Sunday, July 08, 2007

Remembering Sabine Dunser (1977-2006)

Today marks the sad anniversary of the passing away of Elis vocalist Sabine Dunser. After having completed her tracks for the band's latest release, Griefshire, Sabine collapsed during rehearsals and died of a brain hemorrhage.

I've been following this band from Liechtenstein since their 2003 release, God's Silence, Devil's Temptation. The combination of crunching guitars, symphonic string arrangements and Sabine's exquisite voice made the band an up and coming force in the world of goth/metal. Their 2004 release, Dark Clouds in a Perfect Sky did nothing to hurt their chances at stardom.

Elis is one of several bands that are heavy metal bands that play with a classical feel, and which are fronted by female vocalists who sing with operatic tones. I blame my colleague Stew from the UK for my obession with these acts. He introduced me to Nightwish several years ago and I have not looked back. From there it was After Forever, Within Temptation, The Gathering, Theater of Tragedy, Leaves Eyes, Tristania and Sirenia to name but a few. So Stew, if you get a chance to read this, thanks a million mate!

Griefshire was actually released back in the fall in Europe, and sometime later here in the States. How much later? Odin only knows, since I had been unable to track down a copy either at my local Newbury Comics or on these Internets until about a month ago. What follows is a belated review, and a tribute to Sabine.

The opening track, Tales From Heaven Or Hell is a solid, slamming track with a crunchy hook laid down by guitarists Pete Streit and Christian Gruber. Drummer Max Naescher is like a machine gun as he and bassist Tom Saxer pound the rhythm into the ground during the song's heavier moments. Sabine's voice soars over this sonic cacophony to set the tone for the CD.

Die Stadt is one of two tracks Sabine sings in German (a familiar theme on the previous releases). It starts off with a slow piano/string sound before the guitars come charging in. Sabine guides the song with her voice. I wish I understood the words, but I don't so I just have to go with how her multi-tracked voice soars majestically over the instruments.

Show Me The Way is a catchy song that begins with a solid bass line. Striet and Gruber weave tight harmonies that guide the song, which features a passage with Sabine singing a capella for one part of the chorus. The song deals with the main theme of the CD, namely that of self-realization and inner strength.

Brothers starts slowly and builds to a slow rocker with a riff that Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi would be proud to play as Sabine tells the story of brothers on a mystical journey.

Seit Dem Inbeginn Der Zeit is the other song Sabine sings in German. It starts with quiet guitar over a string piece as Sabine's vocals come in to balance the quiet parts and the slow, heavy guitar riffs before the tempo picks up for a couple of short guitar solos. The tempo remains as Sabine sings over the riffs, strings and some quiet piano. The song ends slowly as the string arrangement plays out.

Remember the Promise starts out fast and heavy and speeds up. Tom and Max drive the rhythm as Streit and Gruber torch the sonic landscape with some heavy riffs and nimble, almost eastern sounding solos. Sabine delivers the vocals with a frantic urgency, ably assisted by the vocal choir as the song maintains the quick pace.

Phoenix From the Ashes starts with a gentle string arrangement that is quickly covered by heavy guitar riffs as Sabine starts to sing. But that was a false start as this song picks up where the previous one left off. The rhythm of the main melody is relentless, but provides some room for the strings and piano as Sabine sings the choruses. Streit comes in with a bright guitar solo tinged with the old wah-wah pedal before the main melody returns to guide the song to its end.

How Long is a gentle piano ballad that features some heavenly singing from Sabine. Streit and Gruber play short guitar solos that do not overwhelm the light atmosphere.

Innocent Hearts starts with soaring guitar harmonies that go into a crunching rhythm. Sabine uses the lower range of her voice in the verses and the up-front parts of the choruses, while her background vocals soar above everything. The song then turns into a dirge, punctuated by a slurring guitar solo before the vocal choir comes in and the song gets back to the main melody.

Forgotten Love starts as another gentle piano ballad with a quiet string arrangement over which Sabine sings a sad vocal about lost love.

The Burning gets back to heavy mode with a hammering riff and bassist Saxer's low growls. Max gets into machine gun mode on drums as Sabine and the choir guide the song until the chaotic middle which contains some dissonant riffs to balance Sabine's crying vocal delivery. The song then slows a bit with some guitar harmonies before the chaos returns. Then it is back to the hammers and growls versus Sabine and the choir before the song ends on a sudden, positive note. All that in four minutes and forty seconds!

A New Decade starts slowly with some gentle piano interspersed with heavy guitar riffs and a tight harmony. Sabine then enters, alternately using both the lower and higher ends of her range as she weaves the words around Saxer's heavy bass lines and the guitar riffs, which culminate in a harmony solo before the song settles back into the main groove.

The final track is Heaven and Hell, a cover of the Black Sabbath song from that group's classic 1980 release. Streit and Gruber churn out the familiar riffs with just a couple of tweaks. A string arrangement flows over the riffs as Sabine's multi-tracked voice lights up Ronnie James Dio's sinister lyrics. Wisely, neither Streit nor Gruber attempt to outdo the original Iommi guitar solo, either in tone or length. Instead they play it quick and clean before the song speeds up with Max and Tom holding the rhythm together as Sabine does an absolutely flawless job with her vocal delivery.

This is a terrific collection of songs. The band's performances were tight and to the point. Saxer and Naescher kept the tempo heavy but true. Guitarists Streit and Gruber churned out dozens of riffs and a handful of good solos, but managed to channel them into the songs in a positive manner. Sabine pushed herself to a new level, both lyrically and vocally. Her tone altenated between menacing and heavenly, depending upon what she had to do for each part of the songs. Producer Alexander Krull (Atrocity, Leaves Eyes), who produced the previous Elis CDs, outdid himself here as he pulled out all the stops with his interweaving of vocal choirs and string arrangements with the metallic riffs of the main musicians.

Elis has chosen to continue, and has picked former Dreams of Sanity vocalist Sandra Schleret to replace Sabine. Good luck to Sandra, and to Elis. This band has a lot of potential and I look forward to hearing how they move forward.

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