Let me paint you a picture:
A chill autumn wind rustles leaves like dry bones as it creeps across the fog-enshrouded fields of verdant Mother England. There is a small house at the top of a steep hill, and up the winding country path leading to its door marches a grim procession. Men and women, clad in black raiment and clasping jackets tightly to the throat with one hand, ascend the winding drive while with the other hand, each of the assembled figures – whether mourners or congregants or some other queer specter – pulls a black case. They pace in silence to the hill’s crest and enter the house. The floor is vaguely damp and smells of honey and lavender. A circular table is set with wine and candles, and a tall mahogany chair sized for each of the assembled host. They set their cases down, remove well-worn instruments, and take their seats. No words are yet spoken, but the ensemble begins to play a sparse and haunting tune, and the wind slips through the trees and sadness is being given a song.
Now, let me paint you another picture:
A bunch of grown-ass adults sit around a British pub feeling mopey. These particular grown-ass adults happen to play in a pretty famous heavy metal band, but that fact does not deter them from deciding that it would be pretty rad to make a bloated double (or triple, depending on the version) album of lugubrious neoclassical/darkwave silliness. Some of these grown-ass adults are probably wearing something frilly that looks one hell of a lot like the pirate shirt from Seinfeld. These grown-ass adults will end up turning this classically-influenced project into something that sounds like it was dreamed up and executed by those kids you knew in high school who organized the sparsely-attended Shakespeare Festival, spent their summers affecting Chaucerian cadences at Renaissance Faires, and etched maudlin poems instead of the Dead Kennedys logo on their school notebooks. [Reviewer’s note: Have no fear, fellow blue-hearts, as I pretty much was one of these kids.]
My point is that I basically have no idea how to review a project like this. Either of the above pictures are perfectly plausible frames of reference to use when listening to Evinta. Chances are you don’t even really need my description of the music contained within Evinta to decide whether you’d kill to hear it or die to avoid ever hearing it., and this is honestly coming from a dude who straight-up loves My Dying Bride. I love the riffs, I love the vocals, I love the violins playing the weepiest melodies from strings made of angel’s tears, I love all the ridiculous and completely overwrought melodrama that has been the band’s stale bread and congealed butter for twenty years now, and I still cannot decide what to tell you about this project.
What this project is is a twentieth anniversary celebration of the strangest sort, wherein My Dying Bride has taken melodies and moods from across their back catalog, given them new titles, new lyrics, and spread them out across a sprawling double album that contains not even the slightest whiff of anything metal. I mean, not even a wimpy metal like aluminum. The reworked songs feature an array of keyboard honks and swoons courtesy of Johnny Maudling of Bal-Sagoth, plus a clutch of classical instruments (primarily strings, with a few woodwinds here and there), some floaty ambient bits, the operatic soprano stylings of Lucie Roche, and a raftful of the mopiest words this side of Eeyore the donkey reciting Sylvia Plath.
I’d like to say that the sheer scope and strangeness of this undertaking is so bold and gutsy and ballsy that we can grant it de facto Totally Heavy Metal status, except the thing is that the potential audience for this project will have been so self-selected as to render the ostensible boldness of Evinta entirely redundant for anyone who hasn’t been following the band for some years. I mean, fuck, can you imagine if you had heard some friends talking up some English band called My Dying Bride as the be-all and end-all of gnarly gothic doom/death but hadn’t quite saved up the scratch to get your hands on any records, and then when you finally did all you could find in the store was this utterly bamboozling collection of neoclassical, ambient, and darkwave sounds featuring spoken word recitations, operatic female vocals, and the occasional quacking warble of Aaron Stainthorpe’s clean vocals? Don’t you think you’d probably find these ‘friends’ of yours and Have Some Words?
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t actually enjoy quite a bit of the material on Evinta. “You Are Not The One Who Loves Me” is excellent and compelling throughout, no doubt aided by the fact that at a fly’s ass under seven minutes it’s the shortest tune here. “The Distance Busy with Shadows” sports some tough-to-stomach flute action, but also some touches of ambient electronica which spruce up the otherwise staid and Victorian musk. “That Dress and Summer Skin” sees the project’s fullest and most interesting instrumentation, with a quietly shuffling drum kit, synthed-up voices and harpistry, some spooky vibraphone effects, and an oboe which comes in just before the 4:00 minute mark with the unmistakably brilliant and stirring melody from “My Wine In Silence,” from My Dying Bride’s excellent 2004 album Songs of Darkness, Words of Light. So, maybe the best way to see this project as a success is if you think of it as a puzzle or a treasure hunt for long-time MDB enthusiasts, trying to match these melodies to the riff-craft of the songs from which they originate. The melody used toward the end of “Of Lilies Bent with Tears” is taken directly from “Two Winters Only” off The Angel and the Dark River, but it took me several maddening hours to place it. Thus, though I count myself as one of the aforementioned enthusiasts, I cannot entirely get on board with the languid sprawl of even this two-disc version of Evinta, and the auditory sleuthing involved grows tiresome rather quickly.
The even more frustrating thing is that this project could have been implemented differently to increase its impact. As it is, there is essentially no emotional or compositional arc across these discs. If the reworked pieces could have been arranged in such a way that they actually rose and fell and built on themes and motifs, more like the classical approach that this album at least halfway seems to want to embrace, I could see it being a much more compelling listen (though still not likely to be palatable to 90% or so of extreme music fans). As an illustrative experiment, go and take a listen to “For My Fallen Angel,” the beautiful neoclassical album closer from 1996’s Like Gods of the Sun. This song is brilliant for two reasons: first, it works on its own because it’s a better and more forward-driven composition than anything on Evinta, and second, it also works better as a contrast to an album’s worth of actual heavy metal. Thus, despite this project’s clear and admirable ambitions, it’s probably not a great sign that nothing presented here surpasses a single song from one of the band’s most ho-hum albums from fifteen years ago. I’ve scored this album as a five both to reflect accurately my own unbalanced reactions of both guilty pleasure and complete disgust, but also because it’s the average of ten and zero, and anyone who tries to tell you that Evinta is music’s Mount Everest is lying to you just as much as anyone telling you that it’s the Mariana Trench.