The Swedish melodic death metal scene of the 1990s had a huge impact on those who like their music with a crunch, its instigators infusing a searing sense of melody into the brutal noise terror of Entombed and Dismember, while elsewhere in the Far North, Norway’s black metal minions were burning churches and pledging themselves to Satan. Yet for all their marked influence in some of America’s most radio-friendly metal names, particularly As I Lay Dying, Killswitch Engage, and Shadows Fall, precious few traces remain of those Swedish folks renowned for shaping it. In Flames and Soilwork, after a few seminal albums, fell into step with the metalcore they helped forge, and At the Gates dissolved and reformed as the Haunted, who play the same so-called “mallcore” as the above. Depending on who you ask, the reaction you’ll get regarding these bands ranges from dismissals as sell-outs to a perceptive evolution based on the knowledge that it wouldn’t be long before the new style they had created was flooding the market. There is but one pioneer holding their ground release after release in the 21st century: Dark Tranquility.
Fiction happens to be the Gothenburg stoomtroopers’ eighth album since their inception in 1989, and while being both remarkably consistent and sounding genuinely authentic, the most important element — by far — is atmosphere. It’s true; diehards might and probably will scoff at the futuristic production, the risqué emphasis on brooding electronic keyboards, two very “un-metal” components to bring together; yet, despite the dull grey sleet-and-hills design of the cover art, this is a band finding ways to incorporate new colors into their palette yet remain true to their origins. Turbo-charged, rigorous, and on more than one occasion emotional, tricky fingerwork is present in full frontal levels, but that’s only half the good news. It’s the way this six-piece finds to set unnerving electronica to pure shredding that makes it spectacular, so Linkin Park should have no reservations whatsoever about taking notes and learning from the masters.
Vocalist Mikael Stanne, for that matter, who in his time has passed through such legends as In Flames and HammerFall, is well-suited to teach amateur death metal grunters a thing or two. On Fiction, he sings with — gasp — actual enunciation in a way that highlights the mournful lyrics, furthermore putting his whole body into the performance and forsaking the comical cookie-monster throat-based style. The other-worldly “Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive)” is the clear highlight of the set, intricately constructed around a coursing keyboard stanza, while the guitars batters relentlessly beneath it. It’s Anders Jivarp’s sharp staccato snare that provides many of the cuts with their backbone; throughout unstoppable old-school headbanger “Nothing to No One” (“The ultimate rebellion, the sacrifice is endless!”), bitingly melodic, piano-laced “Icipher” and fiercely driving “The Lesser Faith”, his patter patter keeps the music tumbling through top gear.
The second half of the album wages a mini-evolution on its own, by slowing the tempos and allowing the misery-ridden words to soak in a little more. Stanne contributes clean baritone vocals uncannily similar to that of Nevermore’s Warrel Dane, and the result is that the choruses here really resonate, from the muscular “Don’t bring it! Don’t bring it!” of “Misery’s Crown” to the challenging “Mundane and the Magic”, in which the band rightfully allow themselves the chance to stretch out all the different components of their complicated, thrashing synthesis and, in a style becoming increasingly popular for the genre, duet with a female singer, Theatre of Tragedy’s Nell Sigland.
Elsewhere, “Inside the Particle Storm” may be an utterly glum doomsday soundtrack. “Our lungs are filled with sarin / Our children drowning like dogs / Handcuffed to the weight of cold dark matter / Without purpose, meaning or name”, Stanne declares over the volatile stop-start mix, but it’s “Empty Me”, taking the snappy, incisive riffs of prime Gothenburg and bridging them to a danceable breakdown in the song’s middle section that proves that, for these melo-death masters, it’s all about showmanship, standing back and seeing where eighteen years of experience can take them. Fiction is a pinnacle of Dark Tranquility’s career, imbued with a sense of impassioned cohesion (method to the madness if you will), visible from the first bass-note of “Nothing to No One”, and enriched by repeat listens.