A few weeks ago, I described the latest Arch Enemy album as the bad kind of pop metal: too slick, too loud, too focused on choruses and too conscious about image. But there’s a different, less negative definition possible of pop metal: not afraid of loading the songs with easily digestible hooks, catchy melodies, EDM influences, simplistic structure and a focus on vocals. It’s daring, because it seems to aim at a gap between fandoms: too slick and not challenging enough for metalheads, but too heavy for the mainstream. Devin Townsend experimented with this on Addicted! and the Norwegian Shining has taken a leaflet on their last two albums. But with The Rabbit Hole, self-described progressive death pop band The Great Discord takes it a step further, and as far as I’m concerned, this might become the definitive album on the style.
The central figure in The Great Discord is Fia Kempe, who collaborated with Ghost on Popestar, and performs in an extravagant androgynous costume complete with buzzcut, wings on her head and white facial make-up. With her powerful contralto voice she elevates the music, wielding a clean tone that displays the pop sensibilities of the album without sacrificing the emotional depth that makes the music engaging. There’s a very loose Alice in Wonderland concept to the album, but it feels irrelevant to the execution: regardless, the payload of emotion is delivered with verve. Fia’s voice control is perfect, from the sardonic sneer of “Gadget” to the whispy “Neon Dreaming” where she shows she can use a husky timbre just as well as her belting on the catchy choruses of prior songs. Though momentum takes a hit there, it’s swiftly re-established with the empowering Eurovision-ready boomer “Cadence,” which is catchy enough to make all the kvlt flee into dark basements.
The compositions rely entirely on Fia’s myriad of vocal hooks and soaring leads, and as such, the instrumentation is sufficient but not as remarkable. The guitar is mostly confined to chugging power chords and familiar semi-acoustic noodling, aside from the occasional solo. On occasion, the sound does veer a bit closer to nu-metal, particularly on minor dud “Tell-tale Heart,” and this will likely be the most contentious element of The Rabbit Hole, but the well-constructed songwriting and Fia’s performance make it a moot point. The drums, courtesy of ex-Ghost ghoul Aksel Holmgren, are not complicated but hit hard and act as a driving force, and the bass provides a solid low end. It’s a reality of more pop-oriented music that the instruments are second fiddle to the vocals, but the band is geared towards supporting Fia and this way the band accentuate their strongest point.
One thing pop music has a love-hate relationship with is production. Oftentimes, the sound is slick and clean, the vocalist is thrust forward above all else, and the mastering is way too loud (the loudness war did not come from the underground after all, it came from competition on the radio.) The Great Discord don’t do too bad on this area, however. The mix does still favor the vocals, but this is hard to avoid when she’s the lynchpin of the band. The other instruments are not underscored too much, however, and the audible bass and big drums crackle with energy. By avoiding too loud a master and writing the songs with solid dynamics firmly in place, the The Rabbit Hole is easy on the ears and makes repeat spins a breeze.
I have no doubt this will be a divisive album. Many metalheads are highly allergic to anything that sounds remotely commercially acceptable. Some of the worst examples, like the similarly female-fronted pop metal band In This Moment, have left permanent scars. The poppy execution of The Great Discord is antithetical to the kvlt and brutal. I’ll count myself among the proselytizers, however. Fia’s massive voice, catchy songwriting that doesn’t lack depth, dependable production and flawless execution are evidence of a band with a laser-aligned focus and whose every move builds upon their core strengths. Like Ghost, their accessibility may soon see the band take on bigger stages, but it’s sheer talent and sense of identity that earned them the spot.