, the songs themselves are totally flat and one-dimensional. There aren’t really any climaxes or overtly emotional moments (apart from some pretty poor female warbling at times, along with Stanne’s decent cleans), there’s very little in the way of an atmosphere; it almost sounds as if the songs were hastily assembled to be vehicles for some soloing. Very few memorable ideas are offered up by a song during its running time, forcing one to focus intently on largely shallow and irritating music.
What makes this technical failure so frustrating is that everyone here is clearly talented. The guitarists, while not very good at reining it in or writing, can clearly play their instruments well, the bass is great, Mikael is a solid vocalist and the drummer is good as well. It’s just that the guitarists went so overboard with their Iron Maiden worship as to forget about writing something memorable and with adequate riffs. I also have another minor quibble – there isn’t really that much aggression to this album at all. The guitars are very sugar-coated in tone and substance, with only a modicum of aggression coming from the vocals. Otherwise the whole album is overblown, melodramatic and shallow, as well as being like a bad parody of Iron Maiden musically with decent growls on top.