Arch Enemy has been around for more than 20 years and has been taken seriously as an important band for a lot of that time. They still show growth and are one of the most influential bands working today. Their new album, Will to Power, is their best work to date, and the supporting tour is selling out around the world. Alissa White-Gluz replaced longtime, though actually second, singer Angela Gossow on the previous album and has instilled new life in the band. She has a remarkable energy and delivery with more frequent breaks and stylistic shifts than the grinding growling hissing pace of the previous singer, who continues to manage the band.
Angela took over as their singer well more than a decade ago and delivered five important albums with them. Over that time, the band developed and layered increasingly intricate sounds. It gave a lot of background for Alissa to work from with a previous singer who has some stylistic similarities and a band with a large repertoire and clear vision. Placing Alissa into this mix was a brilliant move, because the band’s continual development left them working very well with a new singer but gaining an additional perspective that gave them a new spark.
War Eternal was an impressive debut for Alissa with the band and gave songs with a clear message. Will to Power refines that into a consistently bold testimonial with deep layers of complex shifts in melody and tempo. Death metal fuses with melody and new age ideas for the band as they critique personal and humanistic evolution impeded by oppression. Rather than just being dark, death metal becomes a war cry against oppression for them and allows the band to offer a universal message of freedom and overcoming negative forces.
Having a singer who sounds so much like she means it sharpens the band’s ideas and instrumental excellence even further. When she cries, “This is fucking war,” it sounds real, and both the studio recordings and live presentations amplify this. Seeing her yell that while 1300 people jumped into the air with her at a sold out show at Summit Music Hall in Denver really does make her look serious, and the band’s ideas are in the right places enough that they are worth getting behind. At one point in the show, Alissa waved a black flag with the band’s logo, and it looked legitimate when any other band would have been hard to take seriously. People around the world in supposed democracies are oppressed, and death metal’s long tradition of feisty boldness with esotericism is a beautiful thing to put into that complaint about injustice. It becomes truly epic when added to the melodies the band builds.
Michael Amott is one of the best guitarists in the world, and he moves from shredding death metal aggression to melodic harmonies happening at a fast but fluid pace. It allows for emotion to become present in the songs without being superficial, because his melodies stay complex and move fluidly into the next passage too fast to seem like he is merely trying to emote with the audience. It provokes a very powerful and overwhelming experience of sound as a much larger and sweeping aura. Where the Angela albums had a more grinding pace, the Alissa albums have more breaks. This fits the styles of the two singers. Alissa is proving an inspired lyricist with very poetic lines to work with, though Michael has a hand in the lyrics, and this style gives his guitar a chance to move aggressively and fluidly between very different passages.
The whole band has unusual and inspired personalities with a strong camaraderie between all members of Arch Enemy playing off of one another exceptionally well and writing the music together, though with Michael Amott standing out as the main songwriter and visionary of the band. Alissa seems apart from this familiar mixture yet very much crucial to the mix in just the right way. She has come in late in the band’s existence, but she reflects their ideas and inspires them in a profound way. Changing singers suddenly in a 20 year old band leaves a lot that is hard to predict, and having this turn out so well is an amazing story.
Dark music is in a very strong time of its own right now. The 21st century is clearly filled with problems and negativity, spread across environmental disaster, animal abuses, civil rights oppression, serious failures of liberal politics, lower wages, lack of jobs, technological oppression, and possible world war. Collectively gothic, industrial, dark metal (such as doom, black, and death), and some styles of punk have responded strongly to this with bold statements and great depths of inspiration. It is an artistic renaissance happening in subgenere rock. Arch Enemy capture many of these ideas and are one of the brightest spots within a larger trend.
Some trends of anthemic metal are preserved within them but with dense complexity and none of the superficiality inherent in some of those bands. Choruses are fun to sing but tend to grind and happen alongside breaks in Amott’s guitar and stylistic flourishes from Alissa. Usually the choruses are well thought out and have metaphorical value that make them much more interesting to sing along with than a lot of metal can offer.
