Monday, January 30, 2023

Machine Head - Of Kingdom and Crown (2022)

Machine Head was really only something to write home about during that 2007-2011 phase where they cranked out two albums in a row that showed infinitely more songwriting strength and potential than their whole prior career of Ozzfest nu metal stardom, and while every fiber of my being screams to ignore them forevermore, the mere fact that they HAVE that level of capability hidden somewhere within keeps me curious to hear what they can come up with next. That's not to say that The Blackening or Unto the Locust were even borderline masterpieces, but they did the trick and seemed like the sort of efforts that could establish the framework for some future magnum opus. That did not happen, sadly, and the band's most recent album, 2018's Catharsis was one of the worst they have ever shat forth.

And thus, when Of Kingdom and Crown released last year, I admit that I missed it. Or can you miss something if you are not actively looking for it? I was even more discouraged when I saw that this one was like 60-70 minutes, opening with a 10+ minute track in "Slaughter the Martyr", which opens with an embarrassing whole THREE MINUTES of emo crooning over acoustic guitars before finally crunching you over the head with a couple decent groove/thrash metal riffs and the mandatory beatdown rhythm. The vocals and lyrics here are just as dumb as ever, but at the very least the music attempts to gain your attention, just not in a very interesting way. I was thus quite surprised when the second track, "Choke on the Ashes of Your Hate" sounding like a tribute to Robb's old band Vio-Lence, pure angry trashing which lopes into a pretty bouncy, weak nu-metal chorus, but the very fact that they are still offering such a thrashing was at least something resembling an olive branch.

Really, Of Kingdom and Crown is all over the place, flip-flopping between its super-chug rhythms, Korn-like dissonant nu-metal wailing on the higher strings, rolling breakdowns that used to be cool when metalcore bands did them in 1997, leads and harmonies that often feel like they're being pulled straight from some classic melodeath albums, and useless intermission/segue tracks. If you were to compress all the quality moments of this record down to about 3-4 songs, we'd be okay, but the fact is that not all the ideas really stick, and I'm just rarely a fan of the guy's more emotional vocals. That said, there is plenty to explore here, and Machine Head mixes it up quite a lot, the production is about what you would expect from such 'modern' metal, and it's at least far superior to the album before it. I still can't shake the vibe that these guys are trapped in a nexus between styles and just never seem to stick to one that benefits them fully, but I'm not a big nu/groove metal fanatic in the first place so I'm hardly qualified to praise them as one of the bigger acts of that niche. This didn't suck. It also wasn't good.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Friday, January 27, 2023

Jours Pâles - Tensions (2022)

The previous Jours Pâles album, Éclosion, was perhaps not the easiest to define, and its follow-up Tensions is a slightly stranger beast than even that. Not necessarily that it's 'strange' from a stylistic standpoint, just in that it's attempting to blend in its fundamental, melodic black metal elements with something that feels more akin to post-black or Gothic metal. I guess I'm reminded a bit of Rotting Christ's later 90s material, maybe some Katatonia, only if that were infused into a raging French black metal framework flourished with atmospheric passages. Add in all the vocals in French, which fluctuate between growls, clean swoons, and even some narrative that they place over the more medieval background acoustics ("Ecumante de Rage"), and you've got an appreciably bold, haughty sound.

I don't think it puts its best feet forward, with the sweltering 10 minute "Jour de pluie, jour de fête" lacking in memorable moments, though I guess it offers an aesthetic sweep of what the band will be exploring throughout the rest of the release. Once you get a couple tracks in, though, the tunes start feeling more desperate and catchy (again, "Ecumante de Rage"), and the melodies (title track) are more structurally interesting without sounding too derivative of those you'd hear in all the Scandinavian throwback black metal bands that are so popular lately. The bass sounds great swerving around, and the vocals are really well produced, especially when they waver at their higher end to create a pop-like, dream-like quality to some of the lines. There is also a huge level of dynamic range in the writing, the vocals might serve as a bonding agent to the material, but the music itself feels like they are exploring a lot of different riffing avenues.

I have to laud a band going out on a limb like this, and while sometimes the music doesn't hook me even so much as the debut did, and the French vocals might be limited for some audiences, they are doing something that few others are really attempting. The fluctuation between the more atmospheric black metal passages and the more accessible bits with cleaner vocals go off seamlessly, though I just can't say I was constantly being hooked, it's at least functional and offers a basis from which to venture further. Éclosion had a more mildly rustic vibe, whereas Tensions goes with a more profoundly urban architecture.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Soilwork - Övergivenheten (2022)

My first few spins through Övergivenheten I was quite enamored of it, impressed that so deep in Soilwork's career they were still releasing substantial, spirited, emotional evolutions upon the melodeath formula that they helped craft back in the 90s from the influence of their own countrymen, whom they now easily surpass. The cover art, once again, a fascinating turn of events from the old cyber-collage photo art they used to use, and it's yet another album with a Swedish title ('Abandonment'), leading me to wonder if they are doing this as some sort of trilogy or something. The production on this one is also to die for, a bit bolder than the previous album and really driving home all the instruments and vocals. This is yet another case where I can say that the band is not merely resting on its laurels, but trying a few new things while keeping the skeleton of their style intact...melodic death, progressive and groove metal in a blender with Speed's pop-inflected clean vocals carrying each chorus over the top.

