It’s easy to understand how a band can grow bored of the niche they’ve created for themselves. When you’ve got a musical formula that you do well, that the fans are very comfortable with, and that sells half-decently, there can be pressure, whether internal or external, to keep the audience and record label satisfied. When a band that’s been around for a while does say “Enough is enough” and dares to try something new, well, the idea had better work, otherwise it’ll backfire severely. Some metal and hard rock bands have pulled off a major stylistic shift successfully in the past. Van Halen’s mid-‘80s morphing into Van Hagar sold extremely well. When In Flames strayed from their ‘90s melodic death metal in favor of a much more accessible sound a decade ago, it paid off in the long run with some well-earned Stateside success. Katatonia’s emphasis on shorter songs and cleanly sung lead vocals on its third album was the best decision the band ever made. On the other hand, there’s Machine Head, who after setting the metal world ablaze with 1995’s Burn My Eyes, cashed in on the nu-metal fad with the abysmal The Burning Red, which sold decently but alienated the band’s core audience, and took years to recover from.
Swedish band the Haunted has been showing similar signs of restlessness in recent years. Led by guitarists Anders and Jonas Björler, previously of At the Gates—progenitors of the highly influential melodic death metal sound from Gothenburg—the Haunted had a good thing going with a series of strong efforts, from 2000’s excellent The Haunted Made Me Do It to 2004’s solid rEVOLVEr. Everything was all well and good, the band predictably relying on the same “melodeath” sound that made At the Gates famous. However, in 2006 they tried to put a twist on their trademark sound with The Dead Eye. It was an interesting departure, the more streamlined, melodic songs not too shabby, but it was met with great criticism from fans, and the Haunted returned to a rawer style on 2008’s follow-up Versus.
The misfire of The Dead Eye was enough to convince us all that the Haunted was through with their little experiments, but the band has pulled the rug out from everyone with a seventh studio album that brazenly tosses aside every single aspect of their melodic death metal sound. What the band is trying to achieve on Unseen is crystal clear: mainstream success in America. And the quintet has gone all-in, with a dozen songs that do everything they can to win over the Mayhem Festival crowd, the folks who buy albums by Disturbed, Korn, and Black Label Society.
You want to be optimistic; after all, these guys have been around a long time, so there’s a possibility that they can pull off such a stunt with a fair amount of grace, but sadly that’s not the case at all. This is a crass, calculated, pandering disaster on the level of Cryptopsy’s deathcore misfire The Unspoken King and Machine Head’s aforementioned The Burning Red. Not only do the tracks try every post-nu-metal gimmick they can think of (boring, down-tuned riffs, soupy production, “groovy” drumming, touches of electronic beats, whining singing by Peter Dolving, and angst-ridden lyrics), but every single attempt is an outright failure. As loathsome a form of music as nu-metal is, a catchy nu-metal song is better than nothing, but the hooks the band comes up with are patently unmemorable, falling completely flat. After many listens (oh, to have all that time back), there is not a single memorable melody, a total waste of 43 minutes.
What makes Unseen feel even worse is the presence of Dolving, who tries so desperately to sound “introspective” that he comes off as smarmy instead. “Disappear” and “Done” are uncomfortable exercises in confessional songwriting, but that’s nothing compared to “All Ends Well”, which sees Dolving taking on a Josh Homme-inspired persona, minus the charisma. There’s nothing wrong with challenging your listeners by giving them something new to try, but to do so in such cynical, condescending fashion is asking too much of the people who have stuck with the Haunted for this long. Most people, though, have long since stopped caring, and Unseen will only be remembered for being one of the worst albums of the year.
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// Notes from the Road
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