[7 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Aside from Amon Amarth, no metal band has gotten away with recycling its sound so well for so long as Arch Enemy. For 15 years the German/Swedish band has been churning out the exact same hybrid of melodic death, thrash, and power metal, and it’s gotten to the point where you can pinpoint striking similarities between new songs and old songs. But like Amon Amarth, Arch Enemy has an uncanny knack for making repeated ideas sound fresh, and as a result the band has been able to not only maintain its popularity but sell more albums with each new release. The fact is the fans know exactly what to expect, and Arch Enemy always delivers.
Those who follow Arch Enemy closely will tell you that there are distinct differences between their albums, and that’s definitely the case with their eighth full-length Khaos Legions. After 2001’s Wages of Sin, the explosive debut of vocalist Angela Gossow, the band, led by former Carcass guitarist Michael Amott, has been continually tinkering with its approach. The template has always been the same, but subsequent releases have varied in tone: 2003’s breakthrough Anthems of Rebellion was crisp to the point of feeling rather sterile, 2005’s Doomsday Machine was punchier but also far more polished, while 2007’s Rise of the Tyrant returned to the raw, more aggressive approach of Wages of Sin. The latter album worked so well for the band, especially Gossow, who benefited immensely from the less processed approach to her vocals, that it was enough to think Arch Enemy would continue this route from now on.
Interestingly, the band tweaks things a little more on Khaos Legions. Again, there’s nothing new in the songwriting department at all, but the way Amott and Doomsday Machine producer Rickard Bengtsson shapes the sound on the new album tones down the ferocity considerably. While it diminishes the visceral impact of the songs, the more restrained touch forces listeners to focus on the band’s other big strength: the melodies. Amott is one of the best guitar soloists in metal, able to create expressive, catchy solos that still appease the shred-heads, while he and his brother Christopher create the finest dual guitar tandems around, and the way their melodies and harmonies offset the blunt assault of Gossow’s distinct snarl is what makes Arch Enemy work so well. On Khaos Legions the Amotts are in fine form, their hooks never overwhelmed by over-the-top production.
What also makes this particular album work so well is its sequencing. As familiar as this all is to longtime listeners, the band actually does a smart job of creating a nice, subtle ebb and flow from track to track. After the requisite barnstormer “Yesterday is Dead and Gone”, it’s followed by the somber melody of “Bloodstained Cross”. Mid-paced stomper “Under Black Flags We March” follows in classic Dio fashion, which then segues into “No Gods, No Masters”, the closest thing the band has ever come to a ballad. We’re still privy to solid, well-timed extreme metal moments, with “Cult of Chaos” and “Vengeance is Mine” serving as prime examples, but with the production being as it is on Khaos Legions, the best moments are the ones where the band is more controlled.
As for Gossow, she’s grown into her role as frontwoman very well over the years. Her vocal delivery might be completely devoid of melody, but she’s one of the most dynamic screamers in metal, possessing a powerful voice that emasculates many of her male peers. In addition, she’s learned to enunciate better and better with each new record, and here she sounds terrific. Never mind the fact that she writes some of the most hackneyed metal lyrics this side of Manowar (“What doesn’t kill us / Makes us stronger / Locked and loaded / Ready to strike / Here we stand / Loud and proud / United as one”), at least she gets her message across clearly. It’s another example of how well Arch Enemy has refined its music; it’s all been done before, but the band does it better than anyone, and they’re still evolving, albeit a lot more subtly than other bands. Sometime’s it’s more of a challenge to sound fresh without constantly reinventing yourself, and Arch Enemy has done an admirable job of it yet again.