There are some lush acoustics throughout this one, like the interlude "Morgongåva / Stormfågel" with the shredding over the top, or the great atmospheric build-up to the opening title track, but by and large this is still a steadily hammering album, albeit an extremely accessible one. Solid, meaty rhythm guitars support the harsher vocals, but melodies are never so far away as they introduce the clean, epic chorus passages. A lot of their albums have this life-affirming quality about them, with a lot of introspective lyrics aimed at the young men and women of today, and this one is no exception, and might even excel in that department, because the punch these tunes pack is quite heart-felt. The musicianship is top flight, I mean it's been a good 20 years since they've had anything but a dynamo lineup and even where a few of the players come and go, these days you'll hardly notice the difference as the core components do remain consistent. The clean vocals have grown ever more confident in turn, and Övergivenheten gives us one of Speed's most radio friendly performances outside of The Night Flight Orchestra.

All that said, in the months since I first picked it up, this album has faded for me a little. There are a few parts I consider bland and, while strongly composed, the hooks just never quite break my skin. A few of the guitar leads here also feel a bit superfluous, or rather they just don't amplify or stand out from the material surrounding them. The explosive, ecstatic parts rarely go far enough, and a couple of the tunes seem pretty filler or out of place..."Death, I Hear You Calling" clearly belongs in his other project despite a slightly more metallic chassis, and even the surging, storming "This Godless Universe" with its cresting, classical strings just doesn't slam me with that super memorable moment I'm expecting. Övergivenheten is an exercise in skill and variation, thriving on emotional heights and valleys, but the more I strive to remember it, the less I end up doing so. You'll never hear me complain about listening to it, but I'll still prefer to get my fix from other albums like Natural Born Chaos, The Chainheart Machine, Steelbath Suicide and The Ride Majestic.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, January 23, 2023

Soilwork - A Whisp of the Atlantic EP (2020)

A Whisp of the Atlantic represents something a little different for Soilwork, an epic-length track the likes of which you'd expect from someone like Opeth or Dream Theater. Fortunately, the Swedes decided to delegate this to its own EP rather than clutter up the rear end of some prospective new full-length album. I had mentioned in an earlier review that I felt like some of Speed's side project material was bleeding back into the Soilwork sound, and honestly that has never been more evident than here, a number of his vocal lines, the bass grooves and such sound like some of the harder rock material from Night Flight Orchestra, but as a fan of that project, I can't quite condemn that as a bad thing, because it does sort of filter through the proggy influences Soilwork had been cultivating for several decades.

The 16 1/2 minute title track is a success in that it expresses the band's range without ever feeling too meandering or disjointed, there's a lot of mid-paced stuff here with some proggy guitars over simpler chugging chords, cleaner sections with a huge 70s rock influence (Boston, etc), but the band never quite goes full bore in terms of the speed and aggression the Swedes showcase elsewhere. They save THAT for some of the other tracks on the EP, like "The Nothingness and the Devil" with its thundering double bass and gnarly growls, or "Feverish" with the head-spinning blast. All the other tracks do maintain that prog side, but they mix it with much more intense parts that will probably satisfy anyone who thought "A Whisp..." itself might be staring at its feet too often. I won't tell you that any of the five tracks here are going to make a shorter Soilwork playlist, but they are for the most part satisfactory and on par with surrounding full-lengths. They seem to be incorporating so much great musicianship, solid arrangements, and melody but the hooks just aren't always landing.

Still, this EP has good production and enough dynamic range and riffing to keep one content for a spell, these Swedes at their most mature simply do not miss, there is too much ammunition in the arsenal, and a wide array of influences among the roster that consistently have them refreshing themselves. A Whisp of the Atlantic is just as worthy as most of their other modern material.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, January 20, 2023

Soilwork - Underworld EP (2019)

As a poor sucker whose copy of Verkligheten did not include the bonus content comprises the Underworld EP, I had to check this one out digitally as it became available for a download. And frankly I am happy that I did so, because at least two of the tracks here are among my favorites the band has released over the last decade, and in fact all three of the tunes new to me here are great. There's an alternative version of "Needles and Kin" which is perhaps the one component here I don't care for all that much, it's a little more blunt than its counterpart but I don't know that the differences are broad enough to justify it, I had no issue with the version of Verkligheten and rather enjoyed it. So this is not completely fire, but it certainly struck the top of my thermometer.

