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Pour Some Sugar On Everything: Amaranthe Return With Massive Addictive

October 27, 2014

Depending on your perspective of Amaranthe, you’re either really excited for Massive Addictive, or really, really agitated at the mere thought that this unlikely band of Swedes has gotten popular and successful enough to warrant a third album. They are certainly notorious for the sheer contentiousness that surrounds any discussion of who they are and what they do. When I reviewed the band’s previous album, The Nexus, I dug into the career bios for band founders Olof Morck and Jake E Berg, both profiles of musicians that had toiled in relative obscurity for a decade of time before meeting up with Elize Ryd and arriving simultaneously (I’m assuming) at their viola! moment. A cynic could look at Morck and Berg’s creation of Amaranthe as a concoction geared towards commercial viability and broader appeal than anything either had been involved with in the past. They also wouldn’t be that far off the mark. There is something about Amaranthe’s conscious marketing design that raises red flags among the most forgiving of critics and metal fans —- check out one of their numerous absurdly flashy music videos (all directed by that king of gloss, Patric Ullaeus) and try to remember that they’re a metal band.

Beyond image, the band’s self-described “EDM meets metal” approach is built upon a softened metalcore foundation that will resonate with rock audiences (and rock radio at that), along with pure pop songwriting that supplies massive hooks with catchy verses, and two appealing clean singers that do enough to keep the attention of those put off by the rather tame growling vocalist. The “EDM” aspect of their sound only comes into play through the sheen studio production they coat all over their studio albums. In other words, its not interwoven into the fabric of their songwriting the way it was for say, the indie band Tegan and Sara, when they co-wrote two crossover EDM/indie rock songs with DJs Morgan Page and Tiesto; or for a band like The Prodigy who married hard rock sounds with pure techno long before anyone realized it could be done. There’s nothing really wrong with Amaranthe’s approach, except that it exposes their “EDM” tag as somewhat of a misnomer, and to a particularly cynical critic, it could be seen as an easy out for the band to simultaneously disguise and justify just how slick and polished their take on metal is. I’ll provide a more forgiving perspective, one in which the band has grabbed hold of their new hybrid “EDM/Metal” label as an easy, painless way to deflect critics and for the band to distance themselves from other female fronted metal peers that operate in more classicist territory ala Within Temptation.
 

All that considered, its amazing just how successfully Amaranthe works as a Frankenstein-esque project, stitching together disparate parts to create something that actually works (surely a monster to many). Morck and Berg combine their experiences in both power metal and melo-death to serve as their musical palette, and are malleable in their songwriting to sketch out smart, unobtrusive, accentuating uses for harsh vocals (courtesy of new screamer Henrik Englund), as well plenty of spotlight time for the completely un-metal Elize Ryd’s sugary, ABBA-Swede pop vocals. Ryd is obviously a necessary component in this whole equation, as its through her unremarkable but pleasant vocals that the band channels their poppiest sensibilities, allowing Berg to deliver his clean vocals as a melodic counterpoint or harmony double up. In typical Amaranthe fashion, Englund’s harsh vocals tend to be used as a counterpoint —- he’s only given one opportunity to handle lead vocals (on “An Ordinary Abnormality”), but of course he’s kept off the chorus. Ryd and Berg command the vocal spotlight of Amaranthe, and it has to be said that their voices tend to sound great together, his vocals are melodic and capable enough of soaring highs as hers, but he’s working in a slightly lower register so as to be complementary, not overpowering. I’ve always had mixed feelings on Ryd, finding her the least impressive vocalist of the three —- and I’ve long contended that she’s used metal as an easier springboard to fame and notoriety than she would have had through trying to make it as a pure pop singer. Its not a criticism, just an honest observation that I’m confident other discerning metal fans would agree with. Do an eye/ear test —- does she radiate metal in any way? Kudos to Morck and Berg for sculpting out a role for her and selling it convincingly (seriously, props).
 

