Pour Some Sugar On Everything: Amaranthe Return With Massive Addictive

Depending on your perspective of Amaranthe, you’re either really excited for Massive Addictive, or really, really agitated at the mere thought that this unlikely band of Swedes has gotten popular and successful enough to warrant a third album. They are certainly notorious for the sheer contentiousness that surrounds any discussion of who they are and what they do. When I reviewed the band’s previous album, The Nexus, I dug into the career bios for band founders Olof Morck and Jake E Berg, both profiles of musicians that had toiled in relative obscurity for a decade of time before meeting up with Elize Ryd and arriving simultaneously (I’m assuming) at their viola! moment. A cynic could look at Morck and Berg’s creation of Amaranthe as a concoction geared towards commercial viability and broader appeal than anything either had been involved with in the past. They also wouldn’t be that far off the mark. There is something about Amaranthe’s conscious marketing design that raises red flags among the most forgiving of critics and metal fans —- check out one of their numerous absurdly flashy music videos (all directed by that king of gloss, Patric Ullaeus) and try to remember that they’re a metal band.

 

Beyond image, the band’s self-described “EDM meets metal” approach is built upon a softened metalcore foundation that will resonate with rock audiences (and rock radio at that), along with pure pop songwriting that supplies massive hooks with catchy verses, and two appealing clean singers that do enough to keep the attention of those put off by the rather tame growling vocalist. The “EDM” aspect of their sound only comes into play through the sheen studio production they coat all over their studio albums. In other words, its not interwoven into the fabric of their songwriting the way it was for say, the indie band Tegan and Sara, when they co-wrote two crossover EDM/indie rock songs with DJs Morgan Page and Tiesto; or for a band like The Prodigy who married hard rock sounds with pure techno long before anyone realized it could be done. There’s nothing really wrong with Amaranthe’s approach, except that it exposes their “EDM” tag as somewhat of a misnomer, and to a particularly cynical critic, it could be seen as an easy out for the band to simultaneously disguise and justify just how slick and polished their take on metal is. I’ll provide a more forgiving perspective, one in which the band has grabbed hold of their new hybrid “EDM/Metal” label as an easy, painless way to deflect critics and for the band to distance themselves from other female fronted metal peers that operate in more classicist territory ala Within Temptation.

 

All that considered, its amazing just how successfully Amaranthe works as a Frankenstein-esque project, stitching together disparate parts to create something that actually works (surely a monster to many). Morck and Berg combine their experiences in both power metal and melo-death to serve as their musical palette, and are malleable in their songwriting to sketch out smart, unobtrusive, accentuating uses for harsh vocals (courtesy of new screamer Henrik Englund), as well plenty of spotlight time for the completely un-metal Elize Ryd’s sugary, ABBA-Swede pop vocals. Ryd is obviously a necessary component in this whole equation, as its through her unremarkable but pleasant vocals that the band channels their poppiest sensibilities, allowing Berg to deliver his clean vocals as a melodic counterpoint or harmony double up. In typical Amaranthe fashion, Englund’s harsh vocals tend to be used as a counterpoint —- he’s only given one opportunity to handle lead vocals (on “An Ordinary Abnormality”), but of course he’s kept off the chorus. Ryd and Berg command the vocal spotlight of Amaranthe, and it has to be said that their voices tend to sound great together, his vocals are melodic and capable enough of soaring highs as hers, but he’s working in a slightly lower register so as to be complementary, not overpowering. I’ve always had mixed feelings on Ryd, finding her the least impressive vocalist of the three —- and I’ve long contended that she’s used metal as an easier springboard to fame and notoriety than she would have had through trying to make it as a pure pop singer. Its not a criticism, just an honest observation that I’m confident other discerning metal fans would agree with. Do an eye/ear test —- does she radiate metal in any way? Kudos to Morck and Berg for sculpting out a role for her and selling it convincingly (seriously, props).

