The 2017 Journal (Feb-March Edition): Talkin’ Amaranthe’s Maximalism
Yeah I know. One month into this 2017 journal experiment and I missed my first deadline at the end of February, I knew it would happen at some point, just hoped it wouldn’t be till later on. So, a broad recap of those past two months: February was rather quiet music wise, I only reviewed two albums and felt pretty blah about a host of others. I guess sometimes the journal will reflect that there simply wasn’t a lot to talk about metal wise during certain parts of the year. Unlike 2016 where the early months were packed full of new music, 2017 took its time getting going, with the majority of my attention being devoted towards releases from March. That most of these have been from new (to me) bands is particularly interesting, and hopefully a trend that continues throughout the year.
Speaking of 2016 however (that year that just won’t go away), it may not have been lost on some of you that I had never written a review for Amaranthe’s Maximalism that came out in October. I remember that we ended up talking about it vaguely on the MSRcast as well as its sister podcast Metal Geeks, but that was the extent of my public discourse on a band that I’ve been pretty vocal about supporting, at least in a devil’s advocate/contrarian way (although its probably not too contrarian if I genuinely enjoy their music). Why was this? Particularly when I was so loquacious on their previous albums The Nexus and Massive Addictive. Well Maximalism was a more radical amalgam of Amaranthe’s disparate influences than anyone, including me, could ever imagine, and I’ll admit that my first few listens threw me into a state of confusion. I remember just how uncomfortable the album initially made me feel because my pop-loving self was responding to several aspects of it, but my analytical metal reviewer side was going “No… nope… guys this is going too far…”. I leaned in favor of shelving it until I could clear my decks of other new releases and properly consider it with the benefit of time. Come February, I found myself listening to it anew.
To kill the suspense, I’ll admit up front that the album has grown on me considerably, and while its not my favorite of theirs (that being 2014’s Massive Addictive), it does have enough hooky ear candy to be fun. But I’m weird like that, and have a high tolerance level for the band’s pop inclinations, even when they overwhelm everything else. And wow, was Maximalism full of those (making good on the meaning behind its title); from the Queen meets Gary Glitter stomp of “That Song”, to the most EDM they’ve ever sounded with the Ibiza remix ready “Maximize”. Those two songs represent the spear tips of what has been a further shifting away in sound from as I once described it, a “blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing”, towards a more overtly stadium rock/dance approach. But the rest of the album is more wide ranging than their previous three in terms of every aspect of their sound —- the metalcore tracks are the heaviest they’ve done, the aforementioned pop structured tracks are more hooky and contagious than anything they’ve done before, and the electronic textures that previously would accent their songs have been laid on as thick as possible. Stupid me, the band even advertised this: They called the album Maximalism. Duh.
This 360 degree expansion of their sound makes for a wild and unpredictable album for sure, and also one that will further disgust and appall their critics. We’ve discussed the latter quite often so I’ll avoid it here, suffice to say that perhaps Amaranthe deserve credit for staying in their own lane and not trying out passing trends in hope of catching something that sticks (such as adopting a faux Gothic approach in an attempt to win over Within Temptation/Nightwish fans). But an album like Maximalism is also one that honestly confuses me, as much as I do enjoy it, because I can’t fathom for what audience something like “That Song” was aimed at. Hey I’m not picking on it, it really grew on me after my initial balking at its sheer audacity, but its arguably the most divisive song of their career, and to release it as the first single was a ballsy (and possibly reckless) move. Not only are its lyrics as awkward as a gawky teenager at his first middle school dance, but its hard to know for what audience it was geared towards. Now… I realize I’m making an assumption, being that Amaranthe aren’t simply expressing themselves artistically through which “That Song” was a natural byproduct of that process. But c’mon, lets get real here, it was their first single, and this is a band that does have a sound with the potential to achieve mainstream radio/chart success, and regardless of the band’s own intentions, that much is inarguable. If you haven’t heard it yet, take a listen:
So lets ask the hidden-elephant-in-the-room question: Does anyone think that “That Song” sounds like something that would fly on American modern rock radio? For all its commercial sheen, I think existing formats work against it, and though only the band and their management can confirm whether or not it was serviced to terrestrial/satellite radio as a single, its lack of impact on any American radio chart speaks volumes. I couldn’t even find any concrete evidence of it making an impact on Liquid Metal, SiriusXM Octane, and any other major satellite radio shows. This is a step backwards from the dent they made in 2014 with “Drop Dead Cynical” off Massive Addictive, which actually hit #1 on Octane. It was a single that seemed to strike that sweet spot within the American radio mindset that has allowed a band like The Pretty Reckless to actually have major radio hits (as opposed to just YouTube video views). The disparity between these two songs might seem negligible upon first glance, but if you take another back to back listen to both singles, you’ll get a sense of why “That Song” has failed to be anything but for prospective fans. Now my perspective is limited to being an American based rock/metal fan, who’s observed its rock radio culture for many years as much as possible from the outside in. Why the single hasn’t taken off in the wildly diverse radio markets of Europe, I have no idea, but the fact that it hasn’t should worry Amaranthe and Spinefarm Records.
