Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Double Review: Arch Enemy - Will To Power
What remains perhaps most remarkable in the history of Arch Enemy is the continuity in the band’s membership. Yes, a few people have come and gone, but even those who leave (Angela Gossow, Christopher Arnott,) never seem all that far out of reach, and the pieces that get added (White-Gluz,) don’t require the band to change their paradigm.
Arch Enemy as a single, contiguous entity is probably best identified by their signature tandem guitar sound, and in the wake of Christopher Arnott’s departure in 2012, the selection of ‘the right person’ seemed of paramount importance. For a time, that guy was Nick Cordle, at that point moving over from the band Arsis, and all seemed well, until he suddenly left the stage in 2014.
Into that void steps what appears on face to be another perfect fit, former Nevermore axman and solo virtuoso Jeff Loomis. Thus, the stage is set for “Will to Power.”
As far as the fit with Loomis goes, everything here seem to be in order and everyone can go about their business. The double six-string arrangement wastes no time, beginning to scream with righteous metal fury at the very start of “The Race,” which is the album’s first real track.
The same as “War Eternal” that came before, it’s difficult to tell where the album would have sounded different if the second Arnott brother were still in place. Loomis certainly brings his own accomplished pedigree to the table, but also comes armed with a thorough understanding of how this style of music works – as with the transition to White-Gluz, no material changes in style are necessary here. One can listen to “Murder Scene” and feel completely at home with the archetypical style that remains both idiomatic to Arch Enemy and highly enjoyable for its melodic composition.
That last bit is important to highlight. Arch Enemy has always performed on the melodic side of melodic death metal, but the band’s trend, beginning noticeably around the time of “Rise of the Tyrant” and through the re-recordings of “Root of All Evil,” toward open accessibility and cleaner tones is front and center for this album. Nearly every song boasts a clean, memorable hook, and there are selections where the vocals turn normal and the guitar riffs become deliberate, even if the percussion would suggest otherwise.
“Will to Power,” for those who need a quick and easy reference, is probably more “Khaos Legions” than it is “War Eternal,” and remains somewhat far afield from the band’s earliest records like “Burning Bridges.” And the upshot here is that that’s okay – while the very idea of pop death metal (if such a term even exists) remains anathema to some, it is truly uncharted territory, where one would think there might be room for growth and success.
Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let’s not get carried away. Arch Enemy still lives with their feet firmly planted in the terra firma of death metal, that oh-so-dangerous and sacrosanct institution that metal fans will hold close forever as part of their genre that norms and squares alike will never understand. Just don’t be shocked when you find yourself unconsciously tapping a toe, even to a song with the fervor and bile of “First Day in Hell.”
One may notice we’ve spoken about the record largely in generalities, and some of that has to do with the parallel between “Will to Power” and “Khaos Legions.” “Will to Power,” much like the other record in question, is an approachable album filled with many good songs, but there is not one transcendent that stands out among the others. We’re by no means complaining about an album of twelve songs where nine or ten are enjoyable, but what separates “War Eternal” from “Will to Power” is the presence of songs like “Avalanche,” which made that prior record a more memorable experience overall (never minding the band’s older albums that boasted classics like “Diva Satanica” and “Bury Me an Angel.”) It’s not for lack of trying – “Will to Power” delivers several cuts that brim with promise, but “Avalanche” was that rare alignment of planets that stands the test of time.
What we have then, is a capable record that will get any listener through the end of the summer season and well into the fall and winter, but its staying power in a catalog already adorned with many memorable moments is an open question. Nevertheless, “Will to Power” is worth the journey for any fans of Arch Enemy, Jeff Loomis and melodic death metal.
Arch Enemy is one of those rare bands that has been able to move into new eras of their career more than once. The shift from Johan Liva to Angela Gossow was genre-defining, but the shift from her to Alissa White-Gluz has been just as important. Arch Enemy is arguable the biggest death metal band in the world, and a change in singers, no matter how similar they might be, carries enormous risk. As they approach their second album together, we see yet more turnover in the band, as the second guitarist position is now filled by former Nevermore fret-burner Jeff Loomis. There is now an unfair amount of talent in Arch Enemy, but does that mean great things for the band?
Yes and no. Let's start with the good news. Arch Enemy is the leading (only)purveyor of what I call 'arena death metal'. They have a sound, and they write songs, that are extreme metal sing-alongs, the kind of songs that can have an adoring crowd growling right with them. Their best songs are anthems that just happen to be dirty and aggressive. First single "The World Is Yours" is one of those songs. After all the heavy riffs and melodic leads, the crux of the song is an uplifting chorus that will absolutely be a live classic for the fans to interact with. Plenty of melodic metal bands try for that feeling and fail, so it's impressive to hear a band like this pull it off.
We get a solid number of those tracks here. "The Eagle Flies Alone" and closer "A Fight I Must Win" are in a similar style, and are as catchy as death metal can get. The latter is one of Arch Enemy's best ever songs. These are the tracks that even I, someone who isn't all that keen on death metal, can fully get behind. And while plenty of fans will probably cry sell-out over it, I'm also a fan of Alissa's use of clean vocals on "Reason To Believe", which aren't overdone, but work well to give the song some dynamics. Her growls in the chorus sound heavier because the verses are allowed to sound softer than usual. It works together as a great song.
Now for the not quite as great news. Arch Enemy has provided us those great tracks, and there is more than enough great guitar playing on this album, but there are also a handful of tracks that lack the epic flair of their best songs. That's not to say they're bad songs, but when you've written a few anthems, anything that isn't seems a bit flat in comparison.
And then there's the inclusion of Jeff Loomis. He's an amazing guitar player, but he's practically invisible on this album. Not only does Michael Amott write all the songs, but his solos are more identifiable than Loomis'. The album wouldn't have been any different, or any worse, if they had brought in anyone else to play second guitar.
But let's get to the bottom line. If you like Arch Enemy, "Will To Power" is one of their more interesting outings. The band throws in little touches that expand their sound in new directions, especially in some of the segue pieces. Alissa is fitting in perfectly as a vocalist, and there aren't many bands that can match Arch Enemy when they're at their best. They haven't managed to do that for an entire album yet, but they do it often enough that "Will To Power" is definitely worth hearing.
- Chris C