Arch Enemy - _Rise of the Tyrant_
(Century Media, 2007)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (7.5 out of 10)
Comparing a hardcore death machine like Arch Enemy to the likes of middle of the road rockers like Van Halen may at first seem heresy, but consider: when Sammy Hagar joined the band in 1985, that first post-DLR album (_5150_) was as artistically successful as anything the band had released up to that point, albeit a bit different in tone and execution, but each album thereafter declined subtly yet unmistakably in quality, until 1995's _Balance_ handily torpedoed the fan boat altogether. Like their Top 40 antithesis, Arch Enemy made the controversial move of jettisoning Johan Liiva in favor of... gasp: a chick!

Yes, Liiva had often been criticized for his limited vocal gifts, but he'd also sung on a trio of the most beloved melodic death albums of the '90s. when _Wages of Sin_ was released in 2001, it seemed to be an acceptable compromise between fan and band, earning mostly positive reviews and being compared favorably to its predecessor, _Burning Bridges_. But then two years later, _Anthems of Rebellion_ was greeted with mostly yawns, and two years after that there were little other than hisses and cast stones to be had for _Doomsday Machine_; a steady yet marked decline. "New" belter Angela Gossow -- who has now been in the band twice as long as Liiva had been -- has frequently been made the scapegoat for this decline. After all, Arch Enemy hadn't put out a shite album until -she- came around, did they? Well, the blame game wasn't fair on Sammy Hagar and it sure as hell hasn't been for Gossow either. And now that _Rise of the Tyrant_ is unleashed upon us, the comparative tangent they've been sharing with Van Hagar's downward trajectory can be nipped in the bud as well.

Perhaps feeling she's left something to prove on the table in the past, Gossow strips back the multi-tracked vocals and just goes for broke in her natural state. OK, so she's still not much better than merely capable, lacking a distinctive snarl of her own, but the same could be said for a solid majority of male death metal singers out there as well. Besides, vocals in a band like Arch Enemy have always been more about texture anyway. The keys to AE's success is in the interchange of riffs, the melodic heights (or depths) of the solos, and an ability to construct songs that don't stagnate. Although the majority of the tracks on _Rise of the Tyrant_ are stuck in that same mid-paced rut the band have been in since day one, there are a few moments of mutability: "Intermezzo Liberté" is a neoclassical slow jam, sounding for all the world like a lighter waving national anthem; "Blood on Your Hands" is a go-for-broke barnstormer with punishing beats and tech-heavy riffery; and the title track shifts the tempo back and forth while apparently comparing George W. Bush (or some straw man counterpart) to Caligula.

While none of these songs are really very experimental by nature (even by AE standards) they are also some of the least successful / imaginative songs on the album. Like it or not, Arch Enemy are at their best when they stick to their strengths. "Night Falls Fast" has a catchy dual guitar riff to highlight it's chorus; "The Last Enemy" features punctuated keyboard stabs accenting strident, melodious guitar runs; and "The Great Darkness" is underpinned by a haunted Greek chorus and staccato fretboard workouts... you get the gist. This band is made and broken on the strengths of the guitar work, and here it shines just enough to elevate the material and lift Arch Enemy out of a six year slump.

The question that remains is just how long -- or how consistently -- Arch Enemy can continue to remain relevant in a world of increasingly similar product. When bands that have been around for decades and continue to find success mining the same sound are brought up, you hear the likes of AC/DC and Motorhead mentioned. Well, there's a good reason they continue to get away with purposeful stagnation: not many bands adhere to the sonic templates of those bands in this day and age. Yet MANY sound similar to Arch Enemy, which makes their inability to craft sheer masterpieces each time out seem unforgivable to many fans, as those fans have been inundated with a steady stream of facsimiles in the two years or so between releases. Hopefully the competition will be the thing that keeps the fire stoked in the Amott brothers' hearts.


(article published 21/11/2007)

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