(Below, Andy Synn reviews the new album by the revamped — and revitalized — Arch Enemy.)
Ok, I’m sure a fair few of you have already skipped past this review, simply because of the words “Arch Enemy” there at the top. After all, AE are a pretty big band, and an easy target, so it’s not at all “cool” to like them. That’s fine.
But for those of you still reading, I’m sure you’re more than a little interested in just what this new incarnation of the band is all about. After all, the band’s line-up has undergone some pretty big changes recently. Chris Amott has taken what appears to be his final retirement from the group, to be replaced by the superfluously talented Nick Cordle, who comes to the band from the decidedly Arch Enemy-influenced Arsis… it’s not quite Ripper Owens joining Judas Priest, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, is it?
Overshadowing this of course is the departure of Angela Gossow and her replacement by ex-The Agonist frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz, inspiring a firestorm of internet nerd-rage of apoplectic proportions, so-called “fans” of the band clamouring desperately for attention as part of “Team Angela” or “Team Alissa” like angsty pre-pubescent girls.
But let’s make one thing clear right now, before we go any further – having listened to the album in full I can confidently say that Ms White-Gluz is a more than worthy successor to Angela Gossow’s vacated throne. Close enough in terms of power and delivery to maintain a sense of continuity within the band’s discography, but with a style and substance of her own, she brings a welcome breath of fresh air and a renewed, combative edge to the vocals that helps her stand out as more than a simple carbon-copy of her predecessor.
Before I get into the real meat of things, though, perhaps a little more context is in order, to help position this album and this review within the wider scope of things.
When it comes to Arch Enemy my feelings have always been positive, but mixed. There’s some fantastic material on their first three albums (the Johann era), although I don’t fetishise them as much as some do. Slightly uneven, occasionally a little self-indulgent (something which I guess applies across their entire catalogue, if you want to be churlish about such things), Black Earth, Stigmata, and Burning Bridges certainly possess a very unique sound, along with some absolutely killer riffs and solos.
The Gossow era (which, let’s be honest, should really be considered the band’s defining era – sorry trve believers…) is, for all its success, somewhat hit and miss for me… although even the misses usually have some good songs here and there. Wages of Sin was, and still is, a great album. Vibrant, vital, razor-sharp, it demonstrated the Amott brothers and their cohorts switching up their style ever so slightly with a renewed sense of vigour and a precise and impeccable focus.
Anthems of Rebellion was, in my honest opinion, an over-simplification of their sound, with a few good songs but far too many “generic empowerment anthems”tm, while Doomsday Machine tried its best to go darker, but ended up being about a 50/50 split between furious and forgettable.
The rather fantastic Rise of the Tyrant seemed to signal a new stage of the band’s evolution, with an increase in complexity and some progressive inclinations that simultaneously recalled the band’s early days, while also adding some new tricks to their repertoire. Unfortunately they singularly failed to capitalise on this with the somewhat bloated and stock material that peppered Khaos Legions, and despite their still-growing popularity it seemed that the band really were just going through the motions.
In a sense that’s why the recent changes to the band’s line-up really are a blessing in disguise. Throughout War Eternal the new Arch Enemy sound renewed and re-energised, a band firing on all cylinders and with something to prove – to themselves as much as to everyone else.
Intriguingly, while the album doesn’t necessarily do too much new (though there’s some interesting classical/semi-symphonic embellishments used to great effect here and there, as well as a heavy dose of Heartwork-esque sonic skullduggery), it does succeed in taking the by-now familiar formula of the Arch Enemy sound and sharpening it, strengthening it, giving it teeth and claws and a fresh appetite for destruction.
After the expected instrumental intro, “Never Forgive, Never Forget” starts things off with an injection of pure blast-happy adrenaline, melding some positively titanic, and defiantly death-tinged, riffage with some ludicrously ostentatious guitar heroics, which should immediately renew your faith in the band. Indeed the mix of Alissa’s savage snarls and the proggy/melodic/scything fretwork of the Amott-Cordle partnership immediately pays major dividends, with one of the finest Arch Enemy songs I’ve heard in a long time. Short, sharp, and immediately to the point, it definitely makes a real statement of intent.
“War Eternal” itself takes the template of the standard Arch Enemy anthem and gives it a much needed shake-up, with a much heavier guitar tone and a phenomenally passionate delivery from Ms. White-Gluz making the whole thing seem so much more vital and alive then previous efforts, while “As The Pages Burn” is a more savage, dare I say Carcass-esque, collection of murderous riffage and throat-rending vocals that’s as punishing as it is irresistible.
