Friday 9 December 2022

Avatarium - Death, Where is Your Sting (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Doom Rock/Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2022
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OK, here's a surprise for me! I enjoyed Jennie-Ann Smith's guest appearance on the recent album by Candlemass and noticed that her own band, Avatarium, had a new album out too, so I thought I should check it out. I saw that they were a fellow Swedish doom metal band, so the natural instinct was to expect some sort of similarity in sound, just with a female vocalist and that's not what this is at all. Sure, there's unmistakably doom in their sound and there's a weight to what they do that often feels heavy, but this is a rock album far more than it is a metal album.

However, rock just doesn't cut it. Is there a genre called doom rock that isn't goth, because this is certainly not goth, even with the prominent use of cello on the opening track. What do occult and pagan rock become if a band isn't owned by those themes? This isn't folky enough to become just folk, but that component can't be ignored. Is it simply alternative rock? Surely not, because that's laden with a whole slew of implications that just don't apply here. I have no idea what to call what Avatarium do, except something that I utterly adore. This speaks to me in ways that precious few albums have this year.

A Love Like Ours is slow and deliberate, somewhere between Hexvessel and the Bad Seeds, with a delightful cello from Marcus Jidell who's primarily the band's guitarist, a beautifully distant beat from Andreas Johansson and an aching vocal delivery from Smith. It's so immediately a highlight that I only got one more song into the album before I had to jump back to this one again. And that next song, the title track, is a highlight too, which is more urgent and adds an alt country vibe, not that alt country ever sounded this ominous or this smooth. Smith turns up the ache to remind me of a singer/songwriter called Natalie Farr, who seems to be a lot more obscure than I thought she was. She sounded like this on an excellent indie album called Swept.

And then Avatarium turn up the doom, because Stockholm opens like Black Sabbath covered by an unusual folk band who then drift into something a lot lighter and looser. At its lightest, it feels like it has a psychedelic flower power influence, not unlike Children of the Sün, but at its heaviest, it's a driving occult rock standard. Psalm for the Living is the lightest song on offer, a cross between a hymn and a Stevie Nicks ballad, but with a dark cloud floating around above everything. It may not be doom in genre but it's doom in feel.

God is Silent, on the other hand, is emphatically doom and is as heavy as this album gets, even if I can't call the sound particularly dense. This is surely metal, even if the album hasn't been up until this point. Nocturne is clearly metal too, a doomy chugger of a song with clean vocals soaring over the riffs with a perfect knowledge of when to add a hint of vocal fry. Transcendent becomes metal in its midsection, but it's psychedelic folk before and after, ably highlighting just how effortlessly this band shifts genres in ways that shouldn't work but emphatically do, every time.

This is such a good album that I actually dreaded it continuing because surely the next song wasn't going to be up to the same standard as the last one. Maybe it finally reached that point in Mother Can You Hear Me Now, because I felt myself returning to reality a little after being shook during a killer five track stretch, but it's still a damn good song that's elevated in its second half by a Jidell solo that shows how much he's been listening to Dave Gilmour and also truly learning what makes his solos special rather than just mimicking them.

I haven't heard Avatarium before, but this is their fifth album and it seems that they've moved to this sound over time. I understand that they were founded by Leif Edling, as a side project that he had hoped to work with Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, a dream pairing if ever I saw one. However, the latter was unavailable so Edling proceeded anyway, bringing in Marcus Jidell of Soen and his wife, Jennie-Ann Smith. I still need to explore their back catalogue but it seems that they were initially doom metal through and through, but have diversified their sound over time.

What that suggests to me is that the admirable range exhibited here—none of these songs sounds like any other, but every one of them feels consistent in this company—is something that's still in the process of being explored. I have a feeling I'm going to like their previous four albums, two of them with Edling and two of them without, but I'm going to like their next one even more. It's fair to say that this was a rare 9/10 from me on a first listen but it doesn't lose any of its power after a repeat or six. It just provides us an opportunity to focus on details like the cymbal sound on A Love Like Ours, the delicious shifts in emphasis on many of these tracks and how well Mats Rydström is able to underpin crucial moments. There's a lot here. Relish it.

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