(In this post, DGR reviews the latest — and last — album by Norway’s Trail of Tears, which is due for release in North America on June 11 by Massacre Records.)
Listening to Oscillation, Norwegian group Trail of Tears’ seventh and ostensibly final album, is something of a bittersweet experience. The group’s acrimonious breakup played out in a pretty public fashion (reported here, for example), and once you read stories about how the working environment within the band had been difficult for a year prior, you can’t help but let it color your perceptions of the disc — especially if you’re the type to pontificate on each choice as it exists on an album, its overall effect on the sound, how you think things went down. Instead of seeing this as a remarkably risky album for a group who have been relatively conservative with their formula, you instead find yourself thinking,”Wow, they must have been fighting this whole time,” and it really does put a damper on what should be thought of as – and empirically is – a pretty good batch of Trail of Tears songs.
So that’s why this is something of a difficult review, because there are things on Oscillation that you could reason away or just simply describe that are now somewhat tainted by the group’s somewhat dramatic breakup. As a result, this review will be considering the disc in a vacuum, written by someone who liked Existenia and Bloodstained Endurance. Those two discs albums are probably the closest comparison to Oscillation, because this new one feels like the continuation of the two previous releases, with enough experimentation and shifts in sound that it still stands on its own. But it could just as easily be polarizing, simply based on which of the two warring vocalists is in the front of the band for most of the songs.
Put simply, this is Catherine Paulsen’s album. She works her way into each song far more than what she has done on previous discs. Granted, you probably could have seen this coming, given that the band were gaining notoriety on the female-vocalist-in-metal circuits. I imagine that it must have been perceived by some as disingenuous, given that her previous role wasn’t absolutely huge within the band; she was really responsible for a lot of the powerful choruses that got stuck in your head, but the actual verse work belonged to harsh vocalist Ronny Thorsen.
His harsh bark is really what differentiated Trail of Tears from other bands who have used the harsh vocalist/operatic singer combination to similar effect, because he tended to be pretty mid-range and not so death metal focused, and he could vary his vocals from time to time to interweave with Catherine’s high soprano. However, he spends a large part of Oscillation in the background, and Catherine steps up to take a large part of the vocal sections on the album. The split works out to be something close to 65-45, and when you’re used to her taking up only the choruses and the bridge sections, hearing her sing whole songs can sometimes make Trail of Tears feel like a different band.
Musically it’s still the same, but it was the way that those two were able on previous releases to weave their voices together without them becoming complete polar opposites that brought quite a few people to the band. There are actually a couple of songs on Oscillation in which Ronny isn’t present at all, including one egregious example where he punctuates a chorus in the song “Scream Out Loud”, and that’s it. That song is actually a pretty interesting approach to how the band usually does things and the song itself is interesting, especially in how it continues from the tail end of intro song “Waves Of Existence”.
This change I’ve been describing is an issue you definitely need to be aware of, especially given that for about half the disc the band actually play it kind of conservatively and wind up sounding like the Trail Of Tears that attracted people with Existenia and on. They’ve always been pretty brave, guitar-riff-wise – a credit to Bjørn Erik Næss, since he handled the axe for this album and Bloodstained Endurance – and definitely weren’t afraid of straying from the usual slate of almost melo-death styled riffs that their contemporaries use, so it isn’t too shocking to hear some more straightforward rock riffs on Oscillation and even one guitar part that swings back and forth.
The songs that sound as if they could’ve been on earlier discs include (unsurprisingly) “Crimson Leads On the Trail of Tears”; when it really gets going, it hits the same highs that songs on Bloodstained Endurance did – and that’s a pretty good thing. Others include the title track and the closing track “Eradication” (which was one of the first ones revealed before the album release). And so it turns out that Oscillation does a half-and-half split between a band in which Catherine gets to be the main vocalist and Ronny just outright disappears for most of the songs and one in which you get the older format, where she appears for the chorus and bridge. In the face of the group’s breakup drama, it’s difficult not to read a whole bunch into how these songs play out and what happened with them.
As a swansong, Oscillation sounds like Trail Of Tears in conflict, but the resulting music is still good. It’s understandable that Catherine Paulsen might grate on some folks, because she really does give it her all and stretches her range. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you can’t fault her for a lack of passion. Even so, since half the songs do sound like the kind of music present on Existenia and Bloodstained Endurance, people who may be more cynical in their approach to Oscillation will at least find a decent EP’s worth of songs to hear. With respect to fans who are looking for a band with a different take on the female vocalist + harsh vocalist approach, Trail Of Tears have always been a worthy venture. Oscillation isn’t the disc I would recommend that people start with, but it’s certainly worth checking out. It’s enough of a different take to provide a unique experience. It’s not the perfect way for the band to call it a day, but they didn’t exactly retire riding off amicably into the sunset either.