 

On Massive Addictive, the band don’t change up the formula they first dreamed up on their debut and expanded on The Nexus, seeking only to further refine the elements that worked and ditch the clunky stuff that didn’t (there’s nothing as awful as the bubblegum “Electroheart” on here). The album’s pop highlight is “Trinity”, the second single that smartly balances chunky-riffs and harsh vocals with a exquisitely sculpted chorus boasting a hook that absolutely will not leave your head. Its musical candy, and that’s what we’re here for right? To rot our ears with the musical equivalent of junk food, because try as I might I cannot understand what these lyrics mean in the slightest —- are they talking about their roles as three singers? Hmmm… no that doesn’t seem to fit. What about this stanza, “As we break the chains of might / In dependence of the fire / Give up, this ground sterilized for all time” —- anyone got any ideas? There’s a huge suspicion on my part that Amaranthe often write lyrics phonetically, choosing words for their alliterative value within the context of a lyrical line or stanza rather than their inherent meaning. Its like how Paul McCartney used dummy lyrics for “Yesterday” (“Scrambled eggs, oh, you’ve got such lovely legs”), except that in this case Amaranthe never bothered to go back and revise their diction and you know, actually say something with most of these songs. On “Dynamite”, another album highlight through its rhythmic micro-hooks, we’re given another dose of nonsense in the lyrics during the refrain: “Come on believe me /You can’t deny /From the blaze in my eyes /I am hypnotized and /I can achieve it /I will arise /Like the fire in the sky /I am dynamite”. Look, I know I’m a lyrical grouch of the highest order (imagine me in a trash can and call me Oscar… actually don’t), and I’m aware that this approach works for pop music, but a little more effort on the lyrics of these upbeat tracks wouldn’t go amiss.

 

Its the slower, mid-paced ballads where the band executes particularly well in all aspects, lyrics included, such as on the surprisingly restrained “True”, where Ryd and Berg are at their emotive best. There’s a wonderful chorus to enjoy there: “This is the time for chasing my desires / Whats in my heart is true”, where both words and melody are extremely well written and emotive, highlighting some really deft songwriting. The same goes for another excellent ballad, “Over and Done”, this more of the embittered and love-lorn variety where a nicely done lyric crops up as well: “Over and done, a changing of seasons / The sun that ignited all our feelings is down”. Berg takes the lead here and its worth noting just how much he stands out apart from other male clean vocalists within metal through his ability to appeal to fans of simple rock music. I suppose I’m suggesting that he has a slightly Americanized bent to his vocals, and that statement in itself will turn off many who are used to power metal’s varied cultural accents and intonations. Fair enough, but it still leaves him as a rarity within metal, alongside other singers like Tom Englund of Evergrey in their ability to crossover to a radio format (surely a boon in Amaranthe’s case). I’m also very partial to the album closer “Exhale”, a catchy song built upon a heavily alliterative chorus where the lyrics are actually well written and seem to suggest someone’s search for spirituality. There’s a pattern here: When the band attempts to write fast, uptempo songs they’re so concerned with the ear-wormy factor in all aspects that they relegate lyrical meaning as an afterthought. I suppose that’s all irrelevant when they’re played live to a dancing crowd (er… no, that’d be headbanging right? What do they do at Amaranthe shows?).

 

 

The album isn’t without missteps though, nothing gravely serious but there are a handful of tracks that either don’t work as pop songs or have annoying tendencies that overpower their enjoyable parts. I’m referring specifically to “Danger Zone”, where a boy-band grade chorus is sandwiched between some very boring harsh vocal led verses; as well as “Unreal”, a song that reminds me of the worst aspects of modern day In Flames with the album’s flattest chorus to boot. There’s also something bothersome about “Skyline”, where I guess my expectations were higher because the title reminded me of Bioshock Infinite (skylines… some of you get it) —- a strange reason to cite but also I’m simply bored by the song, unlike the game. Still, on a twelve track album, there are seven songs that deliver precisely what you’d want from Amaranthe , and four of those are actually pretty great. Not a bad ratio overall, and Massive Addictive is the sound of a band getting better at what they’re doing —- even if it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve written in the past about the value of Amaranthe as a gateway band for non-metal fans to enter our world, and with this album that gateway has only gotten bigger. If someone gets hooked in with a song like “Trinity”, only to find themselves checking out Kamelot via Ryd’s connections to that band, which causes them to love a masterpiece such as The Black Halo as much as I do —- that’s a win. Metal needs gateway bands to survive, and even though Amaranthe are pushing the boundaries of acceptability in our beloved genre, they surely deserve some grudging acknowledgement for filling that role.

