The ever-reliable Swedish bands gives us exactly what we want: more of the same, but better than last time.
Arch Enemy has made enormous strides in the last four or five years, first by revolutionizing extreme metal with the hiring of vocalist Angela Gossow, the most ferocious female screamer the genre has ever seen, then by streamlining the band's sound, focusing on the more anthemic, melodic aspect of their classic metal style, and thirdly, by having producer/mixer Andy Sneap take that more economical musical approach and give it all an ultra-slick lacquer. For those who had grown to love earlier, more raw albums like Wages of Sin and Burning Bridges, it seemed the Swedish quintet was starting to lose its edge, but as extreme metal began to draw a wider audience in recent years, the newly refined Arch Enemy quickly became a force, both live (thanks to relentless touring) and on the charts, with 2005's Doomsday Machine debuting at number 87 in America.
For all that success, though, the band, led by former Carcass guitarist Michael Amott, felt it needed to reassess its approach. As the band was just getting set to record its seventh album, Amott admitted to this writer that the band was in danger of painting itself into a corner and needed to return to the more aggressive style of Wages of Sin, and sure enough, Rise of the Tyrant does just that. The great producer Fredrik Nordström, who played a major role in defining Gothenburg, Sweden's melodic death metal sound a decade ago, reunites with Arch Enemy for the first time in six years, and his production style is felt immediately. As opposed to Sneap, who polishes his mixes to the point of almost sounding mechanical, we can feel the collective musicians thriving with Nordstrom at the helm. Amott and his brother Christopher (who has rejoined the band after a couple years off) offer an impeccable balance of melodic lead runs and thrash riffs tighter than dad's wallet, drummer Daniel Erlandsson isn't plagued by the high-end, clicking kick drum sound that Sneap tends to overuse, and best of all, Gossow really brings her A-game in a surprisingly versatile vocal performance.
Although the change is significant, this is still Arch friggin' Enemy we're talking about here, which means that this is the same honest, straightforward, efficient metal we've come to expect, only refined, employing the kind of forward thinking and acknowledgment of past sounds that the fans crave. The opening track is always key, on metal albums especially, and "Blood on Your Hands" establishes the band's more powerful approach instantly, starting with the intricate, stuttering central riff by the brothers Amott, and continuing with Gossow's feral snarl and Erlandsson's unrelenting double-kick beats. Ever the focal point, the famous guitar melodies and harmonies enter the fray, serving more as choruses than Gossow's vocal refrains, but never come at the expense of the riffs.
True to form, the rest of the album faithfully continues in this vein. "The Last Enemy" showcases Gossow's deceptive range as a screamer. Often unfairly dismissed as a monotone screamer, she's a force especially in live settings, and Nordström sets her free from the limiting vocal overdubs of the last two albums, allowing her to shine on this track, alternating from lower register growls to witch-like shrieks often in the same line. Meanwhile, Michael and Christopher Amott unleash scores fantastic melodies that hearken back to the classic proto-power metal era of Helloween and Yngwie Malmsteen, highlighted by a pair of synth-enhanced tracks in the soaring "I Will Live Again" and the old-school "The Day You Died". And sounding like it was lifted directly from the late-1980s, the rousing fist-pumper "Revolution Begins", destined to become a live staple for years to come, is a resounding success compared to the more tepid "We Will Rise" from four years ago.
Lyrically, Gossow remains as banal as ever, but with music as stubbornly classicist as Arch Enemy's, it's an appropriate fit, as she howls away at the usual themes of oppression (be they political or just coming from a grumpy parent), darkness, and self-empowerment. That said, though, the album's title track does kick off with an inspired sample of a Malcolm MacDowell monologue from Caligula, its parallels to a certain President disturbingly close. It's one of the smartest moments in the band's history, and as Gossow unleashes some of her most shattering vocals of her career and the Amotts continue to cement their status as the best guitar duo in metal today, we're both thrilled and relieved that they're still capable of some great ideas, and even better performances.