Album Review: In This Moment – Ritual

In This MomentRitual
Review by: Erik D. Harshman

    To say that I’ve been with In This Moment since the beginning could not be a more true statement.

See, back in 2005 I was on Myspace (as was everyone) and it took me a few months before I realized that bands were on Myspace. So, I started friending a bunch of local metal bands I loved and expanding my friend requests beyond my tri-state area. Eventually, bands started to send me friend requests. One such band was In This Moment. Now, I accepted their request not knowing who they were (one always accepts friend requests from someone with a mysterious and nondescript name in hopes that it’s that hot ex-girlfriend trying to reconnect, and trying not to be obvious about it). I accepted the request and then really just forgot about it.

But then I started to get messages from them. Turns out their guitarist (Chris Howorth) had friend requested me due to some of the bands I had listed in the music section of my profile. We dorked out (over an exchange of messages) about “obscure” thrash bands that not many (at that time) knew about (namely, Pissing Razors and Substance D). Eventually, I listened to In This Moment’s (ITM) songs on their profile, loved them and started letting Howorth know. He then told me that ITM was coming to St. Louis (at the time they were labeless and were on a Do It Yourself tour) and asked if I’d do some promotion for them. I agreed and he sent me a large envelope full of promotional materials (pins, stickers, fliers, etc.). I plastered record store message boards and walls with those posters. Howorth built it up big to me: I’d get free admission to the show and some free merch. It was a twenty-something metalhead’s dream come true. Then the night of the show came and a freak electric storm fried the soundboard at the old Creepy Crawl. Without a word from Howorth the tour moved on and I forgot about them and (apparently) they me.

Two years later word came down that ITM had been signed to Century Media (which, if you’re a mainstream metal band, Roadrunner or Century Media were your Holy Grail). They had an album (Beautiful Tragedy) that was (serendipitously) coming out on my 27th birthday (March 19th, 2007). Preemptively, they were coming to St. Louis (to the side stage at Pop’s) with Sworn Enemy and Diecast. Taking a chance, I traded Myspace messages for a bit with someone in the ITM camp until I got frustrated and used the cell number Howorth gave me in 2005 to call and see if I could get on the guest list. Awesomely enough, Howorth remembered me, remembered the stillborn ’05 Creepy Crawl show and got me on the guest list for the Pop’s show.

I showed up, rocked out, bought some merch (a band patch and their Prayers EP… back then Marie Brink was both singer and merch girl), said “hi” to Howorth (who was distracted at the bar) and left.

Later that year I saw them open for Kittie on St. Patrick’s Day in Mokena, IL. (at the now closed Pearl Room) on a much better (and more comparable) bill and give a much stronger performance. I got to buy Beautiful Tragedy two days early at that show and my tumultuous love affair with ITM began.

For the first time ever I found out what it was like to watch a band evolve. I’d never known a small, unfamiliar band that had made it big. I got to hear songs (like “Prayers” and “Ashes”) from their six-song demo Howorth sent me (in that care package) mature into their fully formed state with the help of a big studio budget. And new songs (like the title track and “Circles”) impressed me to no end, making Beautiful Tragedy perhaps one of my favorite albums of 2007 (alongside debut albums by other bands I met through Myspace that went on to become somewhat big, such as Oblige and Job For A Cowboy).

However, it didn’t take ITM long, especially after high profile tours opening for Megadeth and the pop-“thrash” spookshow of Rob Zombie, before ITM tried to be pop stars. The Dream was one of the most phenomenal disappointments of 2008. Which is sad. I saw ITM open for Megadeth on the United Abominations tour at Pop’s and, while the show was mostly a blur (it was ten years ago, people), I remember ITM being in top form. I did find it a little odd that they’d be cranking out an album so soon after Beautiful Tragedy, but then I did have to remember that most of the songs off Beautiful Tragedy had been done for two years prior to that album’s release, so perhaps it wasn’t so strange. But, let’s face it: the album was a mess. The songs were poppy and had no distinction or edge to them… and the theme (the concept or gimmick) of the album being Alice In Wonderland… c’mon! Kinda typical for a band with a blonde female lead singer, don’t’cha think?… (plus Birthday Massacre has been riding that horse for over a decade, so… get in line behind them).

