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Perception and Acceptability with Amaranthe’s The Nexus

March 25, 2013

There will be many — so so many reviews, opinions, forum rants, and of course YouTube comments that will take some pretty sharp, barbed digs with the metal pitchfork to this band and their new album The Nexus. Amaranthe offend many with a combination of sounds that hands tallied most metal fans would agree should not have ever been attempted. I’ve seen the old “just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done” line more than a few times in the past couple days. Conversely, this is a band with a surprisingly large contingent of often quite vocal supporters, many of them writing reviews for well known print and digital publications, and of course, they’ll be out there in full force online, equalizing the rebukes and jeers with various expressions of high praise — some of which will be ludicrously exaggerated. So here’s where I’ll step in, to offer a perspective from a fairly neutral middle ground.

Cards out, I’ll admit that I do enjoy Amaranthe’s deftly cobbled together blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing on a purely surface level — the same way I enjoy the ear candy pop of say Lady GaGa. In other words, this isn’t music that affects me on any sort of deeper level other than that I have a fondness for catchy hooks set to techno-y dance rhythms, pleasing vocals and harmony arrangements,  and a memorable melody or two. Not exactly the criteria combination one usually takes into account when appreciating a metal album, and that’s exactly the point. Remove the modern In Flames-lite heavy guitar riffing, the growling/screaming vocals of Andreas Solveström, and you’ll be left with whats essentially pure dance-pop.

So are we reviewing, criticizing, lambasting, or praising this album as a metal album when at its core its anything but? And if so, to what degree is that distorting our emotional response when we hear this music? The metal-related elements are present nonetheless —- but for what purpose? I suppose really, they serve to make Amaranthe’s music distinguishable from other dance-pop driven acts. No one to my knowledge has really done this kind of mash-up before, and while I won’t suggest handing the band a trophy for innovation, they do stand out as a result of the merging of these two disparate musical genres. Face it, after Finnish polka with death metal infusions, at some point, Amaranthe was bound to happen.
 

I first became aware of Amaranthe after reading the infamous Angry Metal Guy review of their eponymous debut album, a scathing indictment loaded with derision that essentially labeled the album as a record label/producer hit seeking concoction. It was the most scathing review I’d ever read on the site and out of pure curiosity I had to check out what was sure to be a disaster among disasters. Greater than my surprise that I actually found myself beginning to enjoy the album over those initial repeat listens, was the lack of any kind of reactionary feelings towards the numerous folks who were disparaging it. Their reactions were fair I thought, as I could understand all their criticisms, as well as accusations of disingenuous motives of the band/label/producer/etc. But it was what it was, I enjoyed music by a band that was loathed by many, and as it would seem over time, loved equally as much by others. Who makes up those others by the way is really hard to define. Case in point are the striking clips of Amaranthe’s 2012 appearance at Wacken Open Air, in which camera pans across the audience reveal an equal amount of enthusiastic guys and girls, and more than a few of them sporting the t-shirts of some far heavier bands.

Most of the attention on the band falls on the obvious eye candy appeal of front woman/lead vocalist Elize Ryd, about whom I tend to agree with the prevailing critical opinion: She’s a pop singer who has been seeking her rise to fame; and hitching a ride aboard the metal train has been a quick way to stand out and get there. Who knows, she may actually enjoy metal but its difficult to believe that she has a metallic bone in her body. That may be a judgmental perspective, but one can infer a certain amount of accurate information from observation. I think she’s actually one of the more uninteresting people in the band’s lineup, as I’m far more intrigued by the back stories of both guitarist Olof Mörck, and clean vocalist Jake E, who in addition to being the band’s founders also work together as it’s primary songwriters (contrary to the speculation that the band must’ve had Swedish hitmaker Max Martin tied up to a chair in a recording studio somewhere). Here are two guys who until now have both languished far and long in relative obscurity within the metal world.
 

When you see the term “supergroup” applied to Amaranthe, its a total misnomer. While Mörck is fairly central to the Dragonland project, their music never attracted much notice beyond hardcore power metal devotees, and those of us who were enthralled with their take on Limahl’s “The Neverending Story” (yes THAT song) from 2002’s Holy War album. Mörck’s time in Nightrage has been limited to their post-2006 era, being the replacement for founding member Gus G. and arriving well after the acclaimed Tomas Lindberg era. Jake E. meanwhile is often noted as being a former member of Dream Evil, yet his time in the band yielded no recorded output, being only a brief stint as the band’s vocalist for six months. His tenure with the now-on-hiatus melodic power metal band Dreamland attracted little notice apart from being associated with Hammerfall’s Joacim Cans early in their development. I’ll avoid getting into the blips of time that the remaining Amaranthe members have been in their oft-cited past bands.

