It’s a ritual most metalheads born in the 80’s have participated in. At some point, that guy who got into metal a few months before you did comes up to you, brandishing a discman, and says: “You gotta hear this, there’s a band with a chick who can growl!” In 10% of the cases, he’d have Kittie or Otep with him, but most of the time he’d be talking about Arch Enemy, the melodic death metal band whose primary distinguishing feature is having a chick who can growl. At the time, they were highly regarded and respected; nowadays, the band is mostly known as the mediocre main project for artists with awesome side projects, like Spiritual Beggars, Night Flight Orchestra and Witchery. Can the band turn things around on Will to Power, their 11th outing?
Skipping the uncreative intro, “The Race” seems to suggest so, containing a very fine nugget of d-beat influenced melodic rage. Alissa White-Gluz (ex-The Agonist) snarls and spits over the rabid riffing, and the solo is tidy and intense. The guitars have always been the strong suit of the band, and Jeff Loomis has brought the fireworks to every solo, while founder Amott sounds consistent on the riffwork. The latter is especially obvious on most of the choruses, like “The World is Yours,” which alternates between thrashy chugging and catchy stadium-ready pop-metal, and the lone wolf Maiden-inspired leads of “The Eagle Flies Alone.” The guitar tone is slick and clean, and aside from Alissa’s growl, modern Arch Enemy is more power metal than melodic death metal.
“Reason to Believe” signals the end of the decent songs on Power, with an uneven track that is half true ballad, half power-ballad, and feels forced and out of balance throughout. Part of the blame lies in the awkward, cliche-riddled lyrics that permeate the album, even songs that are otherwise not offensive to the ear, such as “Blood in the Water” (‘There’s blood in the water, there’s fear in the air, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.) Alissa takes the foreground even more than usual here, including clean vocals in the verses and bridges, and it rubs the blandness of the composition in your face. Furthermore, the track actually doesn’t sound like it should’ve had any harsh vocals at all, yet the chorus has to keep reminding us that this is the band with the chick who can growl.
Beyond this point, the album doesn’t recover. With tracks ranging from uninspired (“My Shadow and I,” “First Day in Hell”) to awkward and imbalanced (“Dreams of Retribution,” “A Fight I Must Win”), none of the remaining songs escape the clutches of mediocrity. For all the polish that went into the instrumental sound, it doesn’t reflect on the songwriting. There is a constant feel of compositions being thrown together, especially when tracks like “Dreams of Retribution” switch between ominous harpsichord and triumphant power metal at the drop of a hat. Even the riffs have a high amount of ‘I’ve heard this somewhere before,’ and I spend as much time trying to figure out what each track reminds me of as I do listening to the music. When an album constantly makes you think of other, better artists, it’s a demonstration that inspiration is truly threadbare for Arch Enemy.
The term pop metal is often used and abused for a wide range of symptoms, like overly slick and loud production, misuse of electronic elements, simplistic songwriting that focuses on choruses and forgets the rest, and centering on the vocalist without regard for the rest of the band. In one way or another, modern Arch Enemy fits all the above points. Their sole saving graces are some catchy melodies and bloody good guitarwork, but the overall impression remains that of a band more concerned with imagery and reputation than simply making good music. An album from a band this big shouldn’t sound this much like an uninspired mish-mash. Perhaps it’s telling that where labels usually send one or two promotional pictures of the band, the promo for Will to Power was loaded with 10 of them. Image over music.