Album Review: Arch Enemy - "War Eternal"

Arch Enemy is one of those bands whose career can be broken down into segments and viewed individually by vocalist. It all began with Johan Liiva, the grating grunter who teamed up with the brothers Arnott and brought the band to worldwide fame. Liiva’s tenure was characterized largely by noise, as Arch Enemy blended black and death metal with the heady tradition of European twin guitars.

Second in the chain and perhaps most prominently was vocalist Angela Gossow, who guided the band for some fourteen years and saw them achieve the greatest peaks in their popularity. Her vocal style was a stark departure from Liivas, consisting almost entirely of burning acid screams juxtaposed over the guitar theatrics of the Arnotts, one of whom was in and out of the band, but mostly in. With Gossow at the helm, Arch Enemy occupied a unique space in the metal sphere, the rare (at the time) occurrence of an attractive female singer who didn’t sound like a siren while fronting a powerhouse death metal band.

There was more to it than simple novelty, though – Arch Enemy could play. The curious twist seemed to be that the longer Gossow was in the band, the more the band turned ever so slowly away from the brutality of pure death metal and into a sort of accessible, hook-laden death. This eventually culminated with 2011s “Khaos Legions,” a solid record that left some fans wondering what direction Arch Enemy was headed in.

Gossow departed the band early in 2014, naming the equally photogenic singing banshee Alissa White-Gluz, formerly of The Agonist as her successor. Thus, the book is closed on Gossow’s chapter of Arch Enemy’s musical history (and the poppier subchapter,) so now we move to a third era with the summer release of “War Eternal.”

Or do we? White-Gluz vocals on the record are difficult to distinguish from what Gossow’s might have been, which I mean not as an insult or compliment, but merely as a statement of fact. In picking the next front-woman, Arch Enemy found somebody who can bring the same tableau of skills to the table and thus have been able to write a record without having to worry about adjusting their compositional style to the differing talents of a new singer.

“War Eternal” finds Arch Enemy overall in excellent creative space. The band, now one Arnott down following Christopher’s (second) departure in 2012, replaced him with Nick Cordie, most recently of Arsis. (Attentive fans will remember the two toured together not so many years ago.) Even with the impressive brotherly tandem sundered, Arch Enemy doesn’t suffer a single setback in terms of guitar theatrics. Cordie and Michael Arnott have composed rhythms, melodies and riffs that capture that idiomatic blend of ferocity and familiarity that has been so synonymous with Arch Enemy. Just tune into “No More Regrets,” and you’ll hear a piece that blends some of the fundamentals of Judas Priest with a taste of the power of Firewind and at least a piece of Pro-Pain’s fury.

To that end, Arch Enemy has backed away from some of the wide-open, radio-friendly moments that ran throughout the duration of “Khaos Legions.” That’s not to say we’re back to “Black Earth” or anything, but it’s fair to say that the band has found a nice medium between the two. There are plenty of dense, pulsing constructs wandering the dark corners of “War Eternal,” not the least of which are cuts like “Never Forgive, Never Forget,” and “Down to Nothing.” But fans who want a little something more that straight pulverization will find great reward in the remarkably expansive and stunning “Avalanche,” a song that unfolds in more and more layers as it goes along. It has all the requisite pieces of a metal classic – a chugging breakdown, big keyboards for atmosphere and an artistic solo quickly followed by a fist-banging chorus.

Similarly, there is a delicate beauty couched within the twisting and contorting of “Time is Black,” another modern anthem that speaks to Arch Enemy’s ability to blend elements with the best in the business. In this way, the band in the present lineup is a sort of chameleon of metal; they can play to whichever taste they desire with equal ability. What can’t be overstated is that the band’s latent versatility is entirely a credit to the inherent versatility of Arnott and Cordie, who seem adept at not only hammering the listener with well-timed punishment, but then lifting them up with a rousing and technically appreciable solo and harmony.

That said, there is a stretch in the middle of the album where the chameleon’s colors are not nearly as breathtaking. Reaching for some softer pieces to pace out the middle of “War Eternal” was a fine enough idea, but nothing really happens in the run between “You Will Know My Name” and “Stolen Life.” With an injection of thoughtful gravitas like we see in closer “Not Long For This World,” the middle of the album would have been more remarkable, but instead it comes across a lot like Metallica’s “Escape” on the seminal “Ride the Lightning”; there’s nothing wrong with it, but you’re going to skip it more times than not.

In summing up, it should be noted that “War Eternal” didn’t really unfold and capture me until roughly my third pass through it. So buyer beware – don’t give up on this record if it doesn’t blow you away immediately. The treasure is in there and it’s more than worth the price of admission, I assure you.

So what are we coming away with here? It’s hard to find an Arch Enemy album that’s universally beloved, but “War Eternal” has a real chance. The orchestration is borderline genius, the execution is measured and appropriately balanced at all times and the songs themselves are powerful, catchy or both. The composition of fine two-part guitar harmony remains the hallmark of the band and it is on full glorious display for this record. Find it. Spin it. Add it to your collection.

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