After that I largely gave up on ITM.

After that they became a band I would never trust again and, thus, I did not spend money on their albums, but merely burned them from the library.

And in 2010 I burned Star-Crossed Wasteland.

… Yeah, I don’t remember a damn thing about that album, save for the ever-annoying (but supposedly heavy) single “The Gun Show”.

It was at this time that I saw ITM live for the 3rd time: they were headlining the side-stage at Pop’s. Probably less than fifty people stayed until the end of the show. At one point Maria Brink (shedding her usual tattered wedding dress and high heels for a still skintight but slightly more stylish, modern and, well, “normal” dress… think a moderately more classy and gray version of Sharon Stone’s dress from Basic Instinct) had one of the bouncers hold up a bar table as she stood on it, in the middle of the “crowd”, and sang. It was then that I thought to myself, perhaps sadly, that ITM would always be the eternal opening band. That, as a stand-alone act, even with the raw talent they displayed on Beautiful Tragedy (which they subsequently lost upon losing their hunger) and the sex appeal of Brink, they just don’t have the draw that most bands have accrued by their third album.

And once again, I forgot about ITM… until they resurfaced.

In 2012 it was announced that they had a new album coming out and a new track surface. The track “Blood” did nothing to impress me. I was talking to a friend of mine and he mentioned that it sounded like Lady Gaga. I countered that it sounded like Lady Gaga meets Godhead. We agreed that this was an accurate summation of the song. Despite this, I went and saw ITM perform live at the Blue Note in Columbia, MO. that summer. Again they were headlining and again attendance was lacking. The show, however, was great. And while I didn’t agree with all the props (a throne, Maria’s plastic scepter and all the Halloween store-bought skulls glued everywhere) I loved hearing all those old Beautiful Tragedy songs I loved so much and the new stuff off Blood didn’t sound so bad either.

Later that year, when Blood finally dropped (…and I burned it from the library), I actually loved it. The title track is one of the many songs that I heard in its early, unpolished demo form and hated… then loved when the band got the song into the studio and refined it (much like what happened with Skinlab’sCome and Get It” off the Revolting Room… Loved the earlier, untainted demo version of the song… then hated it when they got the song into the studio and overproduced it). I also loved “Whore” off the album. And while those two songs certainly represent the best songwriting and the most mature progression we’ve seen in the band lyrically and musically, there were other enjoyable songs to be had: “Adrenalize”, “Beast Within” and “Rise With Me”. But upon a recent re-listen the album (with the exception of its standouts listed above) is a bit melodramatic (in a calculated and unnecessary kind of way) and is catered to an adolescent Hot Topic aesthetic.

I did not see ITM live again on tour for this album (which sucks, as I would have loved to seen them live in support of this album after I’d actually listened to it and loved it). Then in 2015 we got Black Widow

Huh…

What to say about Black Widow?

For the most part it’s still a metal album. But it is infinitely more mainstream and aimed at all the adolescent Hot Topic goth kids than any of their previous albums.

Furthermore, the album seems to have several agendas and they all seem narcissistically centered around Brink. The first is that Brink seems to think that her fans (and everyone listening to any of her albums) have the wrong idea about her. She seems to think that the media (is ITM a big enough band for the media, even metal outlets, to be speculating about her?) and her fans (and casual listener) sit around meditating on her origins, her background, her personality, her character. Apparently we all think (according to her) that she used to be a stripper, a streetwalker or a porn star (no offense, but in all fairness she did kinda dress like all three, perhaps intentionally (for whatever reason), when the band first started out… And I hear that both Blood and Black Widow have gone into heavy rotations at strip clubs). It’s a little bit like GnR’s Chinese Democracy, where Axel spends the whole album defending himself against public opinion. Brink also seems to express frustration at how people only focus on her sexuality… while she over sexualizes herself (with the outfits she wears on stage and by having herself, provocatively posed, on the cover of every album). She then contradicts herself as she paints herself as some new icon of sexual darkness (everything metal and esoteric). Look no further than “Sex Metal Barbie” and “Bloody Creature Poster Girl” as support for my above claims. Brink wants everyone to obsess over how mysterious, sexual, alluring and enigmatic she is… but then gets frustrated at the attention and the fact that those traits of herself are all anyone ever focuses on.