"Summerburned and Winterblown" is just awesome, with its snapping pace, weaving melodies and emotional riff-fest, and this should EASILY have been featured on the full-length, along with "In This Master's Tale" that opens with a strong melody bringing to mind all those Swedish greats, in particular the In Flames of the millennium's turn. Again, this one is just as memorable for me as most of the other tunes on Verkligheten, Speed powers through with a good mix of harsh and soaring vocals and it just feels like this warm, epic surge. "The Undying Eye" is likewise worthy with its great exhibition of pinpoint prog metal riffing and occasional crushing chords, flashy but grounded at the same time. I mean, outside of The Ride Majestic, this trio of tunes might be the most exciting I've heard them, it all fits in well with the full-length material, of course, but there are certainly three tunes there that these could have replaced. However, I realize most of you are not schmucks like I am and probably have the nice digipack which includes it all together, so praise be to you! I will upgrade, I'm sure.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Soilwork - Verkligheten (2019)

Just looking upon Verkligheten, without playing a single note, you can tell that something's different. Valnoir's artwork has an almost Roger Dean quality to it, leading me to believe that Soilwork might be venturing into a more purely progressive rock/metal territory, something they'd always flirted with but never completely capitalized on. The title of the album is in Swedish (for 'The Reality'), also a first in the band's catalogue, and the entire thing gives off a conceptual feel. Well, as it turns out, this is indeed the most broadly ranged record the band would have put out to its day. I tend to believe that the groups' side projects, like Speed's Night Flight Orchestra, might have rubbed off here, not in that it attempts to pull on all that wonderful 80s cheese, but just as a catalyst to spread the wings out wider, catch a few new an extent.

Because if you were worried that the Swedes would somehow drop the lavish, propulsive melodic death metal that made them, fear not, because Verkligheten really balances the scales. In fact, the heavier moments on this one draw me right back to their formative years, only they're attempting some new twists on the melodies, new rhythmic configurations and vocal layers, and it makes for a welcome contrast against the album's quieter, more accessible moments. I think that the progginess does exist here, in the classic organ tones, the softer segues threading through pieces like "Full Moon Shoals", but as the full album unfolds these are clearly in the majority, and this is largely recognizable as pure, passionate and aggressive Soilwork threaded with plenty of harmonic chorus parts, excellent musicianship all around, and one of the smoother productions of their catalogue, just as welcoming as any of their more commercial fare (Stabbing the Drama), but still ready to drop the hammer on you with a harder hitting, more technical performance.

I can't cite this as a personal favorite, but there are quite a few interesting tracks like "Needles and Kin" with its punchy, unique riffing below the growls and chorus, or the intense "When the Universe Spoke", fast and modern and dramatic but possessive of textures and melodies that remind me of in spots of proggier rock from decades before it. I have no problem spinning this one from time to time, and it reminds me a lot of The Ride Majestic just in how it proves there is plenty of fuel left in the tank, an incessant stream of creativity and development which remains loyal to the band's original goals while feeling fresh, very few moments of Verkligheten feel derivative at all of the band's now substantial back catalogue. You could connect the dots on some of the vocal parts, maybe a small handful of riffs, but here is a highly seasoned band propelling itself fearless into both the future and past, building something new out of both ends.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, January 16, 2023

Soilwork - Death Resonance (2016)

Although I was particularly interested in Death Resonance for acquiring the material from the Beyond the Infinite EP, it turns out that this is the exact sort of bananas, fans-first sort of compilation that is well worth your time, crowded with bonus tracks and other material that you will probably want to get your hands on if you've been continuing to follow the Swedes through the 21st century. A whopping hour of content and 15 tracks that very well might be exclusive to you unless you're the sort of completist collector that has every rarity, every import on hand. In fact, Death Resonance kicks off with a pair of brand new original tracks which were laid down specifically for this release as an added bonus, so you know the guys wanted this to be something substantial.

Now, the caveat, while these new tunes, "Helsinki" and the titular "Death Resonance", show all the effort of recent studio recordings, I'll admit to not finding either of them that memorable. They're definitely worthy of the level of composition they were putting together for The Ride Majestic or The Living Infinite double-album, but they don't rattle around in my memory long after the dust clears. But there are plenty of other highlights present, like "The End Begins Below the Surface", a Japanese bonus track off the previous album, or the ENTIRETY of the aforementioned Beyond the Infinite EP, which in my estimation represents some of the stronger material from the whole Infinite era, in particular "My Nerves, Your Everyday Tool" and "Resisting the Current". The remainder of the material is a whole slew of Japanese bonus tracks from The Panic Broadcast, Sworn to a Great Divide and Stabbing the Drama, including a swank re-recording of "Sadistic Lullabye" off the debut album...

