When I first listened to the 2008 album Armamentarium by German metal group Neaera, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t find it particularly impressive. It was fast, harsh German melodic death metal—the kind also played by Heaven Shall Burn, Maroon, and other German bands. However, after a lot of listens since its debut three years ago, I have come to realize that this album is one of the best expressions of aggression and ferocity in all of music. This album truly brings out the most extreme emotions that music can create. It excels both musically and lyrically beyond the abilities that most bands have.
The album’s musical strength comes from guitarist and primary songwriter Tobias Buck, who may be one of the most well-rounded guitar players in all of Europe. While he may not have mind-blowing solos, his lead lines and chord progressions are some of the most well-put together compositions a melodic death metal band can have. Sebastian Heldt’s drumming also intensifies the musicality of the album immensely, providing solid rhythm lines and great fills for slower sections. These two musical forces together create the immense soundscape that encompasses this album. Slower guitar parts are matched with machine-gun drum sections, while lightning fast guitar riffs are combined with slower, groove-oriented drum parts. Both combinations create a dense layering of sound that give the overall instrumentation greater strength and depth. “Spearheading the Spawn”, “Tools of Greed”, “Synergy”, “The Orphaning”, and “Mutiny of Untamed Minds” are the best examples of this.
Without a doubt, though, the element that brings the music together is Benny Hilleke’s outstanding vocal performance. He has three distinct vocal styles that he uses: an earth-trembling bass growl, a throat-blackening scream, and a rarely-used harsh spoken voice. The effortless transitions he executes between these styles maximize his ability to create an emotional response within the songs, and the chosen vocal style used in each musical section can drastically alter the mood. Surprisingly, the most memorable parts of some songs occur when Hilleke uses his harsh spoken word voice. This is often because he uses it during quieter parts of songs, where it is either immediately preceded or followed by a very intense breakdown or solo part for contrast. This is not always the case, as heard on “In Loss”, where Hilleke’s spoken word voice is distorted and used as a partial bridge from the chorus into the next verse. However, no matter where the contrasting effect occurs or if it occurs at all, use of the spoken vocals enhances every song on which they are used. It’s a technique that few vocalists use, and even fewer use correctly.
Lyrically, Hilleke’s messages of social justice, rebellion against corrupt authority, and self-actualization reach the base motivations of metalheads everywhere. These may not be new themes in metal or even for the band itself, but they are refreshing to hear from a German death metal scene that is entirely oversaturated with either gory scenes of violence or overblown dramatic metaphors of men caught in circumstances where they are forced to kill. Hilleke reaches the simplest desires of metalheads seeking recognition, individuality, and equality in a world too full of itself to acknowledge them. The depth and intelligence of his lyrics are usually quite shocking to those that only know his voice and not his words.
Armamentarium is addicting because it has all the elements to draw in metalheads of any kind. Those that appreciate vocal depth will be awed by Hilleke’s stylistic diversity. Those looking for strong instrumentation will love the performances by Buck and Heldt. Those looking for intelligent and insightful lyrics will appreciate the messages Hilleke delivers. In short, Armamentarium has it all, the rare total package of excellence, and it delivers everything to you in a cement-encased fist through the teeth.
// Notes from the Road
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