Point is that for Mörck and Jake E., they had put in a decade’s worth of time and dedication into various metal projects that ultimately were fruitless in terms of notoriety, creative and commercial (relatively speaking) success. When they got together and thought up the idea for Amaranthe, I imagine that for them the writing was on the wall that they might not have a lot of chances left; in addition to seeing a potentially golden opportunity with Ryd, who at the time had only guest vocalist appearances on her resume. The gambit worked, and one album and world tour later these two guys finally found their first taste of real success, commercially and even critically speaking. Was it a “sell out” move by both of them? I have a hard time throwing that term at anyone these days, especially within metal where paying your dues means a lot more than just playing jangly guitar in some coffeehouse in the Village. Ultimately its the songwriting of both men that is propelling Amaranthe, and the irony here is that two guys from pure power metal backgrounds are finally finding success only by mingling with pop music (perhaps something they realized had to be done considering the vocal style of Ryd —- operatic, classical… these terms don’t apply here).

 
On The Nexus, they seem to be following the don’t fix it if it isn’t broken blueprint, which is shrewd and smart, yet subject to a touch of the sophomore slump. And before I delve into that let me just state that this album isn’t a mind changer by any means. Whatever you felt after listening to that first album is likely what you’re going to feel if you decide to listen to this one. As I mentioned before, I completely understand why so many find this stuff distasteful, and if you’re one of those people, you’d do yourself no favors subjecting your ears to this album. For those of us who did find some enjoyment in their debut, new songs like “Invincible”, “Future on Hold”, “Stardust”, and “Infinity” with its dual lead vocal harmonies offer similarly pleasing melodic ear candy. I’m usually pretty big on quality lyrics, and they’re only serviceable at best here. Sometimes its hard to tell what some of these songs are going on about; but it doesn’t factor into the enjoyment level one way or another.

There are however a few tracks that seem to be indistinguishable, a misstep that they managed to avoid on their debut. As well as a startlingly awful moment with the utterly misguided “Electroheart”, a song so bad I can’t fathom why no one in that recording studio spoke up to say “guys, this is shit”. Whats even more unfortunate than it’s ultra bubblegum melody at work throughout is the fact that Andreas Solveström finds himself having to scream out the words “Electro Heart!” Its an embarrassing display that simply ends up being more ammunition for their detractors to utilize. Fire away guys… they earned the abuse with that one. Another noteworthy flaw is the overall absence of any remotely organic sound palettes, as this thing is over synthesized to a fault: The highlight of their overall-better debut album was the shimmering solo piano and vocal led “Amaranthine”, a stirring ballad that had space to breathe with a simple vocal melody that was effectively the backbone of the song. The ballad on The Nexus is “Burn With Me”, which while easy enough to envision being played on American rock radio, comes drowned in sound effects and lacks the ethereal nature of its predecessor.

Despite the hate and the over the top adulation this band receives, I think one important aspect of their success is forgotten amidst the back and forth. Amaranthe has a place within metal as an accessible gateway band for younger or uninitiated listeners. A teenager who is into regular rock could stumble upon this, get drawn in by the male and female clean vocals, catchy pop hooks, and find the admittedly mild toned screaming vocals easy on their palette. One thing leads to another and they’ll stumble upon heavier bands, perhaps someone touring alongside Amaranthe, or an Elize Ryd connection like Kamelot, and then a few bands later they find themselves listening to Omnium Gatherum, Insomnium, then At the Gates, then Nile… its possible. And a lot more likely than just having that person listen to Black Seeds of Vengeance and think its the greatest thing in the world (I’m sure its happened once but its unlikely). Awhile back I spotlighted a brilliant article written by Tom Dare of Metal Hammer, in which he argued that underground/experimental metal was interdependent with more mainstream/cover star metal.

He summarized it succinctly,

New young fans get into metal through the cover stars. I could try and tell you I got into metal through Anaal Nathrakh and Nasum on their debut albums, but I’d be lying, and obviously so… The reality is that metal needs all of its aspects, be they experimental and obtuse, crushing and horrible or catchy as an airborne variant of herpes in the Underworld… You don’t need to necessarily like it yourself, but if you think the end of the metal spectrum you love would be better off without the more/less marketable material, you’re madder than a collaboration between Deathspell Omega and Kate Bush.

– Tom Dare

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2013 12:38 pm

    “Amaranthe has a place within metal as an accessible gateway band for younger or uninitiated listeners”…Luckily I trianed my kids early to have an ear for what true metal artistry is. Not lipstick on a pig.

