The very first few seconds of the opener on this album immediately tell you what territory you've ventured into: La Tulipe Noire draw their palette from the pillar neo prog bands. Hailing from Greece and initially branded a Marillion clone, on this album the band seem to be struggling to shake this tag - but not with great success, it must be said. The Marillion connection is evident throughout, but there are also moments reminiscent of later IQ and Pendragon.
On Faded Leaves, the band's third full release, the keyboards rule supreme. Washes of synth strings build the foundation for each song while the melodies on top are taken care of by guitar or piano. The melodies are nice, if unremarkable - only a handful are really memorable.
Female lead vocalist, Ima, does a fantastic job and she is the 'star' of the outfit. Her voice is confident, powerful and though her range is not as impressive as that of other genre vocalists, she has a certain character to her singing and that many others lack. Truth be told, at times her delivery brings to mind a female version of Fish or Peter Nicholls - though thankfully, her pitch is a lot better. The lyrics are all English and Ima sings them virtually free of accent, another bonus.
Almost all the songs on the album deal with emotions of sorrow, loss, depression, loneliness - so much so, in fact, that one could call Faded Leaves a concept album about sadness. The band try their very best in conveying exactly these sentiments with the music - heavy in places, but mostly slow, ponderous and drawn-out are the attributes that come to mind. Song titles like “Winter in your heart” and “Lost souls ballad” perfectly sum up what to expect. By the time “A Beggar's Tale” offers a bit of up-tempo power, Alix (keys) and S. Kontakis (guitars) have fully succeeded in depressing the listener. There is no reprieve as lines such as ‘She wants to scream/but no one, not a single soul cares!' or 'I feel a nameless sadness over me roll/ I can't find words, all have been told!' - all underscored with grim minor chords and sung with utter conviction - literally pummel the listener into feeling utterly dejected. In that sense, La Tulipe Noir have succeeded in painting a vivid picture with their music and lyrics - but the end result is an album that sounds grey and barren with no contrast to capture the attention of the listener. The production is very competent and well-balanced, but does little to carve out the few memorable moments. Add to that the repetitive song structures, simple arrangements and lack of real solos or intricate instrumental passages and one might come away thinking that this album has very little to offer.
But this is just it: Somehow, I can't help but feel strangely drawn to this album. Since I received it I have come back again and again, holding off writing this review as if there was something ethereal to it that I hadn't quite managed to pin down yet.
My final verdict still isn't in. On the surface and at first listen, this album sounds like IQ or Marillion on downers - so slow, so languid, full of pathos and heartbleed it is hard to stomach in one sitting. I suspect that this impression will be what most come away with even after repeated listens. But it would be wrong to say that this album has no appeal whatsoever.
If you are into neo-prog, Marillion and IQ especially, and always found more pleasure in their melancholy side (i.e. Clutching at Straws or Ever) you might want to give Faded Leaves a try. If it clicks, it will provide a lot of listening pleasure - if not, I suspect it will leave you baffled.