Saturday, 22 March 2014

Arch Enemy's "War Eternal" VS The Agonist's "Disconnect Me": A Double Review

On Monday this week, the extreme metal scene was shaken with the news that Arch Enemy's frontwoman for 13 years and a few months, Angela Gossow, was departing the band to focus on the management side of the band. The person given the job of replacing her was none other than Alissa White-Gluz...who left The Agonist on the same day, being replaced by relative unknown Vicky Psarakis. Entire cities drowned in the blood of innocents, sacrifices were made to Lucifer himself pleading him to help get rid the unclean one and the world trembled in fear of what would happen next.

But enough about my trip to Wales. How did this news affect me personally?

It was probably the biggest shock that I personally have had involving extreme metal (aside from my reaction to hearing The Browning for the first time...). My first exposure to The Agonist was when I heard Alissa's appearance on Kamelot's single for their (then upcoming) album Silverthorn and, to be blunt, she impressed me so much that I couldn't stop listening to the song (although the fact that Tommy Karevik impressed me as well probably didn't hurt either!). Being curious about hearing more by the band, I got all of their studio albums and, while I would never be as impressed by The Agonist as I was with Alissa's appearance on Silverthorn, I still liked them enough to wonder when they would release their fourth album.

By contrast (and you might as well get your laughs out now), I never paid any real attention to Arch Enemy. My knowledge of them literally began and ended with "Nemesis". Now, to be fair, I was introduced to them far too early to really appreciate death growling, as I was still trying to get into metal when I got recommended the band (as unbelievable as this will sound, I was recommended them by a guy who played guitar for the morris dancing group I was part of in my last year of high school...seriously, I'm not making that up! I can even tell you what the group was called: Rag Bag Morris. Used to do rehearsals in a place called Etal. Nice place, great pub, lovely town hall!) and, as such, was not really capable of appreciating the band at the time. That said, I have recently started to gain an appreciation for death metal (although learning how to do the vocal style the genre is famous for may have had something to do with it...), so it's not impossible that I might have gone on to check out the band sometime down the line had this news not hit!

So, obviously, now Alissa is part of Arch Enemy, I was half expecting The Agonist to disappear while Arch Enemy rose triumphant with Alissa on vocals. So, when I hear both bands were releasing new songs this week ("War Eternal" in Arch Enemy's case and "Disconnect Me" in The Agonist's) to show how their new vocalists would fit in with their new bands, I was silently jumping at the news with all the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. Could The Agonist survive without Alissa? Would Arch Enemy get an amazing performance out of one of my favourite vocalists in the extreme metal genre (yeah, I know, odd choice, but I'm not a big extreme metal fan, give me a break!)? And, most importantly, would both bands be capable of producing a song actually worth giving a damn about?

To quote Harry Hill's TV Burp, "There's only one way to find out. FIGHT!"

So, first up, let's look at "War Eternal". If you've not heard the song, check it out!

Now, I'm probably not really qualified to say how this song fits in with the rest of Arch Enemy's discography, so I'm going to judge this song only on the song itself. The major thing that springs to mind is that the song is a lot more melodic than I'd expected it to be. This might be a minor thing to a lot of people, but one of the things that has recently struck me is that, with extreme metal, the focus isn't on the vocals, but on the music itself. If you will, the reason the vocalist is making what sounds like a horrible noise is to try to stop you focusing on the melody of the vocals and make you look at the rest of the music instead. That doesn't mean you don't get people who can perform melody lines while singing in extreme metal vocals, but...I'm digressing. Anyway, Arch Enemy are more melodic than typical death metal, which means that there's usually a focus on getting some sort of melody into the music, even if it's not in the vocals. In this case, the most melodic parts of this song is the pre-chorus and the chorus, which usually means that you'll probably have the chorus in your head. It's nothing especially new, but it's solidly written and should get a lot of headbanging action from metal heads.

The drumming is pretty much your typical death metal drumming: double bass for a lot of the run time, some other drumming that basically serves to keep time and a few fills. It's nothing technically brilliant, but it requires a hell of a lot of stamina to do all of it for any real time! The guitars are, again, fairly typical of melodic death, although there's a bit more of a death metal feel to them here, as the verses put the emphasis on being as heavy as they can be (which means fast and somewhat mindless shredding, to a lot of people). The bass...well, I can barely hear it on the loudest volume setting on the laptop I'm typing this on, so you can spot my usual complaint coming a mile away. That said, most death metal bands don't tend to give their bassists especially complicated bass lines to play, so I think I can let my usual complaint slide this time.

You'll notice I've not mentioned Alissa's vocals yet. And it is here that I have to be as honest as I can and say that Alissa, while still sounding good, seems to have lost something about her vocals with the swap between bands. Her harsh vocals are still as good as they were in The Agonist, but, without her clean vocals, I kind of feel like she's being wasted slightly in Arch Enemy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not demanding that Arch Enemy suddenly add clean vocals just to suit Alissa, but she has a good clean voice and it's just a huge shame that she's very unlikely to get a chance to use it in Arch Enemy. Maybe it's because I'm still not a big fan of death metal, but I find that only having harsh vocals is criminally underusing a good vocalist.

