As a young boy I learned a really important lesson at the hands of one of my favorite bands, Europe. You laugh, but I was 5 and it was the ’80s, so I was well within my rights to listen to Europe. In 1984, Sweden’s very own, very popular foray into glam rock released a record called Wings of Tomorrow. The album cover was simple. An armored bird of prey, in profile against a red planet cradled in a vast blanket of stars, ready to attack an unseen foe. Five-year-old me was in awe. My unconstrained imagination transported me into space with this mighty, ironclad hawk, to fight futuristic wars. This set the stage for a magical listening experience and the record is still one of my favorites.
When I finally got around to The Final Countdown something important had changed: the cover was five poofy haired dudes in space. No suspension of disbelief, no imagination, just Swedish glam rockers in space. And the record? Well, it had one great song… and in retrospect a lot of stinkers. It was certainly not a worthy follow-up to Wings of Tomorrow. In that moment an important seed of distrust of bands with their own pictures on the cover of a record was instilled in me1. If a band isn’t creative enough to come up with a cool record cover, that band probably isn’t creative enough to write really good music.
This bias has been repeatedly confirmed for me through the years, but one example stands out from the rest: Amaranthe. The band, based in the south of Sweden, is a ‘semi-supergroup’ made up of members in, or formerly in, a number of different well-known bands like Dreamland, Dragonland, Dream Evil, Mercenary, and Nightrage. With a solid grounding in power metal and even a bit of thrash, one could expect something fast and melodic, but fairly traditional from Amaranthe. But looking at the cover, you know that’s not what’s coming. No, instead, we’re treated to trendy Swedes in an electrical storm; the metal version of a Spice Girls cover, an updated version of poofy-haired dudes in space.
The Nexus is exactly what it seems; a plastic, packaged and finely-tuned pop machine that produces perfect 3 minute songs that run the gamut of variation between E-Type meets metalcore, Eurovision meets modern rock and Stratovarius meets dubstep.Splitting vocal duties among three vocalists – the metalcore guy who appeals to girls who like badboys, the power metal guy who appeals to girls who like pretty boys, and the pop star who appeals to middle-aged men in power metal bands – everything here is perfectly mis-balanced. While Elize Ryd gets most of the play, the two dudes in the band share roughly equal time across the record. The screamer gets 5 minutes and 57 seconds of vocal time on this 42 minute record, while clean male vocalist gets more vocal time because he gets to do a modern rock bullshit song called “Burn with Me,” which sounds like 3 Doors Down and is the record’s absolute low point.
Of course, Elize is really the ultimate focus of this band. Her frustrated pop music career taking its form in Amaranthe‘s slick, catchy songwriting. “The Nexus,” for example, sounds like it could be a Britney Spears song, whereas “Electroheart,” probably the greatest affront to heavy music since Limp Bizkit, features a straight up bad ’90s techno song with distorted guitar. “Razorblade” belongs in Eurovision Song Contest, on the other hand. The chorus evokes a woman in a glittery bodysuit smiling creepily at the camera that she can’t stop making eye contact with out of a deeply neurotic need to be seen.
The lyrics to these songs are embarrassing as a matter of convention. One of the tricks of pop music is to write lyrics that are nebulous and ambiguous in order to appeal to everyone who could possibly ever listen to the song. This, plus a general sense of diaphanous positivity (“Invincible,” “Future on Hold,” “Afterlife,” “Infinity,” and so on), makes having a screamer in the band ridiculous. The point of screaming, especially the hardcore types that Andy Solveström does, is to sound tortured and upset. Dude is supposed to be angry. But given the lyrics, his only reason for being tortured is because he has to scream “ONE MORE TIIIIIIIME!” to add tension to Elize’s pop chorus in “Invincible” or because his place in life is to metal up the words “MY ELECTROHEART!”
The backup band for these vocalists is actually a pretty talented group of dudes. While bassist Johan Andreasson (ex-Engel) goes completely missing in the mix, Olof Mörck (Dragonland, Nightrage) is a more than adequate player, and some of his solos are fun to hear. Drummer Morten Løwe Sørensen (Dragonland, Mercenary) is also a genuine talent and obviously is paid quite well as he hasn’t quit despite having drum machine hi-hat superimposed over his playing on “Electroheart” to give it that shittier sound the band is after. Everything here is produced to be as huge, loud, modern and dense as possible. The quality is fantastic, but the playing is boring. The chug riffs that show up to give the screamy guy a reason to scream aren’t heavy or challenging, the drums rarely get extreme or technical and the bass is, well, inaudible.
All of this isn’t to say that there isn’t an appeal here. These songs are well-written pop songs that are built to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They’ve got the chug, the solo, the talented vocalist who hits the notes and delivers her stuff perfectly. They’ve even blended in dubstep in “Electroheart,” “Afterlife,” and it’s a part of their sound that works pretty well on “Stardust,” which has a good breakdown on the back end. Hell, they even have a really great moment in the track “Future on Hold” which has a metal-as-fuck pre-chorus where Elize sounds tough, not glittery. It’s just that a band like Amaranthe won’t live up to future listens, as one reader commented. Their sound is shallow, their songs are formulaic, the initial appeal of the catchiness will wear off and it will be dated as hell in 5 years.
In fact, that might be one of the tricks to cover art. Cover art, like production and music, that is driven by the trends of the moment doesn’t live up to longterm scrutiny. Instead, we see something and we say “Oh god, the ’70s” or “Man, the ’90s were terrible.” Some things are eternal, like Iron Maiden record covers before 1994 or Wings of Tomorrow. Some things are trends that will be boring or, more likely, embarrassing in 10 years: like The Final Countdown, Linkin Park and Amaranthe. Despite that this record is better than the self-titled atrocity, this band hasn’t turned the page and gotten interesting. The hooks will catch, but they won’t stick.