One part pop, one part -core, and one part power metal, Amaranthe could only have come from Sweden: a country and people so obsessively modern and image-conscious that they created the Eurovision industry, the national Twitter account, and the marketing model for trend-driven consumption from furniture to clothing. Even some of Sweden’s most iconic metal has produced surprisingly trend-driven second acts. In Flames‘ fall from melodeath darlings to nü-metal wannabes was followed by bands adopting the Swedecore sound. And what’s the most successful metal band that Sweden has produced since Gothenburg? Well, Ghost.1 But even for Sweden Amaranthe is another level entirely.
Amaranthe sounds like the result of Mountain Dew’s focus group survey on the soundtrack for their next ad campaign. “What,” this group of 40-something marketing grads mused, “do the kids find ‘hip’ and ‘fly’?” Helix is the resulting corporate memo: “the kids told us that they like pretty people playing dubstep, -core, nü-metal, empowered women, vaguely positive lyrics and a touch of power metal.” These strains run uncompromisingly through Helix. Each song—most of which fall in at about 3:30—is centered around sharp hooks that flash on a dynamically written album. Sometimes Amaranthe sport fat grooves or feisty breakdowns and others times soaring choruses or hints at reggaeton. Helix sounds fat but mechanical, like Devin Townsend producing an R&B-tinged foray into dubstep. Given the crushed dynamic range, the bass is basically inaudible, but it’s got all the presence that producers love to tell you about when trying to justify mastering albums so loudly that you can’t hear the bass (“you don’t really hear bass on good recordings, you hear fat guitar tone!”). But the drum samples sound as live as they ever have and Mörck’s guitars are his best yet. Helix has a hefty sound and its swerve toward more dubstep-infused breakdowns and grooves helps the band’s sound. Rather than aping ’90s Eurodance, they’ve taken electro sounds that more naturally work with heavy music, as exemplified by single “365.”
Amaranthe still sports three singers, but two-thirds of the original front-team have left. Elize Ryd, whose voice holds the deed to the majority of the album’s real estate, is still front and center. Her love of blue notes and vocal trills results in her taking the lead with a great set of pipes, first soprano range and a soulful heap of cultural appropriation. New clean singer/pretty boy Nils Molin (Dynazty) has taken over Jake E.’s blue steel poses, and the change is instantly noticeable. Molin spends more time in “power metal guy” territory than his predecessor (see: “Iconic” or stinker “Unified”). And unlike Elize, he’s blissfully incapable of being “soulful,” so he accomplishes “passion” with vocal inflection and dynamics instead.
Surprisingly, though, it’s screamer Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson who makes the biggest impression. While I jokingly pointed out that I hadn’t realized they had even replaced Sölveström on Massive Addictive, it’s clear that he’s a more dynamic and exciting vocalist. While Sölveström had the classic hardcore habit of defining his vocal rhythms by his lung capacity, Wilhelmsson has developed a growl that reminds me of hardcore Busta Rhymes.2 Amaranthe feels most original—shines, if you will—when combining groove, core, dubstep and Wilhelmsson’s spitfire growls (“My Haven” or “CG6,” for example). No one can make screaming “BREAKTHROUGH STARSHOOOOT” sound tough,3 but Wilhelmsson’s performance is a highlight.
And as Helix contains the band’s best material to date, some moments shine. “365” has a genuinely sultry groove and hooky as fuck chorus. Title track “Helix” is like a poppy Sunburst track, with drummer Sørensen and bassist Andreassen working in tandem to knock out savage, memorable chugs. “My Haven” features the best chorus on the album, reminiscent of Angra‘s “Crushing Room,” and a super slick and badass breakdown. Only cheesy croonfest “Unified” was just too cliche to listen to more than a half dozen times.4
But Helix‘s issue is that it’s packed to the brim with tracks that sound vaguely—or totally—familiar. “Countdown,” for example, sounds like a rehash of 2014’s “Drop Dead Cynical,” which sounded like an unfortunate and unholy union of Britney Spears and Marilyn Manson‘s “The Beautiful People.” “Inferno” is a dead ringer for Ed Sheeran‘s “Shape of You,”5 and “Countdown” reminds me of Steven Wilson‘s “Permanenting.” But even worse is the list of tracks like “Dream” or “Helix” that have choruses that activate all the secondhand pop I’ve consumed in my life, giving Helix the feeling of being deeply derivative and me this disorienting sense that I’ve heard these songs before.
Helix begins with a quote: “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that will.” As a statement of intent, this got me thinking: what is Amaranthe‘s lasting legacy? Twenty-eighteen’s incarnation of the band sees them recapitulating their contributions to the scene—such as they are—with a 12-song, 42-minute album that is slick-as-hell and set for success. Helix is an arguably original synthesis of modern pop, electronica, and -core/nü-metal that has been honed to a razor edge by state of the art production. It is well-played, well-written and it may produce radio hits, land on the Heatseeker and Hard and Heavy charts and sell well. But what, I wonder, will we remember Amaranthe for when their time has come? Listening to Helix, I think the answer is clear. Like 1980s IKEA couches and old tweets from @Sweden, Amaranthe is a band that we’re all going to look back on with a shake of the head. Even at its best, the band’s sound is dependent on a sound palette that so clearly dates to the 2010s that their music can only ever be a passing fancy. But while there is nothing timeless about Helix, I’m either getting used to their sound, or they’re getting better!
- Even Swedish black metal is more image-oriented than other countries, IMO. The best example of this is Watain, who tend to their image carefully. ↩
- Oh shit, you didn’t see THAT one coming, did you? Anyway, he’s not quite as fast, but it has a similar “rat-a-tat-tat” feel in context. ↩
- Could be worse, could be “MY ELECTROOOOHEAAAART!” ↩
- But I’m pretty sure Nils sings “Where the ray guns never fade!” which is kinda badass. ↩
- I am cutting it deep on this review ↩