Released: 2007, Nuclear Blast
Generally speaking, a self-titled album from a group is one of two things - either it's their first release or it is an album they believe (at least at the time of its release) is representative of who and what the band is as a musical entity. In the case of Dutch symphonic-gothic metal purveyors After Forever, their eponymous fifth full-length is a definitive example of the latter. Those who might have feared the less-aggressive direction displayed on 2005's REIMAGINE was a sign the band was losing steam or heading for 'sellout' territory will find their faith renewed with 2007's AFTER FOREVER, an album which showcases a blend of the best elements presented over the past ten years of their career - neither symphonic nor gothic nor progressive but a superbly-balanced amalgamation of all three.
The album roars out of the gate with "Discord," which stylistically hearkens back to the PRISON OF DESIRE days with epic orchestral arrangements and choir vocals interlaced throughout a heavy-gothic riff-fest. The 'beauty and the beast' vocal concept prevalent in this song - namely trading off lines between a clean female vocalist and a deathgrowling male - is hardly new or innovative, but when the female vocalist in question is the incredibly talented Floor Jansen, the results never wind up sounding stale. While Gommans actually winds up delivering more grunting vocals than on any previous AF release, the spotlight is still firmly fixed on Jansen's amazing capability to vary her always-evocative vocal style from power-metallish energetic to emotionally-charged melancholic-melodic to gorgeous operatics - and more importantly, to sound fantastic regardless of which she's employing at the moment. The vocal duelling continues on many of the other highlight tracks such as the ferocious "Transitory," which barrels along with a degree of speed and aggression that may catch even the most familiar with the band's back catalog off-guard yet remains surprisingly catchy to the ear, and the dramatically heavy bombast of "De-Energized," which features excellent vocal work, amazing lead guitar explosions from guest performer Jeff Waters of thrash veteran outfit Annihilator, and superb keyboard lines from former Sun Caged keyboard wizard Joost van den Broek. While van den Broek has only been with the band for a relatively short time, his talents as a performer and a composer are clearly evident in many of the tracks, particularly the stunning arrangements on the EXORDIUM-esque "Evoke" and the choral-driven electronica-steeped album closer "Empty Memories." In between the heavy moments are the more 'accessible' songs with only Jansen's vocals, some of which are, dare I say, almost 'radio-friendly,' particularly cuts like the relatively mainstream mid-tempo single "Energize Me" - which manages despite its poppy sensibility to retain enough of the band's classic orchestral and progressive elements to remain interesting, especially in the superb choruses in the latter portions of the track - and the beautifully melancholic piano-focused ballad "Cry With A Smile." The piece de resistance of the album is the eleven minute progressive-power monster "Dreamflight," which despite being the longest track the group has ever done never becomes repetitive or boring, frequently alternating back and forth from driving metal riffs and snarling, distorted male vocals to epic minor-key orchestral arrangements and haunting operatic vocal segments from Floor. The album isn't quite perfect, unfortunately, for there are a few moments of relative weakness..."Who I Am" seems a bit uninspired and directionless despite a wonderfully-blended duet performance intertwining Jansen's mezzo-soprano with the special-guest alto vocals of metal queen Doro Pesch. It's not really a bad song, just kind of bland when placed alongside many of the other cuts on the disc. Overall, the high points far outweigh the lows.
AFTER FOREVER the album puts on display an excellent, multi-faceted view of After Forever the band, and while some may still find themselves longing for a full return to the DECIPHER days, most longtime fans and new converts alike should find themselves captivated by what they hear. Hopefully with the group's signing to the Nuclear Blast label, they'll finally get the level of distribution and promotion they've deserved for a long time.