On Massive Addictive, the band don’t change up the formula they first dreamed up on their debut and expanded on The Nexus, seeking only to further refine the elements that worked and ditch the clunky stuff that didn’t (there’s nothing as awful as the bubblegum “Electroheart” on here). The album’s pop highlight is “Trinity”, the second single that smartly balances chunky-riffs and harsh vocals with a exquisitely sculpted chorus boasting a hook that absolutely will not leave your head. Its musical candy, and that’s what we’re here for right? To rot our ears with the musical equivalent of junk food, because try as I might I cannot understand what these lyrics mean in the slightest —- are they talking about their roles as three singers? Hmmm… no that doesn’t seem to fit. What about this stanza, “As we break the chains of might / In dependence of the fire / Give up, this ground sterilized for all time” —- anyone got any ideas? There’s a huge suspicion on my part that Amaranthe often write lyrics phonetically, choosing words for their alliterative value within the context of a lyrical line or stanza rather than their inherent meaning. Its like how Paul McCartney used dummy lyrics for “Yesterday” (“Scrambled eggs, oh, you’ve got such lovely legs”), except that in this case Amaranthe never bothered to go back and revise their diction and you know, actually say something with most of these songs. On “Dynamite”, another album highlight through its rhythmic micro-hooks, we’re given another dose of nonsense in the lyrics during the refrain: “Come on believe me /You can’t deny /From the blaze in my eyes /I am hypnotized and /I can achieve it /I will arise /Like the fire in the sky /I am dynamite”. Look, I know I’m a lyrical grouch of the highest order (imagine me in a trash can and call me Oscar… actually don’t), and I’m aware that this approach works for pop music, but a little more effort on the lyrics of these upbeat tracks wouldn’t go amiss.

Its the slower, mid-paced ballads where the band executes particularly well in all aspects, lyrics included, such as on the surprisingly restrained “True”, where Ryd and Berg are at their emotive best. There’s a wonderful chorus to enjoy there: “This is the time for chasing my desires / Whats in my heart is true”, where both words and melody are extremely well written and emotive, highlighting some really deft songwriting. The same goes for another excellent ballad, “Over and Done”, this more of the embittered and love-lorn variety where a nicely done lyric crops up as well: “Over and done, a changing of seasons / The sun that ignited all our feelings is down”. Berg takes the lead here and its worth noting just how much he stands out apart from other male clean vocalists within metal through his ability to appeal to fans of simple rock music. I suppose I’m suggesting that he has a slightly Americanized bent to his vocals, and that statement in itself will turn off many who are used to power metal’s varied cultural accents and intonations. Fair enough, but it still leaves him as a rarity within metal, alongside other singers like Tom Englund of Evergrey in their ability to crossover to a radio format (surely a boon in Amaranthe’s case). I’m also very partial to the album closer “Exhale”, a catchy song built upon a heavily alliterative chorus where the lyrics are actually well written and seem to suggest someone’s search for spirituality. There’s a pattern here: When the band attempts to write fast, uptempo songs they’re so concerned with the ear-wormy factor in all aspects that they relegate lyrical meaning as an afterthought. I suppose that’s all irrelevant when they’re played live to a dancing crowd (er… no, that’d be headbanging right? What do they do at Amaranthe shows?).
 

The album isn’t without missteps though, nothing gravely serious but there are a handful of tracks that either don’t work as pop songs or have annoying tendencies that overpower their enjoyable parts. I’m referring specifically to “Danger Zone”, where a boy-band grade chorus is sandwiched between some very boring harsh vocal led verses; as well as “Unreal”, a song that reminds me of the worst aspects of modern day In Flames with the album’s flattest chorus to boot. There’s also something bothersome about “Skyline”, where I guess my expectations were higher because the title reminded me of Bioshock Infinite (skylines… some of you get it) —- a strange reason to cite but also I’m simply bored by the song, unlike the game. Still, on a twelve track album, there are seven songs that deliver precisely what you’d want from Amaranthe , and four of those are actually pretty great. Not a bad ratio overall, and Massive Addictive is the sound of a band getting better at what they’re doing —- even if it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve written in the past about the value of Amaranthe as a gateway band for non-metal fans to enter our world, and with this album that gateway has only gotten bigger. If someone gets hooked in with a song like “Trinity”, only to find themselves checking out Kamelot via Ryd’s connections to that band, which causes them to love a masterpiece such as The Black Halo as much as I do —- that’s a win. Metal needs gateway bands to survive, and even though Amaranthe are pushing the boundaries of acceptability in our beloved genre, they surely deserve some grudging acknowledgement for filling that role.
 

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2014 6:34 pm

    I stopped reading the comments on the FB page All Things Metal because everyone there is shallow minded and have basically one genre of metal they listen to. Then commence to name call and trash everyone else that have their own opinion or genre that they enjoy. My response to that is, you may not admire the band, but at least admire the art. I think the problem with most American metal heads is that they have this one track mind of what they think metal should sound like. Cue Metallica or Slayer. No that isn’t what metal is supposed to sound like. It’s just one portion of it. I admire Amaranthe for trying to appeal to a broad audience. And their music isn’t half bad.
    When you’ve listened to metal as long as I have, I’m 52, you hear more music that sucks than that is breathtaking. But, some bands persevere, and hone their craft and bust out of obscurity. I love “gateway” bands. I love bands that have the balls to break the mold. I love the ever expanding genre. I’m just not a fan of all the tags…post this, post that…Post what? Was there ever a pre? Haha.
    Sure, a band may suck, but they have bigger balls than those who trash to get out there and try. Sorry for the ramble, but this post struck a nerve. Not with you, but with the one track crowd that think there is only one genre of metal….Theirs. Peace.

