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Much to the delight of their fans, Norway's Tristania continued to prosper after the departure of guiding songwriter Morten Veland, simply retooling the group's lineup and shifting creative responsibilities to show no obvious ill effects with their next effort, 2001's World of Glass. Then, following a troublingly long break from action, the group returned even more confidently with 2005's Ashes -- the first release for new label SPV. Quite simply a master class in goth metal 101, Ashes contains all of the requisite drama and mournful beauty of the genre, adds dueling, angular guitar riffs and sweeping synths, and then goes for broke thanks to Tristania's unique three-pronged vocal attack. This, for those who don't know, matches the sweet-singing Vibeke Stene with baritone Ă˜sten Bergoy and, for a truly unexpected, spine-tingling effect, the cookie-monster growls of Kjetil Ingebrethsen. Spun together, all of these elements result in often lengthy but always distinctive and immediate tunes like "Equilibrium," "The Wretched," and "Endogenisis," as well as a couple of nearly perfect goth metal creations (both commercially viable and thoroughly metallic) in "Libre" and "Shadowman." Slicing the album neatly in half, the evocative ballad "Cure" affords Stene a wonderful showcase on which to shine solo, and then segues nicely into one of the album's most brutal offerings, "Circus," completed by its eerie synthesizers and ghostly choral backdrops. In the end, if there's one major gripe to be had over Ashes, it's that it weighs in a little "light" at just seven songs and 43 minutes. But given the choice, most listeners would likely rather have focused restraint than diluted excess any day.

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