Not long ago, sweating the steely Damocles ax of content output, I considered outing my own Indefensible Position: Soilwork‘s most recent two full-lengths, The Living Infinite and The Ride Majestic, are their best. Formulaic? Sure, but riddled with tip-top bangers and speedy sing-alongs stronger than any they’d ever done. That both received 2.0s balled my segmented digits into puny rage nuggets whenever that betrayal came to fore. But then, an oddity: I re-spun the damned things, probably for the first time with my shiny reviewer ears, and found my ire lessened. Infinite should be halved, and Majestic approximated an Infinite imitation of B+ sides. 2.0s, no, but not 4.5s either. My denial burst, my bubble dashed, I can only pray for Verkligheten at the end of the tunnel.
Thankfully—or not, as the case may be—not much has changed. Soilwork‘s propulsive melodeath riffs and chorus-heavy construction have always been engineered to shoot to the top of the charts, and Verkligheten is no different. Opener proper “Arrival” isn’t as easy to sing along to as previous stuff, but don’t fret, we’ll get there. Paced by violins, its light and progressive midsection presages Soilwork‘s seemingly newfound desire to explore—at least, as far as the parking lot. In actuality, Wvrm binkie/vocalist Björn “Speed” Strid and guitarist David Andersson’s recent dalliances in retro love affair The Night Flight Orchestra lead songs to sail on elements that may sound oh so familiar to residents of West Ruth Avenue. The cores of “The Nurturing Glance” and “Stålfågel” blur the lines between the projects, sounding downright retro-rock at points. “Full Moon Shoals” features Soilwork‘s heaviest passage in years, but the chorus vocal melody screams NFO so loudly that I’m wondering if the pleas for Strid and Andersson to make the Orchestra their primary outfit finally got to them. Fear not (or do, depending on your tastes): it’s not all retro-rock. As with all their records this side of The Panic Broadcast, Verkligheten promises catchy, if predictable, melodeath rippers across the board.
However, though Soilwork‘s album padding habits usually result in Swiss cheese tracklists, the ratio of whiff to hit hasn’t been this low in a decade. The tidal wave of bulletproof bangers on Infinite and Majestic allowed me to gloss over their misses. Here, entries fail those sky-high standards and the sinking tide lowers all ships. Even the patented Soilwork formula seems frayed. The magnificent chorus of “Witan” can’t pass without me making a mockery of the vocal arts,1 but where’s the riff? “Needles and Kin” does the opposite. Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis) puts some USDA prime into a sublime verse direction, but the so-so chorus practically begs for his iconic cleans. Verkligheten almost never congeals around the modern Soilwork sound we’ve come to expect with a satisfying execution. Only “The Ageless Whisper” and Avantasian closer “You Aquiver” manage this without Saturday Night Speedster slapping a beret on and showing me his speedwagon.2
Worst of all, Thomas Johansson’s production is even more of an ear-slaughtering abomination than Jens Bogren’s ever was. It’s so masterfully bricked that the studio execs probably needed a new set of under-roos after they received the final product. The bass is hypothetical, the spacing sub-atomic, and the drums pummel everything into submission, to the point that tracking new kitman Bastian Thusgaard’s (Dawn of Demise) performance legitimately frustrates me at times. Soilwork likely intended the guest vocals of Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy) on “Stålfågel” to duel for the spotlight. Instead, she’s obliterated to the point that for a while I thought they brought in Anna-Mia Bonde or Anna Brygard from NFO for backing layers. I even checked the bitrate to see if some other shenanigans were at play, but nope, it’s just a big-budget bomb.
I play bangers. It’s what I do, and as long as Soilwork keep dropping them, I’ll keep eating them up. I already sense my feelings on Verkligheten’s better bits crystallizing into “Fight me” territory and fence-sitters like “Witan” growing on me. I’ll probably regret this review immediately after handing it in, but the fanboy can hold his tongue for ten damn seconds while the grown-up bites the fucking bullet. Too many issues and too many tracks worth skipping or second-guessing prevent wholesale recommendation. Soilwork still produce the best pop-structured metal this side of Equilibrium. They just need to do it more consistently next time.