These can be hit or miss, and the production on cuts like "Overclocked" and "Martyr" isn't quite as strong as the first half of this compilation, which almost flows together like a new Soilwork album; but it's still nice to gather them all in once place, and nothing is really less than pleasant to listen through. I'd also like to say that some earlier bonus cuts might have also been nice, perhaps including the Early Chapters EP, but some of those are obviously represented on the de facto versions of the CDs that are available today. There might not be much of my favorite Soilwork material present here, but as a product Death Resonance delivers the kind of experience us jaded old heshers desire from longstanding bands, rather than some soulless collection of album cuts with a few live cuts or bonus tracks tacked on as an afterthought.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 13, 2023

Soilwork - The Ride Majestic (2015)

Where The Living Infinite might have had a little too much ambition and material for its own good, Soilwork would return a couple years later with an album that was more reined in, but no less epic in production and scope. The Ride Majestic was impressively arranged, with a crystal clear production that never lacks for punch, and doused in some of the band's heavier material since the first few years of their existence. The tracks here have a lot of layers, balancing off the newfound extremity with the penchant for melodic hooks and choruses which they were in no danger of abandoning. This is also another 'grower' of an album, I know it didn't receive the greatest response when it arrived, but having gone back to it through the years it just feels richer and denser each time, and like Sworn to a Great Divide, it's one of the albums that notched up in my estimation as I've torn back through the whole discography.

If you missed the metal-ness and intensity that the Swedes were always capable of, but only letting trickle through the records over the decade before this one, The Ride Majestic has your back, and this is moored by what might be Dirk Verbeuren's best performance on a Soilwork record. Speed helped write the shit out of this album, but the dual guitar onslaught of Sylvain Coudret and the late David Andersson was all up in your face with great work that melds catchy, potent rhythm guitars and melodies together in new ways that don't sound like the band are merely ripping themselves off. "Death in General" and "Petrichor in Sulphir" are excellent examples of the range here, technically proficient and yet constantly accessible, each track loaded with licks, beats and strong vocals slathered all over the top, even when the instruments are striking their most prog-laden passages. When Speed hits all the cool choruses here, the music remains relatively busy below, and I think if you were to look back at the spread of all their releases, this one might stand as one of their more technically adept.

But that wouldn't mean much without the songwriting, and The Ride Majestic is moving and emotional and inventive without betraying any of the core principles of the band. It's not a stretch to say that I wished this were the album to follow up Natural Born Chaos after a few years, it might not reach that level of veneration with me, but this is far and away my favorite album they've put out since that seminal four-album stretch of excellence which christened their career. There a few softer moments which feel like proggy platitudes, but otherwise this one is consistently rewarding me when I head back to it, and the pristine recording and veritable onslaught of fresh riffing ideas underpin a fire that I had not heard within the band's ranks for nearly 15 years before it, just a great time that I'm almost always happy to listen to when I'm not jerking Natural Born Chaos or The Chainheart Machine off the rack for the memories.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Soilwork - Sworn to a Great Divide (2007)

The 2005-2010 era of Soilwork is undoubtedly my least favorite, not that it's terrible, but there seemed to be a neutering of the astonishing potential of their early material, like they hit a brick wall around Figure Number Five and the only way to go was more polished and poppy with Stabbing the Drama. Fortunately, they were pretty quick to issue a course correction on Sworn to a Great Divide, an album that might not rank among their most memorable, but carves back towards a more distinctly metallic direction and has a lot more going on to entertain these ears, while keeping the great melodic chorus parts on board so Speed can keep honing his pop chops for future projects. In fact, going back to explore this one I think I've grown a greater appreciation than whenever I first heard it.

Certainly the formula on tunes like "Exile" is directly descended from Stabbing the Drama, but through the production and songwriting it just seems more effective and atmospheric to me, there's a greater resonance to the mix and it's not so direct and over-polished. Lead guitars and melodies are consistently worthy throughout the track list, and a lot of the rhythm guitars were written with a more fiery and thrashing intensity, clearly drawing upon the first few albums. Thusly, the chorus parts here feel a lot more epic and deserved, and the band seems to have realized it went a little too far the last time out. Don't worry, if you were really feeling the Swedes at their most commercial, a lot of those grooves still remain, you can still play this stuff in the closing credits of an MTV tween horror/drama or maybe even risk it on the radio after a block of Creed and post-1988 Metallica, but it's quite ironclad in production and there aren't any stinker tunes that I ever feel are mandatory to skip.

At the same time, it's difficult for me to point out highlights, because the tunes here are just consistently 'good' and never truly great. The material at its most thrashing clip ("The Pittsburgh Syndrome", "As the Sleeper Awakes") is on the same level as the catchier pieces like the title track, "Breeding Thorns", or "Your Beloved Scapegoat", the slower grooving of "I, Vermin" with its guitar harmonies fluttering over the shouted breaks, there are even a small handful of more genuinely mean sounding riffs or vocals that pop up from time to time. Ultimately, Sworn to a Great Divide feels like the band blending their roots of Steelbath Suicide and The Chainheart Machine with the more accessible direction of the mid 00s, and pulling it off, with only a few individual moments that come off too sappy. This is one case as I'm treading this discography where an album has appreciated in value for me.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Soilwork - Stabbing the Drama (2005)

Stabbing the Drama is the point where I fell off the Soilwork train for awhile; I wasn't terribly impressed with the album when I first heard it, not because it was some drastic 180 shift towards further accessibility, but I felt the band was hitting its peak mallcore-adjacent phase, where they were focused on the similar grooves and radio choruses that the modernized In Flames was, running parallel to a lot of obnoxious US metalcore bands who adopted those same contrasting elements. As I listen back on it now, I was partly being delusion, Stabbing the Drama actually highlights a lot of similar structures and songwriting to my favorite of their works, Natural Born Chaos, and I wouldn't even say it's really dumbed down that much, but I still consider this one on the lower tier of their releases.