The Metal Pigeon on Podcasts!

I don’t like to pretend that any of you follow my every move in the world of metal blogging, social media, and related activities. So I’ll safely assume that most of you are unaware that I’ve been co-hosting a metal podcast for a few months now. Its called the MSRcast (named after the long defunct zine Mainstream Resistance) and I join its founder and host Cary G to discuss and debate current events and releases in metal, as well as anything else that’s running through our minds at that moment. MSRcast is going onto its ninth year of existence which might very well make it one of the longest running metal related podcasts out there. In the handful of times I’ve appeared on its episodes throughout this year, first as a guest and finally as an official co-host, the show has undergone a shift in format away from being loaded with music in favor of more discussion and debate. It was a natural progression I think, in that we were trying to keep episode lengths reasonable for podcasts (meaning in the hour and a half-ish range) and we had to make a choice between trimming the amount of songs we played or keeping our chatter to a minimum. Seeing as how the latter would never happen (never!), we decided to cut the amount of songs by half, and to play them one at a time within the flow of our discussions instead of in multi-song blocks.

 

The change has surprisingly resulted in some immediate positive feedback from existing listeners of the show and we’re rather proud of the new format as well. I’ve bounced around in sampling various metal podcasts/vidcasts for the past few years and disappointingly few of them managed to be compelling to me in any meaningful way. So many of them have well meaning hosts that come across as uninformed, or having vague takes that lack depth. The worst of them are far more concerned with demonstrating the amount of alcohol they can consume while recording —- as if that somehow adds anything worthwhile for the listener. Most of them are simply long playlists, which I find boring —- I want to know why these songs are being presented, what is the context behind them? The majority of podcasts that I love to listen to tend to be non-metal in nature, and they were my guideposts in helping to forge this new format for MSRcast. I love the analytical nature of the guys behind the Grantland NFL podcast and the B.S. Report; as well as the joyful creativity of the Nerdist podcast, The Indoor Kids, and You Made It Weird. Bringing those approaches to a metal discussion is fun, and something that I hope translates.

 

This new format began with our October 3rd release of MSRcast episode 157 where we discussed everything from Opeth’s Pale Communion, a slew of power metal releases, and a brief musing on the U2 album release controversy. And we’ve just released MSRcast episode 158 (that’s quick for us!), where we’re joined by Dave of the Metal Geeks podcast (more on that show in a sec) to discuss everything from the upcoming Sanctuary album, Jesper Stromblad’s social media bombshell, new music from Allen/Lande and Bloodbath as well as the Behemoth and Mastodon controversies.  That’s just a small fraction of what we actually managed to get to, its a loaded episode and I hope you guys check it out. We’re on iTunes (just search for us through the iTunes store and hit subscribe —- it helps us and makes things easier for you), and you can easily find us on our host sponsor’s website at Metal Injection dot net. I also dropped in on the newest episode of Metal Geeks, the sister show to MSRcast, to discuss a ton of topics about videogames, movies, TV shows and anything else that fits under their huge umbrella of “geek” related discussion. It was a blast to record and I can’t wait to drop in on more of them! Give these episodes a try, throw them on the iPod/iPhone or whatever you use and play them on your commute, or better yet on your headphones at work! We’ll make the time go by faster I promise.

