Goth rock and metal are two of my favorite musical genres so it’s a logical extension that I’d be a fan of gothic metal. And for my money the Portuguese band Moonspell is the preeminent goth metal band, expertly fusing the gloomy romanticism and expressionism of goth with the power and majesty of metal.
But while ostensibly a goth metal band, Moonspell have never allowed themselves to be pinned down to any one set of genre conventions—not throughout their entire estimable career, not even within a single album. And their latest release, Extinct, continues this enjoyably stubborn streak which has made them such a polarizing act within the metal world.
Despite the creepiest cover art (with equally creepy variants) they’ve yet used on an album, this is Moonspell’s poppiest album bar none, dramatically toning down the extreme heaviness of Under Satanae (2007) Night Eternal (2008) and Alpha Noir (2012) and flirting all the more aggressively with pop radio and crossover success. While this might lose them some fans it will most assuredly win them plenty of new ones and, besides, Moonspell has never been a band to let such trifling details determine their creative choices. Me, I love it when artists keep finding ways to experiment, expand and evolve, and if this involves sounding more pop then it’s just as well since I love pop too.
One of the satisfying qualities of Extinct is how much it harkens to earlier works in the band’s discography while still ambitiously looking ahead. Fernando Ribeiro’s richly baritone singing dominates and, with the exception of the last few tracks, his death growls here mostly serve the supplementary function of accenting the singing. The overall sound of this album recalls works like Sin/Pecado and Darkness and Hope but in a way far catchier and more melodic than either of those. And in its balance of aggression with melody and atmosphere, Extinct sounds as if 2012’s Alpha Noir / Omega White double album were sonically soldered together, often to exhilarating effects as in the thrilling sing-scream harmony of album opener “Breathe (Until We Are No More).”
Moonspell has ultimately always been a metal band that relied just as much on atmosphere as on brute force, and in the former department they rarely fail to deliver, in no small part due to Pedro Paixão’s lush synths and orchestration which truly shine on Extinct. Producer Jens Bogren and his Fascination Street Studios (one of the best names for a studio ever) bring the orchestral elements closer to the forefront, heightening the music’s symphonic metal characteristics.
The heavier use of strings is another part, in addition to the catchier hooks, of what makes Extinct a step forward rather than just a fusion of elements from previous albums. The Middle Eastern influenced melodies that have occasionally been heard on Moonspell’s albums become all the more prevalent here, especially on songs like “Breathe,” “Medusalem,” and “Domina.” Combined with the more mainstream listener-friendly songwriting, the cumulative results are interesting indeed. An entire sequence in the latter half of “Breathe,” for instance, even sounds like (dare I say it) Yanni. The guitar work by Paixão and Ricardo Amorim is predictably superb and a lot of the riffs and solos here are of the kind you’d find in classic metal more than extreme metal. More than a couple times I found myself thinking of Iron Maiden.
Really, though, the standout feature of Extinct is how poppy it is (and I personally mean this in a good way). Songs from past opuses like “Scorpion Flower,” (Night Eternal) “Herodisiac” and “White Skies” (both from Omega White) revealed a latent pop sensibility but all that comes to album-length fruition on Extinct. This isn’t to say they sound like Evanescence now or anything, but at times they come pretty close. I don’t exaggerate when I say that “The Last of Us” (not related to the game) would not sound too out of place on an alternative rock station or even a Top 40 station. All this makes the gruesome cover art choice somewhat puzzling. It’s almost as if Moonspell felt they had to visually compensate for the accessibility of the music with an image that is bound to turn some potential listeners away.
Ribeiro’s voice has never sounded more fabulous and he manages to uncover even more new and subtle dimensions to it. I have never thought to compare his singing with that of goth pioneer Peter Murphy, but on songs like “The Last of Us” and especially “Malignia” there’s definitely a bit of the former Bauhaus frontman being channeled. My only complaint in respect to Ribeiro’s vocals here is that on songs like “Extinct” and “Malignia” he employs a kind of half growl-half rap in a petulant, rising-and-falling singsong quality that was hinted at on Alpha Noir but becomes more prevalent on Extinct. Ribeiro is a versatile vocalist but this was one embellishment that didn’t quite work for me.
Thematically, the songs on Extinct—except for “Malignia” and the cabaret-influenced album closer “La Baphomette”—all consciously seem to be about survival and the impending extinction of the human race, hence the album title. And apparently, Moonspell has also released a documentary DVD, The Road to Extinction, that supposedly goes into some of the scientific context of the album’s themes. But to be honest, themes like these are so par for the course in metal anyway that they pretty much just blend into the background.
If anything, Extinct proves just how much life Moonspell (if not humanity) has left in them yet. And if we’re truly bound to go the way of the dodo, then may the road to extinction at least be paved with good music like this.