If further proof is needed that this is Brink’s show (and no one else in the band’s) then look no further than the fact that the only founding members of the band left are Howorth and Brink… The rest of this incarnation of ITM joined around 2010-11.

I listened to Black Widow a few times, then forgot about it.

I never saw them on tour for this album… and didn’t really want to.

I probably only would have seen them live for this album if I’d been given a free ticket, and even then it would only have been so I could hear them play some of the older songs.

Now, after only five albums, they have released a greatest hits album (Rise of the Blood Legion: Greatest Hits (Chapter 1)… implying that they’ll have more than one!).

And, quickly on the heels of that, they are releasing the album I am reviewing here, Ritual.

But one thing is sure: ITM has sold out.

Either that or their intent all along was to become pseudo-metal pop stars… but then why start out as a decent thrash band and then become pop stars? Seems like a strange path to take to pop stardom.

I’ve always said that you can tell how much a band has sold out by the songs that they cover. Back when ITM was considered thrash and were raw, brutal and hungry, they covered Slayer’s “Postmortem” and Pantera’s “I’m Broken”. Now they cover “Call Me” by Blondie (The Dream) and “Closer” by NIN (Blood). And while NIN might be dark(ish) and “subversive”, it’s still pop music. I remember seeing The Urge (a local ska-metal-punk band that blew up to international acclaim sometime in the late 90’s) live with my brother back in college. My brother had been a fan of The Urge since their days of producing low-budget albums in local studios and doing all their live shows in the cramped confines of the now-closed Mississippi Nights. The Urge covered Prince’s “1999”. My brother snorted and said,

 

“I remember when The Urge used to cover Helmet and Ministry!”

See?

It’s a proven theory.

 

Just look at who a band covers when they’re young and have momentum and who they cover when they’ve been in a biz a while and they’re looking towards that golden paycheck.

And it befuddles me that this summer ITM is going on such a high profile, big venue headlining tour, after I was sure they were doomed to the opening slot. It may have something to do with their longevity and their sound finally clicking with the youth of today (some ten years after their debut). Or it may (and most likely does) have to do with their opening act: Motionless In White (yet another aluminum (not heavy metal!) band made famous by Hot Topic merch and the misguided miscreant adolescents who devour it with every ounce of their expendable income). I’ve heard told stories of ITM’s recent shows (since 2012, when I last saw them). I heard Brink has done away with a handheld microphone and now uses a headset. I’ve also heard that Brink has dancers beside her and has at least four costume changes per show. The friend who told me this is the same one who ragged prematurely on the “Blood” single with me. He commented,

“Maria Brink has finally gotten what she wanted: to be the Madonna of heavy metal.” He also asserts (not incorrectly) that In This Moment are trying to, “re-brand themselves as a visual band”.

Well, I went & saw the “Half God/Half Devil” tour this summer at in St. Louis on June 28th.

It was not good. And I elaborate on this point only because I believe that a band’s live performance and on stage persona is intrinsically linked to the recorded material they put out. Furthermore, I feel some of the aesthetic choices ITM is making on stage grossly and directly affect their studio output (such as the album I will be reviewing here).

 

But back to the show: all of the above assertions were correct: way too much pageantry & flourish and not nearly enough music!

 

Brink did indeed have a load of costume changes (and a circus-type tent behind her to accommodate such transitions), dancers, a headset microphone and loads (and I mean loads) of props… G.W.A.R. might’ve been jealous if ITM had added fake blood to the mix.

Speaking of blood, this as might as well have been the Blood tour because they played mostly songs from that album: they opened with “Blood”, played “Adrenalize” and “Burn” and encored with “Whore”. Now, this wouldn’t have shocked me if they’d played more than thirteen songs total, but they didn’t. They did not, however, played any songs from Beautiful Tragedy, which cements my theory that they have completely and totally forgotten their roots: they are no longer five people simply playing raw, hungry, sincere metal; they are now a pop band and everything before (I suppose) Blood seems obs

 

olete to them. At one point Maria sat down at a piano and played a song off Ritual; the whole time I got a distinct Tori Amos vibe. See what I mean? It’s pop. And for those of you gasping in disgust that I could label such a subversive artist as Tori Amos as “pop” please remember that she toured with Alanis Morissette.

