I've enjoyed Arch Enemy for years, partly because they were one of the few bands who I noticed in my nineties period of not noticing much because life had taken over from music for me for a while. Maybe the fact that they famously hired a woman as a harsh vocalist helped to grab my attention, but that novelty wore off quickly once that unlikely glass door was broken and Angela Gossow was able to become simply the singer, worthy of note for her musical talents not just her gender.
Their current singer, Alissa White-Gluz, is probably a better vocalist, but I still have a fondness for Gossow's voice. She spat out lines well and she's still who I see when I think of commercial melodic death metal. Now, this is a less commercial album than say, Anthems of Rebellion, with faster and more technical shifts, but the melodies are still there and clearly come from the same band. I may not have heard that album in a decade but listening to it alongside this one highlights just how much this is Anthems with crisper production and harder and cleaner edges.
I really like the balance that they've found here between an extreme death metal sound, with its double bass drumming and harsh vocals, and an older school power metal sound, with slower riffs, guitar solos and melodies. There are reasons why Handshake with Hell is the opener, because it's quite a lot of things all at once. It's a melodic death metal song, of course, but White-Gluz sings a line here and there clean, as if it's a straightforward heavy/power metal song too, and she drops into a tasty section in the second half with clean vocals that are almost folky, over a sort of dark ambient backdrop. Then a guitar duel between Michael Amott and Leff Loomis brings us home.
It's the most varied song vocally, because White-Gluz does stay harsh for the vast majority of the album, though she did impress me thorougly with what she did there. However, the music remains varied throughout. In the Eye of the Storm is slow and powerful and it's a firm nod to Judas Priest, even though White-Gluz is a few octaves below Rob Halford. Priest had a few songs with Deceiver in the name, so I was almost expecting that nod, given that there's a kinda sorta title track called Deceiver, Deceiver, but they shifted it elsewhere.
They speed back up on The Watcher, the elegant twin guitarwork of the intro soon giving way to a speed metal blitzkrieg, but it slows down for the choruses and wraps up with keyboards that flow smoothly into the strings that open Poisoned Arrow. And the choruses on both those songs, as on most of the ten songs proper on offer here, are epic in sound. It would only take a change in vocal style for Arch Enemy to become a pure power metal band. They don't even need to lower the bass in the mix, because that's already been done, which I'd suggest is the only flaw to the production.
Some of the songs don't even need the choruses to feel epic. My favourite here after The Watcher may well be Sunset Over the Empire, which has orchestral sweeps in it that may well be keyboards but which endow it with a timeless quality. The lyrics aren't particularly deep but it feels like they ought to be. Certainly it's about a pivotal moment in time, with talk of holy war and an end to one era with the promise of another ascendant. It's the sort of thing an epic metal band tends to sing about and I don't doubt that Arch Enemy would acknowledge that. The orchestral/choral section that closes out Spreading Black Wings is just another example of pure epic, almost a soundtrack.
I wonder whether the naysayers after the hiring of Angela Gossow are still dissing on Arch Enemy. They didn't like how commercial and mainstream the band's sound was getting, especially on the breakthrough Anthems of Rebellion album, and wished for the more technical, more intense days with Johan Liiva at the mike. White-Gluz may be a little more traditional with her vocal but all the complaints about Gossow's era are applicable here. There are catchy melodies everywhere. There are "hey, hey" sections in both Sunset Over the Empire and Spreading Black Wings. Mourning Star is a brief instrumental that wouldn't feel out of place on a Pink Floyd album.
But Arch Enemy seem to be shifting units, so plenty of people aren't upset about their sound. This is often powerful, fast, heavy, emphatic. Is it what the band were doing with Liiva? No, not particularly, but music is fluid and evolving. It seems somehow disrespectful to challenge a band who pioneered one genre for moving into another. It ought to be just as valid to challenge why they haven't changed more in the past couple of decades. Me, I'm just enjoying a quality melodic death metal album that, sure, may often be a quality power metal album instead.