This album is probably hitting the heights of the smooth production, and simpler construction, but the band still maintains a mildly proggy edge, some quality lead-work, and a concentration on writing the biggest chorus hooks they can muster. There's very little of the thrashy melodeath propulsion here, it does appear on a few individual riffs but like Figure Number Five before it, this is a lot of mid-paced grooves that are built to setup what they would hope to be memorable chorus parts. Unfortunately, a lot of them come off rather bog-standard or similar to one another, like "Weapon of Vanity" to "The Crestfallen", the latter of which is probably my favorite here. The heavier riffing in this and others almost reminds me of Machine Head or Skinlab, functional grooves, only the melodic component is far superior, pushing it over the heads of those lackluster acts. The polish on this album certainly gives one the impression that it's the closest the band would get to pure nu metal, with a lot of segues where the band basically canters along with some alt rock sounding parts to let Speed wax emotional, to contrast against some of the most Anselmo-like growls he's put to tape, emphasized further by that aforementioned production.

I probably come across as pretty down on Stabbing the Drama, and that's more or less the case. I've had a wavering relationship, with an initial aversion, a gradual warming towards, and ultimately only a lukewarm response. For sure there is an EP's worth of material that I'd love bouncing around to in my car ("The Crestfallen", "Nerve", "Distance", maybe "Observation Slave"), but otherwise I find a lot of what the band wrote here pretty forgettable when intermixed with the rest. The pop and radio rock thing was probably appealing to a rising band like this, but they have so many weapons at their disposal to forge into a more interesting direction. It's not the worst Soilwork, and even the WORST Soilwork isn't all that bad, but it's never one I'll reach for when a couple spaces to the left on my CD shelf I've got that streak of four great records that they kicked things off with.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Soilwork - The Early Chapters EP (2004)

Soilwork did manage to take a small break in between Figure Number Five and Stabbing the Drama, perhaps curbing any real burnout from occurring as they were blowing up all over the world. In the interim, fans were treated to this confusingly titled EP, The Early Chapters, which would have led me to believe it was comprised of demos like the bonus disc of Figure Number Five had, but is instead of some random material put out purely for fans' sake, perhaps to rake in a couple bucks in the downtime. These sorts of releases often feel pointless in the long run, because there's no real aim or direction to how they're assembled, but at least this had a few tunes that felt exclusive at the time.

Speed has done a lot of covers, such as his more recent YouTube projects, and creating an entire awesome band (The Night Flight Orchestra) which feels like it might as well be covers, but here we get a few early examples as the band does their rendition of Deep Purple's "Burn" (with guest female vocals), and Mercyful Fate's "Egypt". The first is fairly mediocre, as the band sticks rather close to the original and then just smatters the raspier AtG vocals all over it, but the latter seems more ambitious, and the intensity of the drumming and riffing in that song does suit his screams and snarls a lot more. I also found the production of the instruments on the latter to be quite good, though the vocals could have been mixed on there better. Anyway, we at the very least know the Swedes had some good taste, and how could not to produce some of the albums they had already?

There's a demo for "Shadow Child" off A Predator's Portrait which honestly sounds good with the levels of the vocals, guitar and synthesizer, I might even agree with this production a little more than what ended up on the full-length. A live version of "Aardvark Trail" doesn't fare so well, the drums and guitars have enough volume but the overall sound seems rather hollow when the bass and rhythm guitars kick in. Lastly, there a vicious original called "Disintegrated Skies" which is solid, with a few nice dual guitar leads, but otherwise isn't really strong enough in its riffing outside the bridge to have made a splash on any of their full-lengths, so nestling it in here on a forgettable EP seems like the plan. And that's kind of the problem here, it's just not that strong...the Fate cover is arguably the best part, but nothing necessary to track down unless you can nab this as a bonus disc or part of some greater compilation down the road.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, January 9, 2023

Soilwork - Figure Number Five (2003)

Coming off an album as strong as Natural Born Chaos, there was likely little to no chance that Soilwork was going to match itself, and that is precisely how the course of events would pan out, especially in lieu of the band continuing to crank out such a level of productivity. A year passed, and while I was still in the throes of heat for its predecessor, Figure Number Five arrived. I admit that, at the time, I felt like this was an album composed off some left-over ideas or cutting room floor materials that just weren't good enough to qualify for the last few, but in hindsight that was probably premature. The album largely lacks the dynamic strength of the last, and it does seem lazy at times, in particular the heavier riffs and grooves, but at the very least it's consistent and smooth and maintains a high production standard.

