Album Title: Dark Waters
Label: Napalm Records
Date of Release: 10 February 2023
In 2021, Delain disbanded, leaving fans wondering whether or not we’d seen the end of the Dutch symphonic metal band. I wasn’t one of them though, as I’d never been particularly enamoured by them, and the fact that they might be no more raised little more than a flicker of interest. I always found their style and sound to be a little on the dull side, and too ‘easy’ on the ear without striking me through the heart with killer material in the process. I’m all for melodic symphonic music, but it has to fire my enthusiasm one way or another. I don’t wish to sound harsh, but I thought of Delain as background music, and could never fathom how they were headliners above bands that I felt were far superior.
However, it’s 2023 and Delain are not dead. Their previous incarnation might be, but as an entity, they remain very much alive and kicking. Following the disbandment, only Martijn Westerholt remained, but he has assembled a new cast to continue doggedly with the Delain name. Bringing back two previous members in drummer Sander Zoer (2006-2014) and guitarist Ronald Landa (2006-2009), he has also added new blood in the form of bassist Ludovico Cioffi and vocalist Diana Leah. It is to the latter that most people will be drawn because she steps into the Charlotte Wessels-shaped void and, given Wessels was rightly or wrongly the focal point of the band for many, the scrutiny will be intense.
‘Dark Waters’ is the title of Delain’s first album since the disbandment, and it rises like a phoenix from the flames. But, crucially, is it any good? Will it be the album and the line-up that finally gets the Dutch quintet to raise my pulse even just a little bit?
After much deliberation, intensive listening, a few surprises, and a few familiar feelings, I have to conclude that ‘Dark Waters’ might just be my favourite Delain release yet. Granted, my knowledge is nowhere near as detailed and deep as others, but there are some cracking songs on this album. It isn’t perhaps consistent enough to entirely blow me away, but I could quite easily see myself jumping on the Delain 2.0 bandwagon if they continue in this vein on future releases.
Right from the start, I am smitten by first track, ‘Hideaway Paradise’. It begins beautifully, almost pop-like with synths and the delectably smooth voice of Diana Leah – her voice is like silk, butter, or honey, depending on your preferred description. The ‘metal’ element of the music comes in a little later, but it isn’t an overly heavy song if truth be told. The pace is mid-tempo, driven by a strong, functional rhythm section and layers of distorted guitars. However, it’s the bold synths that dominate for a lot of the time, more electronic-like if that makes sense, giving the song a more mainstream feel overall. But the dreamlike nature, coupled with simple but arresting melodies mean that it’s an immediate statement that I cannot ignore. But neither do I want to ignore it.
For a symphonic metal band, it might come as a surprise to announce that the follow-up, ‘The Quest And The Curse’ doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. It is a more ‘standard’ orchestral-style symphonic metal song, complete with gruff vocals to counterpoint Leah’s soothing tones. And yet, as bombastic as it is, it doesn’t quite deliver, and that’s because the melodies don’t resonate quite as powerfully. Every performance is faultless, and many will love it. I, bizarrely, prefer the opener.
But never mind, there are plenty of other occasions where Delain pull me back under their rejuvenated spell. Featuring guest vocals from Paulo Ribaldini (Seraphiel), I like the straightforward nature of ‘Beneath’, a song that benefits from chunkier guitars and a huge chorus complete with dual male/female vocals. I also enjoy the delicate keys and gentle electronics in the moment of calm just before the final anthemic sequence.
After an uncertain opening, there is no denying the catchiness of the chorus within ‘Mirror Of Night’, a song that also boasts a guest appearance from Within Temptation guitarist Ruud Jolie. Then there’s the out-and-out drama that a real-life orchestra brings to ‘The Cold’, a track that’s already high quality thanks to a slower hook-laden chorus that allows Leah to shine ever brighter. I also like the drumming on this song as it feels much more integral to the strength of the composition, afforded more time and space to make a mark in the process.
The a capella introduction to ‘Moth To a Flame’ calls to mind Amaranthe, especially when coupled with the wonderfully saccharine pop-esque melody that ensues. However, to it’s credit and my surprise, the track picks up pace, delivering energetic riffs and grabbing my attention immediately. Then there’s possibly the best song on the album that materialises in the shape of ‘Invictus’. Featuring guest appearances from Ribaldini once again alongside Nightwish’s Marko Hietala, it is pure symphonic metal theatre. Deliberately over-the-top and laced with cinematic intrigue and drama, it is the sound of a band flexing their collective muscles and teasing us with a level of excellence that can, I hope, be built upon with future releases.
If I had any other criticisms to level at this album, other than the handful of songs that don’t hit as hard as they could, it’d be that I would like a little more variety in terms of the pacing and tempo of the music. As I listen, I can’t help but think that the whole thing would benefit from greater dynamics and changes of pace all round. Mid-tempo is all very well, but sometimes, the listener needs to be offered something to jolt them from their comfort zone. And it happens a little too rarely on ‘Dark Waters’ for my tastes.
There are times when you get the feeling that Delain are playing just a little too safe on ‘Dark Waters’, which is entirely understandable given the upheaval that has occurred over the last few years. Nevertheless, in spite of my criticisms, I am left with mainly positive feelings towards ‘Dark Waters’, certainly more positive than I was expecting when I pressed play for the first time. I was expecting to be bored or left ambivalent at best. The fact, therefore, that I have been moved to write this review and offer a generally positive critique is a genuinely welcome surprise. For the first time, I find myself recommending a Delain record, but I honestly hope that it won’t be the last.
The Score of Much Metal: 79%