It seems that Lacuna Coil have suffered a backlash with Shallow Life -- just read some of these reviews. I can see where the critics are coming from. Shallow Life has a much smoother, more mainstream production than Karmacode. The music is much less tumultuous, the vocals are much louder in the mix, as in typical radio-friendly rock. Karmacode certainly sounds more interesting.
But the band's songs haven't really gotten any worse -- it's just that the production exposes the weaknesses that were always there. For all that Karmacode is a good album, it has all of the same problems. First, Lacuna Coil are not terribly proficient songwriters. They don't really write memorable hooks or riffs, and they rarely play solos that go beyond following the vocal line. They're good at creating a loud, roiling sound, where the drums crash and the guitars have this metallic reverberating growl, and the synthesizers are sort of swirling around everything else, but they tend to repeat this approach on most of their songs. Even Karmacode has a bunch of tracks that sound very similar. Really, the main attraction of Lacuna Coil is the remarkable vocal interplay between Andrea Ferro and Cristina Scabbia, rather than the music.
Shallow Life is no different in this respect. Honestly, I can't really differentiate the music in "I'm Not Afraid," "Underdog," "Spellbound" and many other songs. However, the radio-friendly production actually leads Lacuna Coil to branch out a bit by trying out some dance elements on two songs, "I Won't Tell You" and "I Like It." The dance elements are very light, consisting mostly of steady 4/4 beats with high-hats, as well as more synth-oriented music and "diva-like" vocals (Cristina sounds a lot like KMFDM's countless industrial divas on these songs), but they do add energy to the album. Goth or metal purists may be upset by this, but I quite enjoy it; I think the coolest goth and industrial bands were always the ones that had a secret dance fascination. But anyway, these two songs liven up the album a lot, and contribute the catchiest choruses.
The other weakness of Lacuna Coil is their lyrics. On Karmacode, the voices tended to blend into the loud, stormy music, so it didn't really matter what they were singing. Unfortunately, on Shallow Life, the production emphasizes the vocals. You can see the general trend from the song titles -- they write vague fight-songs with names like "I'm Not Afraid," "Underdog," "The Pain," and "Unchained." The songs have positive messages about overcoming your problems and finding the strength to push on, but there's a lot of awkward repetition, like the call-and-response in "I Won't Tell You," where Andrea first yells, "How can I tell you you're falling apart? Open your eyes if you want to survive! How can I tell you your love is a lie?" and then Cristina answers, "Don't ever tell me I'm falling apart, don't ever tell me I will not survive, don't ever tell me this love is a lie." Not really top material.
The smooth production seems to suggest that they're going for mainstream appeal, which means that all the songs are in English. Karmacode had one song in their native Italian, and it actually sounded awesome. I think they ought to do that more. I mean, every Ladytron album has a couple of songs in Bulgarian, and it works fine for them. I've no clue what they're saying, but at least it sounds cool.
Fortunately, at least the vocals in Shallow Life are strong. Some people don't like Andrea's voice; it's true that it's much more limited than Cristina's, but I think they contrast well together, although it would be nice to hear him branch out beyond his rasping shout. On the bonus track "Oblivion," he tries a slightly more relaxed, melodic approach, and it sounds good. Why doesn't he do that more often?
I should also mention that Shallow Life greatly improves toward the end, which is a pleasant surprise. "Unchained" adds much-needed variety with an unexpected guitar solo. It sounds very good, in a classic-rock kind of way (I thought of Wall-era David Gilmour), and makes me wish that their guitarist had a little more room to play without vocals on top. "Shallow Life" is an excellent ballad -- the piano is effective and there's also a sort of bouncy electronic break occasionally appearing in the background that provides an interesting diversion after all the straightforward guitar distortion on the album. This song also puts some cool effects on Andrea's voice, making it sound less harsh and squawking. Perhaps he should look into using a vocoder. Cristina rounds things out with a movingly weary vocal performance, which is very welcome after all the generically-peppy statements of defiance.
But, yeah, I do miss the more ornate, baroque side of Karmacode -- songs like "Within Me" or "Without Fear" that had more of a dignified classical tinge among all the angry rock. That side does not appear on Shallow Life at all, except possibly for the title track. This may be the reason why many reviewers get an impression of "shallowness" from the album. The two dance-inflected tracks are the closest that Shallow Life comes to a Big Single (the last two songs are the best, but they're not really anthems), but their lyrics and straightforward music are less interesting than the dramatic build-up of "Within Me."
The worst thing the album does is to highlight weaknesses that the band already had, which is usually what happens with a more streamlined production. It is, however, enjoyable, and in small ways, it even tries a few new things. Hopefully the good parts of the album indicate some kind of new direction.