Saturday, May 15, 2010

Arch Enemy - Burning Bridges

Arch Enemy - Burning Bridges
1999, Century Media

Ah, Michael Amott. I have been an enthusiastic admirer of his professionalism going all the way back to his days in Carnage, his first appearance as far as I can remember. While that band was short lived, being swallowed alive in the melee of Entombed clone bands that suddenly appeared like poisonous fungi after the release of 'Left Hand Path' (an amazing record, still), its roots went deep into the Swedish death metal underground, being an archetype, of sorts, for the kind of incestuous band-trading that Swedish musicians are now famous for - from the ashes of Carnage (or rather, its still-warm corpse) were spawned a number of bands, Dismember being the easiest to recognize. The Carnage album did come out on Earache (or was it one of that company's little side labels? I can't remember), at the same time as the exquisitely strange first Cadaver record, and while it didn't receive the recognition it deserved, it didn't exactly go unnoticed. Amott hopped from Carnage very quickly into Carcass, a band that was just beginning to peak in terms of popularity and technical song-writing (the nexus in the history of death metal where Michael Amott and Bill Steer came together was extremely fortuitous - we can thank fate, or the powers that be, that such a collaboration came about). This is the point where I first saw Amott play live - at a Death/Pestilence/Carcass show in Houston in (I believe) 1990 or '91. Pestilence were supporting the release of 'Consuming Impulse' and Carcass were there to play songs off of 'Symphonies of Sickness' - eat your hearts out, death metal novices. I remember very distinctly the first time I saw him in the flesh - it was a magic moment. He walked out on stage to test his guitar and effects setup...calmly strolling towards his stack while the packed house was busy chatting, drinking, and otherwise ignoring what was going on right in front of them. He took out his guitar, plugged it into the rack effects, turned on the speakers, and strummed it lightly - quickly playing a few riffs. The result was catastrophic - out of the house system oozed this monstrous downtuned black stench of a guitar sound (that beautiful Carcass guitar sound, you know what I mean), cutting through the noise of the crowd and over the music on the club stereo...all the heads in the place immediately snapped around and turned towards the stage, the talking stopped, glasses were dropped back to the bar, a hush spread throughout the audience, and mouths hung open in awe all around me. Carcass had arrived.

Amott has said in several interviews that he considers Arch Enemy to be a continuation of his days in Carcass, and because of the success 'Necroticism' has had in influencing the latest generation of Swedish bands, what he is doing with this band doesn't sound out of place in any way with what is going on all around him, in his home country. I think that Arch Enemy, along with In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and The Haunted, are now a complete music scene amongst themselves: going from one band to the other, you come across pretty much all the different ways that the Swedish sound can be manipulated. Everything else outside of this little group of musicians can be seen as derivative.

The guitar work on this album is (as you would probably expect) never less than dazzling. Michael and his little brother Christopher (who is a very good guitarist in his own right) wrote most, if not all, of the music on this record, and this band is really about all the different ways these two brothers can bring their combined talents to bear on forging a new melodic sensibility out of the typical Swedish death sound. Going from crushing rhythmic pounding to lighting-fast twin leads, sugary sweet harmonies to inebriating technical flairs, and from extremely aggressive tremelo picking to slow, drawn-out smothering melodies, they strive to exhaust the range of the metal guitar. There are several very good riffs or arrangements on this album - the intro/first main riff on 'Demonic Science' (absolutely magnificent - the drums syncopating perfectly, like a quickened Carcass riff), the intro/first riff on the opener, 'The Immortal, most of 'Dead Inside' (a clinic in writing melodic death metal), the harmonies beginning 'Silverwing' - there are too many to name them all. If you are a fan of the Swedish melodic sensibility, prepare to be completely overwhelmed by this record.

Having said that, I can't help but be a little pessimistic when it comes to reviewing this album on any other level. The Amotts have put so much into the guitar work that they have left very little for all the other elements that make up great music: there is not much depth to these songs at all. Perhaps that is as it is supposed to be: most of the NWOSDM bands are not exactly profound when you get past the flashy melodies. It is a strange predicament - while their melodicism is almost always brilliant, there is very little weight or substance to the music beyond that - their songs exists in the present almost completely, as something to be experienced, felt on the surface, and then forgotten. Ear candy, really. You don't find yourself returning to these melodies and pondering them, or searching in them for anything deeper than entertainment. Reading the lyrics on this album was frustrating for me, mainly because they didn't seem to really have that much thought put into them. They fulfill all the requirements of 'death metal lyrics', but the impression I received from a look at them was that they were done almost as an afterthought. How does the vocalist feel about that, I wonder? This is strange, to me, because they seem to deal with subjects or events from Michael's own life - including his divorce. I wonder what it's like to take horribly emotional events from your own life and turn them into catchy lyrics - I don't think I could do it. 'Burning Bridges' is all about catchiness. If you take it as such, not looking for anything else other than a diversion, this release is excellent. If you are looking for something more heartfelt, or emotional, then you would be wise to turn North from here. This is something that seems to infect the entire Swedish scene, even the black metal bands - I wonder why? They just approach the writing of music differently.