Album Review: Amaranthe – “Maximalism”

You know, as much as I try not to let my emotions get in the way of a review, there are just some artists which I can’t look at objectively. Take Metallica, for example: it was getting their first two records that really started to make me the metal fan I am today, so I naturally tend to be far fairer with them than I perhaps would be with any other thrash metal band. Same applies to Judas Priest (although, oddly enough, my love has more transferred over to Screaming for Vengeance rather than the actual first album I heard by them, Painkiller) and Volbeat (whose combination of genres into a distinctive sound in its own right just puts me in a great mood whenever I hear it). This does sometimes go in reverse in that there are some bands who aren’t going to get a fair review from me because I hold one of their members in very poor regard (looking at you, Geoff Tate!), but, for the most part, you’re more likely to spot me being fairer than usual than harsher than usual because, at the end of the day, I find that getting worked up over something you dislike isn’t usually worth it.

One of those artists that I always have enjoyed, as people from my blogging days will already know, is Amarante. There’s no point in me trying to deny it, so I’ll just come out and say it: I fucking love these guys! Sure, their sound could be argued as being melodic trancecore if you squint at them hard enough, but that still doesn’t neglect the fact that they are a surprisingly unique band in today’s metal landscape, with a sound that is effectively providing a fusion of pop, power metal, melodic death metal and metalcore and putting it through a pop formula while still maintaining the standard elements of metal music. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be everyone’s cup of tea, I can definitely see them and Issues becoming the next big things in the metal scene, because they’re something that is unique and works surprisingly well despite every normal bit of logic indicating that it wouldn’t ever work.

Needless to say, I was hyped for Maximalism (which, to my surprise, is actually a word: they didn’t make that up because it seemed like a cool word!) and, considering my previous reviews of their first record and third record (never got around to their second record, for some reason), one would naturally expect me to be right on board with them for this record. However, I think that this record has started to reveal some of the flaws in the band’s sound and, while they have tried to do new things on here, I think it’s honestly safe to say that it is their weakest record to date. Weakest doesn’t necessarily mean bad, though, because there is some good stuff on here, it’s just that it doesn’t really hold up so well in comparison to what came before.

I imagine most people can already take a good guess at what this record sounds like from my second paragraph, so I’ll skip the basic description of their sound. However, they have tried some new things on here which results in some interesting differences from their usual sound. A couple of songs seem to indicate more of an arena rock influence on here (“That Song” feels a bit like the band’s version of “We Will Rock You” and the chorus of “On The Rocks” is pretty much tailor made to fill an arena with mass singing along) and the band even has a ballad sung purely by Elize Ryd, album closer “Endlessly”. It’s clear that the band have made a decision to try to expand their sound a bit more here and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think it was a good decision on paper, since their sound was definitely starting to get a bit predictable on Massive Addictive and you could spot the attempts to shake things up even back then (anyone else remember “An Ordinary Abnormality”, which was basically the band’s attempt at Gothenburg metal?).

The problem, as always, comes down with the execution of the material. While the band still has songs of their normal sound on the record and the experiments (aside from “Endlessly”) still include enough of their normal sound that it doesn’t feel like the band have lost their identity, the songs feel less impressive than they did the last time around to me. There are some songs which just didn’t hit the mark on here at all, which I’ve never had a problem with on their previous records: “21” is borderline unmemorable and feels horribly like a typical “night out drinking shots” song (which can be fun, but feels rather out of place here to me), “Break Down and Cry” feels like an attempt to do a normal Amaranthe ballad, but it just doesn’t work that well and, when compared to “Endlessly”, fails to impress, “Limitless” feels a bit too lacking in energy to really grab me and “Fireball” could have been cut from the record easily without losing anything of any real note. That said, aside from “Boomerang” and “That Song” (which took a few listens to grow on me), the rest of the record works perfectly fine from the first listen. “Fury” shows that the band aren’t afraid to keep up the songs with a harsh vocalist taking up the lead after their last record and “On the Rocks” is pretty great as well. While four songs which are skippable is certainly not a good sign on paper, I do think that the rest of the tracks manage to keep things going well enough that you could feasibly enjoy the record as a whole, it’s just a shame that this is coming from a band which I previously felt had pretty great track records in terms of hits compared to misses.