Jesper Strömblad On Leaving In Flames + The Tragedy of Siren Charms

I was a week or so late in listening to In Flames newest album, Siren Charms, which came out way back on September 9th. I had put it off not only due to being busy catching up on records by bands that I actually still harbored affection for, but in large part because I was rather disoriented by the pre-release single “Through Oblivion”. When I finally sat down to listen to the full album, I was so thoroughly disappointed by what I was hearing that I decided to not waste any more time on it. I was going to stick to that plan until I read through the flurry of news articles published last week regarding recent social media comments by ex-In Flames guitarist and founder Jesper Strömblad. As the story goes, Strömblad had invited fans on his Facebook page to ask him anything, and as expected the majority of the questions were in regards to his departure from In Flames in 2010. He decided to write a post to address this ultimate question for everyone and in doing so he delivered a revelation that I don’t think many were expecting (certainly not I). I’ll let Strömblad speak for himself for clarity’s sake:

 

“Will I ever return to In Flames? No one never knows what the future brings,but the chances are slim as they embarked on a different musical journey,they have a solid lineup and Im on a totally different path in life right now. I would never go into details why I quit, but there is always one official story and there is the other……Alcohol is a quite small part of it. That can also answer the next question, what do I think of their new stuff. Listen to The Resistance and that explains a bit of it. We simply went different directions. I need to stand behind and feel inspired with what I do 100%, I owe it to the fans and obviously the band. All respect to In Flames and their new approach, but for me the band was a guitar/riff based melo-death band. And Its not anymore, but still amazing musicianship and I don’t think its wrong. But its not the vision I had when we started out.” – Jesper Strömblad, 9/30/14

Sometimes, as in the recent situation with Queensrÿche, its hard for entrenched, long-time band members who are reliant upon the band’s touring activities to provide the bulk of their income to simply walk away due to musical differences or general dissatisfaction. I mention that because In Flames transition to its modern sound really started way back on 2004’s Soundtrack to Your Escape (and it could be legitimately argued that it began on 2002’s Reroute to Remain), and as such that means that Strömblad stuck through at least six years and three albums of increasingly drastic musical changes that veered sharply away from the band’s classic era “guitar/riff based melo-death”, as the man himself so succinctly described it. Comparatively the guys in Queensrÿche had to endure a decade’s worth of Geoff Tate’s hideous transforming of that band into a shell of its former self before they found a viable way to extricate themselves by doing a little firing/hiring. Strömblad didn’t have a similar option within In Flames. Complicating matters was the fact that the band was his creation, and it was an increasingly lucrative job after all  —- I completely understand why he stuck it out as long as he did. When it was announced that he was leaving the band, an on-going battle with alcoholism was listed as the sole factor in his decision to walk away from a rock n’ roll lifestyle. A clean break perhaps… one even publicly lauded by the remaining band members as they (genuinely, I’m sure) wished Strömblad well in his recovery attempts. Of course in light of Strömblad’s recent comments, I’ve seen more than a few internet jokers suggesting that Strömblad has inadvertently revealed the cause for his alcoholism.

 

 

I’ve written about In Flames once before, and as I expressed in that article, In Flames’ musical discography can be viewed as consisting of two distinct eras: The classic 1994-2000 era where the songs were written around the primary guitar-based melodies, and the Friden influenced 2002-present day era where the vocal melodies took prevalence within the songwriting. Its not just a simple case of substituting one for another, as the change to vocal-melody driven songwriting effectively nullified most of the elements that made us In Flames fans in the first place. Its been a suspicion of mine and many others that this seismic shift within the band’s musical approach had their source in the band’s vocalist Anders Friden. That’s not exactly breaking news to any fan of classic era In Flames —- if the metalcore meets Depeche Mode mess that was his Passengers side project didn’t clue you in, then certainly the prevalence of clean singing within new In Flames material was the biggest flag waver. It couldn’t have been all on Friden, because if everyone else in the band felt the opposite, he’d have surely been removed or left of his own accord at some point, right? These days it appears increasingly obvious via songwriting credits that In Flames guitarist Bjorn Gelotte has been Friden’s major partner within the band’s ranks helping him to mold their vocal driven style. Friden has made some recent comments that give credence to that theory, stating in an recent interview:

