Thursday, June 23, 2011

Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions

Angela Gossow leading the people
In the main, artistic responses to the financial crash of 2008 and its political implications have been disappointing so far. In music, generally only artists who were already 'political' have been able to interpret this new age of struggle with any degree of success. From my MP3 collection I'm thinking of Muse, Max Cavalera's projects, Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, Kreator, Killing Joke, Fear Factory, and various rappers. This was to be expected, as it must necessarily take the emergence of a new working class movement to pose the questions which need to be answered by artists in the near future, or else everything is inward-looking resignation and self-pity.

However, the initial stirrings of the 'Arab Spring' coincided with melodic death metal band Arch Enemy's retreat into the Sweet Spot Studio in Halmstad, Sweden for the recording of Khaos Legions. In promoting the album, vocalist Angela Gossow told interviewers that the band - and her in particular - had been inspired by what was happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and so many other countries. The artwork was modelled on Eugène Delacroix's French revolution-era Liberty Leading the People, and Gossow clearly sees herself as symbolically being on the front line, roaring the rest of us towards freedom.

How do you get even more extreme, yet have elements of light and shade?
Cologne-born Gossow joined Sweden-based Arch Enemy in 2000, after they had recorded three decent but unspectacular albums with Johan Liiva. The ferocious intensity of her growl far eclipsed Liiva, and her fiery, passionate belief in anarchism started to inform many of the band's songs. At times this verged on a kind of punkish ultra-leftism, especially on 2003's Anthems Of Rebellion, which was very much concerned with individual change against a background of general conformity. As time has gone on and conditions have changed, her politics have matured, to reflect a greater collectivity. In that time, the band have specialised in fist pounding adrenaline rushes, often punctuated by soaring, transcendent, almost singalong lead guitar solos, but struggled to pull off a great album. This continuing process is evident on Khaos Legions. There's plenty of killer, but there's still too much filler.

The opening few tracks are absolutely storming. Riffing, police sirens and crowd noises build to a crescendo, before an impossibly strange male voice warns us that "From the ashes of a corrupt and dying world, they rise like a phoenix, a godless entity: they are the chaos legions." We're then straight into the first single, Yesterday Is Dead And Gone, with its wailing guitars, strident drums, and the pledge that "This is our reckoning day", in case you hadn't realised it already.

As you might expect, Bloodstained Cross is an inditement of religion's effect on human consciousness, and the urgent need to "Get off your praying knees" because "Armageddon is drawing near", and "All the prayers in this world won't help you now". The symbolic standard of anarchism is invoked on Under Black Flags We March. Against a pounding martial rhythm, Gossow shrieks that "Empires of corruption will fall", because "The more we have to suffer, the more we will fight".

Towards the middle, City Of The Dead and Through The Eyes Of A Raven are more brilliant bundles of fury. The former seems to be a portrait of ghetto life, "where the nameless live and breathe" amidst "misery, frustration, anger, depression" and "monuments of death". The latter gives each band member a moment to shine in an epic tale of war and paradise lost.

Precisely at the moment where the wonderful acoustic outro to Through The Eyes Of A Raven ends, the album stumbles badly. From this point on, Khaos Legions is hit and miss. Moralistic animal rights song Cruelty Without Beauty has little to recommend it. Thorns In My Flesh might lyrically be an attack on the self interested behaviour of the rich and powerful, but vocally and musically it feels like the punches are pulled. And Secrets is an extremely poor choice of album closer, because it sounds like a reject cut from 2001's Wages Of Sin. But Cult Of Chaos is good enough fight song, urging revolution as the next stage of evolution, and the Amott brothers pull off some very nice guitar work on instrumentals We Are A Godless Entity and Turn To Dust.

Returning to my introduction, Khaos Legions comes quite close to successfully interpreting this "new age of struggle". At certain times, it approaches perfection, and could be a superb soundtrack for Tahrir Square demonstrations or garment workers combating police on Sri Lankan picket lines. At others, it sounds samey, and recycles some of the band's less than glorious moments. I think Arch Enemy are yet to come up with their defining album, but then Gossow and company should find plenty of inspiration in the months and years ahead. For already extreme artists, there is a substantial challenge posed by the reigniting class war - how do you get even more extreme to mirror changes in society, yet have elements of light and shade?
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