And then only recently, news came from the Amaranthe camp that clean vocalist Jake E Berg (Joacim Lundberg) was going to sit out the upcoming tours —- not unusual for guys in metal bands with children at home. But in February the break soon turned into his permanent exit, an odd turn of occurrences for someone who was a huge part of the band’s songwriting. I was honestly stunned, because I’ve always viewed Berg and co-founding guitarist Olof Morck as the nucleus of the band, both musically and conceptually. Elize Ryd had become a part of that team in recent years, and judging from statements from Berg himself in a Bravewords exclusive, her increased role in the songwriting team might have edged him out:
The first two albums (self-titled debut and The Nexus) were exactly what I wanted the band to sound like; a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice. Different elements combined, but the main thing in the music was the metal base. On the Massive Addictive album it started to change into something else that I didn’t really control, and you can hear the songs that I was more involved in working on are very metal. When we started working on the Maximalism album I found that it wasn’t the Amaranthe I had helped create at the start. It wasn’t my vision at all and I realized that I had to be true to myself.
– Jake E Berg (Bravewords February 8th, 2017)
After I read this interview, I went back through Maximalism only to realize that sure enough, Berg just didn’t seem to be on a lot of the album the way he was in the past. Ryd and surprisingly screamer Henrik Englund were the dominant voices throughout, and it did seem that Berg’s vocal role had been minimized overall. I guess I hadn’t noticed it before because he was on the album’s most prominent tracks, and he has a starring role on “Break Down and Cry”, one of the stronger tracks in the latter half of the album. But to his point, he laments the band’s drifting away from their central metal sound, and while many will scoff (or politely say, that’s debatable) I get what he’s trying to articulate. This doesn’t sound like the Amaranthe of the first two albums, where everything was fused together in some kind of Magic Bullet audio blender —- as I pointed out before, the disparity on Maximalism is very noticeable. Some of these songs are essentially pop/dance songs with guitar window dressing, free from metallic riffs serving as structural song elements. Regarding his take on Massive Addictive being the start of Amaranthe’s musical identity crisis, I’m a bit surprised, because their touching on classic 80s pop/rock on that album (“True”, “Over and Done”, “Trinity”) was a refreshing change up, and he really stole the show on the ballads in particular, his voice hitting emotive inflections you never expected him too. But its his perspective that matters most, and he felt otherwise.
I’ll say this plainly here, but Berg’s departure is a huge blow for this band. Sure, he wasn’t the most powerful vocalist and could sound thin in live situations, but his performances on the albums were always spot on. He has gone on to form a new band called Cyhra with ex-In Flames stalwarts Peter Iwers and freakin’ Jesper Stromblad (the fanboy in me is squeeing), a strange combination for sure but one I’m completely excited for. He has also surprisingly relaunched Dreamland, his old Swedish power metal band that made some minor waves back in 2005 via a pretty decent debut in Future’s Calling (purists will remember this as Ryd’s first time singing with Berg on “Fade Away”). Time will tell how Berg’s departure affects Morck and Ryd’s songwriting approach (if at all), but clearly his decision was unforeseen by even the band members themselves. Ryd seemed genuinely surprised, and the experience has led to her recent interviews being far more revealing and introspective than I’d ever expected to come from her. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but this could simply be a situation where Morck and Ryd found themselves naturally leaning in their more pop centric direction without realizing how it was alienating their songwriting partner —- a natural drifting apart as opposed to something personal or intentional. Either way, its a shame.
They probably don’t realize it, but I think Amaranthe are at a crossroads here. While their accomplishments are certainly nothing to so glibly dismiss, registering only a half a million in total sales over their entire four album discography is probably not as much as their management and label had hoped for. They should’ve been burning up the charts in Germany, but even there they have yet to crack the top 80. In Sweden they have only just hit the top five nationally (keep in mind that In Flames have regular number one albums here). This is baffling, but maybe there’s a lesson lurking amidst the confusion here —- that in creating a sound that could attempt to straddle genre boundaries and reach out towards extremely varied audiences, they under extended in both directions over time. Maybe there was a limit to the number of people who were liable to get hooked in through pop hooks and stay for the heavier end of the band’s sound. And maybe they were just too bizarre for radio programmers to see how to fit them in, and perhaps their overly glossy Patric Ullaeus videos simply turned more than a handful of people off (proving this —- their best video, for “True”, was devoid of Ullaeus’ annoying penchant for glitz and glam). The video for “That Song” features Ryd in dance-pop choreography mode, complete with backing dancers moving in unison, inter cut with Ryd dancing whilst holding headphones to her ear. Its a bold series of visuals, nicely filmed ones at that. But its the kind of imagery that is alien to most young rock and metal fans, imagery that leaves them feeling left out, defeating the point of heavy music in the first place.