The Unseen Empire
US: 17 May 2011
UK: 18 Apr 2011
Swedish Release Date: 15 Apr 2011
When a band experiences any significant membership change, they usually get a one-album grace period, during which they are afforded a chance to work out any issues resulting from the change. After that grace period ends, if the band cannot hold the interest of their established fans, then those fans usually abandon the band. This is especially true with vocalist changes, since many vocalists are the most recognizable members of their respective bands.
This is the reality that has faced Scar Symmetry since 2008. After releasing their 2008 masterpiece Holographic Universe, lead vocalist Christian Älvestam abruptly left the band, causing a massive backlash among fans. Many critics regard Älvestam as one of the best vocalists in all of modern metal, and rightly so. His guttural roars and screams are the antithesis of the beautiful melodies he sings, and very few singers are capable of reproducing his vocal performances. Perhaps the greatest indicator of his talent, though, is the fact that Scar Symmetry needed two singers to replace one.
Roberth Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist had some humongous shoes to fill when they stepped into the roles of co-lead vocalists for Scar Symmetry. Karlsson had little experience in such a vital position (as the brief frontman for Edge of Sanity in the late ‘90s), while Palmqvist had never before been in a band with any degree of prominence. Their performance on 2009’s Dark Matter Dimensions convinced many fans that Scar Symmetry was still in good shape, but many others remained skeptical, calling for Älvestam’s return. And now that the one-album grace period has passed, fans will judge Karlsson and Palmqvist even more harshly than before.
Fortunately, after The Unseen Empire, there is only one possible conclusion: anyone that still declares these two as unworthy successors of Älvestam is simply a bitter fan of the man, rather than the band, and is determined to hate anyone that follows in his footsteps. The only way that any fan of the band or their genre could judge this album as less than phenomenal is if they possessed such a biased viewpoint. The Unseen Empire is not only the best work of Scar Symmetry’s career, it is one of the best melodic death metal albums to emerge from Sweden in the past decade. Everything about this album is a paragon of excellence, and none of the band’s contemporaries can even hope to match it.
As can be expected, the brilliance begins in the vocal work. Karlsson has not changed one bit since Dark Matter Dimensions, which is perfect. His beastly growls and screams are unmatched, and his consistency in tone and style is a rare trait among unclean vocalists. By contrast, Palmqvist has improved by leaps and bounds. Rather than simply blasting out the high end of his voice, Palmqvist has now grown into a complete singer, with a well-developed low register to match his impressive high range. His performance on album opener “The Anomaly” is proof of that, with a refrain that descends into low tenor range and minimal use of the high notes that were omnipresent on Dark Matter Dimensions.
The instrumentation on The Unseen Empire manages to amplify the vocal quality while cascading into its own levels of greatness. Where Dark Matter Dimensions placed a priority on guitar solos to the point of saturation, The Unseen Empire favors balance over technicality. Guitarists Per Nilsson and Jonas Kjellgren are still able to display their wide range of skills, but they do so without the audacity or flashiness of nonstop soloing. Conversely, drummer Henrik Ohlsson is able to expand his technical repertoire with more frequent polyrhythmic compositions and split-second tempo changes. Bassist Kenneth Seil also expands his role, with bass fills and cuts systematically included throughout the album. All of the instrumentation has grown on this album, and it’s proof that even things that are seemingly perfect can be made better.
The Unseen Empire is a leading candidate for Metal Album of the Year already, as nothing released to date has even come close to the breathtaking nature of this album. Scar Symmetry has labored to take up the mantle as new leaders in Swedish melodic death metal, and now they have released the album that vehemently states how much they belong in that position. The only people that will dislike this album are the ones that have decided to hate it before even hearing it. Every other listener will proclaim that The Unseen Empire is ground-breaking, genre-bending, and outstanding in every conceivable way.