For the surprisingly vast number of symphonic and power metal bands that have earned themselves a slice of metal’s pie, it’s somewhat staggering that almost all of them are from mainland Europe. Then again, thinking about it, it makes a lot of sense. The continent has always embraced metal more wholeheartedly as an artform than the rest of world, and given Europe’s adoration of melodrama and the camp in their entertainment (see Eurovision), bands like Within Temptation and Nightwish manage to flesh out both a metal and a pop quota. And then, taking it all to its (debatably) natural extreme, there’s Amaranthe, the Swedish sextet that fuse power metal with EDM beats, and two-thirds of a vocal team that are essentially glorified Europop stars.
That was the main selling point of their self-titled debut in 2011, and now, five years later on their fourth album Maximalism, they’re essentially doing the same thing – zipping guitar lines clash with thumping club beats, while Elize Ryd and Jake E. Lundberg contribute with their soaring dual vocal lines, and Henrik Englund Wilhemsson chimes in with his garbled, Cookie Monster growls, as if the whole thing wasn’t jarring enough already. And it really is because, on a compositional level, Maximalism is an absolute mess, an album to whom tact and subtlety are foreign concepts, instead making every single element as overblown and garish as possible and having it all compete for airtime in one gigantic clusterfuck of kitschy self-indulgence. And there are moments where it’s absolutely glorious. Seriously, on tracks like Boomerang and On The Rocks, the chugging metallic riffs and pop choruses collide for something that will undoubtedly irk metalheads lacking a sense of humour, but there’s such an overriding vibe of fun and unashamed ridiculousness that it’s hard not to get swept along. It’s in this regard that Amaranthe’s best trait is that there’s buckets of self-awareness here; whereas a band like Dream Theater peddle a sprawling, over-the-top piece of cheese with astute seriousness, Amaranthe are clearly a much looser band, compacting their sound into something much more palatable.
But that’s where the majority of the praise for Maximalism ends because, for as enjoyable as Amaranthe can be in small doses, their sound is limited and it does begin to get played-out. As much as the album’s earlier tracks absolutely nail the band’s power metal / EDM fusion, as it progresses it gets a lot more fragmented and bitty, chopping each element into bits rather than having a smooth mesh. The most blatant example is Fury, which sees Wilhemsson taking primary vocal duties (and sounding uncannily like Mudvayne-era Chad Gray while doing so) over galloping, straight-up metal, before Ryd’s stellar pipes kick in and making way for a spasmodic, electronic breakdown which sounds like the mixing desk malfunctioning. It’s a frustratingly disjointed track, if only because it serves as the first real time that any component of Amaranthe’s sound feels gimmicky, and when it’s highlighted its repercussions can be felt throughout the album on each subsequent listen.
Then there are the tracks that are just plain forgettable and feel as though they’re hear as filler, which make up a disappointingly hefty percentage of this album. As powerful vocalists as Ryd and Lundberg are – and they both genuinely sound fantastic pretty much across the board here – their contributions can’t save cuts like Fireball or Break Down And Cry from sounding as nondescript as they do, particularly the latter which is puzzlingly flabby for a band who pride themselves on a razor-like precision sonically. But the biggest missteps come in the pair of laughable ballads Limitless and Endlessly, two tracks that could only have come from a European act and would both be guaranteed smashes for Sweden at Eurovision at any given year. The former sees Ryd belting typical self-esteem anthem pablum over broad, glitchy electronics while the latter takes the string-backed power ballad formula and coats in such a thick layer of cheese that it makes Whitesnake’s Is This Love seem like Reign In Blood. Looking on the bright side, they clearly lend more credence to the notion that Amaranthe aren’t taking themselves seriously whatsoever and that they’re just having a good time, but they feel so at odds instrumentally and tonally with everything else on offer here that it just feels like yet another element tossed into an already glutted mix.
Nevertheless, despite its many flaws, it’s hard to really hate Maximalism. Sure it’s messy and only really holds up as individual cuts rather than a full body of work, but when Amaranthe fully embrace their most ridiculous, over-the-top impulses, the results are so enjoyable. That being said, Maximalism is far from being a great album – it’s too fragmented to grasp the attention for longer than a couple of songs at a time – but it’s not worth totally skipping over, if only for the likes of Boomerang or On The Rocks. On the whole though, the jury’s still out about how worthwhile Amaranthe truly are.
For fans of: Within Temptation, Sonic Syndicate, Sonata Arctica
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Maximalism’ by Amaranthe is released on 21st October on Spinefarm Records.