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It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the once-mighty Dark Funeral, Sweden’s self-proclaimed Ineffable Kings of Darkness, with the Bröberg repertoire increasingly having been one of diminishing returns. “Vobiscum Satanas” and “Diabolis Interium” both were efficient for what they were but from “Attera Totus Sanctus” onward Dark Funeral increasingly started to adopt death metal production values and techniques. “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is the completion of the regression that commenced with 2005’s “Attera Totus Sanctus” and reached its apex on the self-parody that was “Angelus Exuro Pro Eternus”. Is age is finally catching up with King Antichrist, Mikael Svanberg – or, more likely, was post-David Parland Dark Funeral just never all that strong in its songwriting to begin with? Dark Funeral has finally put the proverbial noose around its collective neck, and “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is where its lifeless, dilapidated form hangs from.

“Where Shadows Forever Reign” - the not exactly highly anticipated follow-up to the entirely risible “Angelus Exuro Pro Eternus”, a record that was no less than 7 years in the making - has long-running Swedish black metal formation Dark Funeral reaching the point of obvious redundancy and artistic vacuity and thus banks itself entirely on visual/linguistic cues to earlier, better recordings; and self-referential nostalgia. This is not the much pined after return to relevance with material worthy of the “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” legacy, “Where Shadows Forever Reign” continues the co-opting of death metal stylings and production techniques into what is otherwise remarkably unremarkable barely-there Norsecore that second-tiers Setherial perfected to greater degree many years prior. It’s high-time for Svanberg to consider a songwriting partnership as “Where Shadows Forever Reign” isn’t solely in the grip of the pangs of nostalgia, it’s entire raison d'être seems to hinge on making people forget the dreadful Masse Bröberg era of the band.

Like Suffocation’s “Blood Oath” before it “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is considerably slower compared to prior outings. Instead of starting off with a blisteringly fast cut ‘Unchain My Soul’ opens with ominous narration, and takes its time getting started. As such it’s a harbinger of things to come as Dark Funeral, now two decades and half into its existence, is exhausted. The chiming funeral bell on ‘As I Ascend’ greatly enhances the atmosphere, but it merely functions as a bridge towards the single ‘Temple Of Ahriman’. For the first time in history Dark Funeral pairs two slow songs in immediate succession, neither of which are particularly foreboding. “Where Shadows Forever Reign” does sound like Dark Funeral, especially on the last three Bröberg fronted efforts, but none of it is particularly inspired or inspiring. New frontman Andreas Vingbäck sounds far closer to original singer Paul Mäkitalo with his selection of serpentine rasps, slashing shrieks, and ominous ululations, than to rightly maligned former Hypocrisy frontman Magnus Bröberg. Andreas Fröberg (who has since defected) is another in a long line of completely inconsequential and interchangeable bass guitarists - especially with Svanberg handling the instrument in the studio - that nobody pays attention to. ‘Unchain My Soul’, ‘As One We Shall Conquer’ and ‘Nail Them to the Cross’ were co-written with drummer Nils Fjellström (who has since defected), but it isn’t nearly enough to shake off the rust of a decade plus of self-imposed creative stasis.

You’d be hardpressed to recognize any of this as Dark Funeral, especially the drastically lowered pace and the heavy-handed attempt at mimicking Dissection-like epic songwriting, complete with Iron Maiden-inspired leads and archetypical Swedish melodic accents. In light of a 7 year hiatus (and another overhaul of half the line-up) what could we possibly expect? A return to the golden days of “The Secrets Of the Black Arts”, the one Dark Funeral record that Svanberg had practically no involvement in? No. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Dark Funeral is still around to begin with, and their adamant refusal to go quietly into the night almost resembles Maryland’s Dying Fetus. Not everything about “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is terrible. Yet it is terrible enough to merit that most on “Where Shadows Forever Reign” either doesn’t resemble the Dark Funeral we’ve all come to love/hate, or either is a nostalgic callback to the brighter, fiercer, more agile days of “The Secrets Of the Black Arts”. Making a long overdue return is the instantly classic blue Necrolord canvas and the old title font. It’s faint praise indeed but at least “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is better on the visual front than “Angelus Exuro Pro Eternus”, which isn’t much of a recommendation in and of itself.

At this point there’s no other way of saying what everybody the least bit perceptive already knew years ago. Dark Funeral is a spent creative force, and “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is testament to its redundancy. “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is a solid enough death metal album - one that doesn’t warrant frequent revisiting - but not one you’d want to see adorned with the iconic Dark Funeral coat of arms. Not that this particular evolution is the least bit surprising or unexpected. It was over a decade coming, and now Armageddon has finally come. More than anything “Where Shadows Forever Reign” has the look of a last-minute act of restoration, a desperate attempt to invoke the spirit of the glorious past. This Temple Of Ahriman has been in disrepair for longer than was probably healthy, and “Where Shadows Forever Reign” is unable to escape the looming shadow of the superior songwriting skills of the late David Parland. It’s high time for the Black Winged Horde, these Demons Of Five, to refamiliarize themselves with what made them famous to begin with. In 2016 Dark Funeral is as declawed, docile, and unnecessary as modern day Dimmu Borgir. The real question is: when will the metal scene finally refuse to put up with mediocre swill like this? No more!

