This is a review that was written in early August that I thought I had lost permanently in a freak browser freezing accident, but apparently was saved through means I can’t really understand. Exit Eden is the four-piece vocal group that tackled a handful of pop/non-metal cover songs in the vein of symphonic metal —- the reaction towards it was mixed, as expected, but I’ve been surprised to see that over the past few weeks a more positive embrace of this album is taking hold. This is the unedited (except for grammar, hopefully) version of that original review, and my feelings on the album haven’t changed since, so I figured I’d repost this one. A fall reviews cluster is to follow this with a slew of reviews on albums that have dropped in the past few weeks/months.
It would be so easy to come at this project with an ample amount of cynicism and derision… expected even. A label/producer concocted “band” (the quotation marks for that piercing barb!) with four strikingly gorgeous female vocalists from the Euro/power metal scene, coming at you like the corset wearing version of Il Divo (or worse, The Tenors, who by the way have no business covering a song that can only be truly sung in its full glory by either Freddie himself or my lady Sarah Brightman!). That its a covers album is yet another reason you’d be forgiven for indulging in a little eye-rolling. Check out that tracklisting, okay “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, that’s a Steinman classic that could’ve been a Meatloaf song so its an easy shoe-in for the symphonic metal treatment —- but Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, her paean to bad girls feeling guilty? C’mon, that’s just pandering for clicks and algorithm placement on YouTube and Spotify right? A take on Lady Gaga’s alliterative dance pop “Paparazzi”, seems like an unlikely candidate for a project like this and perhaps thrown in only for eyebrow raising right? Look, you’d be forgiven for thinking all of these things —- and when we listened to some of this stuff whilst recording our MSRcast with Blues Funeral’s Maurice Eggenschwiler, both he and my cohost Cary scoffed at this entire affair. I didn’t blame them.
But here’s the thing, despite all that, I kinda am having the best time when I listen to this album. Its ridiculous and absurd to a large degree, but its fun too, satisfyingly joyous for its musicality. I love symphonic metal because a long time ago I heard bands like Nightwish and Therion and realized that the sound of sweeping strings over a bed of thundering metal guitars was something I’d always wanted to hear. But I was scarcely provided the opportunity to until I directed my attention towards metal bands across the Atlantic way back in the late 90s. Its no coincidence that Exit Eden was dreamed up by a European production team, specifically the in-house studio producers at Elephant Studios in Flensburg, Germany. It figures, German producers just seem to have a knack for this kind of thing: Sarah Brightman’s longtime musical collaborator/producer is the German born Frank Peterson, who cut his teeth working with Michael Cretu (of Enigma fame). Oh then there’s Mr. Sascha Paeth himself, the man behind countless power metal productions at his Gate Studios in Ehmen, Germany —- and if you don’t know his work, I’ll just direct you here. Yeah, he’s involved in Exit Eden as well, as one of the guitarists at work in the band laying down the metal aspect of the soundscape here, and no doubt, helping on the symphonic end as well.
Paeth is also responsible for bringing on board Amanda Somerville as the first vocalist selected for the project, a wise choice because she possesses such a strong, powerful voice that can carry the majority of the load on any song she’s on. She was apparently instrumental in recruiting French vocalist Clementine Delauney (Visions of Atlantis, ex-Serenity) into the fold, a singer who I championed a few years ago in my review of Serenity’s War of Ages. She was spectacular on that album, the variety of songwriting giving her the opportunity to showcase a spectrum of vocal approaches, from delicate and breathy to otherworldly in a Sinead O’ Connor/Bjork vein. I was disappointed when she left that band, but both she and they rebounded fairly well. Her work on Visions of Atlantis 2016 EP Old Routes New Waters was promising, particularly for it’s hushed ballad “Winternight“, though it remains to be seen if that band will fully display her capabilities the way Serenity did. The other two vocalists filling out Exit Eden’s lineup are Brazil’s Marina La Torraca and German-American Anna Brunner, who apparently is Elephant Studios secretary who happened to lay down guide vocals on the demos for the project. La Torraca is best known for being Avantasia’s live backup vocalist during some shows in 2016, although she’s likely soon to be associated with Phantom Elite, Sander Gommans’ new project post-After Forever who are on the verge of releasing their debut album.
The music itself is well executed, with just enough of a balance between heavy, crunching metallic rock riffs (think Within Temptation) and computer/keyboard generated symphonic elements, but that’s to be expected given the caliber of the pros behind the scenes. And these are covers in the most strict, traditional sense —- there’s no changing up the melodies, no musical deconstructions, no slowing down tempos, its really just these songs as you’ve heard them in their original states but painted with symphonic metal colored paint. Some might find that annoying, but these songs relied primarily on the vocal melody in their original state, and unless you have a skilled composer reworking entire song structures (ala Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko or Therion’s Christofer Johnnson, both accomplished at reworking cover versions), then its best that Exit Eden played it this way. I guess the real question here is do all the song choices lend themselves to this approach? The answer is unsurprisingly no, because there’s a few that fall flat, one being Adele’s “Skyfall” which for some reason features a guest drop-in by Simone Simons of Epica. I’m not sure why, but “Skyfall” loses some of its sly charm in Exit Eden’s version, though I’ll venture that its because their more straight ahead approach diminishes the dreamy, 2am blurred vision feel of the original. You could practically see Adele in a smoky-hazed bar, hunched over the mic in the corner, crooning away —- Exit Eden’s feels practically clinical in comparison. And I thought the bizarre song selection of Visage’s “Fade to Black”, which is just… well for lack of a better term, bizarre! Never was fond of the original myself, and I hoped this version would change my mind but sadly it has not.
