Sweden's Covenant has built its dark reputation on a mix of EBM hard beats and deep, slightly monotone yet dramatic vocalsthink Sisters of Mercy if Andrew Eldritch had pried himself away from his mic stand long enough to start dancing. Covenant is one of the few futurepop/EBM/new industrial/whatever-you-wanna-call-it bands that have stomped their way into the hearts of goth fans and rivetheads alike. Like close brethren Front 242, the beats are relentless but not militaristic. There's more melancholy than machine here because Covenant is willing to take their time to establish a mood rather than spewing out the thundering distorted vocals and repetitive rhythms that often turn other bands in this genre into trance gone evil.
Therefore, it's not surprising that Northern Lights, their fifth full effort, is inching closer and closer toward dark electronic stalwarts like Depeche Mode than ever before. The album opens with Covenant's familiarly cold synth style, but on "Bullet," Eskil Simonsson softens his voice and this new vulnerable approach adds an attractive depth and humanity to Northern Lights.
They continue to draw out more organic sounds from their electronic bag of tricks with bits like the underlying hint of bongo-type drums on "Rising Sun," piano-esque elements on "Bullet," and the choir-like backing vocals of "Invisible and Silent." These things lend a thoughtful, if not morose, quality to this record. With many slower songs, Northern Lights isn't just meant to get boots stomping around the dance floor. These guys can emote when they darn well feel like it and the music doesn't suffer. VAST is a decent comparison point.
Longtime fans have hurled complaints that this CD is too soft, that the band has abandoned the hard beats that made them EBM favorites, but this friendlier synthpop side is what I like about it. Not to say it's all lonely slow-jams (well, as slow as you can get with this sort of thing): "We Want Revolution" is a smash-it-up riot act. "Call the Ships to Port" is classic Covenant, synths sailing over a relentless beat. And the oddball dichotomy of disco-happy beats and the repeated refrain of "I feel so scared/I feel so sad" makes "Atlas" a bizarrely danceable draw as well.