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Marche Funèbre : To Drown

Marche Funèbre develop a considerable potential in their eclectic approach of Death Doom.

This is the Belgian doom/death band's first full-length release, following on from a limited demo/EP (Norizon - 2009) that gathered reasonable critical approval. This 2011 album represents an evolution and refinement of that earlier music rather than any radical new direction. Chiefly, that means better production, a cleaner mix with more depth to the sound and distribution through a label (Shiver Records).

It also means that the underlying blend of classically-derived doom and black/death metal mixed with romantic, epic and gothic influences remains much the same. Other reviewers have drawn comparisons with the usual suspects in that arena: early Peaceville, Katatonia and Cathedral, amongst others. It would be difficult to refute any of them as still being an inspiration to Marche Funèbre. However, inspiration is perhaps as far as it goes: it would be unfair to the band to describe them as sounding consistently close to any of those examples. Their style is more of a variation between the extremes of those influences than a soundalike amalgamation of them. As a personal opinion, it most closely evokes thoughts of early Candlemass, Paradise Lost, Cathedral and Novembers Doom: often all within the same track. Whilst not afraid of introducing more melancholic passages, the overall direction is one of hard-edged melodic heaviness that often sails as close to death metal territory as it does to doom.

The instrumental lineup is largely as would be expected for such an approach: lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums, with a few sound effects added in and no real need for any further embellishment. The musicianship is to a high standard: drums and lead guitar in particular displaying a great deal of versatility. The varied nature of the song compositions gives each of the group clear opportunities to demonstrate their ability, most of which are fully utilised. This does, however, lead on to the one aspect of the album which fails to really gel: the vocals. Apart from the lead singer, additional vocals are contributed by the lead guitarist, the bassist is credited with grunts and a guest vocalist appears on one of the tracks. With several different voices to choose from, it should be possible to achieve a great deal with contrast and harmony. The group evidently understand this well enough and have made considerable technical use of the opportunities available. Unfortunately, the lead vocals often do not practically deliver what is theoretically possible. In the slower, cleaner parts they can sound like a somewhat frail approximation of Messiah Marcolin: in the dark, growling sections, more like a histrionic and forced - but far less powerful - take on Paul Kuhr. Neither comes across as being a natural or especially comfortable style for the singer. That is a pity, as the occasions when he appears to be delivering in more relaxed fashion suggest that he has a lot more potential than is currently being displayed.

The album itself gets underway with bombastic intro "Into Deadly Marshes": running water, suggestive of the drowned suicide cover photograph, being replaced by a strident horror-movie-score riff that builds to a segue into "Valley Of Tears". This 10-minute piece, by accident or design, starts like a mediocre homage to Candlemass. It moves into some faster-paced segments from about the halfway point and makes use of the full gamut of vocal expressions available - including guest vocalist Hans Vanweyenberg - and concludes in something of a polyphonic crescendo. In some respects a bold effort to lay out the full range of Marche Funèbre's musical inclinations, it is also the track which most clearly illustrates the tendency to overwork the vocals into strained artificiality. Thankfully, that is far more reined in for the following "The Well That Drowns Me", although there is still a fairly ill-advised hoarsely-snarled passage midway through this 12-minute composition. Musically, this is closer to standard doom construction and phrasing than the opener, in an extended form and reprise quite typical of My Dying Bride, with a chorus hookline that also demonstrates that the singer does indeed have more potential. It may be a case of less being more across the board: this track would be excellent if shortened and tightened up by the removal of the aforementioned mid-point bridging piece. As it is, it lacks a little focus and direction to create precisely the right mood for what should, according to the lyrics, be a romantic tragedy.

The next two tracks are both short by the standards of the rest of the album, clocking in at 5 and 6 1/2 minutes respectively. The first, "Regiment Of The Hopeless", is a variation on the technique used on the intro song. Dramatic, classically heavy doom riffing over a military drumbeat drives the song into a cruelly urgent passage dominated by an insistently knifing guitar riff and hoarse screeches before the gruff, more traditional finale. That immediately cuts into the fast death metal-style opening of "Of Dreams And Vanity", which alternates between this level of pace and slower, more measured doom sections throughout. The contrasts are smooth and well-handled; the overall effect is to create a mood of furious yet ultimately resigned despair. The comparative brevity of both these tracks works in their favour, keeping them as tightly purposeful interludes between the longer compositions.

A slow, skeletal guitar sound and whispered lyrics give the lead-in to "The Dark Corner" a mournful start to provide maximum contrast with the onslaught of heavy, distortion-saturated riffs and harsh vocals that form the backbone of the music. In many ways, that epitomises the way the band approach their music: maintaining separation between the different elements rather than fusing them together, somewhat analogous to monochrome instead of grayscale visual art. If the obvious pitfalls of unsubtlety and crudeness can be avoided, the finished product can be massively striking. So it is with this track, which re-uses the skeletal theme to good effect at both mid-point and end, in between the faster and more aggressive sections. The vocals work better throughout: there is less indulgence on an individual basis, and the combination of multiple voices and techniques has a more considered feel. It is the first of the longer tracks to completely sustain the desired emotional content - that of personal darkness and torment - for its entirety: fittingly so, for it is the precursor to the epic 18-minute closing track "Lethe", which is easily the high point of the album.

The track itself is based on 19th century French poet Baudelaire's allegorical Le Léthé, addressing a cruel lover. (It was banned at the time, as an outrage to public decency. Pedantically, although the sleeve notes credit the lyrics as being from the 1936 English translation by George Dillon, they are actually a mixture of the original French and Lewis Piaget Shanks' 1931 translation. This is, in any case, the better choice of translation, capturing as it does the vision of cold-hearted beauty with a starkly flowing clarity). Following the established compositional lines of the rest of the album, it alternates between the faster death-influenced and slower doom-influenced passages: in this instance, they flow together with a particularly notable ease and elegance. The clean vocals, in particular, capture the lament of Baudelaire's protagonist perfectly. In point of fact, I would like to hear a version of this song that held to the clean style throughout - although the mixed styles undeniably fit with the music as it is written, the poem itself is a single metaphor that would better be reflected by one voice than many.

In summary: an interesting band with considerable potential in their eclectic approach and an obvious understanding of how to implement their favoured contrast of styles. Aside from the most obvious weakness in forcing the vocals, as noted above, there is also the question of whether a little less variety at times would enhance the listening experience. Some of the lyrical material, particularly in "Lethe", does not really benefit from the aggressive inclusion of harshness: to do so risks the criticism that every track becomes an exercise in forcing every possible element to fit in for the sake of it, regardless of context. That, it should be added, is really only an issue with the way the vocal composition is handled, not the underlying music, which scores a consistently excellent rating. As it stands, my personal rating would be as a good, solid debut album with flashes of greatness. Just a little more subtlety in places would have made it a great album outright.

Reviewer's rating: 7/10


Tracklist :
1. Into Deadly Marshes
2. Valley of Tears
3. The Well that Drowns Me
4. Regiment of the Hopeless
5. Of Dreams and Vanity
6. The Dark Corner
7. Léthé

Duration : Approx. 64 minutes

Visit the Marche Funèbre bandpage.

Reviewed on 2011-09-05 by Mike Liassides
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