Unleash the Archers: Shining Steel Surging From the “Abyss”
There is something deeply magical about Unleash the Archers' newest album Abyss. Its design on paper is one that I personally should absolutely despise, being at least ostensibly a blend of power metal and melodic death metal. Power metal is rather hit-or-miss for me. Certain bands in the genre, like Gamma Ray, Helloween, and the almighty Blind Guardian, satisfy in a way few in all of metal do. Meanwhile, a staggering number of other bands in the style tend to live inside such a pitched and boisterous space that they often can descend deeply into cheese and cornball territory even for those who are diehard true believers. American-style power metal for years was my bastion within this genre, taking far more notes from traditional heavy metal, traces of doom and epic metal, as well as the occasional glimmer of thrash. These more hesher-approved styles tended to carry me through and made bands like Visigoth, Eternal Champion, and especially Sumerlands satisfying picks. The more streamlined and polished European school of power metal, meanwhile, felt too often like all the worst and most cloying aspects of mainstream pop alloyed to some of the most treacly and cringe-inducing elements of metal. This was all despite the oftentimes deep influence of progressive metal in the European school, a genre space I absolutely adore.
Melodic death metal likewise has long been a genre on the outs with me. Like European power metal, it was once my entry into the deeper waters of heavy metal and certainly a few bands of the style still satisfy. I doubt anyone with a straight face could look a fellow metalhead in the eyes and speak ill of Dark Tranquillity or Soilwork -- and the immediate charge for anyone discussing the mighty Carcass with less than absolute reverence is to be ejected from the hall. But aside from a few key bands in the style, it was an approach to death metal I quickly outgrew. This itself is a little bit paradoxical in a certain way; when it comes to death metal, I am more often a celebrant than a dour and overly critical sort, and functionally every pocket of the genre has records and groups that I strongly feel are not just worthy of interest but also adoration. In all honesty, my hang ups regarding both power metal and melodic death metal seem far more likely to come from that standard wince any adult feels when looking back on their own childhood. I find myself often unable to see groups of this stripe as they are, instead only seeing them as how I might have over-enthusiastically and quite rudely would have reacted to them as a young teen metalhead surrounded by people I thought arrogantly I was much better than. But, while this lens is certainly not the fault of any group they describe, it remains one that I largely cannot shake, hence my disciplined silence on these spaces in a professional forum. So it was to my great and immense surprise that the new Unleash the Archers album, a group often described as a hybrid of these two styles I so frequently struggle with, wasn't just good: It blew me away.
The trick for the group seems to come in the details. Abyss is steadfastly not a record of ground-breaking and avant-garde ideas experimental in nature and esoteric in execution. Instead, the group seems to have taken a magnifying glass to each and every grain of what constitutes their sound and nudged the atoms this way and that until it achieved a seamless syncretic whole. There is a profound sense of deliberacy in the songcraft that shines through in every aspect, from the arrangements to the performances to the production and mix and sequencing, each element perfected not to its own gain but instead pointed toward how it might contribute to the overall shape of the song and the album as a whole. The immediate logical comparisons I can make in their approach is to Devin Townsend and Blind Guardian, both groups who seem to have a sonic stamp in some of the ideas at play here but are most resonant in how Unleash the Archers approaches their syncretic whole. In each of those two groups, you could in theory pluck out any given instrumental track and find a plethora of tidbits of ear candy, from constantly shifting accents in drum parts that nevertheless manage to execute a steady skeletal structure underneath to hybridized rhythm and lead guitars that bury guitar tracks that might have been standout solos for other bands into a countermelody for those more accomplished to, of course, layers upon layers of deftly balanced vocals. The common element here is one of virtuosity, but virtuosity of a certain caliber and mindset, players so good that they no longer need to derail the song to show you their talents but instead can make parts that fit the emotional and imagistic thrust of the song while still being immensely satisfying to play.
The approach to their parts also reads as encyclopedic in a studied way, rather than feeling cloying and overly-clever. It's easy to throw the kitchen sink at an album and wind up coming away with an incoherent sonic mess, riffs hopscotching across styles without any real sense of order or aesthetic cohesion, but Unleash the Archers are a great deal more astute. When you hear the wide-open chord voicings in "Carry the Flame" that feel like they could have been plucked from a prime John Sykes track, the peaked and perfect glam metal of late 1980s Whitesnake or the masterful Blue Murder, it doesn't feel arch, ironic or self-obsessed. Instead, they match the undercurrent and emotional arc of the song they are paired against, given the same shimmer of reverb while clean Coverdale-esque male vocals emerge. This is on the same album with a very Yngwie opening guitar line on "Faster Than Light" as well as the Images & Words-era Dream Theater nods on "Through the Stars". These little gestures feel like deliberate nods that are comfortable and compelling because of how harmoniously they are then enmeshed within the broader aesthetic of Unleash the Archers. There is a confidence on display in those moves, a confidence well-earned.
Their secret weapon is, like any great metal band of their stripe, their vocalist. Brittney Slayes puts on a masterclass over the span of the album, displaying the precise same disciplined virtuosity of her string- and stick-wielding peers. She isn't afraid to really belt it on occasion and, when she does, it feels like standing atop a mountain with the wind blowing through your hair and clothes in exactly the kind of resplendent victory howl you want from music like this. But her discipline is sharp; she doesn't overdo this approach to vocals, nor does she over-enunciate and over-declare in that especially tiring way that some do. She knows how to lay back and tap into a subtler and richer timbre when needed, something that allows their slower and more starry-eyed ballads to hit properly instead of reducing into a syrupy mess like less accomplished groups might. She is handed melodies that likewise are strident but perfectly placed, deliberately not rendered into overcomplicated notey messes that are the type a less confident singer might deploy to prove their chops. Slayes has them in oodles and her strength as a performer bleeds out from every note she sings. As a result, she seems focused on that deeper and ultimately more impressive form of virtuosity: playing perfectly. This is reminiscent, to gesture back, to both Devin Townsend and Hansi Kursch, both singers of immense and staggering technical abilities who choose to demonstrate it more in absolutely nailing their performances than in writing seemingly unplayable arrangements.
There is a potent throughline of arena rock and pop-rock in Unleash the Archers. This seems to form the core of the intent of the group; what matters here are the hooks and the emotional impact of those hooks, where every decision about arrangement, performance and production is geared toward enhancing and properly filling out those elements rather than for their own sake. It is clear on hearing Abyss that Unleash the Archers' sights are not on playing dimly-lit bars and clubs but in conquering arenas the way Judas Priest and Iron Maiden do in soccer stadiums all over the world, hundreds of thousands of fans singing along with them. What matters is that, at least in terms of playing the part, they largely achieve these aims. There is a size and power to the songs that feels destined for grandiose places -- not that this material wouldn't absolutely kill in humbler venues, but it seems destined for those bigger and more sweeping spans. This song-oriented attitude of the group seems inevitably what made them so competently capable of overcoming my otherwise mile-high walls regarding music of this type. When you have hooks, performances and laser-sharpened arrangements played by musicians this good, it's impossible to say no.
Abyss released August 21st via Napalm Records.