There are a few dreamy, catchy cuts on the album like "Distortion Sleep", "Downfall 24", or "Overload" with its great verse grooves, cute little bouncy synthesizers, and memorable chorus; some of these do arguably forge a fraction of new terrain, but just as many others tend to blend together and don't have a chorus or single riff that really impacts me. Speed's vocals are on roughly the same level as Natural Born Chaos, but they don't have as much to really say when the songwriting doesn't always set them up well. The synthesizers are fine, but I feel a few of the tracks here might have been improved if they added something a little fancier to show for themselves. Otherwise, I can't exactly describe the content here as particularly 'bad', since it's a fully listenable album, doesn't waste too much of your time and also does continue some of that positive, uplifting, potent vibe that the previous album mastered.

I definitely think this one might have suffered from that prolific the band were on, even more so than A Predator's Portrait. With another year or two between these full-lengths, a bit more variation could be achived, a few chorus parts sharpened, and they might have turned out stronger. As it stands, there aren't even many lead guitars on Figure Number Five that I can remember, which were a real positive for the band before this point. If I were putting together a longer playlist of their material, I'd probably include a few of the songs I mentioned above, maybe "Brickwalker" too, and ultimately this is one I can listen through without ever feeling too letdown or pissed off, but I'm just not going to pull it down off the shelf when I can head for The Chainheart Machine or Natural Born Chaos instead. Probably good enough to keep the the band's momentum intact, but nothing bordering on mindblowing here.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, January 6, 2023

Soilwork - Natural Born Chaos (2002)

Natural Born Chaos feels like someone took all the components of its predecessor A Predator's Portrait, threw them into a stir fry and, as if by fate, a more brilliant and memorable concoction emerged. This is my favorite Soilwork album, and one of my favorite albums EVER within the melodic death metal medium, right alongside The Jester Race, or the comparably modernized Damage Done by their countrymen Dark Tranquillity in the same year. Literally every second of this album evinces either an instant adrenaline rush, or an emotional nostalgia from me. It's arranged beautifully, with every track arriving at the point where it will have the most impact on the listener, and all of the ingredients the band were experimenting the year before have swiftly borne fruit.

The band chose the perfect producer/engineer for this album in Canada's legendary Devin Townsend, who clearly helps emphasize the more progressive and atmospheric sheen as it was likely influenced by his own projects like Ocean Machine or Strapping Young Lad. Together they really seemed to deconstruct the grooves, the leads, Speed's myriad of charismatic vocal styles, synthesizers, and percussion and then LEGO them together into something immediately more accessible. His harsher vocals dig more into a Phil Anselmo-like badass machismo without fully abandoning the Lindberg rasping capacity, and they sound great, but it's the cleans, the harmonies that have really come forward here, and along with the brighter and more interesting synthesizer tones they create a ton of the atmosphere, especially when they are drifting over some of the instruments' darker passages. The drumming is fucking great, the guitars manage to harness all the influences of thrash, groove, prog and melodic death into a riff-set that is NEVER shown up by either of the aforementioned.

There are no weak tracks among these, every song is a hit for me, from the pent up power of "Follow the Hollow" or "The Flameout", to the proggier synth-endowed numbers like the title track or "Mercury Shadow". Choruses are absolutely epic throughout, and every track has subtle, memorable licks all over the place, thus it's tough to pick favorites, but if I was on a short car ride or a quick gym rep I'd likely smash "Mindfields" or "No More Angels", concise and immortal blood-pumpers that never fail me. Not that any of it fails me, really, I listened to this album (and the comparable Damage Done) hundreds of times when I first got them, I think I remember ordering them from The End Records way back when, and they just became instant posterchildren as the 'future' of melodic death metal, since they had all but stripped much of the 90s cliches to sound more contemporary and forward-thinking...

Now, maybe that future didn't always pan out, since a lot of attention shifted away from the niche later, but at the time it was riding on a lot of hope and potential, feelings that this album still wells up within me, even today in 2023 as I sit here reviewing it. I still feel like I'm hearing a glimpse of tomorrow, a retrofuturistic evolution upon the Whoracles and Slaughters of the Soul, which I like even more than any of those seminal pieces. If I had any critique whatsoever it's that the bonus track "Kvicksilver" just sounds like an amalgam of ideas from other, better ones, but it's not part of the core experience, and as I mentioned, there are already riffing sequences or ideas here that feel as if they were directly lifted from A Predator's Portrait and dramatically improved. Otherwise, Natural Born Chaos is just my jam, a record that makes me smile for 42 minutes straight, that makes me want to scream, to move, vital signs rising and falling with each riff, each fill, each vocal phrasing.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10]

