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Therion - Gothic kabbalah 3/5

Reviewed: 4-13-07


CD 1
1. Der mitternachtlowe
2. Gothic kabbalah
3. The perennial Sophia
4. Wisdom and the cage
5. Son of the staves of time
6. Tuna 1613
7. Trul
8. Close up the streams

CD 2
1. The wand of abaris
2. Three treasures
3. Path to arcady
4. TOF - The trinity
5. Chain of minerva
6. The falling stone
7. Adulruna rediviva

Few (if any) metal releases in the first quarter of 2007 touched off as much controversy as 'Gothic kabbalah', the latest platter from Sweden's orchestral goth/power metallers, Therion. Internet message boards and review sites have crackled with controversy, as some longtime fans express indignation at the marked change in the band's sound following the very favorably received 2004 twin releases, 'Sirius B' and 'Lemuria'. In other quarters, however, fans praised the evolution of Therion's sound, some even declaring 'Gothic kabbalah' to be their most inspired, innovative work since the 1997 breakthrough release, 'Theli'. Given the heated nature of this debate, it was inevitable that your friends here at Metal CD Ratings would charge headlong into the fray to offer one battle-scarred metalhead's perspective. Here we go...

As an initial matter, make no mistake that things have changed in the Therion camp on 'Gothic kabbalah'. The use of operatic choirs has been scaled back dramatically in favor of a tag-team lead vocal approach utilizing 4 different primary lead singers (2 male and 2 female). For the first time that I can remember, spacey Ayreon-esque keyboards feature prominently in a number of songs. Perhaps most importantly, the feel/atmosphere of the music is different than the lush, solemn classically influenced Therion of yore, with much more of a 70s rockin' metal vibe in some places and overt stabs at today's female-fronted gothic trends in others. So pronounced is the change that even die-hard Therion fans may be left scratching their heads upon their first listen of 'Gothic kabbalah', wondering whether this is even the same band. A major culprit for the direction shift may lie in the splintered songwriting assignments, with bandleader/guitarist Christofer Johnsson relinquishing the creative reins to his bandmates to an unprecedented degree, such that he receives co-writing credits on just 5 of the 15 songs. All told, songwriting credits for these songs are divided among 6 different people, with a 7th getting credit for the lyrics. Not surprisingly, a result of this decentralized writing approach is that this 2-CD, 83-minute affair is disjointed in many places, as the various writers do not seem to have been united in a single, shared creative vision.

That's not to say that the songs on 'Gothic kabbalah' are not good; to the contrary, some of them are very good, and rank among Therion's finest compositions ever. The incomparable Mats Leven's vocal-god bellows lift "Son of the staves of time" to a place of greatness, and "Tuna 1613" has a hearty crunch and heavy bite that definitely gets the blood pounding, especially in a live setting. Elsewhere, "Trul" is almost folk metal, and "The falling stone" is speedy, catchy power metal with a fine female vocal performance. But a number of other songs feel like filler (including several of the Johnsson-penned tunes, surprisingly enough), lacking the energy and power and weighing in awfully low on the metal quotient. In some songs, the guitars are buried beneath layers of synths and Hammond organs. A perfect example would be opener "Der mitternachtslowe". When I saw Therion perform this song live in Austria in February, that main guitar riff pulverized like a sledgehammer to the skull. Imagine my surprise to hear the same song on CD, where the riff is so muted beneath the synths that the guitars are barely even audible. Too bad, really, as it's a killer riff.

In the final analysis, 'Gothic kabbalah' is a good CD. It's even a good Therion CD. But it definitely feels like a step down from the mighty pairing of 'Sirius B'/'Lemuria'. I wish the band would leave the spacey Hammond organs to Ayreon and bands of that ilk. I wish the guitars were louder in the mix sometimes. I wish Leven got to sing more (not that Snowy Shaw's a bad vocalist, it's just that Leven is amazing). I wish they'd scrapped the filler and put out a single 50-minute awesome CD instead of 83 minutes of music of variable quality. Mostly, I wish that the band's focus were tighter, allowing for the creation of a cohesive work of art that would hang together as a single unified piece instead of the scattered offerings of seven different minds. But in this life we don't always get what we wish for, and what we get from Therion on 'Gothic kabbalah' is not bad, by any stretch of the imagination.




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