  2. Eric permalink
    March 25, 2013 1:31 pm

    Very good article, Pigeon. Personally, I don’t understand why there’s so much animosity directed at these guys. I’m 39, been a metalhead since I was 12, grew up on the usual like most of us (i.e., Maiden, Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, etc. I mostly listen to power metal these days because I like melody and catchy choruses that stick in my head. People make it like a crime that god forbid, these guys have the skill to come up with that type of music. Gasp! The horror! Or they sit there and debate whether it’s “metal” enough or if it’s too “pop”. The best is how they’re supposed to be some kind of sinister conspiracy-like effort to sell out and get into the mainstream. I say best of luck to them, they’re musicians, they have to eat and support their families like everyone else, don’t they? Also, maybe, just maybe, they actually want to make this type of music because it’s what they like? It’s ridiculous how everyone becomes Manowar when it comes to these guys, “Death to false metal!”. I agree that the Nexus isn’t as good as their debut and is way overproduced but I’d rather that than a cd that sounds like St. Anger. “Electroheart” is pretty bad, I’ll give you that, but I think the rest of the songs are pretty damn good. Anyway, that’s my two cents on the subject…

    • March 25, 2013 2:08 pm

      Yeah its where perception comes into play that affects a lot of opinions about polarizing bands. If we’re just reviewing the music where its simple subjectivity that determines one’s opinion or critique about an album… well that’s fair on both sides. You like what you like and dislike what you don’t.

      But I think the reason I wanted to address certain issues in this article was because I’ve seen a lot of commentary all over the online metal world about this band’s motives, where I don’t see that kind of analysis or speculation regarding most other bands. Its a preoccupation within metal audiences that I feel like is very dated, particularly in a post-social media world where it seems the workings of business and art and commerce are becoming more and more transparent, portable, and accessible than ever before. Particularly with the music industry and the finances/workings of bands.

      I sort of thought everyone was disinterested in the very idea of calling someone a sell-out, especially since it seems even the most artistically driven of bands tend to be open and honest about how much things like finances, advertising, opportunities and marketing matter. Yet this band and a few others I can think of have that term thrown around at them quite a bit. I’m not trying to come across as some sort of fairness police or even fanboy — I’d say my article was more driven by a building up of surprise at these types of reactions. Maybe I’M naive.

  3. L Roy permalink
    March 25, 2013 9:02 pm

    I saw your comment on this review over at AMG, and I left another pretty much agreeing with your take on this. I find it a little disappointing that AMG himself, especially after writing his Aug 2012 article ‘Genres as Pejoratives’ (telling everyone to stop positively correlating “kvlt” with “good” metal), still goes out of his way to write a bad review on the basis that its just crafted for the hooks and has no basis in ‘real’ metal. The irony is that power metal has always been the cheesiest of all metal, yet Serenity’s new one – based on nothing other than catchy choruses and pompous electronic layers – gets a 4/5 over at AMG. I’d even go so far as to argue half of Metallica (Hammett and Ulrich) don’t have the chops to play half the songs on the The Nexus, yet apparently its OK for them carry on because they wrote Master of Puppets 25 years ago…

    In any case, you must take every record for what it is. Shameless cash in on the genre, perhaps; but that doesn’t mean they – or any other band for that matter – need to write a new Master of Puppets or Transylvanian Hunger every time they want to put something out. Why does metal have this fascination with being seen as classic or timeless? Nightwish’s ‘Dark Passion Play’ didn’t hold a candle to any of their previous works, yet it was still an enjoyable record. As was Within Temptation’s last one. As was Devin Townsend’s ‘Epicloud’.

    Why is it so wrong for a ‘metal’ (whatever that means) band to write something I might sing along to for a few months before going to back to the classics?

    • March 25, 2013 11:38 pm

      Despite having a differing opinion, I’ll admit to enjoying Angry Metal Guy’s Amaranthe reviews, and I felt he was far more judicious in his review of The Nexus when compared to his review of their debut (which I believe even he recently admitted that he was too harsh in some respects). Personally I just felt that he, among some other reviewers online were focusing on ideas like motive far more than, like you said, a typical power metal band would receive.

      The idea that this band was some sort of producer pieced together metal N’Sync was not only misinformed, but rather over the top. I mean its written in the credits for the debut that the songs were written by Olof Morck and Jake E Berg, so I didn’t understand where all the talk of motive was coming in. By that token many other moderately successful metal bands should be put to the same degree of suspicion, such as Within Temptation, Avantasia, Nightwish, Amorphis, Kamelot, etc etc etc.

