Thursday, 30 October 2014

Amaranthe "Massive Addictive" Review

I make no secret of the fact that one way to impress me is to sound wildly original (or, at least, play a style of music which isn't just what everyone else is doing), so Amaranthe are a band which hold a special place in my heart. Every criticism you could make of them is one that has a basis in reality (it's not very complex music, it's arguably more pop than metal, nobody would care about the band if Elize Ryd hadn't done stuff for Kamelot, etc.), but I'd much rather hear a band doing something like Amaranthe than just being "thrash act number 29347895", and, for that, Amaranthe are arguably one of the most important upcoming metal bands of the 2010's, for they show that metal music need not be afraid to take risks and try something so far out of the box that you can't even mention them in the same sentence as boxes without feeling like you've unintentionally insulted Amaranthe. One could make a case that they're basically melodic tracecore (at the very least, a link between trancecore and Amaranthe could be made with little difficulty if you're familiar with the style and they certainly are more melodic than most of the trancecore out there), but I'm not sure that does them justice, as they've got their own spin on the whole style which basically means that even calling them trancecore would be ignoring some of the other aspects of their sound. I'll admit, there's really no way to perfectly sum up Amaranthe without having to create an umbrella term with a name that would make a Welsh town look reasonably named and easy to remember to describe their sound.

And that's really what I like about them: you would recognise an Amaranthe track the moment you heard it, but they have so much variety to their sound that it's hard to imagine them running out of ideas or ending up at a point where they're being restricted by their sound. Maybe I'm being a bit overly enthusiastic about a band who might prove to be a flash in the pan (having put out three albums since 2011 does indicate either a ridiculously disciplined band or a band who can't afford to fade out of the spotlight at all), but one thing that cannot be denied is that, no matter whether you like Amaranthe or not, they're certainly a lot more original than most other bands out there now and, while their sound might put them squarely into guilty pleasure territory for a lot of people, I personally feel no shame in liking the band.

...Mind you, I would also feel no shame in playing the Dame in a pantomime if I was asked (which, for the benefit of international audiences who don't know what a pantomime is, would basically require me to dress up in drag and act like a woman...pantomimes can be weird if you're not used to them! (oh no, they're not! (obligatory joke for pantomime fans, go google it if you don't get it!))), so draw your own conclusions from that if you wish.

Anyway, I believe I covered Amaranthe's history briefly when I looked at their debut a while back (you can read the review here, if you want to), but I might as well be honest and admit that I managed to completely forget to pick up The Nexus, so there's a noticeable gap in my knowledge of the band's music (although, in fairness, it's been about a year and a half since The Nexus came out and three and a half years since their self-titled debut came out, so it's not like it's a huge amount of time that's passed...and I did check out the singles for The Nexus anyway, so I'm not completely ignorant of what that album sounded like!). While that's probably not going to be a huge problem, it does mean that some of my knowledge of the band's development (if any) is going to be a bit incomplete.

But that's not the important question: what do I actually think of this album? Well, let's dig in, shall we?

First up, the cover art. I know I don't normally refer back to previous reviews beyond linking to them, but I believe I feel justified in going "CALLED IT!": I had vaguely expected a yellow colour scheme for this album's cover art right from the moment I knew they were making a third album and, while you could argue it's more white and gold than yellow, I still feel justified in saying that my guess was in the right ball park (since, well, most people use the colour yellow as a substitute for gold when they can't actually work with that colour...)! But overall, I'm basically looking at this and going "Yeah, it's kind of cool, but why am I being reminded of Doctor Who by this?"

So, let us jump to the music of this album!

Reviewing an album like this one is quite a difficult task. On the one hand, the band are recognised as a metal band by quite a lot of people, so I feel that I would be doing the metal fans a disservice if I didn't look at this album like a metal album...but, on the other hand, there's so much of this album that would appeal to pop fans over metal fans that I feel that looking at this album as a pop album would not be completely unjustified. So, for the benefit of both sides, I've done the following review in two parts: one part will look at this album from the perspective of a die hard metal fan with no appreciation for any style of music outside of metal and the other part will look at this album from the perspective of a person who just wants a good album, regardless of the actual style of the album.

