ARCH ENEMY: WAR ETERNAL (2014)
1) Tempore Nihil Sanat; 2) Never Forgive, Never Forget; 3) War Eternal; 4) As The Pages Burn; 5) No More Regrets; 6) You Will Know My Name; 7) Graveyard Of Dreams; 8) Stolen Life; 9) Time Is Black; 10) On And On; 11) Avalanche; 12) Down To Nothing; 13) Not Long For This World.
As our favorite pop pranksters, the Mael brothers of Sparks, once said, "Just like everything else in this world, time wreaks havoc on every girl. What do you do? Throw her away and get a new one!" Now I have no idea whether Michael Amott is a big Sparks fan, but he took the Maels' advice quite seriously. In the light of Arch Enemy's continuing descent into stagnation, Angela Gossow announced her departure from the band (apparently, an amicable one, as she stayed on as their business manager), and welcomed her replacement — Alissa White-Gluz (what a name!), former lead vocalist of The Agonist, up to now Canada's chief competition for Arch Enemy, but apparently no longer so.
With all due respect to Ms. Gossow and her decade with the band, this was a good decision, and not simply for reasons of physical health (growling does take its toll even among professionals), but also because, well, no offense intended, growling only takes you that far in your life: Wages Of Sin was a fun ride, but we'd learned everything we needed to know about Angela Gossow on that album and we really haven't learned anything new ever since — at a certain point, in this sort of genre, the singer ceases to be a personality and becomes a generic, predictable piece of paraphernalia, merely accompanying the different riffs and solos.
The catch is that the replacement would have to be worthy of the predecessor, and it is not every day that a growler of Angela Gossow caliber comes along. But as much as I am skeptical of the profession in the first place (and who wouldn't be?), White-Gluz turns out to be God's unexpectedly generous gift to this band. Where Gossow's growling was almost genuinely scary in its cartoonish cackling taken to the extremest of extremes, this Alissa gal approaches the task in a similar, but different manner — I'd probably define her growling voice as just a tad «sharper» than Gossow's, and more distinct, to the point where you can occasionally even make out some of the actual words she is «singing». She seems to have a drop of the punk spirit in her, too (not surprisingly, she is said to be in a relationship with Doyle of The Misfits), and there is a «pissed-off / violent» flavor to her growling, rather than the «infernal / doomsday» attitude of Gossow, which can help take it more seriously than usual.
Most importantly, though, the introduction of White-Gluz helps rekindle the band's collective spirit as well. I certainly cannot vouch that with War Eternal, Amott and Co. have given us the finest collection of riffs and classically-influenced melodic passages in 5, 7, or 10 years, since the melodic basis behind Arch Enemy's work has always been so similar (to say the least). But every once in a while, you'd have yourself an album that sounded «fresher» — Wages Of Sin being the most obvious example — and War Eternal, despite having the same superficial features as any Arch Enemy album, also has that «new-beginning» look to it, and not just because of a new singer, but also because the new singer triggers a new desire to excel in what they do.
That desire does not translate (at least, not upon my initial attempts to discover them) into writing any exceptional, «where-the-hell-have-you-been-all-my-life» bits of riffage, but the band's overall melodic drive seems to have improved, with a large number of symphonic themes interwoven among the brutal sledgehammering, including no less than three atmospheric interludes, the last of which, ʽNot Long For This Worldʼ, provides the album's most memorable and stylishly «heavy requiem»-like theme, building up crescendo-style and then fading out with a ghostly piano coda that, gratifyingly, leaves no hope whatsoever for the doomed humanity. The synthesizer tone responsible for those symphonic elements is certainly cheesier than if they'd thought of adding real strings (ʽAvalancheʼ is a good example), but at least it supplies some variety.
Still, the band is really at the top of their game only when they are at their speediest, their angriest here — which is where Alissa's infuriated vocals really connect, and you get not too memorable melodically, but quite impressive stylistically tunes like ʽNever Forgive, Never Forgetʼ (give it a better set of riffs and it would not be out of place on an Iron Maiden album) or ʽAs The Pages Burnʼ. When they slow down, the whole thing occasionally starts dragging, but even there you have things like the title track, which is like... like a Foreigner arena-rocker derailed and turned into a death metal anthem. Yes, it's actually hilarious when you think about it this way.
Fans of White-Gluz' past karma have dared to complain that she is not given an opportunity to use her clean vocals on the record (other than a tiny bit of background overdubs on ʽAvalancheʼ), but this may not have necessarily been due to the band's stubborn conservatism, but rather to the fact that much, if not most, of the songs were written with a «growling» delivery in mind before the lineup change — a hypothesis that will be tested once the band returns to the studio once again. In the meantime, I am about as heavily excited by War Eternal as I could find myself excited about a present-day «melodic death metal» album written and executed in strict accordance with the genre's Procrustean formula. And that translates to a mild thumbs up, even though far be it from me to recommend spending too much time on a record like this, or on modern heavy metal in general, for that matter.