So, how do I find the song overall? Well, it's a good song. The problem is that it's nothing especially special: if you've listened to any previous Arch Enemy, you probably know what to expect to hear and you'll come away satisfied, but people who just can't latch on to death metal of any sort because of the vocals will have no real way to enjoy this. Nobody really has any standout moments on the song to me, but I can't say that I dislike the song either. Alissa will be fine with Arch Enemy, but I just think that it's a shame that she won't be able to demonstrate her clean vocals as part of the band. All told, it's definitely worth at least a listen if you like death metal, melodic death metal and The Agonist (and probably if you're a metalcore fan as well), but I just don't think it's offering enough new to really get me excited for their first album with Alissa. Maybe it's because I'm a cynical git, but, if this is going to be what the rest of the record sounds like, I think it's going to be a good, but not great, album. So, with that, I come to my final rating.

"War Eternal" Final Rating: 6 Out Of 10

So, now that Arch Enemy have set a level to match, we come to "Disconnect Me" by The Agonist. Now, as I've mentioned earlier, this is the band I was worried about. After all, they've just lost their most distinctive member, so surely there's nothing that they can do to surprise me?

Well, let's boot up "Ye Olde Laptope" and give it a listen, shall we?

To quote my original reaction to this song, "FUCK!"

Yeah...I was wrong with my original thoughts. Very wrong indeed.

The Agonist play a combination of metalcore and melodic death metal, two genres that a lot of metal purists tend to deride for various reasons, and have a female vocalist, which can get a lot of...controversial reactions from metal purists, to be polite. That the band can make all three of these factors work together without making one of the factors feel unnecessary is a testament to their songwriting ability, although it doesn't hurt that they added more progressive influences to their albums as time went along. While this song is probably not going to be the best indication of what the band's next album is going to sound like as a result, I can say that it is one of their strongest singles to date. At the very least, I think it rivals "Thank You, Pain" as my favourite single by the band. And that says a lot, as I love "Thank You, Pain"! The songwriting is top notch, with some really neat little twists to the song that help make the song evolve as it goes along, yet it doesn't forget to keep things memorable. I guess the problem is that a lot of it will not sound as impressive if you're already a fan of The Agonist, but they do add something from out of left field that, I will admit, took me a few listens to really get used to: male death growls. I won't lie: at first, I hated their addition. The Agonist never needed them before now, so I thought adding them was a bad idea. But, after a few listens, my complaints about them faded away. Now that I've grown used to them, I like their addition, as it gives the band an extra aspect to their sound that makes them more interesting to listen to. True, it doesn't completely replace Alissa as a growling vocalist and it is a shame that it's not an original idea, but I think that, after you get used to them, they are a welcome addition.

The guys who made up The Agonist prior to Alissa's departure are all still doing their own thing. Simon McKay is still his ridiculously fast drummer self (I honestly wonder whether the guy lives off of energy drinks...), Danny Marino is still playing his own surprisingly technical and weird brand of guitar riffing (along with Pascal Jobin) and Chris Kells is as impossible to hear as usual. I don't know who is doing the male growls, but my best guess (due to the mention of him doing backing vocals on wikipedia) is Chris Kells. If so, it's nice to hear him, as he does a wonderful job with them!

And so we come to Vicky's vocals. Now, Vicky (to my knowledge) was previously only really known for doing vocal covers of songs on youtube (which sounds very similar to the guy now singing for Damnation Angels...), so I took a chance to check her cover of "Thank You, Pain" out before "Disconnect Me" was released. And the big complaint I have to make is the same issue that crops up in this song: she doesn't have an especially wide growling range. She does better on this song than she does on the "Thank You, Pain" cover, I'll admit, but Alissa had a very noticeable range to her growling, which has me slightly concerned that Vicky is going to struggle with some of the band's more growl heavy stuff live (like "You're Coming With Me" and "Panaphobia"). However, I think that she can develop this range more over time, so I'm not too concerned at the minute about this. Her clean voice is stronger than Alissa's, though, which is at least an advantage in her favour. As a replacement to Alissa, I think that Vicky is a passable successor. She needs some time to develop as a vocalist (particularly in the growling department), but I think that The Agonist will be completely fine with her on vocals.

So, how do I find this song? Well, I prefer it to the Arch Enemy track, that's for certain! While I have issues with this song, I still think it's a strong song and most of the issues I have with it can be fairly traced back to the vocals (and I wouldn't say any of them are particularly serious issues). It harkens back to the band's second album, with a bit of the influence from the band's third album to keep things interesting. All told, it's just a really good song. Not perfect, by any measure, but it's very enjoyable at least! I expect great things from The Agonist on their next album, just based off of this track!

"Disconnect Me" Final Rating: 8 Out Of 10

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