    • October 30, 2014 5:13 pm

      Yeah, I’ve never understood the hate towards the gateway bands, everyone needs a place to start, particularly media bombarded youth. Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Amaranthe, they’re all of the same cloth really. Within just those three gateway bands you get an idea of just how diverse metal can be. I’ve always argued that metal is THE most diverse genre around, even more so than just regular rock.

  2. Mike Reich permalink
    October 28, 2014 2:55 pm

    When I read about power metal and EDM I’m immediately reminded of the track ‘Feel – Legend B. mix’ by Labyrinth. It was a really original attempt for Euro power metal in 1998 🙂

    • October 30, 2014 5:16 pm

      Haha, interesting don’t think I’ve ever heard that version of Feel. Good catch. Loved the original song!

  3. L Roy permalink
    October 30, 2014 6:38 am

    Funny you should mention trying to go the opposite way from Within Temptation because I though the opposite… I just gave this album a once over and, in all seriousness, they seemed to have taken the rife criticism somewhat to heart, placed less emphasis on eurodance and more on slower, half time bridges/choruses as if almost an effort to channel Within Temptation in treading that ever fine line between radio friendly and completely not metal (which, might I add, WT well and truly crossed on Hybrid). I actually miss the Electroheart cheese from The Nexus because at least noone else is doing it.

    On the two ballads (True and Over and Done) I couldn’t help but hear more than a heavy dose of Roxette (not only fellow Swedes, but also dual guy/girl vocals pop band from 20+ years ago). In fact, on the latter track, I swore for a good 20 second stretch that I was listening to Roxette’s “It must have been love”!

    Whichever direction they take though, I feel if they ditched the random screamer the metal community wouldn’t be so offended at the lame attempt at associating with metal(-core), and even taken seriously – not so much as a metal band, but as a modern, heavier Roxette type band that we can wind down to on the drive home from a gig, or put on when friends come around for a bbq. Almost like a good Nickelback, for want of a better phrase… =P

    • October 30, 2014 5:23 pm

      Roxette! I knew there was something I was hearing within “Over and Done”, its a dead ringer for that Roxette song —- really good catch by you! That might be why I enjoy it so much, always had a soft spot for those Swedes, (and being an ABBA fan contributes majorly as well…. maybe I have a Swedish complex!). Interesting point about the idea of them ditching the heavier vocals…. I thought that’s what they were going to do when Andy Solvestrom left the band, but I guess they decided that they still needed a screamer to pull off the old songs live so they might as well get someone new.

      Regarding the EDM aspect, I agree with you in that regard —- its really more of a self-anointed tag they’ve attached to themselves, perhaps to differentiate themselves from everyone else and give themselves an original label. I’m more inclined to believe that they’re using it to deflect criticism in a sly way — it works if you think about it. If you read “EDM/Metal” and get surprised by Amaranthe’s sound (even if its not really EDM), you can’t say they didn’t warn you. A small part of a larger marketing strategy perhaps?

    • Eric permalink
      November 3, 2014 1:34 pm

      I heard the Roxette comparison the first time I heard the song! I was wondering if anyone else noticed the melody in the chorus is the same as “Must Have Been Love”. Nice catch dude!

  4. HillbillyMedic permalink
    January 11, 2015 2:17 pm

    Amaranthe did to me exactly what you describe at the end. It made an old 60s rocker put down the Beatles and listen to something from today. From there I have gone on to really appreciate the likes of other more hard core metal bands. Such a great genre of music that I have been arrogantly ignoring. Now the site of a 61 year old white man pulling in someplace in his pickup truck with Slip Knot or Amon Amarth blaring is probably something of a head turner and garners more attention than I’d like, but that’s ok.

    • January 11, 2015 5:15 pm

      That’s awesome, and a credit to Amaranthe —- despite all the criticism they receive, they’re important in their place as a gateway. Glad you don’t care about the age thing, its never too late!

  5. Vocarin permalink
    April 15, 2015 2:45 pm

    I have a touch of history with this band that last about… about two hours.

