I’ve made a terrible mistake. A horrible decision that I can never take back. My knuckles are bruised and my hand is broken. My teeth are ground down to useless stumps. My vision swims in front of me, a blur of shapes and motion. Is the blood trickling from my ears real or another deception wrought upon me by untrustworthy eyes? My clenched abdominal muscles send me to my knees, doubled over, as pain wracks my fragile body. As you can see, promo selection at AMG is a brutal process. If you are late to the game, all the good stuff has been picked by the vultur- I mean, my colleagues, and your choices are reduced to black metal, metalcore or symphonic metal (which nearly always means Nightwishcore.) I was late this time, and Jorn help me, I picked symphonic power metal album Phoenix Aflame completely blind. I recall my last thought before my own private hell was unleashed: “Can’t be worse than Akoma.”
Traditionally, the second paragraph is meant for the positive points. I have heard worse production jobs, and though it’s modern and squashed, and the secondary instruments like the keyboard and violin are lost in the mix, at least it doesn’t have the incessant clipping issues Akoma did and it’s not so brickwalled it makes it difficult to listen to for any length of time. Everything else takes care of that just fine.
Everything that is not offensively bad on Phoenix Aflame is offensively bland. This is some of the most toothless, sugary, insipid, Eurovision-ready music ever to subscribe to the name of metal. The guitars chug with no soul or flavor like a frat-house party with alcohol-free beer, occasionally perking up to deliver a solo, remaining careful not to sound too enthusiastic. Still, they offer some diversion, and in the desert the smallest tree is a beauty. The drums are utterly nondescript, never getting more exciting than a stretch of bass kicks in “Phoenix Aflame” and in closer “Healer of Hatred,” coincidentally the two tracks that cause the least gastric acid. I’m sure the abuse of keyboards for some faux-symphonics comes as a complete surprise, though fair is fair, the technicolor does not reach Amaranthe levels.
But where Amaranthe at least has a fairly talented woman on the mic, the voice on Phoenix Aflame hass assaulted my ears and haunted my nightmares since the first spin. On a medium, conversation-level pitch, she sounds merely like Katy Perry exchanged her talent for a guitar in a Faustian deal with a horned and hooved record company executive. Even at her best she sounds like a contestant who dropped out of The Voice before the live shows, although she is at her most tolerable when she doesn’t reach for the sun, like the world’s least impressive Icarus. When she stretches for higher registers, however, even that’s thrown overboard. She can’t nail the higher notes, let alone sustain them, so the choruses regularly turn painful ear-stabbing with every attempt. On top of that, the sheer effort clenches her voice and gives her an unpleasant nasality, like someone is mildly strangling Ariana Grande.
It seems like the slower the song, the more noticeable this is, perhaps because her attempts at sustaining notes draw attention to it. I thought the worst would be ballad “Not My God,” where she deviously enslaves Spiritual Beggars vocalist Apollo Papathanasio into joining her for the most cringe-inducing duet since Grease. But “Velvet Road” demonstrated that I’m lucky my knot-tying skills are insufficient to make a proper noose in 4 minutes. As the pitch and agony ramp up during the chorus I become convinced this is a creative torture method, released upon the unsuspecting world during a CIA test-drive. This record is so bad it has me constructing conspiracy theories to explain its existence.
Extreme scores always cause a rabble. People bicker and argue whether it really is that bad. “The guitar elevates it” or “you’re overreacting on the vocals.” However, at the end of the day, what counts most is not the separate elements, it’s how the album makes you feel. Phoenix Aflame makes me feel awkward, feverish, queasy, horrified, embarrassed, nauseated, depressed, desperate, suicidal, and with long enough exposure, it’ll make me feel dead. I’d rather listen to Akoma any time.