Where things actually work are on the big, bright, arcing pop songs with soaring choruses: Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, and yes even the Backstreet Boys faux-soul balladry of “Incomplete”. Regarding the latter, Exit Eden’s version towers over the original, which was always hampered by the sub par, often nasally voices of the individual Backstreet Boys singers themselves. Here the chorus is beefed up by a kick of guitars and see-sawing strings to give it extra heft, and the vocalists (I believe Delauney alongside Somerville backing up) deliver a rather passionate performance —- its a delight to hear, a good song finally given a proper recording. The Rhianna cover was also surprisingly successful, complete with an organic violin sound in the verses which was a shrewd choice because if you’ve heard the original, they were going to be the problematic area for any symphonic metal transition. I will say that the tone of the vocals during the bridge/chorus don’t really match what the lyrics in this tune are going on about —- for the most part, I’m nitpicking however and its entirely possible to ignore those aspects and just enjoy everything on a purely musical level. There’s a good showcase in one of the verses here of Anna Brunner’s more rough-hewn vocal ability, as she demonstrates a more Doro-influenced vocal that she uses in spots throughout the album. Its on Katy Perry’s “Firework” where everything, and I mean everything really come together for one harmonious outpouring. But its easy to see why, the original was such a perfect pop song, and the producers here have wisely avoided doing anything except adding a little more guitar and some nicely played symphonic beds.
Two other cuts worth getting starry-eyed over are the aforementioned expected take on “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with Amanda Somerville and Masterplan/At Vance vocalist Rick Altzi going back and forth on dueling vocals; and an unexpectedly majestic take on Bryan Adams eternal classic “Heaven”. About a decade ago I remember hearing a Euro-dance version of “Heaven” that I actually thought was fairly good despite the tackiness of the genre it was attached to, and hearing Exit Eden’s version just makes me think that its one of those songs that sound good when anyone does it. There’s a nicely stutter-stepped rush of guitars and orchestration when the chorus hits and it just lends a bucketful of gravitas to what’s already an impactful chorus. But its the verses I love —- and for the life of me I wish I could identify with absolute accuracy who’s singing in the second verse sequence, because she’s accenting all the right moments just perfectly. I really love this version, its as bright, hopeful and romantic as the original, but there’s a wash of melancholy that’s coming through the lead vocals that give the track a different kind of vibe that Adams’ vocals didn’t give it. It may be sacrilegious to say it, but I might prefer this rendition more? I’ll say it —- I do. Going back to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, Altzi gives his lines the right amount of that classic hard rock sandpaper feel and he’s a solid choice for the duet, not flashy, not showing off, just getting the job done convincingly. This is Somerville’s moment however, her best performance on the album and proof positive that she’s consistently one of the best vocalists in power metal today (regardless of gender).
The most daring experiment here (besides that Visage cover) is the opening cut, a challenging take on Depeche Mode’s dark, storming “Question of Time”. Now, I love Depeche Mode, and completely love that metal bands feel the same way and have responded throughout the years with some really excellent covers. Not sure how the guys in that band feel about it, but they’ve quietly influenced so many metal bands over the years. I’m ultimately undecided on whether or not I can enjoy this one, because while there’s nothing wrong with it as a cover, it just makes me want to hear the original (something that may simply speak to just how awesome Depeche Mode is). Its rivaled in its bold experimentation factor by “Paparazzi”, the iconic Lady Gaga hit, which definitely is interesting for its vocal choices. Instead of playing along with Gaga’s patented alliterative vocal rhythms, Exit Eden stretch them out, like a roller pin over a mound of dough. It results in a chorus that sounds very much like Tarja era Nightwish, with heavy vibrato undercurrents in the vocal approaches. Its also the heaviest track on the album by far, with extra thick guitars and little micro solos flying around in unexpected moments. Again, I’m not sure just how I feel about it, because while I enjoy the musicality, I wonder if it doesn’t lose its meaning in transition. I think a successful cover can do one of two things: Either bring the original meaning of the song with it, or give the song an entirely new context via a different approach (think about Therion’s gorgeous cover of Accept’s “Seawinds” vs their radically different reworking of ABBA’s “Summernight City” —- the former kept the bittersweet yearning of the original while the latter turned a shiny, happy, upbeat dance cut into something truly sinister).
Minor quibbles and philosophizing aside, bet you didn’t think a review on a project like this would end up being so lengthy. Truth is, neither did I, and that’s what makes Exit Eden and “Rhapsodies In Black” stand out. We’ve seen some pointless releases come out recently… Masterplan’s cover album of Helloween classics is one of them, Krokus’ entirely pointless Big Rocks was another. Covers albums generally fall in the pointless category, and it takes either a special band to make them convincing (Metallica’s Garage Inc for example, which was half compilation/half new) or a unique, fresh take to make them worthwhile (Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, their reworking of classic French pop covers and 2012’s Album of the Year!). Sometimes even a unique take isn’t enough if the execution isn’t there, as the tepid Maiden uniteD [sic] acoustic albums (albums!) have proven. But Exit Eden have managed to side step this with a release that is quirky, playful, and really quite fun. The band and their production team succeeded in this attempt where Within Temptation faltered on their The Q-Music Sessions —- you gotta pick the right songs and fully lean into the idea of a symphonic metal translation. This is worth your time for a Spotify play-through, you just might find yourself smiling despite your misgivings.