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Soilwork - A Predator's Portrait (2001)

It would feel a bit unusual calling A Predator's Portrait a 'step down' or a 'disappointment', because it's still a pretty darn good album, armed with a couple tracks I'd be happy to place on any Soilwork playlist. It's also sort of a direct blueprint to their direction for the next couple albums after it, but the fact remains that a couple of the tracks on this one never really permeated my musical tickle-zone, and even on some of the better tunes they'll veer into a riff or bridge that doesn't always have me hanging over the replay button. But putting it in context, this is by no means a dud of a faltering, at worst it feels like an extension of The Chainheart Machine which attempts to settle the music into a little bit more of an accessibility and groove. The pop and prog influences of the band's future are still quite far away, but some of that explosive At the Gates/mid-90s Swedish melodeath foundation is starting to chip away as Soilwork builds more of its own identity.

Speed is going for more clean vocals here, although he's still keeping them a bit restrained to a medium range ("Like the Average Stalker", "Needlefeast"), not as confident as he'd become later. The growls and rasps are still the primary vehicle for his performance, but he's swapping these things off pretty often here, creating a beauty & the beast microverse unto himself. The synths adopt even friendlier sorts of tones that you'd equate with atmospheric prog rock, and some of the leads are also starting to take on that nature, though they are consistently decent. The rhythm guitars are chunkier and chuggier and seem more heavily focused on both 'the mosh' and letting the thinner melodies serve as a counter, whereupon the first two albums it all blended a little more seamlessly. Still, there are some pump up riffs that get the blood coursing through you, and some of them seem like direct prototypes to later, better cuts. The band occasionally adopts some bluesy low-end metal grooves for the breakdowns, which for me shows a slight inspiration from the groove/nu metal of the 90s, although they had done this a few times earlier.

Now, a lot of these quips might seem like complaints, but that's not really the case, because A Predator's Portrait is still a busy album showing no lack for effort, especially in adjusting to the cleaner vocal alternations. There are no tracks whatsoever that I would consider outright bad, but a few of them just aren't as catchy as I would have hoped. I really do like of the flow of the record, from the passion and emotion of the harder moments to the little spikes of melodic, choppy picking. I feel that Soilwork might have been experience such an abundance and confluence of ideas in this first 5-6 years of being a signed, touring act, that they were releasing studio product at a rate just slightly higher than their own potential, and while some albums really delivered on all of this promise, A Predator's Portrait came up with one of the shorter straws. That said, I have known a few individuals who cite this as their personal favorite from Soilwork, and I can't blame them too much, a few of the rhythmic patterns here form a direct basis for tracks on my own.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Soilwork - The Chainheart Machine (2000)

The Chainheart Machine isn't so much a major embellishment or evolution upon the style of the debut, but rather a 'tightening' or 'cleaning up' of all Steelbath Suicide's elements into an even more effective array of proggy, thrashy melodic death metal which seems so energized and inhumanly efficient that you'd think they were hardwired to some glowing tank of testosterone. I cannot deny that this album rules and remains one of the best they've ever released, and I think I can pin that down to two specific elements. First, the production is a little cleaner, punchier and therefor more potent than the debut, and while its predecessor sounded fine (and still does), this mix is more able to rein in all the weapons at Soilwork's disposal. Secondly, the new drummer Henry Ranta brings an added level of muscle to his performance which both honors and surpasses his forebear, while contributing to just how pinpoint accurate these tunes are.

Every freaking song on this record puts in the work, throttling you with explosive riffs and melodies, an incessant battery of grooves and fills, and some sort of epic break that makes you want to flail around a moshpit of wire-strung angels, like the point in "Millionflame" where the propulsive verse riff peels away to that groove and the great, controlled leads erupt. Like Steelbath before, it, this one is definitely one of the closer efforts to that Slaughter of the Soul sound that obviously influenced it, and to that end it is quite the competitor with its bevy of more plotted-out, intelligent rhythm guitar riffs, a total modernization of thrash for the 90s and oughts. It's still one of Speed's more constrained performances, but I think here he sounds a little more vicious than on the debut, and also he's mixed a little better. It might be that this would be the first Soilwork album I'd point out if somewhere were pursuing more in that mid-90s popular style, but don't mistake it for a clone, it still goes over the top in musicianship, and so many of the ideas applied to that core death/thrashing construct feel fresh and compelling and remain so to this day, even where it goes into a dumber, bluesy groove like the depths of "Machinegun Majesty" and its screaming solos.

