11/14/2008 - Review by: Etiam
Progressive metal--alongside, say, Nazi goregrind or bedroom black metal--is one of the last metal subgenres dominated almost entirely by men. While it is unlikely that the Y chromosome will ever be the minority in the metal audience or performer bracket, female participation in genres from death metal to grindcore to Gothic has increased significantly in the past decade, exponentially outstripping prog along the way. And so, it is fair enough that the new prog coalition To-Mera would tout its vocalist, Julie Kiss, as a prime attraction. However, with this spotlight comes increased scrutiny, and on 'Transcendental' it appears that Ms. Kiss wasn't quite ready for her close-up.
In very general terms, there are two schools of progressive vocalists: of the first are James LaBrie and Russell Allen, whose soaring melodies are 'prog' more for their virtuosity than composition; from the second come Kelly Shaefer and Leif Knashaug (the latter being quite underrated), whose quirky lines and jarring timbres replicate the complexity of the music they complement instead of leaving us humming contentedly. Julie Kiss combines these two schools, taking the smooth vocal approach of the former and the unorthodox melodies of the latter. A clever idea, but not one that succeeds in this instance. As happens with so many female metal vocalists, Kiss's performance lacks the muscle and gumption to front To-Mera's dynamics. Most songs feature at least a few instances where Kiss's mezzo-soprano can only hover around her intended pitch, and even though her vocal lines are complex and expressive, many of them aren't much good. (Repeated listens bear this out to be more than just a 'sinking in' process.)
'Born of Ashes' is the closest To-Mera comes to unleashing its potential. Kiss's vocal line blends neatly with a driving riff as the band consistently presses the attack, rather than ceding the fore to Kiss whenever she appears. Otherwise, To-Mera is as their best during instrumental interludes, which are rare enough (for a prog band) and often stashed at the back end of a track in an attempt to wrap up its meandering midsection. In these passages, they unleash all the energy pent up during Kiss's verses with a down-tuned tremolo attack, splashing percussion, and a liberal stylistic mix-up. Genre cameos include Stratovarius-like synth scales, modern breakdowns, spry jazz, et cetera, and by virtue of the impeccable performances and a clean production, 'Trancendental' maintains a fair coherency throughout. The keyboards tend to be a little oversaturated, but are still more prudent than many others in the genre.
After a slow start, 'Trancendental' improves towards its midpoint as the band reveals a wealth of songwriting potential that spans a half-dozen genres. Too, relatively few prog groups today are willing to orient themselves around To-Mera's punchy kind of half-thrash-and-nearly-death-metal aggression. Unfortunately, the overbearing Kiss is more a distraction than an asset, and until her interface with the rest of the band is streamlined, To-Mera would be better off as instrumentalists.
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