Perception and Acceptability with Amaranthe’s The Nexus
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