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Friday, July 22, 2011

Album Review: Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions

Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions
2011 Century Media
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Though it's been a lifetime ago it seems, Arch Enemy's Black Earth is a metal album that has held the band to a vicious standard it hasn't really been too interested in living up to. Though you almost never hear anybody slag mainstay vocalist Angela Gossow since she can ralph and tear chunks from her esophagus with equal (if not better) proficiency as her male counterparts, you do now and then hear a metal fan pining for Johan Liiva. Or better yet, the days of Arch Enemy minus all of the excessive balladry and power pop.

Many scoffed at Arch Enemy's previous outing The Root of All Evil, an album hijacking a large chunk of the Liiva era for Gossow to bellow out her own blistering rip through red times she wasn't originally there for--even though she's fielded plenty of Arch Enemy's old material in live sets. In the grand scheme, The Root of All Evil was pretty pointless, at least until you measure it against Arch Enemy's latest album, Khaos Legions.

Given 2001's Wages of Sin introduced Gossow to a hyperactive metal crowd eager to receive her out of curiosity sake, it's been more the story of how far Arch Enemy has drifted from its blackened foundry, i.e. Black Earth, Stigmata and Burning Bridges. Not to say albums like Doomsday Machine and Rise of the Tyrant aren't heavy duty albums, but it is sufficient to say Arch Enemy has been less interested in becoming the Mercyful Fate of their time, which they could have been, if not for their stretches into tuneful progression and fist banging mania.

If you're one of those Arch Enemy fans longing for the old days, then you'll do well to give Khaos Legions a whirl. While some songs can't resist the tumble from thrash to skidding chamber fugue as interpreted by metalheads (a method refined by Yngwie Malmsteen and incorporated way too much by this band), a hefty portion of Khaos Legions digs back into the Black Earth and Stigmata goodie bags.

Thus you get why Arch Enemy took the time to re-record their vintage catalog with Gossow on The Root of All Evil. They primed her for this moment. Indeed, the roots are here on Khaos Legions with frequent blares of immeasurable speed, grimy riff structures and a regal solo clinic from the Amott brothers, Chris and Michael.

Perhaps only Megadeth's Endgame has more celebratory shredding and guitar trade-offs, because the Amotts throw themselves and their fans quite a party on Khaos Legions. It's hard to pinpoint all of the standout solos on this album, because they're hurled at will, some when you're expecting them...often not. For sake of the argument, we'll cite "Thorns in My Flesh," "Cruelty Without Beauty," "Cult of Chaos," "Bloodstained Cross," "Vengeance is Mine" and "Yesterday is Dead and Gone" as focal points for the Amotts' spectacular torquing and fret shagging. Plug in and let your brains get fried by these guys. The Amotts are always reliable, but on Khaos Legions, they rampage.

While the opening third or so of the album strives to bridge the old Arch Enemy to the newer era with infernal blasts worming back into midtempo huzzahs, there's a methodic appeasement going on with Khaos Legions. "Yesterday is Dead and Gone" is heavier than fuck, yet it keeps slipping into Bach-esque maneuvers with deliberate amiability. "Bloodstained Cross" roars out the gate like a dragon, then settles into a stabilized hum on the verses before Arch Enemy pulls levers that send their listeners out like a blast coaster. In the same song, "Bloodstained Cross" suddenly drags to a crawl before cranking out the other tempo sequences all over again.

In some ways, these internalized cross-examinations of moods during the opening numbers is a bit of chore. One gets the impression this album is going to be more a maudlin yet melodic do-up of Anthems of Rebellion. "No Gods, No Masters" is Arch Enemy's obligatory crowd pump-up for this record, but before you can say "sell the script," they tease their fans with the highly busy "Through the Eyes of a Raven." It's no so much the shift in pentameter on "Through the Eyes of a Raven" that makes it a standout; it's the complicated sequences Arch Enemy rattles through this song that makes it a total guess from start-to-finish. Is it a death march, is it a headbanger's fiesta? Is it a soaring escapade or is black metal for those not too ingrained in the genre? The answer is all of the above and wow, what a mindrape, particularly with the acoustic outro, which is an isolated murmur into the next track, "Cruelty Without Beauty."

Here is where Khaos Legions really finds its raw nerve, as "Cruelty Without Beauty" soars on Daniel Erlandsson's double hammers, triplets and grind, all dipping into a ghostly ether until Arch Enemy picks up the pace again and the Amotts cut loose. This is expert metal songwriting, along with the brief instrumental "We Are a Godless Entity," one of Arch Enemy's most inspired compositions ever. Like classic Testament, the reserved nature of that instrumental serves up the maniacal "Cult of Chaos," one of the fastest tunes Arch Enemy has done in ages, even if they do bring the velocity down in increments.

The same schism applies between the quick interlude "Turn to Dust," which leaves you unprepared for the even faster "Vengeance is Mine," a song of sheer moxy in living up to its title. The brief slowdowns on "Vengeance is Mine" are genuinely there to let you catch your breath, on top of showing off Arch Enemy's knack for power metal plants. Even though the second half of "Vengeance is Mine" is mostly set at mid-tempo, the rocketing finale is exuberant.

Arch Enemy exits Khaos Legions with a banging statement, "Secrets." Crushing and eloquent with tons of speed and more of their baroquian textures that the listener does have enough of by album's end, Arch Enemy couldn't have asked for more out of themselves with "Secrets" as a closer and as a metalhead's idea of nirvana.

If the first third or so of Khaos Legions matched the unrelenting intensity of the remainder of the album and if Arch Enemy hadn't overcooked their pot of Bach boullion, then this might've been an album of the year contender. As it is, Khaos Legions is a damned good album from a veteran metal outfit with all cogs operating to perfection. This is the album their original fans have long wanted, while more recent additions to their listening family are going to feel like their minds have evaporated. Can't complain about either case if you're Arch Enemy, right?

Rating: ****

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