From a purely metal perspective, this album is a curiosity that, unfortunately, cannot back itself up with enough deep songwriting to make it worth the listen. The members clearly know their way around their instruments (you only need to listen to "An Ordinary Abnormality" to know that these guys could do Gothenburg metal (and pretty fucking good Gothenburg metal, too!) if they really wanted to) and Elize, Jake and Henrik are certainly capable vocalists, but the songwriting mostly relies on catchy hooks over making a lasting impression: you only really need to hear this album once to have heard just about everything that the album can offer, and none of the songs really reward repeated listens. The heavy use of elements typical in modern pop (synths, keyboards...I think there might be some auto-tune in the album as well, but it seems to be being used to sound more mechanical over covering bad singing, which is more than I can say for Katy Perry, Cher and Adam Levine (who I've taken to nicknaming "The Singing Saxophone" in recent times...)!) do make this an interesting listen, I guess, but it's nothing especially outstanding and very few of the performances by the musicians are technically outstanding. If you like your metal AND ONLY YOUR METAL, this is not really worth picking up, unless you have a female friend or relative who you'd like to introduce to the glory of metal and feel that trying to meet them halfway is the only way you can do it! But really, why meet any pop kid or scene hipster halfway, metal isn't a place for wimps and posers like them! If they cannot appreciate the metallic glory of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Saxon, Motorhead, Slayer and Iron Maiden without being spoon fed the whole scene through watered down crap like nu-metal and metalcore or through sell outs and posers like Metallica, then they have no place in the glorious halls of metal!

...OK, I might have overdone the metal perspective a bit at the end of that.

But, in all seriousness (and dropping the act before moving on to the second viewpoint that I want to review this album from), if the only thing you like to listen to is metal music and everything else falls under the spectrum of "not interested at all", then Amaranthe are probably best avoided, as they just aren't going to be your cup of tea in the slightest. I imagine there are people who will like Amaranthe who only listen to metal music, but they're probably going to be a minority of the people who will like the band: metal elitists will likely find them too linked towards pop music to be able to tolerate them and I can understand why it'd be hard to get past the pop part of their sound even if you're open minded towards music outside of metal music due to it being so atypical of metal music. So Amaranthe, among metal fans, are always going to be a love it or hate it kind of thing just because what they're doing is so unusual among metal music.

If you want to approach this album without the conception of it being a metal album and just want to hear a good album, however...well, now it's time for me to look at this album from a new perspective.

From a purely quality perspective, this is an album that stands up nicely, despite include a few songs which are pretty forgettable. The first five songs are pretty great, with "Digital World", "Trinity" and "Drop Dead Cynical" in particular being very memorable and bound to gain replays, but then the record hits the first real dud in "True", which just plods along for the three and a half minutes it runs for with nothing really memorable about it. "Unreal" does follow that up with some degree of recovery, but "Over And Done" is pretty much in the same boat as "True": a song which could have been cut from the album without having a negative impact on the record at all (interestingly, both of them are also ballads). Luckily, the next three songs ("Danger Zone", "Skyline" and "An Ordinary Abnormality") are really solid. Henrik's also given a chance to demonstrate his harsh vocals pretty nicely on "Danger Zone" and "An Ordinary Abnormality", which is a rather nice turn of events after Andreas was mostly restricted to supporting Elize and Jake on the band's first album (and, from what I heard of The Nexus, on that as well). I'd really like to see some more songs by Amaranthe with the harsh vocals taking more of a lead, as Henrik does a very good job and shows that the band have a potential secret weapon in him which, if given the chance to demonstrate his vocals more, could help them to win over the die hard metal crowd more. The album finishes off with "Exhale", which is the best ballad on the album and doesn't feel like it's just filling up the run time like "True" and "Over And Done" were. The deluxe edition of the album includes two bonus tracks, both of which are acoustic versions of songs on the album ("Trinity" and "True"). Now, I've not heard any acoustic versions of any Amaranthe songs and I didn't pick up the deluxe version of the album, so I can't say how they sound, but I do have to admit that I've no idea how Amaranthe could make their songs work if they did them acoustically, as their songs are made up of so much stuff which is electronic that stripping all of that out in favour of doing them acoustically has me a bit bemused as to how they would make that work. Call me drop dead cynical (see what I did there?), but I just don't see Amaranthe's music working in an acoustic environment at all. It'd be like asking Flo Rida to sing one of his songs acoustically: because of the nature of his music, it's just not likely to be worth doing it because the end result wouldn't be worth listening to...not that Flo Rida is worth listening to in the first place (seriously, can anyone understand a word he says in his songs outside of the choruses of them? I swear that I have a far easier time deciphering the lyrics to an REM song or a Slayer song than I do a song by Flo Rida!), but you get the point, I'm sure!

