I might be about to make one of the most obvious comments in the world here, but symphonic metal is probably the metal scene that most metal fans nowadays tend to associate with being mainstream. While this isn’t exactly true (in terms of instantly recognisable symphonic metal bands, Nightwish is probably the only band the average fan of mainstream music is likely to recognise), it isn’t wrong to say that symphonic metal as now seen as the sort of metal music that is the realm of musicians looking for easy popularity, which is ironic when you consider that classical music actually requires a strong knowledge of composition skills and that symphonic metal is actually far wider than the name implies, to the extent that symphonic extreme metal is something that exists and has been done very well in the past (with probably the obvious name in this spectrum being Dimmu Borgir, who are known for being one of the biggest names in symphonic black metal).
Anyway, Ravenia are a symphonic metal band from Finland who formed in 2013 and are basically built around the core members of vocalist Armi Paivinen and guitarist Samuli Reinikainen (both of whom will be familiar to fans of the band In Silentio Noctis), who comprised the band’s lineup at the time of the release of the band’s independently released 2014 EP Wingless (their only previous release to date, by the way). This record has been in the recording stage since late 2014 (although, considering the band’s lineup includes two violinist, a violist, a cellist and a contrabassist on top of the expected drummer, bassist, guitarist and vocalist setup, this is definitely not something that can be attributed to laziness…seriously, have you ever tried getting eight people to meet up in one place? It’s not as easy as it sounds on paper!) and is the band going for a style of symphonic metal that is more influenced by film scores than the expected style, which would be highly original if I hadn’t already heard of Beth Out of Hell, who do exactly the same sort of thing.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with following the same route that another band has done if it’s done well (hey, it worked for Sunburst: their debut is still sitting as one of my potential albums of the year!)…but, honestly, I don’t think Ravenia live up to expectations at all. Beyond the Walls of Death is certainly not a record that is badly made or anything like that, but I would be lying if I said that I liked it, as it is a rather dull record that simply fails to offer anything of any real note.
Let me be fair for a second and say that the band’s sound is actually not too bad. Now, admittedly, this is not a huge amount of praise at the end of the day, but I do appreciate the band is trying something a little bit more different compared to the typical symphonic metal band, opting for a less bombastic sound than is typical of the genre and trying to go for a more subtle and restrained style that is actually quite an interesting change for what would be reasonably expected from a symphonic metal band. Unfortunately, this praise does still come with a negative side in that, when you really think about it, taking the bombast out of symphonic metal is actually a bad move because the entire genre is pretty much BUILT on being bombastic: metal music in general can be more than a bit bombastic (especially something that leans towards the power metal side of things), but it usually works because the bombast actually enhances the music (hence the belief of metal only working at loud volumes) and classical music, while not exclusively built on being bombastic, is probably most recognisable for stuff like ‘O Fortuna’ and ‘Ode to Joy’, songs which cannot be fairly described as “restrained”. This is actually part of the reason why bands like Nightwish are so popular: they nail the bombast of both genres perfectly while still having strong songwriting to back it up underneath the volume (see ‘Ghost Love Score’). Trying to approach symphonic metal without going for a bombastic touch, as a result, feels like Ravenia are missing the point of the genre a bit. I imagine this was a deliberate decision, but deliberately avoiding doing something which is a core feature of the genre of music you are playing is not always a good thing, like being a pop artist who avoids writing choruses or being a punk band who avoids writing fast songs.
The songwriting, unfortunately, doesn’t help to ascend the band to any heights either. The songs feel like they have been stretched out far longer than they need to (which isn’t helped by more than half of the songs being more than seven minutes long) and collapse under their own weight. This isn’t their only problem, though: for a band clearly trying to be catchy and memorable, the whole record feels lacking in anything memorable in the songwriting department and even the choruses of the record simply fail to leave an impact. On its own, this would be a pretty major problem, but, combined with the lengths, the songs go from “Eh, this is tolerable as background music” to “My god, is this thing still going?!” very quickly, to the extent that, on my first listen to the album, I was stunned to realise that what I thought was coming up to the end of the record was merely the third track on it because of how bored I was with it. To the band’s credit, nothing about the record is badly written, as there’s nothing technically bad about the songwriting and I can’t say that I found it unpleasant to listen to at all while it was on, but the band simply fails to have anything memorable to their songwriting and don’t fill their songs with enough to justify them being even half of the lengths they are, which are flaws that hamper any potential the album’s music had.
On the performance front, the instrumentalists are also unimpressive, though I wouldn’t call them bad musicians either. While I didn’t really feel the string musicians did anything that special, Reinikainen’s guitar playing is actually not too bad. He doesn’t do anything you haven’t heard before, but he’s definitely not a bad guitarist. Bassist Toni Hintikka is practically inaudible, which is pretty much par for the course with symphonic metal. Probably the best performance would actually be drummer Veikko Ringvall, as he demonstrates a varied range of drumming across the record (including some fairly good double bass drumming in ‘We Stand As One’) without deviating too much from what would be expected from him in the band’s music. He didn’t command my attention, but what he did do on the record, he did well.
Paivinen’s vocals…I won’t say she’s a bad vocalist, as her voice is very pleasant to listen to, but she doesn’t really command my attention either and she doesn’t demonstrate an especially wide vocal range. Her voice, which clearly has more than a few cues from an operatic singing style to it without being to the extent of her sounding like a clone of Tarja Turunen, is decent, but, in a genre where being a decent vocalist is pretty much a given, that isn’t really saying much. I can’t call her a bad vocalist at all and she does fit in with what the band are doing musically (although, considering she was involved in writing the music, that isn’t too surprising), but she doesn’t really stand out from the crowd of symphonic metal singers out there and would be easily blown out of the water compared to the likes of Simone Simons or Floor Jansen.
The record’s production, beyond the bass complaint, is actually pretty flawless, I have to say: the mastering is great (although symphonic metal in general tends to have excellent mastering), the sound of the instruments is wonderful and most of the mixing is great. Props to everyone involved on the technical side of this album, you truly have done a great job!
Ultimately, there’s nothing to hate about this album, but Beyond the Gates of Death is hard to recommend all the same. The somewhat unusual approach to symphonic metal might be enough to make it worth a listen for die hard fans of the genre looking for a new take on the genre, but the execution means that it’s unlikely to impress and, for that same reason, it’s not going to win over people who don’t usually like symphonic metal. I won’t say that it isn’t worth giving a shot if you want to, but I am pretty confident in saying that there is FAR better symphonic metal out there than this and that this record is the wrong place entirely to try to get into the genre with.
Beyond the Walls of Death will be released on the 29th of April by Inner Wound Recordings. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.