      • March 29, 2013 7:05 am

        Say what you want, this music is obviously constructed to be this. There’s no way they just ‘naturally’ came to this sound. It’s a gimmick. They chose Elize because she works for what they’re going for. They write their songs formulaically to appeal to a very specific type of person. Their press meets were all about “what good friends” they are, and their pictures are all super chummy. I don’t care what you say, that shit was _planned_ like that for one reason or another. Bands make really specific PR choices and Amaranthe is a band that thinks they have a shit ton to gain in that regard. And they do, they just went gold in Sweden.

        Spinefarm could have saved me the trouble of wondering who was writing the songs by giving me liner notes. They never did, I walked into that record entirely blind. And the songwriting is fantastic, if you like Britney Spears, and so I said what I thought. A thought that would never have been said if I’d seen the writing credits and lyrics ahead of time.

      • March 29, 2013 4:51 pm

        Totally fair on the songwriting issue – and yeah information should have been provided especially for a new band (and particularly this one in question so that’s Spinefarm dropping the ball there).

        Interesting note about the press meets, but I wonder if there isn’t a colonel of truth to that in the sense that Morck and Jake E Berg ran in the same circles for many years, and Ryd has been dipping into the metal world periodically since her early guest appearances on those two Blad-less Falconer records in the middle of the past decade. They certainly didn’t audition vocalists for the gig so it could be presumed that they knew her personally before asking if she’d be interested. I don’t know…. are they going for the commercial jugular, sure, but its not quite a label/manager/producer chart buster concoction either.

        As with most situations the truth is probably a little bit of everything.

    • March 29, 2013 7:01 am

      In my defense, I don’t feel I criticized them for the idea. I criticized them for the music. I think the music is catchy, but shallow. I find the presentation to be frustrating and annoying and I the formula to be irritating. I think I was honest about the issue and I treated this album like I treat any other record I review. I actually enjoyed this record more, but the point is that it’s simple, deftly crafted to appeal to the lowest common denominator and therefore can’t be interesting in the long run.

      I hated Within Temptation’s last record, which got a 5/5 because fangirl reviewed it. When something comes off as being overtly commercial, I find it frustrating. Because commercial music is designed specifically to appeal to everyone who can possibly be listening.

      Metal is a music that is made up of hard parts, but also a specific attitude. That attitude is entirely missing in Amaranthe. Yes, that’s my subjective opinion. If someone calls Amaranthe ‘not metal’ I would say that I think they are. But I think they walk a veeeeery fine line on the border of it.

  4. Stephen G permalink
    December 5, 2013 12:00 pm

    Very good article. You summed it up perfectly about introducing kids to this music. My 15yo daughter heard it and loved it. Now she’s queuing up Kamelot, Evergrey, Dream Theater, Edguy, Hammer Fall, etc. As well as the newer sounds of bands like Asking Alexandria.
    She was also introduced to the sound of the 80s through the harshly criticised movie Rock of Ages. (Who DOESN’T want to watch Julianne Hough and Malin Akerman for an hour and a half???)
    Although we may not dig the stuff (which I actually kind of do) I can’t default the ends to the means. Whatever it takes to get our youth to appreciate great music, I’m all for it.

    • December 7, 2013 6:38 pm

      Yeah I’m not surprised in hearing that, Amaranthe will end up turning more than a few younger listeners on to metal as a whole. Glad to hear your daughter’s queuing up those bands already, maybe in a few years she’ll be discussing the finer points of Swedish death metal! There are so many people out there who would enjoy metal of some kind in all its full spectrum of sounds and styles, the challenge is just getting them to simply hear some of it in the first place.

  5. Eric permalink
    December 6, 2013 11:06 am

    Stephen,

    Awesome! Your daughter has great taste in music which is rare for a 15 year old girl these days, lol. Have you taken her to see any of them live? Edguy, in particular, are awesome live just for the fact that Tobi is a great front man. My daughter is two, I hope to get her into metal when she’s older no matter what my wife says about it!

    • December 7, 2013 6:42 pm

      If the wife has objections even to something as relatively innocent as Edguy, I’d recommend starting off with Power Quest. Also, though I’m not a parent myself, I’ll eagerly recommend any parent to play ABBA for their kids when they’re younger. My mom listened to them all the time in the car when I was very little and I believe its what led to my appreciation of great melodies. ABBA Gold is all you need — such incredible music.

    • Stephen G permalink
      December 24, 2013 3:52 pm

      No she hasn’t seen live yet. None of them come anywhere close to where we live. Hopefully someday we will get to see over of them together.

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