Crafting a great power metal album is a difficult thing. The genre is so steeped in thrills and adrenaline, it can be easy to create something too over-the-top and annoying. Writing the catchiest chorus, playing the fastest solo, and singing the highest notes aren’t going to mean anything if the music doesn’t have depth and meaning. Great power metal albums like Nightfall in Middle Earth, Land of the Free, The Metal Opera, and, more recently, Noble Beast employ subtly when necessary. They have memorable choruses and great riffs but also moments of real emotion. While less serious bands like Primal Fear, Dragonforce, and Sabaton have their proper place and legitimate enjoyment factor, they will never be remembered in the same way.
In today’s evolving heavy metal music industry, serious power metal seems to be fading away. In 2017, Dragonforce, Grave Digger, and Firewind have all put out passable albums right in line with their previous successes, but they are safe albums that don’t push the genre in any real direction. A few newcomers like Witherfall, Seven Kingdoms, and MindMaze have turned a moderate amount of heads this year but nothing that breaks big metal news. Black metal, doom metal, and death metal continue to dominate the scene with progressive, forward-looking releases and power metal remains niche. The genre needs change and needs new leaders. The next 5 years needs power metal albums that bring in new fans and reestablish the genre’s artistic value. We can’t keep waiting around for the next Blind Guardian album for the next big win when Pallbearer has better vocals and choruses than the average power metal band.
Unleash The Archers could be the next big power metal player. The band has had a string of successful albums that combine Dragonforce-style wankery with melodic death metal and classic heavy metal. Now their fourth album, Apex, aims to bring their sound to a new level.
Apex borrows a lot from older power metal acts so veteran fans will find themselves right at home. First of all, the album is a Rhapsody-style concept album about gods and battles. The story is not necessarily anything special or even required to understand to enjoy the music but hey, it’s there. Further, the choruses on “Awakening” and “Earth And Ashes” have a certain longing to them that is reminiscent of Valley of the Damned or a younger Edguy. The band also uses a mostly-sung but sometime-screamed vocal approach that seems to be a Canadian-signature at this point (see 3 Inches of Blood and Into Eternity).
What Unleash The Archers does new is provide a modern spin on power metal both in the songwriting and production, something the genre desperately needs. They aren’t the first band to switch between growling and screaming but they do seem to have perfected it. By using it sparingly and in the right songs, it comes off as natural rather than novelty. This unique vocal approach along with a more updated musical language takes the genre in the same direction Into Eternity was going before Iced Earth lifted Stu Block out of it: unapologetic, aggressive power metal that still borrows from other modern metal sounds. Just take the opening riff to “Cleanse The Bloodlines”. Rather than fiddle around with some dopey major key, Helloween-rip off or rehash some old riff from the 80s, it hits like a Michael Bay explosion (in a good way) and starts things off the right way. The band shows that they aren’t afraid to throw in a little chug and groove and that risk pays off.
Frontwoman, Brittney Slayes, is also a huge part of Unleash The Archers’ fresh sound. Her voice, while still obviously female, utilizes mostly chest voice, a vastly different approach to other female power metal vocalist who usually use the tired and overdone operatic style. With this approach she is able to hit notes higher than most men can while still sounding aggressive and totally in control. She delivers the story with perfect drama and exciting commitment like a female Hansi Kürsch. Her electrifying performance on the album opener, “Awakening”, and “Cleanse The Bloodline” is hard to resist with her ever extending range, emotional flexibility, and presence. Just listen to the last 10 seconds of “The Coward’s Way” and try to not like her final “WAAAHHHHH”. Do it. I dare you.
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The instrumental work can easily get hidden behind Brittney’s amazing front-woman skills but after a few listens it’s clear that this band isn’t simply a vehicle for one person. The production really works in their favor here. Everything is crisp and maintains dynamics well. Guitarists Grant Truesdell and Andrew Saunders have absolutely brilliant interplay utilizing the Maiden dual lead approach. Their compositions are complex and rich, making re-listening a must. Most songs don’t just have two or three main sections and keep you guessing about what’s going to happen next. The rhythm section, comprised of Scott Buchanan on drums and Nikko Whitworth on bass, are able to keep up with the lightning fast riffs and solos and, more importantly, provide some groove and backbeat for contrast. This music unfolds and evolves. It doesn’t just play out as expected. These musicians aren’t just copying and pasting from power metal legends. Unleash The Archers is a diverse metal band that remains undeniably power metal despite their obvious love of other genres.
There are some pitfalls on the album, of course. Tracks like “Shadow Guide” and “Ten Thousand Against One” are repetitive and too simplistic. They seem to be trying to make these tracks the “radio singles” of the album but they just end up coming off as boring and limp when put next to tracks like “Awakening” and “Apex” with breadth and better choruses. There’s also a distinct lack of slower tracks on Apex. The constant barrage of high energy music is great but Unleash The Archers should challenge themselves and write something sappy. The little glimpses of balladry throughout the album like “False Walls” or moments in “Apex” is reassuring but this album needs a full on “Bard’s Song” track. Right now, the album is about 4 shots of espresso.
Overall, Unleash The Archers have proven that they are up to the challenge of being a new, younger major band in power metal. Hopefully, they can help bring the genre back to where it belongs.