To further my theory that ITM have degraded into a pop act, look no further than their stage set up: they had a secondary stage placed atop the actual stage itself… not even a dais, but a complete new stage… As if putting Maria Brink above the heads of her fans wasn’t enough, she had to be towering over them. Then there was the giant ego banner (a trend I’ve come to hate with bands) that blacked out the back of the stage. They also (and I find it befuddling when bands do

 

this) put a curtain around the stage about thirty minutes before they went on, thus cloaking the roadies setting up the stage and thus retaining the “mystery” of their show.

I also noticed that Maria’s voice seems to benefit immensely from the studio. Sure, she still has a great voice, but live it’s a bit throaty and not as refined as it is in the studio. This could be due to FX and enhancements done in the studio; could just be acoustics and equipment. I will say that the sound was so bad that I could barely hear what Maria was saying during her endless speeches (more on that later) and a lot of the songs were indiscernible (which isn’t saying anything… if the songs weren’t off Beautiful Tragedy or Blood I probably wouldn’t have recognized them even if they were crystal clear).

 

And then there were Maria’s speeches. Some were about how the world is so full of negativity and frustration; others were grateful offering of thanks to the audience for coming out and supporting “music” (which, is this were true, why didn’t they play more of it instead of scrambling around to put props into place and change costumes?). From this I gleaned two things: the first is that I think Maria is priming herself for (what she probably feels is inevitably) becoming a stadium rock band. You know how Stevie Nicks tours solo (more on that in a second), but also tours with Fleetwood Mac and goes on long speeches thanking her fans for their dedication and longevity and just being cordial as hell to everyone who has supported them (her) over the years and made it so that they can live an exaggerated life of stardom and not be forced to live life as an “average Joe” (like their fans)? Also, with all of Maria’s melodramatics I think it’s clear that she sees her performances not just as being that of a musician and frontwoman, but also as acting turns. She is prepping herself for plays or (probably more specifically) movies. Much as Alice Cooper once wanted to move from the shock rock he invented to film acting (as was documented in Bob Greene’s 1974 volume Billion Dollar Babies), I think Maria wants to make the jump to films. I’d say look for her name in the credits of some Hollywood erotic drama sometime in the next 5-10 years.

But with that said, the show it mostly about her. The band stands off to the sides of her secondary stage and might as well not even be there. Or, they could have clad them in black, like a Greek chorus. I dunno. Just mark my words, just as an inevitable attempt at a film career is no doubt in the works for Brink, so is a solo album and career. In fact, I’m surprised they haven’t straight up haven’t changed the name to The Maria Brink Experience or a nifty play on words, such as On the Brink (in fact I fully foresee Brink stealing that from me).

Shortly after Motionless in White got off the stage, the crowd began to thin around the bar. Now, the swarm of adolescents that filled the pit to capacity stayed until the end and, in a sense, I’m glad I did as well. At least I got to see that the rumors were true. What was sad, though, was seeing a band I’ve been with for over ten years turn into something I never expected and which I’m entirely opposed to.

With all that I said above, I guess you expect me to have hated The Ritual, right?

Well, not really.

But before I launch into my review, I have a few observations about the album’s aesthetic. The first is that ITM and Brink (as seen in the imagery they chose for their stage show) seem obsessed with religious iconography and themes. The cover art for Ritual looks like the poster for a movie like Stigmata or The Last Exorcist. The back cover image looks like it could be a poster for The Crucible, Macbeth or Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem. But ITM’s stage show is nearly all imagery centered around priests, weddings and martyrdom, and those seem to carry over to the lyrical themes of this new album. They also seem to have adopted a more, I dunno, Southern style for their musical approach to this album. They must have taken a page from My Ruin’s playbook (only they don’t fixate on the moral reprehensible nature of misogyny the way Tairrie B. does… over and over and over).

