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“Maximalism” might not have been the album where Amaranthe at long last made their collective mind up and decided to go full Eurodance, but it's never for a lack of trying. “Massive Addictive” had the good fortune of living up to its title, and it was damn catchy to boot. On “Maximalism” everything is dialed up to 11: the dance beats, the ear-worm hooks, and Elize Ryd’s vocals. Amaranthe is still how we prefer them. One part Evanescence, one part Republica – and all awesome. “Maximalism” might not yield a ‘Ready to Go’, ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’, or ‘Bring Me To Life’ but it never stops aiming for the stars. If there ever was a time for this Swedish-Danish unit to stop fucking about. That time is now. Seriously, why are there still rock guitars and drums in this band? “Maximalism” is Eurodance. Simple.

They couldn’t be more obvious about it too. ‘Maximize’, the lead single, starts out like vintage 2 Unlimited. ‘21’ is a pale imitation of ‘Drop Dead Cynical’ but is not nearly as infectiously catchy despite being based around a very similar riff. ‘That Song’ is practically urban/r&b if it weren’t for the inclusion of a incidental pseudo-heavy riff. ‘Fury’ really wants to be a full-blown dance track but for some inexplicable reason insists on a rock song format, complete with gruff vocals, a robust riff and clattering drums that really should’ve been electronic beats by now. Similarly is ‘Break Down and Cry’ dogged by the rock stylings that keep it from fully blossoming into a dance ballad. ‘Faster’, quite surprisingly at that, isn’t a Within Temptation cover but clearly that’s where their inspiration lie. ‘Limitless’ and ‘Break Down and Cry’ are the prerequisite power ballads because “Maximalism” is nothing but a slavish retread of “Massive Addictive” and ‘Endlessly’ is a ballad for Ryd to show what she’s capable of. Ryd is all killer. The rest is delicious filler.

Judging by the songwriting credits the only two members in Amaranthe that really matter are Olof Mörck and Elize Ryd. There’s no contesting that Ryd is the face of the band and why she hasn’t gone to grace any album cover yet is a question for the ages. Nobody in the right mind listens to Amaranthe for Henrik Englund Wilhemsson and Joacim "Jake E" Lundberg. Nobody. Clearly this is Ryd’s band and there’s no good reason for the continued presence of the often duelling Wilhemsson and Lundberg. Yeah, it stands to reason that both men fill their respective parts admirably, but Ryd is the only of the three vocalists that matters in any significant capacity. Ryd is what sells Amaranthe. Ryd IS Amaranthe. There really is no excuse why she shouldn’t be the focal point in anything and everything that Amaranthe does. Amaranthe has arrived at a crossroads of sorts. Either go into the Eurodance direction completely or continue this safe neither-here-nor-there routine that frustrates audiences on both sides of the aisle. Everything is bigger on “Maximalism” – but those persistent rock guitars keep getting in the way.

The riffs, as vanilla and incidental as they are, in Amaranthe’s music are about as important as those in Evanescence’s, which is to say: not very much. In point of fact the sheer heaviness of “Maximalism” is actually quite relative and completely fabricated on their end. “Maximalism” is Eurodance at heart and it would benefit Amaranthe tremendously in finally abandoning the last remaining vestiges of that they once were a rock or metal band. It beggars the question why this band insists on three different vocal styles, and a rock style band setup – when they obviously want to be an Eurodance band. Secretly we had hoped that “Maximalism” would’ve finally seen Amaranthe embrace its Eurodance inclinations fully, but for hitherto inexplicable reasons they continue to insist on the rock aspect. Nobody comes to a band as Amaranthe for their riffs, or the drumming – likewise is nobody really invested (or interested) in the duelling male vocals. The focus is, or should be, on Elize Ryd for all the obvious reasons. Ryd is what sells Amaranthe. Ryd is the focal point in all their videos and much of their promotional material. Henrik Englund Wilhemsson and Joacim "Jake E" Lundberg need not to be in Amaranthe. There’s still a sliver of hope that Amaranthe will figure this out by the following album.

Which sort of beggars the question: why isn’t there a Russian equivalent of Amaranthe yet? t.A.T.u. did this very thing in 2000-2001 to incredible commercial success in Europe and Asia despite the fact that Lena Katina and Julia Volkova weren’t all that good singers in either their native Russian or English. The only difference, of course, being that t.A.T.u. actually did have some cultural impact with ‘Нас не догонят’ (‘Not Gonna Get Us’) appearing on the soundtrack to Swedish-Danish drama Lilja 4-Ever from director Lukas Moodysson. t.A.T.u. became idols for an entire subculture of disenfranchised youth. Then there are British bands like Kosheen and Republica that dominated the charts in the late nineties and early 2000s. What has Amaranthe to show for itself? That they can’t really decide what they want to be? Clearly Amaranthe aims for mainstream popularity and radio airplay, then why are they so deadly afraid to shed whatever negligible rock aspects that clog their Eurodance sound? It isn’t like there isn’t any precendent to this. Ukraine’s Semargl went from Satanic Pop Metal to purveyors of Discolove in the fraction of just a few short years. There’s absolutely no reason why Amaranthe shouldn’t, or couldn’t, too. It's as clear as day that they have the chops for it.

Was there a possibility of “Maximalism” topping “Massive Addictive”, the Eurodance surprise of 2014? No. At least not realistically. “Maximalism” is pretty much more of the same. Sometimes more catchy, sometimes not. “Maximalism” is everything that “Massive Addictive” was and then some. Does it always work? Not really, but that doesn’t make it any less of an absolute blast of an album. It only accentuates that Amaranthe have reached the ceiling of how far they can continue to push their sound without betraying their obvious metallic roots. The only way for Amaranthe go from here is to either stagnate (and keep their heavy rock element) or finally commit entirely to the poppy Eurodance sound that has become the quintessential element to their cross-genre appeal and success. “Maximalism”, true to its title, is an absolutely massive record and an addictive one at that – even if it pales slightly compared to the preceding “Massive Addictive”. It’s clear that Elize Ryd and her men have set themselves on the path to relative superstardom in their genre. If only they realized that that very genre is keeping them back from even bigger success.

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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.