The songs on Will to Power are a complex and bold testimony to the band’s key themes and ideas. It plays as a fully mature work that distills their major themes with bold harmonics that are far less obvious than their average (still very good) works. War Eternal is a good album, but it sounds transitional. Some songs are gems and some seem a bit simple in structure. This makes sense to me as the band was rapidly changing to a new singer. New ideas are present on that album but are not quite complete.
As the Pages Burn and War Eternal are very important songs about material surroundings oppressing who we really are. Certainly society’s record keeping ties people down to superficial things that may not be good descriptions of their best capacities and natures, and As the Pages Burn gives lyrical expression to a release of selfhood with the collapse of that social burden. It is similar to a description of karma, as an inner release tied to the overcoming of superficiality allows for one to evolve under that view.
War Eternal tells a similar story of a long term war which is the struggle for humanity to evolve spiritually or personally while social forces work to oppress people. Fascism, slavery, low wage labor, propaganda, etc. all mislead people into superficial understandings of who they are based on surrounding things. To free people from this is a struggle for liberation, and it is one that does not go away. The idea is actually ecstatic in the Greek sense of a release from one’s surroundings, because it advocates for the freeing of humanity as a whole without tying it to any specific political event. It is a deeper message and an ongoing struggle that would likely go better if we could figure out what the real obstacles are, and it is quite valuable to have a band smart enough to have this message. Arch Enemy is a fun band and often gets described as merely rebellious due to this, but as the band matures, the clearer the message becomes, and the more intricate and profound it is.
My favorite song on Will to Power is Eagle Flies Alone. This track describes solitude as a soaring above averageness and uses the metaphor of the eagle. In keeping with the name of the album, this idea does indeed exist in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. His favorite animals are birds and snakes, and he likes the eagle for being a predator while also solitary. It refuses to be conquered but is by no means vicious. Metaphorically, it rises and soars above what others fall in line with, and Nietzsche associates this with overcoming traditional morals and social negativity into a higher existence. The lyrics for the song focus on deception and corruption in the world and suggest that an honest person could not be average at all. This is a metal subculture view at the same time as something that can be developed out of Nietzsche, and it is wonderful to see a counterculture idea being so intelligent and thoughtful.
Blood in the Water speaks about a closing down of options with lines like, “Yesterday’s ideas are just a dream,” and impending danger of oppression, “as the blind lead the blind.” It fits the world climate well, and Arch Enemy correctly points out that the further the oppression goes the more people will fight until the global order may find it hard to exist. While the 21st century has generally been filled with negativity and a widening gap around the world between the super rich and everyone else, this sort of absurdity breeds opposition.
States that care more about military attacks than about peace and justice may find it hard to get along with their populations. As wages dwindle and much of the world does not treat healthcare as a human right, people are apt to complain about the problem much more, and as technology offers new ways to track and oppress people, there is less reason to trust the powerful. In such a context, dark artistic expression has become very important and relevant, and this band is one of the most powerful and prescient examples of that.
On the stage, Alissa is impossible to describe. She’s a friendly person off stage, and that is preserved when she takes her place in front of the audience with her normal smiling personality, but when she gets into a lyric she completely shapes herself and the entire scene to the meaning of the song as though she is channeling the larger message of Arch Enemy. It makes her one of the most perfect performers I have ever seen. Truly a fiery personality, emotions erupt from her with perfect timing and poise that no one else has.
There are singers I like as much, but I have never seen a person front a band better. I would imagine that Freddie Mercury may have been like this for people who got to see him perform, but she is so natural at what she does that it makes rock seem like it is only at the beginning while a lot of people have just been grinding out the obvious instead of exploring what can be done artistically in new and bolder ways. Much of what Alissa does can only be seen in person, and no one else can do it. This is a perfect band, album, and tour and one of the best things happening in music.