Somewhere in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, a movement was brewing. An idea, a sound, a sensation had started to stretch its fingers into metal and to stir, creating new sounds and sensibilities. We are, of course, talking about the rise of metalcore. Whether you deem it a disaster or a miracle (or some other, saner, thing in between), it’s without a doubt that metalcore shaped the metal community during those years. Starting in 2003-4, the sub-genre erupted into fame with bands like Killswitch Engage, Atreyu, Shadows Fall and All That Remains enjoying commercial and musical success. The fans, and the money, were talking and they were asking for more.
Into this cauldron, many bands would later be introduced: some would disappear without anything to their name, while others would build on the foundations of metalcore to create something new. Many of them would take the influences present in melodic death metal and inject them into this scene, creating melodic metalcore. One of these bands, which has sadly been forgotten, is our topic for today’s post. Their name is (and in some ways, was) Mercenary. In the period time between 2004-2008, the band straddled the lines between death metal and metalcore, in many sense pre-shadowing a lot of the current trends in metalcore and helping to form the budding sub-genre of melodic metalcore. Let’s rewind and take a look back at the height of their career and the unique sound that they can still offer us.
While their roots go as far as 1991, with two albums prior to the 2000’s, it’s in 2004 when things start to get really interesting. While their two first albums drew heavily on power influences, it ironically took the addition of a pianist to move them away from their melodic death/power basis and closer into the on-going metalcore movement. Not to say that they were ever really fully committed to metalcore; their sound is too melodic for that. But, their 2004 masterpiece 11 Dreams, saw them embracing many of the qualities that would alter coalesce into the melodic metalcore style. While 11 Dreams leaned heavily on the synths, it was also not afraid to drop vicious and engaging breakdowns into the mix.
The melodies created are its strength: one only needs to listen to one of the opening tracks, ‘World Hate Center’, to here how the crushing, then-modern riffs clashed with the synths into a beautiful cacophony. The vocals, half screamed/half sung, also quickly came to be emblematic of the movement. The speed, originally grafted from thrash into melodeath also finds expression here but with less emphasis on leads and more on chuggy riffs. In short, melodic metalcore. The album presents plenty of other points of reference for this style: “Redestructdead” is downright anthemic, with riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Killswitch Engage track or on a Blind Guardian epic and a breakdown that throws down with the best of them. The album also features intriguing concepts, perhaps invoking Misery Signals penchant for the intellectually stimulating. It features piano pieces, covers of Scandinavian pop songs (in the form of “Music Non Stop”), and both a seven minute and an eight minute track. One of those, “Firesoul”, tells the intricate story of doomed love, all the while delivering a steady slew of breakneck riffs and intriguing leads.
Mercenary enjoyed immense success with the album at the time, perhaps a testimony to the fact that they were tapping into a momentum, a sort of musical hotbed that was, even then, forming around them as they worked. It was with their 2006 release, The Hours That Remain, that they truly crystallized what they were about. In this writer’s opinion, it might just be their best album, owing to the accurate balance that had been struck between the different elements. 11 Dreams is amazing, but it tries to hold the stick from both ends: both melodic death metal and metalcore vie for survival and the end result can sometimes wear the listener thin, moving him from epic heights to bottomless chugs, through concept tracks and straight up bangers.
No such imbalance is to be had with The Hours That Remain. In it, the band embrace completely their more simplistic, addictive and anthemic influences to create an album that both punishes and rewards. Once again, one of the earlier tracks is the best example: ‘Year of the Plague’ starts with an insanely high pitched scream, before exploding into sheer musical madness. Its follow up, ‘My World is Ending’, re-introduces the piano and the melodeath influences. They’re not missing from this album, but they’re reigned in, their ambition checked by the need to be fast, heavy and furious.
No grand, conceptual tracks present themselves. No intricate piano/strings combinations. The album is too obsessed with delivering its ballistic sounds to your ears for those but not too headstrong to completely shrug them off. And thus, the melodic metalcore creation is born, with synths supplementing clean singing alongside growls and furious breakdowns. One only needs one more example: ‘Soul Decision’ is Mercenary at their finest and coalesces all the elements mentioned above into one, sleek, powerful track.
Our story has a sad ending; one of a band unbalanced. Having found their poise, it would have served Mercenary well to maintain it, pushing into the future by building on all that these two albums had accomplished. Instead, like a beautiful gear sliding out of its groove, something jolts and we’re left with their 2008 album, Architect of Lies. The album attempts, once again, to do everything at once and suffers for it. More ambiance is inserted into several of the tracks, with the synths taking a much more prominent place in the riff creation. Several tracks are worth our time and indeed, much of the album is pleasing. Opening track ‘New Desire’ for example, still enjoys the balance mentioned before.
But ultimately, Architect of Lies is forgettable, drowning its unique moments in the imbalance of its parts. Their following albums suffer from the same issues, not to mention a massive lineup change in 2009. Sadly, this left the band crippled and they haven’t been able to regain their center since. However, 11 Dreams and The Hours That Remain are not to be forgotten: they are important albums which served their role in a crucial time for the scene and its growth. They’re also highly enjoyable releases and even Architect of Lies has its moments. Who knows, perhaps we’re due for a comeback? Their last few albums weren’t up to par but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In the meantime, we have their two masterpieces to hold us through and provide us with the melodic, harsh and groovy supplement that our daily listenings require.