Unleash The Archers blew my socks off with their last album, Apex. Understandably, I was itching to hear their next one. And once the follow up, Abyss, arrived, I found myself even more enthusiastic about the Canadians than before.
They stand out as one of the best things to happen to power metal in Odin knows how long – but they’ve done it by releasing a record I like less than the last. And it’s partially because I suspect you will like the new outing more than I do.
Unleash The Archers‘ last record, Apex, really was fucking brilliant. A full-throttle, iron-throated shredfest that combined the attack of Iced Earth with the high octane of Painkiller-era Judas Priest wrapped in a sensibility that was bang up-to-date. Oh, and it had hooks for days. It came with two of the best power metal songs I’ve ever heard in the shape of ‘The Matriarch‘ and, especially, the stomping, anthemic ‘Ten Thousand Against One‘, all wrapped up in package with coherence and direction and no flab or filler in sight. It was one of my albums of 2017 and hasn’t dropped off regular rotation since.
For all intents and purposes, however, Apex came out of nowhere. Nothing Unleash The Archers had done up to that point gave any indication that an album that fucking kick-arse and catchy was in any way in the offing. Not that they were shite (they weren’t), merely that they appeared neither likely to make something that sounded quite how Apex did, or that the aspects that made it jump out of the pack – the once-heard-never-forgotten hooks in particular – were something they were especially focused on.
On top of that, UTA’s early records did not hint at a great band in the offing. The debut album Behold The Devastation was, frankly, bad, but hey, the Sabaton debut that disappeared for years wasn’t great either, and even my favourite band in the universe, Immortal, have a debut I can’t defend in terms outside of my own besotted love for them. So a rocky start can clearly hide great potential.
The follow-up, Demons Of The AstroWaste, was vastly better, and is still worth a listen, but – to go back to the Sabaton example – it’s not Primo Victoria either. The third record, after a break of four years and a change of guitarist/growler, was much weaker, and really started to hint at the kind of band that metal probably allows to survive more than it should: technically very proficient, competent at song construction, and with a great singer – but short on inspiration.
What made Apex seem even further far off was the weird mix of styles they dealt in for the first three albums. Up to that point, they seemed to fall between the two stools of wanting to sound like The Black Dahlia Murder (but not really) and wanting to have big melodic vocal lines that are more in the realm of a less Tolkien-obsessed version of early Blind Guardian (but not really that interested in chorus-oriented material). It was vaguely interesting but ended up sounding like it was fighting with itself. Simultaneously, it failed to allow the greatest assets they clearly did have to really flourish.
Then Apex came along, shat all over the competition, and sounded like a band that had had a clear vision of what they want to sound like for 20 years. It is so totally coherent, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a different band, where it not for the fact it clearly could not be anyone but Unleash The Archers.
UTA’s technicality and massive instrumental skill were on display in every second of music, and the completely outstanding Brittney Slayes (which I know is not her real name, but it’s bloody brilliant, so I refuse to call her anything else, ever) is unmistakable. She has had a voice that demanded top quality material for years, sounded capable of making good songs sound outstanding. Now she had some outstanding songs, made them sound out of this fucking world.
Which brings us to Abyss, an album I probably had unrealistic expectations for, but which were firmly met. It is exactly as memorable and coherent and slick and sharp and fucking dominant as Apex. Brittney sounds even more completely brilliant than before, the riffs are sharper, they’ve got way better at varying the attack, and the bookends of the album are structurally genius. They play with and test out a melody in the opening track/long intro (think ‘Prelude 3.0‘, only more likely to beat you in a fencing match than smash your face in with a baseball bat), and then recapitulate it in the epic closer where they finally let it soar, and sulphurous Satan, is it excellent. Plus it’s got the best second half of any album since that Abbath record I gushed on about last year.
So, why, given that I clearly love Abyss, did I say at the start I like it less than its predecessor?
There are one or two negative points that have less to do with my personal taste and more to do with the album itself. For one, it feels too long (despite being 3 minutes shorter than Apex), which comes from the odd moment of obvious bloat that could have been cut for the betterment of the album. For a second, there is no getting around the weird backloading of the album, where – genius overture and the excellent title track that follows it aside – all the best stuff starts at track six (the really excellent Soulbound), by which time we’re 27 minutes in. This only adds to the slightly baggy feeling.
That said, these are relatively insignificant, all things considered, and only slow the speed with which the really great stuff sticks out, rather than really detracting from the huge quality. And once Soulbound kicks in, the aforementioned superb second act is in swing, an from there, it is basically all excellent right through to the close. ‘Faster Than Light‘ is breakneck-speed fantastic, and ‘Afterlife‘ letting the album’s opening theme really take flight shows off just how great this band can be.
The reason I really like it less is more personal – and is also the reason I’m more excited for this band than if they had just dumped my album of the year in my lap.
I am, unashamedly and without any regret or reservation, a full-blooded power metal diehard. I love camp, ridiculous, so over-the-top-it-doesn’t-risk-catching-a-bollock-on-the-barbed-wire power metal. I think Sabaton are one of the genuine great bands of the modern era, and think DragonForce are a band that should be taken deadly seriously as a standout brilliant band with a stellar catalogue. I revel in stuff the average metalhead thinks, “steady now…” about and wonders if the person responsible has played a little too much World Of Warcraft.
The stuff that I like Apex more than Abyss for is all in that territory. Abyss is more down-the-line, muscular and accessible to metalheads who would consider Orden Ogan or the mighty Rhapsody Of Fire silly. And I am absolutely sure the subtle tonal shift is because this is what UTA want to do, rather than any tinfoil hat BS about broadening appeal. This sounds like a band being themselves. So I’m completely on board with it as someone who loves this music, even if it’s 5% less my cup of tea than the last album, which blew my mind.
As someone who is now invested in Unleash The Archers and wants them to be huge, however, I’m not just on board, I’m cheering them from the rafters. Abyss has the potential, with the right slices of luck, and (once the COVID-19 nightmare doesn’t render it impossible any more) with the right tours and festival appearances, to elevate this band way beyond my little corner of metal. This is the first band since Powerwolf did Blood Of The Saints who sound ready to step up and take the theatrical campery I cherish most to an audience who would be left out by that section of the Wacken line-up, and they’re doing it by being themselves.
What could be more exciting to a fan of Unleash The Archers than that?