The faster moments on this record even set up to inspire one of Speed's earlier side projects, Terror 2000, which arguable takes the propulsion a little too far, but still itself produced some catchy cuts on each of its records. There are a few points where I'm listening to this one, thinking to myself that this or that specific riff might have helped birth that whole project (though it debuted the same year as this). The synthesizers continue to blend in seamlessly, although I think they are starting to adopt some tones and pads that are more often equated within the prog metal scene. Lyrics are also quite interesting, I like when all these European bands in melodic death or black metal were putting together all these new compounds like 'Chainheart', and that's all over the place with the song titles here and even some of the lyrics, with are otherwise these intense emotional outbursts which fit the modernity of the band's style well. I'd say the downside is that it also bridges them over into the radars of the more nu-metal oriented crowd, to which they did crossover slightly at one point, but quickly re-emerged from. But there's never any question of sincerity, and the quality of the performances and songcraft here really speak for themselves. My second favorite Soilwork album!

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, January 2, 2023

Soilwork - Steelbath Suicide (1998)

By the later 90s, metal fans the world over were in such a froth over At the Gates' seminal Slaughter of the Soul that the Swedes had spawned myriad doppelgangers, whether directly aping that aggressive, melodic death attack or fusing with US metalcore breakdowns and clean vocals. You couldn't escape it, and a number of that record's protegees would go on to massive careers that arguably eclipsed the original what with their now-reconvened hiatus. Although I liked that record alongside the next bloke, the former gatekeeper in me was just not down with some of the more overt impostors trying to spin a buck, but found myself challenged with two Helsingborg bands that, for my ears, had already iterated upon that classic in positive and exciting directions. Now, I've already gone over the excellent Darkane at length, but what of those better-known wunderkinds Soilwork, who rode that horse to broader, more progressive lengths, and have enjoyed a transition from explosive hype to decades of consistent releases, with only a few lulls here or there?

Steelbath Suicide was unquestionably the closest they'd ever sound to the formidable AtG, but it was already at an evolved state due to the presence of the keyboards, the bigger chorus hooks and the more friendly style of lead guitar and harmony involved. It's as if someone took Slaughter of the Soul as the base and sprinkled in small amounts of Helloween, Dream Theater and another Swedish melodeath juggernaut of those times, In Flames, whose uplifting guitar rushes and dual harmonies clearly informed a number of the riffs here in tunes like the title track which could have appeared on Colony or Clayman with a few tweaks, or "The Aardvark Trail". In fact, the one really binding element are Speed's early vocals, which are quite close to Tomas Lindberg in sneering disposition, and like me, if you've spend many years listening to the guy across his collection of projects, you'll also remember that this is one of his more limited performances. It gets the trick done, and certainly there are a few riffing passages in tracks like "My Need" or "Sadistic Lullabye" that are likewise redolent of Slaughter tunes, but they open up their strings far more than he opens up his pipes through the eleven tracks here.

But don't get me wrong, this record is quite great from the onset, as we're smothered with the warm and resilient melodies of "Entering the Angel Diabolique", a 2+ minute instrumental that instantly catapulted them upon a potential higher tier of the niche alongside the aforementioned acts and Dark Tranquillity. There's a little bit of Jester Race vibe going on there, which is a ok by me, but you can already feel the presence of the synths, a few clean strings buried in the mix, and just a confidence that you are about to be treated to a fully satisfying experience, which you are. The tirade of clever, riffy cuts to follow this one are one of the most concise and consistent in the band's career..."Sadistic Lullabye", "Skin After Skin", and the incredible "Wings of Domain" are all well-worthy of a "Blinded by Fear" or "Slaughter o of the Soul" proper, and due to the presence of the extra instrument, they bring an atmosphere that was not present in that style prior. The intricacy and intensity of the track list does not abate there, as it's an album you can still listen straight through to this day, but a few of the tunes might fall a fraction shorter in the memorability department.

It's obviously one of the most guitar-driven of their efforts, and the dynamic range is palpable, from the thrashier bludgeons, to the catchy chorus chord patterns, to the well-developed leads that almost seemed out of place for a band this young. Soilwork was clearly bringing the breadth of classic and progressive metal to that trending melodeath intensity, and some of the solos on this one are among the best they'd ever record. The production is pretty good, perhaps a little washed out by loudness war standards, but you can hear everything clearly, and I feel like the more processed, cubicle tones on the record were an aesthetic that did match up the futuristic artwork and contemporary lyrical themes. If you wanted Slaughter of the Soul to Enter the Matrix, well here you have it. There was also a groove metal element present even here, something they'd explore more blatantly later on, but it was tasteful and even used to great success in, say, "Demon in the Veins", when Speed starts screaming in the chorus and the little flourish of melody caps him off over the churning rhythm guitar.

Jimmy Persson's drums were solid, it really takes a lot to keep up with such an all encompassing style, but he does so with room to spare, so even though he wouldn't be sticking with the band, he helped them off to the races. The synthesizers also perform the difficult task of having their presence felt in certain spaces without ever cluttering up the other instruments, so one shouldn't expect the showiness felt in more distinctly 'prog metal' bands...that will increase later. All told, this is an album that feels just as impactful as when it first dropped, perhaps not ever my favorite but certainly the catalyst for what remains my favorite period in the band's discography, a reliable evergreen that I'll still be breaking out every year or so.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]