Another observation is that this is the second female driven “metal” outfit to look to Fredric Nietzsche for inspiration (even if just in the title of their album). ITM’s new tour (and one of the most prominent tracks on their new album) is “Half God Half Devil” which invokes (in us philosophically-minded people) the Nietzsche study Beyond Good and Evil. Arch Enemy (who somewhat recently replaced Angela Gassow with The Agonist’s Alissa White-Gluz) has a new album called Will To Power (the name of another Nietzsche volume). Could be nothing… but it’s fascinating to think that it might be intentional.

But I digress.

It’s a new sound, a new fixation for their lyrical content and a new direction for the band. And, for the most part, it works…

 

Perhaps inspired by Lamb of God, they intro the album with an ethereal instrumental called “Salvation”, thus setting the theological theme for the album. It’s decent, but a bit melodramatic with all the thunderstorm sound bytes and Brink’s voice echoing over synthesized music with (what I can only assume) are supposed to be a monk’s chant, followed by crushing percussions.

The album opens with the whisky-soaked southern sermon “Oh Lord”. The song plays out brilliantly with the right dose of clapping (like in a swampy outdoor revival), percussions and understated metal riffs coupled by (it sounds like) piano licks. The chorus is as catching as it gets. The body verses, while sometimes veering into cheese (“I fear I’ve been laying with the Devil”) are some of the strongest Brink’s written since Blood.

Next is “Black Wedding” (a duet with Rob Halford). I won’t lie: this gives them a bit more metal street cred than I really want to give them at this point, but the kiss of approval from Halford is undeniable. Now, also ironic and funny, is that the only other “metal” act I’ve seen in recent history (other than the shock rockers Alice Cooper, G.W.A.R., etc.) that had as many costumes changes as Brink did, was Judas Priest on their Epitaph Tour in 2011. Anyhow, when this song was played live at the show I saw this summer, Brink did this duet with Chris Motionless (in an effort to appease both male and female demographics in the audience at seeing the two front-running sex symbols in a symbolic and musical marriage together). The song… Well, it’s just okay. Probably its biggest sin is the shameless theft of Billy Idol’s chorus and the modification of it to “it’s a nice night for a black wedding”. Musically, it almost sounds as if it’s destined to be played at dance clubs on “goth nite”… and in strip clubs. But the Hot Topic kids (even those who have no idea who Halford is… which is heresy, by the way) will probably love the song; lots of 14-year-old girls will cry to this song when lamenting the break-up with their first boyfriend.

With the next track we get a spoken word intro of Brink reciting Biblical text in a sound byte that is not only Rob Zombie inspired, but strategically altered in the studio to sound as if it is recorded on a scratched record (another annoying trend adopted by just about every single band nowadays).

This leads into the cover of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” With this song’s recent resurgence in popularity, it’s no surprise that ITM saw fit to cover it. However, a few things come to mind: the first is that the power of hearing this song redone as a “metal” (as metal as ITM gets) song is undeniably cool and Brink certainly puts her all into singing it. The song also sounds great as a metal song and is (regrettably, since it is a cover) perhaps one of the strongest songs on the album. However, with this song (no matter how “metal” it may be on this album) it can no longer be denied that ITM is now a pop band. Sure, Collins once considered himself a “rocker” (then again, so did Michael Bolton), but he is a pop star. And I feel compelled to share one last thing about this song: I was a kid in the 80’s when this song was a popular radio hit and was played every other hour on the radio and, I’m sorry, but this song is eerie as hell and extremely unpleasant to listen to… and I listen to death metal. Just sayin’.

Then we get another Rob Zombie-esque spookshow theological sound byte.

Then we get “Joan of Arc”. Musically, another song destined for “goth nite” dance clubs. Lyrically the song could almost be a sister to “Whore”. But I won’t lie: aside from “Oh Lord” this is the album’s best track. It’s not especially “heavy” (as far as metal goes), but it is still catchy and groovy. I said before that ITM was summoning My Ruin, but here they are clearing summoning constant tour mates Rob Zombie… And it works!

Thundering percussions lead us into “River of Fire”, which sounds so close to “Oh Lord” in parts that one almost wonders if the song wasn’t split into two parts on the album. It wasn’t. And “River of Fire” is heavy and blistering, but by this point the “fire and brimstone sermon” theme is a bit worn down.