Everybody puts out very respectable performances that, while not the most technically demanding performances you're ever going to hear in metal, are still very good and show that everyone is at least capable of performing on a level that you'd expect from professional musicians. I did have to struggle to hear the bass guitar, however, which long time readers of my blog will know is a personal pet peeve of mine. It does make me wonder whether everyone is afraid of an uprising if the bass guitar is made too loud in something and that blood will be spilled by a audience suddenly made aware of the fact that there's an instrument in music that isn't just a guitar, keyboard or drums...the bass revolution must be an absolutely terrifying thing for so many people!

Snarking aside, though, I do find it so odd that the bass guitar seems to be so hated by so many producers and mixing crew for albums. Bear in mind, the bass guitar and the drums form the backbone for most music, so the hazing against bassists seems a bit unfair to me, as it makes bassists look unimportant in most bands when they actually aren't! While most people will agree that most bass lines in popular music are not especially complex, I'd argue a good bassist can be one of the most important things you can have in your band, as most of them are nice guys who just get on with what they have to do, which means that you're rarely going to find them making long lists of demands or developing huge egos just because most of them just want to get the job done and avoid conflicts.

That also explains why there are so many bassists who end up being session musicians, now I think about it: learning how to play the BASICS of the bass guitar is fairly easy (which is what most people need to play most songs out there, unless the band has taken some noticeable influence from progressive music or got a particularly skilled bassist playing for them), but becoming actually GOOD at the instrument is actually far harder than it is to become good at the guitar. Speaking from my own experience of learning the instrument, the bass guitar is a much under appreciated instrument by a lot of people who just dismiss it as a guitar with less strings: while you can play it just like a standard guitar if you wish, there is far more to the instrument than that, as anyone who has heard the bass guitar played properly would be able to attest, and it is a huge shame that so many people seem unable to give the bass guitar the credit it is due, as the instrument is arguably one of the most important instruments in popular music and those who can play it properly deserve far more respect than they get among mainstream music fans.

...Sorry, I've gone off on a bit of a tangent.

Anyway, the production for this album is pretty solid. The album was mixed, mastered and co-produced (alongside Olof Mörck and Jake E Berg) by Jacob Hansen (who has been involved with albums by bands like Volbeat, Tyr, Pyramaze, Primal Fear, Pretty Maids, Paradox, Onslaught, Nightrage, Leatherwolf, Iron Fire, Heathen, Evergrey, Epica, Dragonland, Doro, Destruction, Delain, Chaoswave, Bloodshot Dawn, Artillery and Aphyxion...among a large number of others!) and, while I will always continue to complain about the near absence of the bass guitar in the mixing and the mastering being a bit on the loud side until producers get the hint that loudly mastering everything and hazing bassists is not going to win over people who consider those important (like myself), I cannot deny that the production overall is very well done.

So, overall, what do I think of this album? Well, I'm a bit torn about it, in all honesty: on the one hand, I can fully understand why some people would absolutely loath this album and feel that they would have some very valid reasons to do that...but, at the same time, I do really like this album and do want to really recommend it to people, as it's good enough to really be worth picking up! I guess the best way to do this is to go with my personal rating, but to stress that you should check out the singles from this album first before you consider picking it up, as it's not going to be to everyone's taste. If you like them, then this is going to be worth picking up! If not, then...well, you know the drill, I'm sure!

Final Rating: 8 Out Of 10

Personal Favourite Tracks: "Drop Dead Cynical", "Digital World", "An Ordinary Abnormality"

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