The instrumental performances on here, while not really going to blow anyone away who is a big prog fanatic, are still pretty solid overall, with everyone putting forward strong performances that support the music and never result in a feeling of overplaying from anyone. Olof Morck provides guitars, keyboards and programming on the record and I have to say that, while his guitar performance doesn’t really do anything all that noteworthy, he gets the job done fine (and he even gets a solid mini-guitar solo in “On the Rocks” that shows that he is capable of some pretty great solo work when he wants to). The keyboards are rather dominant in comparison to what a lot of artists do, a decision which I actually welcome on one level (FAR too many records place the keyboards so far back in the mix that you could be forgiven for missing them entirely if you weren’t listening carefully), but I don’t think they really do enough to impress most people. The programming definitely enhances the band’s material, though: it helps to add to the semi-electronic sound that the band have, but it never feels unnecessary to the band’s material. Bassist Johan Andreassen, unfortunately, doesn’t really an impact upon the record, but hey, this isn’t that different from the last three records by the band, so I just consider him like the Michael Anthony (well, in his Van Halen days, at least) of the group: he’s there and probably more important than being given credit for, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing him because he doesn’t really do much to stand out. Drummer Morten Sorensen is his usual excellent self, so not really a lot say here. The record also includes a guest appearance from Mattias Bylund on “Endlessly” as a string instrumentalist and it’s definitely fair to say that the song wouldn’t work as well if he wasn’t part of it, as he adds a great touch of classical-influenced string playing to the track and helps to elevate it. Whether his playing will impress most people is up for debate, but I couldn’t help thinking that the track needed him to really reach the heights it does, so…yeah, huge props to him for that!

The vocal performance…well, most people who listen to Amaranthe probably only really listen to them for Elize Ryd, so I’m going to save those people some time and say that she shines on here, arguably more so than Jake Lundberg (who seems to have become more of a supporting vocalist on here in comparison to their previous records, as he doesn’t really command attention so much on here). It’s definitely easy to tell from “Endlessly” that Elize has a truly great voice and she definitely knocks the song out of the park, to the extent that I actually can’t help suspecting that this might end up being the direction of their ballads from this point onwards because of how well it works (although I honestly hope they don’t do that: while it’s cool for them to do this if they want to, part of the reason it works so well is because it’s different from what they’ve previously done, so making it the new standard risks it becoming boring and predictable). Henrik Wilhemsson’s harsh vocals are a bit on the core side of things, as they lack the harshness and anger of a full on death metal vocalist, but he still does a solid job and his vocals still work as a good contrast to the rest of the vocals on here and he holds up fine in the group context. He also is capable of reaching some pretty impressive speeds with his vocals, with “Fury” definitely showing that side of his screaming style very well.

Production-wise, there’s not really a lot to say, as, the usual mastering and bass mixing complaints aside, there’s nothing to really object to here. It’s definitely a digital production job and you can tell that, but it avoids coming across as TOO overly polished (certainly, it sounds less polished than the average metalcore record, which I find usually is FAR too polished to work properly) and there’s still enough energy to keep things from sounding too sterile (although, ironically, I think the band could get away with a more polished sound if they wanted to, since it would help enhance their more poppy elements!). The mix in general is pretty solid (although I think Jake’s vocals could have done with a TINY bit more volume and the strings sometimes get drowned out in “Endlessly” when they probably could have done with a bit more presence), which is all the more impressive when you consider how much has to be balanced! It’s a solid production job overall, so credit to Jacob Hansen (who single handled engineered and mastered this record) and Morck (who co-produced and co-mixed this record alongside Hansen) for their work on this aspect of the record.

Ultimately, I do enjoy Maximalism, as it has some great tracks and enough good to stop me from feeling like this record wasn’t worth getting, but it still feels like a step down from their previous record and the attempts to shake up their sound just don’t work as well as they should have done. There’s still enough to enjoy on here to make it worth a look into if you are able to approach them with the right mindset (which isn’t necessarily that of a typical metal band) and I could see this band being a great gateway band for people to get into metal in general, but this record doesn’t feel like their strongest effort to me and it feels like the band are at risk of their sound working against them because of how difficult it is to improve upon a sound that is already as unusual in the scene as theirs is. I can see myself spinning tracks from this for a good while to come, but the full record…not so much. There’s an amazing 8 track EP in this album, but the other four tracks drag it down to turn it into merely a very good record. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, of course, is up for debate…

Maximalism was released by Spinefarm Records on October the 21st.