The words “hotly anticipated” are widely thrown around by both PR and the press these days when referring to any album released by an established act. In truth anticipation can be both a blessing (certainly regarding pre-orders) and a curse (once the album is released), as Guns ‘n’ Roses found to their cost when they released ‘Chinese Democracy’. In truth, despite being an Arch Enemy fan, I wasn’t particularly anticipating ‘War Eternal’, however, as the band had undergone a number of changes, most notably the departure of long standing and iconic front woman Angela Gossow, and I was left wondering how the band could replace such a formidable presence. Certainly new member Alissa White-Gluz seemed a good choice, whilst the addition of Nick Cordle (replacing Christopher Amott) of Arsis seemed to suggest that the band would continue very much in the vein of recent albums ‘The root of all evil’ and ‘khaos legions’. But I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
From the moment the eerie strains of instrumental opener ‘Tempore Nihil Sanat (Prelude in F minor)’ loom ominously into view, it is clear that Arch Enemy are starting afresh, much as they did when they first introduced Angela into the fold and the furiously icy blast of ‘never forgive, never forgive’ verges away from the more melodic pastures of recent albums into fierce blackened death metal territory with the song recalling Dimmu Borgir’s exhortations of the underworld even whilst the guitar solos are unleashed with typically stunning dexterity. At its heart it is still very much Arch Enemy exercising their familiar sound, but with an energy that was arguably lacking from recent outings whilst at the heart Alissa instantly marks her territory with a blistering performance that shows off a brutal and unexpectedly wide range of vocal styles at her command. The title track is similarly invigorated, a towering, blood-soaked flag raised at the heart of a battlefield heaped with broken bodies, it is a clarion call to arms in the vein of ‘nemesis’ or ‘dead eyes see no future’ and it sees the band pulling off their trademark trick of juxtaposing beautifully melodic choruses with serrated vocals soaked in vitriol. Without wishing to cast a negative light on the latter days of Angela’s reign of terror, the band sound astonishingly fired up on this release and it is clear that both Nick and Alissa have bought their own powerful personalities to the band, supercharging their output in the process. Highlighting the band’s instrumental dexterity, the furious percussive assault of ‘as the pages burn’ marks itself out as one of the album’s highlights with the whole band unleashing the sort of deathly assault that threatens to tear skin from bone with its relentless pace and yet, even here, they manage to insert the sort of fist-pumping chorus that is destined to light up mosh pits everywhere the band tour later in the year. It’s a mind-blowing slice of full-blooded metal that harks back to the awesome ‘anthems of rebellion’ and it leaves the listener in no doubt as to the future prospects of Arch Enemy.
Having floored the listener, Arch Enemy indulge in some shameless melodicism with ‘no more regrets’, a metallic tsunami that shifts deftly from wild-eyed, foot-on-monitor soloing to skull-crushing riffs on a knife edge, the band employing numerous changes to keep each moment feeling fresh and satisfyingly brutal along the way. ‘You will know my name’ is surely an anthem for the disaffected everywhere, opening with on a subtle, minor key note before exploding into an arena-sized anthem of rebellion and retribution. The sort of song that should, if there is any justice, take the world by storm, it takes the considered melodic assault of classic metal practitioners like Judas Priest and welds it to a solid death metal frame, offering up an adrenalin charged blast that lodges itself in your head for days. ‘Graveyard of dreams’ slows the pace for a short and rather introspective instrumental piece that segues neatly into the unhinged fury of ‘stolen life’ which sees Daniel Erlandson (drums) and Alissa competing for the title of most intense performance, the former attacking his kit with searing precision, the latter delivering a vocal performance that drips with hyper toxic venom.
Highlighting the changes taking place at the heart of Arch enemy, ‘time is black’ opens with the sound of a nursery from hell, with crying babies underlying an eerie piece of mood music that suddenly explodes into sulphurous light with a riff that not so much pounds as smashes the atmosphere to pieces. What really astounds are the multiple riffs, time signatures and changes the band unleash here and it is clear that the ambition of Arch Enemy burns anew on ‘War eternal’. With classical flourishes and an unflinching nod to the power of a grandstanding melody, ‘time is black’ is a mini-masterpiece and such is the mesmerising power of the music that the furious onslaught of ‘on and on’ is somewhat akin to receiving a bucket of cold water to the face as it looms into view, boasting a brutal breakdown that ranks amongst Arch Enemy’s heaviest moments and searing itself into the listeners brain with its manic aggression. Once again opting for the unusual, ‘Avalanche’ throws in huge banks of synths and a churning, mid-tempo riff that makes you want to bang your head like a maniac, only for ‘down to nothing’ to up the ante yet further with a hook the size of Moby Dick and yet another vocal performance from Alissa that sets the nerve endings afire as she vents her spleen at some unseen opponent over riffs that are set firmly to stun. The album proper ends with the moody instrumental of ‘not long for this world’, a brilliantly realised piece of music that is both archly cinematic and boldly doomy with its slow, coruscating riffs fading out over the sound of a lone piano and a life-support machine. If, however, that sounds a touch glum, the bonus track, ‘shadow of the wall’ proves to be the sound of a band simply having fun as they pay homage to their classic rock roots (think Alice Cooper, Judas Priest and Twisted Sister) with a track that has its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.
Available in multiple options, depending on how massive an Arch Enemy fan you are there’s a super deluxe, LP sized set containing three CDs (the album, a selection of demos and an instrumental disc), a deluxe, media-book edition (with a bonus track and patch) and a standard edition available, with the media-book probably offering the best value for those not utterly in love with the band. The bonus track, as noted above, is a suitably powerful addition to the record whilst those in possession of a denim jacket will undoubtedly value the monochrome patch with its skull logo and the album name emblazoned across it. Whichever version you opt for, however, one thing is certain, this short, brutal blast of death metal will remain locked in your player for days. Not a note is wasted on ‘war eternal’, not a riff thrown out without due cause and the result is a short, varied and brilliant album that exceeds all expectations. Far from simply introducing the band’s new members, it thrusts them, shrieking, into the spotlight in which they excel, especially Alissa whose earth-shattering performance is a revelation. Whilst it has taken a little time to get used to Angela’s departure, far from being damaged by the transition, Arch Enemy have risen up and produced what is unconditionally their best album since ‘Anthems of Rebellion’, a massive, majestic, varied record of brutal and unyielding intensity delivered by a group of musicians who exist in a class of their own. If you love metal, this is simply an essential album and a startling reminder of just how damn good Arch Enemy can be – a strong contender for the album of the year lists, ‘War Eternal’ is a blisteringly brilliant album from start to finish.