After Forever

Decipher

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After Forever's second album, 2001's Decipher, saw the Dutch sextet making great strides toward developing a distinctive and personal sound, and it vaulted them to the very forefront of Europe's operatic metal scene to boot. Sounding like a distant cousin of "Carmina Burana," the symphonic overture "Ex Cathedra" leads the way into expertly crafted first single "Monolith of Doubt" -- a three-minute distillation of After Forever's sound that contrasts a power metal-approved, staccato guitar riff with lead singer Floor Jansen's piercing, classically trained soprano. Along with another radio-friendly candidate, "Emphasis," its only concession to commerce is the exclusion of death metal-style grunt-vocals -- normally a key ingredient of the group's sound. A regular fixture of their debut, Prison of Desire, they are revived for Decipher's more challenging and eclectic "album cuts," including the doom-infused "Zenith" and the thrash-fueled "My Pledge of Allegiance #2 (The Tempted Fate)." Further showcasing the group's vast array of metallic influences, string-laden, choir-enhanced adventures like "My Pledge of Allegiance #1 (The Sealed Fate)" and "Estranged (A Timeless Spell)" go from metal, to classical, and back to metal again via often tortuous (folk, gothic, Irish jigs!), but well-executed, fascinating paths. And although they clearly highlight each musician's individual contribution, all of the above leave little doubt that Jansen is the real star of the After Forever show. And nowhere is her presence more commanding than on the dazzling ballad "Imperfect Tenses," which for once completely ignores the heavy metal template to offer a spine-tingling duet between Jansen and tenor Rein Kolpa. Needless to say, it's no small challenge coalescing so many different styles into a sensible whole, and this is what makes both Decipher and After Forever so impressive and highly recommended.

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