I think [Jesper’s departure] was bigger for people outside than it was for the band. I think Jesper, mentally, had already been out of the band for a few years before he left. He was actually not touring for almost a year-and-a-half before we made the decision and he exited the band. On a friendship level, it’s hard. I miss the guy, but at the same time, it just didn’t work. People should know: Both Björn and I have done 10 out of 11 In Flames albums. We know how an In Flames album should be done. Musically, it didn’t change as much as people think. – Anders Friden in Alternative Press, 2014

 

 

Strömblad’s revelation makes me wonder as to how long he was feeling alienated within his own band. I also am more inclined to believe that there was gradual shifting of power within the lineup from Strömblad (who essentially was the lead music writer during their classic era) to Friden beginning around the Reroute to Remain era. All of this speculation is purely retrograde and of no real consequence of course, but we’re fans and that’s what we do. His comments come as somewhat of a relief to myself in that they help to suggest a sequence of events that explain why a great band capable of writing majestic, breathtaking, folk-infused melo-death could shift so far away from what made them great. It contextualizes those few moments I would hear on those post-2002 albums that would perk my ears up with their vague recollections of their classic era, such as the guitar solo in “Come Clarity”, or on “Vanishing Light”, where the guitars drove the melody as in the old days. They were moments where Strömblad was breaking through to interject some old school spirit into the mix.  I also feel a certain amount of gratitude and sympathy for Strömblad in general: Gratitude for what he’s done for me as a metal fan with that classic era of flawless work, and sympathy for the way it seems he was slowly ousted from his own band. He wrote in this post that listening to his new band The Resistance would provide all the answers anyone needs as to his view on current In Flames —- and while I’m not entirely sold on that project’s one album, it does harken to shades of his Ceremonial Oath past with its slightly melodic take on death metal. Its certainly a lot closer to what I really want to hear from him than he was capable of achieving during his final years with In Flames.

 

 

As for Siren Charms, I’ve listened through it a few times and keep coming to the same conclusion: This is the sound of a band that has little to no interest in metal anymore. Some melodic guitar figures aside, it bears scant resemblance to even their modern metal era work. Vocal melodies are the back bones of these songs, and the possibility of interesting guitar work is given limited, fractional space at best. More disconcertingly, the songwriting is more prone to uninteresting, plodding, meandering riffs that to serve as a rhythmic backdrop for Friden’s wavering vocal work in bridge sections. In fact he hardly screams at all on the album, and when he does its simply to accentuate a repeating chorus in order to spice things up —- the rest of the time he is firmly fixed in clean vocals mode. Granted, there are moments where he delivers his best work to date in that vocal style, but those of us who have seen him live in the recent past know that its a mirage: He sounds decent in a recording studio with the aid of overdubs, punch-ins, and the ability to get the best possible take. He is hopelessly miserable at emulating those results on stage however, and its in those live situations where the band further distances itself from their classic era. Friden’s reluctance to play older songs is justified by his most likely truthful observation that there are more fans of their post-2002 work at their shows than people clamoring for their old classics. Its slightly tragic for those of us that used to call ourselves fans of the band, because there aren’t many reasons to see their live shows anymore, let alone buy their new albums.

 

My personal irony here is that after the release of 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading, I accused the band of hypocrisy for mocking fans who clamored for a return to their classic sound while simultaneously repeating themselves musically for their past few albums. It seems In Flames has taken criticism like that to heart, as no one can deny that Siren Charms is a new direction indeed. There’s hope for us Strömblad fans however, as he also mentioned that he’s working on a solo album, and here’s hoping its something that taps into that classic era spirit. I met Strömblad outside of a dusty venue in Houston on their 2003 Reroute to Remain tour, and I mentioned to him that he should consider recording an instrumental solo album, maybe something half electric and half acoustic (because no one did drop in acoustic interludes like Strömblad). He just smiled and asked “Who would be interested in that? Just you?”, and proceeded to walk inside for sound check. Just me and legions of forgotten In Flames fans Jesper —- legions.

 

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