… Oh, wait! Do we have another Rob Zombie spookshow crackly sound byte?… Yup!

“Witching Hour” is a peculiar song. There a bit too much distortion and doctoring on Brink’s voice for me to accurately estimate the quality of the song. The riffs are the Rob Zombie-inspired B-movie soundtrack variety and the percussions are strictly dance club fodder. Other than that, lyrically I can’t really say much, as the song simply repeats phrases over and over (much like pop techno). Sounds a bit like album filler to me.

“Twin Flames” veers back to the ITM we remember from Blood: poppy, yes, but still vaguely metal. Not much in the way of guitars, lots of piano and percussions, but when the song gets heavy in the chorus it gets agreeably heavy. Lyrically, though, it’s another song about lost love and loss.

“Half God Half Devil” bludgeons in and seems like it has something to prove. It has the heavy synth of Rob/White Zombie and really feels like it could have been a track off Hellbilly Deluxe. It musically falls in line with ITM’s recent output and lyrically it keeps in the theme of theology and questionable allegiance (do ITM side with good or evil?), but I think in the end there might be something more profound going on here (if not, perhaps, accidentally) about mankind (specifically Brink’s) moral/spiritual duality.

“No Me Importa” is another song destined for dance (or strip) clubs, but, like the track preceding it, there’s a bit more going on than is initially heard. The song, lyrically, is about resisting the will and wants others project onto you and one’s complete and total apathy regarding this entire process. Musically, the song is fairly heavy and the crushing guitars compliment Brink’s vocals perfectly. Though the refrain (which uses the imagery of a “rat in a cage”) is a bit trite, considering Billy Corgan burned that phrase into our brains nearly twenty years ago with his ceaseless whining.

“Roots”… Now, before you start thinking that this is a Sepultura cover, let me assure you: it’s not. Sure, it’s a bit ironic for a band that has (for the most part) forgotten their roots, to sing a song with this title, but this song is more of a cousin to “Blood” than it is a testament to the band’s origins. The phrase of “I thank you for” mirrors “Blood”’s “I hate you for”… The fast guitars and F-bombs can’t disguise the fact that this is a song about “haters” and that the statements of rebellion and refusal are somewhat manufactured and tired.

“Lay Your Gun Down” ends the album with a piano intro that indicates that something epic is on the horizon. Then Brink’s panty, breathy (and probably over-produced) voice echoes in. Musically, the song thinks it is a lot more profound and powerful than it is. Lyrically, it’s another song about heartbreak and how Brink is already so jaded that she can’t be hurt anymore. Sure, the song is still powerful and has an emotional auditory impact, but once you read the lyrics and analyze the formula, it seems a bit exhausted (musically speaking). Even more confusing is the sound of (what appears to be) running water in the background… Still haven’t figured that one out.
Reasonably, one could look at ITM’s discography as one should look at Lamb of God’s: the first three albums are a triptych that represent one band. The following three albums (and everything thereafter) represent an entirely different band. A new, less hungry, less raw, less brutal band in transition.

Are ITM’s albums still good?

Intermittently, sure.

But they need to shrug this pop star direction they’re going in (which is the professional equivalent of trying to stop a boulder from rolling down the side of a mountain) and revert back to just being five people with instruments, without all the extra nonsense.

But consider this for a moment:

Have ITM sold out and are trying to rebrand themselves as a “visual band” or a pop band, or has ITM really struck genius and have found a way to visually interpret their music and, therefore, maintain the attention of their core audience (males and females ages 14-25) who would normally lose interest in their show were it just five people with instruments playing music? Do they understand their audience and demographic so well that they’ve adapted their live show as a reaction to a generation so bankrupt of focus and attention span that they realize they need constant visual stimuli in order to keep them engaged? And as far as their music goes: perhaps, it has organically changed due to the increasing age and the personal musical aesthetic of Howorth and Brink.

Who knows?

We never will.
Recommendations: Slipknot, My Ruin, The Agonist, Motionless In White.
Rating: *** (out of five stars)

 

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