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"Rabbits On the Run" was already indicative of Vanessa Carlton moving away from the lighthearted piano-pop music she had been penning up to that point. The "Blue Pool" EP used "Rabbits On the Run" as a foundation for Carlton to explore other avenues within her newly chosen genre. On "Liberman" Carlton is night on unrecognizable from the girl she once was, the girl that wrote 'A Thousand Miles' and sang about 'White Houses'. Vanessa Carlton is no longer that girl. She's a grown woman now, one with a family, and other ambitions than writing the next big hit single. "Liberman" is the maturation of Carlton as a person and songsmith. As such it is her most rewarding and most introspective collection of songs thus far.

Having set the stage with the preceding “Blue Pool” EP, and “Rabbits On the Run” before that, to see Vanessa embark on this particular course is far from unexpected.  “Liberman” fully capitalizes on the dreamy, meditative quality that has become Carlton’s calling card in recent years. "Liberman" still foregoes easy hooks and upbeat melodies, and it largely cements that the light piano-pop songs of “Be Not Nobody”, “Harmonium”, and "Heroes & Thieves" are a thing of the past. "Liberman" unites various aspects of her modest but earnest backcatalog into solemn, introspective musings on love and life. Also, and not unimportant, is that Carlton's piano playing is of lesser importance than her subdued vocals. Over the last couple of years and releases Carlton has embraced her inner Tori Amos.

1118-vanessa-photo-credit-eddie-chaconWho'd ever thunk a light electronic beat (one that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Florence + the Machine record) would ever open a Vanessa Carlton record? More than ever before does Vanessa Carlton embrace her indie rock spirit as the choice of melodies could have been culled from a Britpop or American FM rock band. ‘Willows’ sounds like a Tori Amos song and 'House Of Seven Swords' has Carlton crafting some of her most ambitious vocal melodies. If Carlton is to be believed 'House Of Seven Swords' is about her coming to grips with motherhood and the dynamics of a changed family life. 'Operator' is the record's 'Unsung' with the difference that most of Carlton's songs are rather dark and introspective musings with abstract lyrics, sometimes detailing with some of the recent happenings in her life. ‘Nothing Where Something Used to Be’ sounds almost as an early Coldplay (“Parachutes” and “A Rush Of Blood to the Head”) ballad. ‘Unlock the Lock’ is about rediscovering one’s vast internal world after a long period of not having loved, or having been loved. ‘Matter Of Time’ is a minimal folk guitar ballad that foregoes piano playing almost entirely. ‘River’ on the other hand is stylistically similar to ‘Matter Of Time’. Closing track ‘Ascension’ is the dreamiest and complex of the album, likewise has it the broadest interpretable metaphorical lyrics.

The lyrics have changed from youthful musings about love and relationships to more philosophical ruminations about the human condition. The vocal lines, much more in line with Carlton’s early demo recordings, are often subdued and folkish, seemingly inspired by “Pieces Of You”, the 1995 debut of Jewel Kilcher. The lyrics were kept intentionally vague and abstract allowing Carlton to focus on the arrangements and instrumentation instead of baring her soul. The dear-diary lyrics that used to be the bread-and-butter of Carlton’s early output are something of a rarity here. Carlton’s reinvention and resurrection as in an indie singer has liberated her from the stifling artistic shackles of being a major label artist. If "Liberman" proves anything, it is that Vanessa has found her musical niche, and that she's comfortable where she finds herself now. Her time, her songs, her headspace.

On "Liberman" the song arrangements are more important than Carlton's piano playing. The diminished importance of Vanessa's signature instrument has been signaled as early as “Rabbits On the Run” where it wasn't the main attraction either. 'Operator' already was indicative of Carlton’s propensity towards lesser piano-based material. When her piano does feature prominently, in songs as ‘Blue Pool’ or ‘House Of Seven Swords, it etches closer towards the demo material than to her sumptuous produced “Be Not Nobody” and its follow-up "Harmonium". There's a world of difference between the Vanessa that told the world about her 'Ordinary Day' and the Vanessa and her 'House Of Seven Swords'. Lest we forget, many years have passed since her famous one (and only) hit single. Carlton was allowed to work on her music outside of the spotlight, and judging from "Liberman" she has benefited from that time to find her focus and reinvent herself accordingly. Rather than a 'Nolita Fairytale' this is more of a Nashville renaissance.

The writing for what was to become known as "Liberman" began in the Summer of 2012 with the song ‘Unlock the Lock’. The album was inspired by a colorful oil painting created in 1963 by her late grandfather Alan J. Lee, who was originally named Liberman. “Liberman” was written in Nashville, Tennessee over a year and a half period. Seven tracks were recorded at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England with Steve Osborne producing. The remainder of the album was recorded at Playground Studios in Nashville with producer Adam Landry. Once again financed by Carlton herself and later licensed to a label partner the production is tonally closer to “Harmonium” while earthier, and warmer in texture. The lack of gloss is ultimately a strength as it allows the music to fully breathe and resonate.

On “Liberman” Vanessa Carlton has successfully reinvented herself as an indie pop artist without losing sight of her singer-songwriter roots. Closer to her demos than ever before “Liberman” combines the best aspects of her demo recordings with those of her more introspective singer-songwriter material. As a stylistic evolution from the changes that “Rabbits On the Run” introduced, it is a resounding victory for Carlton. It is the most engrossing and rewarding of Vanessa’s recent output. Hopefully Vanessa will keep evolving the way she has done over the last couple of years. Vanessa might not have given the world another ‘Ordinary Day’ or ‘White Houses’, but the mesmerizing indie pop of “Liberman” is a resounding success on all fronts. The absence of a new big hit single does not take away from the strength of "Liberman" as a testament to Carlton's awe-inspiring artistic reinvention.