Soilwork – Verkligheten

Soilwork have long been one the most consistent acts in melodic death metal. Although they’ve rarely received the same amount of critical recognition as formative bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquility or At the Gates, they’ve nevertheless managed to put together a catalogue of records whose overall quality rivals any other of the big genre names’ and which has often—and often more successfully—pushed harder at the expectations of the genre as well. Verkligheten serves as the eleventh entry in their impressive discography, and one which sees the Swedes, once again, nudging ever so slightly at the boundaries of melodic death metal as well.

It was always going to be difficult to follow up The Ride Majestic (2015). I’d argue that album was not only Soilwork’s best work in nearly a decade, but also possibly the best album they’ve ever released as well. Verkligheten doesn’t quite continue that level of quality, but it’s its own beast, with its own distinctive identity. The Helsingborg natives’ eleventh full-length record sees them pushing the “melodic” aspect of their sound harder than they ever have since the masterful Stabbing the Drama (2005) and its ill-fated follow-up Sworn to a Great Divide (2007). Along with the usual quota of clean, uplifting choruses, there’s a catchiness to the riffing on this record that boarders far more often on the realms of hard rock than it does death metal. One could be forgiven for anticipating a return to the more intense days of The Chainheart Machine (2000) and A Predator’s Portrait (2001) based on blistering opener “Arrival”. However, the more reserved “Bleeder Despoiler” and “Full Moon Shoals” quickly make the albums true agenda known, and there really isn’t anything on the record following its opening salvo that could accurately be described in terms of “extreme” metal.

Soilwork have always been more successful at tapping into the “melodic” side of melodic death metal than their peers, and it makes sense that they should play into their strengths on this new release. More melodic offerings like “Petrichor by Sulpher” and “Whirl of Pain” proved standouts on The Ride Majestic. However, on their previous release, the heavier elements and the melodic elements felt more deliberate and intertwined. On Verkligheten, the songwriting often feels somewhat scattershot, and the various different elements that are constantly being brought into play don’t always serve to heighten or reinforce those around them. “Full Moon Shaols” is a primary example of how messy some of the record’s songwriting can be. The song opens with Bjorn “Speed” Strid spitting a metalcore-style “ugh!” before launching into a middling, almost Whitesnake-style hard rock riff, before subsiding into a mellow, guitar-free verse. The intended effect was perhaps something along the lines of Ihsahn‘s “Until I Too Disolve”, but the transition between riff and chorus isn’t at all smooth, and when the frantic thrash break of its climax kicks in it feels like it comes altogether out of nowhere and subsides just as awkwardly. Taken in isolation, each of the songs elements work just fine, but they fail to gel into a greater whole and there doesn’t seem to be any real underlying logic to their combination.

Not all Verkligheten‘s tracks feel as muddled as its fourth offering. In fact, “Full Moon Shoals” is sandwiched between two far more successful takes on its Whitesnake-adjacent template. The fist-pumping “Bleeder Despoiler” is by far the best song on the record, and one its few fully realised offerings. “The Nurturing Glance” likewise utilises its hard rock riffing to elevate the more extreme elements it underscores, while also pushing Strid to his soaring, melodic best. However, his vocals don’t quite hit the same heights elsewhere. Maybe it’s something to do with the mix, or their often chaotic surrounds, but Strid’s voice often feels somewhat flat when it should truly pop. In maintaining such a grandiose backdrop throughout, “Stålfågel” doesn’t give his voice anywhere to go once it gets to the chorus, while “Arrival”, conversely, feels like it’s constantly building, only to peter out without ever seeming to reach its destination.

It’s tempting to put the shift in songwriting down to primary writers Strid and guitarist David Anderson’s involvement in The Night Flight Orchestra, although Verkligheten remains far more vital than their nostalgic dad-rock incarnation have put their name to. Where the album falls down most-notably musically, however, is in the performance of new drummer Bastian Thusgaard (Dawn of Demise, Blood Label). Compared to the eccentric performances of previous drummer Dirk Verbeuren (Megadeth) Thusgaard’s chops feel a little one-note, with his go to move seeming to be to lay down an endless volley of 16th notes on the kick-drums and then simply plod along on top of it. This isn’t to take a shot at his ability. Thusgaard is certainly an accomplished player and his additions are entirely appropriate to what the other members are laying down; they just often also feel a little bit more one-dimensional than Soilwork have lead listeners to expect. Like the album itself the drums only feel like a letdown when compared to what came before. However, that’s also the only kind of expectations the band can expect to come up against after consistently setting the bar so high for so long.

Verkligheten is a distinctive entry in Soilwork’s catalogue, which proves the band still have plenty of enthusiasm left for their craft as well as room left for exploration. Although it doesn’t quite live up to the incredibly high bar set by The Ride Majestic but, like all Soilwork records, it’s still miles ahead of what most of the competition have to offer. Most bands would kill to have as solid a “career low” as Sworn to A Great Divide and, while Verkligheten doesn’t rank among Soilwork’s strongest efforts either, it remains a formidable outing whose more straight-forward approach perhaps proves the most challenging thing about it.

Verkligheten is out January 11, on Nuclear Blast.

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