    In a nutshell, I read your review of Nexus and followed the link to AMG’s review of it. And when he mentioned Theatre of Tragedy, I checked them out and got hooked. So again, thank you for tipping me off to stuff that serves as loving ear candy (the credit might not go directly to you, but I’m putting it on your doorstep. Because I can).

    I agree that they have a place in the ecosystem that is music and can serve as a lighter transition band, or a gateway like you say. That said, this album does nothing for me. The lyrics of Trinity sounded like someone broke out the thesaurus for ‘cool words that end on similar sounds’ and picked the longest one they could find to tie together into… something. Do I have to call this a song? I imagine I do. But it still bothers me because the tunes and the lyrics feel as artificial and bland as the accompanying music video and made me think of processed cheese: flat, tasteless, and half a step removed from being plastic shrink-wrap.

    In conclusion, good on you for seeing that as pop-esque as Amaranthe are, they do have a place in the grander picture, and for pointing out the positives of them existing. Nothing’s more irritating than fans screaming that something’s “not metal!” without explaining what that means.

    Keep up the good work, MP. Cheers!

    • April 15, 2015 6:29 pm

      Thanks for the compliments and credit —- I like hearing that I got someone into a band for whatever reason! I completely agree regarding the lyrics on Massive Addictive, they were pretty nonsensical even by Amaranthe standards —- but that’s life in pop music I suppose, everything revolves around that hook having maximum impact, syllabic structure included.

  6. May 25, 2016 7:59 am

    Amaranthe used to be one of my absolutely top favourite bands when they only had a demo out. I still love the hell out of their debut. Those songs were groundbreaking. I don’t remember any other band since Siegfried that had three singers, but Siegfried did not mix metal and dance music. The state of awe lasted up until I finished listening to The Nexus and felt that it brought literally nothing new onto the table, be it related to harmony, rhythm or melody. It was especially disappointing to me because I felt that the two b-sides on the Rain single (Breaking Point and especially Splinter in my Soul) were a mark of very intriguing developments in the band’s songwriting. But it was not to happen. They just went on with their formula of success.

    And with the departure of Andy, I kinda lost interest completely. With harsh vocals, I have very superficial tastes: don’t sound as if all your distortion is processed, and have some appealing timbre and a certain emotion underneath the technique. Andy had this, and it’s why I really liked him. The new one… good, but just didn’t capture my imagination.

    It’s interesting how our opinions differ greatly when it comes to Jake vs Elise. Having listened to Amaranthe (pre-Nexus, if it matters) live video bootlegs on youtube, I was blown away by how much sheer power Elise actually packs. Yes hers is an undoubtedly pop voice, not that “different” in terms of timbre or certain technical gimmicks – her delivery is very straightforward, but with that sort of power, it seems, she never felt the need to somehow embellish her style.
    While Jake, well, now that is a voice I find extremely unremarkable. Live, Elise just drowns him out. His timbre is thin, with very little colour/resonance, and just thankfully not that much nasality; and there are no “gimmicks” to his style whatsoever. As you say, he sounds accessible to rock fans… and I’d say it’s because he _is_ a rock singer, in fact.

    Or can it be that your somewhat “anti-Elise” stance is informed by her session work with the “non-Blad” Falconer? I confess I don’t own those albums, neither have I ever listened to them fully, so I don’t know if she was actually any good back then in the early to mid 2000s.

    • May 26, 2016 9:15 pm

      I’m not sure if I’d say I’m anti-Elize, particularly in light of the last album its become clear that she has the right kind of pop voice for Amaranthe. You’re right about Jake being thin in live clips, he’s not exactly singing with a lot of weight behind his vocals, but he sounds great in studio and with Amaranthe that kinda counts more overall (metal fans wouldn’t like the sound of that but its true here).

      She sounded good on her Falconer guest spots, “Emotional Skies” being the highlight. She’s unlikely to ever be the kind of singer that wows me, but I can’t deny the sugary appeal of her vocals in the context of Amaranthe’s songwriting. Were she to embark on a solo project, I doubt I’d be all that interested.

      • June 13, 2016 7:09 pm

        Solo projects are always hit or miss, aren’t they. The voice alone cannot carry a career, so there have to be capable songwriters behind every solo name… it’s one thing when you are a writer, but Elise is not, as far as I know.
        Recently she posted a selfie with Tarja on her facebook page and wrote something to the point of Tarja having been a great inspiration. So maybe Elise is not a wannabe pop singer; maybe she is “metal” in her heart, but just that relatively recent”cocktail dress” sort of metalhead, the ultra-feminine glamorous type taking fashion tips from Liv/Simone/Sharon.

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