The shameless, Prog-Power melodies and hard-driving riffs of “No More Regrets” are married to a frankly thunderous backbone of earth-shaking drums and rumbling bass work. The song sets a frantic pace right from the start, albeit with some frequent diversions into more proggy instrumentation, leading into the more Rise of the Tyrant-esque “You Will Know My Name”, which utilises some subtle (and welcome) keyboard/string embellishments to great effect, enhancing an already pretty stellar song with a sense of brooding atmosphere amidst the band’s signature mix of soaring leads and mighty riffs.
Hopefully by now you’ll have become as taken with this newly reconfigured version of Arch Enemy as I have. Every member, Amott, Erlandson, D’Angelo, Cordle, White-Gluz, really have brought their A-game to this record, both in terms of writing and playing. White-Gluz in particular will hopefully have put all fears to rest with her thrilling, visceral performance, easily melding savage highs with some brutal low growls, matching her predecessor in many ways, yet simultaneously working to set herself apart with those small changes in style and delivery which gain greater impact and importance over the course of a whole album.
“Graveyard of Dreams” is a pleasant, but relatively forgettable, instrumental interlude, preceding the precision assault of “Stolen Life”, a sub-three-minute attack of juddering drums and scalpel-sharp guitar riffs, capped off perfectly by Alissa’s throat-rending snarl.
“Time Is Black”, though, is a real standout track, akin to a James Bond theme as written by Heartwork-era Carcass. And if that doesn’t get your attention I’m not sure what will! It’s both bruisingly heavy and thrillingly epic, mixing majestic strings, heroic guitar leads, and positively crushing riffs in a way that’s both instantly recognisable as Arch Enemy, yet somehow totally unexpected, brimming with piercing hooks and dark, malevolent power.
“On and On” is another major stand-out as well, a war-song of titanic proportions, locked and loaded with an array of ballistic death metal riffs and laser-guided lead parts. It’s the sound of a band playing right on the edge, bristling with barely suppressed energy yet in perfect control of their abilities – furious, devastating, and subtly melodic all at the same time.
“Avalanche” is perhaps the most contentious song on the list, though right at the start you might not know it. Some massively heavy riffs, and a frankly gigantic guitar tone, give the whole thing a heavyweight feel, laced with some beautifully poisonous melodies (courtesy of those keyboard and string embellishments I mentioned earlier). It’s the inclusion of some, shock-horror, clean backing vocals that will probably get most people’s underwear twisted up in knots. Of course that should only be an issue if you ignore the fact that it actually works really, really well… and that the band have done it a few times before… and that the song itself is so fan-fucking-tastically heavy in places that it really shouldn’t matter at all.
If there is one minor complaint I have about the album, it’s that, for me at least, “Avalanche” seems like a natural peak for the album. The dark string melodies and subtle clean vocals are definitely suggestive of an album closer, yet War Eternal continues on for another two songs. Not that these are bad songs by any means, although I could do without the instrumental finale of “Not Long For This World”, which doesn’t seem to add much to the album as a whole, but they just seem to extend the album a little beyond its sweet spot.
That being said, “Down To Nothing” is a thoroughly nasty little piece of down-home Carcass-style death metal riffage and evil melody that, in a welcome twist, errs much more strongly towards the Death Metal side of things than you might expect.
In fact, that just about sums up the album as a whole. It just really is a welcome surprise, through and through. It feels heavier, more aggressive, much more Death Metal in tone and delivery, without sacrificing that knack for soaring, ecstatic melody and proggy guitar showmanship that has defined the band for much of its career.
Indeed, there’s more than a few throwback moments to the band’s early days scattered here and there, albeit filtered and reimagined through the prism of the band’s new form.
If you weren’t a fan before… maybe it’s time to swallow your preconceptions and give the band another chance? Because this really is a redefining moment for them, and quite probably one of the best albums of their career.
EDITOR’S NOTE: War Eternal will be released by Century Media in North America on June 10. War Eternal can now be pre-ordered digitally in Europe and North America at iTunes and AmazonMP3 with the tracks “War Eternal” and “As The Pages Burn” available as instant downloads upon purchase (a third track, “You Will Know My Name”, will be instantly available for download on May 27th). The album can also be pre-ordered in a variety of physical formats at CM Distro.
Arch Enemy’s Facebook page is here. Here are the two previously released advance tracks from the album: